The Camargue is a unique, wild and beautiful landscape where the Rhône river meets the sea, with:

  • 13,000 hectares/32,000 acres of ponds, lagoons and salt plains including paddy fields, marshland and the Rhône river;
  • 50 km/31 miles of sandy beaches;
  • two annual gypsy pilgrimages;
  • white horses;
  • black bulls & ‘cowboys’;
  • pink flamingos;
  • and thousands of other birds.

Situated on Western Europe’s largest river delta, the Camargue Regional Nature Park is one of the largest areas of wetland in Europe and was classified a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1977. About one third is comprised of brine lakes and marshland that have been cut off from the sea and the Rhône by sandbars and dykes. These provide a unique habitat for an enormous number of birds and insects as well as for the rearing of Camargue horses and bulls that roam wild on huge ranches (called manades). The north of the Camargue is agricultural and the main crops are rice, grapes and cereals. Salt has been exploited along the seashore since at least the 4th century BC, a practice that continues today.

Arles (to the north) is the ‘capital’ of the Camargue and the only other small towns in the Camargue are Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Aigues-Mortes and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône.

Camargue Gallery

Camargue facts & figures
Animal and plant species (not including invertebrates): 5700, of which 489 are protected, either nationally or worldwide
Population: 10,848 inhabitants
Area: 101,200 hectares/390 sq. miles
Coastline: 75km/46 miles
Highest point above sea level: 4 metres/13 feet
Migrating birds: 150,000 each year. Three quarters of France’s bird species, half of its freshwater species, and a quarter of its plant species are to be found in the Camargue.

Visiting the Camargue
You can visit the Camargue by car, on foot, on horseback, on a bicycle, in a 4×4 or in a horse-drawn carriage. There are dozens of different companies offering their services (check the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer tourist office site). Check offers carefully.

Important note
Being a river delta the Camargue has more than its share of mosquitoes from about April to October. We advise taking a repellent spray and wearing trousers and a long-sleeved shirt if you are walking, riding or bird watching.

Discover the Camargue


Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer

This coastal town is named after three saints, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas, who are believed to be the first witnesses to the empty tomb at the resurrection of Jesus. According to legend, the three Marys were cast adrift and ended up here on the French coast. Mary Magdalene is said to have travelled on to the Saint-Beaume, in the Var, but the other two Marys stayed.

Pilgrimage
The town is a pilgrimage destination for gypsies (Roma) who come every year to honour Saint Sara, otherwise known as ‘The Black Virgin’ or ‘Black Sara’. There are two versions as to Sara’s origins, one is that she welcomed the Marys on their arrival and became their servant. The other holds that she was their Egyptian servant and travelled with them. Saint Sara’s statue is in the crypt of the church. (Black Sara is not recognised by the Vatican, even though she is the patron saint of gypsies) The church is also a stop on the Saint James Way.

The gypsy pilgrimages take place twice a year, at the end of May and at the end of October. The May pilgrimage is the biggest, attracting gypsies and tourists from all over Europe and beyond. After Mass in the church on 24th May, the statue of Saint Sara is taken to the sea in a procession surrounded by gardians on horseback and gypsies, symbolising her welcome of the Saint Marys. On 25 May it’s the turn of Saint Mary of Clopas and Saint Mary Salome to be taken in a procession to the sea. Noisy, colourful celebrations take place over a week or ten days.

L’église de Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer – a fortress church
Construction of the existing church began at the start of the 9th century. It was built as much as a fortress as a church because of regular attacks on the town by pirates. In case of attack, the entire population could shelter inside the church. Hence the presence of arrowslits and a freshwater well inside. Don’t miss the crypt containing Black Sara’s statue and the ‘Saints’ pillow’ – a smooth white piece of marble which was found near the presumed bodies of the saints in 1448.

The Arena
Built in 1930, the arena holds Spanish and Portuguese bull fights as well as Courses Camarguaises (exciting, bloodless events where agile young men dressed in white attempt to snatch a rosette from the bulls’ horns), and equestrian shows.

