In the sunset the lagoons turn pink and pearl, then bronze, darkening to purple. Reeds rustle and bend, and in the sky above, a line of flamingos stretch their long necks and legs. This is the Camargue: the great delta of the Rhône, the largest river delta in Europe.
I’ve loved the Camargue since I was a girl, when I spent a bleak Easter holiday there with a howling wind, and saw the black and white film Crin Blanc, about a small boy and a wild white horse. Later, as student hitchhikers, my husband and I camped in the vineyards on the shore at Le Grau-du-Roi, the little port to the west. But when I went back as an adult, I wept – the vineyards had given way to holiday apartments, bars and boutiques, while huge advertising hoardings strode along the sandy roads. Everything seemed to have changed.
It didn’t take long to see that I was wrong. The new resort of La Grande-Motte looms up a few miles to the west, and to the east are the chemical works of Salin-de-Giraud, and the oil and gas installations clustering along the Rhône. But the empty heart of the Camargue is untouched. The huge Étang de Vaccarès is a nature reserve where flocks of migrating birds join ducks, geese, teals, egrets, avocets and statuesque herons. The white horses – one of the oldest breeds in the world – still roam the marshes in manades (free-running herds) and the gardiens still ride them to round up the long-horned black bulls.
Like the Fens, this is a place of vast skies, where earth and water blend and where people have always fought to tame nature. To the north lies the region’s capital, Arles, where the river dives into the Grand Rhône to the east and the Petit Rhône to the west. Neolithic tribes used the salt from the lagoons that dried in summer, and a Roman named Peccius created the first known salt marsh, the Marais de Peccais.
In the Middle Ages, salt was traded by Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries built on mounds in the marshes, and in 791, Charlemagne built a tower to protect the salt workers and fishermen, and to act as a beacon, warning of any approaching fleet.
Centuries later, around 1240, Psalmody Abbey – of which only a few ruins survive – sold its port to Louis IX, who built the town of Aigues-Mortes and replaced Charlemagne’s tower with the solid Tower of Constance. From here Louis launched the seventh crusade in 1248, and the eighth in 1270. The religious wars continued, not against Saracens, but dissenters within France itself: in 1307 the Tower of Constance held 45 Templars; after the edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, it became a grim prison for Huguenots. Today, the tower serves as a memorial to the Protestant women once imprisoned here.
The walls of Aigues-Mortes still stand sternly against the flat horizon. The salt-pans that you see as you drive down beside the canal to the sea at Le-Grau-du-Roi, still turn pink (from a combination of seawater and algae). And the harvested salt still piles up in sparkling white pyramids, ‘camelles’, like a camel’s hump. But over the centuries the marsh beyond has changed.
The Carbonniere Tower, constructed in the 13th century to help defend Aigues-Mortes, now stands alone in the centre of a swamp, its single gate bypassed by two roads that curve around it. Its defensive role may have ended, but restoration work in the 19th century has saved it as a fascinating tourist attraction.
The marshes are dotted with whitewashed huts, roofed with reeds. On the shoreline lies Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, whose great Romanesque church gave protection against pirates and Saracen raiders. Winter storms lash the dunes along the beach, and legend has it that the Three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome), with their black servant Sara, were washed ashore here after they were expelled from Jerusalem. Sara – Sara-la-Kali – later became the patron saint of the Gitans, the Romany from southern France, Spain and north Africa. Thousands flock here on 24 and 25 May, when the statue of Sara the saint is carried from the crypt to the sea, wrapped in gold cloth, and the streets throb with music, colour and non-stop flamenco.
Yet, however big the crowds, when you stand on the dunes, or follow the sandy tracks through the high reeds, you could be the only person in the world. The magic of Saintes-Maries and the marshes and lagoons with their rose-coloured flamingoes, will, I hope, always remain.
Advice For Travellers
Best Time To Go
Spring and early autumn are best. Avoid August, when France is on holiday. Late May is when the festival of St Sara is held at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Ryanair flies from Luton to Nîmes and Rail Europe has returns from London St Pancras to Arles or Nîmes. There is a local train from Nîmes to Le-Grau-du-Roi.
The central nature reserve is inaccessible by car, but Arles Tourism has advice on tours by bike, and many stables in Saintes-Maries run horseback treks into the Camargue.
What To Pack
Sunglasses and a hat, as there is little shade under that arching sky. Also take insect repellent: the marshes have been sprayed with a largely environmentally friendly bacterium, but mosquitoes still lurk in places.
What To Bring Back
Fleur de sel (salt from the Salins du Midi, Aigues-Mortes); Vins des Sables de Camargue – the best are the rosés; Camargue red rice, herbs, spices and olives from the markets; sweets – crystallised fruit – and marzipan confectionery in all shapes (the little olives are especially realistic).
Jenny Uglow is an acclaimed author and historian. Her most recent book is Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber and Faber, 2017)
Read more of Jenny’s experiences at historyextra.com/camargue