I was bored last Sunday morning. My car had finally been repaired by a local atelier de carrosserie after a late-night crash at New Year and was sitting peacefully and intact outside among the pine trees. Did I have the confidence to go for a long drive?
So I called a friend and we headed off to the Camargue in his car. One of the wonderful-fabulous-life-enhancing things about living in Provence is that more or less whatever countryside you want to get out into - barring glaciers and volcanic ash - is out there. Hills, mountains, sea, canals, garrigue, plains, vineyards, limestone caves, rivers are all within about an hour's drive. And the Camargue adds a unique wetland or marsh, stuffed with black bulls, white horses, pure-white egrets and pink flamingoes. Not forgetting the salt flats.
I've never found the lunar landscape of the saltflats terribly attractive but for some reason I decided they might be worth another look. I quickly packed up a picnic of a pain pavé, a large camembert, tomatoes, saucisson, rosé wine, ham, plus a hunting knife to cut everything up and we set off.
It was a warm sunny day (20th of Feb.) and the roads were clear down through Arles and into the Camargue. The marshy ground turns into salt flats or salins - saltworks - at Salin de Giraud and the sea water is kind of marshalled into shallow lakes by a system of old wooden locks with great metal nuts and screws that turn to let water in or keep it out.
There are huge hills of solid white salt along the coast with Mad-Max-style machinery, able to scale the salt and scrape it into containers I suppose. The machines are like angular insects, fragile-looking against the apparently lunar landscape. You can walk up to a viewing point and look out over these weird salt flats which appear blood red in certain light. On Sunday they were a wine red colour, looking in one direction, and glowed strangely yellow in another.
We left and went along to the long, very exposed beach nearby, to eat our picnic. The sun was strong and glancing off the Med right into our faces. A few couples were out walking their dogs, enjoying the February sunlight. Suddenly a couple on horseback arrived and hammered all the way down the beach, then returned. As they galloped, I saw the riders were two young women and they were obviously voltigeuses - acrobats who perform in circuses or other shows - as they swung themselves on and off their mounts, touching the sand then jumping back on, or balancing on one side of their horses with legs outstretched and an arm high in the air. One of the women performed a manoeuvre a bit like a handstand, and all this as the horses galloped hell for leather down the beach and back. It was beautiful to see.
For coffee, we went into Salin de Giraud. It's much more intriguing than I'd realised in the past. There are rows and rows of large terraces - identical houses which were built in the nineteenth century I'd say, for the workers in a local facory which used (and still uses) salt to make various household and industrial products. I guess originally the men also scratched up the salt from the salt flats - work now done by the stick-insect-y machines. I'll find out a bit more about the history though as it's not clear. I got talking to a young woman in the large bar/café there and she said that the houses were all built for factory workers not the saltworks. She was very young though and may not know the history. The bar/café itself was like a UK miners' welfare club - large, obviously built to take dozens of customers, with a long bar and - these days - a huge telly showing sport.
We walked around the village and it was interesting to see these rows and rows of homes, all identical. It showed very clearly that for the saltwork owners, or factory owners, the workers were just an undifferentiated bunch of Provencal guys. Not seen as individuals, there was no attemmpt to give them individual houses. Each house had a small identically-shaped shed in front of it and I guess that was for their tools. I had rather foolishly imagined that the salt flats' main purpose was to produce salt for people's dinner tables. Of course, most of the salt is used in the Alps, against the snow, and to produce industrial products. Only a tiny percentage ends up as refined salt to sprinkle in Provencal recipes.
There was also a large building from the same period which has been renovated but retains part of an entrance which still displays, almost obliterated, the words ecole ménagère. A school for maids. Presumably while the men were digging out salt or working in the factory their wives and daughters were learning to be maids, seamstresses, cooks and cleaners for the factory owner and managers. Certainly, on the edge of the village, by a pretty park, there are large houses with pleasant gardens which may once have belonged to the employers and foremen.
Returning home we decided to cross the Rhone by the little bac or ferry which takes a couple of minutes and costs 5 euros. The Rhone's not so wide here so I don't know why a bridge hasn't been built. It must be annoying for residents on the west side who need to cross every weekday for work in Istres, Martigues, Marseille or at Marignane airport. Or the petrol works in the Golfe de Fos. Again, I'm guessing but I think it may be to allow boats to pass to and from Port-St-Louis-du-Rhone. Otherwise, perhaps the guy making money from the bac is the local mayor's brother!
On the return journey we stopped for a while to look at the impossibly fragile flamants roses picking their way fastidiously through shallow water, dipping their curved beaks into the sea to fish out food. Some creatures just hark back to prehistory in their shape and form and flamingoes are among them. Cats feel very contemporary. So do sheep. They're animals man has manipulated and cross-bred for centuries. But tortoises, rhinos, elephants, lizards - they're creatures which are obviously as old as the hills and flamingoes have the same vibe. Their quirky movements, long curved necks and stick-thin legs seem to have evolved as slowly as the Camargue itself. As the sun set, they waded slowly into the distance, glowing pink, beaks bending to the water, legs making sharp angles to their feather-light bodies.
In the impressive terrain of Provence it was no surprise to see an immediate contrast in the heavy, solid black bulls which grazed nearby. Strange to think that these animals, so much more powerful than the flamingoes, are far more exploited. They're chased around the bull rings in Arles and end up in Intermarché, and then on Provençal dinner tables as saucisse served with aperitifs or as Gardianne de Taureau.
Yet even the flamingoes are used by the thrifty and industrious Provençaux, on cartes postales and to draw tourists. There is not much in Provence that isn't used to help people make a living. In the Camargue, from the black bulls to the pink flamingoes and from the white horses to the salt flats and the bac, pretty much everything is seen as a resource. Even the sand can be used to grow grapes. And the grapes are used for a light rosé wine which is perfect on a spring or summer's day whether you're sitting in a bar in Arles, watching voltigeuses on the beach or having a last look at the flamingoes as the sun goes down over the Camargue.