To the waters and wilds of Camargue

AFTER overnighting in a chilled-out Irish-owned château, we began our journey in Port Cassafières near Béziers, on the “Flamingo Cruise”.

Starting at the end of the famous Canal du Midi, it promised an unforgettable journey through canal, open lagoon, river and marsh, ending alongside one of Europe’s greatest areas of wilderness — the Camargue; where the black bull, the white horse and the pink flamingo roam. It’s also known for the most vicious and numerous mosquitoes this side of the Nile, so we had prepared with insect repellent, treatment for after-bite, and bunches of lavender to place strategically around the boat to ward off the flying pests.

After a brief, unhurried training session with a très patient instructor, named Jean-Louis, it was time to cast off. “Lachez les cordes,” I yelled to the assembled crew (I was learning fast). My three teenage sons stared back at me blankly. I instructed my sons to let go the ropes and to coil them neatly at the back of the boat. Soon, we were pottering along the canal at 8km/hour, floating into adventure.

Our first stop was Agde — an ancient town of dark stone with cobbled, winding streets in its mediaeval centre, at the estuary of the Hérault River and within a couple of kilometres of the beaches. We arrived in the evening and, after tying up, with neat team-work from the crew, we had dinner on board, accompanied by some nice, local red wine and fine, French fizzy drinks. All the boats are well-equipped with cooking facilities and there is plenty of room.

The upper deck of the boat had space for dining al fresco in the warm, Mediterranean air.

The next morning, we went for a cycle around the centre of Agde, picking up essentials such as fresh bread and croissants, washing-up liquid and wine.

One of the great things about France is that you can pick out something local for €3 and you’re unlikely to go wrong. It’s also a great country for soft drinks, with a range that includes the fabulous Orangina (now available in rare spots in Ireland) and their range of “sirops”.

The next morning, the lock at Agde (one of only three on this cruise) opened.

We motored along via a short piece of the Hérault, before sailing through the first stretch of preserved wilderness. The Réserve Naturelle de Bagnas is a quiet marshland with abandoned stone houses, the occasional crumbling fisherman’s hut and lots of wildlife.

This soon gives way to a busier stretch, past houses and hundreds of boats, lining either side of the canal, in various stages of decay and splendour, like some exhilarating, long and crazy art installation on canal life in all its glory.

Glimpses of lagoons and beach front were opening up tantalisingly on either side.

Then, it’s all change, as you reach the end of the Canal du Midi and are suddenly out in the lagoon of the Étang de Thault.

It’s France’s second largest lake and it’s a huge stretch of salt water that feels like the open sea — which it almost is, being separated from the Mediterranean proper by only a thin sliver of sandy coastline that is barely perceptible on the distant horizon.

We headed to the northern shores of the lagoon and to Marseillan, where we pulled in for lunch.

It’s a wonderful, little Mediterranean-style port that gives the instant impression of being in a 1960s Riveria film set; the sort of place where you’d fully expect to see Brigitte Bardot or Gina Lollabrigida teeter down the quays on stilettos with a toy dog at the end of a lead.

It’s also the home of Noilly Prat. Any James Bond fan will tell you that the famous vermouth is an essential ingredient of 007’s shaken-not-stirred Martini, and Marseillan is the only place in the world where certain types of it can be tasted and purchased.

Mèze was our next port of call.

Although it lacks the seductive charm of Marseillan, it has the advantage of a sandy beach with warm lagoon waters in an atmosphere of yacht, bucket and spade. All crew members disembarked for a swim.

Another feature of life on the lagoon towns is water jousting. We got to see a live competition of these modern-day knights, armed with padded lances and timber shields, on the canal at Palavas-les-Flots — a unique spot where the Rhône-Sète Canal, the low-lying marshland of the Camargue, and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea combine to make a lively, mixed atmosphere of sailors, campers, sight-seers, bullfight-watchers, beach-volleyball enthusiasts, retirees and families set against a background of flocks of pink flamingos in the wilderness just adjacent.

We made our final overnight stop at Aigues Mortes — an astounding, intact square citadel that would rival Dubrovnik for ‘wow factor’. On the edge of huge commercial salt marshes that turn pink at times, it looks like an abandoned ancient fort in a mysterious rosé desert, if seen from a certain angle. Down at ground level, however, it’s a beautiful and lively town with great shops, restaurants and curiosities.

The last day’s sailing was through the heart of the Camargue.

Everywhere we looked, there were herds of black bulls, knots of roaming white horses amidst the reeds and acacia trees, and dozens of different types of birds (including, of course, flamingos) but, thankfully, no sign of the dreaded mosquitoes. Whether our various defences worked or they just weren’t around, we’re not sure, but we were glad.

It was a painful wrench to finally pack up and vacate the vessel that had been home to us for a week.

It was a week of adventure and discovery in a part of France where traditions are strong, showing that you can still find places not too far from home that feel excitingly foreign.

The slow pace of life on a floating boat, and a week with no internet interrupting your thoughts, also remind you that some holidays are truly relaxing: you just have to know where to look.

Ferry/flights

We travelled by car and ferry, allowing us to bring shopping for the week and luggage in soft bags. Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie) run a weekly service from April to the end of October from Cork to Roscoff.

There are also air connections in the area with both Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) operating regular direct services between Dublin and Marseilles during the summer months.

Where to Stay

For the first night, we stayed at the restored Château les Carasses outside Capestang, near Béziers. Owned and run by an Irishman Karl O’Hanlon and his wife Anita, it offers self-catering decadence amidst blissfully peaceful vineyards at reasonable family rates. Château les Carasses (www.lescarrasses.com), Lieu-dit Les Carrasses, Route de Capestang, Hérault, France. 0033 (0)467 0000 67. Prices of s/c suites start at €185/night.

What to See

For additional sight-seeing in the area and to get an even more intimate flavour of the Camargue, why not visit the wilderness on a local white horse tamed by the region’s very own cowboys — known locally as gardians. www.arlestourisme.com (in English).

Where to eat

Many of the nicest ports along the way also feature some of the highest prices and we ate on deck most times. Palavas-les-Flots offers one of the widest ranges of great food outlets and “Au Poisson Bleu” (Tel 0033 4 67 68 42 98) at the corner of Rue Simon and Rue Saint-Roch is particularly good value with seafood specialities.

Where to shop

Find out from the local Capitainerie (where you pay your overnight charge for mooring) about markets in each town. The indoor market in Mèze is a particularly good one for finding everything you could possible want for dinner within a small area and at very reasonable prices. Try the fish they call “lesse” at the fish counter. Aigues Mortes, meanwhile, seems to have forged a very reputation for superb quality art and highly inventive trinkets.

Further Information

For information and rates, visit Emerald Star (www.emeraldstar.ie) or call 071-9627633.



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