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Sightseeing in Languedoc
Aigues-Mortes, Languedoc
Home > Explore The Region > Sightseeing > The Camargue > Aigues-Mortes

A guide to Aigues-Mortes

 

Rising from the marshes of the Camargue, at the crossroads to two canals, Aigues-Mortes walled town is the perfect place to escape to for a tall drink after a hot day at the beach.

 

Carcassonne, Languedoc

Aigues-Mortes, with the Canal du Rhône in the distance,

and red waters of the salt lagoon in the foreground

There's nowhere else quite like Aigues-Mortes. Behind its four rather imposing medieval walls lies a lively little town of shops, bars and restaurants - packed with tourists in summer but with just enough charm to make it the perfect refuge on a sweltering summer day. Yes it is touristy. But then again, anywhere as unusual and impressive as this was always going to attract a good number of visitors. They pour in during summer to buy slabs of local nougat, Gardian cowboy hats and post cards of flamingoes, filling the main avenues with American and Parisian accents. We suspect that most who come here do Aigues-Mortes the wrong way - they stare up at the walls, saunter down the main shopping avenue, and then park themselves in one of the many tourist cafes / restaurants in the main square for a beer and a very ordinary meal.

 

 

How to visit Aigues-Mortes

 

Carcassonne, Languedoc

Aigues-Mortes is full of shops. Most are full of tourist tat

- but some do sell interesting 'artisanal' products

Firstly, we'd come in the evening, when the light is warm and the walls look their best. Buy a ticket to access the ramparts of Aigues-Mortes - it's only €7.50, but you can walk right around the entire town which takes about 45 minutes, and from up there the views down over the rooves and avenues are superb fun. You'll also get a great view of the eerie red salt lagoons of the Camargue and huge sparkling salt piles, as well as the canals that skirt round the town. Like most of France's historic sites, the ramparts have been done well. Each of the guard towers plays hosts to a small exhibition highlighting some aspect of the town's history. Our favourite was the giant live owl projected onto a wall. Make sure to also visit the Constance Tower - its two vaulted ceilings are impressive, and the views from the top (accessible via an elevator no less) are spectacular. Stone walls and history aside, you're now probably ready to plunge into the town in the middle. Most of the original medieval buildings are now gone - except for the centra church and few others - so the centre of Aigues-Mortes is mostly a 19th century town - but it's very charming nonetheless. Don't make the mistake of merely walking down the main avenue - make sure to go off-piste and wander down some of the quieter streets. Away from the tourist hubbub, they're quiet and mostly very pretty, and it's down these less crowded streets that you'll find the more interesting bars and restaurants.

 

Visit the 'Salin d'Aigues-Mortes'

 

Carcassonne, Languedoc

High concentrations of salt cause the waters to turn red (top).

Salt - the 'Fleur du sel' - is collected near Aigues-Mortes (bottom).

The etangs (salt-water lagoons) surrounding the southern end of Aigues-Mortes are red, and they are so because of the high-concentration of salt within them. Beyond those, you'll notice mountains of salt which has been produced here for hundreds of years, and which is now famous throughout France for its superior flavour (look for 'La Fleur du sel' in any supermarket) . If salt interests you at all, you might want to hop on one of the motorised tourist trains run by the 'Salin d'Aigues-Mortes' and take their tour of the salt marshes. You'll get great views of the impressive walls of Aigues-Mortes from a distance, and see the red etang and salt mountains up close. If you're lucky, you might catch a flock of flamingoes - and there's lots of other interesting wildlife on offer too. The tour is in French, but they ought to hand out explanations in English too. The museum is fine, with some interesting images of salt-production in times gone by, and there's also a little gift shop. The tour takes 90 minutes, departs every hour or so, and costs €9. For more information on the Salin d'Aigues-Mortes, visit our Camargue page >

 

The history of Aigues-Mortes

 

Carcassonne, Languedoc

King (Saint) Louis IX's crusade departs from Aigues-Mortes (top.

King (Saint) Louis IX (bottom left)

The Huguenot's are released from the Tour de Constance (bottom right)

Aigues-Mortes was conceived by King (and eventually 'Saint') Louis IX in 1240, and the walls were finished by his son in 1302. It was built to give Louis and his armies access to the sea, at a time when his younger brother Charles (King of Naples and Aragon) occupied the coast to the east (Provence) and south (Roussillon). Thus Aigues-Mortes was born - a great launching off point for Louis and his navy, keen to conquer and plunder the Holy Land at a time when all self-respecting kings proved their mettle by heading up crusades. Charlemagne, France's great post Roman king, had erected a tower on the site in the 8th century to provide security to local fishermen. And monks had run salt-production operations in the area for centuries. But it was Louis who can lay claim to being the true father of Aigues-Mortes, and his new town grew to become one of the most important strategic ports on the Mediterranean. Louis departed on crusades only twice from Aigues-Mortes - dying of dysentery in Tunis before his third sortie could be unleashed on the eastern Mediterranean.

 

Aigues-Mortes was always a compromise, however, The town lies in the corner of the Camargue, Europe's largest river delta. So it was never actually on the sea - but rather separated from it by marshes. So to give Louis' fleet access from his new port to the Mediterranean, channels had to be built through the marshlands and etangs (lagoons) to allow his ships to load and unload. And they had to be cut and re-cut in the following century, as silt from the Rhône built up within the channels. Once France captured Marseille in the 14th century, it had in its possession a far superior (and sensible) port from which to launch its Mediterranean adventures, and Aigues-Mortes fell into disuse.

 

It's because of the silt, of course, that the town came to be known as 'Aigues-Mortes' - 'Aigues' derives from 'water' ('aqua' or 'agua' in Spanish) in Latin, and 'Mortes' meaning dead. In fact, the waters continued to die - as the silt pushed the sea further out, a process which only accelerated with the deforestation of the banks of the Rhône. But the port town didn't die completely - instead, port became prison. In the 14th century, Aigues-Mortes was transformed into a prison, in which Templars were kept. And in the 15th century, it was used to lock up Protestant Huguenots (after the revocation of Edict of Nantes).

 

Restaurants and Bars in Aigues-Mortes

 

Carcassonne, Languedoc

Aigues-Mortes, with the Canal du Rhône in the distance,

and red waters of the salt lagoon in the foreground

We despair sometimes at the quality of some of the restaurants and bars in France, and especially in Languedoc. So often, the service is surly, the seats uncomfortable, the lighting too aggressive and the food incredibly mediocre and unimaginative. So it's important when you go somewhere such as Aigues-Mortes, which gets such a steady stream of tourists, that you make that little extra effort to find somewhere decent. The key is to get away from the main square and its clutch of lazy restaurants. Explore the little side streets, and you should find all sorts of interesting and quirky bars, cafés and eateries. We like the Café de Bouzigues (7 rue Pasteur) - with its pretty back courtyard. Also to be recommended are L'Atelier de Nicolas (28 Rue Alsace Lorraine), Boem (253 Avenue du Pont de Provence) - with its fusion flavours and comfy outdoor seating, and the hotel-restaurant Villa Mazarin La Table (35 Blvd Gambetta) - with its sumptuous decor and delicious French food. For a cool bar - try the Hotel Les Templiers (23 rue de la Republique) - funky decor and a nice bar by their pool.

 

View listings of what to do and see in and around Aigues-Mortes

on our Guide to the Camargue page >

 

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