The Feria du Cheval
For three days around the 14th July, the horse is king in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Horses, bulls and gypsy music, films, photographs, books, wine and flamenco, a bull fight, fireworks, an equestrian show and a son et lumière with gardians, bulls, horses and Arlesiennes (women from Arles in traditional costume). Check www.camargue.fr for the programme.

The Festival de l’Abrivado (Bull-running festival)
On 11th November each year more than 200 gardians and 1000 horses and riders from all over Provence gather for this annual event on the beaches of Saintes-Maries. The bulls, herded together by their gardians, race over 6km of sand. An exciting demonstration of horse riding skill and bravery – the Camargue bulls have long, sharp horns!

Getting around
The town is small so park where you can and wander round the busy streets. Relax and get an idea of the bigger picture on the little train for a 50-minute trip outside the town. Le Petit Train Camarguaise – next to the tourist office in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Aigues-Mortes

This impressive medieval fortress town was originally the port from which the Crusaders set out in the 13th century. However, Aigues-Mortes is now 5 km/3 miles inland. The city walls date from the 13th and 14th centuries and stretch for 1650 metres/1 mile.

The Tour de Constance was built in 1242 as a garrison to protect the city and the port. The walls are 6m/20ft thick at the base! It served as a prison for both the Knights Templar in 1307 and for Protestants from the late-17th century to the mid-18th century.

The tightly packed streets are worth exploring on foot (you have to leave your car outside of town anyway, on the north side). The tourist office produces a guide including a route to explore the town. You can download it in English here.


Electric bike tours

camargue-velo.fr propose 3 themed, guided tours around Aigues-Mortes on electric bikes. Each tour is about 3 hours long (35km/22 miles). For all the family – they even have bike trailers for very small children. Helmets provided.
Happy Tours, Mas de la Tour Carbonnière, Parking Via Rhona. Tel: 07 81 67 63 57

Kids
On the patio of a house inside the walled town is a 1/24th scale American model train set with steam and diesel locomotives driving through a Wild West landscape. An event, a show and a prized collection. Suitable for all ages.
Les trains du Colorado: 11 rue de la République, 30220 Aigues-Mortes, tel : 04 66 51 61 13

The Aigues-Mortes tourist office also produces a booklet ‘Templar treasure hunt’ for kids aged 6-12. You need to register at the tourist office in Place Saint-Louis, 30220 Aigues-Mortes.

Specialities
• Camargue salt, particularly the ‘Fleur de Sel’
• Wine (vin de sable) and asparagus grown on sand
• The fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes – a delicious sweet brioche, flavoured with orange flower water.

Medieval Festival
At the end of August the town celebrates its founder, Saint Louis, with a two-day medieval festival. Pageants, a medieval market, troubadours, minstrels and knights fill the town. Camped outside the town, King Louis IX, his court and soldiers, are getting ready to leave for the Crusades. You can see how money was struck, watch crossbow archery, sword fights, jousting and more. On Sunday night there is a reconstitution of King Louis IX’s departure for the Crusades followed by fireworks with music.
If you really want to get into the spirit of the weekend you can hire costumes at the Porte de la Gardette (the price for the weekend is reasonable but you will have to leave a security deposit). Everything is free except for the jousting.

Camargue Birdwatching

Situated on one of the biggest migratory paths between Europe and Africa, approximately two thirds of all birds found in Europe can be observed in the Camargue.

Pont de Gau Bird Park
For several decades the Etang du Fangassier has been home to the Mediterranean’s largest colony of flamingos, unique in France. However, the flamingos appear to have been disturbed in some way and, in May 2017, the 10,000 couples on the site flew away. Ornithologists are optimistic that they will return. In the meantime, the Pont de Gau Bird Park is still home to other sedentary and migratory birds such as herons, storks, egrets, teals, sparrows, wading birds and raptors.

