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Camargue barging up River Rhône.
Camargue barging up River Rhône.
Dining in Aigues-Mortes.
The town of Aigues-Mortes.

Vive La France - Camargue Barging

Thursday, February 21, 2002
Ben hires a bike, jumps on a barge and goes horse-riding as he discovers a part of France fit for a king. Well, a cowboy, anyhow.

Just a few minutes south of Arles, lying between two branches of the River Rhône, is Camargue. It could be a little country of its own. Designated in 1927 as a botanical and zoological reserve, it is a series of long, level roads, criss-crossing marshes and farmlands.

There are fields of grazing cattle and horses, rice paddies, orchards and a few vineyards. Cyclists peddle along roads, or lanes, that are forbidden to motor vehicles. Spring and autumn are the best times to see the many birds of the Camargue and the Etang de Vaccarès, a reserve teeming with wildlife. Around 5000 people live there and a fragile ecological balance is maintained. It boasts a collection of unique flora and around 400 species of bird, including pink flamingoes, ibises and egrets.

Aigues-Mortes — far more poetic than its English translation "Dead Waters" — is in the marshy heart of Camargue. The walled medieval town has changed little since it was founded by Louis IX (or St Louis) in 1241, when he obtained a flatland of ponds and marshes from an order of monks whose Psalmody Abbey on the site dates from the 5th century. A canal was dug through the ponds to the sea. Prior to that, the south coast ports were owned by the king of Aragon, the German emperor and the pope, meaning the French were denied access to the sea for trade and crusade departures.

With a promise of most taxes being exempt, the new port became important in maritime trade and, in 1248, Louis' 1500 ships gathered there to sail to the Holy Land for the sixth crusade. Aigues-Mortes' fortunes peaked, but when its basin was filled with silt from the River Rhône to create Marseille, making it 8km from the Gulf of Lions, the small town declined and never recovered.

In the marshes are huge mounds of salt drying in the sun. The extraction of salt from seawater has been happening for over 2000 years — to the Greeks and Romans, it was more precious than gold. Soldiers were paid in salt — hence the English word "salary". It was transported along the Mediterranean coast, then inland on the Salt Roads or to the mountains of the Alpes-Maritime.

Aigues-Mortes has some beautiful old houses and the main square buzzes at night with people enjoying the many open-air restaurants. Seafood is a specialty!

Keeping tradition alive are the Camargue guardians, or cowboys, who live in thatched huts and ride small, white horses to round up locally bred bulls. The riders and horses are agile, and the bulls come to no harm — ribbons tied to their horns are cut by the riders to prove their skills. Tradition insists that bulls, horses and men live in harmony.

Each May, the fishing village of Les Stes-Maries de la Mer comes alive with people from across Europe, gathering to pay homage to their patron saint, Sarah. Provençal legend says she and several other women fled the Holy Land in 1448 in a small boat, eventually drifting to the River Rhône. What is believed to be their skeletal remains were found in a crypt in Les Stes-Maries. Sarah's annual festival is full of tradition, dancing and music, and its 30km of uninterrupted fine sand beaches become a campsite for Gitans, Romany people who were formerly called gypsies.

An idyllic and relaxing way to soak in all the Camargue has to offer is barging along the canals. There are various sizes of self-drive barges, with equipped galley, linen and towels, shower and toilet and some have outdoor furniture and umbrellas, and bicycles for shore excursions.

Barges are usually boarded at Port Cassafieres or St Gilles, and it is a very relaxing way to see the countryside and unspoiled medieval towns of Camargue.

Location

Southeast coast of France

Cost

Qantas is offering Getaway viewers an exclusive low fare to Paris. Return economy fares are $1399 from the east coast, Adelaide and Perth. The offer ends on Monday, August 6, 2001, and is for departures from October 1 to November 15, 2001 and January 14 to February 28, 2002. Conditions apply.
Outdoor Travel offers self-drive boat hire, starting at $1025 per week. An eight-berth Classique starts at $3480 a week. They operate between March and October.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

Maison de la France
(French Government Tourist Office)
Ph: (02) 9231 5244
Fax: (02) 9221 8682
www.franceguide.com


Outdoor Travel
Ph: 1800 331 582
Fax: (03) 5750 1020
www.outdoortravel.com.au
info@outdoortravel.com.au


Qantas: 13 13 13

For a safe and healthy journey, talk to the travel doctor: 1300 658 844 or visit traveldoctor.com.au
Vaccinations: Tetanus/Diphtheria and Measles if under 30 years and no previous booster. A small kit for treatment of cuts, scratches, coughs and colds is available in all Travel Doctor clinics. Take plenty of protective 30+ sunscreen. Beware when crossing roads, traffic travels in the opposite direction from Australia.

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