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The Camargue

Posted on June 28, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip

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Greetings from the Camargue, a region of ultra-flat wetlands south of Arles known for white horses, black bulls, cowboys, flamingos, salt and rice. And wine, of course, as with every region in France. We are still in Provence, but on its western edge. It is approximately a gazillion degrees outside but we are beginning to adapt. A little.

We had a good drive here from Nice, although it was over three hours and the southern French drivers occasionally gave us bad memories of the Italians. Perhaps it's the heat that makes staying between the lines so difficult?

Along the way we stopped by Brad and Angie's house. They bought Chateau Miraval, a winemaking estate in central Provence, a couple of months ago and are currently living there while they wait to have twins. It was only a few miles off the freeway so we took a detour to see what we could see - which we knew wouldn't be much! Just off the freeway we passed a convertible Rolls Royce going the other way and we craned our necks - alas, no one we knew.

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The Jolie-Pitts' neighborhood is quite pretty, with lots of sunshine and vineyards. More traffic than we expected on such a narrow road, but what does that matter when you have a helicopter?

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And this was the closest we could get. A big, unlabeled gate with a No Photography sign and some beefy guards glaring at us. David drove by slowly as I took this photo from the car, so I wouldn't get tackled by one of them!

We are now in Aigues-Mortes (pronounced "EGG-yoo mort", meaning "dead waters"), a small town among canals about 30 minutes from the coast. We are mainly here to visit Arles, but as usual it is cheaper and more relaxed to base ourselves outside the main city in the area.

We are staying in the Hotel Canal, a nice modern 3-star. Since we'll be here over my birthday we sprung for a large room overlooking the canal, and it's a great room. Spacious, modern design, free and fast internet, and very robust air conditioning.

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Blogging desk and aforementioned robust air conditioner.

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Canal view from window

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Down in the common area they have the usual assortment of semi-recent magazines, but in the mix are vintage issues of Paris Match*! I couldn't believe they just had them out, but I suppose they aren't worth much money if they aren't kept in pristine condition. One of the issues is from 1966 and its cover story is the mystery of JFK's assassination. Fantastic.

I had never heard of Aigues-Mortes (whose name means "Dead Waters") when I booked this hotel, but it is quite a nice little town. It includes a historic center that is still entirely enclosed by its medieval walls, with canals running in grids all around it. From our hotel it is a short walk along a canal and over a bridge to the north gate of the city, where you soon come upon a big square filled with outdoor dining possibilities.

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Saltworks and unusually pink water just outside town

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Canal view from the bridge. Our hotel is somewhere on the left.

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Canal boat

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Outside the walls (built in the 1200s)

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Inside the walls

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In the center of the main plaza is this statue of King St. Louis IX (1214-70). He was responsible for draining and re-irrigating the marshes and founding the fortified town, primarily to create France's only Mediterranean port. He then used it to embark for the Middle East to join the Crusades.


And this is a wonderful little kitty who David photographed to perfection. We found him skulking around a doorway in the main plaza. He was friendly but wouldn't quite let us pet him - we hope to work on that further in the next couple of days! What a cutie.

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Our chosen dinner spot last night. We had excellent service here, which has actually been quite common in France but still surprises us every time.

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David had fish soup followed by bull stew (above). The bull was surprisingly tender and tasted pretty much like ordinary beef, but the sauce was a little heavy on the red wine. Bull appears on just about every menu in these parts, and most roadside stands sell bull sausage (*saucisson de taureau
).

Today started out nice and slow. I went for a swim in the pool and sunbathed on the terrace while David wandered down the road to a Hi-Fi store. Then this afternoon we ventured out in the heat (it has to be high-90s but we haven't checked) to visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a village 30 minutes southeast of us on the coast. It has a population of less than 3,000, but because of its sandy beaches it receives several times that number in tourists during the summer.

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Our visit was primarily for Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer's interesting Romanesque church, which was also used as a castle throughout the Middle Ages. Pirates were the main problem, and the town's citizens took refuge in the church during times of attack. There is even a freshwater well inside.

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Rules for visiting the interior. Only on the Mediterranean coast would you have to remind people not to enter a church "stripped to the waist"!

Another reason we visited Saintes-Maries is because it is the site of an important annual pilgrimage. Every year at the end of May, Romanies (Gypsies) from all over Europe gather here to carry a statue of their patron saint to the ocean and back. At the same time they baptize their children and generally celebrate and keep in touch.

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The Romanies' patron saint is Sarah, the legendary Egyptian servant of Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe. Along with Mary Magdalene, these Marys were the "Holy Women" who discovered the empty tomb of Christ on Easter morning. According to legend they were later put in a boat without oars and cast out to sea by Roman persecutors. They landed here and gave the town its name, "St. Marys of the Sea."

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The statue of Sarah is kept in the crypt under the choir. The nice flower decorations are from a wedding that had just finished when we arrived.

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The crypt has a low, sloping stone ceiling and there were many candles burning in honor of Saint Sarah. This meant that unlike most crypts, which are very cold, it was oppressively hot. Quite a strange feeling.

Tomorrow, we visit Arles. Lots of good historic stuff to see there and I'm quite excited!