Wednesday 26 December 2018

The Camargue in France at Christmas-time, by Carol Drinkwater

France has a coastline of approximately 7330 kilometres. Much of it is magnificent and many of those kilometres are uninhabited, wild even. I am a sea baby. The old adage that being by the sea does you good, clears your lungs and regenerates your system is, in my opinion, true and the French have elevated the practice of ‘taking the waters’ to levels of excellence. They call it ‘thalassotherapy’. Thalassa from the Greek. Thalassa was the primeval spirit of the sea.

                                           5th century Roman mosaic of the goddess Thalassa.

Sea water therapy. Gallons of salty water, marine products and a coastal climate are the ingredients for the ‘cures’. Dotted along the French Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines are establishments offering such cures. Here, they will cover you in seaweed and leave your body to soak up the minerals and recharge. Three days is minimum, five begins the beneficial effects, while seven to ten days will boost your constitution for the year ahead.

We have just returned from a short pre-Christmas trip to the Camargue, which is a three-hour drive from our Olive Farm, direction west towards Barcelona. The Camargue is western Europe’s largest river delta (the Rhône and petit Rhône rivers) and is packed with a diverse choice of unique flora and fauna. It is my secret place. It is where I go to relax, walk and try to get a little fitter. I rarely if ever visit during the summer months because the area is packed with tourists and plagued by mosquitos. This time of year is perfect for me and this time my husband came with me. 

                                        Vincent Van Gogh, View of Saintes-Maries de la Mer. 1888.

We began our daily explorations with the Camarguais capital, the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which I know well. This is east Camargue, where the small town is surrounded by magnificent beaches abutting hectares of national parkland where wild white horses, black bulls and Europe’s finest and most varied display of wild birds feed and wade while paying the onlooker not the slightly bit of notice. I was rather taken aback on this visit to find that the municipality has paved its entire small town with concrete. Brutalist road planning gone mad. Everywhere was closed except for the medieval church, which was our point of interest.
First, a little about the town's history and why a population of less than 3,000 can swell to half a million during the summer months and during the two Roma pilgrimage festivals, which take place in May (24th, 25th) and October.
Aerial view of the church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It can be seen in any direction from a  distance of ten kilometres.

This tiny fishing village was known to the Romans as Ra, as noted by the Roman geographer, Rufus Festus Avienus.  In Celtic times, it was already a holy place, a sacred site, known as Oppidum Priscum Ra.

After the crucifixion of Christ when all Christians in the Middle East were threatened with death by the Romans unless they renounced their allegiance to Christ many fled the territory. Legend has it that in 45 AD a small boat transporting four women and possibly two men man was washed up, after a perilous journey, on the Camarguais coast not far from Ra. The local fishermen and their families welcomed and assisted the strangers. Three of the rescued women bore the same name: Mary. Mary Salome, Mary Jacob and Mary Magdalene. The fourth woman, who may or may not have been aboard the boat - there are several differing stories about the identity of this woman - was a dark-skinned servant either from Egypt or Ethiopia. She was called Sara. The men are identified as Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea.
The women began to preach the word of Christ. Christianity had arrived in France. The faith spread fast and the women were revered.
In the 6th century a bishop from Arles built a church-monastery on the plot where the present Romansque church stands.
The town including the site where the adrift boat had landed was renamed Nôtre-Dame-de-Ratis. (Our  Lady of the Boat). It was later changed to Nôtre-Dame-de-la-Mer and finally, in 1838, to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Saint Sara, also known as Sara-la-Kali, or Sarah the Black, is the patron saint of the Roma people, the Gypsies. She is the patron saint of travellers. Her statue of her resides in the crypt of the church. It is always surrounded by lit candles.
Twice a year the small town is the final destination for a Roma pilgrimage. In late May and October. I have been to Saintes-Maries-de-le-Mer once during their pilgrimage festivities when the streets ring out with the clop clop of horse hooves and, in the evenings, with evocative guitar music.
It is an extraordinary spectacle to witness. A reliquary containing the bones of the Marys is borne from the church by men on horseback. These are local gardiens, keepers of the Camarguais horses. They are followed by costumed Gypsies carrying the statue of Sara. The entire procession, along with throngs of tourists and onlookers, makes it way to the sea. There in the water a priest blesses all the saints and the attendants too.
I have also during one of these visits attended a mass celebrated in the church in the local Provençal language.

About ten miles inland of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, off the RD 570, the road to Arles, lies sixty hectares of inspiring bird sanctuary, the Parc Ornithologique de Pond de Gau. (It is a terrific outing for children). It offers two circuits: short or long. We opted for the longer, the seven-kilometre trail through marshes and riverbank pathways. An ambitious choice for a pair who had spent the morning being pummelled with salt-water and caked in heated seaweed paste, but on we went plunging ourselves into the network of islands, marshlands and water. The first three lagoons were teeming with rose-pink flamingoes. The symbol of the Camargue, and the only place in France where they breed. Here, too, owls can be spotted, also otters glsitening in the sun and paddling in the wetlands (we caught sight of two); eagles, harriers, white herons, egrets, storks, waders of every description – the list is impressive. Within the park there is also a clinic, a sanctuary of several cages, where birds damaged in the wilderness, are nursed back to health. These can be observed at close range.

Happy, tired and at peace with the world, we returned slowly to our hotel in the Languedoc quarter of the Camargue, south of Montpelier and Nîmes. Sunset was falling. A vermillion sky with flocks of white herons flying overhead; all reflected in the salt pans and swamplands. A burning landscape.

