MEDIEVAL CITY ON THE SEA
Aigues-Mortes is a repository of French history. Louis IX built the Mediterranean port — before he became St. Louis.
Adjacent to the Riviera but seemingly worlds away, the medieval walled city of Aigues-Mortes is a mystical place. It was built by Louis IX, the future St. Louis, as a port of departure for the Crusades. The only French outlet on the Mediterranean at the time, Aigues-Mortes was a symbol of royal power, just like Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
I was on a quest to learn more about St. Louis’s legacy. The only French king canonized as a saint, he is revered as a model of wisdom, justice and good government. Legend has it that he often dressed as a monk, tended to lepers and ad- ministered justice from under an oak tree in Vincennes.
To join me on my journey, I lured my sidekick, my five-yearold daughter, Jane, with (slightly exaggerated) stories of powerful queens and kings of bygone eras. Like most of her classmates in her Paris kindergarten, Jane is obsessed with the Disney film Frozen, set in the fictional Nordic kingdom of Arendelle. The lore surrounding St. Louis can be equally enchanting.
He was only 12 when his father, King Louis VIII, died, and his mother, Blanche de Castile, acted as regent until he could take the helm. The first woman to rule the French kingdom, she was shrewd, sometimes ruthless, arranging political alliances and warding off threats to the monarchy. Look closely at the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, and you’ll see it doesn’t depict the king’s wife, Marguerite de Provence, but his mother. (More powerful, even, than the queen in Frozen, I told Jane.)
Louis IX and his mother were brilliant politicians, creating their own legends centuries before Twitter-fuelled political campaigns. Jane’s eyes grew wide as I spun tales of these mighty rulers.
The story starts in Paris. Sainte-Chapelle is one of the French capital’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces. No matter how often you visit, it casts a powerful spell.
Sainte-Chapelle was built in 1248 to house the Holy Relics — the crown of thorns and later a segment of the True Cross — purchased by Louis IX. The pious king had spent an astronomical sum, equivalent to more than half the kingdom’s annual revenues, to obtain these authenticated objects, thus endowing the kingdom of France with symbolic prestige in the medieval world. He was determined to create a worthy home for them. In the lower-level chapel, the azure ceilings are studded with gilded fleurs-de-lis, while in the upstairs — originally reserved for the king and the royal family — 15 stained-glass windows narrate biblical stories in wonderful detail.
Here’s a tip to beat the lineup: buy tickets online, and arrive right before the chapel opens after the lunch break (2:15 p.m.). On my previous visit, I had sprinted up the stairs to the upper chapel and had the place to myself for a few magical minutes. I studied the stories in the stained glass and snapped photos of the kaleidoscope of coloured light reflected on the floor. A recently completed, seven-year renovation project has restored these vitraux to masterful effect. The chapel is rife with religious symbols — intriguing clues for fans of medieval thrillers — and more subtle secrets such as the peephole Louis IX used to spy on members of court as they prayed.
The most fascinating stainedglass window narrates the story of the Relics of the Passion. What cleverly orchestrated propaganda! Pious as he was, Louis IX was also decidedly ambitious; politically, he elevated France to the centre of medieval Christendom with the purchase of the crown of thorns. (Today, the relics are housed in Notre Dame Cathedral.) Immortalized in the chapel’s art, Louis IX is portrayed as the legitimate successor to the biblical kings.
On the dawn high-speed train from Paris we passed snow-covered hills near Lyon and spied fortified towers with turrets and arrow- slit windows. The mistshrouded fields gave way to the sun-bleached landscapes of the south of France, lorded over by cypress and gnarled olive trees. In Nîmes, we switched to a slow local train to take us to the sea. Destination: the perfectly preserved citadel of Aigues-Mortes.
It was an act of sheer will to construct a city from nothing on the slippery mud flats of the Camargue marshlands in the mid-13th century. According to legend, Louis IX fell deathly ill and made a vow to God: If miraculously healed, he would lead an army to reconquer the Holy Land. But to make good on that promise, Louis had to create a port from which the French Crusaders could set sail. In the wild Rhône Delta, he purchased land from the Benedictine abbey of Psalmodi and set out to build a network of canals to connect it to the sea. Five thousand trees were felled to build on shifting sands. To entice a local population to stay in a mosquito-ridden swamp, Louis offered tax incentives.
“There was also a strong geopolitical reason to build the city and assert royal power in what was a tempestuous region,” said histo- rian Patrick Florencon, who leads tours around the ramparts. Sporting a fabulous beret and curling moustache, Florencon pointed out fascinating details in the fortifications: grotesque gargoyles, checkerboard games carved into stone walkways and the grisly Tour des Bourguignons, where dead bodies were salted to prevent the spread of disease after the 1421 battle against the Armagnacs. We marvelled at the security measures to protect a slumbering Louis IX in the Tour de Constance. But even more interesting to Jane was the “graffiti” carved into walls by his bored guards, depicting the era’s sailboats.
From the top of the ramparts, you can peer down into the ancient houses lining the perfect geometric grid of medieval streets, today dotted with swimming pools and TV antennas. Shimmering in the distance is a mirage-like mountain of sea salt collected from the salt ponds surrounding Aigues-Mortes. This is the biggest salt-production facility in France, and it dates to antiquity. In the summer, there’s a supernatural aura because of the water’s brilliant pink hue.
We checked in at the Villa Mazarin, a lovely hotel that occupies a 15th-century manor house, and we ate multiple meals at L’Atelier de Nicolas, where the staff spoiled us with kids’ colouring books and copious plates prepared by charm- ing chef Nicolas.
Stepping out of the city through an arched gateway to the south, we discovered a wide field abutting the marshland. In 2014, AiguesMortes (along with the Camargue Gardoise) was named a Grand Site de France, a label that recognizes and protects important landscapes. The surrounding natural areas have been restored, and wooden boardwalks allow visitors to scope out the fabulous flora and fauna — including pink flamingos.
There’s a remarkable diversity of landscape in the Petite Camargue, also influenced by the hands of humans. Besides the medieval monks and St. Louis himself, the Camargue has been shaped by cowboys called “guardians,” who raise Camargue bulls in the marshlands. Many of these animals roam free, herded by dapper guardians atop white horses.
The next day, Jane and I gravitate to the sun-splashed Place Saint-Louis, where a regal statue of Louis IX stands sentry over the square’s bustling cafés. From here, the tourism office organizes a Knights Templar treasure hunt for children.
Booklet in hand, Jane and I race through the streets noting clues and solving riddles: What secret motifs are carved into the fountain? Whose relics can be found in Notre Dame des Sablons church? The map leads us on a quest to every corner of Aigues-Mortes, and upon completion, Jane is allowed to open a treasure chest in the tourism office. Lifting the lid, she gapes at the hoard of gold coins. Each participating child is allowed to keep one.
The Knights Templar bailed out Louis IX when he was captured by the enemy on the Seventh Crusade in 1250, literally paying a king’s ransom for his return. Twenty years later, Saint Louis died beneath the walls of Carthage in Tunisia on the Eighth Crusade. But his legend lives on today.