It’s said that the bloodline of Christ once landed upon the muddy shores of the Camargue.
A refugee boat landed from Palestine, carrying Mary Magdalene, Marie-Jacobe, and Salome (making up the three Marys) and Lazarus (a man Jesus had brought back from the dead.) Accompanying them was Sarah, and her exact identity is to this day shrouded. Some believe that Sarah was the daughter of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Others believe she was the personal maid of Marie-Jacobe. As the only dark-skinned (Egyptian) woman on the boat she was embraced by the Romani (gypsies) not just for the colour of her skin, but also her charitable nature. They called her Sara e Kali – Sarah the Black, and made her their patron saint.
May 24 marks the Roma pilgrimage, when all the Camarguaise and gypsy pilgrims still march her effigy to the sea on the backs of white horses, just to bring her back again – a reiteration of her historic landing. So do they celebrate a servant of a woman, or the granddaughter of God?
Everything in the Camargue area is dyed by the Romani and Catalan touch, and thus France disappears and something else entirely creeps in. Language is a melodic amalgam of French, Spanish and something else. And it seems that life here is also different. Berets, baguettes and bycicles are replaced with cowboys, wild horses and free spirits.
The Camargue is perfectly flat, clad in long grasses and hidden marshes, so the horizon is always a blur, and yet eerily close. The Mistral and the Marin fight for supremacy, and the grasses play to their tune, pushed to the North-West or the South-East, appearing like soft green waters. The true waters appear when you least expect them, and at any one point, driving the long straight roads that occasionally dog-leg through rice paddies and past arid pockets of Manades, you will not be able to say which way the sea is – it’s close – you can smell it, but the marshes surround you and addle your inner compass.
Gardians – Camargue cowboys – ride white horses and play caballero for the tourists. Rodeo, bull fights and running with the bulls is common. As you drive, you will see the dusty road-stops, whitewashed like a spaghetti western movie-set. Here, you can park your car and be taken beyond on horseback, reaching through the grass and down paths between ponds, too small for cars.
Where the rice, the dust and the marshes run out, there are brushy plains filled with wild horses and “taureau”. It’s fairytale perfect – every horse is white, and every bull is black. And then, just when you least expect it, you’ll come across a flock of flamingos, as pink as the seas you will find around the walled fortress that is Aigues Mortes (Translates as “dead waters”).
The architecture is as low and flat as the landscape. Scarcely a roof over two-stories rises to meet the church spires. In Saintes Maries de la mer, roofs are terracotta, warm and comforting, and slope down over heavy eaves and white walls in Spanish Mission style. Agues Mortes hovever, hiding on the other side of the Etang de Caitives is walled like Toledo, built before the heavy influence of the Roma and the Catalans. Inside is a snippit of the France I know, but it retains a medieval sparseness – It’s grand, but plain, old, unceremoniously unadorned.
Everywhere you will see la croix de camargue – an anchor, a crucifix and a heart. It marks streets and meats both. Apart from that, the region is fiercely catholic- the only symbols to be seen are religious. Saints and holy Marys fill wall niches, hearts and souvenir racks. Odd, considering the Vatican’s refusal to canonize Sarah. But that’s what the Camargue seems to be. Touched by God, ignored by religion, ethereal and earthy. It’s a great place to get grounded and lose yourself simultaniously.
What to do
- Visit the Bird Park (Park Ornithologique) – only €7.50 and plenty to see. You can take food in and have a picnic while watching the Flamingos. You’ll also see plenty of other birds, and some even see beavers.
- Ride Horses: Just stop at a Manade you drive past, or look for the more famous of them: Chevaux les Arnelles, Ecurie Camargue, Camargue a Cheval, Les Cabanes de Cacharel, Manade Gilbert Arnaud. Prices start at around 20-50 E for 1-2-hours, but can range all the way up to day-trips and more, and can include lunch.
- Kayak around the gentle waters looking for birdlife. Or skip the hard work and get on a bigger boat – either on the river just outside the walls at Aigues Mortes, or here at Saintes Maries. Or maybe do it on a cycle.
- Go to the beach – It’s one of the only sandy beaches in France, and also home to “The Canal”, which holds the speed records for windsurfing. There’s a nudist beach (6km from the main one) if that’s your thing, and a marina if you want to take in a bit of sailing. Those who want to spend all day on the beach drinking sangria might want to stop at Tahiti Plage, where you can hire an umbrella and lounge all day for about 10€ and never have to leave your seat
- Find out about salt – You can either take a tourist train (€9) or a 4×4 (much more) around the salt fields of Salins. This is unmissable for photographers. You’ll finally understand why flamingos are pink. Then you can stop in the boutique and buy overpriced salt and riz de Camargue. (No, don’t really. Buy it in the local Carrefour – it’s the same and much cheaper)
- Visit the Chateau d’Avignon – no, it’s not in Avignon, but at the entry to the deep Camargue, just before you decide if you’re heading to Aigues Mortes or Saintes Maries – an early 1800s castle with sprawling parkland. There are exhibitions of many forms of art at all times, and often special performances. On August 7 of this year, they are turning part of the castle into a beach. I’m not sure how this is going to work, but there you go. Entry to the park is free, and the Chateau itself a measly €4.
- Run with the Bulls – known in the area as “course à la cocarde”, this is done often over Summer, and at every other spectacle or festival. There is an arena (Arènes de Saintes Maries de la mer) on the beach where you will also see the occasional bull fight. This is not Spain, and so luckily, the bull doesn’t get it in the end. There are other forms of street action when it comes to the local animals – more here.
