Camargue, largest river delta in Western Europe

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Salt lake

Camargue, or Camarga in Occitan language, is the gigantic delta formed by the two arms of the river Rhône.

The Grande Camargue is situated in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône in Provence.

The Petite Camargue is situated on the western part of the delta, in the Gard department in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Camargue extends over 930km2 and is the largest river delta in Western Europe.

It is a region of wetlands classified as a ‘major world heritage wetland’ on December 1, 1986.

One third of this vast plain is composed of saltwater lakes or étangs.

The rest is consists of agricultural land, rice paddies, meadows, salt marshes and reed.

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Grazing horses

Dunes and sandbars delineate it from the Mediterranean.

Many of the lakes are former arms and legs of the river Rhône.

The largest, the Etang de Vaccarès, is located in the heart of the Camargue.

Its banks were transformed into a regional park in 1927.

It was integrated into the Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue in 2008.

Camargue, a haven for wildlife

Camargue enjoys an exceptional biological diversity and is a haven for wildlife.

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Flamingos in Etang de Vaccares

The delta is world famous for its populations of pink flamingos, which have become one of the iconic images of the region.

That said, the delta is also home to over 400 different species of birds.

It is therefore listed as an ‘important bird area’ or IBA by Birdlife International.

These many bird colonies could not survive without food.

The wetlands obviously have an extensive range of insects species – including some annoying mosquitoes.

The fauna is also largely represented with the famous grey Camargue horses.

The origin of this ancient breed, native to the delta, is unknown.

It is, however, believed that it is one of the oldest horse breeds in the world!

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Gardians

They live in near freedom in the vast plain and are only mounted by the gardians, the only ‘cowboys’ in Europe.

The gardians also breed the Camargue fighting bulls especially for bullfights or corridas in Languedoc and Spain – not to everyone’s taste though.

Finally, let’s not forget the wonderful flora represented by lavender, rosemary, thyme, tamarisks and wild reeds.

A road-museum informs visitors about the history of Camargue as well as the flora and fauna found over 14,000 hectares of wetlands, pastures, dunes and salt flats.

Camargue, a nature park and agricultural land

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Rice paddies

Camargue is one of the most beautiful and wild areas of Southern France.

It is therefore duly protected.

The Regional Natural Park of Camargue was established in 1970 and covers 820km2.

This beautiful alluvial delta is a gigantic fertile plain inhabited since ancient times.

Our distant ancestors already exploited the salt marshes in order to reap the precious sea salt, an activity still booming.

Benedictine and Cistercian monks drained vast areas of wetlands.

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Salt evaporation pond

They then built dikes in order to create rice paddies and salt marshes.

The harvest of sea salt was one of the main source of wealth of their salt abbeys in Ulmet, Franquevaux and Psalmody.

Today sea salt is industrially harvested by big companies such Pechiney and Solvay.

The north of the delta is dedicated to cereal crops, rice paddies and grapevine.

Camargue is not only a vast expanse of wetland and cultivated areas, but has also a few cities.

Towns in Camargues

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Pink flamingos

Arles, located north of the delta where the Rhône splits in two, is regarded as the capital of Camargue.

The two other major cities are Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the coast, and Aigues-Mortes in Petite Camargue, two cities with a rich historical heritage.

In the 16th and 17th century wealthy inhabitants of Arles developed vast agricultural estates, locally known as mas.

During the 19th century, a 20km long sea dike – digue de la mer – was built between the city and the sea in order to protects Camargue from maritime floods.

However, this dyke is not totally effective against natural water erosion.

Camargue is indeed a vast expanse governed by the river flow that constantly alters its shape and boundaries.

In fact the 20 million m3 of mud annually carried downstream by the Rhône slowly project Camargue into the Mediterranean.

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Resting horses

As a result, Aigues-Mortes, built as a port by the Romans in 102BC, is now 5km inland!

This led to the construction of additional dikes and dams in the previous decades in order to limit the progress of land.

Camargue remains nevertheless a magnificent untamed land.

It boasts the most beautiful, wild and remote beach along the French Mediterranean coast.

L’Espiguette indeed unfolds from the Grau du Roi to the west to the whole coastline of Provence!

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Coordinates: Lat 43.506746 – Long 4.525681

Photos via Wikimedia Creative Commons: Grazing horses by LoboStudio Hamburg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – rice paddies by Fritz Geller-Grimm is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5salt lake by DrBartje is licensed under CC BY 2.0Flamingos in Etang de Vaccares by Marianne Casamance is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0Salt evaporation pond by Fritz Geller-Grimm is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5  – Gardians in Mas de l’Amaree by Schofför is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0Pink flamingos by bibendum84 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 resting horses by Jeremy Atkinson is licensed under CC BY 2.0