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Saturday, 26 March 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Port Saint Louis to Port Camargue

12th February.
After our late evening arrival in Port Saint Louis, and just a slightly disturbed night on the marina quay, I tip-toed out of the van into some welcome sunshine. 20 metres behind us was a customs launch that had rumbled past in the early hours before mooring up!

Seemed like a quiet spot before the customs launch arrived!

At the end of the jetty was the drolly named “Ship of Fools” with some comical appendages in prominent places, for example, a huge knife, fork and spoon as a figurehead!

Ship of Fools - have I been here before?

The Capitanerie in Port Saint Louis is undergoing a major rebuild and will soon be open with a clubhouse for the marina’s yachties and “Services Plaisance” - often handy for a launderette.
On the quay was a regular small fish market under an artistic steel and canvas sun shade, doing good business with a wide selection of fish and crustaceans. Another few minutes walk away was a large Intermarche with filling station.
Maybe Port St Louis makes a good starting off point for an exploration of the Camargue!

Our trail around the Camargue

(Microsoft AutoRoute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

After breakfast we drove around the corner - to find the rest of the parked up motorhomes we had spied earlier from the deserted aire across the water! Well ensconced all along the grassed-over harbour's edge, they were there mainly for the fishing apparently.

What struck us most about Port St Louis was not only the huge harbour, but the vast amount of derelict land, abandoned industrial buildings, cargo handling and refuelling infrastructure. The loss to the local economy must have been shattering - where did it all go?
Now all they have is a couple of moderate size marinas, a small fishing fleet and some new, mostly unoccupied blocks of holiday apartments. It's gratifying to see the money being spent to transform the town for a new century, but they have a long, long way to go.

So, to the Camargue proper, the Regional Nature Park. The Bac de Barcarin or ferry across the Grand Rhone to Salin de Giraud costs 5 euros - paid on board. We timed it right for a change and were over in minutes.

Ferry across the Rhone

Turning south almost immediately onto the D36d, we headed for the Plage Piemanson. You actually drive right alongside the banks of the Rhone, and there are some stopping off points to gaze at this huge river and its life.

We passed a salt works, with heavy machinery for scooping up the evaporated salt from the marsh, plus the most enormous mountain of salt left out in the open. Not sure I'd fancy any of that for my fish and chips! (Actually it is all thoroughly washed - yes, washed - in clean sea water before packing for sale)

At the end of the road is a big gravel car park, no signs banning motorhomes or the like, just a few waste bins.
The sun was now out in strength and we sucked in the cool sea air and the wonderful light. The only other person around was a motorhomer, standing on the shore of the lake with a powerful telescope on a tripod, taking pictures of wading birds with an attached camera.
Across from the car park is the vast, sandy Piemansion Beach, looking out to the Mediterranean.

Car park for Piemansion beach, looking onto the adjacent lake

We could easily have lingered longer, but felt there was much more to see. We took a quick look at the Domaine de la Palissade  nature reserve. Here there is a helpful tourist office, a pleasant picnic spot, several walking trails and an equestrian trail that takes the visitor into the wetlands.

GPS: 43.3758 N, 04.8103 E

Back up at Salin de Giraud, we found the promised aire around the back of the fire station, also several French vans parked up. One lady advised me that the fresh water stands were still shut off for the winter, though if you were willing to use a canister, the toilet cassette rinse did have a supply.

From the bottom of town we headed off for Faraman and La Béluge, but at Faraman the road was "Route barrée" and we had to retrace our steps, taking the D36c out of Salin de Giraud.

We drove as far as we could to the Phare de la Gacholle, where there is limited parking and a causeway to the actual lighthouse 12 km away. The sign says: "light vehicles only in dry weather, no 4x4's" – so I guess that excludes motorhomes!
A nice rough-track cycle ride however, sea water lagoons on either side. Admission is free to the lighthouse and there is an exhibition on the Camargue coast.

La Capelière is another individual nature reserve with an information centre, walking trails, hides and observation points - opening times and access to some of the hides are more restrictive though.


Just after La Capelière, heading north, there is a large layby and viewing platform for the mighty Etang du Vaccares, which seemed a good place to stop for the night.

It's no easy matter getting to the waters edge however, most entrances are gated or fenced off with "no hunting" signs, but I did find one open to get amongst the reeds. Making my way back to the road I nearly had a heart attack when I heard dogs barking and the thunder of heavy paws on the narrow track! Fortunately they were family dogs and took not the blind bit of notice of me.

Worth the scramble through the reed beds!