Festivals and events:
- 24 May – the The Gitan Pilgrimage (Festival of Saint Sarah) – much Gypsy merriment followed by the calmer celebration of Sainte Mary Jacobe the next day. Sara-la-kali’s remains are in the Saintes Maries cathedral, and you can light a candle, then write your wish on a note to add to the others that cover her statue’s robes. Link to a fab photography gallery of the Festival of Sainte Sara
- Around 20 July Feria du cheval – Basically a horse fair, but lots of cool cowboy stuff
- Early August (3/4)- Fiest de Aigues Mortes – flamenco for two days
- Later August (24/25) – Festival of St Louis – pomp, ceremony and historical dress.
- 19-22 October – Festival of Mary Salome, otherwise known as Pelerinage Des Saintes
- Markets – Aigues Mortes has a weekly market on Wednesday and Sunday, plus a Flea Market on Saturdays in July and August. Saintes Maries has one each Monday, also Friday during Summer and Tuesday for Brocante
What to eat and drink
- Taureau de Camargue – this beef has its own appelation, and is highly prized. The flavour is slightly richer than regular french beef. Either have it as a pave (steak), or as Gardiane de Taureau – the boeuf bourguignon of Provence, with red wine and thyme. You will also find the occasional La Broufado, which is slow-cooked beef in white wine flavoured with capers and anchovies. It resembles the greater-regional Beef Daube Provencal (my recipe here), and does not need to be cooked with Taureau de Camargue.
- Riz de Camargue – Much of the swampland is planted with this nutty rice (often the red variety, but you will also find white and black wild rice), and you will find that rice replaces the potatoes of other French recipes in most dishes of the Camargue. Look for Salade Camarguaise – a rice salad with capsicum, cucumber and olives, and a caper and anchovy dressing, and Hachis Camarguais – like lasagne but with rice instead of pasta
- Fleur du Sel – this is the perfect mineral-rich and hand-harvested salt of the pans of the Camargue. Put it on everything, even chocolate.
- In Aigues Mortes, look for Fougasse d’Aigues Mortes – sweet brioche-like pastry flavoured with orange blossom
- Anguilles au four – Rhone River eels in tomato and onion and herb sauce
- Brandade de Morue – salted cod and potato. Can be served as a dip or side. Perfect with Lou Gardian (mentioned below)
- Canard aux figues – duck (usually breast) cooked in red wine, honey and figs
- Oysters and Mussels – The Oysters come from just around to the west (Etang de Thau) and the Mussels from either Bouzigues or Marseille. Eat the oysters au natural – they are medium-sized and slightly fruity, perfect with a squeeze of lemon and some fleur du sel. The mussels usually come as Moules en Brasucado – basically mussels in herbs and white wine
- Lou Gardian – a fortified wine flavoured with local peaches. Almost like a peach schnapps, but golden-hued. Best drunk cold in small glasses, or over ice with a dash or soda.
- Wine – still plenty of rose down here, plus plenty of light whites. Look out for Picpoul de Pinet, a fragrant dry white grown around the oyster farms of Herault down to the west, and rarely costs more than €15 a bottle in a restaurant, €3.50 in a store. Perfect with oysters, funnily enough.
Where to eat
- l’Atelier de Nicolas is well priced (about €16 for menu de jour), provincial with a little fusion at 28, rue A. Lorraine Aigues Mortes. Tiny, so best to call. 04 34 28 04 84
- Villa Mazarin is the blow-it venue – Lush establishment with a courtyard and conservatory to make you feel like a character in a Jane Austin novel. Just inside the city gates of Aigues Mortes. Oysters, people. And Champagne.
- Le Millesieme is a tapas bar in the quiet area of Aigues Mortes (still within the walls) with great wine and clever dishes. Very well priced, atmospheric.
- la cave a huitres is the place for reasonably priced seafood on the Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer beachfront.
- Le Tamaris Is the place to go for very traditional Camargue dishes. Not too far out or Aigues Mortes (car necessary) in Le Cailar, direction Nimes
- La Telline Country restaurant off the beaten track with a very regional and traditional feel. On the other side of the Etang de Vaccares, just over 10km out of Arles.
- Le Chassagnette holds the Michelin Star in the area. Near Telline as above. Some spectacular work with recycling water and a biodynamic kitchen garden. Modern Provincial cuisine. Great for rich hippies.
Where to stay:
- Mas Galagiere is a dreamy, historic yet modernised mas and gites set on extensive grounds with a large pool, and well priced at around €130 per night per room in mid-season. They also have gites at a weekly rate. They are however much closer to Arles, and out of the thick of the Camargue.
- Mas Grenouillere here you can also do the horse-riding from the hotel, or cycling, 4×4 or carriage riding if that’s more your thing. There is a pool, decent rooms, wifi. If you have your own horse, you can even house it here. Starting around €90 in mid-season.
- Mangio Fango gets the tourist vote (trip advisor et al). Pool, marsh views and more. Starting at about €160 in peak. Restaurant also gets good reviews.
- L’Estelle en Camargue is the luxury option, with prices starting at €270 per night including a huge breakfast by french standards. Also an incredible restaurant and occasional jazz evenings.
- Manade Gilbert Arnaud have a basic apartment onsite at around €80 per day.
- For families, try Mas Pin Fourcat – another all-in-one option, with horses and more, family gites under €100 per night (higher in peak season) and access to private beach (on the lake)