A remarkable, exciting and mysterious
ACE Tour Director John Parker reports from his recent reconnaissance for the Rhône River Cruise, exploring, in particular, the Camargue region: "a remarkable, exciting and mysterious wilderness landscape, only partly under human control, a rarity in tamed Europe."
The Camargue at Aigues Mortes
I started my reconnaisance at Tournus on the Rhone with the glorious Abbey of St Philibert, one of my favourite Romanesque buildings.
Having drunk in its intricacies for three hours, I made my way to Morgon to see our hosts, the Wildings, in their beautiful vineyard of Chateau Grange Cochard. After this enlightening and delightful visit, I gradually headed south down the Rhone with mounting anticipation.
For a naturalist and landscape enthusiast, the delta of the Rhone comes near the apex of a life list of localities. The flat lands of the Camargue are bounded now by the Rhone to the east and the Petit Rhone to the West.
Despite the fen-like flatness, it is a country of contrasts, but with an overall feeling of space under the glorious skies and clear light of the Mediterranean. Near Arles in the north, cultivated fields are surrounded by tiny banks with adjacent channels that provide fresh water drawn from the river for rice cultivation.
The rice produced here cooks to a slightly glutinous consistency, somewhat similar to Italian arborio from the Po Valley. It commands a premium price, as a local and scarce delicacy.
Camargue horse. Credit: John Parker
South of the paddies we enter grazing country where white (although technically grey) horses and black cattle range freely, often together, across scruffy fields scattered with muddy ponds. The cattle are of two breeds, one destined for the bloodless bullfights of Provence and the other to provide milk and beef.
Their meat is strongly flavoured and densely textured. It is the basic ingredient for a classic stew - Gardianne de Taureau - made with the powerful local red wine of the Costieres de Nimes, the Boeuf Bourguignon of the hot Languedoc. So distinctive is this Camargue beef that it has its own AOC (like wine), reserved exclusively for the black breeds and their hybrid offspring
The management of these mixed herds of cattle and horses is still traditional, by cowboys - the manade system.
Camargue black cattle. Credit: John Parker
Head further south through the Camargue towards the sea and the saline influence grows ever stronger. Grazing fields begin to look more like our salt marshes with low grey-dusty shrubs. The open lagoons here are home to Europe's largest resident population of the Greater Flamingo.
These glorious birds are unafraid of man, but sensibly a little wary, and are everywhere visible across the waters of the vast inland sea known as the Etang de Vaccares. This shallow lake is one of the prime bird-watching sites of Europe.
Further south still we reach the salt pans where 'Fleur de Sel de Camargue' is produced in a traditional method by hand. Scatter this precious product on your food, don't use it in cooking. Look up and on the horizon loom somewhat surreal industrial complexes based on the chemistry of salt.
Altogether this is a remarkable, exciting and mysterious wilderness landscape, only partly under human control, a rarity in tamed Europe.