Arles, Capital of the Camargue

Gateway to the delta of the Rhône

Arles is located where the Rhône River splits in two, creating the Grand Rhone and the Petit Rhone. It is a strategic spot, the gateway to the Camargue, where trade and river transportation have always played an important role. Since 1991 the port of Arles can receive river- and sea-going vessels of up to 3000 tons. It is the only port on the Rhone River able to receive boats this large, with a passage to the Mediterranean Sea. The Arles dock is an inescapable stop for the luxurious cruise boats travelling up and down the river (for instance the Rome-Avignon cruise via Arles). Arles is also in a strategic position because it is located at the intersection of two major land routes across Western Europe (the North-South highway along the Rhône River valley, and the East-West road between Italy and Spain).

The Camargue

The Camargue is a windy, wide-open land, a Mediterranean land. Bordered by both salt water, that of the sea, and fresh water, that of the Rhone River that wraps the delta between her two branches. The strong current in the Rhone insures that the Camargue receives plenty of fresh water all year round. The wetlands in the delta change with the seasons : ponds, lagoons, swamps and puddles provide mixtures of more-or-less salty water according to the weather. The Camargue, formed by the delta of the Rhone River, is the largest tract of wetlands in France, where the forces of nature reign. The land is often exposed to violent winds, and sometimes hit by storms which can provoke flooding. But in the summer, the winds dry out the inland soil and erode the coastline, colouring the earth white with salt. Ponds and swamps as far as the eye can see, dunes, lagoons and wide sandy beaches, few houses, flat horizons disappearing in the distance. With ten inhabitants per square kilometre, ten times less than the national average, nature takes on its true meaning, treasured in the Camargue regional nature park (Parc naturel regional). Special weather conditions force the park to look for unique and original economic activities such as rice-growing, thatchcutting and salt production.

Camargue Rice is a listed label since 2000, when it received an IGP (Indication Géographique de Production) valid throughout the European Union, and rice growing is an important means of preserving the local ecosystem. Rice has been grown in the Camargue since the 15th century, but it is only since the 1940’s that it has been developed on a large scale. Another originality is the “taureau de Camargue”, Camargue bull meat, one of the rare meat products to have received an AOP label (Appelation d’Origine Protégée). Large tracts of farm land and many preserved natural spaces make the Camargue a difficult land to apprehend for an inexperienced visitor. A good way to observe the area is on horseback, like the men of Camargue. The white Camargue horses are very sturdy, especially in swampy land. They prefer sandy soil, splash dramatically in salt water along the shore, and can eat just about anything. These horses are an important part of local activities and are the working tool of the “gardians”, the Camargue cowherds.

Beside the sea, the dunes and beaches are a natural barrier, but a fragile environment constantly changing. Many sites are open to the public and allow visitors to explore nature while at the same time respecting Camargue wildlife. Some of these spots offer regularly scheduled tours with nature or ornithology guides:

Domaine de la PALISSADE

The Domaine de la Palissade covers 702 hectares between Salin-de-Giraud and the seacoast on the right bank of the Grand Rhône. The land is located outside the dikes protecting the lower Camargue from flooding by river or sea water, and is thus home to specific plants and animals that make it particularly interesting from an ecological viewpoint. It is the last space where the natural evolution of the delta can be observed. The Conservatoire du Littoral acquired this former agricultural, fishing and hunting estate in 1976. The estate can be visited on specially designed footpaths or on horseback. The buildings house a nature exhibit and shady picnic grounds are available to the public.

La Palissade
BP 5 CD 36 – 13129 Salin de Giraud
04 42 86 81 28 – 04 42 48 82 11 –
palissade@free.fr – www.conservatoire-du-littoral.fr

The VIGUEIRAT SWAMPS (“Marais du Vigueirat”)

The Vigueirat swamps are located at the junction between two exceptional ecosystems : the Camargue and the Crau, with remarkably diversified plants and animals. In this vast tract of wild land – one of the largest plots acquired by the “Conservatoire du Littoral”, a public agency run by the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region and a national nature reserve since November 2011 – live 286 different species of birds, nearly 20,000 ducks, 641 different plants . . . and farms raising bulls and horses, the specifically Camargue “ranches” (manades). A nature guide accompanies visitors along a trail with four observation decks and two towers, allowing them to observe wildlife without disturbing. An introductory horse-drawn buggy ride is also available. Visitors can trek at their own rhythm on paths equipped with wildlife observation posts and informative brochures providing more information on natural habitats. Among these, the “sentier des Cabanes”, built on stakes, easily accessible to children or disabled persons, boasts eight interactive display huts along a trail that ends at a swamp hideout. An original and unique experience is provided by a professional Louisiana crawfish fisherman, who demonstrates how to catch this exotic and prolific shellfish, and then invites you to taste them. This site is far advanced in practicing planet responsibility, with special efforts made concerning water, air and energy to protect man and nature.

The CAMARGUE Museum

The Camargue museum (Musée de la Camargue) is housed in a former sheep barn at the Mas du Pont de Rousty, and managed by the Regional Park. Its exhibitions follow the evolution of human activities in the Rhone River delta. From agriculture (rice growing, cattle, sheep and horse raising, hunting, fishing, salt harvesting), to industrialization (river dikes, pumping stations and irrigation ditches), the history of the Camargue unfolds, offering an overall view of the land to its visitors. In 2009, for its 30th anniversary, the museum acquired a collection of contemporary folk art based on the theme of Sara, the patron saint of the gypsies. And in April 2010 the museum exhibited the first results of a computerizing campaign involving the museum’s photography collections in an show called “Objectifs croisés sur la Camargue (crossing objectives in the Camargue) : Carle Naudot and Gaston Bouzanquet”. After visiting the museum, vacationers can also follow the Mas du Pont de Rousty discovery trail for 3.5 km across farm lands, through a variety of landscapes that illustrate the ways they have been adapted for use by man.

On October 27, 2013, the Camargue Museum reopened after a year of restoration work and is now showing a new exhibition «Le fil de l’eau… le fil du temps en Camargue” (Along the river… as time goes by in the Camargue), telling the story of the Rhone River delta, the history of its transformation and its population since the 19 th century. The exhibit describes the exceptional character of the Camargue, the search for an equilibrium and the strong identity of its inhabitants, illustrated in their own words. “As time goes by” is the past, the culture and nature that have come down to us as our heritage. “Along the river” is today’s Camargue illustrated by contemporary media : sound and image. “La Camargue en images” (Camargue in pictures), presents old photographs from the museum collections and movies that were filmed in the Camargue. At the beginning of the nature trail which can be followed after visiting the museum, “Horizons”, a wooden observation deck built by Tadashi Kawamata in February, 2013 allows the visitor to climb up to look out over the landscape, from the rice paddies to the swamps, the reed marshes and the “sansouire” (salty barren land).

Mas du Pont de Rousty – 13200 ARLES – 04 90 9710 28 – 04 90 97 19 20
musee@parc-camargue.fr – www.parc-camargue.fr

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