Road Trip: The Camargue

Pop the champagne! Mark has passed the practical portion of the French driver’s test ! After far, far too long (some due to our schedule, much more due to Covid and the slog that characterizes French bureaucracy), Mark is now legal to drive in France. Getting our driver’s licenses has been the single hardest thing we’ve done in setting up our lives here. I swear I will fight anyone who trash-talks a US DMV in my presence.

The driver’s test must even be difficult for the French. Apparently, they start preparing them at a young age with this magnetized Auto School game.

Before all that went down, our friends Paul and Paula wanted to have one last hurrah before their US licenses were no longer valid. They rented a car for a week and invited us and friend Kate to take a few spins with them. While public transportation here is a dream for those used to the US, there are some places you simply can’t get to unless you have wheels.

First up: the Camargue, Europe’s largest river delta, where the Rhône river meets the sea. 360 square miles of salty marshes, ponds, agricultural land, free-ranging Camarguais horses and their cowboys, and…flamingos! We went to the Pont de Gau ornithological park.

We like birding, but you can’t say we’re early-birders. To our birding friends, what we do hardly counts. Dawn and dusk is when you’re most likely to see anything, so while I was enthusiastic to go, I wasn’t expecting to see much mid-morning when we would arrive. Boy, was I mistaken. We had cranes, storks, egrets, and loads of flamingos right there for the gawking! You didn’t even need binoculars.

Camargue flamingos are pale pink, with hot pink beaks, legs, underwings, and a bit on their tail ends. One of the few upsides of the coronavirus and the confinement was a flamingo baby-boom. 60% more chicks were hatched this year, likely due to the peace and quiet from a lack of helicopter traffic over the preserve. The babies are grey, they develop their pink coloring from the algae and other tasty bits they eat.

After we’d had our fill of birds, we popped over to the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Saints Marys of the sea. Yes, plural) for a look around and lunch. Legend has it that the three Marys who were present when Jesus’ tomb was opened headed out sometime afterwards on the high seas, landing here and living out the rest of their lives in the Camargue. As the story goes, they were assisted ashore by Saint Sarah, who is the patron saint of the Roma people. But Sarah as a Christian saint is most likely derived/borrowed from the Hindu goddess Kali, and her veneration probably came along with the Roma who are originally from Northern India. The Romani people make a massive pilgrimage to this small town every year for a ceremony in which church officials take Sarah’s effigy and the chest that purportedly contains the bones of the Marys (miraculously “discovered” in the 15th century) from the niche above the altar out to sea and back in again.

Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer church. Originally from the 9th century, it was partially destroyed during the revolution and rebuilt from the salvaged stones
Saint Sarah of the cellar, or rather a reproduction of the attic effigy that lives in the crypt and wears fabulous shawls.
Folk art of various local miracles attributed to Sarah and/or the three Marys

Our lunch spot was chosen at random and was perfectly delicious.

Onward! Our last stop of the day was Aigues-Mortes (dead waters in the Occitane language), a town that was the launching site for the French crusades under Louis IX, aka Saint Louis. One man’s saint is another man’s tyrant. The medieval fortified walls are wonderfully preserved.

Paul told us that each stonecutter had their own distinctive mark so that the blocks he cut could be identified, which gives a lovely human touch to the walls

Stop stairing already!

You came a long way from Saint Louis, old king Louis

Till next time! Keep your mask on and keep looking to the future!

Cheers! Maer