After grabbing my morning coffee and croissant I headed to the Avis at the Nîmes railroad station to pick up my rental car for the day. I was heading to the Camargue region. Camargue is an area of southern France that is right along the Mediterranean. It is known for flamingos, white horses, cowboys, thatched roof houses, bulls, rice and salt. The Camargue region is a nature reserve. It has marshy wet banks that overflow which is great for growing rice as well as harvesting salt.
I had reserved my car before hand since I don’t drive manual. Automatic cars are more unusual in Europe so if you need one make sure to reserve early. The person at the desk informed me that for 20 euro I could have an upgrade. That sounded great to me and they went ahead and handed me the keys to my Alfa Romeo for the day. If that doesn’t mean anything to you just know that this is probably the only time in my life I will be able to afford to drive this type of sporty car.
I like to take a picture of my car and license plate on my phone so when I forget which car is mine I can match the plates to the picture. The plate numbers are usually on the key as well.
I was off on the roughly 45 min drive from Nîmes to this city in the Camargue region, Saintes Maries de la Mer. I really enjoyed driving through the few little towns and over some pretty rivers.
This town is along the water of the Mediterranean and where the Petit Rhône lets out. Along time ago the town was an island consecrated to the Egyptian God Rá. It changed names a few times before taking on the current name is the 1800s. The story goes that there were two women who were the mothers of apostles, Marie-Solomé and Marie-Jacobé, and possibly Mary Magdalene, who were all victims of Roman persecution. They were arrested and put on a boat with no sail or oar and they then washed ashore in Camargue. In May groups of Gypsy Catholics and other Gypsies have a festival in Saintes Maries de la Mer to honor Saint Sara. Sara is said to be the Egyptian servant of the Marys.
The population of Saintes Maries de la Mer is roughly 2,500 but during the summer months can swell up to 500,000. There are a lot of visitors from Italy as well as other parts of France.
The first thing I did in town was look for parking. Saintes Maries de la Mer as well as many other places in southern France has bullfighting. This isn’t Spanish bullfighting so the bull lives and it is a bloodless fight. Camargue is also where a lot of bulls live and roam. Therefore cowboys are a part of the life in Saintes Maries de la Mer. These things are all obvious as you drive through the town. They have roundabouts with bull sculptures in the center and the lamp posts have lights on them in the shape of cowboy hats, bulls and flamingos. Camargue has a symbol sort of like a coat of arms also known as the Camargue Cross. It is formed with a Latin Cross whos’ upper ends represent the three pronged fork used by the cowboys or guardians. The bottom is an anchor with a heart topped with a heart. The cross represents faith and the anchor represents hope. This symbol is on boats, in the ground and all over town.
I found parking on the edge of town in one of the many free lots they have along the dunes. In my drive I saw an open air market and knew what my first stop in town would be. This market had a lot of stalls selling fresh olives and olive oil. They also had a lot of stalls selling beach clothes.
After walking through the market and grabbing lunch I headed to the old church in town. Its visible from most places. For a few Euros you can climb the spiral stairs to the roof for a spectacular 360 view. The trick is you have to climb the stone roof itself up to the ridge at the top. I sat there and was able to see most of the town and out over the Mediterranean. It was gorgeous.
My next stop was a paddle boat tour aboard the Tiki 3. This boat goes up the Petit Rhone and shows you bulls, horses and local birds, sadly no flamingos. Once I was on the boat they handed out booklets in English as well as other languages since the tour was given in French. I read all about the area and the history of the town and types of birds I might see. I also took a picture of it incase I wanted to read some of it later or look back at it another day.
We started out up Le Petit Rhone and saw houseboats, birds and lots of bulls. They pointed out fishing boats and the special nets that the local fishermen use. We approached a clearing and a cowboy came riding up with small herd of cattle! The Cowboy (or cowgirl in this case) rides a white horse and carries a long pole with three prongs at the end which are rather small. The small herd, which included calves and foals, came to the edge of the water where the boat had stopped and started to graze on the hay that was out for them. We got to watch them eat for a while while the boat tour guide explained about the bulls and how the foals are born brown and as they grow they are gray until they reach maturity, around 5 to 7 years old, and become white.
It was so hot that I wound up having to move around the boat a bit to get out of the sun. This turned out to be a good thing as I could see more of the cattle from different parts of the boat. After we turned around in the river we pulled up to a shore so the ship hands could feed the bulls. It was great to see bulls and horses out in the open. It was so hot I couldn’t wait to get to the beach.
After my boat ride I headed to a restaurant that also had spaces on the beach. Unfortunately all the beach chairs were rented for the day but I had a cold drink and used the changing rooms. Then I spread out on the beach! It was a very hot day so I wasted no time getting into the cool Mediterranean water. It was cold but so so good.
After cooling off in the water for a while, I headed back into town for dinner. I hadn’t done much research on where to eat but I found a seafood place that sounded good. If I don’t have a reservation at a restaurant I like to go on the early side around 6 or 630. Most people in France eat later, 8pm or later, so there is a better chance of getting a table if I go early. I would have eaten and left before they need the table for the later reservation. At La Cave a Huitres they were able to seat me with a view looking out over the marina.
After great seafood and some homemade desserts I walked along the marina and into the center of town. The sunset was gorgeous. I got to see the lights of the town come on. One of the main streets had stores that were all open late and I got to walk around and look into the shops and get some souvenirs. Since Camargue is known for salt and rice what better souvenirs to get. I brought salt home for everyone. At least one of the shops had jewelry with the symbol of Camargue. I also got a key chain with the symbol. It was a great way to end the day before driving back to Nimes.