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Lesser-Known Southern France, Part I


Every summer hordes of Americans tour through Provence and the Côte d’Azure -- with good reason. But in the frenzy to experience these justifiably popular, well-known areas, other magnificent locations are often ignored. Among them are Aigues-Mortes, the Camargue, and Les Baux, very different but equally satisfying destinations. This month we’ll cover the first two, leaving Les Baux for the next online issue.

 

Avignon is a good starting place for a visit to Aigues-Mortes. The train from Paris makes quick and pleasant work of the journey, and it’s easy to rent a car, as we did, at the station (though we made a reservation in advance). After weeks in hectic Paris we were anxious for the countryside, so we saved Avignon -- a small and beautiful city -- for later, and headed directly for Aigues-Mortes.

In 1248, more than 35,000 crusaders sailed from the walled town of Aigues-Mortes under the flag of St. Louis in an attempt to take the Holy Land from the Muslims (they failed). Though once the Mediterranean surrounded the town, today it stands amidst a lonely landscape of ponds, salt pans, and marshes (hence its name, which means dead waters). The town is tiny and -- considering it’s a minor tourist attraction -- hasn’t changed much from its days as a Crusaders’ seaport. Aside from a few restaurants and a couple of stores selling t-shirts, the commercial establishments are geared toward the people who actually live there: it’s a working, apparently thriving, village.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.We splurged on an especially nice hotel, the St.-Louis, housed in a building dating from the town’s earliest days. The rooms are cozy, comfortable and warm, and through the glass French doors we could see the town’s ramparts and largest tower.

Bright and early the next morning we explored that very building, called Constance Tower. Built in 1240, the massive, circular construction is 20 feet thick and still surrounded by its original moat. A gigantic bread oven is housed on the bottom floor; from there a steep spiral staircase climbs to the watch tower, with its immense panoramic view of the surrounding salt flats and marshes.

A wooden walkway leads from the tower onto the ramparts surrounding the town, and from here the sense of history is so strong it’s almost palpable. Not only did the Crusaders embark from Aigues-Mortes, but heated battles during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion were fought here as well. During the siege of 1418, when the Burgundians were in possession, the dead were salted so they wouldn’t rot and then stacked for months in a small tower (now called Burgandy Tower) awaiting burial.

From the ramparts we could look down into the village with its red-tiled roofs and simple façades, observing age-old scenes of town life. An old woman poked her head out of an upper window to water bright yellow tulips in a flower box. A stout old man with a black beret biked lazily down a side street, a long baguette tucked tightly beneath his arm. Two young matrons stood gossiping in the sun-dappled street.

Next morning we drove to the Camargue, considered by many to be the most romantic spot in France. Bound by the Rhone River on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, the Camargue is a wonderland of high white sand dunes, salt marshes and lagoons, and home to wild white horses and black bulls. Migrating flamingoes and egrets are found in abundance at certain times of the year, and the waters contain everything from perch to eel.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.First stop:

Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where, according to legend, a boat containing Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and a few other saints washed onto shore one day in 40 A.D. Three of the saints remained in the Camargue and were buried in the church, including Mary, the mother of James, who later became patron saint of the gypsies. Today the town hosts an annual celebration in May honoring Mary, and gypsies come from around the world, setting up traditional encampments from which they emerge to enjoy the festivities, including a running of the bulls, horse races and a dance.

We were quite disappointed in Stes-Maries, whose beautiful ancient buildings were filled with countless junky tourists shops or restaurants with the same uninspired menu. The major point of interest was the rather simple but beautiful 12th century Romanesque church with a dedicatory wall showing photographs of local people who had died. One display contained two photographs: the first showed a dark and handsome Camargue gardian (cowboy or, more accurately, bullboy) in his late 20s, standing beside a white horse and wearing the traditional, oversize felt hat of the gardians. The second showed what had been his small car, now scrunched to the size of a trashcan.

