Frédéric Bon, my horse-riding guide, is the spitting image of Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal — a swoon-worthy combo of stubbled jaw and dark brooding eyes. Crumbs, he’s even wearing a cowboy hat that he tips his hand to when greeting me. Frédéric is a gardian: A cattle herdsman — they don’t like to be called ‘cowboys’ — unique to the Camargue in southern France. Western Europe’s largest river delta, it’s a flat, watery world of flamingo-filled saltpans, fine Provençale food, wild horses and men in leather chaps. Who knew that just two hours from the glittering Côte d’Azur lay the Wild West?
The gateway to this frontier is UNESCO-listed Arles, a city comprising terracotta-tiled roofs and pastel-coloured facades clustered around one ancient, unexpected and thrilling site: an enormous 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre. In fact, the city has the largest haul of Roman remains in the world after Rome. Back then, chariot races and gory hand-to-hand battles were played out in the sandy oval arena. Today, it hosts bullfights — more on which later.
Now, as I wander its winding streets in the late afternoon I’m struck by the quality of the light, all soft russets, lemons and golds that set the stones aglow. I’m not the only one to notice it. In February 1888, a still-unknown Vincent Van Gogh wandered into town and embarked on the most productive period of his life: 300 paintings in 15 months. A walking tour visits the spots that inspired him and the new Van Gogh Foundation, at 35 Rue du Docteur, hosts exhibits comparing the Dutch painter’s work to that of contemporary artists.
But I’m here for wilder pursuits. Two creatures define the Camargue: its bulls and wild white horses. Georges Vlassis, director of the Maison du Cheval Camargue — which began opening its doors to the public twice a week in January — promptly rids me of my romantic notions.
“The horses aren’t wild. They’re all owned and, yet…” he takes a dramatic pause and leans back in his chair, “they’re wild because they live in freedom. We don’t give them artificial food and there’s no help or — how do you say, a vet? — on hand when they give birth. They never come inside, even when it’s snowing!”
An ancient breed descended from the prehistoric Solutre horse, they have, over time, adapted to the Camargue and their tough-as-nails reputation meant they have been highly prized by Roman chariot racers, Templar knights and
even Napoleon, who requested 300 of the hardy steeds for the Battle of Italy.
Georges has grown up with them since he was un garçon (boy). “You have to ride horses, otherwise you’re not a Camargue man!” he says.
I ask him what separates them from any other white horse. “They have to be under 1.5m [high],” he replies, sternly, jamming his finger sharply onto the table to make his point. Maison du Cheval Camargue was set up specifically to protect the purity of the breed.
“Would you like to see them?” he offers. I nod enthusiastically. “Olivier, my farm hand will take you.” So I jump into Olivier’s small white van where cobwebs decorate the dashboard. After trundling past fallow fields, we climb out, unlock a gate and enter the field. Olivier clicks his tongue. A herd of heads jolt up in unison and they start trotting towards us. Their pelts are white as polo mints, and their soft long manes streak behind them as they break into a canter through the waterlogged fields, setting the water dancing around them.
And, suddenly, I know why they might be running: they’re fleeing from the drones of mosquitoes that have set upon us all with the ferocity of starved vampires. “It happens every time warm weather follows wet,” Olivier says, complacently, as I slap my legs, arms and face dementedly, each bite popping like puffed rice and leaving a scarlet stain of blood.
In the saddle
I retreat to Arles overnight and then cross back over the Rhône River into the UNESCO-listed Parc Naturel de Camargue. Around me are rough fields, hunted by hawks and framed by dykes lined with high ferns that droop like damp featherdusters after the night’s rain. White thatched shacks once used by the gardians as shelter have rounded back walls to break the bracing Mistral wind that whistles across the delta on its way to the Mediterranean.
Soon enough, I see the signs for Manade Jacques Bon and am listening to the clink of Frédéric’s spurs as he strolls across the yard to saddle up the horse I’ll be riding. And what a saddle: a Western-style piece of butter-soft leather full of studs and bevelling. “They cost around €5,000 (£3,680) each, but they last a lifetime,” says Frédéric, who took over the farm when his father died.
