Let’s face it: The Camargue is just different from other parts of Provence, different I would guess from anyplace else in France.
This is a region, south of Arles, where one cafe we entered had a saddle mounted on a sawhorse across from the bar. It’s a place where taureau or bull meat is a staple on any self-respecting restaurant menu; where bullfights are advertised at the town’s Tourist Office; where honest-to-goodness cowboys, the gardians, ride white horses. And even all this is but one sliver of a region with exotic birds; flooded rice paddies; an annual multinational gypsy pilgrimage, culminating each May 24th with ceremonies honoring “the black Madonna,” and miles of beach.
Today, the Camargues’ biggest town, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, also is a mecca of new condominium development and has built an intricate web of jetties to establish small, family-friendly beaches in an effort, I would guess, to attract still more tourists. It’s already a town filled with fishermen, trailer loads of campers, and other French tourists who seem out for a good family time rather than to “see and be seen.”
Drive a few miles east of the bustle, however, and you’ll find dozens of pink flamingos feeding in the region’s sprawling lagoons, a national bird sanctuary, narrow roads, and a sense of time largely standing still. Two days in the Camargue barely gave us just a taste of all this. But there’s no question that the contemporary Camargue is a real hodgepodge, a contrast of new and old; of town, farm and wetlands; of tourist-packed stores and largely empty expanses of flat, marshy land.
If you’re a birder, a horseback-rider, a sun worshiper, this just might be a part of Provence in which to dawdle.
Certainly the approaching annual celebration in which gypsies from around the world flock to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to honor Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies, who legend has it accompanied Mary Magdalene to these shores from Egypt as a servant, must be a remarkable spectacle.
Still, I’ll admit it. In Provence, I prefer the colorful windows, neatly-rowed vineyards and spacious stone farmhouses of the Luberon region; the Roman ruins of Arles, Saint Remy and Orange; the rocky trails of Mont Sainte Victoire; and the market squares of Aix-en-Provence and L’Isle-Sur-la-Sorgue.
But the Camargue remains a place worth visiting just because it is so different. Just be sure to bring the bug repellant. We were lucky to come on a day with a brisk breeze, but this is a region that is as legendary for its mosquitoes as its white horses.
We had visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer once before, in February 2007, on a cool damp weekend when just about everything was closed. Not this May weekend. The town’s streets were elbow-to-elbow, in part no doubt because it was market day, in part because the weeekend followed a Thursday Armistice Day holiday. But the town, the only sizable one in the Camargue has changed a lot since extending its sea walls and building more condominiums that make it feel an awful lot like Florida, with the added allure of cowboy get-up.
My brother Dennis, Kathy and I did find a reasonable and comfortable two-star hotel and a terrific restaurant run by a family with ties to the region’s gypsy heritage. We rented a room at the Fangassie for about $115 for three — no frills (or homepage as far as I can find), but clean rooms, comfortable beds, quiet surroundings and strong ratings on booking.com and Trip Advisor. It’s about a 10 minute walk to the beach.
The restaurant, a few blocks away was excellent and reasonably priced. Named Bodega Kahlua, it looks like a pizza and tapas joint from the menu outside. Don’t be fooled. Kathy had what she said was the best duck (magret de canard) she’s had in France, and that’s saying something since she’s had a really good magret at the excellent Zinc d’Hugo in Aix-en-Provence. Dennis and I had well- and liberally- spiced chicken dishes from the Antilles, another house specialty. The total bill for three with a carafe of wine came to just about $80.
On Friday, we spent the afternoon on the beach, and walked along the shore. I even bought a red tie with images of a bull and horse on it. (Very cool, if not very practical.) To me, however, Saturday proved the better day with series of small surprises and a trip away from the crowds.
It started with a procession past our hotel of the region’s cowboys leading horses. It turned out to be a sad occasion, a funeral, but a beautiful one, with gardians in front of the coffin and other mourners on foot behind.
We drove north on an alternate route to the east of the main road, where we spied sleeping and feeding flamingos. And then we stopped at a ranch, Mas de Pioch, off of D570, where we sort of wished we had stayed the night. It’s a pretty spot, with white horses in the pasture and bulls in the nearby field. Doubles range from $74 to $82 in high season.
A bit north of the ranch, we turned east onto D37 into the far less populated eastern Camargue. After lunch in Villaneueve, in the courtyard of a chapel-turned-cafe, we made the trip’s most exciting stop, the headquarters of the 14,000-hectacre National Reserve of Camargue. The site is introduced by a small museum that traces the region’s history to pre-Roman times. It then takes visitors on a half-mile trail past marshlands and heavily treed areas filled with the sound of birds, which themselves are incredibly well-hidden from sight. We heard nightingales and warblers and cuckoos, among others. But try as I might to train the zoom lens of my camera on them, I never did find a one. Along the way, however, are four blinds andplatforms where visitors can observe bird life. There we saw white egrets, a purple heron, black ducks and a small army of the pink flamingos for which the region is known.
Here we dawdled for two hours, and it’s the memory of the trip I’ll cherish most.
Story: Jerry Lanson jerry_lanson@
Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Mass.U.S, and describes himself as “writer, journalist, author of three books, teacher and wanderer”. He and his wife are currently spending a sabbatical in southern France, a stay he is recording in words and pictures at his Welcome to France in the Slow Lane blog. Find his books here.