Paris to Provence: Camargue

IMG_9115

On a recent trip to Provence, I visited the Camargue: Europe’s largest river delta, half an hour south of Arles. A nationally protected region since 1927, the Camargue is home to 400 species of birds, wild white horses, flocks of flamingos, and black bulls with turned up horns.

It’s also home to salt flats, marshes, resorts, and seaside villages. Narrow dirt roads lead to horse farms, lighthouses, and traditional Provençal guest houses. Here are a few highlights of my stay:

Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau
At this family-run bird sanctuary, egrets gather in trees, storks nest in thatched roofs, and hundreds of pink flamingos float, feed, and chatter—all just meters from the nature trails. I stayed until just before sunset to watch flamingos take to the air in raucous groups. An amazing experience at any distance, but being so close to the birds made it a thrill. A great place for kids and photographers.

Restaurant L’Estrambord
A bit off the beaten path is L’Estrambord, in the town of Le Sambuc (pop 530), where chef Eric Lanaudier’s ingredients come from just down the road. My starter of telinnes, triangular sand clams hand-dug a mile away and served shelled and coated in a creamy garlic sauce, was a revelation. The tellines were followed, most agreeably, by spaghetti with local scallops and extra virgin olive oil made at the edge of town. Definitely worth a detour.

Mas St Germain
At the edge of Vaccarès pond is Mas St Germain, a 500 acre organic farm/B&B. The property’s traditional Provençal accommodations make a good base for exploring the countryside and learning about the region’s agricultural heritage. Owners Laure Vadon and her family breed gentle white Camargue horses (the perfect mount for seeing the farm and exploring wildlife in the adjacent wetlands) and raise black Camargue bulls for the traditional Capea—bullfights without picadors, where skilled men called raseteurs snatch ribbons hung between the bulls’ horns. Guests, who stay in independent cottages or spacious guest rooms inside the main 17th century building, can be involved in as much of the farm work as they would like.

L’Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes
It’s all about relaxing at L’Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes, an airy resort compound that borders a tranquil pond. Rooms are both authentic and luxurious—some have traditional thatched roofs and their own decks overlooking water—and everything you need is at your fingertips: swimming pools, tennis courts, spa, restaurant, bar, and riding school. A lovely getaway for couples and families.

From Paris to Provence: Where to Eat, Walk, Sleep and View Art in Arles

IMG_9308

Two million people visit Arles every year, but it doesn’t feel like a tourist town. Its graceful streets and leafy squares are understated, signage is minimal, and the city’s rich cultural heritage mixes easily with modern life.

The best way to discover Arles is on foot, and I had the recent good fortune to take a walking tour with local private guide Agnès Barrier. From over 100 monuments classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Agnès selected half a dozen for our morning visit.

As we made our way across town, she reconstructed the city’s history, from its strategic role in the Roman empire (Caesar founded a Roman colony here), through its medieval struggles, Renaissance flourishes, and 19th century traditions.

We went underground to see the foundation of a public square dating to 46BC; explored the elliptical 12,000 seat Roman amphitheater and a sumptuously decorated smaller theater (both are still in use). At the city’s archeological museum, we marveled at a 2000 year-old wooden barge that represented a complex shipping culture.

Agnès led me to more recent innovations, too: the classical town hall; the best gelato shop in town; le boucher whose window display honors the taureaux, the illustrious Provençal bulls raised in nearby Camargue. We followed in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted prolifically in Arles in 1888 and 1889.

The last whetted my appetite for art, and after lunch I followed a tiny side street to the newly inaugurated Fondation Van Gogh, where paintings by the Dutch master are shown in the context of contemporary works by American and European artists.

The building is a glorious renovation of a 15th century private mansion, and the exhibition, which included The Parisian Novels (a must for Zola fans), was a treat. I’ll go out of my way to return the next time I’m in Provence.

Another très intéressant mix of old and new is the Hôtel Jules César, a former Carmelite convent recently redesigned by a famous son of Arles, Christian Lacroix. The bar is a stunning space, mixing primary colors with lime walls, patterned carpets, classical sculpture and modern art—a great place to relax with a glass of wine after day of walking.

Where to walk. Nearly all of Arles is within a 15 minute walk of the city center, and the city’s tourism website makes it easy to locate and learn about historical periods and venues as well as festivals, local products, parks, and museums.

Where to eat. The charming Les Filles du 16 bistro is just around the corner from Fondation Van Gogh, and serves regional specialties including Camargue bull meat stew. Excellent food, value, and atmosphere for lunch or dinner.

Where to stay. Centrally located Hôtel Jules César is luxurious, bold and theatrical. Rich colors and a surprising mix of patterns, fabrics and periods make it visually arresting, rooms are spacious, and the grounds are peaceful and beautiful.

See a few photos of my trip to Arles here.