Seen from the top of the battlement-ringed tower of its Roman church, the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer on the Camargue coast is similar to the North African ports that bask in the Mediterranean sun. Traveling up from the mouth of the winding Rhône, the river that irrigates the region, visitors will discover a land of water and light. A vast, humid area in which marshland shifts into plains covered in reeds, tamari trees, and pickleweed, small bushes that thrive in salty soil and turn from green to red throughout the seasons. In the distance, horses and bulls graze freely amidst gray herons and pink flamingos.
The charm of a terroir can be created by both its natural attributes and the actions of its inhabitants. Set in the Rhône delta between the Plaine de la Crau and the Mediterranean Sea, Camargue certainly has a lot going for it. This rugged slice of paradise has remained intact in our turbulent world. Its history, geography, and traditions owe a lot to the charisma and devotion of a very unusual aristocrat, who spent his life building its unique identity in opposition to the attention-seeking opulence of the French Riviera.
Administratively linked to Arles, the most sprawling town in France, the 370,000 acres of the Camargue region were disconnected from the rest of the world for many years. The main inhabitants were the manades, herds of semi-wild horses and bulls. Civilization was concentrated almost exclusively either in the north, in the ancient city of Arles, known as the “Little Rome of the Gauls,” or to the west in Aigues-Mortes. This former medieval port was where King Louis IX first set out on the crusade of 1248. Today, it is ringed with sand and the ramparts and towers stand as a testament to this heritage.
To the east, the Etang de Vaccarès and the Plaine de la Crau are bordered by the rolling, blue-tinged foothills of the Alpilles Mountains, enhancing the isolation of this once-harsh ecosystem where clouds of mosquitos would fill the air above the foul marshlands in the summer. Until the late 19th century, the people of Camargue lived in poverty and were forced to graze their herds on soil that was too salty for wheat or rye. Time seemed to have stopped in this humid land, baked by the sun and teeming with thousands of birds flying to Africa.
The Impresario of Camargue
Everything changed at the start of the 20th century thanks to Marie Joseph Lucien Gabriel Folco, Marquis de Baroncelli, born in Aix-en-Provence in 1869 to an old Florentine family who moved to Provence in the 15th century to follow the pope to Avignon. As explained in his book by historian Robert Zaretsky, an expert in French culture at the University of Houston, this nobleman literally invented Camargue. Regionalism and the celebration of Provençal culture was all the rage at the time. Based in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, lou marques – “the marquis” in Provençal – fell in love with the language and its leading champion, the poet Frédéric Mistral, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The desire to protect the original purity of Camargue and turn it into an idealized, untamed area was inspired by a trip to Paris in 1905. While in the capital, the marquis attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show during its European tour and met a number of Sioux chiefs, whom he likened to the gardians, the mounted herdsmen of Camargue. He invited them to his mas, an old stone farmhouse, and was given the nickname Zintkala Waste, or “Loyal Bird.” From then on, the nobleman decided to defend the gardians who roamed the countryside, hired out their services, and occupied the lowest rung on the rural social ladder.
His first move was to design them a special outfit, featuring a wide-brimmed, black hat, a colorful shirt, a velvet jacket, moleskin pants, and a pair of smooth, black leather boots. Next, he created the Camargue cross as the emblem of this newly founded group, a symbol of brotherhood between those who tended their herds and those who worked at sea. The image combined the Christian crucifix, the trident of the gardians, and the anchor of the sailors. The marquis then revisited the traditions and games of this far-flung region. After organizing an “uprising of the tridents” in 1921 to protest the ban on corridas in Nîmes, his moment of glory arrived when Camargue bullfighting was officially codified and promoted.
Following local tradition, the vertical-horned Camargue bulls – unlike their horizontal-horned Spanish cousins – are the heroes of the arena instead of the matadors. As a result, the animals are not killed. Two, three, or more raseteurs, each wearing eye-catching white uniforms, use hooks to retrieve the charms, cockades, and ribbons decorating the horns of a castrated yet truly imposing adult bull. The final stage of this event takes place in October every year, and the dodges, swipes, and leaps over the red fence around the arena make for a uniquely choreographed performance.
Pilgrimages, Environmentalism, and Gastronomy
As a friend of the have-nots and forgotten peoples, the marquis later allowed gypsies to attend the annual celebrations in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The crypt in the church is home to the renowned statue of Black Sarah, the patron saint of the Romani people. According to legend, she sailed from Egypt to the Provençal coast after the crucifixion of Christ. Her painted plaster effigy is a key feature of the pilgrimage, which brings together Romani groups from all over Europe on May 24 and 25 every year. In line with a tradition dating back to 1936, the statue is carried in a procession to the sea, where it is immersed in the water up to its waist.
As well as being a defender of tradition, Folco de Baroncelli was also an environmental pioneer. During the 1930s, some 30 years before the Camargue Regional Nature Park and the Biosphere Reserve financed by UNESCO, he campaigned against a project to drain the Etang du Vaccarès, an inland sea spanning 16,000 acres, and demanded the creation of a natural reserve for flamingos as investment for the future tourism sector. Environmental activists and nature lovers have him to thank for the opening and conservation of this untouched space. Today, horseback riding, religious celebrations, corridas, and some 350 bird species are reason enough to visit this unusually affordable and isolated part of the French Riviera.
To top everything off, foodies will enjoy delicious cuisine made with local products and fish from fresh water (bass, eels, pikes) and the sea (sardines, anchovies, soles, skates, turbots). Then there is fougasse, a Provençal bread with a soft crust and a thick crumb. Countless little bistros and cafés serve fish soup, bull steak, and tellines or “wedge shells,” small, delicious shellfish accompanied by the renowned, pale-pink Sable-de-Camargue wine. This rugged land also became the setting for movies nicknamed “bouillabaisse westerns” in 1909, in a nod to Italian spaghetti westerns. In a way, it is a French version of the American West, and its joyous folklore, gastronomy, traditions, and beliefs are proudly resisting the Disneyfication of the world. Long may it continue!