Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Camargue

For our last day of touring in this part of France, we actually headed over to Provence to the Camargue. This area is the delta of the Rhone River and is rich in salt marshes and lagoons that support a variety of agricultural endeavors. Much of the area has been desalinated and protected by dikes and now grows rice, grains and even some wine grapes.

Horses bred from the wild white stock of the delta are omnipresent and horseback riding is a big tourist industry in the Camargue.

While we saw some sheep, the primary livestock is bulls. As in other Provençal and Languedoc areas, bullfighting is a popular sport.

Any town with an arena (including Béziers) have a "feria" sometime during the year where multiple days of bullfighting are enjoyed by all. (Or most?) In France, there is a style of bullfighting where the bull isn't killed and the goal is for the matador (he has another name for this sport) to pluck a flower from the forehead of the bull and survive.

One other industry is salt recovery through evaporation of sea water. We stop at an outlook that allows us to see the shallow evaporation pools and piles of reclaimed salt.

evaporation ponds

Now that's a pile of salt

As this is on the Mediterranean, of course beaches are important and we found two types. One was out a road to nowhere with no improvements and crowded with Sunday (and Mother's Day) family outings.

The other was the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, again crowded with families on the beach and wandering the town. This town is a true tourist beach resort. While the town's history goes back centuries (more later), as a beach town, it must have developed in the era of automobiles. The beach houses line up one attached to the other, generally 2 floors, with a terrace and often a garage on the ground floor and a balcony and living areas on the second floor. Their plaster, painted white, with bright shutters (often the blue of the sea), and red tiled roofs, these houses are the vacation homes and rentals for French families. This town was by far the most crowded tourist place we've seen since coming and reminds us that summer is nearly here.

Luckily, this town was our last stop (at 5 PM) of the day and the rest of the day was empty of tourists and cars.

The Camargue has a huge amount of acreage set aside as wildlife refuge with bird life being especially abundant. We do see some, but think that to really appreciate the wildlife here, you probably have to spend time and get into the hikes and walking paths available at some of the sanctuaries. For the most part, the sides of the road are too grown up to see the marshes and spot birds.

But in a few spots, we are rewarded. Dave hikes a short path in la Palissade where we eat lunch along the Rhone River in a shady grove complete with picnic tables and hiking paths into the unspoiled (by dikes and desalination) area that is part of a nature conservancy. There, and along the few spots where we are able to see the marshes, we find flamingos, and we think storks and some other birds. (Katie, can you identify these for us? We know one is a duck, but what kind? Are the nesting in trees birds really storks? The flamingos we got. But what's the small black and white bird nesting in the marsh grasses?)

flamingo - that we know

don't know this bird. Katie, do you know?

Katie's response: Black-winged stilt;

some sort of duck?

Katie's response: a coot (member of the rail family, not a duck)She said we were lucky to get this picture.

storks - nesting with babies

Katie, what's this behavior of the nesting stork?

Katie's response: white stork; parent is regurgitating food to feed the chicks.

We're glad that Saintes Maries de la Mer is the last visit of the day and are quite shocked at moving from the "wilderness" into a densely populated area (at least for tourist season). The story of this town is as incongruous as its appearance (Although as a beach resort, if I didn't mind lots of people, I think I'd choose this town - no high rises, lots of restaurants and cafés, easy to walk streets, a boardwalk and a beach that has sand and big rocks in several small coves.)

According to Provençal legend, the history of the town unfolds thusly: (I'm quoting the Michelin guide as I'm not sure I could get it straight otherwise.) "the boat abandoned to the waves in c 40 by the Jews of Jerusalem, which, without the aide of sail or oar, landed safely on the shore of Les Stes-Maries, carried Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Martha and her brother Lazarus, St Maximinus, Mary Salome, the mother of James Major and John, and Cedonius, the man born blind.

Sara, the two Marys'black servant left behind on the shore, wept aloud until Mary Salome threw her mantle on the water so that Sarah could walk over it to join the others. The legend continues that after erecting a simple oratory to the Virgin on the shore, the disciples separated; Martha went to Tarascon, Mary Magdalene to Ste-Baume. The two Marys and Sara remained in Camargue and were buried in the oratory."

I'm thinking that there could be germs of a novel here - I think I'd call it the Da Vinci Code or something like that.

With a stop for ice cream looking over the beach,

followed by shopping (Lynn)

and a visit to the pilgrimage church for Sara and the two Marys (Dave),

we head home. It's now 6 PM and we are in a traffic jam as we head home via Aigues-Mortes to get to the autoroute. The 25 km are heavy with people returning home from their day or weekend, at some points bumper to bumper and dead-slow-and-stop. It takes us an hour to cover 25 km and we're wondering what this must be like in the summer, since it's not officially yet the tourist season. Once on the A9 in Montpelier, we make the final 90 km home in 45 minutes and make it home just before 8.

Dinner is left over veal blanquette making life easy. We're almost done with the bidon and have only a couple of bottles of wine left, so it looks like we've planned just right on that account. Soon we will have to go back to our normal ways - more beer, less wine. All the lovely wine will simply be memories of a great wine-producing area of France. We'll have to look more carefully for Languedoc wines in the States, but our experience has been that they aren't very available... Time will tell.

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