The beautiful little mediaeval town of Aigues Mortes sits flat on the marshland known as La Petite Camargue. The name Aigues Mortes derives from the old French “Ayga Mortas” which means “dead waters”. First mention of the town is made in a 10th century document.
The old town is considered one of the purest extant examples of 13th century military architecture. Surrounded by 1, 650 metres of walls, six metres thick, it was designed to be impregnable.
The Port of Aigues Mortes was rebuilt by Louis IX in the 13th century and at the time it was only Mediterranean port. Both the Seventh Crusade (1248) and the Eighth Crusade (1270) embarked from here.
Modern Aigues Mortes retains all the might, beauty and charm of the old town, while offering a great of restaurants, cafés and shops. One of its most popular shops is the bright yellow confiserie La Cure Gourmande, which sells everything the 21st century sweet-tooth could desire and much more besides.
Head south from Arles to Les Bouches de Rhône (the mouths of the River Rhône) on the Mediterranean coast and you’ll cross the wild, lonely and beautiful Camargue.
At 930 square kilometres, La Camargue is the largest river delta in Western Europe. It is a vast flat expanse, cut off from the sea by long banks of sand and covered with étangs (salt lagoons) and marshes of thick reeds.
The area is rich in flora and fauna. Lavendar, glasswort, tamarisk and reeds flourish here. More than 400 species of birds make their home on the Camargue and it is one of only a few European habitats for the greater flamingo, the elegant pink fowl that has become an emblem of the region. Insects abound, especially mosquitoes (the most ferocious, it said, in France, if not the world). The white horses and black bulls which symbolise La Camargue roam freely across the endless marshlands.
Humans have cultivated the Camargue since time began and its outer edges are criss-crossed with drains, dykes, rice paddies and salt pans. Local Gardiens, or cowboys, break and ride the white horses. They rear sheep and train the black bulls for export to Spain.
820 square kilometres around the central lagoon were officially established as the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue in 1970, providing some of the most natural and most protected territory in all of Europe. A roadside museum gives background on flora, fauna, and the history of the area.
When the Romans took possession of Arles in 123 BC, they surrounded it with walls and developed it into a major city with all the trappings of civilisation, including an amphitheatre, a triumphal arch, a circus, and a theatre. As it was close to the sea at that time, it was also an important port.
Arles reached its peak in the 4th and 5th century when it served as the Roman Emperor’s military campaign headquarters. Renowned as a cultural and religious centre, in the last days of the Empire, it was Constantine’s favourite city.
Between the 5th and the 11th century Arles saw a period of turmoil and decline. However, it rose again to economic and political prominence in the 12th century and in 1178 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned there. It became a free city at the same time and remained so until the French Revolution in 1789.
Arles is also famous for its connection to the painter Vincent Van Gogh who arrived in the town on February 21, 1888. Over 300 works document the time he spent here, including many of his most famous, like Café de Nuit, The Yellow Room, Starry Night over the Rhone and L’Arlesienne. During this period, Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated and his behaviour became more and more eccentric until finally, after he severed his ear, he was committed to the Old Hospital of Arles.
As Arles is on the route of the famous Jacques de Compostelle, pilgrims have been visiting the city since the 15th century.
Ancient Rome, Van Gogh’s world, 21st century France – it’s all there to be explored in Arles.
Set in a lush, fragrant and verdant valley, Saint Rémy de Provence is one of the region’s “must sees”.
It sits on the site of one of the oldest archaeological sites in Europe. Traces of the ancient city of Glanum, founded in the 3rd century BC by the Romans are still visible, including the Triumphal Arch, which was feature of many Roman settlements.
Saint Rémy’s most famous son was undoubtedly the prophet Michel de Nostrodame or Nostrodamus who was born in Saint Rémy in 1503. After working initially as apothecary, or doctor, in 1555 he published a collection of prophecies among which were suggested threats to the family of the King, Henri II. They caught the attention of the Queen, Catherine de Medici and Nostrodamus was summoned to court where he was put to work writing horoscopes for the Royal children. By the time his death in 1566, Nostrodamus was the Counsellor and Physician-in-ordinary to the young King Charles X. Throughout history Nostrodamus has attracted many followers. He is credited with predicting many significant worlds events including the Fire of London, the rise of Napoleon and Hitler, the death of Princess Diana and September 11.
Because of its picturesque scenery and its extraordinary light, Saint Rémy attracted many artists. The most famous of these was Vincent Van Gogh, who produced more than 150 works which featured Saint Rémy and its surrounds. During his time in Saint Remy he was treated at the psychiatric centre of the Monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole.
Today the narrow streets of Saint Rémy are lined with lovely old houses, beautifully restored. They open into shady squares with fountains. There are elegant restaurants and boutiques stocked with all kinds of wonderful things, including clothes, homewares and produce, all with the unmistakeable stamp of the South of France.