La Capelière (Information Centre for the Camargue Nature Reserve).
A short walking trail with 4 hides for bird-watching including 2 equipped with telescopes. From here you can also visit the former Royal salt works (Salin de Badon) – 3 hides along 4.5km of track. Access to the site is restricted, you have to buy a pass at La Capelière, and so you might well have a chance of being alone with the birds. And a wild boar or two. C 134 de Fiélouse, Arles

Domaine de la Palissade
This exceptional 702-hectare natural site on the right bank of the Rhône belongs to the Coastal Protection Agency. It forms a rough square with the Rhône on two sides and the sea on a third, encompassing ponds and lagoons linking the river and the sea, and thus providing a rich habitat for fish and birds, and a wide variety of flora and fauna. The site has walking and riding trails with hides. A map is provided with a choice of walks of approximately 1, 2 and 5 miles in length. From April-October, qualified instructors propose a variety of rides on Camargue horses – including a gallop on the beach for experienced riders. These rides are for age 8 years upwards and beginners are welcome. Rides should be reserved in advance. (And you need to take your own drinking water). Salin-de-Giraud. Tel. 04 42 86 81 28.

The Vigueirat Marshes National Nature Reserve
This 1200-hectare Nature Reserve also belongs to the Coastal Protection Agency and is only accessible on foot, or with a guided tour on a bike, a horse or in a horse-drawn carriage. There are paths and trails (including one built on piles) to explore. It’s literally teeming with thousands of birds and there are five breeders of bulls and horses in the reserve. Some circuits are self-guided, others require a guide. A guided tour in English along a circuit with hides and an observation tower takes place every Tuesday in July and August (departure at 9am, duration: 2 hours) Mas Thibert. Tel. 04 90 98 70 91.

The Scamandre Regional Reserve
This typical Mediterranean wetland is home to a number of remarkable species including the protected European pond turtle and no less than 9 species of heron. There are several short circular walks, including one built on piles, and a visitor centre. Route des Iscles, Gallician, Vauvert. Tel. 04 66 73 52 05.

The Camargue Regional Nature Park produce a comprehensive booklet in English explaining how to access the best places to see birds, including details of guided tours for sensitive and protected sites.

The Aigues-Mortes Salt Marsh
The biggest Mediterranean salt marsh. Centuries of salt cultivation have preserved thousands of hectares of land along the Mediterranean with their own rich and distinctive ecosystem. If you happen to be here at the right moment, just before harvest, the water is a magnificent pink.

You can visit the salt marsh, the huge stockpiles of salt and a museum about salt mining and the salt workers’ lives over the centuries, either on foot or bike, with a guide, or on the little train from Aigues-Mortes – the visit lasts 1h15. From the beginning of March to the beginning of November. There’s also a ‘sunset tour’ in July and August which leaves Aigues-Mortes at 7.30pm. The commentary is in French but there are explanatory leaflets in English.

And do buy a tub of ‘Fleur de Sel de Camargue’ – which can only be harvested once a year (from July) when conditions are right – as a tasty souvenir of your visit.

Camargue Activities

Walking & Cycling
The Camargue Regional Nature Park offers 14 themed walking and cycling tours from the vineyards in the north via paddy fields, salt meadows and marshes to the beaches in the south. You can start in Arles, Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer or Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône. Five of the routes can be done by car. Download the suggested itineraries in English here.

La Gacholle lighthouse
One of the starting points for a tour of the sea dyke with 20km of walking or cycling paths. Access to the dunes is forbidden but there are tracks leading down to the sea through the dunes.

Water activities
Try your hand at dinghy sailing, paddle boarding, windsurfing, sea kayaking, kite surfing or sand yachting; take a cruise on the Petit Rhône on a paddle steamer; or go fishing in search of bluefin tuna. (All activities available at or near Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – details from the tourist office). On the outskirts of town, the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Speed Canal (known to windsurfers as The Canal or The French Trench) is a man-made canal built especially for record-breaking sailing by windsurfers.

Beaches
There are fine sandy beaches for everyone. Sometimes you just need to walk (or bike) a little further to be on your own. Here we are in the delta of the Rhône river, so there are no rocks or cliffs edging the sea, only endless sand.

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
The town beaches are easily accessible on foot. Equipped with showers, three of them have lifeguard surveillance during the summer. Ideal for families with younger children.

