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Provence Day Trip: Camargue Natural Park

Just south of Arles is the Camargue Natural Regional Park bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This natural area has many beaches, a bird sanctuary, flamingos, Camargue bulls and wild horses.

Much of the area is salt marshes and lakes. Red Rice is grown in large fields. The area attracts many different species of birds and insects and boasts of "the most ferocious mosquitos in France". It was windy when we were visiting, so we didn't have issues with the little beasties.

This is the home of Camargue bull-fighting, which is cruelty-free. The bull is never hurt, as the weapon-less matador attempts to remove tassles from the horns of the bull. Apparently, it is a fine display of acrobatics and agility.

"Bull meat" is a specialty of the region. Camargue bulls are a breed of cattle native to the area. They are big, black, and have intimidating horns and their meat is highly prized in local products. The roadside stand we stopped at for some fruit had a huge wall full of many varieties of bull sausage, steaks, patés, and spreads. Every restaurant had bull on the menu.

We passed through the Pont de Gau Ornithologique Parc and stopped to look at the flamingos and horses along the way.

The closest town to the natural area is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a typical beach town. Residential neighbourhoods are back a couple of blocks, the main beach street curves along the shoreline and is lined with hotels, hostels, guest houses, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. On the beach side of the street is a beautiful promenade.

When we visited in the second week of May, it was warm enough to put on our bathing suits and lay on the beach for a while. It's a long, white sand beach with many breakwaters, creating little bays that provide good shelter from the winds and waves.

This little town also hosts a large annual "Gypsy Pilgrimage", a gathering of Travellers to celebrate their Patron Saint, Black Sarah. European Romanies, Tziganes, Gitans, and Manouches gather in the area camping along the streets, on the beaches, and in the squares. The big celebration is May 24/25 but families had started gathering when we were there two weeks prior. The parking lots were filled with large converted vans and campers, all with a huge pot of something tasty simmering on portable stoves on the sidewalks. At least one of those vans was filled with washers/dryers for the community.

We then had a brief visit to Château D'Avignon, a small castle built in the 1400s but totally transformed in the late 1800s when Louis Pratt-Noilly bought it from the Avignon family.

He turned it into a hunting lodge with all sorts of leading-edge technology including central heating, flush toilets, and hot water showers. Unfortunately for us, it was closed for renovations (May 2022) but we enjoyed a walk around the grounds.

We stopped at Domaine de Méjanes en Provence a sprawling private estate open to the public.

The lands were alternately claimed by religious leaders and royalty, until becoming a beet farm abandoned in the early 1900s. The fascinating story of the history of the area and its people, the Méjanes, is charmingly told in the voice of the current owner, Michèle Ricard, on signs throughout the estate featuring family photographs.

Her father, Paul Ricard, bought the property in 1939. The Ricard family story is quite fascinating and I really loved the story presentation, it was like listening to a family elder telling tales of their life.

On the estate, ranch work and tourism are intertwined. The family have kept most of the land natural and away from tourists. Horses and bulls roam over the 600 hectare estate and birds congregate on the red-rice paddies.

Visitors can get around by following trails or using the estate's petit train. Campervans are welcomed in a separated level parking area near the rice paddies.

The estate has a bullring, a high-end restaurant with an activity venue, a café, a huge terrace, and a snack bar.

Horses can be rented for trail rides. They even have ponies for the little ones to take a walk around the paddock. There was a long list of upcoming events that included bullfights, musical performances and wine-food tastings.

It was a great day exploring just a slice of this immense area which really deserves a longer look. It was a nice change from the old cities and museums we had been exploring. Next time I am in Provence, I will spend a full day in the Ornithological Park and explore the other little towns and beaches in the area.


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