9 Top Things to Do in the Camargue, France

South of Arles, France, the great Rhone River splits on its final push toward the Mediterranean, in between creating a triangle of wetlands, pastures, dunes, and salt flats—the Camargue. In this vast, marshy landscape, long-horned bulls and white horses run semi-free, flamingos fly overhead, and gardians—cowboys—toil on their manades (ranches) in France’s version of the Wild West. Come here to bird-watch, horseback ride, explore Spanish-style and Crusader villages, attend bull games (not fights), stay on a Camarguais ranch, and get to know a singular way of life devoted to independence, freedom, and hard work.

01 of 09

Ride a White Horse in Camargue Regional Nature Park

Wild White Horses of Camargue running in water during idyllic sunset.
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino / Getty Images
Address
Mas du pont de Rousty, RD 570, 13200 Arles, France
Phone +33 4 90 97 10 40

Small and agile, the Camargue’s striking white horses with their flowing tails resemble the horses painted on the walls of Lascaux cave some 15,000 years ago. Indeed, they’re considered one of the world’s oldest breeds. Used to work the land and herd the black bulls, these Horses of the Sea are celebrated at the annual Féria du Cheval in July in the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, with concerts of Roma music and equestrian shows. Jump astride one of these majestic animals yourself and explore Camargue Regional Nature Park, a 210,000-plus-acre expanse of salt marshes, lakes, rice fields, and glasswort-covered moors. Many riding stables, including Les Arnelles and Le Palomino Le Boumian, offer trail rides.

02 of 09

Be Awed by Pink Flamingos

European Flamingo, Phoenicopterus roseus
Raimund Linke / Getty Images
Address
RD 570 Lieu dit Pont de Gau, 13460 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France
Phone +33 4 90 97 82 62

As you drive the Camargue’s lonesome roads or stroll its secluded trails, don’t be surprised if you look up at the blue sky and spy great pink birds flying overhead, their wings striped with black. Flocks of flamantes roses—pink flamingos—make the Camargue their home, the only site in Europe where they regularly breed, an average of 10,000 pairs a year. To see them up close—and to learn a bit about them—stop by the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau in the heart of Camargue Regional Nature Park, with trails and boardwalks ambling through the marshy, bird-filled landscape. Next door, the Maison du Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, the nature park’s main info center, is another favorite bird-watching spot, with exhibits of mounted birds helping to i.d. the live ones you see flitting and fluttering and floating outside the giant picture windows. You’ll soon come to realize that, although the flamingos are the stars, there are plenty of other birds to admire—some 400 different species, including purple heron, white storks, and spotted eagles.

03 of 09

Watch the Bull Games

Merry-go-round, funny bull
Pascale Gueret / Getty Images

If you hear music blaring as you’re moseying around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, you can bet bull games—courses Camarguaises—are going on at the arena by the beach. This is bullfighting Camarguais style, a longstanding tradition featuring the small, spirited, crafty bulls that may have originated from horses brought here by Attila the Hun. They roam the Camargue as they please until they’re rounded up for bullfight season, late April through September. Rest assured, these games differ from their Spanish cousin in that the bulls are not killed. Instead, young rasateurs challenge the bulls in a game of cat-and-mouse, with the bull snorting and charging as the rasateurs grab tassels and bows from their horns with a finger-held rake, jumping to safety over low walls. The most prestigious bull games—La Cocarde d’Or—take place in Arles in July. You can also see courses Camarguaises in Nîmes and Tarascon.

04 of 09

Learn About Camargue Life at Musée de la Camargue

Address
Pont de Rousty, 13200 Arles, France
Phone +33 4 90 97 10 82

Humans have survived in this challenging landscape for centuries, ever fighting the mercurial sea and river and the saltiness of the soil. Learn how they built dikes and embankments to expand their farms and other ways they figured out how to endure at the Musée de la Camargue, about 20 miles south of Arles. This museum, filled with innovative exhibits, is housed in a typical bergerie (sheepfold) dating from 1812. Outside, walking trails leads into the countryside beyond.

Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09

Walk on the Walls of a Crusader Town

The Carbonniere tower, Saint Laurent d'Aigouze, Gard,White horses in the Camargue, France
Yann Guichaoua-Photos / Getty Images
Address
30220 Aigues-Mortes, France

Some say Aigues-Mortes, looming above the Camargue’s flat landscape, is an off-the-beaten-path version of Carcassonne. The walled medieval town dates back to the mid-13th century when Louis IX built it as a staging point for his Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land. On August 28, 1248, his fleet of 1,500 ships took off from here on an eight-year expedition that failed. He tried again in 1270 when he died in Tunisia. Despite these fiascos, the town remained France’s most important Mediterranean port until Marseille became a part of France in the late 15th century. Today, Aigues-Mortes is considered Europe’s best-preserved wall fortifications, with sites including La Tour Constance, the royal tower that served as a lighthouse and later a prison; the spectacular medieval ramparts, built by Louis IX’s son; and two 17th-century chapels. Come here to stroll the ancient streets, pop into galleries and local restaurants, and take in the vast history.

06 of 09

Stay at a Working Manade

The Wild West... of France!
Cybermama / Getty Images

There’s no better way to feel the pulse of this region than to stay on a working ranch, where you can experience the life of the gardians who have worked this unforgiving landscape for generations. Some offer trail rides, opportunities to work alongside the gardians, and local feasts. Most are located on acres of land where bulls and horses roam. There are many good choices, including La Manade des Baumelles, where prize-winning bulls are bred; and Mas de Peint/La Manade Jacques Bon, where you are invited to help sort bulls.

07 of 09

Pay Homage to Three Marys

Bell tower of the church Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France
imageBROKER/Angela to Roxel / Getty Images
Address
2 Pl. de l'Église, 13460 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France
Phone +33 4 90 97 80 25

Towering above the Camargue’s main town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the Romanesque Église Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is named for the three Marys—Mary Salome, mother of the apostles James and John; Mary Jacobe, the Virgin Mary’s sister; and Mary Magdalene—who, legend states, washed ashore here after being shoved out to sea without sails or oars following Jesus’s crucifixion. Their supposed relics are preserved in the church’s cavelike crypt, where hundreds of thanksgiving votives flicker in the darkness. Here, too, a statue of the Marys’ Egyptian servant Sarah, the revered patron saint of the Roma (an ethnic group of itinerary people originally from northern India that live predominantly in Europe), is preserved, garbed with piles of dresses provided as offerings. On May 24 and 25, thousands of Roma pilgrimage here to worship Sarah. Be sure to climb up to the church’s rooftop terrace, offering fabulous views over the distant sea.

08 of 09

Visit a Salt Pan

France -Salt evaporation ponds of Salin de Giraud, Camargue
Flavio Vallenari / Getty Images
Address
Salin-de-Giraud, 13129 Arles, France

The Camargue’s saltiness is a challenge for farmers, but it also has its upsides—fleur de mer. That’s the gourmet salt packaged under the label Le Saunier de Camargue (among others) that is coarse, delicately perfumed, and coveted by chefs around the globe. The Romans were the first to harvest the salt here, which continues with saulniers—salt farmers—today. Take note: It’s harvested by hand, which explains its pretty price. You can explore by car or on your own, via D36, which will take you to the village of Salin de Giraud and the surrounding salt pans and salt mountains. Or visit by sightseeing train, electric vehicle, or mountain bike.

Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09

Sample Camargue Gastronomy

close up of background of raw red rice
Muhammad Owais Khan / Getty Images

The Camargue is the only place in France where rice is grown (which became very important during the lean World War II years). There are three varieties—white, black, and red, with the world-famous red being granted protected geographical indication (PGI) status in 2000. This explains why one of the favorite local dishes is paella, often cooked outdoors in giant, cast-iron pans. Compared to its Spanish cousin, paella Camarguaise is creamier, sprinkled with chicken and shrimp, with the nutty rice adding a flavor all its own. And, sorry to say, those majestic bulls roaming the fields find themselves on the platter as well, often as a cooked-to-perfection, wine-laced stew (gardianne de taureau). There’s also the emblematic tellines—a small shellfish residing in the estuaries and plenty of other seafood. Restaurants throughout the region offer these and other local specialties, though if you have time for only one, it should be the Michelin-starred La Chassagnette in Le Sambuc, where a former student of Alain Ducasse works his culinary magic.

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9 Top Things to Do in the Camargue, France