Glory of Green
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Stories from the Great Outdoors

 

Want to feel like you’ve left Europe? With 26 European countries in my travel diary, my top one recommendation so far is to visit the Camargue Regional Nature Park, located south of Arles, between Montpellier and Marseilles in the region of Provence, France. I’ll even call the salt plains of the Camargue other-worldly – it feels like you and the flamingos are at a galaxy far, far away. My best tip for the trip? Bring bikes! And mosquito deterrent.

Wide open spaces

Camargue is the largest river delta in Western Europe. The “Ile de Camargue ("Camargue Island") lies between the Rhone River and the Mediterranean Sea, and the delta consists of large and shallow saltwater lagoons (the étangs), snowy white salt reefs and green swamps that produce a million biting insects. According to Wikipedia the swamps are famous for hosting some of the most hostile mosquitos in France, and my personal verdict is that this is absolutely true. I’m still scratching, weeks later.

We stopped several places along the route to touch and taste the crystallised sea salt – some people were even harvesting. Rusty remnants of salt production are left as traces of days gone by. Salt has been produced here since antiquity. More recent activity has left information boards, observation points, dykes and dirt roads perfect for pedalling.

Miracle bikes

Biking is not only the best way to get around on these vast plains, it’s also the absolute best way to get away from the tiny hordes feeding on you. Unless you’re in a car of course, but that is a SAD way to see the Camargue.

We rented our bikes at the charming Restaurant Manade La Grand Ponche after ditching the bike rental at Mas Saint Bertrand because the bikes were too shitty. The ones we ended up with were almost just as shitty, but at least the man gave us chain oil. By divine intervention the bikes got us through the day even though they clearly weren't supposed to be working. I would not bet on the chain of any of our bikes to last another trip, though.

Unkept equipment makes my husband break out in hives, and this trip ended up taking a giant toll on his otherwise strong nerves. Only a kilometre or so into the ride we had to stop and let him fix the rattling sound of my bike. I recommend bringing your own bikes, but if it’s not doable – cross your fingers and go anyway. Or rent a bike in one of the surrounding towns – I see people are happy with that on TripAdvisor…

Flamingos – and a seagull

Behind the recognition as a nature reserve lie the importance of this area for wild birds. Access is limited in certain areas, but do not worry – you will not feel constrained in this landscape. Spring and autumn are supposed to be the best times to visit, as that means lots of migratory birds. I also imagine it to be unbearably hot here in July and August. 

The possibility of seeing flamingos was of course a great motivator for the entire family, but with more than 300 species, there are other birds to watch as well. A seagull ended up doing the best pose though – never underestimate the everyday bird next door. We saw lots of flamingos, but they were a bit too far away to be reached without a tele lens. 


So much to do

As you can see on the map underneath, there are several bike routes for you to choose from. We wanted a roundtrip with the possibility of seeing flamingos and opted for route 9 (listed as a bike ride of 3,5 to 5 hours) but did a detour down to the beach. On our way to the sea front we found what looked like a huge unorganised wild camp site – and kiters in every form, shape and size. There seems to be a kitesurfing school in the area, if you think this might be your new passion.

White horses are another defining trait, and opportunities for riding them are said to be abundant. We contented ourselves with just admiring this beautiful breed that is said to be one of the oldest in the world. They have lived in the Camargue’s saline wetlands for thousands of years. Some live in semi-wild conditions, but most serve some kind of human purpose.

We could obviously have spent several days in the reserve without getting bored – we only got to see a small corner of this beautiful landscape. Next time I’m planning to see the Aigues Mortes – a mediaeval walled city at the western edge of the reserve, with a history linking it to the crusaders.

Other practicalities

The park website has a great brochure with a tourist map and lots of information. Be aware that the routes marked in this brochure does not correspond to the routes marked in the map below. 

We stayed at a camp site west of Marseille. It took about an hour and a half to get to Camargue by car. Montpellier, and especially Arles, are considerably closer.

Bring food and enough water – there was no place to buy anything along route 9 once we had left the restaurant / bike rental. And be aware: There's no shade!

At the western end of the nature reserve there’s a bird park, open every day except December the 25th. The park has paths for hiking and is accessible for people with reduced mobility.

The landscape is completely flat – and biking is possible for both kids and the elderly. If you’ve got smaller kids: Be aware that the bike paths (except a few) are not entirely car-free, even though traffic was sparse in early June.