© Andrew Farquhar
The Biosphere Reserve in Provence where the wildlife outnumbers the visitors
For most people, the South of France means the sparkling Mediterranean with trendy resorts like St. Tropez and Cannes, and beautiful beaches packed with beautiful people. Not far from these glittering resorts is a gem of a different kind though, a gentle wilderness, unknown even to many seasoned travellers.
This is the fascinating Camargue region of Provence, a photo destination with unique landscapes and wildlife, exhilarating light and bloodless bullfights. An article in National Geographic featuring the Camargue inspired my wife and I to check it out in July 2013. We flew to Nice, rented a tiny red Citroën, figured out the complicated and expensive French motorway tolls, braved European drivers, survived a terrifying thunderstorm, and finally, four hours later, were welcomed to Van Gogh country with fields of glowing sunflowers.
Arles, a tourist hub in the north, is the region’s largest town with about 55,000 inhabitants. Inspired by the unique Camargue light, Van Gogh produced much of his best work here. Our destination was 38 kilometres further south, however — we were in search of the famous white Camargue horses, black fighting bulls and pink flamingos.
The Camargue lies between the Rhône delta and the Mediterranean Sea. At the centre of the delta is a huge brackish lake, the Étang de Vaccarès, which is surrounded by an intricate pattern of lagoons, wetlands and salt flats. Prior to the 19th century, recurrent flooding created an estuary in a constant state of flux with an ever-changing landscape. Extensive engineering with pumps, drains and dykes was undertaken to stabilize it. The outcome has been an incredible mosaic of such rich biodiversity that the area has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Raptors soar in the blue skies, horses and bulls roam freely, and pink flamingos, the symbol of the Camargue, can be seen just about anywhere there is water. This is a paradise for birders, not to mention hikers, bikers, photographers and artistes. It’s easy to understand why Van Gogh loved this area.
The mane attractions
Saintes-Maries de la Mer (saintesmaries.com), a vibrant little town popular with French vacationers, is the capital of the Camargue. Its name comes from the biblical legend of Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, who, evicted from Palestine and shipwrecked here, introduced Christianity to France.
We spent four nights at a small hotel on the outskirts of town. The Mas des Salicornes (13460 Saintes-Maries de la Mer; hotel-salicornes.com; double rooms from €99) is a charming, converted farmstead with 24 rooms, and oleander and bougainvillea around each private patio.
The Parc Ornithologique (parcornithologique.com; adults €7.50) was nearby. It’s a large wilderness area with over 300 species of birds. We spent one morning exploring seven kilometres of trails, winding around the park’s marshes, enjoying flamingos, herons, egrets, swans and various raptors along with the occasional curious horse that poked its head up through the reeds.
Most mornings we would drive a short distance from our hotel, pull off the practically deserted road and marvel at the stunning dawn light, placid white horses munching and shuffling through the reeds, sometimes huddled together, their manes blowing in the early mistral wind. Birds of all descriptions were in the air, on the water and even on horseback, their birdsong welcoming the sun. We saw few other people. Occasionally a motorist would slow to see what they might be missing. Sometimes we saw other early morning photographers, or riders on horseback heading into the brush, or a jogger, or a group of cyclists. But mostly it seemed we were alone in this paradise.
From birds to bulls
Our days typically started at predawn to catch the rising sun and waking birdlife. After a while, we’d return to our hotel for breakfast on the patio: warm croissants and baguettes, ham, cheese, fruit and great coffee. Then we'd set off to explore the town’s beaches, cafés and history. Late one afternoon we visited the town's famous ninth-century fortified church, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, where we enjoyed an impressive rendering of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The following day we embarked on a short river tour of the Petit Rhône, which provided different views of the estuary. From the boat we were treated to memorable images of a gardian (Camargue cowboy) herding horses and bulls down a dusty track to the river.
Photo ops were countless. While enjoying a lunch of calamari and wine at a seafront café, we noticed people lining up across the street. Something special was unfolding. Then came the horses and riders — lots of them —from white Camargue horses with brownish foals to large Arab horses and stately Belgiums. Our random restaurant stop gave us the perfect ringside seat to this feria, a colourful festival of local horses.
Serendipity would also play a role in the most memorable event of our entire trip.
A meandering drive on our third day brought us to the small town of Salin-de-Giraud in the southeast corner of the Camargue. Sheer chance had us stumble on a bullfight known locally as the Course Camarguaise. A bloodless sport — at least for the bulls — it’s a mesmerizing spectator event and a photographic feast. I’d started shooting when my viewfinder suddenly went dark. I cursed, thinking my camera had a problem. As I pulled the camera from my face, I was confronted by the very large head of an angry black bull peering at me from over the barrier about a metre away. I gasped and jumped back to the amusement of onlookers close by.
Young men (raseteurs) compete to outrun the bulls while at the same time attempting to snatch a rosette from the beast’s head. Scoring is determined by the number of rosettes retrieved. To avoid serious injury, they must run, dodge, twist and ultimately leap onto a high ledge to evade the furious snorting bull. It’s completely riveting to watch. Although the bulls’ horns were capped on this occasion, they could still inflict serious injury; I saw raseteurs with arm slings and crutches in the audience.
Four days was only time enough to whet our appetites for this unique place called the Camargue, but we were obliged to move on. We had to rendezvous with a tour group in Arles from where we would explore the rest of Provence.
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