Wednesday, October 19, 2011

France 2011 - The Camargue - October 1st

This morning we brought all our luggage out to the bus and prepared for a full day of sightseeing before boarding our boat for the cruise up the Rhone.

I think this is a nutria

The Camargue is a large delta area, laced with bodies of brine (etangs) and marshland. It is west of Marseille and south of Arles. Much of it has been set aside as a wildlife preserve, but you still find the French cowboys (gardians) there with their white horses and black bulls.

Our first stop is a bird sanctuary at Pont de Gau  four kilometers from Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.  It had several miles of walking trails but our group did the short loop around the Marais A. Lamaroux. We saw quite a few flamingos, which either had not yet migrated or had decided to stay on.  On the way back I noticed a nutria by the side of the path and tried to sneak up and get a picture. Turned out he was not a bit frightened of me, but the arrival of a small boisterous French child scared him away. I wish I had taken the Wikipedia article on the Camargue more to heart, because when it states that the Camarge is known for some of the most ferocious mosquitos in France, it is not kidding!

Next stop was the small town of Saintes Maries de la Mer with its pilgrimage church. This is supposed to be a city of gypsies, but all I saw of this were the good luck medals being sold along with the religious medals. First we walked to the beach so that Harry could get his feet wet in the Mediterranean, then we walked back to the church. That day a local couple had gotten married in the City Hall and then had proceeded to the church to have a religious ceremony. We never saw the couple, but there was an escort of the Camargue "gardians" on their white horses waiting outside the church.

Religious medals and charms

Young gardian

We stopped for lunch at Manade Blanc, where they raise bulls for the course. They train the young bulls to be brave and aggressive, but in the camargue they are not killed in the bullfights. At the manade (or ranch) we were served lunch, followed by a wonderful assortment of cheeses. After lunch we got onto a open wagon pulled by a tractor and were taken out to the fields and given a demonstration of bull training.
Young bulls to be tested

Remains of the cheese tray

Bull handlers
Salt being dumped

On the way to our boat we take a short stop at a salt flat. Since Roman times, the salty water has been put into shallow ponds and allowed to evaporate.  Only the finest is hand-raked and harvested for home use, the rest is just scooped up and deposited in these large piles for other uses.

Finally, we boarded our boat at Port St. Louis.  Our cabin was small, but adequate. I was expecting to set sail immediately, but we stayed on the boat overnight while it was docked.  The Mistral is one of the CroisiEurope fleet. On this voyage there were two other "package tour" groups besides our Road Scholar Group, and about five independent travellers.  The first night's dinner was, like all the meals on the ship to follow, excellent!
Our cabin

Our loo
A simple dessert, beautifully presented

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