Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dead Waters Full of Life

The green expanses of the Camargue are filled with white horses and black bulls. The horses have always been here, as far as anyone knows, and they generally run half-wild until they're rounded up and used in bullfights, or for threshing rice (not often any more), or for riding. There are places offering trail rides all along the roads that cross the delta. The bulls are also for the arena, or for meat. The rice is planted in rotation with wheat and barley, taking advantage of water pumped over from the Rhône and the movement of the tides.

There's an ornithological park at the southern edge of the marshes, and we went there to see the grey herons and the egrets and the other marsh birds. As soon as we got out of the car we could hear them all chirping and quacking and honking and fluttering in the reeds. We stood at a picnic table in the parking lot and ate roast chicken with our fingers before going in to tour the home of other edible, though no longer widely eaten, two-legged winged creatures. There are a dozen or so cages at the beginning of the paths that have raptors and (possibly) injured storks and Egyptian vultures and peregrines and eagle owls, but we thought they all looked sad and lonely. Except for the eagle owl perched on a tall stump, who just looked disdainful.

But what we really came to see were the flamingos, and there they were! Several flocks of them in pink curlicues, stalking gracefully through the shallow water, flapping the deeper pink of their wings, or ruffling their back feathers at each other. The younger birds are more greyish in hue, and we only saw a few birds that looked like the African flamingos of the nature shows. The ones in the Camargue don't eat the highly-colored brine shrimp the others do, though according to one of the informational plaques they do eat invertebrates that are high in carotene.

I'm not sure what's in the water other than those invertebrates, but in the air there were plenty of bugs, small gnats and mosquitoes mostly. We were lucky that there was a slight breeze and that it wasn't later in the year. I imagine that come mid-August this bird park is not high on peoples' list of places to visit. We walked quickly to stay ahead of the insects.

On the way out of the park and heading to the northwest, we started seeing signs advertising vin des sables, "wine of the sands," and that sounded intriguing. Plus all the signs had flamingos on them. We tasted flamingo-pink rosé wines and a crystalline Chardonnay and some gritty tannic reds (John at least tasted the reds) and bought one bottle of each color.

If you wanted to bring your own five-gallon bucket you could take it over to the wine bar and open the spigot to buy your wine in bulk. That would certainly be more eco-friendly and fun, but definitely more dangerous. These wines are very easy to drink, and the vineyards are quite generous with their tastings.

We had been told that the walled town of Aigues-Mortes was worth a visit, so we went to see this walled city on the edge of the marsh, whose walls were once at the border of the Mediterranean, and which may be again soon. Unlike Rocamadour and Carcassone and Les-Baux-de-Provence, people actually live here within the walls, and not just to support the tourist trade. It's also built on a flat instead of being perched on rock ledges and burrowed into caves, so it's much easier to get around in. We started our leisurely tour with some sorbet and ice cream, and I had a scoop of dark chocolate sorbet and one of sweet cherry, and it was like a bowl full of the best chocolate-covered cherries ever. The rain held off while we were walking around, and even mostly for our drive back to Le Paradou, but it rained all last night, bringing quite a chill to the air. We warmed up with Camargue-fed bull salami, accompanied by crisp radishes and salty olives and smooth ripe avocados.

This is becoming a "what we ate in France" blog, isn't it?

"Aigues mortes" means "dead waters" - a good description of some of the murkier areas of the swampland around the city walls. They're dredging and draining and building more houses on the outskirts, though. Fortunately there will always be the land devoted to the grapevines, and the pink-tinged flats where they collect the salt, and the wide flat plains where they grow the rice. Mom bought a bag of red Camargue rice, and I bought some rice beer (very good). There was coarse salt and fleur de sel de Camargue for sale in a roadside shop across from the bird park, and we bought some of that as well. We'll take some of the south with us on Saturday when we head north, but we'll have to leave the flamingos behind.

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