When thinking of the Camargue region, the first picture that comes to mind is a breathtaking and unique landscape, black bulls, white horses, pink flamingoes, tasty seafood… all to be enjoyed under the sun of Southern France.
My name is Miriam Pieck and I am Vice Head of Contracting at SR Travel GmbH & Co. KG. Since my first day at SR Travel in April 2014, I am, among other things, responsible for the buying of various hotel and additional services in France. After initial scepticism regarding France as a destination – I previously focused on Spain or Portugal – I was kind of pushed right into it, getting to know it better and, in particular, learning to love the country by doing some research and business trips to France. An extraordinary place for me is a small piece of land in the very south – the Camargue region. I am happy to share with you what makes this region so special and why I always have the most wonderful memories when thinking about my stay there.
Most of us would relate a stay in the South of France to a holiday under palm trees on the sea. Combined with visits to magnificent cities like Saint Tropez or Nizza on the Côte d‘Azur. Some may perhaps also be thinking of the Provence region. Which is a fantastic countryside, impressing with a radiant purple colour during the lavender blossom, historic towns and buildings such as Avignon or the Pont du Gard.
The largest river delta of Western Europe is situated in the Camargue, which is part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d‘Azur region (abbreviated PACA). To protect its unique flora and fauna, the Camargue region was officially declared a regional nature park in 1970. Its total size comprises more than 930 square kilometres and is slightly larger than Germany’s capital Berlin.
The Camargue region is a unique example of how adaptable nature is. The river Rhône surrounds the Camargue region and is responsible for shaping this impressive landscape due to numerous floods and sediments. High salt levels in the extensive marshlands only allow for highly specialised salt and water resistant plants to grow. At first glance, the Camargue region appears to be almost barren. The landscape is as smooth as glass and virtually flat. When taking a closer look, there is so much to discover. One quickly grasps the uniqueness of the landscape, and suddenly it doesn’t appear to be so barren after all….
Over the years, a particularly impressive variety of animal species have made the Camargue region their habitat. From the imposing bulls to the typical white, seemingly wild Camargue horses to flocks of pink flamingoes. You will probably be able to observe all this even from the main road when indulging in a panoramic view.
Those who love good food and culinary delights will enjoy the region’s weekly food market, the typical Fleur de Sel, herbs and plenty of seafood. If you prefer total relaxation you will enjoy discovering the Plage de l‘Espiguette, Europe’s longest beach with a total lengths of 18 kilometres. You’ll discover that the Camargue regions offers something for every taste – which doesn’t make the travel preparation any easier… To help you with your travel plans and to spend a perfect day in the Camargue region, in the following I will present some of my highlights in more detail.
The best time to travel to the Camargue region is May, June or from September onwards. In this way, you will escape the main tourist streams. You will be more likely to encounter better weather than in Germany and besides, you will escape myriads of mosquitoes.
As we probably all know, searching for suitable accommodation begins prior to a trip. Speaking of the perfect day in the Camargue region, we will most certainly look for the perfect accommodation. Is that available in the Camargue region at all?! If you ask me: YES!
When looking for a typical 3- or 4-star hotel, you should focus on Arles as a starting point for your discovery into the heart of the Camargue region. My recommendation for every Camargue traveller would be either a holiday home, a holiday apartment or a typical local hotel as, for example, the Hotel L‘Oustau Camarguen in Le Grau du Roi. While boasting the standards of a 3-star hotel, it does not have the typical hotel feel to it. You will stay overnight in an old farm house, or, more precise, in former horse stables which have been converted into hotel rooms.
My personal highlight is an overnight stay at the Resort L‘Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes. This place is best described as a 4-star standard hotel combined with tradition. However, here you will not stay in the typcial room of a 4-star hotel. Instead, you will sleep in so-called “Cabanas”, typical small Camargue-style houses. The double room is therefore not a typical “room”, but a small house. When walking from the main hotel building, where the reception is located, to your Cabana you will cross little bridges. And you will pass meadows with grazing Camargue horses and ponies, greeting you with a friendly neigh. When arriving at your little house you will notice the special building style. It does not have a square shape but boasts only two corners in the front and at the back. In this way, the houses are protected against the mistral, a strong northerly wind. The thatched roof has the added benefit of a pleasant indoor clime. In addition, the little houses offer rather luxurious furnishing. To me, it’s comfort and authenticity, perfectly combined.