Sun sets fire to the reeds

Go to sleep now

The road was quiet after dark, and apart from one vehicle sounding their horn as they went by, we had a peaceful night in the company of a large 'A' Class van.
Ah, the joys of travelling off season.

13th February
As a misty morn dawned we watched Black headed Gulls, Egrets and ducks feeding at the waters edge.

The weather wasn't great so our next stop was the Museum of the Camargue, installed in a former sheep barn on the Pont de Rousty farmstead. Alongside runs the Canal du Rousty, constructed in 1543 and used to drain the marshes and cultivated land. Excess water is pumped into the Rhone, or in exceptional circumstances allowed to gravitate to the Etang du Vaccarés.

The Canal du Rousty

Black bulls and White horses are the traditional icons of the Camargue, along with the gaucho or Gardian, and are inextricably linked because of the use of horses to manage the bulls.
The Pink Flamingo and Egret now pop up regularly too on publicity material and roadside signs.
A new emblem was created by a local artist that they call “The Cross of Camargue” - combining a cross tipped with the tridents of the Gardians (for faith) an anchor (for hope) and a heart (for charity). Quite a neat design I suppose, and they seem to be proud of it.

Three ages of the Camargue Gardian

Along with all of the above is a colourful history of the rise and fall of industries, agriculture and ways of life - encompassing fishing, farming, wine, salt and rice production.

The topography of the Camargue is varied and very complex - today the equilibrium of all its aspects is managed by man with protective dykes, pumps and sluice gates. It can be categorised into 3 or 5 different environments, depending on whose material you are reading!

In the upper Camargue and the banks of the Rhone are the Fresh Water Marshes and Reed Beds. The marshes are home to aquatic plants such as bulrushes, cane and reeds, and in summer are used as pasture, also for hunting birds and mammals.
In the winter they provide shelter for nesting and wintering birds, and the reeds are harvested for roofing.

An Egret feeds by the reed beds

In the lower Camargue, along with 50km of sandy beaches, are the Sansouires or Salt Plains. They are sometimes flooded, but dry out in the intense summer heat - salt concentrations rising up to the surface, producing a white film. Only a few plants such as salicorne are salt tolerant enough to survive.

Then there are Salt Meadows, fragmented environments, with clovers and grasses which complete their life cycle before the summer drought - and the land dries hard as stone.

The Salt Ponds or Etangs are former branches of the Rhone delta that have become silted up and separated by sand bars from the sea. The levels are controlled by sluice gates to the sea, but the concentration of salt varies from year to year.
The lagoons are rarely more than a metre deep and are interconnected by natural channels. The lower ponds provide a refuge for bird life, famously the Pink Flamingo, but are also important for fish and water resource management.

Pink Flamingos in the salt lagoons

Finally, there are the Salt Marshes, managed by man to maximise the concentration of sodium chloride in the water - the Sauniers and their equipment producing salt for human and industrial consumption.
The salt marshes are rich in invertebrates, making them a favourite habitat for the pink flamingo.

Heavy machinery is used to harvest the evaporated salt

Accessible from the Camargue museum is a 3.5km nature trail walk showing the environment of a typical Camargue farm. There is a good bird hide and several other interesting installations designed to capture children's imagination, but full of interest just the same.

GPS: 43.6243 N, 04.5293 E

As the weather had closed in after the walk, we elected to stay in the car park overnight, it is well off the main road and access to the trail is open all the time.

14th February
We awoke to heavy rain, so it seemed a good day to use up our inclusive entry tickets for the Arles Musée départmental Arles antique, the collection of all the Roman treasures and artefacts recovered from the area. Housed and meticulously presented in a modern purpose built Museum, they trace the history of the region from Prehistoric times to the end of the Roman Empire.

Musée départmental Arles antique
GPS: 43.6717 N, 04.6179 E

Parking is pretty limited nearby for a motorhome - mainly on the roadside, but fortunately we were allowed to use the bus and disabled car park after asking at reception.

In you're into beautifully decorated sarcophagi (strangely, Sue seems to have developed an particular interest) you'll be in metaphorical heaven as there are dozens of the carved stone coffins.
But, for me the fantastic architectural models of the Roman Theatre, Amphitheatre, Circus and others, were more engaging, revealing not only the complete form of each edifice to enrich your imagination of the original, but also their complexity, and the genius of the Roman design for terraced arenas housing up to 20,000 people.

Magnificent model of the Roman Theatre

Some of the carved heads and decorative statues retrieved from the ruins of the theatre are exquisite in their execution - was it a lifetime's work to achieve such a level of artistry?

