Tuesday 10 November 2015

The Camargue

France, 4th – 7th November 2015

The Camargue national park is a wetlands area that covers 100,000 hectares and only reaches a maximum height of 4m above sea level.  Because it is so flat and near the sea the basin is very salty, so as well as being a major processor of salt, it is also a very important area for wildlife, particularly birds.  Three quarters of French bird species have been found in the area, but the most famous of which is probably flamingos, with the Camargue being the only site in the country in which they reproduce.  It’s quite a pleasant place to spend a few days... provided you don’t spend the night at Salin-de-Giraud, unless having your van attacked by locals is your sort of thing.

The Camargue starts at the point where the Rhône river splits at the town of Arles, occupying the basin south of here between the Petit Rhône to the west and Grand Rhône to the east.  If you’re approaching the Camargue from the east via the Grand Rhône, there are two options of getting across.  The first is by driving to Arles and then from there heading south.  The second is a regular chain ferry service that crosses the Grand Rhône between Port-St-Louis-du- Rhône and Salin-de-Giraud.  Given that we were already in the region of St-Louis and would have been adding something in the region of 60km to our journey to go via Arles, we opted for the chain ferry.  It was a relatively painless procedure, in that it’s just a case of driving on, paying €5 and waiting a few minutes to get over to the other side.  From there, we drove off and entered the Camargue.

It was already late afternoon when we crossed, so we went straight for the Aire at Salin-de-Giraud and settled down with the intention of exploring the Camargue the next day.  The Aire (GPS: 43.41219 4.73125) is a gravelled motorhome area in the village behind the fire station where you can park free of charge, although the drinking water (€2) gets turned off in the winter.  We were joined by three other vans and on our first stay were undisturbed (the problems were when we came back a couple of nights later).  I can’t say we were particularly impressed with Salin as a place.  The area felt as though at some point in the last few years it ran out of money and then things just never picked back up again.  The first approach to the town looks nice enough with fairly presentable rows of terraced brick houses, but the area south of the Aire was an uninspiring collection of what looked like poorly maintained holiday homes in various states of completion, often with breeze-block lean-tos outside.  There was a large sports ground in the middle that looked like it would have once been a nice facility, but it has since fallen into disrepair with weeds sprouting up through the cracked running track and sports courts.  Overall the whole place felt a little depressing, and we didn’t feel any inclination to stick around.

The next day, we headed south.  11km from the town takes you to Plage de Piémanson, down a road between fields of salt marshes and plains.  Birds are to be seen everywhere while driving even in November, with flamingos scavenging the salt ponds for food and the occasional bird of prey sweeping through the sky.  After passing a salt works you eventually come out at Piémanson, where unbelievably it is still possible to park for free near the sea in southern France (GPS: 43.35008 4.78381).  Other than fisherman and a couple of cars, there wasn’t really anyone about other than a dozen or so motorhomes.  Apparently during peak season in the past it’s been possible to park vans directly on the sand, but we’ve heard this year might have been the last time that was possible and overnight parking may be banned here next year and a larger better Aire opened nearby.  We had intended to cover more of the Camargue but it was such a nice spot and the weather was great so it would have been a shame not to have a beach day, so after lunch out came the chairs and that was that.

You must have to really like your fishing to own so many rods...
The parking on the approach road to the beach is surrounded
on both sides by salt ponds, so there's water in nearly every
A few caravans were left on the beach at the end of summer;
the council marked them abandoned and now they're
slowly being gutted and dismantled
The sky at the end of the day

We actually forced ourselves out of bed the next day in order to see the sunrise, which sounds impressive until you realise sunrise was around 7:15 and so a perfectly normal time to be waking up anyway.  After about half an hour of beautiful views, a blanket of fog set in that enveloped the wetlands around us.  Sightseeing in the wetlands would have been pointless in those conditions, so we instead went to Arles ahead of schedule, which was far enough away to be unaffected by fog.  We were unable to stop and look around unfortunately because the motorhome parking had been taken over by a circus/fair that was in town.  We’ve heard it’s a lovely town, but we had to give it a miss this time around due to seeing no other parking opportunities with the surrounding area being very busy so will have to visit properly at some point in the future.

