The Camargue is special in France: salty plains, shallow lagoons, seasonal marshes, black bulls roaming the wetlands, the white Camargue horses, pink flamingos stalking about, migrating birds swarming over you and once in while a glimpse of a white-washed Cabane de Gardian, the homesteads of the cowboys of the Camargue.
The sediment deposited by the mighty Rhône river over millennia formed a river delta of roughly 300 sq miles (780 sq km) in size. Flat land, partially sandy, partially boggy, criss-crossed by rivulets and with many inlets and lagoons. The northern part of the Camargue is the major rice producing area in France. But a good part of the delta's eastern and southern areas are protected by the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, a nature conservation area where economic activity is restricted by law. The Étang de Vaccarès, a brine lagoon and nearby islands form a 52 sq miles (135 sq km) nature reserve, the Réserve Nationale de Camargue. It was created in 1927 and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
La Grande Camargue is the triangle between the Grand Rhône to the east and the Petit Rhône to west and bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It is actually an island surrounded by water on all sides and often referred to as l'Ile de Camargue. This is a fragile eco-network of lagoons, marshes and sand dunes with almost no human habitation. There is only one town, the seaside resort of les Saintes Maries de la Mer, the Holy Marys (Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome) of the Sea. The southern most point is the Plage de Beauduc, a 28km stretch of sand, the longest beach on the Mediterranean Sea in Europe.
La Petite Camargue extends from the Petit Rhône to the Canal du Rhône à Sète, which connects the Rhône with the Mediterranean and is nowadays mostly used by pleasure boats. The area is also known as La Plaine d'Aigues Mortes or la Camargue Gardoise. Practically all of it is outside the conservation areas. The Camargue ends at the medieval fortress and port (now silted up) of Aigues Mortes. Further southwest are the busy seaside resorts of La Grande Motte, le Grau du Roi and Port Camargue, the biggest pleasure sailing port in Europe.
East of the Rhône, from the Alpilles to the Étang de Berre to the South, is the Crau, the former delta of the Durance River. The North is a green and fertile plain still used for sheep grazing, the south is dry, one of Europe's few arid steppes. Parts of the Crau became a nature conservation area in 1987. You can visit the Ecomusée de la Crau in St.Martin de Crau. Further south is the massive oil-refining and industrial complex around the Étang de Berre with Fos sur Mer, France's largest seaport by cargo volume.
The Camargue is a great area for horseback riding (see links on the right column), biking, hiking and windsurfing. At least you should make a day tour by car to get a first impression. In case you want to hike just a few of the trails you need to plan for 2 - 3 days. Driving around, the Camargue is not as remote and desolate as everybody says. But walking the trails you will definitely get the feeling that you have arrived "at the end of the world". Be careful when you bike down south from Arles on one of those windy early spring days - you might not make it back north and will be stranded somewhere totally exhausted. Take into account that some of the off the beaten track trails are sandy and hard on bikers.
Weather: The Rhône Valley is pounded by 100 km plus winds from the Northeast, the Mistral, during the colder season - not a good idea to visit the Camargue during this time of the year.
Mosquitos: Notoriously present during the summer time, no wonder, there are lots of shallow waters and digs around - nature! But not as bad as in the Everglades. Mosquito repellent will help.
Bird Watching: Spring and late autumn are the best times when birds migrate. The Camargue is a paradise for birdwatchers, which come here from all over Europe.
Horseback Riding: Make sure you deal with an accredited place. Reportedly there are some operators, especially on the road to les Saintes, that compromise on safety.
Biking: Take plenty of water, some snacks and a tire repair kit as well as a detailed map (last place to buy one is Arles). There are many bike rentals in les Saintes and one close to the Phare de la Gacholle which is the most convenient starting point for the Digue de la Mer route.
Driving: Gas stations are in Arles and Aigues Mortes, there is none in the Camargue proper. Make sure your gas tank is full.
In the Camargue you will notice the famed white horses and the black bulls. Both graze in herds on the sansouires, the dry salt plains covered with grasses and hardy brushes and breed in the wild. The origin of the white Camargue horses, is a bit of a mystery. They are probably a cross breed between native paleolithic horses and other breeds. They are short legged and sturdy, bushy tails and manes and of white or grey color. They are used by the Gardians (Camargue cowboys) and Manadiers (ranchers) for working with cattle. Once broken in they are said to quite reliable. The Camargue bulls are an ancient breed possibly descendants from the Middle East. They are small, wily and unpredictable. They are kept for the Course Camarguaise, the local version of bullfights, where players compete to snatch paper rosettes from the bulls' horns, no blood, no killings.
