CamargueEarth : Europe : France : Southeastern France : Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur : Bouches-du-Rhône : Camargue
The Camargue is a region in the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône and Gard in the southeast of France which encompasses the delta of the river Rhône. It is a wetland area of considerable natural value, and is best known for the presence of flamingoes, the breeding of semi-wild horses and black bulls, the cultivation of rice and the production of salt. It also has long, unspoilt beaches and offers great opportunities for biking. However, when driving through it, you may be excused for not finding it very spectacular: the area is very flat with few landmarks and buildings and it takes some time to explore and appreciate it.
There are only two larger towns in the area:
- Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the southern tip of the Camargue;
- Aigues-Mortes, on the edge of the so-called Petite Camargue, in the west of the region. Close by you will also find the beach resort of Le Grau-du-Roi.
The eastern side of the Camargue is part of the municipality of Arles, and has no agglomerations to speak of; the largest village here is Salin-de-Giraud.
The delta of the river Rhône is one of the largest in Europe. Just south of Arles, the river splits into the Grand Rhône and Petit Rhône. In between, we find the so-called Grande Camargue. The area to the west of the Petit Rhône is known as Petite Camargue. The Grande Camargue is a protected nature reserve. Sometimes, the coastal area to the east of the Grand Rhône up to Fos-sur-Mer, the Plan du Bourg, is also considered as part of the Camargue. Likewise, the term Petite Camargue is sometimes extended to the coastal area west of Aigues-Mortes in the department of Hérault.
The Canal du Rhône à Sète connects the Rhône river to the town of Sète, south of Montpellier. It runs more or less on the edge of the Petite Camargue, and has a side branch that connects to Aigues-Mortes and Le Grau-du-Roi.
The area consists of extensive wetlands, that progressively become more brackish the closer to the Mediterranean Sea you go. In the north of the region, most of the area is grassland, where cattle and horses are raised, with some vineyards on the higher elevations. The lower and wetter areas are used for rice cultivation. In the south, there are many lagoons (étangs) with an abundance of bird wildlife. The lagoons are traditionally also used for the production of salt.
The Camargue was formed some 10,000 years ago when sea levels started to rise after the last Ice Age, and the water of the river Rhône was blocked by the formation of sand bars along the Mediterranean coast, leading to the formation of brackish coastal marshlands. The Rhône brought large masses of mud into the area, that was deposited in the marshlands during floods. Since the building of the river dikes in 1869, however, all the sediment is transported to the coast, where the river is now progressively pushing the coastline seaward.
The region was already put into cultivation during Antiquity, and probably takes its name from the Romans, though the exact etymology is unknown. From the Middle Ages onwards, dikes were built to contain the river and sea water and drain the marshlands, which led to the expansion of agriculture and salt production. When higher dikes were built to contain the river Rhône in 1869, this reduced the number of floods, allowing for the introduction of viticulture in the area. After the Second World War, intensive rice cultivation was introduced as well. Industrial salt production was started in the late 19th century; currently, the Camargue is the largest salt producing area in Europe, though production figures are decreasing in recent years.
Since the region also offers good access to the Mediterranean Sea, the town of Aigues-Mortes was founded in 1240 by king Louis XI as the port for all ship traffic from and to France. However, the city lost its importance when the Provence with the port of Marseille were added to the French kingdom in 1481.
Because of its outstanding natural values, the nature reserve of the Étang de Vaccarès, the largest lagoon in the area, was already created in 1928. Since 1970, most of the Grande Camargue is a Parc Naturel Régional (Regional Natural Park). It has been classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
The Camargue is one of the major bird reserves in Europe. Birdwatching is therefore a rewarding activity in the area, with the pink flamingo (flamant rose) being the mascotte of the region. The flamingo colony is the largest in Western Europe, numbering some 10,000 birds. In total, over 400 bird species can be observed in the area, about 1/4 of which is nesting there. Larger wild animals are mostly lacking. You will have a good chance to run into a ragondin or river rat, an animal similar to the muskrat, which was imported from South America for its fur, but which is now considered a pest because of its destructive burrowing behaviour. The Camargue cattle and horses are allowed to roam freely in some areas, but they are not exactly wild animals.
The Camargue has a temperate Mediterranean climate, with irregular rainfall in all seasons. Autumn and Winter are however much wetter than the Summer months. Summer is characterized by lots of sunshine and high temperatures, though it is never too hot for comfort, and temperatures are moderated by frequent strong breezes, that are either coming from the west (tramontane) or the north (mistral). In Winter, nocturnal frost is quite common.
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Average temperatures and precipitation in Aigues-Mortes
The Camargue is part of the Provence, and therefore the original language is Provençal. Like most minority languages in France, however, it has no formal status and you will not often hear it spoken.
