Camargue Dreams in the South of France

07 Jun Camargue Dreams in the South of France

A view of the Rhône River from Arles, France. ©Beebe Bahrami

As if peering over Van Gogh’s shoulder as he painted in a field just south of Arles, I gazed out at a liquid, color-saturated scene in the Camargue, the delta where the Rhône River decants into the Mediterranean Sea: In the foreground, slate-toned marshes interspersed with ivory-colored salt flats, yellow-tipped reeds, pale-green rice stalks, red-flowering heathers, and scrubby evergreens. Just beyond, I saw striated rows of vineyards, corn and wheat fields, and a distant horizon of dusty-green junipers that cut into the cobalt blue sky.

Suddenly, a pink flamingo pulled its long neck up from a flock of several dozen huddled in the marsh. It fanned its wings open to its full four-foot wingspan, displaying a dark stripe of fuchsia on the upper wings and jet-black feathers on the lower. A black bull lifted his head to watch the flamingo as his companions remained intent on their grazing. Feeding alongside the bulls were a dozen gray white horses, almost the same color as the flaky fleur de sel salt harvested from the flats nearby. Starch-white egrets sat on the backs of some, adding another element to the checkerboard pattern of mesmerizing textures and colors.

Though walking, biking, and horse riding trails interlaced all around me, all I had to do was stand to take in the abundant wildlife of La Camargue, a wetland biosphere reserve that includes more than 400 species of birds — many of which stop by during spring and autumn migrations.

I enjoyed the sudden calm and stillness: a rare moment when the notoriously aggressive mosquitoes had sought other victims. Those victims happened to be my traveling companions: five couples — from Japan, England, Wales, Cornwall, and Australia — and a young German woman from Berlin. Unable to bear the attack any longer, they had run as one to the safety of our small van. I fought the same impulse and held on for one moment longer to soak in the remarkable multilayered landscape. Another flamingo rewarded me with a fan of its hot pink and black wings. But too soon, the bloodsuckers were back.

I flew to the van. The Japanese man threw the door open just long enough for me to enter, and then slammed it shut. I took my seat, caught my breath, and was entranced by the slow, deliberate and gentle motions of the man’s wife as she diligently swatted away any remaining mosquitoes from her husband’s skin, then swiftly applied an alcohol soaked pad to the offended spots: She had dozens of these sterile pads in her purse.

I turned to fasten my seatbelt but felt a gentle swat and rub on my cheek, then my forehead, and then my shoulder. The enchanting woman had now turned her ministrations to me. I sat stunned, and watched this gentle woman, her long flowing black hair pulled elegantly back into a chignon, as she slapped and dabbed my skin with a freshly unwrapped alcohol pad. As she worked she explained that she was a physician and that we needed to be careful of diseases that the mosquitoes carried through their bite.

I felt as if I had landed through Provence into one of Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s worlds of magical realism. Kurosawa is famous for his lyrical and epic films, including Dreams — a film evocative of modern Japanese culture and composed of a series of vignettes based on actual dreams Kurosawa had over the years. His Shinto nature spirits, many embodied in the forms of elegant, intelligent and gentle women, captured the same deliberate and compassionate motions I now saw in my Camargue companion.

A flock of flamingos in the Camargue wetlands of France. ©Beebe Bahrami

Our Kurosawa-style saga began with what was advertised as a bilingual French and English tour of Provence. Our tour guide, who was also our driver, took us along the banks of the Rhône River south to Arles and the Camargue delta, passing every quintessential icon of southern France: fields of sunflowers, melons ripening on low vines, countless vineyards growing grapes for vins des sables — delicate rosé wines suited to the mixed soils of river sediment and Mediterranean sand — and garden stands piled high with apples, peaches, and grapes.

But we realized early on that the only bilingual aspect of our tour would have to be ourselves. Our easy-go-lucky, laconic tour guide uttered “hello” and “welcome” and spoke the rest of the time in strong Provençal French. The only language the Japanese couple spoke outside of their native Japanese was French.

Perhaps the effort of turning the tour into a true bilingual one was also the stuff that forges strong bonds of friendship: Soon, the stories flowed faster than Provence’s waterways.

The Japanese couple was from Yokohama, another water saturated place on the bay just south of Tokyo. They were here on their honeymoon; the husband had spent many happy months in Provence twenty years earlier and wanted to share this magical realm with his new bride. Back home, we learned, he translated French literature into Japanese. He was especially fond of The Little Prince. He couldn’t believe he was back here, saying it had changed, but was as beautiful as before. When he learned this was my first visit, he said, “You will see; you must come back.”

I filed his wisdom in my mind just as we stopped on the edge of the Camargue’s largest saline lake, Étang de Vaccarés, with its layers of life and color, and then the mad rush out and back again. After, we stopped for a taste of vin de sable and meandered back up the Rhône toward Avignon, both of us receiving more ministrations from the elegant physician. I caught a glance from the tour guide through his rearview mirror. He was smiling with satisfaction. Back in Avignon, I thanked him. “That was a very interesting bilingual tour,” I added.

“Yes,” he laughed. “You definitely improved your French.”

Soon after I returned home, I received a Japanese translation of The Little Prince in the mail, sent from Yokohama. In it was a note: “Remember to go back.”


To experience your own Provencal dreamscapes with various multiport adventures, head out with Backroads to Provence.


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Beebe Bahrami
Beebe Bahrami is an award-winning writer and cultural anthropologist who writes about travel, food, and wine, outdoors and adventure, archaeology, spiritual, and cross-cultural topics. She has lived and traveled in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Her work appears in Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, The Bark, Michelin Green Guides, National Geographic books, the Pennsylvania Gazette, The Best Women's Travel Writing, Transitions Abroad, Perceptive Traveler, and Expedition, among others; she writes extensively on the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago in France, Portugal, and Spain. In addition to two travel books on Spain, The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Historic Walking Guide Madrid, she has two forthcoming travel narratives on the life, lore, adventures, and prehistory of southwestern France: Café Oc (Shanti Arts Publishing, winter 2016) and Café Neandertal (Counterpoint Press, spring 2017). She earned her PhD in cultural anthropology and her BA in molecular biology and liberal arts and draws often on these fields in her writing. An avid hiker born in Colorado, a surfer now based in part in New Jersey and in part in southwestern France, an addicted trekker, and a nut for learning other languages, she loves bringing engaging and unexpected local information into her writing toward better understanding a place and its people.
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