Wednesday, 11 January 2012

France, The Camargue

So we sat in the warm sunshine finished our drinks and then returned to the car, left Arles and made our way into the Camargue.

The Camargue is a special place not only in France but in all of Europe and it is another of those places that I have always wanted to see. It is a triangular area lying on the coast between the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence and is a river delta where the River Rhône meets the sea – a marshy island bounded by two branches of the Rhône and the Mediterranean. With an area of nearly a thousand square kilometres the Camargue is western Europe’s largest river delta, with exceptional biological diversity and home to unique breeds of Camargue Horses and Camargue Bulls and to more than four hundred species of birds including Pink Flamingos. As well as all this wildlife it is always associated for me with Manitas de Plata and the Gypsy Kings.

We were only on the western edge of the park and inland and some way from the lagoons and the real heart of the Camargue but even here it was possible to appreciate the place for its unique qualities. The first thing we noticed was that for us there was a similarity with the south of Lincolnshire and the Wash Estuary, where we had once lived, flat featureless salt marshes, shallow lagoons and hectares of wetlands, drainage dykes lined with reeds, rice fields and wide open fields swarming with birds. We saw more flamingos stalking about, always a surprising cloud of pink in an overwhelming green landscape and then we saw the famous white wild horses, the Camarguais in the fields on either side of us and, just once or twice, the black bulls that are bred in feral conditions and reared for bullfighting in both France and Spain.

This was a drive across an empty and in places lonely route and I began to get concerned about the French driving rule of priorite à droite which can sometimes still persist in rural areas. This is the stupidest and most dangerous driving rule in all of Europe and is a French law that states that a vehicle coming from the right has the right of way even if they are joining a main highway from a farm track or a bridle path. It is so stupid that the French themselves have mostly abandoned it (except at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) but in remote areas it is still a good idea to watch out for farmers in combine harvesters and pensioners in old 2CVs that continue to think that the rule is sensible and that it still applies.

It took about ninety minutes to cross the wetlands of the Camargue without incident and soon we were out and following the coast road back to Montpellier passing by La Grand-Motte, a purpose built seaside resort constructed in the 1960s and is a mass (or mess, depending on your point of view) of gleaming concrete and steel in startling contrast to the region that we had just left behind us. We skirted around it without stopping and then picked up the motorway which got us back quickly to Beziers just before six o’clock.

Our plan was to take a stroll around the city before it got dark to see if we could find a nice restaurant for later. We wanted to walk through the Park des Poetes but it closed at six and the park attendant was securing the gates so we walked instead in the opposite direction along the tree lined boulevard Allées Paul Riquet towards the city centre

Paul Riquet is the most famous son of Beziers, he was a wealthy salt tax collector in the reign of Louis VIV and in 1654 he drew up a plan for the Canal du Midi. At the peak of the construction, twelve thousand engineers and labourers people were employed in constructing the canal which was built in just fifteen years at a cost of more than fifteen million livres, a huge sum that Riquet financed personally, almost bankrupting himself and his family in the process. He died six months before the final stretch of the canal was completed in 1681. We thought we might go and see the canal tomorrow morning.

In this part of the city there weren’t a lot of restaurant options Kim wanted to explore further but I overruled her and this was a mistake because we were to discover tomorrow that there were more choices closer to the Cathedral quarter so we hoped that last night’s restaurant might open later and that we would return there. It started to cool quickly now as the streets, bounded with three and four storey buildings on each side, slipped first into shade and then into deep shadow. Beziers was completely different to Arles with an edginess that made us feel uncomfortable wandering through the narrow streets so we returned to the hotel, drank wine and watched French Television before we went out again later.

Unfortunately the simple restaurant that we had liked last night was closed this evening so this left us with only one other choice which Kim was unsure of. But it was warm enough to sit outside on the pavement even in shirt sleeves and to my relief we enjoyed a pleasant meal at a reasonable price and we made our plans for sightseeing in Beziers the next day.

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