Just upstream of the historic French town of Arles in the south of France, about 15 km as the crow flies from the Mediterranean, the river Rhône splits in two. These two arms of the river then wind their way south, one branching east and one southwest, forming a sort of triangular wetland between them – a vast plain composed of brine lagoons cut off from the sea by sandbars and marshes. This is the largest river delta in Europe, with an area of nearly 1000 square kilometres. The Camargue.
First protected as a regional park in 1927, the area is listed as an Important Bird Area, home to more than 400 species. It is one of the few places in Europe where you can find flamingos. Other famous residents include the Camargue’s legendary white horses – the customary steed of the gardiens or cowboys who herd the region’s black Camargue bulls.
The horses are grays, meaning they have black skin under a white coat. They often live in free-running packs or manades which are rounded up now and then for treatment and culling. Small but sturdy, semi-feral with a calm, intelligent temperament, they are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world, possibly related to Berber horses in North Africa.
A Camargue horse features in the 1969 film Heureux Qui Comme Ulysse, in which an old farmhand is charged with taking Ulysse, a 28-year-old workhorse to become the mount of a bullfighter. These days, bulls are used in a sport called Course Camarguaise – a type of bloodless bullfight where the bulls are venerated as the stars of the show. But in the film, the farmhand cannot reconcile himself to the danger that awaits Ulysse. Instead of taking him to the bullfighter, he pledges to take the horse to the Carmargue to live out the rest of his horse-days in freedom. The image of these white beauties splashing through the Gallic everglades lingers romantically in the French imagination.
The Camargue and its inhabitants have been changing and adapting for centuries, but the area remains sparsely populated. Near the sea, prehistoric man extracted salt, an industry that continues today, its products including fancy Fleur de Sel as well as Baleine table salt with its instantly recognisable whale logo. You can visit a salt producer in the medieval fortress town of Aigues-Mortes, taking a dotto-train tour of a landscape marked by irrigation channels and incredible pink ponds reflecting the wide southern skies.
In the Middle Ages, monks established abbeys and priories in the region, favoured for its isolation. Later, large estates known as mas grew up. Rich landlords built dykes to manage flooding. The north of the region produces cereals and grapes. Rice – which grows thanks to the abundant water and sun – is dried by mistral winds which mean no fungicides are needed. Henry IV first mandated rice production here in 1593. Centuries later, rice would prove essential in feeding the nation during the World War II, and after the conflict the Marshall Plan invested further to support the crop. Today, Riz de Camargue has the European Protected Geographical Indication label. Around 25% of rice eaten in France is from the Camargue fields.
Despite land management, the boundaries of the region are in constant flux thanks to the Rhône and the vast tracts of mud it transports and deposits. The coastline is slowly moving outwards due to silt arriving in the river mouth. Aigues-Mortes – originally a port town – is now 5km inland. It’s not impossible to imagine that one day, in some distant future, the white horses of the Camargue may be able to splash hooves all the way across the Med to visit their Berber cousins, a warm mistral wind rippling through their mane, flamingos overhead.