Cowboys of the Camargue

Les Gardians
Les Gardians

Who knew?  Cowboys in France?  Well, the reason most of you have not heard of these ‘cowboys’ is because they are really called ‘Les Gardians’.  The Guardians of the Camargue are quite famous in their own right, for riding the range with over a hundred herds of black bulls and white horses.  The term ‘Gardian’ comes from an old Occitan term ‘gardi besti’, which mean cattle guardian.  The area of the Camargue is a vast grasslands area of southern France, the Delta area between the Grand Rhône in the southeast and the Petit Rhône to the southwest, as it empties into the Mediterranean.

Old Steamer in the marsh
Old Steamer in the marsh

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Camargue consists of over one hundred thousand hectares of delta wetlands, grasslands, salt banks and lagoons.  It is an area of herds of beautiful white Camargue horses and huge black bulls.  Over four hundred species of birds make it an important ornithological sanctuary, with pink flamingoes representing the symbol of the Camargue.

Camargue Marsh
Camargue Marsh

Diana and I were visiting Provence during our fiftieth wedding anniversary, enjoying the food and wine of the area, taking wine tours, cooking classes, touring the lavender fields and many other exciting activities Provence has to offer.   We also learned more about the Camargue, and discovered they offered tourist horse-and-buggy tours of the area, specifically Les Marais du Vigueirat, or the Vigueirat Marshes.  We signed up and found ourselves bouncing along in an old wooden cart or Calèche with several other tourists, trying to keep up with the extensive commentary by the driver. . . in French!  He spoke so fast, most of it went right over our head, but the experience and the sights were well worth it!  We were both amazed at these Guardians, their work, their horses, their houses, their entire outdoor life, as rugged and skilled as any North American cowboy.

Road signs
Road signs

 Their white horses were legendary, and the black bulls were the star attraction of festivals, bullfights and the ‘Festival of the Herdsmen’, to honour the Guardians.

Calèche ready to go
Calèche ready to go

The entire area of southern Provence is not only very charming, but very interesting as well.  If you are into Côte de Rhône wines, huge lavender fields, or the beaches and life on the Côte d’Azur, Provence is for you.  But if you also are interested in Roman history, archaeological sites, outdoor markets and incredible nature preserves, then Provence is also for you.

Petit Déjeuner au jardin
Petit Déjeuner au jardin

We stayed at the Hôtel du Musée in Arles, a charming old hotel with a lovely garden dining area for enjoying your breakfast, directly across the street from another museum..  Arles is an old Roman town, with a beautiful Roman arena right in the middle of town, a huge fantastic market, and full of reminders of Vincent Van Gogh. 

It also boasts a museum featuring a first century Roman river boat they resurrected from the bottom of the Rhône, complete with its cargo and galley gear.  This boat was called the “Arles-Rhône 3”, a 31 metre long Gallo-Roman barge that was built in the shipyards of Arles in the middle of the first century AD.  The ship was discovered in 2004, and excavated from 2007 to 2011.  After it was raised from the bottom of the river basically intact, the archaeological museum has done a fantastic job in restoring the vessel, which took place from 2011 to 2013.  It is displayed in a wing of the museum dedicated to the seaport of Arles in Roman times.. 

Roman river boat “Arles-Rhône 3”
Roman river boat “Arles-Rhône 3”

Very close to Arles is the ancient Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard.  This huge structure consists of three levels of Roman arches, over nine hundred feet long, thousands of stone blocks, all put together without any mortar!  You can walk across the structure and closely inspect the work.

The Saturday Market
The Saturday Market

I’ve said many times to people who are planning a trip somewhere.  “Don’t get too sucked into the popular tourist sites of an area . . . stay long enough to check out other things you might discover, learn something about the history and local people.”  Too many people I know who have visited Provence, and return with very little knowledge and appreciation of the culture.  Provence has a lot more to offer than beaches, wines and perfumes.


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