I push off from the ground, swing my leg over the horse, and lean against the high back. “Stops us falling off backwards when we’re rounding up the bulls,” he grins. “It’s the same as the knights used in the Middle Ages.”
The stirrup is unique as well: an enclosed metal cage around the toe. “Stops you getting your foot stuck and being dragged if you fall off!” he adds cheerily, as he guides my foot into it.
Frédéric breeds Camargue bulls for the jeu taurin (bull-fighting games). He’s quick to point out that in the French version, “There’s no killing, no harm, like in other countries, but there’s also no protection on the horns. You must be young — and have big balls!”
Between March and October, arenas in every village host races, where the aim of the game is for razeteurs dressed all in white, to run on foot and, as fast as they can, to snatch attributs (rosettes, tassels and strings) worth varying points tied to the horns, forehead and back of the bull using a small hook (crochet). A cash prize is awarded to the chap with enough guts to pluck the gold tag secured between the raging bull’s horns. It’s like a French version of Quidditch. The most prestigious race, La Cocarde d’Or, is held at the start of July and at the end of the season, the best bull and razeteur are decided.
Natural show-offs, the gardians also put their herding prowess to the test at the annual Fête des Gardians (Festival of the Herdsmen) held in May. Every herdsman spruces up his best horse, dons his snazziest shirt and goes to town with his wife or girlfriend riding behind him in her traditional dress. The festival is presided over by the Reine d’Arles (Queen of Arles), a young lady of noted beauty capable of riding side-saddle and speaking the local Provençale dialect.
“Both my sister and aunt have been elected queen,” Frédéric adds, blushing proudly.
The competition originated around 500 years ago when entertainment was in short supply. As the herdsmen had to encircle the bulls to move them to fresh pastures, they decided to liven things up by seeing who was the fastest and most accurate.
By now, we’re out in the fields riding to the left of a large herd of bulls. “About 10% are used in the games. The rest are slaughtered for meat,” he tells me. Their black pelts glisten like oil. “Just because they’re aggressive in the ring, doesn’t mean they’re aggressive in the field,” he reassures me.
“Have you ever been attacked?” I ask, a little concerned. “Once,” he replies, sheepishly. “I stupidly cornered a male and he went for me. It all happened so fast, I didn’t realise until it was over that he’d speared my horse in its rump and through the ribs. It glanced off the bones though, so she was OK.”
Only experienced riders are allowed to join in the rounding up of the bulls, so we head out further past the rice fields. Yes, you read that correctly. Rice arrived in the Rhône in 1864 and overtook wine production during World War II, when supplies from Asia were cut off. It’s the northernmost place in the world where it’s grown.
“You need it to be flat, wet and warm,” Frédéric says, as we sashay past the just-harvested fields, one hand on the reins. “We pump thousands of litres of fresh water from the river to remove the salt from the soil and this allows us to grow barley, alfalfa and soya, too”.
It’s time to head back, so we about-turn the horses and try a little trot. “So do the razeteurs attract the same worship in France as the rodeo cowboys in America?” I ask him.
“Non. Even in Marseille they haven’t heard of Camargue racing,” he says, looking a little downcast. “From my family, I’m the only one keeping the tradition [alive].”
We head down the road to meet his mother, Lucille, an architect who has poured her heart and sweat into converting a 17th-century mas (farm), into the five-star Mas de Peint boutique hotel and restaurant. We’ve come to try viande de taureau (bull meat) and I guiltily eye up the stuffed head mounted on the wall as we walk towards the dining room. We warm up with soup and then out comes the round of beef served with locally grown riz complet and sautéed aubergine and courgettes. The knife slides right through it. Fed only on grass, the meat is lean but rich and smoky in flavour. Scrumptious.
Later, needing to walk off the meal, we consult the map. The Camargue is split by the Étang du Vaccarès lake. To the east, is the Spanish-style, seaside resort town of Saintes-Maries de la Mer and Aigues-Mortes, the seaport the Crusaders sailed from and one of the finest medieval walled cities in France. However, the west is far wilder, so we drive south along a single-track road, until it peters out in front of Piémanson beach, a long strip of sand lined with hardy fishermen who have plugged longlines into the ground and sit in their folding chairs, hands in pockets, hoping to snare a mullet or turbot. In autumn and spring, the Mistral whips up the water and kite-surfers flock here and to Beauduc beach to test their biceps against the bumpy waves.