It is a worthwhile trip especially during spring and autumn. Then you will be able to watch a lot of resident and migratory birds, such as egrets, swallows, martins, marsh harriers and the pink flamingos. The Camargue is the only place outside Africa where you can watch flamingos in the wild by the hundreds. There are some viewing platforms, like the one overlooking the Marais des Grenouillet (Marsh of the Frogs), Pont de Gau Ornithological Park or La Capelière bird watching area, one the best in the Camargue. As access by car is pretty much limited to the above tour you should consider to do some hiking or biking here. It gives you more access to the interesting areas and you can immerse yourself in this wonderful landscape. For some areas, like the Salin de Badon you need day permits. Worthwhile is the hike along the Digue a la Mer, which separates the Étang de Vaccares and other lagoons from the Mediterranean Sea. The trail ends at the lighthouse of La Gacholle with a small visitor center. For more information consult the websites of the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue.
Once a small fishing village it has become a busy seaside resort (pop. 2.500) during the summer. You find none of the charm of the Provençal villages here but it is still pretty in its own way. Noteworthy is the fortress like Notre Dame de la Mer church. The earliest parts were constructed in the 9th century. It was enlarged in the 10th and 12th centuries and fortified in the 15th century. In a small crypt below the main nave is the shrine for Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies.
The legend says that around the year 40 AC a number of adherents of Jesus Christ fled Palestine by boat and landed here. Among them Mary Jacobe, the sister of Mary, Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles James and John, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Sarah, the servant of the two Marys. After landing they built a small oratory dedicated to the Virgin. Eventually Mary Magdalene went to the Ste. Baume ranges near St.Maximin le Ste.Baume in the Var and Martha went to Tarascon. But the two Marys, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe as well as Sarah remained here. Their tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage. The main pilgrimage is the annual gathering of the gypsies (gitans or romas), who honor Sarah, the black madonna, their patron saint, from May 24 (the saint's day for Mary Jacobe) to May 25. The gypsies start arriving the week before to socialize, arrange marriages and celebrate baptisms. The other festivities take place on the nearest Sunday to October 22 (the saint's day for Mary Salome). There is a procession to the beach for the blessing of the sea.
The Musée Baroncelli in a 19th century town house (the former town hall) is the local history and folkore museum. There is a bull fighting arena near the beach, for the Course Camarguaise, the bull fights with the black Camargue bulls (no bulls killed). Check the town's website for more information.
In the early 13th century King Louis IX (Saint Louis) needed a port of his own on the Mediterranean Sea for the Crusades without passing through the Provence, which was ruled by the Counts of the Provence. A small village for salt workers in a marshy area, hence the name Aigues (=water), Mortes (=dead) was transformed into a walled town with a port within a period of 50 years. It was built in a strict grid pattern, surrounded by thick ramparts dotted with 5 towers and 10 fortified gates. The Constance Tower was a massive fortification and dungeon. The Carbonniere Tower north of the town guarded the road to Arles. A canal was dug through the marshes of the Camargue to have access to the sea. Louis IX launched the 7th Crusade from Aigues-Mortes in 1248 and the 8th Crusade in July 1270 - he died near Tunis on 25 August that same year.
When the crusades were over Aigues Mortes became a backwater. The port cities of Marseille and Toulon, more suitable than Aigues Mortes, came under the rule of the French kings. The port of Aigues Mortes silted up over time and the town became a center for the salt works and the Constance Tower a much dreaded prison for the Huguenots, the French Protestants. The town was pretty much forgotten and that is the reason it is so well preserved. Today Aigues Mortes (pop. 6.100) is totally geared towards tourism. Once you have entered the town through the fortified gates you are back in medieval times. Except for the throngs of tourists during the summer time. But everything is nicely and tastefully set up. Most of the shops are on Rue Jean Jaurès and Rue de la République. Place St.Louis with the 19th century statue of Louis IX, the crusader king, has many cafés and restaurants. The 13th century Église Notre Dame des-Sablons with its 17th century clock tower is the local parish church. Strolling through the side streets with its many nice town houses brings you back to medieval times.
South of Aigues Mortes are les Salines, one of the two saltworks of the Camargue. Salt has been harvested in the Camargue since Roman times. The one in Aigues Mortes and the other one south of Salin de Giraud produce 500.000 metric tons of salt per year. You can visit the saltworks of Aigues Mortes per guided tour.