Camargue and Gard Trip Report
Claire is French-American, she was born in Nîmes to a French father and an American mother. Her family moved to the US when she was a few years old, but her first language was French. Growing up in the US, she lost most of her French, but she spent her Junior year of High School in France and it all came back. Her American life has been infused with French culture and she shares some great tips about how to get to know France like a local.
Places Mentioned in this Episode
Aix-en-Provence, Lambesc, Arles, Aigues-Morte, Grau-du-Roi, Aimargues, Sommières, Grotte des Demoiselles, Uzès, Nîmes, Barbentane, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet, Gorges du Tarn.
Book to Prepare for your Trip: The Markets of Provence
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Camargue and Gard: Off the Beaten Track in France
Claire wanted to make sure to be there on a market day (Thursday in her case). As you can see on here, there are markets for every fancy in Aix, and even though you may miss the main food market, there is something going on every day in different locations.
They also walked around the Cours Mirabeaux et looked for a fountain called “La fontaine des quatre dauphins”. They had a hard time finding it because it was under renovation, even with the great tourist office map. And if you must try some Calissons d’Aix, they can be bought on Amazon.
Claire has been collecting santons at Baux-de-Provence who has now moved to Aix-en-Provence. Her favorite provider is Roger Jouve and you can visit his atelier and shot in Luynes, just a hop south of Aix-en-Provence. Santons are a great collectible item, especially for the people of Provence, but also well-informed tourists. There is a great collection of santons on display at the Abbey Saint-Michel de Frigolet that we discuss later on in the show.
Strikes in France
There are strikes in France and the best thing to do is be patient. We have an expression that says “il faut prendre son mal en patience” (you have to learn patience) and have a plan B.
Lambesc in the Bouches du Rhône
Claire and her husband decided to check out Lambesc on a whim which they could do since they had a car. Lambesc is a small medieval town, has a couple of romanesque churches, an old “lavoir” (wash basin). Unfortunately, many things were closed, it is small enough that there were no restaurants, so they had peanuts and a drink for lunch! It bears to be repeated, in rural France you have to plan your meals or you may find yourself in such situations occasionally.
Claire explains that she and her husband wanted to eat early and couldn’t. The earliest you can hope to be served in France is 7 PM to 7:30 PM. To kill some time–and what a way to kill time!–they decided to go visit the Sainte Trophime church and cloister in Arles. The Saint Trophime cloister is one of the most famous of all of Provence, you should not skip it. The “Roman” festival in August is called Arelate, they also do events throughout the year.
The gorgeous walled city of Aiges-Morte was built in 1245 at the initiative of French King Saint Louis because he wanted to have a large port on the Mediterranean so he could go crusade. As a result,this is the place where crusaders gathered to go make war in the Middle-East. To this day there are festivities around the theme of Saint Louis, the Crusades, Knight Templars, etc. Aigues-Morte is organized as a grid, which was a first anywhere in the world, and today you can walk the ramparts and look around this well-preserved medieval city.
Aigues-Morte attracts a lot of tourists, including many who come in large buses. Keep in mind that the buses take many tourists away around 5PM, so we recommend you go late in the afternoon and stay until dark so you can enjoy Aigues-Morte without so many people around.
How long does it take to visit Aigue-Morte? Two to three hours probably. There aren’t any large attractions in Aigue-Morte, you will mostly walk around the ramparts and old streets. Not to miss in Aigues-Morte:
- The church , Église Notre-Dame-des-Sablons d’Aigues-Mortes which is a lovely mix of old and modern.
- The Tour de Constance. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but there was a lot of history there. For instance, a woman called Marie Durand was imprisoned there from 1730 to 1768 (38 years!) because she refused to renounce her Protestant faith (you can see a video in French about this here). Knights Templars were also locked up in that tower much earlier in French history.
It is a beach town just to the south of Aigues-Morte. There you will find nice public sand beaches. There is one almost as soon as you pull into the city, and another one called L’Espiguette a little further away. If you go in June, it will not be crowded at all. There are a lot of condominiums in Grau-du-Roi as well as the nearby town of La Grande Motte. Both are places where French people go to enjoy the beach. It is not particularly scenic and there isn’t anything to visit, but this is where you might want to go to enjoy the beach surrounded by French families. You will not hear a lot of English spoken there!