The sheer scale of Roman construction also boggles the imagination - amongst all the public arenas and municipal facilities they built, there is a model of a terraced, water driven flour mill that produced 4.5 tonnes of flour a day!
One exhibit is stacks of lead water main pipes, each 4 metres long and 100 mm in diameter - literally tonnes of them, how did they make all that stuff?

Finally, in a special hall was a display of recently recovered artefacts, including a bust of Julius Caesar recovered from the murky depths of the Rhone! A film recounts the discovery, the cleaning and preservation, and a battery of high-tech techniques that the ancient stone head was bombarded with.

Julius Caesar, looking remarkably well after a 1000 years or more at the bottom of the Rhone

Before heading down to the main Camargue resort of Saintes Maries de la Mer, we pumped n'dumped at the city aire - free water.

Aire, Arles
GPS: N 43.6817 04.6305 E

Driving down the D570 at Avignon is the Chateau d'Avignon, the vineyard of Louis Prat, who made the famous Noilly Prat apertif in Marseille. Opening is restricted to Fridays off season and advance booking is required.

At Pont de Gau there is a Bird park with a series of trails, paths and observation points amongst the marshes. Open every day, until sunset.

As you approach Saintes Maries del la Mer, there are endless Mas or farms proclaiming horse rides, bull displays, all manner of provisions and sustenance and even discotheques!

Mary Magdalene is recorded as having landed ashore there in exile in AD 44, along with Mary Jacob-Cleophus and Mary Salome-Helena. Hence the spot became a place of pilgrammage, and Saintes Maries de  la Mer took its name from the "Saint Marys".

There are two main overnight aires in town, one on the main road coming in, and then the Parking Plage Est on the beach front, behind a sea wall. Both are 9.50 Euro and the water availability is limited during the day. We elected for the one on the sea front. Some salt spray from the breaking waves, but altogether a nicer ambience. Water is only available from 0900 to 1200, fees are collected around 0830.
Valentine’s day dinner was an “in house” affair!

Parking Plage Est, behind the sea wall

Aire, Saintes Maries del la Mer 
GPS: 43.4540 N, 04.4382 E

15th February
At last a significant temperature rise and some decent sunshine to go with it. We got on the bikes and rode along the seawall into town. Extensive defences against erosion have recently been constructed, using hundreds of tonnes of rough stone, creating miniature sandy bays.

On the waterfront is a small bullring, now used (at least in part), as a boat store. We watched a few professional fishermen preparing for sea, rode up to the marina and then into the town centre.

The bull breaks through at Saintes Maries

Why is it that everywhere we go is getting a makeover? All the central streets were dug up and virtually impassable as they were busy laying large swathes of coloured concrete.

Most of the tourist shops and restaurants were still shut, but we had a look at the distinctive Church. Newly restored outside, inside the stonework is still blackened from centuries of flickering candles, but artfully and impressively lit using modern technology.

Sue was pursued by some fortune-telling ladies who were a bit too persistent for her liking. Remember that phrase? : “What part of NO! don’t you understand!”

Lunch was in the Baraka Cafe which served up a very acceptable tagine with a smile, for 10 Euro a head.

16th February
Driving up the D85a from Saintes Maries, there are several good deep laybys from where you can watch the wildlife, particularly the colourful flamingos.

We then turned back down the D38 - more built up, but still good views of the landscape and an imposing view of the Church on the sweep back into Saintes Maries.

Finally, we ventured into the Petite Camargue, after crossing the Petit Rhone. The D85 down through Pin-Fourcat to the car ferry at Le Point Sauvage has another feel again, more overtly agricultural, and we were treated to some frolicking from some camargue horses.

Mas de Pin-Fourcat is a private estate said to show an authentic and well preserved view of Camargue life. Pre-booked tours in carts or on horseback show the activities of bull and horse breeders, plus glimpses of wild life on marshes and ponds.


The Bac Sauvage is a free car ferry which runs all year, but has a 2 tonne weight limit, thus excluding motorhomes.

The iconic White Camargue Horse

Time to leave, and heading towards Aigues-Mortes - out of the boundaries of the Camargue Nature Park - we were suddenly jettisoned back into the ugly, noisy realities of modern life and immediately felt we wanted to be back in the reserve. That says something for its largely unspoilt and coveted charm.
However, you can only really explore the reserve fully on foot or horseback. There are any number of equestrian centres but are mainly concentrated around Saintes Maries.
There are cycle trails, but most are of the 20 - 40 km variety and require a mountain bike.

The walking-trail reserves are ok, but some are so intensively contrived it's hard to feel like an explorer. The signs to "keep quiet" and "use your ears and eyes" seem at odds with the ingenious installations designed to involve and (loudly) excite the kids!

