24 July 2015
A Day in the Camargue
The flat marsh delta of the Carmague is home to some fascinating animals and birds. The dramatic scenery is beautiful all year round and there are plenty of different ways to explore this unique natural habitat.
The coastal town of Saintes Maries de la Mer is a must-visit with, sandy beaches, restaurants, bull fighting displays showcasing the mighty black bulls of the region and a controversial religious history touched on by the famous writer Dan Brown. The main city of the Carmargue is Arles, a vibrant place infused with a Spanish culture that is reflected in the music, food and dancing.
Here are our recommendations for a day seeing the best of what the Carmargue has to offer:
Start with a Camargue safari
The best way to see this wonderful area is to get out there! Choose a horseback safari, 4 x 4 jeep safari or rent bikes to help you cover the ground.
The main attractions are the flocks of pink flamingos, beautiful white horses and impressive black bulls. The landscape itself is also very interesting with rice fields, salt marshes, salt pans, wide blue skies and coastal features all offering great photo opportunities.
Different options to explore the Camargue
Guided trips are very popular with tour guides on hand to make sure you see the Carmargue ‘big three’ up close.
Open top jeeps give you a great view and small group sizes give you a chance to ask plenty of questions and learn more about the history of the area and the animals that live here. Guided treks and jeep safaris usually take three to four hours and can take place at any time of day.
Renting a bike or taking a horse trek gets you off the beaten tourist track, as there are plenty of paths and trails where vehicles are not allowed. Evening horse trekking is a very special experience seeing the landscape and wildlife against the background of a beautiful sunset. Follow the routes with a guide or independently to see the wild Carmargue for yourself.
Spend the afternoon at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the perfect destination for lunch. This charming seaside town has a good selection of waterfront restaurants – locally produced steak is the speciality dish here but the seafood is also good.
After lunch take some time to browse the shops selling local artisan soap, wines, herbs and salts. There is also a market on Mondays and Fridays where you can stock up on delicious local produce at very reasonable prices.
The beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is great for families with a gentle sea ideal for children to swim and body board.
A tradition of bullfighting
The Carmargue has a history of bull fighting that still survives today. Nowadays the bull is not hurt in these displays and is treated as a hero showing off its strength, speed and agility responding to the brave bullfighters’ challenge. It’s an exhilarating experience to see these immense animals charging in a dangerous dance with the talented matadors.
The bullfighting season runs from Spring to Autumn so check with the tourist office for times and tickets of displays at the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer arena.
The legendary church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
You can’t leave Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer without taking the time to peek in at the Chapel here. It features in Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code and honours ‘Saint Sarah’ the patron saint of the Romany people.
According to legend Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe arrived here with Sarah on a boat fleeing Palestine after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. One line of speculation is that Sarah was the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The present church dates from the 12th Century and features a statue of Saint Sarah, a crypt, a pagan altar that may have been used for sacrificing bulls, and a Christian altar dating from the 3rd Century. The statue of Sarah is a site of pilgrimage and is often dressed in bright clothes by gypsy people who come to kiss the statue and pay homage. There is also a wooden monument that shows evidence of the many miracles she has invoked.
Birds at dusk and tapas after dark
Continue your day in the Carmargue with a visit to the Parc ornithologique du Pont de Gau. This bird sanctuary is dedicated to the wild pink flamingos that live in the region as well as other water birds including herons, storks, egrets, raptors and ducks.
Boardwalk paths that allow you to get really close to the birds surround ponds and reedy marsh areas. There are huge flocks of flamingos to see and photograph – a really impressive spectacle. See the birds feeding, swimming, playing and flying in their natural environment. They are in no way penned or confined, it is a chance to get a real insight into the lives of these beautiful birds in the wild.
The park stays open until sunset and it’s worth visiting at different times of day to get the full experience. An evening visit as the sun sets is one of the best times to go and is often less busy too.
Eat in traditional Camargue style
For dinner get a late meal in Arles, the biggest town in the Carmargue. The Spanish influence is strong here so you can enjoy delicious tapas or paella in friendly, bustling restaurants with music from famous local band The Gypsy Kings providing an apt soundtrack to your night.