Relax on the pool or in the spa and enjoy traditional culinary delights at the restaurant. Personally, I would recommend a dish with fresh fish – absolutely delicious! This is the perfect accommodation not just for one night, but for a weekend or even a full week.
Way up in the north of the Camargue is the historic town of Arles with its strong Roman influence. It is not by mistake that Arles has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1981. In the town centre you can’t miss one particular place of interest: Les Arènes, the monumental amphitheatre.
My tip for your trip to Arles: For a small contribution you can rent an MP3 audio guide at the Arles tourist information. Or you download the audio files in French or English free of charge to your own telephone. Now you’re fully equipped to set out on an exciting discovery tour through Arles.
At the southern tip of the Camargue lies the “capitale camarguaise” – Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. This pretty fishing village will give you the best impression of the country and its people. From the roof of the pilgrimage church Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer you will enjoy a magnificent panoramic view over the picturesque buildings and the sea. Talking about pilgrimage: You probably knew that the little town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a significant pilgrimage place, didn’t you`? Dating back to 1448, twice a year there is a pilgrimage to this church of Notre-Dame.
My tip for your trip to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer: From Monday to Friday, every morning there is a farmer’s market on the Place des Gitans. Here, you will find a large variety of culinary delights such as Camargue rice, Herbs de Provence or Fleur de Sel. Well, are you already tasting the Camargue?!
As I mentioned before, the black bulls – seemingly living in the wild – are typical of the Camargue countryside. As well as the horses, which I will refert to later, they always belong to the owners of a manade, a bull farm. And they just seem to be living in the wild because they are not restricted to a fenced meadow but roam in the extensive Camargue countryside.
The tradition of bull breeding dates back to the Middle Ages. Unlike in Germany, the bulls here are not predominantly bred for ending up on a plate.
Quite the opposite: Bulls are a good source of income because of bull fights – provided that they are successful. Did I just mention bull fighting? Careful! A bull fight in the Camargue, the so-called “course libre”, is nowhere near the same as the bullfights you might know from Spain or Portugal, which as a rule are fairly bloody and end with the death of the bull. It’s quite different in the Camargue region where no blood flows at a course libre and, fortunately, a spear is nowhere to be seen. Don’t believe me? I’m happy to briefly explain the difference: During a course libre, the “razeteures” (bull fighters in traditional white costumes) try to snatch ribbons or bows (cockades) from the bulls, which are attached to their horns. A “good” bull may become a real star, with a career lasting up to 10 years.
All this is hard to believe or to understand unless one has personally visited one of the many bull farms, getting a better feel there and then for customs and epic stories. It was hard for me, too, and therefore I believe that a visit to a bull farm is an absolute must.
My tip if you wish to see a “true” manade in the Camargue region: Visit the „Manade Gilbert Arnaud“. Gilbert Arnaud spent most of his childhood and youth on horseback at rodeos or bull fights. Today, he made his dream come true as a “manadier”, a bull breeder. He is married to Stephanie, a Cologne-born girl, who met Gilbert many years ago and fell in love with him, and also loves the life with the bulls. They have a daughter named Carla.
When entering the farm and meeting the Arnaud family you’ll immediately notice their warmth and authenticity. From my experience, there’s nothing embellished for the tourists. Instead, one experiences and learns a great deal about everyday life of a bull breeding family, and it’s first-hand at that.
Want to see a real-life Provencal bull fight? Then the amphitheatre in Arles, which I mentioned earlier, is the place to go to.
Not all the natural beauties of the Camargue can be discovered by car. So what’s another way of getting to these remote places? It’s simple: By riding on horseback or by approaching it from the sea.
