Overshadowed by the glamour of the French Riviera and the historic attractions of nearby Arles and Avignon, France’s Camargue is largely overlooked by tourists. But this unusual region offers a lot to attract nature lovers and families tired of cities and Roman ruins.
The Camargue is a vast area in southern France where the Rhone River divides to form a delta before entering the Mediterranean Sea. Its marshes, lakes, lagoons and meadows are an important nesting habitat for birds as well as a major stop in the spring and fall migrations, making it one of Europe’s most popular destinations for birdwatching.
But you don’t need to be a dedicated birder to enjoy the wildlife here, especially in the company of an expert nature guide carrying a high-powered telescope and binoculars. Children are mesmerized watching birds that seem near enough to touch and getting close-up looks at the region’s famous black bulls. But it’s the flocks of pink flamingoes that will really charm the kids, with their elegant long legs and prissy way of walking through the water.
On our recent day in the Camargue with guide Christophe Giraud from the Bureau des Guides Naturalistes, we not only watched bulls and flamingoes, but hiked through the watery ecosystem of the Vigueirat Marshes, a natural reserve tourists can only access with a guide.
Christophe stopped to point out bright, rainbow-colored European bee eaters and we listened to the song of cuckoos as we walked. Dragonflies in brilliant shades of red and blue darted in the reeds beside the trail. Our destination was a bird blind hidden amid the lakeside foliage, where we could spy unseen on the wildlife around us. None of us was especially interested in birds before, but we all gained a new understanding of why birders get so passionate about the hobby.
We learned a bit more about the region’s natural and human history with a stop at the Mas du Pont de Rousty, where the excellent Musée de la Camargue fills a former sheep barn with interactive exhibits, videos and displays, including one on Camargue’s own version of bullfighting, a contest of skill where the bull is not injured. Here we learned the Camargue is the site of a famous annual gypsy pilgrimage in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Throughout the Camargue there are wildlife viewing platforms, but the one here is especially appealing to kids as it is in the shape of a ship. A marked trail leads from the museum through the reed beds and rice paddies, a signature feature of the Camargue.
These and the miles of saltpans are the most prominent human-made features of the landscape. Outside the village of Salin de Giraud, our guide had permission to drive us through these fields of salt crystalizing in the sunlight at the edge of the Mediterranean. Beyond rises a mountain of salt, and as far as we could see were nothing but salt fields. We stopped to pick up crystals from the edges, perfect half-inch cubes of salt. It was in the lagoons where the salt pans met the sea that we found the biggest flocks of flamingos and, again, Christophe set up the telescope so we could watch them close-up.
There are plenty of active experiences for families in the Camargue. In addition to miles of flat cycling trails, there are horse farms where all ages can learn to ride or go for pony treks. Canal boat cruises leave from Grau-du-Roi for views of the salt pans, marshes and flamingos, and a traditional paddle wheeler cruises the PetitRhone. Or your family can explore the waterways of the Camargue on a self-drive cabin cruiser.
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