We got the most pleasure from using the van as a hide on roadside laybys - as ever, the best times are early morning and the hour or two before sunset.

The main tourist base is at Saintes Maries, and by the sheer scale and number of the facilities, its quite easy to imagine the mayhem in peak season. Just the few days of warmer weather we had enjoyed latterly, brought out Motorhomes in good numbers.

The "Cross of Camargue"

Off season, we managed a few wild/free nights while the campsites where closed, but once they are open I'm sure wayward motorhomes will be herded to them and the aires. All the old tracks and large pieces of waste ground that we saw have now been fully secured and signed against such activities.

We certainly preferred the area of the reserve east of the Etang de Vaccares, it is larger, quieter and less developed. The aire at Salin de Giraud makes a good base. Also there is the only decent roadside access to the Etang du Vaccarès on this side, plus the trails at La Capeliere and Domaine de la Palissade, and the magnificent Plage de Piemansion. Not forgetting the rice and salt museums at Le Sambuc and Salin de Giraud respectively.
The main Camargue museum at Mas du Point de Rousty is a must.

Gardians Cabin - high roof to deflect the rain, rounded end to face the mistral

Having reluctantly left this all behind, we chose a France Passion site a few kilometres out of Aigues-Mortes for our night's stopover, figuring the town aires would be noisy and expensive - or both.
Domaine du Petit Chaumont is a rambling old vineyard down a long and very bumpy dirt track. We found our pitch easily enough, but the half eaten (and very dead) rabbit by our side added some local interest - that's France Passion for you!

France Passion for the night, note the dead rabbit!
Looking to find someone to announce our prescence to, I found  a blonde lady in tight jeans and leather boots - who bade us welcome and wished us a pleasant evening - no idea who she was.

Domaine du Petit Chaumont
GPS: 43.5755 N, 04.1267 E

17th February
The building of Aigues-Mortes, meaning "dead or stagnant waters" was commenced by Louis IX (St Louis) by the side of a malaria-riddled swamp in 1240 - as the restless monarch was in need of a Mediterranean port from which to go on a crusade!
However, he cut tolls, cut taxes, forced loans and the town eventually thrived as a trading port. He departed on his first crusade in 1248.

The distinctive ramparts were begun in 1272 and at the end of the 13th Century, 20 large towers were added. Unfortunately the waterways began to silt up in the 14th Century and the once principal Mediterranean harbour fell into decline.

Now set in the typical Camargue landscape of marshland, lakes and huge salt pans, with the Canal and a railway line alongside, Aigues-Mortes is a fine and intact example of a medieval walled city, but a bit unusual in that it is laid out in a geometric grid system.

Aigues Mortes from across the canal

We selected one of two possible aires by the canal Rhone à Sète, a large, somewhat muddy fenced off area 5 minutes walk from the bridge into town.
Normally 14 Euros (without electricity), we had a free night as they were in the process of changing the electric barriers.

Aire, Aigues Mortes
GPS: 43.5664 N, 04.1858 E

The rain had settled in for the afternoon but we had a look at the old town later on. The streets seemed rather drab and dark in the wet, so we bought a large pastry each and stuffed our faces as the rain dripped off somebody's shop blind, then headed for home.

18th February
What a turnaround - cloudless sky, brilliant sun and a rapidly rising temperature!
We walked back into town, crossing the railway line to get a good view of the walls. The access doors to the ramparts however were locked off.
The narrow streets were transformed in the sunshine and the central square with its fine statue of St Louis filled with expectant life as café tables were laid and people sprang out of nowhere to gather and chat.

Lunch anyone?

Tempted to a lunch in the sunshine, we hadn't quite worked up an appetite, and decided instead to look at Port Camargue and Le Grau de Roi.

Port Camargue is a nice place to be if you have the money and a yacht to park next door to your apartment. We didn’t expect much else, but thought the D255b out towards the Phare de l’Espiguette might offer more promise to the humble motorhome.
The road deteriorates gradually and you can’t get near the lighthouse or the beach with a van, but there is a nice parking area by the side of a small lake. A little bird hide had been thoughtfully provided by the roadside and it certainly made a pleasant lunch spot.

Picnic spot
GPS: 43.4980 N, 04.1408 E

There is an aire at Le Grau de Roi, but you are right in the centre of town alongside a busy road.

