A marshy delta south of Arles, the Camargue is located between the Mediterranean and two arms of the Rhône. The most fragile ecosystem in France, it has been a nature reserve since 1970, with some areas accessible only to the gardians, the local cowboys. Their ancestors may have been the first American cowboys, who sailed on French ships to the port of New Orleans, where they rode through the bayous of Louisiana and east Texas, rounding up cattle—in French, no less.
The Camargue is also cattle country. Black bulls are bred here both for their meat and for the regional bullfighting arenas. The whitewashed houses, plaited-straw roofs, plains, sandbars, and pink flamingos in the marshes make this area different, even exotic. There’s no more evocative sight than the snow-white horses galloping through the marshlands, with hoofs so tough that they don’t need shoes. The breed was brought here by the Arabs long ago, and it is said that their long manes and bushy tails evolved over the centuries to slap the region’s omnipresent mosquitoes.
Exotic flora and fauna abound. The birdlife here is among the most luxuriant in Europe, as so many species stop off here on their seasonal migratory routes. Looking much like the Florida Everglades, the area is known for its colonies of pink flamingos (flamants roses), which share living quarters with some 400 other types of birds, including ibises, egrets, kingfishers, owls, wild ducks, swans, and ferocious birds of prey.
Aigues-Mortes, the city of "dead waters", makes a good base to explore; two other towns in the Camargue are:
This seaside resort is deservedly popular with French tourists. Light on sights (with the exception of Le Seaquarium, see p. ###), Le Grau-du-Roi is plenty of fun in a kitschy kind of way: Think alfresco restaurants, boisterous bars, and a scattering of shops selling inflatable toys. More importantly, the town is the gateway to miles and miles of sandy dunes. After an ice cream and a stroll around Le Grau-du-Roi’s quays, make like the locals and head to the beach. The wild Plage de l'Espiguette, unfurling south of town, is a windswept favorite.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (“Saint Marys of the Sea”) takes its unusual name from Sainte Marie-Jacobé and Sainte Marie-Salomé, who reputedly washed up on these Mediterranean shores along with Sainte Sara during the first century AD. The town's central church, Sanctuaire Notre Dame de la Mer, 19 place Jean XXIII ([tel] 04-90-97-80-25), houses a statue and relics of Sainte Sara—patron saint of the Romany population—in its crypt.