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Visiting La Camargue France: A Travel Guide to the National Park in Provence
Location: La Camargue
The Camargue: A Protected Wetland Park
The Camargue (pronounced: ka-mahg) is the delta formed where the Rhône River flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This 360 square mile (930 square kilometer) marshland was made a National Park in 1970 and declared a "Wetland of International Importance" in 1986. It's famous white horses, black bulls, 400+ species of wild birds, small villages, and general lack of tourists make it a wonderful destination to visit on any trip to Provence. It is situated just south of the Roman city of Arles and just shy of an hour drive west of Aix-en-Provence.
In this Hub, I give you an overview of the Camargue, a bit of its history, and a list of things to do on your visit.
A Brief History of La Camargue
As the largest river delta in Europe, La Camargue has been settled by humans for centuries. The primary inhabitants are farmers and the Gardians (i.e. cowboys) who ride the famous white horses, the Camargais native to the area, to raise the black bulls that are exported to Spain.
As various dike projects on the Rhone river throughout the 19th century drained some of the Camargue, it's salty soil became more suitable to agriculture. Although some wine is made here, the primary agriculture is salt and rice, the latter grown to desalinate the soil for other crops.
Highlights to Visit in La Camargue
Although you are free to drive around and make your own way through the park, here are a few suggested highlights that will give you an excellent feel for the Camargue, it's flora and fauna, history, and life on the delta.
Le Musée de la Camargue
The Museum of the Camargue makes an excellent first stop. Situated only 6 miles south of Arles just inside the start to the park, it is built in a renovated sheep fold. The museum recounts the history of people in the Camargue and the evolution of the Rhone delta.
The gift shop of the museum is reasonably priced. For the foodies traveling in Provence, we found it to be the most reasonably priced place to purchase La Camargue salt, an excellent culinary salt, for €5.10 (whereas tourist shops sold the same tin €7-10).
The Aviary: Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau
The Aviary is a brilliant way to explore the the wildlife of the Camargue. It contains over two acres of marshes and several kilometers of pathways engineered for the aviary's inhabitants to live in their natural landscape. It's the best way to see the variety of birds from flamingoes and storks to owls and vultures that are otherwise difficult to spot in the wild. The pink flamingoes are numerous in the Aviary's marshes as Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau has been at the forefront of preservation and breeding efforts for this symbol of the Camargue that was once threatened with extinction.
Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau also acts as a clinic for injured birds. The clinic takes in several hundred injured birds each year and nurses them for releases back into the wild.
Chateau d'Avignon en Camargue
The original Chateau was built by Jean Francois d'Avignon around 1739. The current Chateau stands as the remodel that was undertaken by Louis Noilly-Prat, a famous wine merchant who purchased the estate in 1893 giving it very modern (and in many cases ahead of its time) improvements. The estate stands as proof that, at least for the very wealthy, life in the Camargue didn't always have to be hard.
You can walk around the estate for free. To tour the chateau costs €4 as of the time of this writing (August, 2012) but includes a wonderful audio tour that is available in English.
Set 45km south of Arles on the coast of the Camargue is the legendary landing place of the three saints Mary Magdelene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe after they were set adrift following the crucifixion of Jesus. They are credited with bringing Christianity to France.
This seaside town is a great beach and windsurfing destination in the summer. However, it can be quite filled with tourists. I recommend avoiding it during the August high season.
The Travel Guides Used on My Visit
Tips for Travel to La Camargue
La Camargue is easy to get to and explore. It's relatively low on tourist traffic (compared to other places around Provence). However, there are a few things that I learned on my trip here that will make your visit easier:
- Stay in Arles. La Camargue is only a short 20 minute drive from the city center of Arles and its famous Roman ruins. This makes La Camargue easy to get into and out of for day trips. There are hotels in the park, itself, however, the bugs--especially the mosquitoes--can be quite vicious.
- Explore by car: There are several roadways that run throughout the park. It's easy to explore La Camargue by car and make stops for other activities. Places such as the Aviary, the Museums, the Chateau, the towns, horse riding, etc. all have easy parking.
- Prepare for the Mosquitoes. Given that La Camargue is a marshland, it's no surprise that there are mosquitoes. However, these are not ordinary mosquitoes. They are known to be the most ferocious mosquitoes in all of France. Whether or not that is true, there are certainly a lot of them. Wear your bug repellent in the afternoon and evening (Deet or Citronella highly recommended), and you will have no problem. My group of 5 survived our day in La Camargue mosquito bite free using a Deet-based bug repellant.