In a back-road shack called Café Camarguais we had the exemplary regional dish, gardiane, a stew made from bull’s meat, rough red wine, onion, garlic and tart black olives. I hesitated briefly before ordering, confusing the word for bull with that for bullboy: an image of the recently-deceased gardian floated hazily before me. I explained my quandary to the young waitress, who laughed. And then, in that classic French gesture, she kissed her fingertips and gracefully fluttered them toward the kitchen. "Il serra merveilleux," she promised. "It will be wonderful." And it was, strong and pungent like the Camargue itself.

 

After un express we headed onward in search of the flamingoes reputedly feeding in the nearby waters. We didn’t have far to look: the little dirt road on which we found the café led straight to them. As we traversed the area that afternoon, the graceful, coral-colored birds seemed to be everywhere.

The day had become quite hot, the sun never wavering. The road, however, changed constantly. First we traversed marshland thick with bulls, white horses, goats, sheep, shepherds, a thousand flamingoes. The few houses hereabouts were pale-colored structures with faded red-tiled roofs, molded to the land. After a while the terrain grew lush with tall grasses and bushy trees. The road skirted the east side of a lagoon. Eventually the paved road came to an end and a dirt road continued on.

So did we. The road, large enough for two cars traveling in opposite directions to squeeze by one another, led straight across the shallow water. The sides of the road banked steeply downward, protected from erosion by boulders. We drove for almost 30 minutes, passing only one other car, with no idea where we were headed, surrounded by water on all sides as if traveling atop the sea

After a while the land grew up around the sides of the road, flatter, wider and sandier; further still and the road ended, becoming nothing but a bare track across hard-packed sand. Sand dunes skirted the edges of the sea now, and dune grasses waved gently. Unbelievably, we saw a restaurant, a tumbledown wooden shack which looked like a palace compared to the rest of the tiny, rundown community. It was a very back-of-beyond kind of place, with burned out busses, hovels -- not what you expect to see on a French beach, no matter how remote. We had a small coffee in the restaurant and then headed back the way we’d come.

Over the next couple of days we luxuriated in the Camargue’s peace and quiet. We spent our time photographing flamingoes, going horseback riding, walking great distances along the lagoons -- and, of course eating. Our favorite meal was a cold rice seafood salad, perfect for a hot summer day.

I’ll leave you with the recipe, readers (my own invention, with an homage to the Café Camarguais). That way, whether you make it to the Carmargue or not this summer, you can still taste the area’s spirit.

Part II (August '98)

Riz A La Camargue

(Serves 2.)

¾ cup long-grained white rice, uncooked

Seafood:

1 pound mussels in shell
½ pound small clams in shell
1 cup white wine

Vegetables:

½ cup raw or frozen peas, lightly cooked
¼ cup chopped sweet red pepper
¼ cup finely chopped celery
¼ cup finely chopped green onion
½ cup niçoise olives
1 generous tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Vinaigrette:

¼ cup virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

The Day Before Serving:

Combine rice with 1-1/2 cups water, bring to boil. Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes or until rice is cooked. Allow to cool and then refrigerate. You’ll want the rice to be very cold when you assemble the salad for serving.

Scrub mussels and clams under cold running water with brush and then allow to soak, in cold water and in separate bowls, for a few hours. Drain. Bring wine to boil in heavy pan; add mussels. Cover and let steam for 3 minutes or until all shells have opened. Remove from heat and remove mussels with slotted spoon. Put pan with wine back on heat. When wine comes to second boil, add clams, cover. When all shells have opened, remove with slotted spoon. Allow wine in pan to cool. Remove mussels and clams from shells, placing in container. Top with cooled wine (discard rest of wine). Cover and refrigerate.

Just Before Serving:

Prepare vinaigrette. Whip mustard into oil with fork. When blended, add vinegar and lemon juice. Stir until well blended, salt and pepper to taste. Put aside for the moment.

Place rice in serving bowl and stir with fork to separate grains. Add vegetables. Stir thoroughly. Pour vinaigrette over rice and blend well. Salt and pepper to taste. Drain seafood thoroughly, add to rice, stir gently.