There are also private beaches on the edge of town (both to the east and to the west) with restaurants and a bar where you can reserve a sunbed and an umbrella and use the toilets and showers. They vary in price and quality. We prefer La Playa and La Farniente  It is advisable to reserve your sunbed in advance.

The Plage de l’Est is a huge beach backed by dunes. You can take the car a short way but after that you have to walk or bike. And, if you want to take off all your clothes, head to the Plage de l’Est and keep going for about 1km from the start of the sea dyke until you get to the Zone Naturiste.

Salin de Giraud
There are two long, wild, sandy beaches close to Salin de Giraud : Piemanson and Beauduc. It used to be that you could drive onto them with camping cars and stay overnight, but that is no longer allowed. It takes some determination to get to them, and they have no facilities, which is the key to their appeal: a wild and remote part of the country where you might least expect it.

Depending which way you come, you might like to make the 10-minute crossing across the Rhône on the chain ferry at the Bacs de Barcarin.

Camargue Museums

The Museum of the Camargue (Musée de la Camargue)
Mas du Pont de Rousty, RD 570, Arles
Housed in a former sheepfold, this museum has been recently renovated. It has a permanent exhibition showing how people living in this area between the Rhône and the sea constantly have to adapt to their environment. There is a short path to the marsh along the edge of paddy fields and the canal, passing by a traditional ‘cowboy’s’ (gardian) house.

Rice Museum (Maison du riz)
Mas de la Vigne, Albaron, 13200 Arles
Interesting visitor centre on a family-run rice growing farm. Shop selling local produce (rice, rice beer, salt, olive oil, rice cakes, organic wine, tapenades, etc.) May-October 10am-6pm every day.

Camargue Horse Museum (Maison du Cheval Camargue)
Mas de la Cure, Chemin de Bardouine, Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer. Tel: 04 90 97 76 37.
Guided visit. History of the Camargue horse, how it’s bred, its work with bulls and its role in the biodiversity of the region. You will also meet a working ‘cowboy’ (gardian) and learn about the traditional tack used. The visit is on foot (no horseback riding) and only in French.
Visits by reservation only: May to September, Wednesdays and Fridays 10.00 – 11.45 am

The Salt works observatory
Route de la Plage de Piémanson, 13128 Salin-De-Giraud
The Giraud salt works, near the mouth of the Rhône, cover 6,000 hectares/23 sq. miles and produce 340,000 tonnes of salt. The stockpiles of salt that rise to over 10 metres/32 feet are called ‘camelles’. The salt harvested on this site is used principally for salting roads in winter.

Depending on which way you come, you might like to make the 10-minute crossing across the Rhône on the chain ferry at the Bacs de Barcarin.

Camargue Bulls & Horses

The Camargue Bulls
Camargue bulls live on ranches called manades and they live primarily in semi-liberty on wetlands and natural areas. They are slender, not exceeding 1.3m in height, with a delicate head. They are always very dark in colour. The most typical characteristic of the breed is the horns, which point vertically towards the sky. In the females this can form a perfect lyre shape.

The Camargue bull has never been domesticated and the breed exists purely because of the bulls’ aptitude for bull games and running. Hardy and resilient, today they are reared by 120 breeders with a total population of about 15,000. This includes approximately 30 herds of fighting bulls, amounting to about 6,000 animals.

At the end of the 1990s Camargue bull meat was one of the rare bovine meats to be awarded an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.

Many ranches are open for visits or propose journées camarguaises where, amongst other things, you might see ferrade – hot iron branding of 1-year-old steers. A list of ranches is available on the Park leaflet.


Camargue Horses

The Camargue horse is considered to be one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world. They have lived in the wetlands and marshes of the Rhône delta for centuries, where they developed the stamina, agility and hardiness for which they are known. Foals are born with a dark brown coat but at around 4-5 years the coat takes on the characteristic light-grey colour.

Small but strong, rugged and intelligent, they live in semi-liberty on the marshes and mudflats all year round. Foals are born in the wild from April to July. At one year old, the foal is branded and separated from its mother. At three, it is caught and schooled. In most of the ranches (manades) only colts are schooled, fillies are used for breeding.

White Camargue horses galloping through water is one of the iconic images of the Camargue.