Red rice, sea salt and wine … La Camargue is the natural region, located south of Arles in France, created by the Rhône delta at the Mediterranean Sea. Besides being a wonder of nature and wildlife with both wild horses and pink flamingos, it is also a region with long-established traditions and fascinating medieval history in the Petite Camargue town Aigues-Mortes, town of the ‘dead waters’. Not least, it is old land of both Gypsies and the unique Camargue cowboys.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 29 MAY 2020
Although a region of marshlands, lakes and brine lagoons or étangs, a few towns have developed in La Camargue. Arles, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône and Aigues-Mortes are all towns that have both an interesting history and their own traditions linked to the vast natural region here in the southwestern corner of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the South of France.
Ever since Cistercian and Benedictine monks settled in the region in the Middle Ages, the attractive Camargue resources have been exploited. In the 16th and 17th centuries, wealthy landlords from Arles came to establish themselves here.
With time it became clear that dikes were needed to protect the properties from flooding, and eventually, in 1858, the digue á la mer was constructed. This justified a transformation of the northern Camargue region into agricultural land with crops like grapes, rice and other cereals.
We arrive at Arles in the South of France – which is a city packed with history from nearly all times.
Arles was already in the 6th century BC inhabited by the Greek-Phoenicians – and at that time named ‘Theline’. The name changed again when the Celtic Saluvii renamed it ‘Arelate’. Later, it came under Roman rule and soon became a flourishing small town in the South of France.
Julius Caesar annexed Arles to his expanding empire in the 1st century AD and made it the capital of the Roman Provence. The Romans ingeniously exploited the Rhône and dug a canal to the Mediterranean Sea, giving Arles the status of a port town.
It was also at that time that a huge amphitheatre was built here in the small French town, the amphitheatre which today is still a major sight and at the same time a popular bullring with the capacity of 14,000 spectators. Of course a trip to Arles includes a visit to the amphitheatre, Les Arènes, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, when the Roman Empire collapsed during the 5th century, Arles lost part of its importance and sadly went into decline.
Some centuries followed where the place was invaded by peoples such as Visigoths and Barbarians. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Arles became a prominent Mediterranean town again, culminating when Frederick Barbarossa was crowned as King of Burgundy here. Arles’s history in the Middle Ages is both comprehensive and detailed, but eventually, in 1521, Arles became an integrated part of France.
Other must-see ruins in Arles include the thermal baths of Constantine, the Théâtre Antique, the Cloister of Saint Trophime and the Roman Necropolis of Alyscamps.
Arles is an absolutely fascinating town of medieval character, full of ancient culture and charming spots. Therefore, it is really obvious that the impressionist Van Gogh found great inspiration for his masterpieces here.
Besides being an ancient town, Arles is also the ’capital’ of the Camargue, and today many visitors use Arles as their convenient base and a gateway in the South of France to explore the extraordinary natural region formed by the Rhône delta.
Next day we leave Arles to begin our journey into the Camargue in the département of Bouches-du-Rhône. Driving into the marshlands, we enjoy the stunning views of untouched nature, canals and channels.
The Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône are two branches of the Rhône River that create the unique Camargue delta situated within Bouches-du-Rhône at the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhône delta is a natural park which covers more than 930 km2 (360 square miles). In fact, it is the largest river delta in Western Europe!
In the beginning we drive across vineyards and rice fields. There is a wide variety of rice species in the spectacular paddy fields including long grain, round, black, as well as the famous red Camargue rice. The rice grows in water coming from the intricate network of canals with connection to the Rhône. It is a whole science to manage the water level with pumps and floodgates – based on the temperature and the rice growth stage.
Rice cultivation was initiated in the Camargue around 1600. Today, there are 10,000 hectares of rice grown here in the South of France, and the vast majority is even exported to all over the world.
Brine lagoons or étangs are dispersed in the marshes and leave the special Camargue wildlife with an outstanding habitat. It is a haven for bird species of a great diversity – there are more than 400 species – and the area around the Étang de Vaccarès is a unique protected area, which in recent years has been incorporated into the Parc naturel régional de Camargue.
In particular, the brine ponds attract large flocks of the long-legged, candyfloss-coloured flamingos. You never know where they are in the area, but with a bit of luck, you will catch sight of the tall, majestic birds. We are lucky, as we all of a sudden spot an awesome flock in one of the lakes near the road.
The Camargue is also home to horses and cattle. The famous Camargue horses are ridden by so-called gardians (cowboys), who rear cattle for local bullfights, as well as for export to Spain. The Camargue horse is not very large, as it is only about 1.50 m (5 ft) tall. It thrives here, as it with time has adapted to the marshy terrain. As young it is brown, but with time it gradually turns white.
The Camargue bulls used for bullfighting in southern France are the black bulls Raço di Biòu or Race de Combat which are both bred here in region with a status as “Taureau de Camargue”.
