Lagoons of the Languedoc

Flamingos flock here, artists too. Gillian Brown visits Narbonne’s nature reserve to discover why...

Scattered like pink confetti across the shiny surface of the �tang (lagoon), a flock of flamingos basks in the sun. As I watch, they languorously extract their heads from beneath their wingtips; siesta time is over. Noisy squawking erupts and two males attack each other with their bills, but their long-necked battle is brief. Soon their heads disappear again, this time beneath the water in search of a vegetable or seafood snack.This is not the Camargue, but a nature reserve of outstanding natural beauty, known as Le Parc Naturel de la Narbonnaise en M�diterran�e, just a tenminute drive from the southern town of Narbonne. Part of a fragile ecosystem, this 230,000-acre park has been classified as a conservation area due to the exceptional biodiversity of its flora and fauna. It encompasses habitats as diverse as coastland, forests, wetlands, garrigue (dry scrubland) and vineyards.The wetlands are subject to a cycle of constantly changing scenery, in which the prevailing winds play the major role. The tramontane (a fierce northwesterly) sweeps the water from the lagoons out to the open sea in the heat of summer leaving only a salt crust behind. In turn, the marin (a southerly) flushes it back again, full of the fresh nutrients and sea life necessary to sustain the ecosystem and provide food for both nesting and migratory birds.Apart from wine-making, the only signs of commerce are salt production, a diminishing fishing industry and some lowkey tourist development along its wide sandy beaches. Hillsides of fragrant pine woods and scrubland surround lagoonfronted villages.The fishing village of Bages gazes out from its hilltop over the enormous �tang de Bages, the largest of several lagoons in the reserve. I follow the heritage trail, starting in the boat harbour where fishing nets hang out to dry. Along the way, plaques depict the history and traditions of the Bageots from the Middle Ages to the present day. From the shoreline, the pathway curves its way up around a cliff, above which houses teeter on the former ramparts, before disappearing into a medieval maze of streets and passageways. From the top of the village, there is a clear view across the water towards Narbonne Cathedral with the Massif Central beyond, and to the east a glimpse of the Mediterranean.Art galleries and restaurants are tucked away in the cobbled streets, and every now and then a stunning view across the lagoon peeks over the rooftops. It is easy to see why artists flock here, it has a special quality of light. There is even an artoth�que (art library) where you can rent a painting by the week, with an option to buy or return.Eeling comedyArtists may now outnumber the locals, but a handful of fishermen still remain. One has set up shop in his garage, a few metres from the lagoon. When I arrive the solettes (tiny sole, delicious when pan-fried) are still twitching, alongside the eels, which are a speciality here. For those with a strong constitution, there is a fish restaurant that serves a six-course dinner featuring nothing but eel.I take a seat at a table outside the Caf� des Beaux Arts in the central square and sip a chilled glass of chardonnay. The owner herself is an artist and her paintings hang inside the bar, where her artistic flair has been used to great effect.A plaque on the wall nearby depicts a crowd of Bageots gathering in this square before setting off for Narbonne to join the winegrowers’ demonstrations of 1907. It was France’s last great peasant revolt and perhaps the reason why, to this day, wine remains the mainstay of the local economy.The road to Peyriac-de-Mer, a few minutes south of Bages, squeezes through a narrow causeway between smaller lagoons which are scattered about like an unfinished jigsaw. Some hikers cross the road, binoculars dangling from their necks. A photographer has set up his tripod, in wait for that perfect shot. Twitchers and photographers alike are lured here by the enormous variety of bird life, as well as its scenic charm.Despite its name, Peyriac-de-Mer is no longer a seaside village, although clearly the coast once stopped here. Instead, it stands on the edge of some ancient, now disused, salt pans. I follow the boardwalk that winds its way across the water and then take a signposted pathway, which leads off through the garrigue. Every so often I inadvertently crush a branch of wild rosemary or thyme beneath my feet and the fragrance floods my nostrils like a herbal infusion. Turquoise-bellied bee-eaters swoop overhead and arctic terns take perpendicular dives into the lagoons nearby. An hour’s circular walk brings me back to the village.I’m told that, along with a collection of Roman antiquities, there is the head of an Egyptian mummy in the archaeological museum, but they are probably joking. As luck has it, the place is closed, so I end up in the local caf� instead. A richly coloured mural of a fish stall takes up an entire wall, the pride of one of the local artists.Sunset stripIf you want to see flamingos in flight,’’ the owner of the caf� tells me, Go now. Just before sunset.’’I hurry down to the lagoon and get as close as I can to a flock of birds. And wait. The sun sinks behind the pine woods leaving a vermilion-tinged sky. A mirror image of each flamingo is reflected in the water, pinker than before. Suddenly, a single pair of wings flaps noisily, revealing deep red and black undersides. The bird pitches into the air. Slowly others follow, until the whole flock takes flight, honking noisily like angry geese. Beaks point forward, necks stretch interminably and wings are at full span. Spindly red legs follow neatly behind. It’s an extraordinary sight as their wingtips catch fire in the last snatch of sunlight. I watch them until they become specks in the dying light.The best time to see these birds is between mid-August and mid-May. The rest of the year most of them head to the Camargue, their sole breeding ground in France.On my last day the wind gets up. This is the tramontane, the saviour of becalmed windsurfers. In no time, dozens of sails whip across the water in a flight of ecstasy. Closer by, I spot a flock of flamingos, evidently undeterred by the change in the weather. They stand knee-deep in the water; legs like pink knitting needles, utterly motionless. Not one of them as much as raises a feathery eyebrow.