Friday, June 16, 2006

from Pierrerue: skinny legs and wild manes

I had always wanted to see the Camargue, but it was never on the way to anything. It spills out into the Mediterranean and sort of straddles the bottom corner of Provence and the top corner of Languedoc.

It’s an odd place, not what you would necessarily regard as a good tourist destination: marshland. And lots of it. But I had heard stories of the once wild Camargue, with its birds and ponies and sort of savage looking types who fight bulls for fun.

I looked at the map and decided it was close enough. If I sped along the coast I could get there in about two hours. And I wasn’t at all discouraged by the one or two who said – wild horses and birds? You’re dreaming. More likely you’ll just see a lot of mud.

People can be such pessimists.

I had two ports of call on my list and a lot of rambling in between. I intended to briefly stop (a late lunch maybe?) at Aigues-Mortes and then head on to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. I know you never heard of either, so just fyi, Aigues Mortes is a medieval gem, France’s first port of access to the sea and Les Saintes Maries de la Mer – I can’t quite figure that one out, even after having been there. More on this later.

Aigues Mortes did not permit me the intended half an hour pop in, pop out type of thing. Initially, the distractions were trivial. I spent, for instance, twenty minutes alone deciding which biscuits to buy here:

Europe 06 France 3 014

Then, having walked past numerous shops and cafes, I decided to do something a little more meaningful, like maybe scale the ramparts and see what was beyond. But it’s a long wall, and although it afforded wonderful views of the inside and the outside…

Europe 06 France 3 017
looking inside the wall

Europe 06 France 3 018
looking at the wall

Europe 06 France 3 023
looking at the salt fields outside the wall

Europe 06 France 3 031
looking at a group of school children on the wall

[digression: note the girl above; must be around 9 years old; white dress with a light blue design, blue kerchief, white and blue sandals. I have not looked so coordinated and well put together for decades! They learn young.]

…I noticed that it was 4:30 by the time I finished wall-promenading. Did I say this? - It really is a long wall.

And I had not even paused for lunch yet. Up to now, I had been eating my daily lunch on my neighbor’s patio at Pierrerue, but in an effort to head out earlier than 3, I had cut that pleasant little hour out of the day. So here I am, in the middle of Aigues Mortes, hungry, in between times where any place worth its ingredients would be preparing food, with only a toe thus far set into the region of the Camargue.

This required contemplation and deliberation and so I left the busy shopping area and walked up and down the quite little side streets, hoping that great thoughts would come.

Side streets are often sprinkled with jewels, and this one was no exception. I happened across a tiny little place with two tables outside and a chalkboard with neat little descriptions of several salads and tidbits from Provence, to be sampled with an accompaniment of wine from the family winery, the Chateau de l’Isolette.

I read the chalkboard and am smitten to the core. What could be more perfect than an assiette a l’accent d’Oc, Oc, being the old Roman language spoken here centuries ago (so now you know how the region got its name: Langue –d’Oc) and the assiette, or plate, holding such magnificence as warm Camargue chevre with a salad and veggies and tapinades made with the flavors of Provence, accompanied by a glass of rose wine?

I walk in and inquire about the possibility of eating. Jean-Francois is there, welcoming, but telling me that the cook has stepped out for a while.

How long will he be gone?
It’s a she.

Oops. How long will she be gone?
Five minutes, maybe ten.

I hesitate. The clock's ticking and the Camargue is still but a dream. But, I am so set on that assiette a l’accent d’Oc. And so I sit down to wait.

Five minutes in the south of France is a range. Madame is definitely straying into the outer limits of that range, when, after half an hour, she is not back yet. But I tell myself that I just have to rearrange my images of the day somewhat. Because, in truth, I am having a wonderful time, there at the little table of the Chateau de l’Isolette. Jean-Francois gives me samples of Provence paté and talks about the individual small producers behind them. Ouside, the street is quiet. A neighbor comes out to gossip with another, a man walks by with a fresh baguette. It is a half hour of bliss.

Europe 06 France 3 042

When Carole, the woman behind the food comes back, she whips up such a fine assiette, that I know that lunch and dinner have become one for me and they are here at the little Isolette.

