Marshy fields of black bulls, white horses, Provencal cowboys, pink flamingos and migratory birds, the Camargue is like its own little country. Once you're a few minutes south of Arles, you enter the atmosphere of the area, with its series of long, level roads criss-crossing the marshes and farmlands.
Eagles, hawks and harriers soar in the blue skies and muskrats swim along the little canals, often making unsuccessful attempts to cross the roads. Black bulls and white horses graze in the fields, and lines of horseback riders file into the brush to observe the nature first-hand. Cyclists peddle against the winds, along the roads or off on lanes forbidden to motor vehicles.
No jungles or conical hats here, but rice paddies abound, along with grain fields, orchards and even a few vineyards. Salt plains cover the southeastern corner, where the Grand Rhône flows into the sea by Salin-de-Giraud, and the center, surrounding the Etang de Vaccarès, is a huge zoological and botanical nature reserve teaming with wildlife.
The Camargue was designated as a botanical and zoological nature reserve in 1927 and 1970, helping to maintain its natural beauty. Spring and Autumn are the best times for seeing the birds, the bulls and the horses of Camargue. Bring a bird book, binoculars and camera ... and some mosquito repellent.
The upper Camargue has been cultivated since the Middle Ages. The alluvium soil in the Rhône delta is excellent for crops, but must be prepared and maintained. The land had to be drained, and needs to be protected by low dikes. Salt content, which increases during summer evaporation, is reduced by washing down the soil.
Rice cultivation is done on 3-ha plots that are submerged from April to September, and harvested during September and October. Over 30,000 ha (120 square miles) of rice was grown in the early sixties, down to 10,000 ha today. Other crops include large fields of wheat, maize, rape and forage, intermixed with orchards, market gardens and even an occasional vineyard.
The southeast corner of the Camargue, near Salin-de-Giraud and the Grand Rhône are the salt marshes ("salins") of Salin de Giraud. Another salt marsh, the Salins du Midi, is located in the southwest corner, west of the Petit Rhône. In the salt marshes you'll see long lines of salt "mountains" drying in the Provencal sun, and the checkerboard salt-pans.
Salt production in the Camargue began in Antiquity, by both the Greeks and the Romans, and continued through the Middle ages. Salt was transported along the Mediterranean coast and then inland on the "Routes du Sel" (Salt Roads), up through the Vaucluse (see Fort de Buoux) or the mountains of the Alpes-Maritime across the Col de Tende (map) into Piedmont (see Escarène).
From March to September, seawater is pumped about 30 km across salt tables, to form a saturated solution of sodium chloride. The solution is then directed into 9-ha crystalising pans, about 12-cm deep. The solution evaporates all Winter and into the Summer. From the end of August until October, the salt crystals
There are many locations offering guided tours of the Camargue on the white Camargue horses. The tours leave frequently, flexible to the flow of tourists. Stop at any of the places, clearly marked and mostly along the southern half of the D570 between Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
- Camargue Safaris; Tel: (33) 490 97 86 93; Fax: (33) 490 96 31 55
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- about 20 € for 1h30, to about 100 € for a 9-hour day including lunch
The bird nature reserve, located 4 km north of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a 20-acre marshland setting with great numbers of resident and migratory birds and wildlife. Flamingos are there by the thousands in early Spring, and many hundreds at other times, and nesting storks and herons, water birds and birds of prey. (click on the photo to read more)
Domaine de la Palissade
This is a wetlands bird refuge. The central area has a nice museum and picnic tables set beneath shady trees. In the Spring, small birds make their first landfall here after traversing the Mediterannean.
Three walks are clearly-marked along wide, sandy paths through the reserve area, of 1.5 km, 3 km and 7-8 km lengths. There are a few observation blinds along the walks. In addition to local waterbirds and migrating birds, we've seen nesting colonies of herons here.
There's another, shorter walk, close to the center, with a tall observation tower.
- Location: Southeast corner of the Camargue, southeast of Salin-de-Giraud. GPS 43.372363,4.808235.
- Open: 9h-17h; 9-18h June-Sept
- Entry: €3.00, under 12 free
- Tel: 0442 868 128
- Email: email@example.com
The Camargue Museum is located in the old "bergerie" Mas at Pont de Rousty, on the D570 in the northern part of the park. The long sheep-barn houses a geological and historical presentation of the Camargue, beginning with the formation of the Rhône delta 7,000 years ago, and continuing through the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Camarguais Museum reopened in Nov 2013 after being closed a year for renovation.
- Musée Camarguais
- Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue
- Mas du Pont de Rousty; 13200 Arles
- Tel: (33) 490 97 10 82; Fax: (33) 490 97 19 07
- Open: Nov-Mar 10h-12h30, 13h-17h; Apr-Oct 9h-12h30, 13h-18h
- Entry: €5.00, €3.00; under 18 free
- Web: www.parc-camargue.fr
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tour du Valat
A research and study center for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands. This is a private, non-profit organization, located on a 2400-ha domain on the eastern side of the Camargue. The central part of the domain is a 1100-ha Voluntary Natural Reserve, the largest in France. About 30 researchers work full time, and French and foreign students participate in the programs.
- Open to the public: one day a year, during an open-house day in January.
- Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat
- Le Sambuc, 13200 ARLES
- Tel: (33) 490 97 20 13; Fax: (33) 490 97 20 19
Réserve Nationale de Camargue
Centre d'Information Nature - Nature information about the Camargue; exposition halls; initiation hikes about the Camargue (1.5 km, 3 observation posts).
- Open daily except Sunday; 9h-12h, 14h-17h
- Société Nationale de Protection de la NatureRéserve nationale de Camargue, La Capelière
- 13200 Arles
- Tel: (33) 490 97 00 97
Renting bicycles is a good idea, partly because many areas of the Camargue are off-limits to motorized traffic. With an altitude that varies across the entire Camargue from 0.0 to 2.0 meters, hills are definitely not a problem.
Cycle Tours. Some typical cycling tours, starting in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, are:
"La Gacholle", 20 km, 4 hrs
"Petite Camargue", 20 km, 4 hrs
"Grand Radeau", 35 km, 4 hrs
"Méjanes", 36 km, 6 hrs
"Tour du Vaccarès, 70 km, 9 hrs
Cycle Rentals. There are several bicycle rental (Location Velo) shops in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
• GPS: 43.626651, 4.647804
IGN (1/50,000) "Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue"
The Camargue is an immense, flat area of seashore, marshlands and fields, and getting from one part to another on foot is not easy. Except for walks along the seashore or in a specific area, some form of transportation is recommended.
Contributed by These comments were contributed by Marcia D., San Francisco, Nov 1998:
Right beside the park headquarters for the Camargue at Pont-de-Gau is a fabulous place, and if memory serves, it's name is Hostellerie Pont de Gau. They serve Camarguais specialties, in huge quantities and at affordable prices. Their soup, Veloute de Sole, was so good that we actually planned an entire week's vacation around it! On Sundays, the local ranchers come in and take over huge tables for family dinners. Four generations will be at table, and the wine flows freely. If you are lucky, someone will ask you to join them in some wine, but beware! In our experience, they spoke a heavy Provencal dialect which we could barely understand. But then, my French is so poor they could probably barely understand me, too. They also have rooms available at very modest prices -- $20-$30/night.