True Tales Of The Camargue

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1. ARLES – GATEWAY TO THE CAMARGUE I saw the city of Arles in the distance, and there, on the right, was the entrance to Le Petit Rhône! This is the small tributary of the River Rhône forming the western boundary of the Camargue Delta that would lead us to our final destination – the Mediterranean Sea and the little village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. "Who’s ‘us’?" you might ask, and "What were you doing on the mighty River Rhône in the south of France?". "Us" was yours truly and my little boat "Sky". We were following a dream I must tell you about sometime. After motoring on the canals from Birmingham to London in the UK, crossing the English Channel and cruising 1478.3km (not to mention negotiating 201 canal locks) south through France, we were at that moment, according to the map, officially in the Camargue! The Camargue Delta, home to magnificent white horses, fierce black bulls, fabulous pink flamingos and other prolific indigenous species of birds, all living in a precarious balance in the brackish wetlands. La Camargue – a precious jewel found within the European ecology where one knows that only footprints should be left behind! Yes! I would find a mooring for the night a little further ahead and enjoy the moment. With hundreds of welcoming housemartins swooping and diving around the boat, I moored Sky up to the floating pontoon just before the Trinquetaille road bridge from where I had a magnificent view of the city. Arles! In the heart of Provence, glowing in the pure evening light so dear to so many painters drawn to the region in the past, providing a gateway to the Camargue – and I was there with Sky! It was Saturday, and, not surprisingly, there were crowds of people walking along the embankment.  As the evening wore on, the youngsters started lighting fire crackers, the explosions echoing around the old stone Greco-Roman buildings, and there was a general air of celebration which lasted late into the night. It seemed a bit over the top, even for a weekend! The reason for all this gaiety became obvious the next morning when I walked across the Trinquetaille bridge into town. This was the time of the Camargue Rice Festival and everybody in Arles was taking full advantage of a reason to celebrate. I reached a city centre packed with locals and tourists and watched with interest as cooks in the street outside each restaurant/bar stirred giant paellas in huge circular pans, some as much as 3 meters in diameter! I have since bought three of these pans in different sizes and am becoming quite adept at cooking paellas, once for as many as twenty-eight of my friends and neighbours (at least I am told they are good and there is never anything left over!) A paella party in the open air is great fun, the guests drinking their aperitifs and laughing and chatting while watching the cook prepare his saffron-coloured rice with red and green sweet peppers, cooked chicken or rabbit, seafood of all kinds including squid, mussels, shrimps and large prawns, all bubbling gently in the pan over a special burner comprised of two or three concentric circular tubes. There are various recipes, depending from where in Spain the dish comes from, all of them providing a very colourful, appetising meal.  That morning in Arles I considered having a plate of paella for lunch but the local mistral wind had started to blow strongly and I was amused to note that what I thought were bay leaves in the rice weren’t bay leaves at all but rather leaves that were falling from the plane trees planted along the avenue. The cooks were stirring them into the food with their long wooden spatulas. I decided therefore that caution needed to be taken and chose an unfortunately mediocre biftek with french fries, followed by a much more acceptable cheese platter. I tried also an excellent "Tavel" rosé wine, so the meal wasn’t a total disaster. During lunch I watched the world go by. The large Arab population, Camargue ‘cowboys’, Gypsies with their guitars, artsy craftsy ‘left-bank’ types, Japanese and American tourists clicking away with their cameras.  There was an endless throng of characters to study.   The sunlight of Provence was the inspiration for many of Van Gogh’s masterpieces, and about 5km south of the city over a small canal one can see the replica "Bridge at Arles", the original of which was lovingly painted by Vincent in his inimitable style. An English friend and I later visited this ‘shrine’ and we were lucky enough to find it completely deserted. However, as we were munching on a baguette snack in the sunshine, a coach full of Japanese tourists skidded to a halt in the dust beside the bridge and its occupants disembarked, cameras and all. I can guarantee that they were there no longer than ten minutes, snapping away frantically and having a great time, before they all crowded back into the coach which drove off quickly to the next attraction!   The wind was still strong as I made my way up the main avenue through a vast street market where local vendors sold articles and food products of all descriptions. I did however feel sorry for the poor proprietors of the stalls who had a multitude of different powdered spices on display while the wind created havoc with their colourful, aromatic produce. Climbing the stone steps up through terraced public gardens I reached the superb ancient Roman arena, an architectural splendour which must not be missed when visiting the city. That afternoon a bullfight was being held. Unlike the courses Camarguaises, where the bulls are teased and baited but not killed, here at Arles the corridas de toros are held as they are in Spain, with the bull being…
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