A vast flatland of marsh, rice fields, roaming herds of wild horses, pink flamingos, crumbling Crusader ports, pagan festivals and the vestiges of much medieval superstition, the Camargue region of France seems somehow out of place, less easily packaged than the gentle lavender fields of the Vaucluse or the carefully plotted Cezanne and Van Gogh walking courses of Aix-en-Provence or Arles.
The area came into being as sediment deposited from the Rhone River formed the mysterious, eerie delta of inland lakes, shallow salt marshes and pools that greet today’s visitor. Storms and sea currents have eroded the coastline but, on balance, the delta has continued to expand, pressing inexorably into the Mediterranean and leaving once well-supported seaside resorts stranded and distressed. Despite the salty waters that seep into its creeks, and the pestilential mosquitos that can give these sparsely inhabited flatlands a look of desolation at times, most of the Camargue’s 20,000 acres are carefully cultivated and highly productive farmland.
The area is also the habitat of over 400 varieties of water bird that includes bee-eaters, storks and large numbers of migratory flocks. The Etang du Fangassier, a lagoon near the massive salt evaporation hills and pools known as the Salin de Giraud, attracts vast numbers of flamingos. In one notable year, over 13,000 pairs settled here to breed before returning to Africa in what one observer described as “a massive, ascending pink cloud.” Most of the wetlands that form the southern regions are contained within the designated Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue. The park was set up to preserve the area’s fragile ecosystem and to devise ways to sustain agriculture, grazing, salt production and tourism, which are the region’s economic mainstay.
Visitors have access to many of the sights of the Camargue by means of a series of pedestrian itineraries, cycling trails and sightseeing roads that take in folklore, Gypsy and ecology museums, routes that pass salt flats and sea dikes, and through villages whose isolation in these morbidly beautiful marshes can only have been broken in recent years.
The Course Camarguese, which are held in the bullring during the festival, are events no visitor should miss. Unlike the Spanish bullfight, the only blood that is ever spilt—and then only rarely—is that of the men who confront the animal. The aim is for a player to remove, in a lightning-quick pass, a ribbon from the deadly horns.
Pilgrimages provide an extra dimension to Provence and a chance to see and participate in some of its great surviving spectacles. Christianity, with a large admixture of the pagan and secular, are the ingredients of one of Provence’s most zestful and well-known events: the annual pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, the self-proclaimed capital of the Camargue, at the end of May. What makes this event worth attending is the animating presence of thousands of Gypsies who, for the two or three days of the pilgrimage, converge on this normally sleepy village from all corners of Europe. The pilgrimage has its roots in the discovery here in the 13th century of the remains of Mary Jacobe (said to be present at the Crucifixion), which quickly established Provence as the “second Palestine.” The Church, travel writers and tour operators have been happy to trade off on this epithet ever since.
As the Camargue is in that part of the country known as the Midi, where the Spanish and French are only too happy to blend and merge their respective cultures, authentic flamenco music can often be heard walking through the streets. The many unforced performances at Saintes-Maries, like the pilgrimage itself, are full of warmth and energy, and the many joys that seem to emanate from living under a Mediterranean sun.
The best months to visit are April and May, and then September and October, when the sun is high and the air fresh. The summer months are nice for beach-lovers, but Camargue nights are plagued at this time by swarms of mosquitos. Many hotels and hostels line the road leading into Sainte-Marie. Two hotels in town, L’Arivado and Les Vagues, both on the Ave Theodore Aubanel, are conveniently near the tourist office. Expect to pay ¥4,000-¥6,000 a night for a double. Unlike Japan, in France you pay only for the room, irrespective of how many people (within reason) occupy it. Shuttle buses link Sainte-Marie and other villages with the city of Arles. Riding, ecology tours and half-day cruises around the salt ponds are easy to arrange through operators in Sainte-Marie. The Gypsy pilgrimage takes place at the end of May.