The Camargue: France's Natural Narnia

The fabled white horses of the Camargue...

You don’t need to travel far from Paris to feel like you “got away.” After a long weekend in Marseille this summer, I rediscovered a place I had passed through several years ago that isn’t on every tourist’s radar: the Camargue.

The area, in southern France near the town of Arles, where Van Gogh spent his final days, is something of a French freak show, in the best way possible. It’s a mix of surprisingly beautiful flora and fauna, with certain livestock guarded by genuine French cowboys – no joke.

Pass down south, heading west along the Mediterranean, and you can experience it. We had to drive, the only way to do it besides biking, and before entering the nature reserve, we waited at a stoplight for what seemed like half an hour. The bridge, well, actually a car ferry, allowed us to pack in with other local drivers before making the crossing. Let the adventure begin.

Access forbidden. Stay out. Go away.

While following the GPS, we headed towards the area that the Internet told me was rife with flamingos, the local superstar. One of some 350 species of birds in the Camargue, thousands of flamingos call the region home, with many staying during the winter instead of migrating to Africa.

We looked in vain.

We did see a car pulled over on the side of the increasingly rough road. We instinctively thought, “flamingos!” We got out and headed to the side of the road, only to be surprised by the white horses of the Camargue. The majestic creatures set on a backdrop of sea lavender were quite the spectacle. They were all too happy to come and play with us as we offered them bits of baguette that we were saving for some ducks. The horses deserved it more.

Bidding farewell to the horses, we headed back to the car, continuing to hunt the flamingos. Eventually, we reached the main marshlands, and the GPS had us driving somewhere out in the blue, clearly not on a proper road. We saw some isolated birds out in the water, but we couldn’t be sure if they were our targets or not.

The flamingos! They DO exist!

We drove, the GPS forgotten, towards a lighthouse in the distance. Other hikers seemed to be wandering around.

Then, like a rosy gust of wind, we saw a flock of flamingos off in the distance and one of us (maybe me) shrieked. We parked the car, and then even closer, we found our first flock of maybe two dozen flamingos just chilling in the water, walking along like nothing was going on. So coy.

We watched them for a while, simply mesmerized that there were flamingos in France, a country that you never really associate with much wildlife, let alone a vibrant pink bird.

Having fulfilled our mission in the Camargue, we headed out, only to find a larger flock on the way back, with other pilgrims to this ornithological holy land taking photos and appreciating the bizarreness of it all.

On our way out of the Camargue, we looked for the next elusive item for the day: lunch. We stopped at a place that had just stopped serving, only to turn around and be greeted by a herd of the Camargue cattle, jet black with one mighty bull keeping an eye on the bunch.

Herds of Camargue cattle just chilling.

The region is also known for its salt and rice – of which we have plenty in Paris – so we didn’t spend much time discovering the local specialties. But for a morning trip on our way to the next destination from Marseille, it was a pretty unique excursion that’s entirely worth a stopover if you’re in the region and are into nature and that sort of thing. My inner boy scout totally geeked out, even if the reserve is also home to some seriously aggressive mosquitoes. We didn't stay long enough to encounter any.

We were blessed by the holy trinity of Camargue wildlife – white horse, flamingo, and black bull. Next time we'll see if we can meet a cowboy or two...