Thursday, April 9, 2015

Visit to the Camargue and we see a bull fight in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

On a whim a few months back, I suggested that we drive through the Camargue and see where the sea salt we buy is produced. We could also look for the red rice which is produced in the same area. We love this rice, it was a regular feature on our Bistro Des Copains menu.

The Camargue is a triangle shaped area on the coast between Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. It's a river delta where the Rhône River meets the sea - a marshy island bordered by two branches of the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea.

With over 360 square miles, the Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta, with exceptional biological diversity, and home to unique breeds of Camargue horses and bulls, more than 400 species of birds including Pink Flamingoes, rice paddies and salt which has been harvested here since the Middle Ages.

The Camargue

The Camargue lies within the Department of Bouches du Rhône ("Mouths of the Rhône"). At Arles, the Rhône River divides into two branches, the Petit Rhône (Little Rhône) to the west and the Grand Rhône (Great Rhône) to the east seen below.

Rhône River

Much of the area is under water - inland salt water lakes, called étangs. Approximately a third of the Camargue is either lakes or marshland.

The Camargue is the only place in France (and one of the few anywhere around the Mediterranean) where pink flamingos nest. The flamingo population can reach 20,000 couples grouped into flocks. The flamingo is the emblem of Camargue.

A Camargue wetland with pink flamingos

We headed first to Salin-de-Giraud in the southeast corner of the Camargue where the nearby salt marshes are famous for their salt production, producing up to 15,000 tons a day in the summer. Salt is produced along the final stretch of the Grand Rhône, an industry that dates back to Romans times.

Salt salins

This is one of the biggest salt works anywhere in the world. Some is used as table salt. Fleur De Sel de Camargue ("flowers of salt") is hand raked and harvested. Only the premium, top layer of the salt bed is used for this. The name Fleur De Sel comes from the aroma of flowers - violets in particular - that develops as the salt dries. Each signature container is sealed with a cork top and signed by the Salt Raker who harvested it.

A salt dune

After lunch, we headed toward Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a fishing village and tourist resort on the Mediterranean Sea close to the mouth of the Petit Rhône. The town lies about 38 km to the southwest of Arles.

The Camargue in general and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in particular are associated with the Roma (Gypsies). Beginning in Medieval times, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was the destination for a Roma (gypsy) pilgrimage each year to venerate St. Sara (or Sarah).

Some very focused Pétanque players

According to Provençal legend, a boat was launched from Jerusalem around 40 AD without sail, oars or supplies, and drifted across the Mediterranean sea until it reached shore at this site. The refugees in the boat were: Mary Jacobe, the mother of James and the sister of the Virgin; Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles James Major and John; Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha; St Maximinus; Cedonius, born blind and cured and Sarah, the servant of the two Marys.

After landing safely, the group built a small chapel to the Virgin. The disciples wandered off their separate ways, Mary Magdalene went to Sainte-Baume, and Martha went to Tarascon. Marie Salome, Marie Jacobe and Sarah remained in the Camargue, and were later buried in the oratory. The tomb of these three saints became a cult object, and has attracted pilgrims for the past nineteen centuries.

Statue of guardian and bull in a roundabout in the center of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The Baroncelli Museum seen below is the 19th-century town hall. It presents the zoology and the agro-pastoral ways of the Camargue region, and the history of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Baroncelli Museum

The Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towers over the village and is visible from as far as 10 km inland. The church was built from the 9th to the 12th century, as a fortress and a refuge. It has a fresh water well inside, for when the villagers had to take shelter from raiders.

Notre Dame de la Mer Church

We climbed the very narrow steps up to the observatory area on the roof of the fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer out to Sea

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer over the town

Statue of white Camargue horse in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

As we walked around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we heard repeated loud cheering from a crowd, and headed in the direction of the sound to see what was going on. We came upon an arena, at the edge of the beach, for bullfights, and one was taking place. We soon discovered that these bullfights vary greatly from their Spanish cousins. Most notably, the bull is never killed.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer bullfighting ring

The bull is the king of the Camargue. The Camargue breed, in Provençal: Raço di bioù, is a cattle native to the Camargue marshlands where they live semi-wild, tended by the mounted herders called gardians who ride the famous Camargue horses which live in the same area. The large herds are called “manades” (this word is also used to refer to the farms that breeds the bulls) and are bred solely for the “course camarguaise (Camargue style of bull-fighting).

Camargue bull

In the arena, the bull is confronted with a dozen raseteurs (Camargue bullfighters) who try to remove the ribbon that has been attached between its horns with strings. Ferocity, bravery, and skill during combat will make him a God of the Provencal and Languedocian arenas.

Camargue bull and 3 razeteurs

The bulls aren't killed or injured, but it's extremely dangerous for the men trying to get that ribbon. The dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to the bull to attract him. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.

Each “fight” lasts 15 minutes, after which he returns to the herd and won't participate in another “fight” for 2 or 3 weeks. The “cocardiers” (the name for star bulls) “fight” around 6 or 7 times per year.

A bull destined for the Spanish corrida (bullfight) has one fight of his life, a good Camargue bull can fight for a decade. That's because Camargue bulls aren't killed in the rings. Camargue bulls get better and tougher as the years go on, because allegedly they're extremely smart.

It's not the bullfighters, but the bulls that are the celebrities here. The great fighting bulls are buried in the marshes, and villages erect statues to them. Every self-respecting Camargue village has its bull statue.

In the picture below, a raseteur tries to remove the ribbon that has been attached to the bull between its horns.

A rasateur tries to remove the ribbon attached to the bulls horns

Camargue cowboys are known as guardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle. They are the guardian angels of the bull herds. They ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock and to the arènes or bullfighting rings.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the guardians, who herd the bulls. The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue. Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world. They are small horses, but despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown adults.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

We waited with the crowd for the guardians to pass by as they escorted the bulls back to their paddocks. The bulls run through the street surrounded by guardians on their white horses.

The guardians escort the bulls back to the paddocks

The bulls and their guardians pass by our vantage point

From Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we headed to Aigues-Mortes, a striking, walled Medieval town sitting on the flat marshes of the Petite Camargue. At the foot of the Aigues-Mortes walls, stretch nearly 25,000 acres of salt marshes. Since it was late in the day, we didn't spend a lot of time so we will have to go again.

Have a great rest of your week. Chat soon.


  1. Wonderful photos - you really captured the essence of Camargue Michel!

  2. Thank you Barbara. I appreciate the nice feedback. We had a great time that day and we want to return to see more of that area.

  3. I love to read all of your stories about Provence ;-) I wrote about this in dutch aswell (you have a translate button at the top of my blog), maybe this interests you aswell :

  4. Thank you for sharing your photos and experience of the Camargue. :)