Aimargues and Running of the Bulls
Also in the Gard, it is a small town that doesn’t have much remarkable about it, other than the few hotels and guest houses that make it a good place to base out of to explore this part of France. Claire stays at a family home there, so she can’t recommend any hotel in particular.
They do a “course de taureaux” or “course Camarguaise” in Aimargues. It is called “Hommage à Fanfonne Guillerme” and it is a traditional gathering of Camargue horses and bulls. The festivities do not include killing any bulls, unlike the Féria de Nîmes.
Claire grew up in a culture of Corrida and bull fights and she can see that there is an art to it. Annie isn’t sure how much longer kill corrida will happen in France because the appeal of the kill corrida is mostly with a small number of people. Many more people enjoy the festivities surrounding the corrida but wish the tradition would go on without the gruesome parts of it.
Sommières also has a course de taureaux and a beautiful old Roman bridge. It is a lovely town to walk around in, it is quite scenic. There is a nice market year-round on Saturdays. Sommières is another scenic place that is listed in the Green Guides but you will never find in any Top-10 list.
Claire explains how to find less well-known yet scenic places in France: use the Green Guides. If you buy on Amazon in English you will find one per region, but if you wait until you can go to a bookstore in France, you will find more and they will be cheaper. They are a wonderful resource that list places even French people have never heard of but are great to visit.
Grotte des Demoiselles
The Grotte des Demoiselles is in the Hérault (34), and if you go on a hot day as Claire did, you will be grateful for cold temperatures inside the cave! Claire’s husband is a cave enthusiast and thought this one was outstanding. It is well-developed with stairs and handrails but not wheelchair accessible. We also mention the Gouffre de Padirac in passing, that one is also outstanding, but not at all in the same area.
Uzès is a lovely town near the Pont du Gard. Go to the tourist office to get a map to visit the old part of the city. The Duke’s palace is closed when the duke is home. You can tell that visits are not possible when the flag is flying. There are several hotels in Uzès. The town is scenic and very pleasant to walk around in.
Nîmes is also in the area and has many things to visit sur as La Maison Carrée, les Arènes de Nîmes (there are concerts there too). Nîmes is a large city, a little bit harder to navigate with a car, but lovely.
Barbentane and the Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet
Barbentane is in the Bouches du Rhône (13) not far from Avignon. Claire went specifically to go see the Carreto Ramado, it is a type of parade that throws back to the times of before there were motorized tractors. It is a tradition that is coming back all over Camargue and Provence. Nearby is the Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet and Claire recommends that you visit this abbey if you are anywhere near Avignon.
You MUST see the santons display at the Abbey Saint-Michel de Frigolet, it is outstanding!
Les gorges du Tarn
Claire’s favorite place in France is the Gorges du Tarn and they are stunning if you’ve never been. There are many small villages all along the way with beautiful scenery. Wonderful to canoeing, great to visit with children, wonderful for photography.
Claire and her husband drive in France and manage it just fine, but they don’t like roundabouts very much, especially not the double lanes ones.
How to Find a Good Restaurant in France
If you want to find a nice restaurant in France that is not mobbed by tourists, go a few streets away from the main drag and look around. Some guides say that you should only eat at restaurants that don’t have a picture of the food on the menu, but that’s not necessarily true. What you want is a restaurant that does not cater only to one-time tourists but is trying to keep people coming back by offering a quality or original menu.
Claire has a hard time identifying her favorite French food, but she loves Crême Brûlée, Moules-Frittes, Magret de Canard, Cassoulet, Brandade de Morue.
Listener Question: Wine Tours in the Loire Valley
Michelle asks how to find day wine tours in the Loire Valley. There are three ways to do this:
- Stay at a vineyard / château.
- Get on a tour organized by the local tourist office: you should call them (don’t be shy, they speak English) and ask for information on group wine tours. Angers tourist office: +33 2 41 91 21 50. Tours tourist office: +33 2 47 70 37 37.
- Find wineries that are open to visitors and drive around yourself.
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