Article by Mark Sissons originally published in the December 2017-April 2018 edition of the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
How I learned to love river cruising in France’s cowboy country.
As a travel writer, I often take pride in stepping outside of my comfort zone. Heli-skiing? Hang-gliding? Polar paddling? Sign me up! But river cruising? Perish the thought of drifting for days with a boatload of geriatrics. Then I was offered a berth on a new CroisiEurope cruise to the Camargue, the largest river delta in Europe. And, despite my ageism, the allure of visiting France’s cowboy country proved irresistible. Ponderosa country in the south of France? I won’t believe it until I see it. Then I see it, a pair of cowboys galloping toward me on their creamy-white steeds across the Camargue’s marshland.
They are manadiers (ranchers) who use the legendary semi-wild breed of horses native to the Camargue to round up the region’s equally famous black bulls. Raised to compete in the traditional French sport of course camarguaise, a kind of bloodless bullfight considered much more humane than the Spanish-style corrida, champion Camargue bulls can bring their owners enormous prestige and plenty of prize money.
Wedged between the watery rice paddies and lush meadows of this vast UNESCO-protected wetland that drains into the Mediterranean Sea, a salt pan shimmers in the distance. I make out a cotton-candy-colored mirage, but it soon reveals itself to be a flock of hundreds of wobbly-kneed pink flamingos. Over 20,000 breeding pairs nest each year in the Camargue’s 1,000 square kilometers of wetlands.
Back aboard the aptly named MS Camargue, a recently refurbished two-deck, 148-passenger vessel, guests mingle over aperitifs on the rooftop deck. A mix of British and French, most are veterans of what I’m quickly discovering to be a surprisingly relaxing mode of travel.
No constantly changing hotel rooms. No having to pack and unpack each day. No traffic jams or hours spent driving through endless suburbs. Instead, it’s simply smooth sailing down one of the continent’s most vital arteries, where history is always just a dock away. Little appears to have changed as we pass medieval castles, ancient cliffside villages and fields of sunflowers, wheat and lavender. Then an enormous nuclear power station or windmill farm appears, reminding me what century it is.
In the ancient Roman town of Arles, just upstream from where the Rhone forks into two branches forming the Camargue, I encounter a remarkably well-preserved 20,000-seat Roman amphitheater that still hosts plays, concerts and bullfights. This famously sunny town also inspired some of Vincent van Gogh’s greatest masterpieces, which he painted while briefly residing here in 1888 and 1889.
Further on up the Rhone, I hop ashore to explore Avignon, famous for its immense Popes’ Palace, the largest Gothic building ever constructed during the Middle Ages. Another day, in the Ardèche Gorges, I photograph the Pont d’Arc, an enormous natural archway hanging 60 metres above the valley floor. Then I tour Vercors Regional Nature Park, a massif of densely forested mountains and plateaus east of the Rhone Valley.
Sure, I have to occasionally wait for elderly passengers to embark and disembark. And yes, the on-board music does veer toward golden oldies. But the remarkable life stories I hear over dinner and my shipmates’ still youthful curiosity as we explore new places together reassures me that the spirit of adventure never expires.
Here, in France’s wild and wonderful south, the sense of discovery remains as vital as the river that runs through it.