The Camargue includes most of the extensive Rhône River delta, territory crisscrossed by canals but still with many wild areas. If you come here, you absolutely must venture out to view some of the renowned scenery, if only to see some of the flamingos that populate the marshes. The lazy man’s way is to take a drive in your rental car; the more energetic or those without a car can take the same trip on a bicycle rented from any of the rental shops along rue de la République in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The land here is completely flat, and the only inclines you may encounter are the very occasional bridges, so it is easy biking. The roads are in very good condition and have a wide paved shoulder (rare in France), making them ideal for cars and bikes to share.
The Rhône delta has been steadily growing; in ancient Roman times, Arles (the Romans’ most important city on the French coast) may have been well inland, and in medieval times the delta was significantly farther south. Modern Arles is poised on the very edge of the marshland. The Rhône River splits just above Arles into the Petit (Little) Rhône, which reaches the Mediterranean just west of Stes-Maries, and the Grand (Big) Rhône, which empties into the sea east of Stes-Maries at Port St-Louis. The majority of marshland in the Camargue is found in this triangle between Arles, Stes-Maries, and Port St-Louis.
Marshland and farmhouse
I set out from Stes-Maries heading north on the D854 road. I saw flamingos in nearly every pond I passed – a formation stalking past, or napping on a single leg with head tucked under a wing, or an entire flock feeding in the brackish waters. In the distance I could see the occasional red-roofed farmhouse. My drive took me past ponds large and small, fringed by reeds. The largest of these by far is the Etang de Vaccarès, the size of a large lake. My route roughly followed the shore of this lagoon.
Flamingos and reeds
The first few kilometers of the D371, the road just north of this largest pond, passes through brilliantly green rice fields. Rice farming in this area began as a practical method of reclaiming land for pasture. Rice can cope with salt water, and rice cultivation helped remove the salt from the land so it could be put into pasture, rather than as a cash crop. Nowadays, the Camargue is renowned for two food products, rice and salt, both of which are dependent on the salt marshes.
To my left heading eastbound on this road, I passed the occasional lane, inevitably lined by plane trees, which led to a mas, a big homestead farm characterized here by very large whitewashed farmhouses with red roofs. The Camargue version of the mas produces primarily cattle and rice, so the land is either in pasture or rice fields – this is one area of France not known for its wines.
Plane trees line this private lane
About 7 or 8km from the turnoff onto D371, you’ll see a bird-watching platform on the right side of the road. The Camargue is known for its profusion of bird life, and from the platform you may see egrets, grebes, herons, kingfishers, kestrels, avocets, curlews, warblers, possibly even the occasional stork, to name just a few. Even if you’re not into birds, it’s worth getting up on the platform for a look at the marshes from above. The view in each direction can be surprisingly different – to one side may be scrub, to another a brackish ditch framed with reeds, and to another a dry salt pan.
View from the birdwatching platform
After my venture around the Etang de Vaccarès, which involves a turn-around and retracing one’s route, I crossed D570 and found my way back to Stes-Maries via smaller roads. Along these roads I saw several pastures, and these gave opportunities to see more of the black bulls and white horses the Camargue is known for. Another advantage of this choice of route turned out to be a chance to view several examples of the traditional cottages of the gardians, the Camargue "cowboys" and herdsmen. These whitewashed houses are very simple, built of stucco with a thatched roof, rectangular with low walls and a very high pitched roof. There are several of them off of D38 west of Stes-Maries.
Depending on how much time you spend stopped, this route can be comfortably driven in about two hours, longer for shutterbugs and those with a deeper interest in birdlife. I didn’t see any shops along the way, so I recommend taking whatever food and drink you might want with you from Stes-Maries.
Homestead with rice fields (with Photoshop effects), my turn-around point
The route I took will keep the water primarily on your right to the turn-around point. My route:
- Heading toward the sea on the D570 (the main road from Arles), go left through Stes-Maries and take the smaller D854 out the "back door" of town.
- This road will eventually rejoin D570 in about 14km – turn right when you get there.
- Drive about 14km on D570, then turn right on D371.
- Continue about 15km on D371, then turn right at Villeneuve onto a small road.
- Retrace your route whenever you’ve had enough – D36, left turn on D371, left on D570.
- Drive about 11km on D570 and then turn right on D38.
- Drive about 2.5-3km and turn left on D38.
- When you come to a fork, both of which are D38, stay to the right.
- This road will return you to Stes-Maries.