Feeding flamingos to the left of me, rampaging ponies to the right of me. Here I was, stuck in the middle—in the middle of the Camargue, the vast, magical delta where the Rhône meets the Med.
It’s Lady Luck I have to thank for ending up in this surprising scenario. That morning the sun was shining, the winds were fairly calm, and no pluie threatened the horizon. In short, it was the perfect recipe for a little beach-birding getaway. So Ralph and I took to the road and within an hour arrived at the capital of the Camargue, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. From the center of town, we headed to the plage est area. Here you can bet pretty Little Egrets will be sunning themselves by the small water treatment plant, their pristine white feathers rippling in the breeze of the gushing waters. This is where we usually park and begin our trek inland to scan the marshy expanses and canals for flamingos and other feathered friends like Kentish and Ringed Plovers.
But a hundred meters from our destination, a blockade stopped us, manned by some rather intimidating, beefy guys. We wondered if this was strike-related, as possible grêves across several sectors had been recently reported in the media. Yet not a banner or a picket was to be seen. We parked and walked, loaded down with the spotting scope on a tripod, binoculars and backpacks.
When we reached the water treatment area we saw loads of people shoulder to shoulder staring at an elevated path running east parallel to the beach. A pair of ambulances was on hand. Obviously, an “event” was anticipated, and they were prepared for casualties.
Binoculars up. As far as we could see into the distance with our jumelles, hoards of people lined the pathway. What was happening? We asked some fellow onlookers but they had no idea. New arrivals queried us, but all we could do was offer the iconic Gallic shrug. Soon we all had the answer. A mass of about a dozen horses mounted by both gals and guys, youthful and more mature—all clumped together—came galloping directly towards us at a bend in the road. The stampede approached at breakneck speed and though we didn’t recoil violently—we were safely tucked behind some sturdy metal barriers—the roar of all those hefty hooves and the billowing dust clouds they kicked up was daunting. Surely these equestrians had mastered the skill of slowing at a curve? Of course they did, I told myself. Most likely all the riders had grown up on this sandy range and been horseback riding since they could waddle. Indeed, this expert bunch reined in the barreling broncos, allowing them to glide gracefully ‘round the bend as if they’d been Baryshnikov-trained.
At intervals of a few minutes, several other equine posses roared by. It was fast and furious for a while and then suddenly quiet as cyclists and walkers reclaimed the space. As the crowds dispersed, and we moseyed on our way to gaze at whatever feathered friends we could find, I marveled at our dumb luck at witnessing such an impressive authentic spectacle in such a wildly wondrous beachfront setting under such flawless sapphire blue skies. Perhaps it was ordinary event for local residents, but for us it was another extraordinary example of the fascinating layers of life in Provence.
Before I sign off, a special greeting for US readers for the 24th: Happy Thanksgiving!
We’ll be in Spain next week so no dinde for dinner on Thursday but possibly pavo. And, we’ll be giving thanks just the same. Gobble-gobble!
Stay safe, well, and hopeful.
Note: We found out later a two-day fête was in full swing—the Festival d’Abrivado celebrates the Camargue’s bull and horse heritage and the manadiers, those dedicated to raising the impressive animals.
With the gift-giving holiday season around the corner, you might need a nifty idea. Why not pick up some fun reads: Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie and The Birdwatcher’s Wife (A True French adventure) for your Francophile family and friends?!