Spreading across the triangle formed by the two branches of the Rhône and the Mediterranean, the 360-square-mile Camargue delta is for the most part a lonely barren plain of rough pasture, grazed by black bulls and white horses, and salty wetlands inhabited by a diverse community of waterfowl, the most famous of which are pink flamingos—although the first time I spotted them, they were disappointingly white. When a local resident explained that they must have found no shrimp for breakfast, I thought he was joking, but it turns out that they do indeed get their color from the carotene contained in crustaceans and algae—a rosy sign of good health that makes them seductive to the opposite sex.
With Albert Lamorisse’s award-winning 1953 film Crin Blanc (White Mane) on my mind, I was equally surprised that the Camargue horses, too, shift color, from dark brown to white, at the age of five or six. The renowned Camarguais bulls, though, are always dark, with lyre-shaped horns. Both the herds of bulls and the ranches on which they are raised are known as manades, and the ranchers are called manadiers; the cowboys on horseback that tend them are the gardiens. And in an odd quirk of local language, both male and female animals are referred to as taureaux, or bulls.
Grazing in the wild, the bulls yield excellent meat, but they are bred primarily for the courses camarguaises, highly-coded bullfights consisting of six 15-minute rounds, each with a different bull, punctuated by the sounding of trumpets at specific moments and ending with the overture from Carmen. The job of the several white-clad bullfighters, les raseteurs, is to remove la cocarde—a rosette or other decoration—from between the horns of the bull, le cocardier. The raseteurs make flying leaps into the stands as the bull charges them, and occasionally the bull lunges into the stands too, to wild applause from the audience. Usually neither bull nor raseteurs get harmed, but for the bullfighters it can be a dangerous business, demanding agility, speed and nerve. The week before my visit, a raseteur was dispatched to hospital with pierced lungs and liver, another with a chunk of his buttock torn off.
This Provençal version of the Wild West, with its cattle ranches and gardian cowboys, is barely a century old, the brainchild of a Camargue resident, the Marquis Folco de Baroncelli de Javon (1869-1943), an eccentric aristocrat who was dazzled by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and invited him and his entire troupe to visit the Camargue. It must have been an outlandish spectacle to have genuine Sioux Indians in their traditional attire camp around Baroncelli’s mas—a large Provençal farmhouse—but one result of the cross-cultural exchange was a long-lasting epistolary friendship between Baroncelli and Jacob White Eyes, a Dakota Sioux. Their correspondence led to the Frenchman’s idea of reviving the Camargue’s traditions, which had declined in the wake of the French Revolution.
By turning the ordinary farmers and livestock breeders into Camargue-style cowboys, Baroncelli helped regenerate the local economy and created a new cultural lifestyle that, over the years, has gained the status of an age-old heritage, although it was initially a fabrication. When Baroncelli died in 1943 he was a ruined man, having dedicated his life and fortune to the promotion of Provençal culture. His Mas du Simbèu was destroyed by the Germans in 1944, but he would have probably been pleased to know that when his remains were transferred in 1951 to its site, outside Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the bulls of his manade are said to have gathered spontaneously and followed the procession. Two of his granddaughters still live on a nearby mas.
Paul Ricard (1909-1997) was another of the Camargue’s pioneering visionaries. In 1939, by which time his future empire of “real Marseille pastis” was well under way, he bought a sprawling estate with a farmhouse, a former medieval domain of the Knights Templar—a Templar cross still stands on the site today. Called Méjanès (meaning halfway), it was situated midway between the two branches of the Rhône. There he intended to grow the licorice, fennel and mint that go into the iconic drink of Provence, but the war, and the Vichy government’s ban on spirits the following year, forced him into alternative planning. Since he couldn’t sell alcohol, he would use Méjanès to breed cattle for both milk and meat. But one way or another, the land was a salty wasteland and would need an irrigation system. The Knights Templar had been faced with the same challenge.
Ricard was also among the early pioneers of the Camargue rice industry, which now supplies 25 to 30 percent of the home market. He may have picked up on Henri IV’s idea to introduce the staple to the Camargue—in Henri’s case, they say it was to complement his favorite dish, poule au pot, although Ricard intended it principally as a means to desalinate the soil. The French associate Ricard’s name with the famous anise-flavored pastis he created in 1932, mostly unaware that, if Parmentier taught their ancestors to eat potatoes, Paul Ricard was instrumental in teaching them to eat rice. (An early ecologist and an enlightened employer, he also established an oceanographic institute, an arts foundation and a car-racing track.) A quarter of the 1,500-acre Ricard estate is still allocated to rice farming using “green” methods and management; one-half remains natural breeding pastures and marshes; and the fourth quarter is open to the public, with a bullring, a bar, a restaurant and open space for fêtes and fiestas. There is also a tiny old railway station and a little, rattling train that takes visitors through the estate and along the Etang de Vaccarès, the Camargue’s largest lagoon and a waterfowl paradise.
Ricard’s historic mas, however, is tucked away from the public eye and is now the property of Ricard’s daughter, Michèle. This was where I discovered, from the photos hanging on the walls, that Picasso, Salvador Dalí and the former French president François Mitterrand were among Paul Ricard’s friends. There’s also a photo of President Nicolas Sarkozy on horseback — apparently he loves the place and visited both before and after his election.
