Sandwiched between the two mouths of the
Rhône as it reaches the Mediterranean, 346,000 acres of marshland, pastures,
dunes, salt flats and lagoons make up the Camargue. Made unique by its
inhabitants, the area is a colourful mix including black bulls, flocks of pink flamingos and the infamous white
. A resilient community of French
cowboys (gardians) tend, on horseback, the imposing black bulls that roam
free and are used in traditional bullfights (or more correctly, bull games).
In an area where everyone is brought up
with horses, there's no shortage of treks, but it pays to choose carefully.
Arrive in the pretty but commercial centre of Saintes Maries-de-la-mer,
and you'll find a string of outlets offering horseback tours. If time
is limited, you'll get a taste of the region on one of these short reconnoitres
but to experience the depth of the Camargue, you will be better served
by a longer trip.
The wild expanse of the Camargue is apparent
immediately. But it's an evocative remoteness that captures heart and
imagination. Look one way and your gaze may be met by that of a black
foal as he plays beside his flowing-maned, white-coated mother. Look the
other and you will witness a group of flamingos lift gracefully into flight.
The area is home to up to 40,000 of these exotic birds at nesting time
and is one of the most important ornithological sites in Europe, attracting
up to 100 different migrating species. And all around the wetlands, flanked
by sand dunes, high reeds and wild grasses, give an atmosphere of being
in a world apart. Sandy beaches offer good canters while paddy fields
and vineyards remind you of a local population trying to grow what crops
they can in a formidable environment.
You'll find riding in the region all year round but May and early September are best for birdlife while bullfights take place in May (along with flamenco dancing) and August. The area has hot, dry summers and warm wet winters. Summer winds are cooling but the Mistral from the north can be fierce and lingering in winter.