Aigues-Mortes, a water city

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A city nestled behind its wall

Aigues-Mortes is located in Petite Camargue in the department of Gard in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Petite Camargue is an area of swamps and ponds situated to the west of Grande Camargue.

The Petit Rhône, the western arm of the river Rhône, marks the boundary between the two Camargues, one in Languedoc-Roussillon, the other in Provence.

Aigues-Mortes evolved from its Latin form Aquae Mortuae.

It literally translates as dead waters or stagnating waters,.

It is indeed located inland from Le Grau-du-Roi seaside resort and fishing port.

The name Aigues-Mortes was already listed in 1248.

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Salt formation through evaporation

It shows that the area has always consisted of swamps and ponds.

Grau is an Occitan word meaning étang avec bief – pond with reach, a word you will often come across in the area.

 Le Grau-du-Roi means King’s Pond.

Aigues-Mortes is therefore a water city, a river port located at the crossroads of several waterways – Canal du Rhône à Sète, Canal de Bourgidou and Grau-du-roi.

The exploitation of salt marshes is also an ancient tradition, whose origins go back as far as the Neolithic.

Aigues-Mortes, a walled city

But Aigues-Mortes is not only a water city, it is also a stunning walled city.

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City’s gate

The Emperor Charlemagne built the Tour Malafère circa 790AD in order to protect the village and nearby coast from invaders and pirates.

This tower was the first stone structure erected in the city.

Until then, Aigues-Mortes was no more than a modest fishing village nestled in the heart of the salt marshes.

St. Louis started the construction of the ramparts during the 13th century.

He built the Tour de Constance on the site of Charlemagne’s tower in order to accommodate a garrison.

He also built an access road across the swamps and a defense tower.

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Tour Carbonnière

The Tour Carbonnière is today is a classified historical monument.

He developed the harbour with a network of inner pools and canals connecting the city to the Mediterranean – Canal Viel and Grau du Roi.

He turned Aigues-Mortes into an major strategic site that served as the port of embarkation for troops leaving for the Crusades.

And this is precisely from Aigues-Mortes that Saint-Louis embarked for the 7th and 8th Crusades!

His son Philippe the Bold completed the construction of the ramparts and the enlargement of the harbour in order to secure better access to the sea.

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Leaving for the 7th Crusade

Early 15th century new canals and an inland harbour were built to improve this connection.

The predominance of Aigues-Mortes, however, substantially declined, when the County of Provence and Marseille were attached to the Kingdom of France in 1481.

The Canal Grau-Henri was open in 1532 in order to adjust to the rapid expansion of the salt marshes.

Excessive silting, though, led to the reopening of Le Grau-du-Roi canal in 1752.

But this canal built by St. Louis became also affected by silting.

To make things worse, the extensive clearing conducted during the French Revolution triggered severe soil erosion and alluvial deposit and therefore recurrent silting.

The silting issue was definitively resolved in 1806 with the opening of the Canal Rhône à Sète, which turned Aigues-Mortes in a river port.

Salt marshes in Aigues-Mortes

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Tour de Constance

The exploitation of salt marshes has always been the main industry in Aigues-Mortes.

However, this was not always a smooth operation!

A major brawl, which started between French and Italian seasonal workers in August 1893, escalated!

It resulted in deadly clashes, during which seven Italians were killed, and many left disabled for life.

The ‘massacre of the Italians of Aigues-Mortes’, as the riot is known, led to diplomatic difficulties between the two countries.

This disastrous episode of the city’s history is thankfully part of the past.

Aigues-Mortes today

Aigues-Mortes is today a town of nearly 10,000 inhabitants, laid around the Place Saint-Louis, the old city square.

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Le Grau-du-Roi

The city is connected to the Mediterranean through the Canal du Grau-du-Roi, but is still nestled behind its medieval walls.

Thousands of French and foreign tourists flock each year to Aigues-Mortes.

Some come for the pilgrimage in the nearby Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in May, others for the grape and salt harvests in September.

Bullfighting enthusiasts flock to the arenas to attend the Camargue races.

The arenas have a capacity of 600 spectators.

They were built in the late 19th century and were classified Historical Monuments in 1993.

The nearby beaches in La Grande Motte and Grau-du-Roi-Port-Camargue seaside resorts are of course very popular holiday destinations!

N.B. Aigues-Mortes is located in Languedoc-Roussillon, but is also part of Camargue, so we have decided to integrate it into our Provence section to keep all the articles about Camargue together.

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Coordinates for Aigues-Mortes: Lat 43.567172 – Long 4.192587

Photos via Wikimedia Creative Commons: Ramparts  and Tour de Constance by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) are licensed under CC BY 2.5Salt formation by Lubman04 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  –  City’s gate by Ingo Mehling is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0Tour Carbonniere by Georges Seguin (Okki) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  – Leaving for the 7th Crusade by Unknown XIVe is in the Public domainLe Grau-du-Roi by Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0