While driving around we encounter both trotting horses and fascinating bulls.
Wild white horses are unique to the Camargue. Especially on the way down to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer there are chances to spot a herd roaming around. Even better is it, if you choose to go on horseback across the salt marshes. This will definitely improve your chances of viewing the native horse breed.
Rice paddies flank the road down to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
The small community Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a very special Camargue town with just a few thousand permanent residents. However, it kind of explodes in summer when visitors flock to see the natural beauties on the fringe of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the South of France. Its main industry is tourism, but also the extraordinary Camargue horses and cattle are raised here.
What makes the tiny Camargue epicentre so unique and popular is the particular charm and seaside resort character combined with a rare authenticity. Sand, salty air and migrating birds are all elements which are recognised here.
According to the legend, around 45 AD, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Cleopas arrived at this location. They were received by Saint Sarah (also known as Sarah the Black) who offered to serve them. After they died, they were all buried in the oratory they had devoted their lives to build here. Subsequently, this site became a place of pilgrimage.
The current church, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, was built on the very same site in the 9th century – and still stands! From the tower the views over the landscape and seascape are panoramic.
Twice a year, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the destination and focal point of Romani pilgrimages. The Gypsies’ recurring pilgrimages take place each year on May 24th and 25th for the festival of Mary of Cleopas and for the veneration of Saint Sarah – and at the end of October for Mary Salome.
The pilgrims take the statue of their patron saint, the Black Virgin, from the Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer for their traditional procession accompanied by music and dance.
There is plenty to do in picturesque Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer: enjoy the beach, go birdwatching and discover pink flamingos or awesome herons. You can also opt to take a jeep or a quad tour into the marshes, to go hiking, do kitesurfing or windsurfing – and simply spoil yourself by having fresh fish and seafood in one of the plentiful restaurants.
Our last stop is Aigues-Mortes, which directly translated means ‘dead waters’. The site is the location of a huge salt production, and the Salins du Midi salt company in Aigues-Mortes produces 500,000 tons of salt annually. Salt is found in the soil here, and the ponds in the area combined with the high level of evaporation makes the place ideal for extraction of the sea salt.
The salt is used both in the chemical, the pharmaceutical and the food industry. Some of the salt pans are reddish due to microorganisms of microscopic algaes.
The salt has been exploited for hundreds of years here. Originally, the salt production was run by monks, and it has been a continuous production ever since. The snow white piles of salt are a most impressive sight when you approach the old medieval Languedoc town of Aigues-Mortes located at the far western end of the region in the Petite Camargue within the département of Gard, Occitanie (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon).
Aigues-Mortes is famous for its old fortress and massive rectangular medieval walls with about 20 circular towers protecting the town inside. The remote town was built by Louis IX in 1240 and was intended as a centre for trade with the East and as a rallying point for crusades. A harbour of his own here would make him independent of the Roman Emperor Frederick II, who reigned over Provence at the time, and the King James I of Aragon, who reigned over the land between Montpellier and Catalonia.
It was the perfect lagoon to harbour the boats gathering before the journey to the Promised Land. The Pope had notably appointed the European kings to take back Jerusalem. Therefore, Louis IX soon found himself as the leader of this expedition, and he chose Aigues-Mortes as the gathering point.
Until Marseille outperformed it in the 14th century, it was really one of the strategically most important Mediterranean ports.
Canals were established in the marshes surrounding the small town, since the fleet would need to be able to depart from here. Still today, the canals are some of the arteries in town with a most lively boat traffic.
Aigues-Mortes is a charming town of medieval character behind the ramparts on the other side of the moat. You can walk the 1,634 metres (1 mile) long walls or, alternatively, explore the grid of streets with a true medieval atmosphere inside the ramparts. There is an abundance of bars and restaurants that are aligned to the medieval style, as well as numerous tourist shops which will provide you with lots of associations to the Crusades and the Knights Templar.
The community behind the walls and the bastions has been extremely well protected against enemies. At some point in time the town was used as a prison for the Templars – and much later, in the 15th century the Tour de Constance was used to imprison the Protestant Huguenots, mostly women!
Aigues-Mortes is definitely worthy of a visit – which may also include a glimpse of the gothic church of Notre-Dame des Sablons inside the ramparts.
An interesting fact is that Aigues-Mortes originally was built as a port on the coast, but since the coastline has moved outwards due to earth deposits caused by the delta, it is now approximately 5 km (3 miles) inland.
After our stay in Aigues-Mortes we continue our trip and leave the Camargue via the picturesque resort Grau-du-Roi located right at the Mediterranean.
Explore medieval Aigues-Mortes at Camargue, South of France.
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Featured image for ‘Explore Medieval Aigues-Mortes at Camargue, South of France’, attribution: claude alleva / Pixabay and gayulo / Pixabay