A melancholy landscape of almost 150,000 hectares of marshland, sand dunes, seemingly endless pastures and salt flats where the flora and fauna are held at a careful distance from the progress of the modern world: in the Camargue, time is held still, and it's possible to step back into an ancient Europe that barely exists elsewhere.
Perhaps best known for the fine white Camarguais horses, ridden by the gardians who watch over the livestock, this is an ancient region, with a history that stretches far back through the centuries, and the community remains faithful to the old traditions. There is far more to it than this stereotypical image, though, and the huge Regional Park – one of the wildest areas in Europe – boasts a unique landscape with abundant narcissus and tamarisk. There are over 4,000 species of birds and a wide range of insects, as well as the horses, flamingos and black bulls that roam the boundless wilderness.
Near to l'Etang de Gines is a perfect vantage point to admire birds of prey, herons, owls and perhaps glimpse the vivid flash of a kingfisher... The wide pastures are home to sheep and cows, and life proceeds at a more gentle pace than the busy traveller is used to. The horizon is broken in places by the towering presence of white mountains of salt, and at sunset and sunrise the sublime scenery becomes a true feast for the eyes.
Among such natural beauty, small rural villages provide a peaceful respite, which impresses with the friendly welcome of the local people and the richness of their traditions. The capital of the Camargue, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is a good place to stay and explore the region: the fortified Romanesque church has been a place of pilgrimage for the Roma people since time immemorial, and each May holds a celebration to commemorate the arrival by boat of Mary Magdalene, as tradition tells.
The cobbled streets and the quiet beaches are two excellent reasons to stop here, but the town also offers great dining, and who can resist a typical 'cowboy' shirt as a souvenir? The Baroncelli Museum is a perfect place to discover the folklore of the region and to learn more of the close relationship between the townsfolk and the Roma, and some will want to take the opportunity to attend a Provençal bullfight. The Digue a la Mer – the sea dyke – built in the mid nineteenth century, has helped protect the delta from erosion, and following its course is the best way to enjoy the scenery of the nature reserve of Vaccares Etang including the unmistakable pink flamingos.
The nearest airport is Marignane Airport, Marseille, which is 90 kilometres from the Camargue.
The best way to explore the area and discover the delightful medieval villages of the Rhone delta at your own pace is to hire a car at the airport.
Where to stay:
La Bastide de Moustiers, is an exquisite boutique hotel in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, with just twelve elegant rooms, a garden with swimming pool and a delightful patio shaded by pines and fruit trees. In Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Les Amphores, is a charming little coastal hotel, with a terrace overlooking the sea and a private beach, which offers a range of activities for getting to know the area.
Where to eat:
In Nîmes Garons, the Alexwww.michelkayser.comandre is considered the best in the region, as it very popular. The sophisticated atmosphere cis perfectly complemented by the magnificence views of the grounds and the fine Mediterranean-based cuisine. At Les Baux de Provence the Oustau de Baumaniere, the restaurant of the Relais & Chateaux hotel of the same name, is set among olive trees and the rocky outcrops of Les Alpilles mountains. The menu includes such original variations on the rich Mediterranean cuisine as egg in aromatic black truffle sauce, and red mullet with thyme flowers.
The most romantic way to see the natural beauty of these marvellous wetlands is surely on horseback and most hotels of any size will offer guided trails with the fine white horses the region is famous for. For more details see: www.chevaux-listel.camargue.fr