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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

mars 2004

The Camargue
Le Camargue

The Camargue, the wide delta of the Rhone (divided between le petit et le grand Rhones), is a unique place to visit in the south of France. This beautiful marshland is a mesh of lonely roads, fresh and salt water ponds, salt flats, tall reeds, black camarguais bulls, white camarguais ponies, pink flamingos, and an astounding bounty of migrating waterbirds. At the end of the hardly-traveled roads are towns that seem otherworldly, isolated by the marsh flats on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other. Cowboys (gardiens), gypsies (gitans), fishermen (pêcheurs) mingle with the many caravaners seeking the warmth of the sun and the deep blue sea. It’s a different France…wild, odd, isolated, beautiful.
     Officially established as a national park/preserve in 1972, the Parc Regional de Camargue covers 82,000 hectares that are some of the wildest and most protected in all of Europe. A roadside museum provides background on flora, fauna, and the history of the area, but there's no substitute for getting out on the dikes and dirt roads to truly experience this precious ecosystem in its grandeur.


White horses,
black bulls,

pink flamingos


Marsh reeds are gathered, stacked,
then used to roof and fence.


A pinkish gypsy caravan, a reed-roofed cabane,
with Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer across the lagoon.

 


 

A beautiful spring or fall day is the best time to visit the Camargue – fewer mosquitoes, fewer tourists, less heat to deal with. Driving south from Arles toward Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the landscape quickly becomes flatter, more desolate. White ponies graze amidst the long-horned black bulls…some destined for the bull ring, and ultimately the dinner table, as camarguais beef is a specialty of the region. The marshes and canals are planted with reeds, les rosiers, aka la sagne, used to roof and fence in this region. Take one of the side roads (there aren’t many) and head deeper into the delta. Birds swoop and swirl everywhere, ducks, geese, seagulls, terns, egrets, herons, even eagles. And les flamants roses, pink flamingos, poise one-legged in the many ponds scattered throughout the area. To bicycle the Camargue would be a joy because you could hear the wing noises, the cries and songs of wildlife, and the rustle of marsh grasses as you pedaled the quiet, flat roads. There’s so much to say about this beautiful region, but we have to leave it at this for the time being.

 


Mary, Mary, Mary
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
A trip to the Camargue without a visit to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is unthinkable. This odd town stands peacefully at the mouth of the delta, overlooking the Mediterranean. More moorish than French, more mediterranean than continental, dreamy, magical. And then there’s the story behind the name. According to legend (and the Cadogan Guide to the South of France), just after Christ was crucified, three Marys (Mary Salome, mother of apostles James and John; Mary Jacobe, sister of the Virgin mother; and Mary Magdalene) were put in a boat with Martha (MM’s sister), Lazarus (of “rise, Lazarus, rise” fame and also MM and Martha’s brother), Saint Maximixin and Saint Sidonius. As they were leaving the Holy Land, Sarah (the black Egyptian servant of Mary 1 and Mary 2) wept to see them go, so Mary Salome threw out her cloak so that Sarah was able to walk across the water on it to join them in this Boat of Bethany, which was by the way without sails and oars. They boated across the sea, landed on the coast of the Camargue, and built an oratory there. Some of these legends' relics are reputed to be in the area to this day.


 



Pilgrimage to the sea to honor Saint Sara...
or Sarah-la-Kali as she is called by the Romany.

 

 

      That landing spot marks the lively community of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, nestled at the edge of the sea and the delta, with its imposing church standing guard over the town. A grand celebration and pilgrimage honors these Marys and this legend every year on May 24th and 25th, the feast of Mary-Jacobe. Hundreds of thousands of gypsies come to town to pay homage to Sarah-la-Kali (Black Sarah), the patron saint of the gypsies. The relics of one of the saints are paraded through town and then brought down to the sea to be blessed before being returned to their home in the church. Not sure if I'd want to fight the crowds on that particular weekend, but the church is worth a visit for several reasons, not least of which is the statue of Saint Sarah in the basement crypt…talk about eerie!
     This town is a trip, and worth stopping – the sea is beautiful, the streets are sun-drenched, the people are interesting…and its story is just a bit bizarre.

The church interior is spooky, dark, with vaulted ceilings
and steps down into the crypt of Saint Sarah.

 

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