Next: The Canal du Midi, Beziers and Narbonne

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Nimes to Port Saint Louis

2nd February.
We left camping Domaine de la Bastide on the outskirts of Nimes in bright but chilly sunshine. The plan was to have a look at the famous Pont du Gard, 20 km north-east of Nimes. However, you have to use the official car park even to get a glimpse of it. At 15 Euro a vehicle,  we gave it a miss!

Our trail from Nimes and through the Camargue Regional Park
(Microsoft Autoroute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

Next stop Avignon, city of the famous bridge and chanson to go with it. Its other claim to fame is the vast and imposing Palais des Papes, the home of nine successive popes - and thus the seat of the Christian world - in the 14th Century.

The Pont St Benezet or Pont d'Avignon

Camping Bagatelle, just the other side of the Edouard Daladier bridge is an all year ACSI site. Complete with shop, café and restaurant, most pitches are under large plane trees, but the best feature is the short walk over the bridge into the old walled city.
Wi-fi is over most of the site: 3.5 Euro for two hours, 8 Euro for 24 (non-consecutive) hours.

GPS: 43.9542 N, 04.7988 E

It was a bright evening, albeit with a wind so fierce it sucked the breath out of my lungs walking over the bridge, but once inside the city walls the wind seemed to fade away.

I wandered towards the Papal Palace, gawping at the romantic Valentine’s Day menu on display at the 5-star Hôtel d’Europe. For a mere 110 Euros per person (excluding drinks!) you and your beloved could wade your way through an eight course menu: lobster with a carrot and mango jus, scallops with truffle, filet of rouget (an exotic red fish) with beurre de légumes, hot duck fois gras with cranberry ravioli, sorbet (to cleanse the palate!), medallions of veal with an artichoke and truffle crumble, les fromages de Provence  and… chocolate mouse… oh, and petits fours…
Maybe some of the “romance” might have to wait until the following day!

Yup, it certainly gets your attention!

Moving on, the square in front of the Papal Palace is currently dominated by a life-sized bronze elephant standing on its trunk - arresting visually, but somehow it seemed like it would be more appreciated elsewhere. Disneyland pehaps.

However, the late sun picked out the golden statue looking down on the crucified Jesus from the chapel tower, and looked just the part.

A different kind of iconography

If you thought the Valentine’s Day menu was a bit on the mean side, you could always pop into La Cure Gourmande, the most over-the-top sweet shop I think I’ve ever seen! The array of crystallised fruits and endless shelves of goodies is just incredible.

La Cure Gourmande - not just any old sweet shop

3rd February
The Papal Palace is a "must see" monument according to our Green Guide, but imposing as the outside is, the interior is mostly bleak stone as all papal accoutrements have long since disappeared.
The included audio guides however provide hours of in-depth commentary if you have the interest, imagination and the stamina. Entrance 9.80 Euro, 7 for over 60's.

The bare interior of the much restored Papal Palace

You can get an inclusive ticket to visit the much rebuilt Pont St Benezet, but we declined because of the chill high winds. The iconic bridge was finally turned into a non-functioning monument when many of its arches were carried away for the last time by the Rhone’s floodwaters in the 17th Century.

Instead we adjourned to a warm tea shop on the edge of the Place de L’Horloge  for a stunning tarte aux framboise and a rich syrupy hot chocolate.

4th February
From Avignon we took the N7 and D973 to Cadenet and Pertuis before dropping down to Aix en Provence.
The origins of Aix en Provence go back to the 2nd Century BC when a camp was set up near some thermal springs by the Roman general Sextius. Aquae Sextiae was subsequently laid waste in the 6th Century before being restored by the Counts of Provence in the 12th Century.
It is also noted as the home of the modernist painter Paul Cézanne.

A fountain to stop the traffic in Aix en Provence

Camping Chantecler is a 4 star site at Val St Andre, only a 2km walk or 1 Euro bus ride from the old town of Aix. The bus stop is 5 minutes walk away in a useful shopping square.
Set in a mature forest, it's a tight fit if you have a large van, but there are some superb pitches, particularly beautiful with the spring flowers we were told.

GPS: 43.5148 N, 05.4773 E

5th February
At last we were treated to a bright morning without the chilling wind.
Aix en Provence's old city is an amiable town to wander around - from the wide, tree lined grand boulevard of Cours Mirabeau, to the large yet somehow claustrophobic gastronomic arena of Forum des Cardeurs, to the crowded, busy vitality of Rue d'Italie, there is somewhere for everyone. It felt as if we could be in  several different cities at once, yet it is all within easy walking distance, and there is always another square, a little shop, a bar or restaurant (and a fountain) around the corner.