In my opinion, a ride with one of the typical Camargue horses is an absolute must when travelling to that region. You do not have to be an expert rider. The less advanced can enjoy the impressive nature sights from horseback at a walking pace. Surely you will want to know what might be so special about a riding trip in the Camargue region. And what might be so special about the horses. After all, riding on the beach is not exclusive to this country. That’s right, but other countries do not have Camargue horses.
The probably best-known inhabitants of the Camargue are traditionally white and are part of a wild breed of domestic horses. When driving through the Camargue by car, you will see plenty of these horses seemingly living in the wild. Don’t be mistaken: these horses just do not live in penned meadows but enjoy a “wild” life in nature. Usually, they always belong to a manade owner. The horses are not only for tourists to ride, but are also workhorses of the “Gardians”, the southern French cattle herdsman.
Experienced riders may enjoy cantering through the extensive marshland; less experienced riders will enjoy a comfortable walking pace. One thing is sure: You will certainly draw other tourists’ attention. Because they will either walk or cycle and not be able to venture as far into the marshland as you can. Get the true cowboy feeling – or rather, talking about the Camargue, feel like a true “gardian”.
My tip if you want to take a ride through the Camargue region: When staying overnight at the Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes, simply book your ride at the local riding centre. Whether beginner or advanced rider – great care is taken so that nobody gets either bored or frightened.
Those who would rather not plunge into a riding adventure can enjoy the scenery during a boat trip on the old paddle steamer Tiki III. From March until October, the steamer operates between Le Grau d‘Orgon on the Petit Rhône river and the ferry Bac du sauvage. During the circa 1.5-hour trip you will get to see many places which cannot be reached overland. Keep your eyes and ears open. With a bit of luck, you will see some cattle herdsman mounted on white Camargue horses and driving black Camargue bulls to the water.
Regardless of your choice of sightseeing, you will definitely get to see this very special Camargue inhabitant in the wild: the pink flamingo. The Camargue is one of the few regions with permanent breeding grounds for pink flamingoes. It’s very likely that you will see the birds close to the lagoons and brackish lakes. Here, they find little brine shrimps, which are the pink flamingoes’ main food source. Have you ever asked yourself where the beautiful colour of the feathers comes from? Exactly from the colour pigments of the little brine shrimps.
For those who after a horseback ride or boat trip still haven’t seen enough flamingoes, a visit to the bird park Parc Ornithologique will be worthwhile.
I can definitely recommend a visit to the before-mentioned farmer’s market in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. For the “true Camargue taste”, take some Herbs de Provence and original Fleur de Sel back home.
Apropos Fleur de Sel: Of course the Fleur de Sel from the Camargue region can be taken home for cooking, but you can also examine it more thoroughly at one of the local saltworks. The Camargue’s largest salt work is situated in Salin-de-Giraud east of the Grand Rhône close to the place of the same name where, among others, the Fleur de Sel is extracted.
Because of its special flavour Fleur de Sel is extremely popular with gourmet chefs. At Salin-de-Giraud there is a small lookout point on one of the salt hills. Have a look around the huge area of surrounding salt works and enjoy the fascinating colour play originating from the salt basins, with are flooded by sea water, with their white salt rim. Still haven’t had enough of this spectacular view? Then I recommend a trip to Aigues-Mortes and a ride on the Petit Train through the Salins d‘Aigues Mortes. The slow, 1.5-hour train trip will take you right through the salt fields.
Here’s my special tip while you’re in Aigues-Mortes: A crème brulée with fig syrup or the typical sweet yeast cake Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes will tickle your gums.
The perfect day for me is exactly as I had experienced it about a year ago. It’s a perfect combination of adventure and culinary delights. Being an experienced rider, the day begins with a canter through the extensive marshlands. To be followed by a visit to a bull farm (here in particular I learnt many new things especially regarding bull breeding and the tradition of bull fighting). After, I would stroll through Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The day will be rounded off with a classic fish dinner and an overnight stay at L‘Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes.
As you may have noticed, this does not yet cover all that the Camargue region has to offer. But there is nothing wrong with another day full of events, isn’t there?
What does your perfect day in the Camargue region look like? Or have you already experienced one like this