For most people the Provence conjures up images of vibrant sunflowers and endless fields of lavender. Yet those who turn south from Arles will suddenly find themselves in completely different surroundings.
The river Rhone empties into the Mediterranean Sea via a marshy delta and the waterlogged flatlands hereabouts are more reminiscent of a north German landscape than the south of France. It is a flat as billiard table and there is not an olive trees in sight.
The people here are said to be breed apart too. Indeed they do cultivate many activities which would be regarded simply as colourful folklore in other parts of France.
The men here spend a lot of time in the saddle and not only those who tend to the livestock hereabouts. Les Gardians, as the cowboys of the Camargue are called, are particularly proud of their traditions.
And the black long-horned cattle they look after are as typical of the region as the snowy-white horses ridden by the Gardians. What both have in common is that they can both enjoy a degree of freedom which would not be possible elsewhere.
The bulls are bred on farms known as Manades. One of them belongs to Gilbert Arnaud. His Land Rover is parked in front of a shed at the farm near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer while his horse Nacho is tethered in the stable next door.
Arnaud was born in Les Saintes-Maries and has breeding bulls for a quarter of a century. His roots are firmly embedded in the Camargue.
"Whenever he has to cross the Rhone he feels unhappy," says his wife Stephanie. She hails from Cologne in Germany and runs the stud farm along with Gilbert.
The animals are sold to other breeders or for slaughter. At Arnaud's farm visitors can see Gilbert, Stephanie and her daughter Carla on horseback, rounding up the cattle. The three of them ride through thigh-high grass before wading through a hollow filled with water.
Carla practices trying to separate one of the young bulls from the rest of the herd. It's a taste of the Wild West in the south of France. Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer - the holy Marys beside the sea - is a long and unusual name for a little settlement not far from where Arnaud has his Manade.
There are only 2,200 inhabitants but the history of this community is a long one. According to legend, the Virgin Mary, Mary Salome and Maria Jacobea - all of them women disciples of Jesus - were abandoned on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea and found themselves shipwrecked on the coast of the Provence.
And so it was that the three women brought Christianity to southern France. In the 15th Century Rene, the king of Provence, saw an apparition of an angel who told him where the three women were buried.
He ordered their remains to be recovered and had them brought to the church at Les Saintes-Maries which quickly advanced to become the most important site of pilgrimage in the Provence.
Apart from Arles, Les Saintes-Maries is also the most important place in the Camargue. It does not have a lot of competition since the region is sparsely populated and thoroughly rural, apart from the area around Fos where industry settled in the 1960s.
Yet for centuries the swampy Camargue region was home to the Gardians with their herds of horses and livestock. It was an arduous existence and some idea of what it must have been like to live here can be gained by visiting the Musee Camarguais with its many local relics. It is some 20 kilometres from Les Saintes-Maries on the road to Arles.
By Andreas Heimann
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