Sunrise at Plage de Piémason
Flamingos can live as long as 50 years and are
born grey - they only start turning pink when
they are around 5 years old
Thankfully the fog had cleared up on our return to the Camargue so we went to La Capeliére, which is a visitor centre/tourist info point, where a lady gave us lots of helpful advice about the walks in the region.  There is a free 20km walking/cycle route along a sea dyke that joins the two ends of the Camargue, past a lighthouse (La Gacholle) before going all the way to the town of Ste.-Maries-de-la-Mer.  We only had a couple of hours of daylight so couldn’t do the whole path, instead opting to get the cycles out and pedal until we got bored of going any further (which in my case turned out to be after about 5 miles, when the mosquitoes started surfacing for the evening).  We did however see lots of birds on our ride including several flocks of flamingos and a flock of white birds I am assuming are egrets, and found a cut-through to the beach which was all but non-existent, with the waves coming within a few metres of the sand dunes.  Apparently this is one of the areas of the Camargue that is the most under threat, with the ocean reclaiming a lot of the beach.

La Gacholle Lighthouse

It seemed convenient to go back to Salin-de-Giraud for the night as it was close to the main road out of the area, but didn’t end up spending the night.  We were expecting to find a few other vans around as it was Friday so the local French folk on their weekend breaks would be turning up, but we were the only ones there.  Everything was fine until around 8pm, when we were disturbed by a series of loud bangs on the side of the van that rocked it from side to side.  We didn’t know what was happening and all sounds get amplified when you’re living in what is essentially a big aluminium box, so it was quite frightening.  Whilst I was frozen in panic Matt yelled out, and the noises stopped.  We jumped out of the van armed with torches in time to see three or four people rapidly fleeing the scene in the distance.

Inspecting the damage, it seems that a group of locals (presumably youths with nothing to do) had taken it upon themselves to start repeatedly kicking the van, leaving two series’ of footprints on the side of the body (surprisingly no scratches or dents thankfully; we’ve not yet checked how well the scuff marks polish out).  The Aire is not en-route to anything else and is unlit so they would have deliberately gone out of their way to come onto the Aire and approach our van.  Our blinds were closed so from the outside you can’t tell if anyone is home and the assailants did a runner as soon as they realised otherwise, so this wasn’t a case of just trying to spook people – it seems it was a deliberate attempt to cause mindless damage.  We’ve been on the road for over half a year now and have stayed the night in some fairly questionable places at times but this was the first time I’ve felt unsafe so we moved on (back to Piémanson for the security of being amongst other vans), further cementing our poor opinions of Salin-de-Giraud.

We were ultimately heading for Aigues-Mortes the next day, which came highly recommended when we met Alan & Lorraine at St. Laurent-du-Var upon re-entering France a few weeks ago.  Seeing as Ste.-Maries-de-la-Mer—the only seaside town in the Camargue—was only a few miles off-route, we decided we might as well check it out whilst we were passing.  The west side of the Camargue was much more developed, with lots of places offering regional produce and stables offering horse rides on Camargue’s white horses.  Ste.-Maries has three large designated motorhome Aires, with motorhome parking being prohibited pretty much everywhere else.  From what we could see it seemed like just another seaside town.  Under other circumstances we might have had a proper look around, but we didn’t feel like forking out €12 or €16 for an Aire when the sky was a murky grey anyway, so we gave it a miss and kept on moving.

From here it was on to Aigues-Mortes, a medieval fortified town on the outskirts of the Camargue region, but we’ll cover that in the next post.

Signing off for now!

- Jo

A few more snaps:

Gentlemen, it would seem there is a spy in our midst...
At the salt works, piles of the stuff sits around like
Other than birds, Camargue is known for herds of bulls and
white horses
The road leading to Plage de Piémason

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