The Camargue: White horses, pink flamingoes, and black bulls

I once had a photograph of wild white horses galloping in wetlands.  It could have been a portent of things to come.  Because one fateful day in October, I found myself with my car rental onboard a ferry crossing the Rhone river. Off to where the marshy wild things are.

Picture a vast plain, dotted with brine lagoons, sandbars and reed covered marshes. Sprinkle that landscape with black bulls and pink flamingoes, and then scatter roaming white horses and circling hawks. This is the hauntingly beautiful Les Petit Camarguais, the French land of cowboys (but don’t ever say cowboys, it’s “gardians.”)

We docked and then drove off to a kind of go-where-your-heart leads-you wandering. The Provencal sun was high, reflecting on paddy fields and salt marshes, and our sidewalks glistened. I had no guide map except our trusty GPS.  We were to follow our noses, come upon two small towns, a parc of pink flamingoes, and a bullring. And so we navigated our way through near empty roads, over acres of marsh, dune and pasture.

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The sight of a bull herd stopped us on our tracks. My husband, a tropical cowboy wannabe gaped at the strapping bulls that were the landscape and lore of this region. The breed is supposedly descendant to the Spanish fighting bull and yet these are smaller.  Along the road were little thatched cabins, the homes of the gardians.  These are the Camargue cowboys. They ride the misty white horses, as they rear the black bulls that are sent to Spain. I glimpsed a handful of these wistful horses, scattered across the plain.  They do prance across tall weeds, their hooves splashing the wetlands, just like my photograph.

Our pit stop was a delightful roadside parlor tending saucisson de taureau, salts and herbs. The region is famous for it’s local cattle, the Taureau de Camargue. I tasted a sampling of Fleur de Sel flavored salts and took a whiff of the lavender.  Interestingly, this French countryside of wetlands grows a red rice, the Label Rouge. We pulled over a nearby ranch of white horses in paddocks, and again ogled the gardians from a fence. I now declare a predisposition for gardians, cowboys with the hats and boots, who speak French, cook and drink wine.

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Lunch was at the delightful seaside town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mar.  The cuisine is a medley of Provencal, gypsy, Basque and Catalonian traditions.  I ordered anything marked a la Camarguaise.  As I could hear the nearby sea, I chose the red mullet and sea olive clams grilled a la plancha. I then ditched my tired out husband, who was relishing his first taste of black bull tartar. And I drifted around in a daze, gaping in wonder, bewitched. Forget snooty St. Tropez or over the top Amalfi. This seaside pilgrim’s outpost was a haven of legend, salt air, gypsies and bouillabaisse soup.

They say shortly after the death of Christ, the three Marys’ (Magdalene, Salome and Jacobe) berthed here after seeing the empty tomb and fleeing prosecution. The Tres Maries also carted with them the mythical Grail (and I dare say, concealed it here.) And if this isn’t enough, the village church is home to Saint Sara a.k.a. the Black Madonna, patron saint of gypsies.   Once a year, Europe’s Romas (gypsies) embark on a pilgrimage and wind up here, where they kiss their holy ground, exalt the Black Madonna and then party hard. I didn’t want to leave.

I passed the time enchanted, straying into unpaved roads, taking off my boots to feel the sands, and empathizing with my creative gods: Ernest Hemingway and Van Gogh, who both captured this place in prose and paints.

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This commune did not escape Van Gogh, who immortalized Camargue and its gypsies in Fishing Boats on the Beach, while lamenting his unhappy life in Arles.

The village has for its fountain square, a sculpture of Vovo, a famed black bull who lived from 1947-1954. The region is famous for the Course Camarguaise. But unlike their Spanish counterpart, bullfighting in the Camargue won’t have any bull dropping dead. No picks or swords here. Bullfighters run with the bulls decorated with ribbons, aim to grab a red rosette between the bull’s horns, and then win for the most ribbons. There was no bull-running in early autumn though and so I settled on Vovo, while my husband settled on Tartare de Taureau.

Shortly after goat cheese, crème brulee, and a glass of Rose, we headed for Parc Naturel to stare at the pink flamingo. The Camargue is home to more than 400 species of birds and is the natural habitat of the great flamingo. The parc had acres of ethereal, candy pink, giant birds, doing a sort of dance in stilts! That or I just had too much of Provencal rose.

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We capped off our wild side trip with a medieval fortress town, the Aigues-Mortes on the western end of the Camargue. The walled town was a tad bit touristy for me. Its main square was swarming with tourists dressed in Provencal colors, and I could only see walled-in souvenir shops and cafes.

Camargue was not on my to-do list.  Yet the wild marshes, its pilgrim haunt, and folklore now top my list of the bewitching and beguiling.  And I have now swapped by wispy white horses’ poster for the real photograph.

How to reach Camargue:

We flew to Marseilles. With a car rental, drove to Arles and then took the D36 road south from Arles towards Camargue.  Took the car aboard the ferry to cross the Rhone, and then just drove around Camargue

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