Riding in the Camargue

by MPI Traveler on June 5, 2013

Riding in the Camargue Part 1

by Dominic Bliss

Three hundred and 60 square miles of soggy swamps, sodden marshland and muddy lagoons – if there were crocodiles in Europe, this is where they’d live. The Camargue is western Europe’s largest river delta. Shaped like a huge croissant it’s enclosed on either side by the two arms of the River Rhône. It’s also home to flocks of pink flamingos, nesting storks, white horses, black fighting bulls and, most perilous of all, vicious mosquitoes. It’s mid-April, so the latter are fortunately still in their harmless larva form. But the other native fauna are out in force. I’m astride a particularly frisky Camargue horse, trotting through a field of horned bulls. It’s the first time I’ve been on a saddle for 30 years, and I don’t mind admitting that I’m very nervous. 80-year-old Jacques Bon, local hotelier and cowboy (or gardian, as they are known locally), is riding alongside me. Sporting white trousers, black jacket, black hat and a huge, grey, bushy moustache – which seems to have a life all of its own – he tells me about his 350-strong herd of Camargue bulls. Some are bred for meat, others to fight. But it’s not Spanish-style bullfighting; these animals compete in course Camarguaise, a non-lethal variation of the sport which takes place in special arenas across the region. It features razeteurs, dressed all in white, whose tricky job is to remove tassels, ribbons and rosettes attached to the bulls’ horns – all without getting gored. You could say it’s the French version of rodeo. The season lasts from Easter until September and features around 750 fights. The finest bulls can enjoy careers as long as 15 years.

“We don’t go in for the bullfighting where the bull gets killed,” says Jacques, majestically stroking his moustache. “We leave that to the Spanish.” Having introduced us to his well-fed beasts, Jacques decides to show us some of the wilder animals that live on his 500 hectares of land. “We’re going to flush out some wild boars,” he announces, patting his obedient steed. Clicking his heels, he canters off into the thickest of the bulrushes. No such behaviour from my pony who initially ignores my attempts to follow and bends down instead to munch on a lush tuft of grass. After several minutes of rein-pulling and tongue-clicking I eventually persuade him to get moving, not before very nearly parting company with my saddle. Although we fail to spot any boars – perhaps my noisy efforts at equestrianism frighten them all off – there are tracks left by the animals everywhere. This really is one of the wildest (and most sparsely populated) regions of France. It’s hard to believe that the great metropolises of Marseille, Montpellier and Nîmes are just a few miles away. It’s so barren that much of the area has been devoted to the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, home to over 500 species of native and migratory birds.

…more on riding in the Camargue  next week

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