My favourite place: Ca­mar­gue

For the lat­est in our his­tor­i­cal hol­i­day se­ries, Jenny ex­plores an un­tamed wilder­ness

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - by Jenny Uglow Jenny Uglowis an ac­claimed au­thor and his­to­rian. Her most re­cent book is Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense (Faber and Faber, 2017) Read more of Jenny’s ex­pe­ri­ences at his­to­ryex­tra.com/ca­mar­gue

In the sun­set the la­goons turn pink and pearl, then bronze, dark­en­ing to pur­ple. Reeds rus­tle and bend, and in the sky above, a line of flamin­gos stretch their long necks and legs. This is the Ca­mar­gue: the great delta of the Rhône, the largest river delta in Europe.

I’ve loved the Ca­mar­gue since I was a girl, when I spent a bleak Easter hol­i­day there with a howling wind, and saw the black and white film Crin Blanc, about a small boy and a wild white horse. Later, as stu­dent hitch­hik­ers, my hus­band and I camped in the vine­yards on the shore at Le Grau-du-Roi, the lit­tle port to the west. But when I went back as an adult, I weptwep – the vine­yards had given­giv way to hol­i­day apart­men­nts, bars and bou­tiques, whilele huge ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings strode along the sandy roads. Ev­ery­thing seemed to have changed.

It didn’t take long to see that I was wrong. The new re­sort of La Grande-Motte looms up a few miles to the west, and to the east are the chem­i­cal works of Salin-deGi­raud, and the oil and gas in­stal­la­tions clus­ter­ing along the Rhône. But the empty heart of the Ca­mar­gue is un­touched. The huge Étang de Vac­carès is a na­ture re­serve where flocks of mi­grat­ing birds join ducks, geese, teals, egrets, av­o­cets and stat­uesque herons. The white horses – one of the old­est breeds in the world – still roam the marshes in man­ades (freerun­ning herds) and the gar­di­ens still ride them to round up the long-horned black bulls.

Like the Fens, this is a place of vast skies, where earth and wa­ter blend and where peo­ple have al­ways fought to tame na­ture. To the north lies the re­giore­gion’s cap­i­tal, Ar­les, where the river dives into the Grand Rhône to the east and the Petit Rhône to the west. Ne­olithic tribes used the salt from the la­goons that dried in sum­mer, and a Ro­man named Pec­cius cre­ated the first known salt marsh, the Marais de Pec­cais. In the Mid­dle Ages, salt was traded by Cis­ter­cian and Bene­dic­tine B monas­ter­ies built on n mounds in the marshes, and an in 791, Charle­magne built a tower to pro­tect the salt work­ers and fish­er­men, and to act as a bea­con, warn­ing of any ap­proach­ing fleet. Cen­turies later, around 1240, Psalmody Abbey – of which only a few ru­ins sur­vive – sold its port to Louis IX, who built the town of Aigues-Mortes and re­placed Charle­magne’s tower with the solid Tower of Con­stance. From here Louis launched the sev­enth cru­sade in 1248, and the eighth in 1270. The re­li­gious wars con­tin­ued, not against Sara­cens, but dis­senters within France it­self: in 1307 the Tower of Con­stance held 45 Tem­plars; after the edict of Fon­tainebleau in 1685, it be­came a grim prison for Huguenots. To­day, the tower serves as a me­mo­rial to the Protes­tant women once im­pris­oned here.

The walls of Aigues-Mortes still stand sternly against the flat hori­zon. The salt-pans that you see as you drive down be­side the canal to the sea at Le-Grau-duRoi, still turn pink (from a com­bi­na­tion of sea­wa­ter and

al­gae). And the har­vested salt still piles up in sparkling white pyra­mids, ‘camelles’, like a camel’s hump. But over the cen­turies the marsh be­yond has changed.

The Car­bon­niere Tower, con­structed in the 13th cen­tury to help de­fend Aigues-Mortes, now stands alone in the cen­tre of a swamp, its sin­gle gate by­passed by two roads that curve around it. Its de­fen­sive role may have ended, but restora­tion work in the 19th cen­tury has saved it as a fas­ci­nat­ing tourist at­trac­tion.

The marshes are dot­ted with white­washed huts, roofed with reeds. On the shore­line lies Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, whose great Ro­manesque church gave pro­tec­tion against pirates and Sara­cen raiders. Win­ter storms lash the dunes along the beach, and leg­end has it that the Three Marys (Mary Mag­da­lene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome), with their black ser­vant Sara, were washed ashore here after they were ex­pelled from Jerusalem. Sara – Sara-la-Kali – later be­came the pa­tron saint of the Gi­tans, the Ro­many from south­ern France, Spain and north Africa. Thou­sands flock here on 24 and 25 May, when the statue of Sara the saint is car­ried from the crypt to the sea, wrapped in gold cloth, and the streets throb with mu­sic, colour and non-stop fla­menco.

Yet, how­ever big the crowds, when you stand on the dunes, or fol­low the sandy tracks through the high reeds, you could be the only per­son in the world. The magic of Sain­tesMaries and the marshes and la­goons with their rose-coloured flamin­goes, will, I hope, al­ways re­main.

White horses – one of the old­est breeds in the world – still roam the marshes in free-run­ning herds

The Car­bon­niere Tower, sur­rounded by marsh­land, once de­fended the town of Aigues-Mortes

Ro­many flock to the Ca­mar­gue for the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of their pa­tron saint, Sara-la-Kali

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