France’s largest wetland is much more than just marshland – it’s a land of white horses and pink flamingoes, of Roman remains, rose coloured sea and picturesque villages. Gillian Thornton explores this diverse landscape on foot and by boat, four wheels and four legs.
Where white horses roam and pink flamingos flock…
Sunset over the Camargue and the still water of the lagoon turn slowly silver as the sky morphs through a palette of pastel blues and pinks, deep yellows and burning orange. Rose-tinted flamingos sift the shallows in search of supper, whilst a sturdy coypu watches intently from the bank for an unsuspecting fish.
It’s a magical moment for any lover of wildlife and open spaces, but particularly when seen from the back of a horse. Our leader turns his mount into a shallow lagoon and we trustingly follow in his wake, an enthralled band of riders mounted on the surefooted white horses of this legendary wetland.
Situated at the heart of the Bouches du Rhône department in western Provence, the Camargue forms a triangle between the ancient Roman city of Arles to the north, and the two liquid arms of the Rhône delta. Le Petit Rhône to the west is a protected nature reserve that joins the Mediterranean at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, whilst Le Grand Rhône carries commercial river traffic from Lyon and Avignon to the west.
Fly into Marseille – less than an hour’s drive from Arles – and the flat landscape of the delta doesn’t look overly inviting from the air, but seen from ground level, it’s a different story altogether. Covering more than 100,000 hectares with 75km of coastline, the Camargue embraces a wide variety of eco-systems that include salt plains and freshwater marshes, salt marshes and lagoons, sandy beaches, paddy fields and dunes. Bird-watchers can find an incredible 237 species here, one-third of all those seen in Europe, and the closer you look, the more surprises are in store.
The wild wetlands of France
Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and famous for its white horses, black bulls, and pink flamingos, this glorious wetland is a must-do for anyone who likes big skies, wide horizons, and a wealth of soft-adventure activities. You can take a guided nature tour in a 4×4 or take a leisurely look from a horse-drawn carriage; book a birdwatching tour or enjoy the landscape from water level with a boat trip on the Petit Rhône. Visit the Arles Tourism website and Camargue Tourist Guides for inspiration and online booking.
For a lifelong rider like me, the chance to explore on horseback was top of my priority list, but you don’t need to be a gardian – or camarguais cowboy – to access this stunning landscape on horseback. Simply settle yourself in the comfortable saddle, take up the reins, and proceed at a leisurely pace. I shared the 2-hour Sunset Lovers experience from L’Auberge Cavaliere du Pont des Bannes in a mixed-ability group. Those of us with experience were able to enjoy a gallop behind the dunes, whilst the other mounts proceeded obediently at a stately walk, but most of the ride was conducted at a stately walk with eyes wide open. Speed doesn’t matter in a natural environment like this and the slower you go, the more you see.
Wild birds and wonderful wild life
Take those famous flamingos. Pass any stretch of shallow water in the Camargue and you’ll almost certainly spot small groups of these improbable birds with their downturned beaks and ‘back to front’ legs. But for the full-on flamingo experience, book onto a guided tour to see Europe’s largest breeding colony – some 10,000 pairs who hatch their young every year at the protected Etang du Fangassier. Tours run from April through September, bookable through Camargue Nature Guides along with a wide range of environmental excursions, all available in French and English.
Expert guides Frédéric Bouvet and Christophe Giraud gave me a fascinating insight into local agriculture and wildlife, as we made our way by Land Rover and then on foot across salt plains dotted with tree stumps bleached by sun and salt. Finally we arrived at a viewing platform erected at a ruined 17th century customs post and, through powerful binoculars, were treated to a unique view of the quivering mass of pink feathers. An unforgettable Attenborough moment in anyone’s book! On the way back to base, there was another colourful bonus as Frédéric drove us past a sandbank to watch multi-hued bee-eaters flying in and out of nesting holes.
The bulls of the Camargue
The Camargue’s resident bulls may not be as eye-catching in colour but they’re certainly full of character. Smaller than their Spanish cousins, Camargue bulls have horns that point upwards rather than forwards and are used in the local course camarguaises or bull games, a popular family entertainment that is played out at arenas across the Camargue throughout the summer months.
After a rousing parade through the streets, bulls and all, the human contestants on horseback – the raseteurs – attempt to pluck a rosette or cockade from between the bull’s horns. Each contest lasts 15 minutes and at the end of the day, the bulls are taken back home for a quiet night at the ranch. A good cockardier – or competitive bull – is a much-prized beast and there’s a vibrant statue of one fine specimen outside the bull ring in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a jolly, whitewashed seaside resort with an intriguing backstory.
The town takes its name from the three Marys who were the first witnesses to Jesus’s empty tomb after the Resurrection. Legend has it that that Mary Magadalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe arrived here in a boat after being expelled from Jerusalem around AD40, together with their black servant Sarah who became patron saint of the gypsies. Every May, gypsies from all over Europe gather in town for a religious festival in Sara’s honour. See her statue – dressed in layers of gypsy clothes – in the vaulted crypt of the Romanesque church where the air is heavy from the heat of candles.
Then head from the depths of the church up the narrow spiral staircase to the roof, once used as a lookout post against maritime invaders. Take in the views to the marina then head past the boats towards the beach, backed with a line of whitewashed cabanes. Thatched with reeds, they were traditionally used by fishermen and farm workers.
Aigues-Mortes – and the pink sea
With waterways in every direction, it wouldn’t seem right not to take a duck’s eye view of this extraordinary wetland. Some 10km inland from Saintes-Maries, I enjoyed a nature discovery cruise by Zodiac with Kayak-Vert Camargue, who also offer excursions by kayak, paddle board, or mountain bike. But if all this sounds too energetic, there’s yet another way to enjoy this unique area at water level.
As well as exploring the Camargue independently, I have cruised the Petit Rhône on board a leisurely hotel barge operated by CroisiEurope, Europe’s biggest river cruise operator. The 7-night trip travels from Sète on the Mediterranean coast to Arles – or the reverse – and includes visits to a traditional manade or camarguais ranch, as well as Les Saintes-Maries and the walled town of Aigues-Mortes.
With no strategic port on the western Mediterranean coast, French king Louis XIV commissioned Aigues-Mortes in the 13th century, six kilometres inland and surrounded by malaria-infested swamps. But today, this enchanting town is a mix of historic buildings, shady squares, and rampart walks without the inconvenience of malaria. Visit the commercial salt pans beneath the city walls and buy a bag to enjoy at home with some camarguais rice – an authentic taste of one of Europe’s most inspiring wetlands.
Gillian Thornton is a writer who specialises in France and lifestyle.