The Camargue: Where Land & Sea Merge
Broad, flat and sunburnt, the Camargue is an almost surreal web of shallow, lakes (étangs), meandering rivers, canals, marshes and dunes. Part-desert, part-irrigated plain, part-grassland, part-nature reserve, it is an area of France truly unlike any other.
A rough triangle, bounded on the north by Arles, the west by Aigues Mortes and the east by the desert-like Crau and the industrial suburbs of Marseille, the Camargue has an elemental, almost primitive ambiance.
And, despite the lively resort towns of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer and Aigues Mortes, it is a virtually empty area, dotted with traditional stucco and thatch cottages (called cabanes). Fewer than 7,500 people occupy its 330 square miles – much of it protected wetlands. A map of the region resembles nothing so much as a piece of lace, the land area a mere web.
Several different layers of environmental protection cover the region, considered to be Europe’s most important wetland. Any visit to the Camargue is, by its very nature, eco-tourism. Almost all of it, including its towns and hamlets, is protected or managed habitat. At the heart, the Réserve Nationale, created in 1927, covers 32,412 acres – about 50 square miles – around the shallow, salt lake, the Étang du Vaccarès. The area has been designated a UNESCO “Biosphere Reserve,” one of only 300 in the world.
For birdwatchers, this is genuinely paradise. There are more than 350 resident and migratory species. The Camargue is the only place outside of Africa where you can see pink flamingos nesting in their tens of thousands. The habitat also supports about 1,000 species of flowering plants. Most tourists in this small corner of France are French themselves. That’s because even they find the ancient traditions, pastimes and occupations exotic and fascinating.
A salty atmosphere and shifting wetlands make agriculture challenging. There is some farming – rice, fruit trees and, remarkably, vineyards – but for many inhabitants life revolves around the semi-wild, cream- and dust-colored Camargue horse and the small, clever native bulls. The animals forage and breed in the wild, grazing on the glasswort-covered sansouires, dried and cracked salt plains.
Elsewhere on the sansouires, the Camargue supports a major salt harvesting industry and has done so since the Roman era. More than 34,000 acres, on both the eastern and western edges of the Camargue, are devoted to salt production. Mountains of drying salt can be seen for miles. In May, the area hosts one of Europe’s most colorful festivals, when more than 8,000 gypsies from all over Europe converge on Les Saintes Maries de la Mer to celebrate their patron saint, Sarah.
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