We had a wonderful day out to the Camargue area of France, which is only a short drive south from where we are staying in Provence. We were lured by the promise of seeing wild flamingos and beautiful white Camargue horses in abundance and we were not disappointed.
We started our exploration of the Camargue in the pretty seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was in this little town that Catholicism is said to have first reached European shores. Legend has it that the Saints Mary Salome and Mary-Jacobé (and some say Mary Magdalene), fled the Holy Land in a little boat and were caught in a storm, drifting at sea until washing ashore here.
We had lunch on the beach and dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea and then wandered past the little port and through the pleasant town until we reached the church, which dates from the 12th century. We entered through a tiny, low door on the side into its dark, hushed interior. It is a place of pilgrimage for Roma people who come to visit the statue of their patron saint, Sara, who is thought to either have been on the boat with the two Marys or to have already been here and to have been the person who recognised their holiness. Relics believed to be of Sara and of the two Marys were found in the crypt of the church in 1448 and since then they have been enshrined in a wooden chest, placed in an alcove in the stone wall at one end of the church.
As well as looking inside the church, we also climbed up onto its rooftop terrace, from where we got fabulous views of the coast and the flat Camargue wetlands all around.
These wetlands are now part of a regional natural park that was established in 1970 to protect and preserve its fragile ecosystems. The park lies between the Petit Rhône and Grand Rhône Rivers and covers an area of 850-sq-km. We wanted to be certain of seeing flamingos up close and so rather than drive around hoping to spot some, we headed for the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau, about 4km north of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Here you can see not only flamingos but every kind of bird known to live in or visit the Camargue.
Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau
We had expected to see some flamingos, but were surprised at just how many were there, and how close we could get to them. The site comprises about 60 hectares of natural marshes with about 7km of trails leading you from the visitor centre around the different ponds and sections, so that you get to see the birds from all sides. There were a few different species of flamingos, as well as lots of herons and other wildlife. There were also lots of butterflies, M spotted a bright green lizard and in one of the water channels we even saw a beaver (we also saw a huge rat, but no-one ever seems to be pleased to see one of those!)
Flamingos are odd creatures; their legs so improbably long and thin, sticking out of a huge ball of feathers. We watched them feeding, their heads down sifting through the silt for plankton, algae and other tasty morsels. Others were sleeping, standing on one leg in the shallow water, their heads and necks coiled round onto their backs. Standing in a large group, they created a wonderful shimmering pink reflection in the water.
Sometimes they walked almost in formation across the water, one behind another, their legs in sync as they took each step. They looked like ballet dancers in tutus pointing their toes, strutting gracefully across a stage. Once or twice we saw them take to the air or glide in to land, which they did with great poise and precision, their vast wings flashing pink as they tucked them away.
The whole site is very well laid out; you can catch glimpses of the birds from the path, between the plants and bullrushes, or you can view them from special cleared areas with benches provided for seating. In places there are even raised platforms to get a better view across the whole site. Then in some of the more outlying areas there are hides where you can sit and wait for the more shy birds to appear.
Back at the visitor centre, there were lots of information boards about the migration, reproduction, feeding etc of flamingos and other bird species that live in or visit this area, although sadly only in French. We did our best to translate them and were suddenly appreciative of the fact that at most of the places we have been, the information has been in English as well as French. There was a fascinating wall with cases showing the skulls of different birds and explaining how they were adapted to feed in different ways.
Some of the flamingos stay here year-round, whilst others move according to changing water levels and changing seasons. Those that do migrate, usually fly south to North Africa in the winter and return to the Camargue to breed in the spring and they usually migrate at night. Apparently a flamingo, seen at 3pm in the Camargue can be spotted the next day at 10am in Sardinia – that’s 19 hours to cover a distance of approximately 550km, which means it would be averaging about 29km per hour!
They also had a sort of ‘bird hospital’ where they were looking after various birds and owls who were unable to feed or look after themselves. They had been rescued and were now being cared for by the Parc.
While flamingoes are the Camargue’s most emblematic species, the area is also famous for its white horses. Camargue horses are said to be one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and they have lived in these wetlands for thousands of years. There are still some that are semi-wild, but most are now used for pony trekking or working with the cowboys to round up black bulls that are grazed in the Camargue. As we drove along the road from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we could see many rows of horses saddled up ready to take visitors out on tours of the area.
Practical information and tips:
- The Parc is located along the D579 in Pont du Gau, 4km north of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
- The Parc is open all year round (except Christmas Day) with entry from 9am April to September and from 10am October to March. Once you have entered, you can leave at any time until sunset.
- Parking is in the lay-by along the road – the site doesn’t have its own separate car park.
- Remember to bring your mosquito repellent! We had learnt our lesson from our walk to Les Baux the week before and were plastered with the stuff. The Camargue is notorious for its mosquito population and they were certainly out in huge numbers they day we visited.
- Remember to bring your binoculars too!
- Website: www.parkornithologique.com