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The Camargue

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

20-22 July 2021




I am sitting, as I write, in the most splendid, restful place imaginable – at the Hotel L’Estelle in the Camargue. It is an unplanned trip; made at the suggestion of our good friends, Timothy and Petra, who are here for three days, having been isolated, more or less, for over a year in their house in Vacqueras.


The Camargue


Neither Mary nor I have ever been to the Camargue. The main piece of advice we got before leaving was to beware of the mosquitoes and go with all sorts of repellents. As it turned out, we never met one mosquito; in contrast to flies – no shortage of them.


The other warning was to point out that we weren’t going at the best time of year (spring or autumn, I think). But I’m used to that. Whenever I go anywhere, the fauna have retreated into the jungle and the wild flowers are sadly over.


Rod Duval said (I’m sure correctly) that the best time to observe the abundant birdlife is at about 6.00 in the morning. We were too lazy to put this to the test, although as noted below I much enjoyed watching the swallows outside our little terrace at only a little later than that.


Instead, we decided on a more modest expedition by paddleboat, the Kon-Tiki III, up the Petit Rhone, leaving at a more civilized 11.30. We got there much too early, expecting queues (it was, after all, high season). But no. No one was waiting; no problem about getting tickets. How to fill the time before departure?


Les Saintes Maries de la Mer


We took off to have a look round the neigbouring town, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, right on the coast, the southern end of the Camargue. People had said that it was “naff” or even “ghastly”. It’s nice being prepared for the worst. It’s certainly not St Tropez, but is by no means awful; catering obviously for the family on holiday with its children; rows of cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops (which may well be naff) and vast numbers of boats. Not at all crowded; where are all the people? Maybe they need us Brits.


Stes Maries is named after two or, in some legends, three Marys: definitely Mary the mother of James the apostle, definitely Mary-Salome (I’m a bit vague about where she fits in) and, according to some, Mary Magdalene. They all turned up in Provence to escape the Romans. One of the legends says that they came along with a helper, Sara, (possibly “dark skinned” according to Wikipedia) who also became a saint, specifically the patron saint of the Gypsies. Some or all of them started on the job of converting the locals to Christianity. There are, of course, amazing festivals and pilgrimages at various times of year - but not, happily, in July.


Kon-Tiki III



It turned out that we were by no means alone on the boat: although there were plenty of seats, inside or out, according to taste; the weather not at all sweltering.


There was a commentary given over a loudspeaker in reasonably intelligible French, but accompanied by a helpful transcript in English distributed among the non-francophones, including (interestingly) a Belgian family we befriended who struggled with French.


Much of the trip was spent watching out for grey herons and egrets. But the high point was

when we arrived at a stopping place. It had been carefully choreographed. Just as we reached the bank, a herd of black bulls thundered towards it, keen to get their teeth into the hay that had been prepared for them, followed by beautiful white Camargue horses. They in turn were followed, at the gallop, by a female cavalier wielding a ferocious weapon to keep the various beasts in order (see the photo right at the beginning).


Otherwise we spent the time admiring the Camargue countryside. The Camargue is of course flat: it makes Norfolk seem mountainous. The southern end appears to be largely pastoral, devoted to raising the bulls that are destined for the bullfight. They don’t get killed as they do in Spain – or as they do in nearby Arles when they’re hosting the Spanish version of the bullfight. The Camargue bulls live to the ripe old age of 20-30.


The land to the north is more agrarian, producing the rice that the Camargue is famous for.


L’Estelle



We only spent two nights at the wonderful L’Estelle. To stay for a third night, we would have had to move to an even more extravagantly expensive room. L’Estelle is not cheap.


It consists of only about 20 rooms, each with its own terrace looking out onto a small lake (see above). It has of course a lovely infinity swimming pool, also giving onto the said lake.


Dining is either inside (air-conditioned) or outside; the food excellent, not over the top, even though it is served under the (slightly pompous) silver domes.


It’s a place where it’s hard to think of any improvements. Perhaps the only hesitation is whether one can really spend much more than a few days there. Some people have blasphemously had the same thought about Paradise.


Our friend Petra may have a qualification to this. She asked for a table for dinner (after we left) outside on the terrace. “Oh no, we have a lot of people, it may have to be inside”. Petra explained to the waitress that she had misunderstood her: she was going to eat outside! I suspect that she and Timothy will have been so doing.


I was interested in who the Estelle clientele are and did some research in the car park. The cars were mostly French, but there were several Swiss, a few Belgians, no Dutch and one German. No Brits unsurprisingly, other than us and our friends. I hear you cry that any Brits would probably have flown or come by train and rented a French car. Indeed - but we didn’t spot a single Brit anywhere at any stage of the expedition.


Birdlife


It was lovely in the morning to watch the swallows and swifts (I’m afraid I’m quite unable to tell the difference) swooping around outside our room, skimming along the surface of the lake and suddenly deciding to dive up to their nest on our terrace – located between the wall and the rafters of the roof. There was much chirping and shrieking when I appeared, but they soon seemed to take the intrusion calmly.


The hotel has a note about what they try to do to help conservation of the various species. The birds, as well as bats, are protected by law – as the note points out, they got there long before we did. The hotel apologises for any mess involved, but has a nice remark about the positive side: mosquitoes are l’un de leur plats préférés. Maybe it’s because they’re doing such a good job that we haven’t been seeing the mossies.


Covid


I feel I have to add a word about Covid and the rules we encounter – bearing in mind that we have been bravely defying all sorts of warnings about venturing into such dangerous territory as amber-coloured France.


The rules in France still require masks inside shops and hotels. L’Estelle obviously keeps all the rules, so one puts on a mask when walking to the table in the restaurant and then takes it off. The staff seem to have to wear them almost all the time, including serving a drink by the pool. I pity them, though they try to enforce it all in a relaxed way. I shouldn’t be facetious, but I feel that I’m in more danger of getting malaria, with these naughty (perhaps invisible) mosquitoes, than Covid.



Tony Herbert

23 July 2021

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