Europe 06 France 3 035

Of course, being a young and with it couple, they would notice my camera being out more than being in. And since the French world is divided into two camps: those with Internet access and those who pretend they haven’t heard of the Internet, and Jean-Francois and Carole belong to the first camp, before the ink dried on the scribbled Ocean address (they asked for it, they got it), there they were, logging on and bringing up photos of Carcassone and ice creams and children on beaches. Ocean has come to Isolette.

Europe 06 France 3 040
taking a look at Ocean

And I have to give credit to this most charming place with a terrific little repas: asking for food at around five in France is like asking for milk in your coffee after noon. You just cannot expect anyone will take you seriously.

So thank you, Jean-Francois and Carole, you are tops with me and anyone who goes to Aigues Mortes and neglects to walk the wall and have wine and food at your little corner of heaven will have missed out big time.

However, it was now getting to be awfully close to 6.

How far is les Saintes Maries de la Mer anyway?
Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes
Oh, that’s nothing.
You Americans, you are used to such great distances! We traveled to California to taste your wines and everything was so far apart! Hundreds of kilometers. We measure distances in small doses.
And what did you think of the wineries in California?
They are so big (does this theme sound familiar?)! They are nice, but very different from here.
And they don’t have great rosé wines...
It’s true! Americans only ask for red or white...

Finally, at 6:30, I drive into Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.

And I drive right out. The place is a zoo! Perhaps it has worth, but I could not see it, hidden that it was behind the crowds and shops and Luna Park type attractions.

But I cannot say that the drive there was a waste. In the marshes surrounding these two towns, I got my first glimpse of these:

Europe 06 France 3 003

Excited as I was when I spotted the first flock of pink birds, I must say that it was small pennies to all that I saw as the evening progressed.

The Camargue is full of wildlife. And birds. (And insects, particularly at dusk.) Flamingos have made this area their stopping place and they are everywhere. If you feel you want to see them en masse, you can do as I did, drive down to the nature preserve. But you needn’t bother, for you cannot help but run into those toothpick legs and pink-tinged wings. Where there is water, there they shall be, poking around in the mud for their grub.

Europe 06 France 3 068

What I found was missing from my total Camargue experience were the horses. I see them everywhere, white, beautiful horses, grazing on pretty much every field you pass.

Europe 06 France 3 047

But how do you get close to them?

It is significantly past seven. I should be heading toward the highway. It’s a long trip home to Pierrerue. Instead, I pull over, randomly, on a whim, to one of the many many Camargue horse farms. It’ll have to be dinner or a horse and I choose a horse.

Can I ride a horse out into the Camargue this evening? I ask this of a guy who could not fit the image better: dark from the sun, high leather strapped boots, a few missing teeth. He studies me for a while.
Have you ever ridden before?
Well, yes, it’s been a while though.

He turns to his partner, brother, fellow cowboy, who is rinsing a tin cup in a small sink.
Ride with her.

I am given Oublie – the forgotten one.
Good horse, my riding companion says. I learn that he is a man of few words.

Europe 06 France 3 078

Oublie goes only two ways: too fast or too slow. He lags behind my cowboy, forcing him to wave his hand and command me to allez! Make him go already!
And so I nudge Oublie to trot forward. Oublie loves to trot. Or to lag.

Occasionally, the cowboy points with his hand to birds or animals that I may not have noticed: otters, turtles and the flocks of birds.
Ca va? He asks, after a while, to make sure Oublie and I are still on board, or, rather, that I am on board Oublie.
Ca va.

Europe 06 France 3 104

We ride in silence. I try to take photos, but believe me, working a camera and commanding the reigns on a trotting horse is only slightly less ridiculous than working a camera in a kayak going over rapids. Once, Oublie took advantage of my distraction and chose to go off on a different path. The cowboy waited, I came around.

Europe 06 France 3 106

As we paused to cross the highway to head back to the farm, he turned to me and asked:
Almagne? (Germany?)
No, American.

A wealth of communication, in just those four words.

I take Oublie to the water tub and ask my cowboy for a photo.

Europe 06 France 3 108

I had wanted to tip him with a five Euro note, but somewhere, when I was fiddling with my camera and the reigns, I let go of the note. It’s there, in the Camargue marshes, with the horses and the birds.

Europe 06 France 3 110