The Cours Mirabeau

There is plenty to see from a historical perspective, but we just wandered - through the Mazarin quarter with its elegant homes of old Aix aristocracy, through the Saturday markets in Place des Chapeliers and Place Hotel de Ville, stopping for lunch in the Forum des Cardeurs.

Your carriage awaits!

The sun held out all day, even for a procession of wedding ceremonies at the Place Hotel de Ville - the stone flags freshly washed down after the morning market. We watched one bride teeter away with only a couple of bridesmaids in tow, clutching her dress away from the wet flagstones, whilst another spent five minutes trying to get herself and her dress though the door of an extravagantly decorated Mercedes - still no groom apparently in attendance!


6th January
Another fine morning. The air temp dropped below zero again overnight, but with warm low sun and perfectly still air it was a joy to stretch my legs down to the Boulangerie.

Seeing as it was Sunday we thought we'd risk a drive down to the outskirts of Marseille at L'Estaque. In actual fact the D8n was almost deserted and we arrived at the waterfront in quick time.

Moving on to the seaside holiday town of Carry-le-Rouet we parked up by the sailing school with a view of the bay.

Halfway through our lunchtime baguette there was a loud thud and the van lurched forward… Oh No, not again!
Sure enough a woman had backed her 4x4 into us, our bike rack putting a dent into her boot. Very apologetically, she explained that her reversing sensors had not "seen" the bikes!
(Whatever happened to traditional driving technology? - like rear view mirrors!)

Fortunately, for the second time in the life our van, our assailant seemed to have come off worse than we did, but we took photos and accepted her details.

Somewhat unsettled, Sue munched on her half-finished baguette and broke a piece off a capped tooth! Some days just don't work out how you'd like them to.

Taking our leave, we found that every man, woman and their dogs had arrived for the afternoon, a brass band had piped up on the beach, balloons and flags were everywhere.
Not feeling particularly festive, we eased through the gridlock and onto Cap Couronne, another holiday and yachting centre.

This seems quite a pleasant piece of coastline, a world away from the container terminals of Marseille, and well supplied with campsites - I think we counted eight.

Heading north now to Martigues, (and ignoring the power station and oil refinery to the west coast) we slipped along the waterfront and were pleasantly surprised by this attractive resort. There is also plenty of parking, so often at a premium on the waterside.

A few yachts were out on the lake, motionless in the breathless air, their sunlit shapes mirrored on the dead flat water - the crews no doubt savouring a blissfully tranquil boisson.

Next up was Istres and we filtered right out of town for the scenic lakeside D16 route to St Chamas. Our destination was a France Passion vineyard on the D10, just past the D21B turn off for Berre l'Etang.

Domaine de Suriane

It's a rough old track to the Domaine de Suriane  and we followed the France Passion signs some distance away from the lovely old farmhouse. Having missed the vital sign to the wooded clearing where the owners intended us to stay, we found ourselves on an increasingly dubious farm track across a ploughed field. Soon I was driving into deep ruts which threatened to bottom out the van, whilst the right hand side was sliding into sand. Stopping or reversing was not an option, I just had to keep going until we reached the edge of the field!

Sue having ripped out a path through the high brambles by hand, we eventually made it back to the farmhouse via a long circuit of gravel tracks and a heart-stoppingly low railway bridge. Phew!

The lady of the house spoke good English and was suitably amazed and amused when I recited what we had done, but we were still unsure where to park. Walking at the pace of her toddler (whose pet was a huge cockerel, kept under his control by a pair of sticks) she led us to the correct spot. Doh!!
Feeling just about as smart as her toddler, I was amused to see the big farm dog blithely snatch away from his tiny hand the piece of fruit loaf he had been clutching for the past five minutes!

The way to the lake

Once settled, we walked the kilometre or so down a rough track to the lake to watch a gorgeous sunset, as flocks of birds swooped in the sky.

Serenity at the end of a fraught day!

Back in the van, Sue roasted a large duck breast and potato wedges in the oven, served up with a tangy sauce made from a tin of peaches, red wine, sugar and balsamic vinegar - a fine end to a fraught day.

Domaine de Suriane
GPS: 43.5310 N, 05.1145 E

7th February
The sun had deserted us in the morning and Sue was in trouble - her broken tooth was cutting her tongue, which had swelled up overnight - we would have to find a dentist. A phone call was made to our medical insurance emergency helpline, and she promised to ring back with a list of suitable dentists in Arles.

By way of a diversion we decided to drive down the D21B to Berre l’Etang. This is a place in the throes of a major transformation, from dusty dormitory town for oil refinery workers to holiday resort. The entire waterfront, which appeared to have been previously largely waste land, is being redeveloped with a marina, tree lined boulevards, shops, cafes and accommodation. Every new car park we passed was however firmly resistant to motorhomes, with very low red and white height barriers on each one.

