Friday, August 12, 2011

STAMP #3: Le Camargue, France

Until the 1890s, the Camargue was an isolated area of southern France, inhabited by its wildlife and a few hardy ranchers. Then two rail lines connected the east and west of it with Arles to the north. Trade was the purpose, of course, but the train brought more settlers and visitors to the marshes and the little town of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Now a reserve, there is much to see - the horses, bulls, and birds. How to best do this? Especially when you don't know the region and some of the back roads are not good for rental cars.

Tourists have two choices and they are reasonable at 35-40 euros per person for two hours -- Promenade a Cheval (horse treks) or a jeep safari. There are stables all along the main road into Stes-Maries and the jeep safari office is downtown. Both travel the same lanes and trails, so your choice depends on how agile you are and if you are afraid of horses.

The white horses are stocky and tough, also gentle with velvety grey noses. Very well trained by the stables. Riders get a lesson about how to steer a horse on the trails before setting out. The wildlife does not react overly to the horses and it is a quiet way to see the area. CONs: no commentary as the leader is in front of a line of single file riders; sunburn and mosquitoes; don't have time to cover a lot of ground at a walking pace; photography is more challenging.

The jeep safari is much like an African safari - the vehicles are high and have no roofs, so the passengers can stand up to take photos. The wildlife is not disturbed by the jeeps but the bulls turn their backs to them. PROs: excellent commentary (might be only in French if you're unlucky) that can be heard by everyone; photography is easy as the jeep stops if you ask; get to see more of the different parts of the Camargue.

Hedge your bets and do both, if you can - it's well worth it. When I did them the wind was whipping across the salt marshes and pools, and the sun was very, very bright. On horseback, we took tiny lanes through the northern, less watery areas, and drove in the jeep on the flat, hard pan areas in the south around the edge of the main Etang de Vasccares. The strong wind limited our sightings of birds especially the waders. And gales knock over the top-heavy flamingos! But we did see lots of them. This species winters in north Africa and migrates to the Camargue for spring and summer breeding. The chicks are hideous - ugly ducklings. Half a million birds make the flight twice a year, so as long as you visit in the late spring and summer, you will see them.

The white horses are everywhere too, mostly domesticated these days. We saw a few wild horses, one with an egret on his back. Born brown, the foals turn white in 3-4 years. My highlight was watching a spontaneous bull round-up on a saltpan. Les guardiens, cowboys, on their white horses soon had the bulls away from the riders who were approaching. The bulls are big (400kgs) and shiny black; their long and sharp horns look menacing even from a distance. The bulls eyed us with suspicion ....

  • Take binoculars, sunscreen, and bug juice.
  • Les guardiens' traditional cottages (cabanes) - round at the north end because of the Mistral, thatched with reeds from the marshes, climbing pole outside to observe their herds of bulls and horses.
  • The Musee de Camargue is worth a visit as you leave the reserve on the D570. 
  • A must for next visit is the Domaine Paul Ricard at Mejanes - a working ranch on etang.
  • Lunch in Albaron at La Flamande Rosee on way home. 
  • Hour and a quarter back to Aix on the autoroute was half the time we took on outward journey on the minor roads, but not so pretty and no ferry ride.

IMAGES: (c) Julie H. Ferguson 2011

STAMP #1: Le Camargue
STAMP #2: Le Camargue

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