Carnet de Voyage: Camargue Cruise

Carnet de Voyage: Camargue Cruise

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

The guy who works at the Nicols base in Bellegarde is bonkers. But a fun type of bonkers. From the minute you meet him you know you’re going to have a great time. We’re not new to river cruises and gliding on the water at a slow pace, with only the sound of our engine to break the silence, is one of our favourite things.  

We’ve hired an Estivale Duo, a nine-metre canal boat for a couple’s getaway, but he tells us, grinning “Due to a technical issue with the Duo you’ve been upgraded! Shall we take a tour of your new boat?”  

 “How on earth do you park this thing?” With its 13.5 metres, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Sixto Prestige C is the type of boat that requires someone in the bow, someone in the stern and a captain that knows exactly how to take the helm. My wife Cathy glances at me, unsure. Our host – let’s call him Marc – puts his hand on my shoulder and says “No worries! Unlike the Duo, the Sixto has a bow thruster. Everything else works the same.” For us freshwater sailors, a bow thruster is basically the Holy Grail for when it comes to manoeuvring a canal boat. So off we go!   

Twenty centimetres on each side. That’s how much space you’ve got to moor this boat. As we reach the mooring point in the port of Gallician, in the Gard département, a tall blonde 70-year-old blurts out instructions for me to back up into our space for the night. While starting over for the hundredth time, I silently thank whoever invented fenders and I manage to slide the boat in between the two concrete pillars. Laughing his head off, the blonde giant says with a Belgian accent “Not bad for a first attempt! And right on time for an apéritif!”  

About eight-hundred metres from the port we stop at a small bar, clearly a local hangout spot. A dozen big guys joyfully fill the space and welcome us with a nod; with their broad shoulders and dust on their work clothes their life obviously revolves around the famous Camargue bulls. We decide to go with the flow: local anise liquor, beef stew from the boss’ farm and red wine from the boss’ vineyard… A few hours later, the soothing movement of the boat and the water lapping on the hull remind us that we’ve known worse first nights than this one.  

Jump forward to six o’clock the following morning. What a time to be alive… We see a wild horse with an egret on its rump. As the morning fog slowly recedes it reveals a few herons on an orange-sky backdrop. Here, in the Scamandre nature reserve, all you hear is the silence. After grabbing croissants from the local bakery we start cruising, humbled to be sharing such moments with such majestic beings.  

For lunch, we stop at a dock by a lake near Mauguio, set up cushions on the fly bridge and spend some time counting how many flamingoes we can spot. In the distance we’re able to make out the skyline of a city we know very well, only to realise that this slice of paradise we didn’t even know existed is right outside of the Montpellier suburbs…  

We’ve planned to visit Aigues Mortes for a while and it turns out that the beginning of the week is just the right time for it. We moor the boat at the bottom of the city ramparts. Apart from a busy ring road in the evening, the place doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. And surprisingly, once you stroll away from the main streets, the shops, restaurants, wine cellars and patios all bring their touch of serenity. At night, after 10:30pm, the city is yours.  

Not the partying type, we’ve decided to skip La Grande Motte and Palavas. As we arrive in Maguelone after a few hours of smooth sailing we immediately know we’ve made the right choice. Stuck between a lake and the Mediterranean Sea, this part of the canal offers great viewpoints of local birds nesting. We stop at a mooring point and start exploring the peninsula by foot: its volcanic landscapes and a 12th century cathedral that’s currently under renovation… After 6pm is when it gets interesting. With a sunset to die for and not a soul in sight, the local fauna comes out of hiding. This is undeniably the best discovery of our entire trip.  

In the morning the wind is crashing the party and we understand crossing the vast Etang de Thau is not a reasonable option. Instead, we go swimming at Aresquiers – a beach so vast and wild that it should remain a hidden gem forever. Back on board we know that we have to turn around and start our three-day trip to return to Bellegarde. All that’s left for us to do now is to enjoy every second of it…until we get back to reality.  

This story was first submitted in French for a writing competition set by Nicols.

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

Gilles is a former communications consultant who took a change of career direction to become an author. For years now, he and his wife Cathy, a jewellery designer, have enjoyed river and canal cruises all across France, allowing them to take a small break from the fast pace of life. In July 2023, Cathy and Gilles decided to take on the Camargue, a region mostly known for its white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos and orange sunsets.

Lead photo credit : The wetlands at the lakes near Mauguio © shutterstock

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