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France's Wild and Moody Camargue ---- Like America's Old, Old West

January 26, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

SAINTES MARIES DE LA MER, France — It is a strange and wild and wonderful land that fills the mind and soul with images and scenes like some startling flashback to the early American West.

The region is called the Camargue, and it is a mood, a vast and lonely territory that takes in marshes and wild birds, wild horses and rampaging bulls and immense stretches of emptiness that are framed by the horizon itself.

Nowhere in all of Europe is there a region to compare with the Camargue with its soggy wide plains, brackish lagoons, thatched cottages and the mournful wail of that forbidding wind, the mistral, that screams through the valley of the Rhone, numbing and searing, depending on the season.

Stes. Maries is the unofficial capital of the Camargue, a small village of little inns and sunny sidewalk cafes and a magnificent beach that draws thousands of vacationers during the searing summers when the French turn south to spend their holidays.

Stes. Maries is but a speck, though, on the Camargue plain with its salt marshes and lagoons, a delta hemmed in by the Grand Rhone and the Petit Rhone which satisfy the thirst of the Mediterranean west of Marseille.

Reeds blow with the wind and wild white horses gallop with the speed of the mistral across the endless flat plain. It is here that cowboys of the Camargue ride and rope and round up bulls for the arenas of Provence. Sometimes mosquitoes swarm and the sun seems unbearable, but the Camargue lures the curious who arrive to ride and to breathe its freedom and to stand in awe of this mysterious and sometimes forbidding corner of France.

Spread across the Camargue are dozens of ranches for the pleasure of vacationers and the raising of bulls, for Provence is as popular for the bloodless bullfight as Portugal is. In a Provencal bullfight a rosette is worn between the animal's horns, and it is this tiny object that is snatched by the razeteur, which is the name given to the brave one who faces the bulls.

What's more, it is the bull--not the razeteur-- who gets top billing in the arenas of the Camargue and other regions of Provence. The razeteur is a nonentity. It is the bull who makes the headlines and whose name is spread on posters across the land. Famous bulls have been known to pack the arena to overflowing at Arles, and in the Camargue itself hundreds of bullfights draw thousands annually.

While bloodless for the bull, the encounter can be risky for the razeteur. On special occasions the bulls are allowed to rampage through the streets of Stes. Maries, pursued by gardians on horseback--much as it's done during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It is an exercise that is called the abravado. In the ensuing melee bulls have been known to chase onlookers into trees and to rip into sidewalk cafes, scattering tables and chairs as well as the crowds.

Spectators watch from the rooftops of their cars. Others cheer from the safety of open windows above the scene.

Arles is the gateway to the Camargue and its marshes, and this day as we drove north, reeds were burning beside the highway, the smoke rising in sharp contrast to the translucent sky that had lured Van Gogh and other Impressionists to this land.

From the marshes, wild birds peered as we passed. Flamingos showed off their pink plumage and white herons wheeled overhead, riding thermals far above the earth.

As a sanctuary for these and other birds, the Camargue is invaded annually by plovers, ospreys, the purple heron, avocets and swallows, and in winter the marshes serve as a refuge for ducks winging in from the chilly climes of Northern Europe.

Throughout these plains graze thousands of bulls along with the famous white horses of the Camargue. Scattered across the land are the cabanes belonging to the herdsmen, small white cottages with thatched roofs and rounded walls that curve into an apse as protection against the wind--for the mistral is a frequent and capricious companion in the Camargue.

Cowboys like those of the American West ride, rope and brand like figures out of a Louis l'Amour novel. Until the '50s the Camargue was a depressed region, even for the rough-and-tumble riders who chose it over the curse of the cities.

While the northern sector was supported by rice and other agriculture, the south suffered. Fishing and the raising of bulls was barely rewarding. Then tourism took off and visitors swarmed to the Camargue.

Now inns and ranches like those in Arizona and Colorado host French dudes who ride through the marshes, silhouetted by the land's fiery sunsets, and there are others who take off in four-wheel Jeeps to photograph the bulls and the wild horses that race beside them, their magnificent manes blowing in the wind.

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