Just upstream of the historic Roman city of Arles, the Rhône River forks into two branches to form the largest river delta in Western Europe before reaching the Mediterranean shore.
This is the Camargue, a 1500 square kilometer (575 square mile), windswept, fan-shaped mosaic of grass-filled marshes, rice paddies, lagoons and sand beaches. Teaming with wildlife, it is the oldest and one of the largest nature reserves in mainland France, first classified as the National Camargue Reserve in 1927. Then in 1977, a vast expanse of its central wetland was designated by UNESCO as the Camargue Biosphere Reserve.
A Unique Nature Sanctuary
Within this exceptional environment, three vivid icons stand out: white horses, black bulls, and pink flamingos
The Birds — The Camargue is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with over 250 species of resident birds recorded here, including its most recognizable symbol: the Greater Flamingo. The delta is one of its main breeding and nesting grounds in Europe, and thousands can be seen here year-round. However, the best times to visit are the spring and fall, when the area becomes a spectacular gathering point for hundreds of thousands of varied migrating birds.
The Horses — The Camargue is also known for its ancient breed of small horses characterized by their striking white manes and molted grey-white coats.They have lived in the marches and saline wetlands for thousands of years, where they developed the stamina and agility for which they are known. They are the traditional mount of the gardians, the local cowboys who herd the area’s distinctive black bulls, giving the region a wild-west atmosphere.
The Bulls — The Camargue bulls are stocky, never much higher than 1.5 meter (5 feet), with Lyra-shaped horns that point to the sky. They roam relatively free over great swaths of the delta, with the most combative among them selected for fighting in the many of arenas throughout the region. The remainder of the herd is raised for meat.
But there is more to the delta than its unique variety of wetlands and their hoofed and winged denizens.
On the western edge of the Camargue, the walled city of Aigues-Mortes (from the latin Aquae Mortuae or “stagnant water”) rises largely intact from the edge of the marshes. An exceptional jewel of medieval military architecture, its construction was started the 1240’s by King of France Louis IX (later known as Saint Louis) as the staging area and departure point for the Seventh Crusade to the Holy Land in 1248, and the Eighth — and last — Crusade in 1270.
Located some five kilometers (three miles) inland, it was at the time linked by a natural channel to the Mediterranean. The city, which had been a center of sea salt production since Roman times, remained an active port until the 16th century. Then the channel gradually silted up, and Aigues-Mortes declined into oblivion until its tourism renaissance in the 20th century.
Within its high crenelated walls, flanked by ten fortified gates and twenty defensive towers, the small city (800 by 400 meters or 2600 by 1300 feet) has retained the checkerboard layout of the bastides (new towns) of the Middle Ages. While its narrow streets are now lined with shops selling typical souvenir items of the region, and an array of restaurants touting local dishes, it has held on to its most striking historic features.
The Tower of Constance
Built from 1240 to 1249, the Tower of Constance is a powerful circular keep, 22 meters (70 feet) in diameter, rises to a height of 33 meters (110 feet) at the edge of the ramparts. Access from a fortified courtyard leads to the ground-floor guard room with its soaring rib-vaulted ceiling. Then it’s a short ride up, by the recently installed elevator, to the roof terrace. From the top, the infinite panoramic view of the region, including the famed salt flats and the sandy shores of the Mediterranean coast is a sight to behold.
Then it’s 136 steps down the tight spiral staircase, first to the upper or knights’ room, also with an impressive rib-vaulted domed ceiling, then down to a mid-level defensive passageway overlooking the lower level guard room, then down again to ground level.
It’s an unhurried 30 minute drive east along a narrow road that meander around shimmering marshes and salt flats from Aigues-Mortes to the small coastal city of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (the Saintes Maries of the Sea). Best known today as a popular summer seaside resort, it takes its name from the early christian Provençal lore that three women closely linked to Jesus (in French Marie Madeleine, Marie-Cléophas and Marie-Salomé — The Three Maries) came ashore and settled here after escaping persecution in Judaea around 40 CE.
The origins of the city itself seem to trace back to a village established on the site in the 4th century CE. Its early Romanesque fortified church was built in 9th century. Intended as a shelter for the villagers, in case of Vikings and later Saracen raids, as much as a place of worship, it featured — and still does — a fresh water well. The stone roof, which can be reached by a tight spiral staircase (53 steps) offers the sweeping view of the land and sea, clearly intended to alert the inhabitants of approaching foes.
Besides its foreboding fortress appearance and the Romanesque simplicity of its interior, l’Eglise des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is remarkable for its apse. Built in the shape of a semi-dome, it consists of seven arches supported by eight marble columns topped with intricately carved capitals. Two of them, representing respectively the Incarnation of Christ and the Passion of Christ, are considered major masterpieces of the Romanesques architecture of Provence.
The seabed off Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is one of the richest shipwreck sites in the northern Mediterranean shores. With the development of underwater archeology over the past half century, dozens of ancient wrecks, from Etruscans, Greeks and Romans to Normans and Saracens have been uncovered and excavated in the area. Recently inaugurated on the waterfront, the small Musee des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer traces the maritime past of the region. Displays of some of the most interesting finds shed light on the commercial exchanges among ancient Mediterranean cultures and their influence on the region.
Good to Know
- Getting there — The Camargue can best be reached by car, starting in Arles, which is located 90 kilometers (55 miles) west from Marseille, or 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Montpellier, via Highway A54.
- Visiting — Aigues-Mortes is a pedestrian town, whether you chose to walk its cobbled streets or circumvent it from the top of its 1,65 kilometer (1 mile) long ramparts. The ramparts and the Tower of Constance are open to visitors from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm, September 1 to April 30, and from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, May 2 to August 31. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Museum, 6, avenue Theodore Aubanel, is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, June 1 to September 30, and from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Wednesday through Sunday, October 1 to May 31 from. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. The Church of the Saint Maries of the Sea, 19 Rue Jean Aicard, is open daily from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed to visitors during religious services.
- Note — In a Camargue bullfight, known as Course Camarguaise, the bulls aren’t killed or injured. The goal of the raseteur (matador), is to pluck a ribbon from between the bull’s horns, a dangerous exercise for the men. A dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to attract the beast. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.