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LA CAMARGUE : a crossroad for pilgrims and tourists !
What we know of the lives of the hardy people who have led a meagre existence on this inhospitable marshland suggests hardship, and economic fragility. Dating from Roman times, traces in the form of coins, pottery stone fragments etc… testify to the presence of trade, and the means and necessity to defend them. Watch towers and their remains remain as testimony. The Camargue at the mouth of a great river was a crossroads of visitors, peaceful and predatory. Forest covered considerable areas until the Middle Ages, providing wood for the shipyards of Arles. Wheat was cultivated by the Gallo-Romans, and the land around the three great abbeys of Psalmody, Ulmet, and Sylvestre, was cleared for agriculture.
However, it was perhaps more to preserve trade with the inland than for the "riches" of the undeveloped region that defence towers were erected to control traffic arriving from the sea. Rice cultivated in the 16th century and beyond was simply animal fodder, and it was only after World War II that Paul Ricard, known for the pastis liquor that made his name and fortune, re-introduced it into the Camargue as a "cash crop".
The "Dark Ages" of the Camargue drew to an end in the 17th and 18th centuries as feudalism retreated and science and economic and technical enlightenment advanced. The Rhône tamed and contained by dikes, land was reclaimed, and agriculture itself entered a new era. Vast tracts of land were purchased on which "mas" (large country houses) and "châteaux" were built and paved the way for today’s manades, the manadiers (ranch owners), and their ranch hands "gardians", now the proud horsemen and cow-herdsmen who tend today’s livestock and act as a source of live support for the region’s folklore.
"Transhumance" (seasonal transfer of flocks to and from their Alpine pasture), grazing land for cattle and horses, cultivation of wheat, rice, viticulture, fishing, sheep, cattle and horse breeding, rearing and tending, all still play their part in the economy of the Camargue. War, pestilence - the phyloxera plague that devastated France’s vineyards in 1870 - boom and bust wool markets, and the perverse effects of dikes that deprive the delta soil of a much needed freshwater rinse from the floodwaters of the Rhône, have with world-wide competition, orchestrated a "stop-go-think-again" policy that has unleashed a new kind of visitation upon the region : tourism.
Our vision of the Camargue, natural and historic, factual and fictional, past and present, is varied enough to attract naturalist, scientist, sociologist and… tourist ; its abundance of salt grasses, rushes, and flowers, its four hundred species of wildlife, badger, otter, beaver, heron, flamingos, egret, wild duck, snipe, teal, curlew beckon on the one hand while, on the other and in another register, "tucked in the bottom right-hand corner" of the delta, the salt works and industrial blight stretch from Port Saint Louis to Fos and beyond, jolting us back into the grim reality of the parallel world that is "too much with us" and which we came to escape. One remarkable man is largely responsible for saving… "inventing"… the Camargue we have come to discover. Directly and indirectly he has been the "Saint Sauveur" (Holy Saviour) who arrived in the nineteenth century and whose life was devoted to a "pays", its spirit, and its future.
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