Georges Rouzeau - 2012-07-13
An inspiring medieval city prized by artists, Aigues-Mortes is an excellent home port from which one can plot a course amongst the birds, bulls and horses of the Petite Camargue.
Long live Aigues-Mortes!
Its name notwithstanding, Aigues-Mortes (Aquae Mortuae in Latin: dead water) is alive and thriving. The city’s year-‘round inhabitants and shops have kept it from a ‘museum town’ fate. It attracts artists (who live here), partiers (a local pub offers 200 different kinds of beer and ale) and a gay crowd that began arriving in the 60s, allured by a legendary night club in the back country where one could rub elbows with the Parisian jet set and even actor Alain Delon. Aigues-Mortes boasts a superb hotel-restaurant (Villa Mazarin) that serves what’s got to be the best breakfast of the Languedoc-Roussillon region; an authentic bookshop (an endangered species); a fish pedicure place (heaven help us!); and an excellent bakery (Olmeda) that sells the traditional bread called fougasse. Today, everyone loves this singular stone ship beached between earth and sea, shoreline and grapevines, salt white and sky blue. It’s a town like no other.
A port for launching a crusade
A quick sketch of the town’s beginnings. Encouraged by Pope Innocent IV, Louis IX - who would become St. Louis - launched the seventh crusade in 1244. The only problem was that the German Empire and the Kings of Aragon shared the south of France, and the Kingdom of France didn’t yet have a port of embarkation. So Louis traded some acreage around Sommières for a stretch of fetid marshland containing little more than a few reed cabins inhabited by some poor souls who eked out a living harvesting salt and fishing. Work began shortly after the exchange, beginning with construction of the Carbonnières Tower a few kilometres inland to protect the future city; and continuing with the Constance Tower and the excavation of the port just below it.
Listed as a Historic Monument since 1903, the Constance Tower, constructed where the Matafère Tower built by Charlemagne once stood, presents 1,634 metres of ramparts studded with twenty towers. The whole structure was erected in less than fifty years thanks to St. Louis’s son, Philip the Hardy, who completed his father’s undertaking. Among other things, La Tour de Constance is famous for having served as a prison for Cevennes Protestants from 1685 to 1768. The best-known of the captives, Marie Durand, was incarcerated at 18 and spent 38 years in the most dreadful of conditions without ever forswearing her faith.
A major commercial harbour for several centuries, Aigues-Mortes was supplanted by Marseille after Provence became part of the kingdom in 1481. It subsequently lost its vocation as a port, which may explain the admirably preserved state of its ramparts. Now that the sea has withdrawn and peace reigns over the French coast, there is something of a Buzzati’s Tartar Steppe feel to this hybrid fortress-port stranded inland.
Getting away from it all in Camargue
Camargue is a world of its own – its nature is harsh; its landscapes endowed with a subtle beauty; its inhabitants fiercely attached to their land. To understand the poetry that pours out of these ambiguous landscapes where earth and sea are interwoven and the colours are always changing, visit the Réserve naturelle régionale du Scamandre dedicated to the discovery of Camargue heritage and to promoting awareness of the 215-hectare park’s environment and ecosystem. Located in the heart of the wetlands formed by the Étang du Scamandre and Étang du Charnier lakes, it is surrounded by Europe’s largest reed bed. A footpath, sometimes on stilts, makes it possible to discover the different facets of the Camargue, from salt marshes to grasslands where bulls and horses graze the scanty prairies. Scamandre is also a birder’s paradise where cattle egret, Squacco heron, Black-crowned night heron, grey heron, little egret and great bittern (whose mighty chant rivals the bellow of a bull) can be spotted. Other denizens of the ecosystem include the stripeless tree frog, the red swamp crayfish, coypu and the pond turtle (Camargue is one of its last habitats).
Preparing your trip
Aigues-Mortes Tourist Office
Hôtel-restaurant Villa Mazarin
35 boulevard Gambetta
Tel: +33 (0)4 66 73 90 48
This upscale hotel offers charm and quietude in a historic building with a modern wing. Tree-covered patio, sizeable pool and spa. The restaurant offers ambitious epicurean cuisine that is still trying to define itself in some dishes, such as the dried-out quinoa polenta. But mornings are absolute heaven: definitely one of the best breakfasts we’ve had in 2012.
Rooms begin at € 120/£ 95.
Boulangerie pâtisserie Olmeda
19 avenue de la Liberté
Tel: +33 (0)4 66 53 66 77
An excellent bakery, especially for the traditional sugary bread of Aigues-Mortes called fougasse au sucre.
Centre de découverte du Scamandre
Route des Iscles - Gallician
Tel: +33 (0)4 66 73 52 05
Website of the Scamandre nature discovery centre, in French only.
15 rue Emile Zola
30740 Le Cailar
Tel: +33 (0)4 66 88 01 24
Top-notch market butcher Hussein Saïd sells bull beef, among other specialities, all year round.
Manade Saint-Louis and B&B
Mas de la Paix
Tel: +33 (0)6 11 42 24 14 (mobile) or (0)4 66 88 35 44 (land line)
One of the loveliest ‘manades’ (free-range farms or ranches) where you can learn all about cattle husbandry traditions in the Camargue before settling in for a table d’hôtes meal.
Mas le Machou
30740 Le Cailar
Tel: +33 (0)6 14 59 67 05
It’s the edge of the world. The road eventually becomes a path that winds amongst horses, bulls and vast prairies before stopping in front of a 19C sheepfold that was transformed into a dwelling in the 1950s by Jean Lafont, a legendary rancher and art collector. In the 1960s, it was a jet-setters’ destination frequented by the Kennedys, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. Today, Le Machou is a refuge where silence is golden. Two rooms: ‘Ma Cabane’, a small wooden cottage with en-suite bathroom set somewhat apart from the rest; and the ‘Bandido’ suite, with a spacious bedroom and lounge.