The sun was playing peek-a-boo with wispy clouds this morning….we packed, checked out of the hotel and, hopeful that the rains had ended, headed south to the Camargue…..the large delta area of the Rhone. It’s varied landscapes…..lagoons, marshlands, rice fields, grasslands, sand dunes and salt flats…..are home to a countless number of animals…..but we had hoped to see just three…..the white horses and black bulls that are indigenous to the area and the graceful pink flamingos that migrated here and decided to stay (who can blame them?).
After a few wrong turns, we finally found ourselves on the narrow road that skirts the Étang de Vaccarès, the largest of the Camargue lagoons….it’s beautiful blue waters ringed by willowy, green rushes. Within minutes, we spotted our first flock of flamingos….foraging in shallow waters. We watched in awe as these balletic birds, seemingly in unison, swept through the shallow waters. As we continued along the Étang, each bend in the road greeted us with more and more flocks of flamingos. When the road ended, we parked the car and walked along the Étang…..delighted to be so near these wild birds and surprised by their cacophonous squawking calls.
One down, two to go. We returned to the car and resumed our journey south….to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Tall reeds lined the road, obscuring the countryside….but elevated wooden viewpoints allowed us to stop along the way to see what we were missing. On one of these stops, we saw Camargue horses in their native habitat. Were these “wild” horses? Yes and no….the Camargue horse breeders Association requires that horses be “at liberty and out of doors in groups of at least four mares of reproductive age and grazing on at least 20 hectares (49 acres).” The horses are allowed to move around freely looking for edible vegetation but are rounded up once a year for a health check…..so, along the way, we also saw many “gardian huts.” Gardians are the cowboys of the Camargue. Their traditional home was a small thatched-roofed house….rounded on one side, flat on the other…..with a nearby tall, wooden pole that served a lookout where they could oversee their animals.
Two down, one to go. As we neared Saintes Maries de la Mer and the coastline, we feared we wouldn’t meet our goal….but suddenly, to our right, there they were! A small group of bulls grazing in the grasslands! Would these bulls be rounded up by the Gardians and sold for bullfighting? If so, their life will be better than their Spanish counterparts. In French bullfights, the object isn’t to kill the bull….it’s to snatch a ribbon rosette from between the bull’s horns. In this test of man against beast, the bull is the more popular….posters for bullfights don’t advertise the bullfighters, they list the bulls.
We had hoped to stop at Saintes Maries de la Mer for lunch and a stroll along the beach, but the summertime crowds were overwhelming and there wasn’t a parking space to be found, so we continued on to Aigues Mortes…..a walled town built in 1240 as a Mediterranean port. The port silted up over time…..leaving a well-preserved, touristy, medieval walled city in it’s wake.
We parked the car and walked through one of it’s ten stone “gates.” We spied a restaurant serving fabulous looking salads, so we stopped for lunch. Our waitress, a pretty young blond, spoke no English. We asked if we could order a salad (none were listed on the menu). She said we could….then we ordered a half-bottle of rosé. Our young server repeated our order to a woman who appeared to be both chef and proprietress…..and she promptly brought over a large bottle of red wine.
“No,” said Craig politely. “Je voudrais une demi-bouteille de rosé.”
“You’d like a half-bottle of rosé?,” she asked in a lilting French accent. “I am so sorry…..she is young and doesn’t understand English.”
“No, no,” I said, “it is our fault for not speaking French very well.” “Ah, no, it is her fault….she doesn’t understand French either,” responded Madame sadly. We asked if we could order salads. “Salads with meat?” Madame asked. “Yes” we eagerly replied. “No problem….I will make them for you.” Madame opened a small bottle of local rosé for us and departed to the kitchen….returning before too long carrying two large plates filled with crisp greens, ham slices, gesiers, chicken roulade with a tomato filling, a small bowl of a savory ground beef concoction and a cup of gazpacho. Before she returned to the kitchen, Madame dropped off, “Salt from Aigues Mortes….it is made here….you can see it just outside. And pepper from Jamaica….it is the best.”
The salads, with the light crunch of sea salt and pepper, were delicious. The dry rosé was perfect. Desserts….strawberries with coconut ice cream and a lavender creme brulee, were excellent. No crowds and great food…..what could be better?
The holiday revelers were no longer on the roads, but the drive back to the cottage still took almost two hours. It was after 6:00 p.m. when we arrived home. We could hear Felix’s plaintive mews on the other side of the door. Would he be happy to see us or mad that we had left him?
We soon found out when we opened the door and he ran out to say “hi” to his little friends. As we thought…..we’re just staff…..here to take care of his needs (but at least his food bowls were empty….guess in a pinch, he can eat crumbs).
“Cats were put into the world to disprove the dogma that all things were created to serve man.” ~ Paul Gray