We drove out to the point, where there is a large tank farm. Along the way are several unrestricted parking areas facing the salt marshes.

And if I catch you talking to her again!!

We stopped for lunch and watched flocks of Pink Flamingos feeding and squabbling with each other. There were also a multitude of Swans and Black headed Gulls, the latter getting the better every time of the swans with the remnants of the lunchtime bread. In between they entertained us with their little leaps and dives for tiny fish and invertebrates.

Black headed Gull - Now you see me...
Now you dont!

A heavily overcast day, it felt faintly surreal, all these birds against a industrial backdrop of gas flares, roofless old buildings and the distant thunder of planes taking off from Marseilles airport - the wildlife surviving as normal after the human apocalypse?

GPS: 43.4630 N, 05.1571 E

Not feeling up to much more, we returned to another France Passion site, Perle de Provence. Here, a crusty old guy with a big smile, jabbering away in a mixture of French and Spanish, directed us to peaceful pitch amongst some olive trees.

A France Passion view of the mountains

Domaine Perle de Provence
GPS: 43.5494 N, 05.1680 E

8th February
Sue was still monitoring her mouth, reluctant to see a foreign dentist. Somehow, going down to see the mouth of the mighty River Rhone seemed like a good idea.
On paper, Port St Louis looks like an interesting prospect - a long harbour, marina, listed large aire and a drive right out to the spit in the Golfe de Fos. In reality however, this is probably not a place you would visit more than once.

It’s a longish drive down and soon the smell of petrochemical and industrial processing hung around in our nostrils. There is a swing bridge, a marina and vast tracts of disused industrial wasteland, one of which turned out to be the aire. The facilities however, were either in the process of removal or renewal. We noticed that half a dozen motorhomes had elected to park up on the other side of the harbour - probably baulking at the asking price of 6 Euros!

Aire, Port St Louis
GPS: 43.3843 N, 04.8190 E

Onto the point, and again the salt marshes were inhabited by huge flocks of Pink Flamingos - a few tired old homesteads hovering on the edge of ruin in the long grass.

Ships, industrial wasteland and flamingoes

The vast Plage Napoleon at the end of the road is probably packed in the season, but at this time we were just one of a handful of vehicles parked in the weak sunshine.

GPS: 43.3530 N, 04.8768 E

Finally, Sue decided that the awful moment could be put off no longer and we found our way to Camping Bienheureuse, on the outskirts of Arles at Rapheles Les Arles.

GPS: 43.6494N, 04.7058 E

The campsite owner is English, and despite having her own domestic problems, kindly rang her dentist in Arles and arranged a short appointment for the following afternoon. Later that evening she knocked on our door to say the dentist had phoned with a cancellation appointment for Sue at 0830. An early start for the bus ride into Arles!

9th February
At first a Celtic settlement, then a Greek colony, Arles became Roman when Julius Caesar gave the colony to the veterans of his fighting legions. There at the earliest days of Christianity, it became an important religious centre.
In the Middle Ages it was destroyed and ravaged by various invasions, but was rebuilt during the 12th Century with some fine medieval monuments. In the 17th and 18th Century the stately town houses were built - which now cement together the Roman and Romanesque heritage to form the old city.

Standing shivering in the cold misty pre-dawn gloom outside the campsite, we nearly got on the large comfortable school bus by mistake, however when it arrived our No 7 was a just a minibus, one of only a few daily services into town.

The Dentist was only a short walk from the bus terminus, a large white villa in a quiet street, partially obscured by an aged olive tree in the front garden. We waited outside, pacing up and down to keep warm. On the dot of 0830 Sue pressed the bell and the receptionist unlocked the steel door. Inside it was ultra modern and minimalist - strip wooden floors and fancy stainless steel light fittings.

Sue saw a young female dentist, and was back in a few minutes with a smile as wide as a dinner plate. Unbelievably, the bill was only 21 Euro, we paid in cash and left with a cheery wave.

A small quiche from a Patisserie, eaten in a coffee shop close by (seemed to be the regular thing to do), fortified us for the round of ancient sites to come. Our 9.50 Euro passeport liberté  tickets from the tourist office entitled us entrance to 4 monuments and one museum - seemed like enough (to me) for one day.

First up was the Cryptoportico of the Roman Forum, a large U shaped underground gallery, dating from 30 to 20 BC. It's pretty dark and murky down there, atmospheric even, with very high humidity, but it gives a glimpse into the sheer scale and quality of Roman architecture.