We tramp along the waterline for a while and then retrace our route past the Salin-de-Giraud saltpans, where the famous Fleur de Sel salt is hand collected, looking for flamingos. Unfortunately, they’re all too far away for good photographs, so we decide to drop in at Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau. It’s owned by Frederic Lamouroux who converted his father’s hunting marshes into a nature reserve dotted with hides, and is home to wild egrets, nine species of heron and flocks of greater flamingos. The males nod their heads from left to right and spread their wings wide in an effort to impress the females, who ignore them and plumb the shallows for shrimp.
But we have our own date with fish: a Provençale cooking lesson with Roger Merlin who runs Mas des Colverts and, true to his name, is a bit of a wizard in the kitchen. With a shock of white hair, he’s part chef, part Willy Wonka. He whets our appetite with caviar d’Camargue — dried fish eggs with a squeeze of lemon — and a goat’s cheese sorbet, and then hands us our white aprons and we get stuck in. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, we fillet fish, bury sweet potatoes under a mound of herb-flavoured salt and bake them, whip up rice crisps, roll bull carpaccio, and create a chocolate cake using mashed potato. He floats from cooker to fridge to oven, clinking pans and tasting here and there, always with hunched shoulders as if ready to whisk at any moment, his hands constantly whipping up to the jars of dried herbs and spices above his countertop.
“Top chefs call me Mr Coriander — I add it to everything!” he jokes. And in between instructions he tells me about his life. “I went to school in Paris, just before the Middle Ages,” he says with a wink. After working as an accountant in Miami, at the age of 55 when most people are thinking of settling down to retire, he took up cooking professionally.
“I don’t use more than four or five flavours. I want people to be able to reproduce what they learn here. Michelin-star food looks good, but is complicated.”
We have a go at making fresh baguettes stuffed with olives and sundried tomatoes. “Fill them with what you want, but not too much. Otherwise, it’ll be a pizza!”
“Now time for an aperitif,” he enthuses, nipping out to the garden and lopping off a handful of rosemary, before popping a few fronds into Champagne glasses with a mix of white wine and local peach schnapps. The baguettes are whipped out of the oven and I wait, anxiously, as he delivers his verdict: “For me it’s more olive stuffed with bread, than bread stuffed with olives, but a good effort!”
The Camargue is the sort of place that gets under your skin, and I’m not just talking about the mosquitoes. The locals are ambivalent about tourism, but therein lays its ‘gold attribut’. Unlike the neighbouring French Riviera, this region remains a raw land still full of legend, tradition and wildlife, where you can literally ride off into spectacular sunsets. And if all that doesn’t convince you, you can always just swoon at the Hollywood lookalikes.
The most relaxing and flexible option is to take the Eurostar to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes, and then the SNCF/TGV direct to Avignon in two hours and 45 minutes, then pick up a hire car (see below).
Pick up a hire car at Avignon train station or airport. All the major rental companies — Enterprise, Hertz and Avis — are represented. Rates start at €51 (£37.52) per day and rental GPS units (advised) cost €10 (£7.35) per day. Meanwhile, the tourist office sells a batch of hiking/cycling/car maps for €8.50 (£6.25) indicating different routes around the nature park.
When to go
The best time to visit the Camargue is between November and May. Avoid the summer — if there’s a bout of rain followed by heat the mosquitoes hatch in force a few days later. Alternatively, pack plenty of DEET-based insect repellent.
Need to know
Visas: None required.
Currency: Euro (EUR). £1 = €1.40
Health: No vaccinations required.
International dial code: 00 33.
Time: GMT +1.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offer a three-night trip to the Camargue, staying at the five-star Mas de Peint on a B&B basis for £829 per person, including flights and car hire. A guide and horse riding can be arranged at an additional cost.
Zara’s Planet offer a three-night trip with two hours riding with Frédéric Bon each day, plus accommodation at the five-star Mas de Peint from £625 per person, excluding flights and transfers.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)