Friday, October 30, 2009

Pink Flamingos, White Horses, Black Bulls & Salt

Now that we’ve picked up our Renault Clio, we can get out of town! [BTW, if you’re planning a trip to France and need a car, three French car manufacturers – Renault, Peugeot, Citroen – have a nifty program where you lease the car instead of renting it. We’ve done it twice and it works as smoothly as any car rental we’ve ever done.]

We head east out of Montpellier. Bob (my brother-in-law) has warned us about the driving in Montpellier and the drivers don’t disappoint us. Yikes. This topic is worth a separate post later.

Aigues-Mortes (“dead waters” in Occitan) is a medieval walled town, about 30 minutes east of Montpellier. It’s famous as a source of sea salt, harvested from shallow saltwater ponds fed from the Mediterranean. The saltwater evaporates naturally from the ponds, leaving a layer of salt that is harvested. The ponds also provide a natural sanctuary for waterfowl, like flamingos.

I’m sure that the Aigues-Mortes is usually appealing, but by the time we get there, the sun has disappeared, the temperature has dropped to 15 degrees, and the skies have turned to a steady rain. It wasn’t raining in Montpellier, and I’m dressed in shorts and sandals. Oops. We duck into a few shops and buy some sea-salt and wild red rice, which they grow in the shallow waters around here. It’s looks sunny further east, so we get back in the car and move on. As we leave Aigues-Mortes, we see enormous mountains of harvested salt. Hmm, I’m thirsty.

We head southeast towards Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, just inside Provence. Taking the ferry to cross the Petit Rhone river is a reminder of how life is lived in the south of France: unhurried. Things happen when they happen. The ferry, which takes 5 minutes to cross the river, runs every half-hour, no matter how many cars (or horses) are waiting. We’re still not quite in this rhythm, but what can you do but relax….

Crossing the river, we find the Parc Ornithologique (bird sanctuary) de Pond de Gau. The sun is out again and we stop for a hike along the sanctuary’s trails. Camargue is famous for its pink flamingos and, no surprise, the bird sanctuary has lots. Among the marshes, we also find the white Camargue horses, famous for their endurance, agility, and intelligence. The ranchers who raise the black bulls from Camargue (used in bullfighting) use these small horses.

Afterwards, lunch is on the patio at La Régie de Frigoulès in Pioch Badet, just up the road from the bird sanctuary. I try the local specialty, Taureau a la Gardianne. It’s essentially a beef stew, but made with the meat from the black bulls raised locally. I don’t know whether these are bullfighting victims. The meat is dense, flavourful, and juicy. Delicious! We try a local wine (of course): Coeur de Camargue, Vin de Pays Bouches du Rhone, from Patrick et Jean-Paul Michel, Mas de Valeriole in Gageron. It’s a fruity (the winemakers used carbonic maceration), medium-bodied red with great tannins that complement the beef.

On the drive back to Montpellier, we pass through vineyards marked, Vins de Sable. It’s just as it sounds, the winemakers grow these vines in the sand close to the shores of the Mediterranean. The wines made here are predominately rosés. It’s fascinating to see the different types of “poor” soils in which grapevines can thrive.

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