Separated from the rest of France by 140,000 hectares of wetlands, pastures, dunes and salt flats, the Camargue is peopled by French cowboys (gardians) and cowgirls (gardians) who could have come straight from the wild west. They wear cowboy boots, moleskin jeans, spurs, and wide-brimmed, flat-topped hats.
This is Western Europe’s largest river delta, featuring endless brine lagoons - or ‘etangs’ in French. It is protected from the sea by long sand bars and reed-covered marshes, which are home to more than 400 species of birds - including the ‘Greater Flamingo’. Most of the Camargue is designated as a national park (Parc Régional de Camargue). Some of the area is now dedicated to agriculture - to grapes, cereals and the famous Camargue rice. Black bulls are also reared here, for export to Spain.
History of the Camargue
'Gardians' on white Camargue Horses raise black bulls
for the bullrings of Spain and Languedoc
Rice was originally grown here to desalinate the earth, and reached peak production between 1942 and 1962, when foreign imports began to undercut prices, leading to the abandonment of 60% of the paddy fields. In 1927, 85,000 hectares of the region was protected as a nature reserve. Since 1970, to protect the fragile eco-system, the region has been designated a National Park. Salt is also produced in the area, and prized for its strong flavour.
All over France people leap over the Feu de St Jean on June 19th, but in the Camargue they do it on horseback. And the fire is big, very big. The next day is an unofficial holiday in Les Saintes; everyone stops work, mounts up and rides into town for the huge free breakfast before launching into a full day involving gypsy music, bulls and horses running through the streets of the town, a mounted procession, saucisson de taureau, riding displays, boeuf gardian (beef in red wine flavoured with orange peel and served with local rice), and of course the competitions.
These include grabbing an orange: riding ventre à terre, contestants have to snatch an orange off a plate held up to them by a girl in traditional Arles dress. Then there’s the saut d’un cheval à l’autre - which also takes place at a fast gallop and involves the gardians jumping from one horse to another.
And of course, the famous black bulls. Guardians are crazy about “la course Camarguaise”: a type of bull-running in which men attempt to pull tassels and strings off the horns of wild bulls in an arena - and it is the men rather than the bulls who risk injury.
You'll find water practically everywhere in Languedoc Roussillon, so there's no shortage of canal boating, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, fishing and swimming (click here to visit our Beaches section). Three mountain ranges make skiing, rock climbing and walking great options too. Golf and tennis are also well-catered for, with golf courses and tennis centres dotted across the region.
For the slightly more adventurous, there's ballooning (there's nothing like floating over the rivers and vineyards of Languedoc on a summer's day), paragliding and flying (guided flights over the Cathar castles are highly recommended).
For equestrians, there's France's most famous horse trail (Le Sentier Cathar), and for ornithologists, the variety of birds in Languedoc, especially in the mountainous and swamp regions, with everything from vultures to pelicans.
What is there to do in the Camargue?
The Camargue on QuadBike
"People come to ride,” says Serge Moussouyan, the president of the Association Camarguaise de Tourism Equestre, “but also for Jeep tours, horse shows, bird-spotting, restaurants, swimming, shopping, music, horse markets, mini-cruises, the paddy fields, melon-farms...”
But if you have absolutely no intention of getting into the saddle, however sweet the horses look, no problem. There are safaris in 4x4s, Quad Bikes and Jeeps, or you can take a mini-cruise up the Petit Rhône on the Tikki III, or hire bicycles - although this option is better attempted in the early morning or late afternoon. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would cycle round the Camargue in the middle of the day. Gardians do it on horseback.
Before you do rush down here, however, bear in mind that in mid-summer, it can be extremely hot, with a lot of flies and mosquitoes. Make sure the accommodation you pick has screens on the windows (or air conditioning), and bring plenty of ‘mozzie spray’. The best months to come, to escape the heat and insects, are April-June and September-November.
Nîmes airport is the nearest for the Camargue, with flights operated by Ryan Air. Marseille and Montpellier are also close, with flights operated by British Airways, Easyjet and Air France. See websites www.ba.com, www.airfrance.com, www.easyjet.com and www.ryanair.com.
View more information on flights to Languedoc here >
The TGV runs down from Paris to Avignon in 2 hours 40 minutes, from Avignon to Arles, a local train takes 20 minutes and from there, you can get a bus to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the heart of the Camargue. See websites www.eurostar.com and www.raileurope.co.uk.
View more information on trains to Languedoc here >
You really need a car to explore this area, and they can be hired at the station in Arles (Avis - 04.90.96.82.42) or in town from Europcar (04.90.93.23.24), Eurorent (04.90.93.50.14), or Hertz (04.90.96.75.23).
View more information on car hire in Languedoc here >