The town of Aigues-Mortes survived being cut off from the sea and is a medieval gem in the Camargue, as Mary Novakovich discovers
Ask a child to draw their idea of a medieval fort and they would probably come up with the rectangular ramparts and stone towers of Aigues-Mortes. They might even add its grid of narrow criss-crossing streets that lead to arched stone gates. What they would be unlikely to do is leave this beautifully preserved Languedoc town marooned in the marshes and lagoons of the Petite Camargue.
It is hard to believe that in the 13th century, Aigues-Mortes was a port; the only one on the Mediterranean to be in the kingdom of France. (Marseille to the east was then in the ‘foreign’ territory of Provence.) The town was developed by Louis IX in the 1240s as a departure point for the Seventh Crusade to the Holy Land. Ramparts and towers erected, all the authorities had to do was entice people to live in the marshy and bleak landscape of the Rhône delta. With the help of tax privileges and trade concessions, a sizeable population built up and saw the king set sail on two Crusades.
However, Louis IX, who was later made a saint, died from disease in Tunisia in 1270 and by the middle of the next century the River Rhône was beginning to silt up the channels and cut off the town from the sea. Stranded in the ‘dead waters’ that make up its name, Aigues-Mortes drifted into decline and it wasn’t until the 19th century that its fortunes improved. The town found itself on the canal route connecting the Rhône to the western port of Sète; a channel was dug from the town to the village of Le Grau-du-Roi on the coast; salt production and wine-growing became major industries; and sea bathing became fashionable. Visitors found a perfectly preserved medieval wonder whose ramparts had been sheltering the town from the salty blasts of the Rhône for centuries.
The ramparts are not particularly high, but they are impossible to miss as you drive through the wide, flat expanse of the Petite Camargue. They still come as a surprise, following mile after mile of pink and white salt plains, blue-green lagoons and scattered farms and vineyards. The highest point – at 40 metres high – is the Tour de Constance, the solid circular keep that was one of the first structures to be completed in 1248.
Unlike some French medieval towns, Aigues-Mortes does not cling to the top of a rockface; its flatness gives the narrow streets a greater sense of space. There are plenty of tourists in high season, but the atmosphere is relaxed, with traffic being kept to a minimum as visitors use a car park outside the town gates.
Brightly coloured shops sell handicrafts, works of art and the usual souvenirs – many in the patterns of nearby Provence – as well as charcuterie, cheeses and the highly valued Camargue sea salt. The main square, Place Saint-Louis, is large enough to hold half a dozen restaurants and cafés, their tables spreading under the plane trees and towards the bronze statue of Louis IX.
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Cowboys of the marshes
In spite of these familiar sights, the town has a definite sense of ‘otherness’ that comes with being in the Camargue. There is a haunting beauty to the starkness of the surrounding marshes and waterways, many of which are best explored on horseback or 4x4 safari, or by canoe or bicycle. The shops selling souvenirs also stock equipment for manades, the farms where Camargue bulls and horses are bred. A glance at restaurant menus reveals numerous mentions of gardiane de taureau, the succulent bull stew that is found all over the area and usually served with red Camargue rice. The ‘cowboys’, known as gardians, who tend herds of bulls and horses, have left their motifs everywhere, echoing the Wild West and making you feel as if you are not quite in France. Even the wine is different: vineyards in sandy terrain interspersed with canals produce vins des sables, the delicate ‘wine of the sands’ that comes in pale rosé or white known as vin gris. It is thanks to the sands of the Camargue that the vineyards escaped the deadly phylloxera plague in the 19th century, the insects finding it impossible to get a grip in the soft terrain.
To find myself firmly back in France, I headed for the Tour de Constance, the starting point of a leisurely walk along the ramparts. Within the tower’s six-feet-thick walls, the impressive circular lower room sets the stage with a 12-ribbed vaulted ceiling. From here you can take a lift or walk up the circular staircase to the terrace at the foot of the turret to capture the first of many wonderful views. The terracotta rooftops of the walled town are spread out on one side, while the confluence of two canals is on the other, with boats and pleasure craft lining the waterways.
Aigues-Mortes has a more modern side, as not everything is wedged within the ramparts, and from the terrace it is possible to catch a glimpse of the wide, tree-shaded Avenue Frédéric Mistral, where a market is held on Wednesdays and Sundays.
I headed south-east along the ramparts, enjoying the height and catching glimpses of architectural details of the houses, where people have fitted in a roof terrace or a small flower-filled balcony. Occasionally the little white tourist train chugged along below. I came out on the southernmost side and saw horses grazing on the pastures tucked between vineyards. Just beyond were the Salins du Midi, where sea salt is harvested over a 10,800-hectare area. It is a vast enterprise that can be explored on another little train that goes past the enormous salt evaporation ponds.
Reaching the Tour des Bourguignons along the ramparts, you discover the gruesome role that salt played in Aigues-Mortes’ history. In the early 15th century, Burgundians captured the town from the Armagnacs during a civil war. The invaders fell into a trap and were killed in such numbers that they had to be dumped in the tower and covered with salt to preserve them. It was hard not to shiver.
Any lingering macabre thoughts were banished as I savoured a dish of gardiane de taureau in La Camargue, the oldest restaurant in Aigues-Mortes, whose interior courtyard makes a romantic place for a meal. It was late in the evening, but the streets were full of life, in contrast to those places that exist mainly for daytime coach parties and become ghost towns at night. Aigues-Mortes might be one of the best-preserved medieval towns in France, but its soul is very much alive.
By road: Aigues-Mortes is about ten hours from the ferry port at Calais.
By air: The nearest airports are at Nîmes and Montpellier.
By rail: Trains from Montpellier to Aigues-Mortes go via Nîmes.
See our Holiday Planner on page 89.
WHERE TO STAY
35 Boulevard Gambetta
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 73 90 48
This 15th-century manor house is the most luxurious hotel in town. Doubles from €120.
Hôtel les Arcades
23 Boulevard Gambetta
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 53 81 13
Charming 16th-century hotel with a pool. Doubles from €100.
WHERE TO EAT
19 Rue de la République
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 53 86 88
www.restaurant lacamargue.com The oldest restaurant in town serves camarguais specialities, including gardiane de taureau.Menus from €35.
The restaurants at Villa Mazarin and Hôtel les Arcades are excellent too.
WHERE TO VISIT
Tours et Remparts
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 53 61 55
Les Salins du Midi
Route du Grau-du-Roi
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 73 40 24