Sunday, April 24, 2011

Aigues-Morte and the Camargue

Not one to miss an opportunity, Dave suggests we detour from our route home from Lyon to visit Aigues-Mortes, the Camargue, and La Grande-Motte. We dropped Christie at the airport at 5 AM as planned, then headed home. The roads were dark and empty for the first hour or so, a marked departure from yesterday's travels. We stop at an "aire" to get some Quick-Trip type food for breakfast. Not the normal "Yumm", but will keep us from starving till we get home.

Along the A-roads which are limited access and at least where we're traveling, toll roads with smooth surfaces. We've been told these roads are built by companies like Vinci, who then recoup their money by charging tolls. And tolls are expensive - about $60 for 400 km (about 240 miles). They do have a system like the i-Pass for US toll roads, but we didn't explore that possibility. Unlike with the i-Pass, you need to slow down to 20 mph as you pass through the sensors at the toll booths, but it does save the time of working the pay machines. There aren't usually people at the toll booths, but there's a machine where you insert your ticket, the price shows up and then you figure out how to pay. The machines accept credit cards (and fingers crossed, all but one has accepted ours)and coins and bills. They even make change.

On these roads, there are "aires" (rest areas) every 10-20 km. Some are just parking and picnic areas, usually with a bathroom (bring your own toilet paper and use the handicapped stall if you fancy a toilet rather than footprints in the floor). Others are full blown Interstate-type rest areas with gas, ATM, snack bars, restaurants, and other amenities.

So we cruise along these lovely roads and turn off for Aigues-Mortes at about 7:30, arriving at the town about 8. I'm thinking we'll be wandering empty streets as it's Easter Sunday and early to boot. But such is not the case. The cafés are opening up and the locals are having coffee and reading the morning paper. When we stop at one of these for "café américain" (strong, black and larger than an espresso), we watch locals walking through with loaves of bread, so a boulanger is definitely open.

As we drink coffee, there is more and more activity on the square. Tables are being set for future customers. Stacked chairs are distributed among tables now dressed with tablecloths, silverware and glasses.

A lady unlocks the souvenir shop on the corner and begins putting out turning racks of postcards and prints. She hangs boards with samples of wares available within on the walls outside the store.

As we continue our walk, we stop in the church - clearly old, but with a wooden roof rather than stone vaulting over the nave. We buy 2 baguettes (those are the long, skinny loaves of crusty French bread, one of which we are now eating with our aperos of rosé wine, tapanades (olive spread) and olives while I write this) for 1 Euro 80 ($2.50, $1.25 each).

Aigues-Mortes sits on the Camargue, an area of salt marshes along the Mediterranean. Saint Louis (King Louis IX) ordered a town built and fortified as direct access to the Mediterranean and it was from here that he launched 2 of his crusades to the Holy Land. This all took place in the 1200's. The fortified walls enclose a city that was already a trade crossroads for Genoan goods such as silks. Thus the town inside is laid out in a grid of streets and the wall are irregularly shaped to accommodate the size and shape of the existing 12th century town. The wall remains intact today.

Outside the walls is a large port on a rather large canal (the Grau) that links inland waterways of the Camargue with the Mediterranean. (As far as we can determine). Modern industry includes salt production (which we didn't see at all). From here you can take all kinds of tours by all kinds of vehicles to see the Camargue. This does look intriguingly interesting and is something Katie would love to do, I'm sure.

As to the town, it is clearly set up for tourists. It is picturesque, near the water, in the south of France, on the Camargue and Mediterranean. The name translates to "(very) dead waters" - a reference to the pestilence and illness suffered by those living near marshy places. But when Louis IX bought it from the Dukes of Aragon, he made it an important town on the Mediterranean. The main square has a statue honoring Saint Louis, the church and lots of restaurants whose tables fill most of the square.

I'm really glad we were there early when the town was just awakening as the tourists had not yet arrived and the tourist shops were just beginning to open, including this intriguing candy shop. You could get a feel for the town as the locals experience it when the tourists are gone. That was quite nice.

We left by 9, drove through the Camargue to the beach town of La Grande-Motte and were back in Thézan by 10 and have now spent a leisurely day - a bit of napping, a bit of laundry and cleaning, lunch and now aperos. (Lest you think we're the dirtiest people on earth, let me assure you that our French washing machine, which sits left of the sink draining rack, does not hold much at at time, nor do we have the drying space to hang very many clothes at a time. With the kids here, we did a lot more laundry than the 2 loads per week necessitated by Dave and I.

Did I mention that we saw flamingos along the road through the Camargue?

The sun is out and the terrace beckens. The weather is changing back to beautiful and warm. Tomorrow, in Perpignan, we pick up Ron and Chris, our friends from the south of England. We haven't seen each other for years. Next week promises to be a great opportunity for a long overdue reunion.

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