National Geographic : 1956 May
The Camargue, Land of Cowboys and Gypsies Wranglers Wear Rubber Boots and Volunteers Dodge Bulls for Fun in the Rhone Delta, Where Lightheartedness Is a Way of Life BY EUGENE L. KAMMERMAN 667 AFRENCH cowboy who straddled his horse in Wild West getup, but who was shod in a fisherman's floppy rub ber boots and armed with a long trident, was the first friend I made in the Camargue. Next came a fat and jolly Gypsy king called Coco, the most picturesque resident of this odd bit of real estate in the south of France, who dropped in for lunch. And before long I encountered herds of "good natured" bulls, witnessed comic and blood less "bullfights," watched Gypsies wade into the Mediterranean to pray to their patron saint, admired a dozen beautiful girls of Arles in costumes straight out of Alphonse Daudet's drama L'Arlesienne, and-what next? Noth ing could have surprised me at the end of that lighthearted week in May! Not in the Camargue, which centuries ago grew fondly accustomed to such extravagant goings on. Nor in Aries, chief market city for the Camargue and capital of ancient Provence, where magnificent Roman ruins, the warm Mediterranean sunlight, and an almost tan gible aura of history combine to gladden the heart of a traveler. The origins of Arles are somewhat obscured Page 666 + Skirts Swirl to a Gay Tune as Youths Skip Beneath Ancient Columns in Aries Greeks from Massilia, the modern Marseille, were the first known settlers of Aries. Then came the Romans, who built this theater, now in ruins. Capital, crossroads, and religious center of Gaul, Aries became the third city in Constantine's empire, outshone only by Rome and Constantinople. Some 100,000 persons, five times the present population, lived in the ancient city. Sacked by barbarian and Saracen, Aries revived in the Middle Ages as a center of Provencal culture. Vincent Van Gogh came to Aries in 1888-89 to paint its sun-drenched scenes. Fred6ric Mistral rhymed the city's glories in the melodious tongue of the troubadours. Georges Bizet evoked Arl6sienne beauty in his music. Where togaed Romans once played the farces of Terence and Plautus, school children here dance to the music of flutes and drums. The theater's marble columns have stood 2,000 years. Gray stone tower on the left identifies the Church of St. Trophime. © National Geographic Society Kodachrome by Walter Meayers Edwards, National Geographic Staff in the mists of history, but the genesis of the Camargue is plain for all to see. An acci dent of geography splits the swift-flowing Rhone River on the northern outskirts of the city, 30 miles from the Mediterranean (map, page 670). The two branches, Grand and Petit Rhone, form two sides of a rough triangle, with Aries at the apex and the sandy shores of the sea as its base. The salty, level delta lying between the two courses is the Camargue.* Van Gogh Enraptured by Camargue Colors The delta is a flat and sparsely populated country of small ranches, flooded rice fields, lonely swamps, and salt flats (page 688). But Aries is a busy little metropolis where the winding streets echo the sputter of motor cycles and scooters, the tread of tourists, and the hurly-burly of a weekly fair and market which it proudly claims is the largest in all France. There is beauty in the place. Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter who arrived in Aries in 1888 and spent two of his maddest and most productive years in that city and the Camargue, found the area "as beautiful as Japan for clearness of atmosphere and colorful effects." He wrote that the water forms patches of fine emerald or rich blue in the landscape just as is seen in Japanese crepe prints. To his eye the pale sunsets made the fields appear blue and the sun was "gloriously gold." And when, at the height of the burning Provencal summer, Van Gogh traveled south to Les Saintes Maries, he found red, blue, and green fishing boats anchored off the sandy beach, and a landscape of old gold, bronze, and copper even though the azure of the sky was blanched with heat. Henry James, the writer, admired the stately ruins of Aries and the beauty of its "straight-nosed Arlesiennes," yet found him self puzzled by the city's attraction for him. "As a city," he wrote, "Aries quite misses its * See "Camargue, the Cowboy Country of Southern France," by Dr. Andr6 Vialles, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1922.