In a back-road shack called Café Camarguais we had the exemplary regional dish, gardiane, a stew made from bull’s meat, rough red wine, onion, garlic and tart black olives. I hesitated briefly before ordering, confusing the word for bull with that for bullboy: an image of the recently-deceased gardian floated hazily before me. I explained my quandary to the young waitress, who laughed. And then, in that classic French gesture, she kissed her fingertips and gracefully fluttered them toward the kitchen. "Il serra merveilleux," she promised. "It will be wonderful." And it was, strong and pungent like the Camargue itself.

After un express we headed onward in search of the flamingoes reputedly feeding in the nearby waters. We didn’t have far to look: the little dirt road on which we found the café led straight to them. As we traversed the area that afternoon, the graceful, coral-colored birds seemed to be everywhere.

The day had become quite hot, the sun never wavering. The road, however, changed constantly. First we traversed marshland thick with bulls, white horses, goats, sheep, shepherds, a thousand flamingoes. The few houses hereabouts were pale-colored structures with faded red-tiled roofs, molded to the land. After a while the terrain grew lush with tall grasses and bushy trees. The road skirted the east side of a lagoon. Eventually the paved road came to an end and a dirt road continued on.

So did we. The road, large enough for two cars traveling in opposite directions to squeeze by one another, led straight across the shallow water. The sides of the road banked steeply downward, protected from erosion by boulders. We drove for almost 30 minutes, passing only one other car, with no idea where we were headed, surrounded by water on all sides as if traveling atop the sea

After a while the land grew up around the sides of the road, flatter, wider and sandier; further still and the road ended, becoming nothing but a bare track across hard-packed sand. Sand dunes skirted the edges of the sea now, and dune grasses waved gently. Unbelievably, we saw a restaurant, a tumbledown wooden shack which looked like a palace compared to the rest of the tiny, rundown community. It was a very back-of-beyond kind of place, with burned out busses, hovels -- not what you expect to see on a French beach, no matter how remote. We had a small coffee in the restaurant and then headed back the way we’d come.

Over the next couple of days we luxuriated in the Camargue’s peace and quiet. We spent our time photographing flamingoes, going horseback riding, walking great distances along the lagoons -- and, of course eating. Our favorite meal was a cold rice seafood salad, perfect for a hot summer day.

I’ll leave you with the recipe, readers (my own invention, with an homage to the Café Camarguais). That way, whether you make it to the Carmargue or not this summer, you can still taste the area’s spirit.

Part II (August '98)

Riz A La Camargue

(Serves 2.)

¾ cup long-grained white rice, uncooked

Seafood:

1 pound mussels in shell
½ pound small clams in shell
1 cup white wine

Vegetables:

½ cup raw or frozen peas, lightly cooked
¼ cup chopped sweet red pepper
¼ cup finely chopped celery
¼ cup finely chopped green onion
½ cup niçoise olives
1 generous tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Vinaigrette:

¼ cup virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

The Day Before Serving:

Combine rice with 1-1/2 cups water, bring to boil. Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes or until rice is cooked. Allow to cool and then refrigerate. You’ll want the rice to be very cold when you assemble the salad for serving.

Scrub mussels and clams under cold running water with brush and then allow to soak, in cold water and in separate bowls, for a few hours. Drain. Bring wine to boil in heavy pan; add mussels. Cover and let steam for 3 minutes or until all shells have opened. Remove from heat and remove mussels with slotted spoon. Put pan with wine back on heat. When wine comes to second boil, add clams, cover. When all shells have opened, remove with slotted spoon. Allow wine in pan to cool. Remove mussels and clams from shells, placing in container. Top with cooled wine (discard rest of wine). Cover and refrigerate.

Just Before Serving:

Prepare vinaigrette. Whip mustard into oil with fork. When blended, add vinegar and lemon juice. Stir until well blended, salt and pepper to taste. Put aside for the moment.

Place rice in serving bowl and stir with fork to separate grains. Add vegetables. Stir thoroughly. Pour vinaigrette over rice and blend well. Salt and pepper to taste. Drain seafood thoroughly, add to rice, stir gently.