The Camargue and the Sea

A little before noon we took the bus down to the coast, not so much to see the sea - we were going to Nice tomorrow, after all - but because I wanted Phyllis to see the Camargue.

It was a slow but enjoyable ride across the great swampy plain of the Rhône delta. The bus driver kept a Gypsy Kings tape playing, all the way to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and it made a perfect accompaniment. Gypsy Kings seem to be big in those parts; there is, after all, a very considerable Spanish influence in the area.

Phyllis was fascinated by the Camargue; she exclaimed at the big black cattle and the white horses, and was absolutely blown away by a flock of wild flamingos. I should have gotten a few pictures but I never have any luck shooting out bus windows.

The beach, when we got there, was all but deserted; it had clouded up again, and a really brutal wind was blowing out of the south, making the sea far too rough for swimming. It wsn't much of a beach anyway. We sat in the shelter of some rocks and had our lunch, and walked along the sand for a little while picking up small shells and barnacles, but it wasn't really much of a Day at the Seashore.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer itself was a sprawling, rather seedy little place: a typical minor beach resort, not significantly different in general aspect from any number of towns in Florida or for that matter New Jersey. The odd plural name derives from a perfectly idiotic local religious legend - idiotic, I mean, even by the standards of local religious legends - not worth repeating here; still, somebody took it seriously enough to erect a church devoted to it, back in the twelfth century.

All in all, we weren't greatly impressed, and as we headed back toward the bus stop we felt a bit let down; this hadn't been one of the bright spots of the trip....

Then we came around a corner and ran into something truly amazing.

A wedding! Somebody was having a wedding, in the traditional local style.

(At least I think it was a wedding; I definitely heard the phrase "C'est le mariage" from one of the ladies in the doorway of the patisserie just behind us. And if the style wasn't traditional it should be.)

Quite a major family occasion, that was clear; there was a regular parade of men and women and children coming up the street, walking or mounted on fine Camargue horses, everybody dressed to the nines in oddly Mexican-looking outfits. (Spanish influence, perhaps, though I'm only guessing.)

They turned onto the little square next to the old church, where the horsemen pulled up and sat waiting while the rest of the party went inside.

We would have dearly loved to stay and watch what followed - I had a feeling there was going to be some pretty fantastic dancing, maybe right there on the square, later on - but the bus was due in a few minutes and it was the last one of the day. With great reluctance, and looking frequently back over our shoulders, we walked on down to the road to the bus stop.

That night the storm clouds we had seen over the sea caught up with us, moving in across the Camargue and, in the hours after midnight, dumping incredible quantities of rain on Arles. It was still going on when we got up. Great drops like shotgun slugs pounded the roofs and streets; it was like being under an enormous waterfall. In the darkness of early morning we stood looking out the windows and wondering how we were going to make it to the station. We had to go; our train left in an hour. Downstairs everything was locked up and dark, no way to phone for a cab and probably not much chance of getting one anyway.

Rather grimly, we put on our cheap throwaway ponchos and rolled up our pants legs and set out. By now the storm had eased a little but the rain was still bucketing down. By the time we got to the station we were a very bedraggled pair; our feet were soaked from water running down into the tops of our carefully waterproofed boots. The station itself was half flooded with rain coming in under the doors. We huddled and shivered until the train arrived; and once on board, we sat clutching each other for warmth while the train rumbled on southward in the rain-beaten darkness.

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