Denys Colomb de Daunant, who had married one of Folco de Baroncelli’s granddaughters, was also an emblematic figure of the Camargue. Artist, writer and filmmaker Daunant adapted the screenplay for Crin Blanc (whose 10-year-old hero is also named Folco) and the film was shot on his estate, le Mas de Cacharel, north of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Daunant, too, dedicated his life to the promotion of the Camargue. Among other things, he established the bullring in Les Saintes-Maries and opened the first inn for equestrian tourism on his ranch, in 1955. The formula has mushroomed since, now often upgraded to three-star and four-star hotels complete with outdoor swimming pools—at the top of the scale is the luxurious hotel and restaurant Le Mas de Peint, farther north near Le Sambuc. But Le Mas de Cacharel, standing in the midst of breathtaking scenery of wetlands, remains a cut above most, probably because it is inhabited by the spirit of its founder Daunant and his visitors, among them Hemingway, Picasso and Provençal writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol.
Daunant rests in the cemetery of Les Saintes-Maries, the cradle of Christianity in Western Europe, at least according to one version of the story. This is where, somewhere around the year 40 AD, the three Maries—Madeleine (Mary Magdalene), Jacobé and Salomé—and a variable cast of other early Christians first touched soil after being cast adrift from the Holy Land without sail or oars. Marie Jacobé and Marie Salomé remained where they landed and became the patron saints of the village. Their black Egyptian servant Sara became the patron saint of the gypsies, and her statue is kept in the crypt of the Romanesque village church that they built. (Among the others, Martha is said to have gone inland to Tarascon, Mary Magdalene to the mountain of Sainte-Baume and Lazarus to Marseille.)
Eventually the village became a pilgrim destination for European gypsies, an ongoing tradition that draws thousands of gypsies from all over the Continent for the three-day event, May 24-26, along with huge crowds of spectators who turn up as much for the gypsy music and dancing as for the gypsies’ fervent religious pilgrimage. After Mass on May 24, the statue of Sara is carried in procession all the way into the sea. Anyone with crowd phobia is advised to wait until the 25th, when Marie Jacobé is honored under more manageable circumstances. May 26 is dedicated to the Marquis de Baroncelli, with a commemoration ceremony at his grave followed by bull racing, jousts, dancing and music, all in traditional costumes. For a quieter celebration, opt for the Sunday closest to October 22, the much less publicized and pleasingly genuine feast of Marie Salomé. October is an excellent time to visit the Camargue, too, when it basks in an autumnal glow: temperatures are cooler, mosquitoes are fewer and birds are plentiful as they head for Africa.
Discovering the wonders of the Camargue landscape on horseback is a unique experience, but for those who can’t or don’t do horses, a boat ride provides an enjoyable alternative. From Aigues-Mortes, embark on the Saint Louis and enjoy a close, leisurely look at a manade before heading for the fishing village of Le Grau-du-Roi, where Ernest Hemingway spent his honeymoon with his second wife Pauline. From Les Saintes-Maries, try the Tiki III, which provides lots of opportunities for bird watching along the Petit Rhône.
Back on land, head for the nearby Pont de Gau, a bird sanctuary with several miles of nature trails through magnificent scenery. This is also an educational center, enlightening visitors to the workings of the delta and to the fact that the “natural” wilderness here is in effect manipulated, its biodiversity stimulated by a sophisticated management of water levels. Without the human element, the Camargue would revert to a desolate, salty wasteland, good for nothing but the extraction of salt.
Thanks to the shallow water along the seashore, the evaporation stimulated by the intense heat and the frequent winds, salt has been extracted in the Camargue since ancient times. Salt was indispensable for the preservation of foods such as cheese and meat, making it man’s most precious staple for millennia. It was used by the Romans as soldier’s pay (hence, salarium, meaning salary), and made the salt-tax collectors among the richest and most hated men in France in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Today salt is still produced in large basins near Salin-de-Giraud, along the Grand Rhône on the eastern edge of the Camargue, and in the Salins du Midi outside Aigues-Mortes, which you can visit on a fun little train.
Aigues-Mortes was founded in the mid-13th century by Louis IX, Saint Louis, to provide a staging point for his Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land — at the time, with much of Provence still independent, the kingdom of France had no Mediterranean port. Louis built his port on a lagoon, joined it to the sea via a canal and a branch of the Rhône, and offered privileges to attract residents. On August 28, 1248, the king and his fleet of 1,500 ships set sail for Cyprus on an expedition that lasted eight years but failed in its mission. During a second attempt, in 1270, Louis died in Tunisia, and it was his son Philippe le Hardi who, starting in 1272, built the massive walls still intact today.
On the northwest corner, Louis’s imposing royal tower, La Tour Constance, also served as a lighthouse, and later as a notorious prison. Aigues-Mortes remained the most important Mediterranean port in France until Marseille and other parts of Provence were annexed in the late 15th century. Both the Tour Constance and the ramparts are open to visitors. Situated to the west of the delta, Aigues-Mortes is in the Petite Camargue rather than the Camargue proper; the only difference between them is administrative—Aigues-Mortes is in the département of the Gard, while the Camargue is in Bouches-du-Rhône.
Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Romantic Paris, and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia.
Domaine Paul Ricard Mas de Méjanès, D37 south of Arles, 04.90.97.10.10. website
Hôtel de Cacharel Route de Cacharel, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 04.90.97.95.44. website
Le Mas de Peint Le Sambuc 04.90.97.20.62. website
Hôtel L’Estelle en Camargue Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 04.90.97.89.01. website
Le Bateau Saint Louis 14 rue Théaulon, Aigues-Mortes, 04.66.35.06.51
Le Bateau Tiki III Le Plan d’Orgon, Route D38, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 04.90.97.81.68
Pont de Gau Ornithological Park Route D570, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 04.90.97.82.62
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of France Today; updated in June 2011