The Camargue only has a few access roads. Arles is the point of access for the Grande Camargue, with the D570 running from Arles to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. Aigues-Mortes and the Petite Camargue can be reached quite easily from Montpellier via Lunel and from Nîmes via Saint-Gilles. Distances:
- Arles - Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer 37km (approx. 35 min)
- Montpellier - Aigues-Mortes 34km (approx. 40 min)
- Nîmes - Aigues-Mortes 44km (approx. 45 min)
By public transportEdit
There are no train stations in the Camargue, the closest is found in Arles. Bus connections into the area are limited. There is a frequent direct bus (line 20) from Arles to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer (approx. 25 min). Itineraries can be found on www.lepilote.com. There is also a direct bus connection (line C32) from Nîmes to Aigues-Mortes (approx. 45 min). Schedules can be found on the website of Edgard.
Cycling into the Camargue is easily done from Arles (approx. 2.5 hrs to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer), but it takes much more time from Nîmes or Montpellier. In Arles, you can rent bikes at the railway station.
The GR700 242km long-distance trail, (Chemin de Régordane or Route de Saint-Gilles) runs from Le Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire) to Saint-Gilles. From there, you can walk another 26 kms to Aigues-Mortes.
Surprisingly, there are no boat connections into the area. You can however rent your own motor vessel to explore the rivers and canals, for example from Saint-Gilles with Le Boat, or from Aigues-Mortes with Nicols. For these barges, you don't need sailing experience.
The area is large enough to consider exploring it by car. The roads are not very crowded, with the exception of the town centres of Aigues-Mortes and Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, especially during the holidays. The walled city centre of Aigues-Mortes is pedestrianised. Some areas don't have paved roads, like the coastal road along the Étang de Fangassier, but you won't need a four-wheel drive. Parking is free in most areas, even on the beaches. The only exception is the area around the Aigues-Mortes city centre, but even there a sign-posted free parking can be found within walking distance. In the centre of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer there is a blue zone, with a maximum parking duration of 1h30min.
The area can be easily explored by bike. Be aware however that bike rentals are not very well advertised. In French, an all-terrain bike is called a VTT (vélo tout terrain) - and recommended if you intend to explore the coastal area. The following bike rentals can be found in the area:
- le Vélo Saintois, 19 Avenue de la République, Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, ☎ +33 4 90 97 74 56 ([email protected]), . €10 per 1/2 day. edit
- Vélo Évasion, 1291 Avenue de Camargue, Le Grau-du-Roi, ☎ +33 4 66 51 48 65, . edit
- VTT en Petite Camargue, 132 Rue des Flamants, Gallician, ☎ +33 6 09 09 31 10 ([email protected]), . €15 per day. edit
- Pêche et Loisirs, Place des Gardians, Salin de Giraud, ☎ +33 4 42 86 80 84. 9AM-7PM. edit
- Mas Saint Bertrand, (from Salin de Giraud, follow the D36 to Arles, then go left and follow the D36c until you reach Mas Saint Bertrand), ☎ +33 4 42 48 80 69. You can't reach Mas Saint Bertrand by public transport, unfortunately, but it is perfectly located to explore the coastal area. Apart from bike rental, they also offer accomodation and a lunchtime restaurant. Very relaxed place. edit
There are few walking trails in the area, but it is certainly possible to do some nice walks along the étangs and the beaches. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive guide to walking in the Camargue, so your best bet is to go to a tourist office and ask for advice. See Do section for some recommendations.
Motor vessel rental can be arranged through the companies mentioned in the Get In section. There are also a few places where you can rent a kayak. A paddle steamer (with guided tour in French) is operating on the Petit Rhône between mid-March and November.
Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau - a series of lakes/scrapes which are home to many of the birds of the Camargue. The parc provides a good introduction to the native species.
To walk around the two sections takes about three hours, but the bird life on view will keep your attention and lengthen this time. Enthusiastic photographers could spend most of the day here.
The area is very flat with little traffic, so it is ideal for cycling. However, it can be quite windy, so be prepared for that. Some dedicated cycling paths run through the area, in particular along the coast.
The area is well-known for its abundant bird wildlife, in particular the flamingoes that are concentrated in the Étang du Fangassier.
- Les Arnelles, (450m outside of the St-M-dl-M, on the left side of the road just after Le Pont Des Bannes hotel). Bar 8am to 11pm edit
Rice cultivation in the region already started in the Middle Ages, but it only became more important after the Second World War. The production figures are not very high, with only 4% of the European rice production coming from the area. The rice grown has its own Protected Geographical Indication (Indication Géographique Protégée, or IGP). It is sold either as white rice, or as whole-grain red or brown rice.