The following morning we were up and out of bed as the sun rose, spilling a delicate salmon-pink over the water. We set off for the beach, walking inches from the waves where the sand was damper, darker, and we skipped and jumped in the foam. The beach was deserted. Silence save for the mew of gulls, the crunch of washed-up, empty mussel shells beneath our feet and the deep-throated horns from the fishing boats delivering their catch to the shores, followed by a vaporous grey trail of hungry, squawking birds.

We were standing on the rim of the Gulf of Lion, a wide Mediterranean embayment. Seven rivers empty into this generous mass of water. The beaches run from northern Catalonia to Toulon. Much of this coastline is made up of salt marshes and lagoons. Looking out to sea on a calm warm winter’s morning such as this one, it might have been one giant pond spreading as far as the horizon.

Later, we drove to Nîmes, a city that boasts one of the best preserved Roman temples in what was once the ancient Roman world, La Maison Carrée. The city is still trying to gain UNESCO heritage status for this very well-preserved building.

La Maison Carrée,  Nîmes.

Les Arènes de Nîmes, an  amphitheatre and a contemporary of the Colosseum in Rome (built around 70 A.D) is today used for rock concerts and two high-profile annual bullfights. We were the lone spectators contemplating a vast empty stage. It was the first time I had ever wanted to be present at a bullfight, if only to see this immense place pulsating with danger and excitement.

Afterwards, we strolled to the Place du Marché to the Patisserie Courtois – in English, the Courteous Cakeshop - and indulged in a large and very creamy hot chocolate. This was hot chocolate like you rarely find it today. This ‘café historique’, founded in 1850, was also serving miniature home-made panetonnes and I could not resist the temptation. While we sat in this old-fashioned cafe wondering whether such calorific goodies were allowed whilst taking a ‘cure’, we tuned in to the quartet of customers alongside us who were locals reminiscing, sharing their experiences of ‘la guerre’ and those of their parents from the Great War before them. Fascinating to hear their conversation, which included the fact that much of the south was part of the Free Zone of France during World War II.
Their accents were as thick as the hot chocolate.
Our return journey to the hotel found us beneath yet another cinematic, carmine-red sky. Ahead, a vast golden globe was sinking out of sight beyond the bullrush marshes. There were flocks and flocks of birds overhead including the pink and black flamingoes. It had been the best of days.

Constance Tower, Aigues-Mortes

We made several visits to the small walled city of Aigues-Mortes, once upon a time an important port. Within its ramparts are many restaurants and tourist shops. Most were closed during our stay. There is a small population, close to 1,500, who live intra muros, within the walls, but most of these are foreigners who use the houses as second residences. The body of the population live outside the old city. In the past I have walked the ramparts but this time it was not possible. The views from on high are wonderful across the flat saline marshes where the only elevations are the mighty mounds of harvested salt.

                                                                          King Louis

In the city's central square stands an impressive statue of Louis IX who was King of France from 1226  until his death in 1270. He succeeded to the throne when he was twelve years old. He twice led his soldiers to the Crusades. Neither outing was a great success. The first time he was captured and it cost a mighty ransom to secure his release. On the second occasion, soon after landing in Tunis, he was struck with typhoid fever and died.
He was well loved, did a great deal to unify France and was later, in 1297, canonised Saint Louis. His feast day is 25th August.

On our last Camarguais evening, the hotel restaurant served their Sunday special: seafood platter. It would have satisfied a hungry shark. Half a crab, six small langoustines, whelks and various other small shell creatures I did not recognise. It also contained six large Bouzique oysters. An interesting fact told to us by the waiter: their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone, which might explain why they have long been considered an aphrodisiac. The French are Europe’s leaders in l’ostréiculture – oyster cultivation. They also consume with immense gusto over ninety percent of all they produce. Fitting for our thalasso experience, the Bouziques (a Mediterranean variety) were presented on a hillock of seaweed with wedges of lemon and a small dish of shallot vinegar to accompany them. We were served a fine glass of Languedoc red to wash them down. Nectar, after a dry week.

The following morning before crossing the leg of France that unites the country to Spain, we made a stop in the neighbouring fishing village of Le Grau-du-Roi. Its tiny heart remains attractive but the rest is overrun with holiday lets. We found a store close to the canal where we purchased two cases of local, rather underrated and reasonably priced Languedoc red wines, one of Corbières and one of Fitou. Grau is an unusual word. Its root is in the Occitan language and it roughly translates as bayou.

We drove through acres of stark, winter vineyards with distant views to a glimmering sea. Many of these wineries were originally planted up by the Romans, but it has only been within the last quarter of a century that France has recognised the quality of these southern wines. It was a glorious morning.  The winding roads were deserted, save for a couple of tractors. We took our time, moseying along B routes, catching sight of small huddles of Filets Jaunts at roundabouts who waved as we passed by. I was sorry to leave this region with its fascinating Moorish and Cathar history, (which we hadn't had time to investigate), its magnificent coastline, its Roman heritage.


Unknown said...

Love to read your posts on travel and all the history of the regions. As well as food and wine reports. With all the wonderful beach scenery and bird life among the marshes - such a visual treat.

Frank Bird
Saint Petersburg, Florida

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you, Frank. It makes it all the more worthwhile when I know the posts are reaching far and wide and perhaps to those who haven't yet read my books. Happy New Year to you. Carol