Tag Archives: gypsies

The Camargue

I miss shooting wildlife.  It’s like being on holiday and missing home.  There are so many wonderful and exciting subjects to photograph in Europe – beautiful old buildings and pristine landscapes – but it’s a controlled environment that hasn’t changed radically over the centuries.  Everything is stationary and predictable – excluding the weather, of course.  But if you’re willing to hang around, the sun will eventually reappear. At least in Southern France.

Photographing buildings and landscapes is really about line and composition.  Obviously, good lighting helps.  But what’s lacking is the element of chance, that adrenalin rush you get when stumbling across a wild animal in its habitat – or in yours.  There’s that single moment you have to capture it with your camera where, despite any amount of preparation, it always comes down to luck and a prayer that the animal doesn’t bolt, the sun disappear, or the memory card fail or flash ‘Full’.  If you catch the animal in frame, you’re happy.  If it’s looking at you and the picture’s in focus, you’re ecstatic.  If it’s looking at you and too close to focus, you’re in trouble.  It’s a heart pump either way.  I just don’t get that with buildings.

After several months of shooting old, but quaint villages in France and northern Italy, I decided to try one of the few pockets of wildlife left in Europe – the Camargue in southwest France.

The Camargue is Western Europe’s largest river delta and comprises 140,000 hectares of wetlands, pastures, salt flats and dunes where the Rhone River meets the sea.  85,000 hectares are designated National Park and, like Italy’s Cinque Terre, it has been sanctioned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The park is home to over 400 species of birds, including the Greater Flamingo that can number over 20,000 during the nesting season. Additional wildlife includes beavers, badgers, wild boar, tree frogs, turtles and water snakes.

I saw a handful of flamingos, an owl, and a couple of mallard ducks.   OK, I chose to go when there were no tourists.  The restaurants were mostly closed or boarded over as this is the time of year the owners take their holidays.  And the wildlife too, I suspect.

But there were other animals aplenty.  The Camargue is world famous for its white horses – small in size and technically classified a pony – but fearless creatures with incredible stamina and agility, traits that made them invaluable when building the Suez Canal.  It’s said they date back to the oldest horses hunted during the Upper Paleolithic time.  To preserve their standard of purity, the government has set rigorous rules of registration: foals must be born outdoors and must be ‘seen to suckle from a registered mare as proof of parentage’.  Makes you wonder about French birth certificates.

The Camargue black bull, when not out to pasture, is well-known in French cooking circles and Spanish bullrings.  What doesn’t get eaten in France is exported to Spain for bullfights – and then eaten.  The Camargueses have their own variation of bullfighting – ‘la course Camarguaise’ where men attempt to pluck tassels and strings suspended between the wild bull’s horns.  There’s no swordplay, but still the element of danger and a lot of (hopefully) harmless fun.

 

Probably the best known, most internationally revered export from the Camargue is the octane-charged ‘Gipsy Kings’, the musical sensation that took the world by storm in 1987.  Every year in May, thousands of gypsies descend on the seaside village of Saintes Maries de la Mer for the Gitan Pilgrimage where they confirm their faith and culture by parading their patron saint, the Black Madonna (yet to be recognized by the Vatican), by horseback to the sea.  It’s a flamboyant street fiesta of gypsy music and flamenco dancing.  It was during one of these processions in the 1960’s where the two groups of brothers formed the ‘Gipsy Kings’.

 

Despite the lack of wildlife and bone-chilling Mistral winds from the north settling in, I hung around a Saturday night for a taste of Gypsy music at the local bar.  Two elderly gentlemen held the floor, guitars in readiness.  On the countdown they began an instrumental which was, at first, thrilling.  One would never guess that such music could come from a couple of cheap guitars and be so proficiently performed by two older gentlemen.  Strings were strummed, plucked, flicked and picked while the body of the guitar, doubling as a percussion section, was thumped, tapped and drummed.

But halfway through the piece the older of the two threw himself into song with complete abandon. By that I mean he abandoned his partner, (I think) the song they were singing, the key it was to be sung in, and any potential chance of making a credible recovery before the song’s end.  It was excruciating to listen to as patrons suddenly took an interest in the unremarkable artwork festooning walls or feigned looking for bits of cork floating in their wine.  But the little guy sang with such passion you had to appreciate the effort, if not the voice.  By the third song and the second bottle, a few of the listeners sang along and, in comparison, the old gypsy wasn’t sounding half so bad.  It was actually a very enjoyable evening.  I’ll never forget the guitar playing – what I can remember of it.


And yes, the Camargue has old buildings.  Aigues Mortes was originally a fishing village before Louis IX fortified the village with 1.65 kilometers of 6-meter thick walls to make it France’s only Mediterranean port at that time.  It was from here that the Seventh and Eighth Crusades departed in the late 13th Century.  Aigues Mortes was originally on the coast (as any port would be) but is now several miles from the sea due to the ever changing Rhone delta.  One can’t help but be impressed by the size and scope of the structure which now houses a living (tourist) village with 6000 inhabitants.

Impressive, yes, it all was.  But still, I miss shooting wildlife.

 

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