We dare you to take a trip to the Camargue without humming Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’ under your breath the entire time. Like the song itself, the landscape is pure magic.
Wild white horses? Check. Majestic black bulls? Check. Frolicking candy-coloured flamingos? Check, check, check. And we haven’t even mentioned the astounding sunsets, the salt flats which stretch for miles and the rich cultural heritage yet. This little-known region of Southern France is an absolute gold mine of beautiful scenery and enchanting wildlife.
Here’s why you need to put the Camargue on your travel itinerary this year.
The Regional Park of Camargue takes up most of the land within the region and is absolutely teeming with wildlife. The white horses and flamboyant flamingos are without a doubt the poster children of the area. But bird enthusiasts from all over the world travel here to see an array of unique species in their natural habitat. You certainly don’t have to be a keen bird lover to appreciate their beauty.
The best place to see birds in Camargue is at the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau. This wildlife park attracts a huge variety of birds, including flocks of flamingos in the hundreds. Heron and passerines can be seen all year round while egrets, terns and avocets can be found in the spring and summer. The best time to see flamingos is in the winter when they’re busily showing off to find a mate.
An ideal way to get around the national park is on horseback. Guided tours are offered for people with absolutely no riding experience and will lead you into secluded landscapes totally untouched by manmade infrastructure. You don’t have to worry about being an amateur, either, as Camargue horses are a confident breed. Though they used to run wild in the region, their numbers are now carefully managed and protected. Most Camargue horses are used by the guardians of the Camargue (or Camargue Cowboys) to manage herds of black bulls. You can find guided tours on horseback departing from various stables around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue.
A surprising number of mammals are supported by the Camargue’s sometimes sparse landscape. If you venture out during dawn or dusk you may catch glimpses of foxes, beavers, coypus, polecats, shrew and wood mice. There are several wildlife tours throughout the area which will help you spot some of these more elusive critters.
The Camargue region is mostly known for its rice and salt production. You wouldn’t think salt marshes could be particularly appealing to the eye, but their pink and purple hues are incredibly captivating. Some of the marshes stretch for miles, and you can take a tour of one of these establishments to learn about the history of the industry in the region. Or you may prefer to spend the time capturing stunning photographs of the unique scenery.
Red rice is also a popular commodity of Camargue. The region produces a massive amount of rice every year, with the paddy fields covering approximately 15,000 hectares of land. A bag of organic red rice is certainly a popular souvenir for travellers. It’s delicious with Thai curries and contains plenty of antioxidants so you don’t need to feel guilty about indulging.
One of the Camargue’s most coveted features is its secluded beaches. You’ll often need a 4WD to reach them, which makes their discovery even more worthwhile. Imagine kilometres of uninterrupted white coastline sweeping as far as the eye can see. You may not have the entire place to yourself, but it’s a far cry from the heaving beaches of Italy’s Cinque Terre. The plage de Piémanson and plage de Beauduc are two of the most remote beaches in France. Both are located within the boundaries of the Regional Park of Camargue and you won’t find neat rows of sun-bathing chairs or a limitless supply of ice-cream vendors here. Just blue waves, a few kite-surfers and stunning scenery.
The Camargue region is steeped in fascinating folklore and cultural traditions. Its capital, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is the hub of all historical celebration. A variety of colourful festivals take place all year round and can attract people from all over Europe.
Meet the Guardians of the Camargue: real French cowboys. They herd the iconic black bulls of the region and come from a long line of guardians, also sometimes known as Manadiers.
Every year in November the Festival of Abrivado takes place along the beaches of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. More than 200 guardians from all over Provence attend the event, stampeding along the dazzling sand on their white horses. The bulls are herded in front of them and the guardians must use their skills to keep them together. This is just one of the many customs of the people of the Camargue region. As you can probably guess, most are centred around their love for bulls and horses.
The Maintenance Festival takes place in many provincial villages annually. The name doesn’t sound particularly enthralling, but it comes from the wish to preserve regional cultural traditions, such as dress and language. Guardians and Arlesian women parade around town in historical costume and it’s a pretty impressive sight. The Guardians don their moleskin trousers and black velvet jackets, while the Arlesian ladies are bedecked in colourful skirts with modest kerchiefs. If you wander around the streets of one of these villages during the festival, it’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a period drama.
Gypsies from all over Europe including Roms, Manouches and Tziganes gather in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer each May to honour their patron saint, Sara the Black. It’s believed Sara was the first to welcome the women exiled from the Holy Land on the shores of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Sara is also known as The Black Madonna and is widely celebrated and revered among the Gypsy community. Processions, masses and raucous parties overtake Camargue’s capital as hundreds of Gypsies flock the streets and camp out on the beaches during the religious festival.
Arles, a city to the north of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is well known for its influence on the renowned impressionist painter Van Gogh. Here you have the opportunity to walk in his footsteps and even sit in the café which inspired Café Terrace at Night. The Van Gogh trail in Arles leads you to scenes depicted through his genius brushstrokes in works such as Hospital in Arles and Starry Night Over the Rhone.