If you love nature and wildlife, along with fine food and drink, you will want to visit the Camargue. This unique nature reserve in the South of France is famous for its naturally-preserved beauty and marshlands, as well as the local culture and traditions of the people living in the area.
With wild white horses running free, the local French cowboys in the area are known as “gardians“, and the area is famous for its Spanish-influence, with the French-Spanish border being within just a few miles.
The Camargue itself is divided into two French regions: the Gard in Occitanie to the west and Provence to the east. Geographically, it is near the towns of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Arles, Nimes, Aigues-Mortes, Salins de Giraud and Saint Martin de Crau.
The Rhône River flows through the middle of this unique nature area which is a delta at the mouth of the river. The river was a major canal for trade and commerce since the time of the Romans, so it is slightly astonishing that the Camargue has been as well-preserved as it is.
The region is known for its amazing biodiversity and a true paradise for nature-lovers and visitors alike. So let’s have a look at the top things to see and do in the Camargue, shall we? Allons-y!
Things to see and do
1. Wildlife in the National Park
The Camargue national park is famous for its unique wetlands, along with the variety of flora and fauna that live in this protected region.
Along with several species of wildlife and beautiful pink flamingoes for which the Camargue National Park is one of the most important breeding sites in the world. Along with the flamingos, there are over 400 other bird species including Curlews, Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Grey Herons, and more.
It also has many different types of native flora which has adapted to the saline conditions, such as sea lavender, glasswort flourish, tamarisks, etc.
The Camargue National Park was established as a protected reserve in 1972 and covers 85,000 hectares of land. You can take a private guided tour to the Camargue here.
2. Riding the Horses
Along with several species of wildlife and beautiful pink flamingoes, the Camargue also has an eponymous horse breed, the famous white Camarguais which are raised in almost wild conditions.
The Camargue horse-riding culture that attract visitors from far and wide. Along with offering rides, there are also shows featuring these beautiful white horses in the town of Grau-le-Roi which is next to Aigues-Mortes.
3. Watch the Bull-fighting and the Toro
Since the Camargue is located near the French and Spanish border, and the Pyrennées mountains, this is a large Spanish influence in the local Camargue culture.
From its own version of tapas and bull-fighting festivals, this is an area that is unique in France.
If you want to watch some of the toro festivities, you will want to head to the Camargue and Arles during September or April to celebrate the Feria de Riz, a festival that takes place to celebrate the rice harvest.
There is bullfighting, celebrations and a true fiesta spirit that brings the tourists flocking to this side of the Pyrennées mountains.
4. Visit the Salt fields
The Camargue is also known for its sea salts that are produced by drawing seawater into marsh basins and allow the water to evaporate, leaving behind the salt. Some salt crystals float on the surface of the water, forming a delicate crust of crystals that is called fleur de sel.
Just beyond the walled-city of Aigues-Mortes, the Salin d’Aigues-Mortes on the Camargue are the salt fields that are thought to be the largest around the Mediterranean sea.
It is run by a private company producing the fleur de sel de camargue, and vehicles are not allowed inside the fields. For a fee, there is a small train you can take inside, or visit on foot. (You can also ride a bike, but you must bring your own bike.)
5. Enjoy local food and drinks
The unique nature of the Camargue, located near the border between France and Spain, means that there is a lot of local foods and drinks that are unique to this area. If you are looking for souvenirs to take back home from Provence and the Camargue, you will be spoilt for choice.
There are several items that are very popular with tourists and locals alike:
- Fleur de sel de camargue – Salt
- Riz de camargue – Rice
- Savon de lavande – Lavender soap
- Confit de fleur de violette – a type of jam made from violet flowers
- Miel de fleurs – honey made from flowers
- Vin des sables de camargue – wine
- Liqueur La Camarguaise – a digestif liquer
- Bière des gardiens – a beer made from rice from the Camargue
- Caramel sel de camargue – salty caramels.
In addition, be sure to try the fougasse d’Aigues Mortes which is a type of French bread. The traditional one from Provence is usually topped with crushed olives, cheese, garlic or anchovies.
However, the sugary fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes is more of a sweet snack served at Christmas, placed among the 13 desserts of Provence. You can read about more souvenirs from France here.
6. Visit the three Mary’s
The village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is based on a legend. As the story goes, it is believed that it is here that is Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, brother Lazarus, Maximinus, as well as Marie Salomé and Marie de Cléophas all landed after leaving the Holy Land.
The town became known as the town of the 3 Marys and the location became known as “Our Lady of the Boat” (“Nôtre-Dame-de-Ratis“).
There are celebrations it holds for each Mary’s feast, in May and October. The biggest annual festival is on May 24-25th for Mary’s servant Sarah, who also considered a revered saint and is widely celebrated by Roma Catholics.
If you have some time, you can also visit Tarascon which is about 32 miles (50km) away, and it is here that Sainte Martha, the sister of Mary Magdalene is believed to have lived, after leaving Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. A church containing several religious relics reputed to be from her, can be found in Tarascon.
Where to stay?
I would recommend staying in Arles, which is the biggest town near the Camargue and has a thriving center with plenty of hotels and restaurants. It also makes a great base to travel around to the historic Pont du Gard and other nearby cities like Nimes, Montpellier, Avignon, Sète, Uzès, Toulouse, Martigues, Carcassone, etc.
Some recommended hotels in Arles are:
- €€€ – Hôtel Spa Le Calendal – spa facilities
- €€€€ – Hôtel Arles Plaza – 15 minute walk from the center of Arles but has a swimming pool and jacuzzi.
- €€€€€ – Hôtel & Spa Jules César Arles – MGallery Hotel Collection – with swimming pool, hot tub, and sauna.
Is it easy to get around?
The closest international airport is in Marseille, from where it takes 50 minutes to get near the Camargue, to Arles or Aigues-Mortes by car.
If you don’t wish to drive, you can also take a tour to the Camargue leaving from Marseille, Avignon, Aigues-Mortes, or Arles.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about traveling around the Occitanie. A bientôt!