Next was the Cathedral and cloisters of St Trophime. The cloisters are due for a major bout of restoration, but many of the sculptures had suffered so much over the centuries, it was hard to see what could be done apart from to stabilize and clean them.

Some amazingly intricate stonework

Onto the late first Century Roman theatre which could, in its heyday, hold 10,000 spectators. Like most Roman monuments however, the construction stone has been "recycled" over the years to build other edifices and what is left now is just a shadow, the bare bones.
Imaginatively, the site has been recently re-developed with a moving steel stage and a sound and light tower to allow contemporary open air performances, thus ensuring that the monument is more than just a pile of broken ancient architecture.

New life for a Roman Theatre

Lunch was in a local hotel restaurant, the plat du jour : microwaved chicken with rice served in a miniature plastic pot au feu.  8.50 Euro.
The food was ok, but the incessant musak - a single track on endless repeat, nearly drove us nuts.

The amphitheatre I enjoyed the most, and more than the one in Nimes. The level of reconstruction that has been undertaken is quite remarkable, the balustrades and arches rebuilt right up to the (possibly never existing) third level. On some parts of the freshly cleaned terrace it was possible to gaze upon nothing but new stonework, a real and rare insight into how it must have looked soon after completion.

The upper terrace before restoration

And after!

Amazingly, in past centuries the townsfolk moved into the arena for protection, some one hundred and twenty homes and two churches packed into the space intended for gladiatorial combat!

Down to the river for a quick look at the Roman baths, then the Van Gogh museum before the bus home.

10th February
Maintenance Day. On our arrival at the campsite I had noticed that the alternator wasn't charging the batteries - a problem we had had before, when a fuse blew for an unknown reason. Back then it was replaced by the very helpful Fiat garage in St Omer and I have since carried some spares for this eventuality.

Situated on the fuseboard mounted on top of the starter battery, the alternator fuse is a little rascal to get at without removing the battery first - an awkward job, more suited to a weightlifter!

When it was finally retrieved it was frustratingly intact, but the burn marks and encrusted plastic from the fuse holder indicated no more than a loose and dirty fuse. Relief! I changed the fuse, cleaned up the terminals and all was well.

11th February
From the campsite it is a short hop to the Marais de Vigueirat. Strictly speaking, outside of the Camargue Nature Park, it is still one of the most noted nature reserves in the area.

The visitor centre is 2 km up a stony track, black bulls looking disconsolate on the other side of the fence. At the end there is a large car park with room for motorhomes. No overnighting is permitted and there is no access to the reserve when the centre is closed.

Marais de Vigueirat
GPS: 43.5353 N, 04.7520 E

Several walking trails are laid out, and for each, an entertaining and informative little free booklet is available in the major European languages.

We took the main 3km long trail and despite the dull weather it was very enjoyable. We had glimpses of Coypu amongst the reeds and also a very thin - perhaps a rogue - white Camargue horse moving through the hedgerows.

There are Coypus here, but you had better be quiet!

Our next plan was to return to Arles, top up with supplies and stop on a new aire near the station (where a young man in the Arles tourist office had reassured us we could stay the night), then cross the Rhone in the morning to commence our tour of the Camargue Regional Nature Park.

We put the rough location in the satnav and found the borne de service ok, but as for somewhere to stop overnight - dream on, narrow bays only on a busy slip road. Down by the railway station we found a full scale itinerant camp, not quite what we had in mind!

A swift Plan B was instigated - a France Passion site near to where we had spent the afternoon. Trouble was, the light was fading, and France Passion directions being what they often are, i.e. a bit vague, we eventually had to give up as it was just too dark. Looking for a domaine sign I nearly got my bum bitten by a territorial hound, who chased the van all the way down the track.
(Should have taken the dog-dazer!)

Plan C was to drive down to Salin de Giraud and cross the river to an aire there. Only one small problem - there isn't a bridge, just a ferry! A bit late for that, so Plan D became a few more kilometres drive down the road to Port Saint Louis! What did I say about it being a place you only visited once?

Deciding to give the official aire a miss, we allocated ourselves a pitch on a car park on the other end of the marina quay from the Capitanerie. It seemed fine until, being Friday night, the local youngsters turned up in their go-faster hatchbacks to chill out with ground shaking “dum-dum” accompaniment!

Eventually, peace broke out and we had a good sleep, though I was roused briefly by the very loud throbbing  of a diesel engine or two, which I assumed to be a passing barge - actually it was a large customs launch that tied up to the quay 50 metres behind us!

Next – into the real Camargue National Park.