“Oh, give me land lots of land
Under starry skies above.
Don’t fence me in.”
Cole Porter probably wasn’t thinking about the crusty saltpans or waterlogged bogs of France’s famous Camargue region when he scribbled these famous lyrics. But this is exactly the rough-and-tumble backwater, dubbed “French Texas”, where wild ponies and wilder cattle do run free, not fenced in. Porter, like so many others, was probably unaware of this vast, sparse wetlands of Southern France covering 250,000 acres of the Rhone River’s delta, Western Europe’s largest. The Camargue is truly off the beaten path of most world travelers yet definitely worth a detour big or small.
The swampy marshland of the Camargue is home to true salt-of-the-earth folks who toil long days under a brutal sun cultivating rice paddies and tending to those saltpans called salins. Centuries ago, the Romans coveted this valuable land, as salt was essential for curing food before the invention of refrigeration. It was, however, the French who introduced “la gabelle”, a salt tax levied in 1341 that remained in effect until the French Revolution in 1791. Those most affected were the landed aristocracy ensconced in vast manades, or ranches, usually home to more than 200 bulls. Following World War II, the labyrinth of irrigation and drainage ditches as well as inland saltwater lakes, called etangs, was expanded and rice farming flourished, creating Europe’s first rice-growing region. These shallow bodies of water also attracted flamingoes, counting 20,000 pairs in sky-tinting flocks.
The Camargue is most famous for her colorful gypsies, called gitans, whose arrival date is as elusive as a wisp of smoke. In nearby Arles, written accounts of these wandering entertainers do date back to 1438. Today’s descendants, gardian cowboys, make their homes in thatched houses called cabanes kept safe from evil spirits by bull’s horns mounted above the doorways. Their garb includes typical wide-brimmed black felt hats, leather pants, and an iron trident used on their cattle. The trident’s symbol is also incorporated in the distinctive Camargue Cross.
These swarthy, stout men ride sturdy Camargue horses, ponies actually, born dark then turning “white” at approximately age five. Considered among the world’s oldest breeds, they resemble prehistoric horses in early cave paintings. Though branded, these ponies run free alongside the famous black bulls known as bouvines that often end up in the bullring. It was Spanish Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, who introduced bullfighting to nobility and widespread popularity. The courses a la cocarde is the traditional Camargue bullfight where razeteurs, young men whose bravado trumps sanity, pluck ribbons neatly tied between the bull’s horns.
Each year, the people of the Camargue celebrate their vibrant heritage in a series of festivals in villages scattered about. Easter signals the parade of local women in Arlesian costumes and cowboys on horseback by the hundreds. Late spring and throughout summer, other gatherings and fairs reward curious outsiders who unexpectedly stumble upon this forgotten landscape. Often, an evening around a glowing campfire allows time to fill in the untold chapters of these exotic people who long ago put down their roots in these windswept marshes and carved out their colorful way of life.