The Camargue

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The Camargue

General  The "Camargue" is a name given to the broad river delta of the Rhone, the department of "Bouches-du-Rhone" (Mouth of the Rhone). The terrain is distinct, which is why people come to visit, and the French "cowboys" who rope in the steers make it a bit of American "Wild West" deep in the south of France.

The land: Mile after mile of gray, muddy marshes, vast plains, pink flamingos, tall, waving grass. During the summer, mosquitoes rise like locusts from the marshy pools. The ranches where cattle are raised are called mas and have whitewashed walls with plaited straw roofs.

Cowboys: Called gardians in French, they're much like their American counterparts in appearance: black, wide-brimmed hats, long stirrups, and "Western" (as distinct from "English") saddles. Here and there are gray-and-white ponies. Fighting bulls are raised too, for fights in towns along the Spanish border, where Spanish influence is strong.

Aigues-Mortes  A walled town built by King Louis IX ("St. Louis") in 1240 to be a port from which his crusade took off for Egypt and Tunis. It has since become landlocked, because of silt brought downstream by the Rhone. Louis' son, Philip the Bold, completed the construction of the walls, which still stand and are the major attraction. Twenty towers and a huge donjon (dungeon) are the prominent features. Over a mile of limestone walls link these structures, which have not been restored or "modernized." Thus, we have today an impressive picture of a French medieval town, a "port" through which processions of crusaders once passed.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer  The most popular town for visitors in the Camargue. Many a French town is named for St. Mary, but this one is named for several St. Marys collectively. They are sisters of the Virgin: Mary Salome, mother of two of the apostles, and the "Mary" of Mary and Martha (sisters of Lazarus, the man raised form the dead). According to tradition, these Marys landed here in 40 A.D., fleeing persecution by the Romans. The tradition goes on to say that Mary Salome brought with her a Negro servant, Sarah, and this person became the patroness of gypsies. On May 24 each year, gypsies from all over the world assemble in the town. They enter the crypt of an old Romanesque church, lift up the statue of Sarah that stands there, and carry it to the sea for a ritual bath!

Another jamboree occurs every year too. On October 21, a festival of gardians (cowboys) takes place.

As Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a very old town, it still preserves traces of the ancient Provencal dialect. The street names are written in it, and here and there an old timer will mutter an expletive in the brogue.

An attraction in the town is the 12th-century gray stone church, which looks more like a fortress on the outside than a church. Above the altar inside are a pulley and ropes which are used on ceremonial occasions for lowering the sacred chassis (containing the religious relics salvaged from the French Revolution). The relics are lowered from an 18th-century chapel which is situated above the main part of the church.

Le Grau-du-Roi  This pretty fishing port marks the western limit of a vast redevelopment scheme which will transform 100 miles of the coastline when it is finished. The idea is to turn the marshy coastal areas into a summer bathing resort that will handle 2 million visitors every year. The sandy beaches are perfect for vacationers; all that's needed is to fill in the marshy inland areas and smooth out some rough spots on the beaches. This is the biggest such development project of any European shore.

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