The Camargue is the largest salt-producing area in Europe. All the salt is produced by the company Les Salins du Midi, which operates 6 separate salt production facilities. The one at Aigues-Mortes can be visited (see Do section) with a guided tour. The salt produced is partly used for de-icing of roads, and partly for consumption. The refined cooking salt comes in three varieties, coarse salt, fine salt and fleur de sel. The latter is made from salt crystals harvested manually from the salt crusts appearing on the salt marshes when the water reaches saturation point. The other varieties are harvested after all the water in the salt pans has evaporated.
The black Camargue cattle (raço de biou) is a purely local breed, that is kept in semi-wild condition, and allowed to roam freely in the marshlands. It is mainly bred for bullfighting, but its meat is also very popular and has its own Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée. You will find it on the menu as taureau de Camargue.
Tellines are small shellfish similar to clams, that are traditionally collected on the seaside near Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer and Le Grau-du-Roi. You will see them sold in many restaurants at the seaside, but chances are that they are mostly imported, since production figures are low and fishery is strictly regulated.
There is a lot of local food to be sampled in the Camargue, although much of the local cuisine on offer is more general Provençal and can be found in neighbouring regions as well. Some typical dishes include:
- Fougasse - a type of bread similar to Italian focaccia, that can be topped with olives, anchovies, bacon and cheese, or even with sugar, like the one produced in Aigues-Mortes
- Soupe de tellines - a shellfish soup featuring potatoes, olive oil and herbs
- Gardianne - a mutton stew with thyme and sage, traditionally associated with the gardians, the Camargue 'cowboys'; it can also be prepared with bull's meat
- Catigot d'anguilles - a ragout made from eel
- Agriade saint-gilloise - a dish of slices of beef with onions, capres, anchovies, garlic and parsley
- Salade camarguaise - potato salad with tuna and eggs
- Anchoïade camarguaise - a simple dish of anchovies dressed with olive oil and vinegar
- Hachis camarguais - oven-baked minced meat with tomatoes, courgettes and cheese
- Moules en Brasucado - mussels with herbs from the grill
For non-French people, the huge importance attached to local food and cuisine can sometimes seem a bit exaggerated. However, you can be sure that the best food is not to be found in the touristic zones, and French people (and websites) will know the better places to go.
Some general suggestions for finding good places:
- Restaurants out of town, even in remote locations. These usually rely on local customers and stick with regional cuisine.
- Restaurants with menus listing mostly or exclusively local specialties (see the list above)
- Ferme Auberge (farm inn), an official government program. Members usually serve local cuisine, though the menu selection may be limited.
- Restaurants that are members of the Conservatoire des Cuisines de Camargue, (society for the preservation of Camargue cuisine)
- Table d'hôte (guest table), a kind of intimate restaurant. Often a bed and breakfast which prepares dinner with advance reservation. Not to be confused with table d'hôtes in regular restaurants that offer communal tables for solo diners.
Here are some restaurants that look promising per above recommendations as of Sept 2010 (although not tried hands-on by Wikitravelers yet):
- close to Saintes Maries de la Mer:
- Le Flamant Rose, ☎ 04 90 97 10 18 ([email protected], fax: 04 90 97 12 47), . Member of a society for the preservation of true Camargue cuisine. Local specialties, plus a remote location. edit
- Le Pont des Bannes, . Very elegant. Hits every major local specialty and has almost nothing from outside the region on the menu. Dinner menus: starter+main+dessert: €43; starter+main: €36; main+dessert: 31; starter+dessert: 17. edit
- Mas de Peint, . Table d’hote, by reservation only. Breakfast: €22; lunch: €42; dinner: €55. edit
- La Tour du Cazeau, Arles The Sambuc, ☎ 04 90 97 21 6 ([email protected], fax: 04 90 97 20 70), . Ferme-auberge, by reservation only. Dinner menu: €25. edit
- away from Saintes Maries de la Mer:
- Le Tamaris, 13 rue Victor Hugo, Le Cailar, ☎ +33 (0)4 66 88 07 91 ([email protected]), . The most rustic – most likely to prepare food you absolutely cannot get outside of the Camargue. The display of their dishes, remote location, and menu selection suggests it is probably a worthwhile experience. Set menu: €13..16. edit
The Camargue has its own terroir, known as Sable de Camargue, located in the Petite Camargue. The wines from this region are therefore known as vin de sable, referring to the sandy soils where they are grown. They are predominantly rosé wines, made from a variety of grapes. The most sold is the so-called vin gris, with a very pale salmon colour, that is very light in taste. The best-known brand is Listel, that is sold all over France and abroad, but you can find many more producers in the area.
It's not a real risk, but be aware that the Camargue is home to an enormous number of mosquitoes, which may make staying there quite unpleasant in Summer.