With a little bit of freedom and a full tank of gas, we were off to explore more of the country we have lived in for over a year. The curfew in France moved to 9:00 pm, outdoor dining had just reopened, and we had a long three-day weekend ahead of us. Our destination? The Camargue region in France, where we would be welcomed by freshwater marshes, salt flats, pink flamingos, and the famous white Camargue horses.
We packed our bags at lunch so we could be ready to leave at 5:00 pm after work. It was only an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive to our nightly home base, Arles. Unfortunately, the rest of France had the same idea to head in this direction. Due to traffic, our travel time more than doubled. We ended up settling into our hotel two hours after curfew, but luckily, we didn’t get stopped. (There were plenty of people out after curfew!)
For a year, I had been asking Jordan, “when can we go to the pink lakes in France?” That’s right. Pink lakes! I found about these dreamy lakes with various pink hues last summer when researching lavender fields. And in fact, they aren’t lakes at all, but salt flats used to extract salt.
Salt farmers have been producing salt in the south of France since the Roman period. The marshy terrain and low rainfall in the area provide the perfect environment to create salt. And today, the region produces over 500,000 tons of salt per year. To put it in perspective, the weight of the salt would be the equivalent weight of 83,334 elephants.
The salt mining process is simple. Between March and September, farmers circulate seawater through the salt flats. Over time, the sun and wind help the water evaporate naturally. After about 90% of its water has been evaporated, the saturated salt blends and forms a thick layer. Once this thick layer, or “salt cake,” has been developed, it’s harvest time! Farmers then harvest the salt between October and March.
However, this farming process isn’t what makes the salt flats pink. Instead, they become pink due to the algae that accumulate in the water over time. Fun fact: it’s the same algae that flamingos consume to give them their pink color.
So did we see flamingos on our trip? Absolutely! But more on that later.
We drove to our first salt flats in Salin-de-Giraud, located in the Camargue nature reserve. There was a small dirt parking lot and a hill to walk up for better viewing. There were salt flats in either direction with narrow roads for the trucks to pass through. There was even a giant salt mound on one side.
My overall impression of the salt flat was that I had been led astray by the internet. I read that the salt flats vary in color throughout the year, but I didn’t expect this one to be barely pink at all. When I told Jordan, “I thought they would be pink,” he was confused. Because through the polarized sunglasses he was wearing, they did look really pink! So the key to seeing the pink salt flats may lie in Photoshop or polarized sunglasses.
Ok, now back to flamingos! I don’t recall ever seeing a flamingo in the wild. The zoo in Lyon has flamingos, but the flamingos run free in the south of France! The ones we saw weren’t as brightly colored pink as those in zoos, so maybe they consume fewer algae naturally. Our first spotting of flamingos, or flamants roses, were when they were flying above us in a v-line formation. Yes, flamingos fly! We had no idea.
We also spotted flamingos just casually hanging out in the water beside the highway while we were on our way to Martigues, a colorful town by the Mediterranean Sea. In this town, rows of colorful buildings lined the water that was once home to the fisherman who fished it. Martigues was full of narrow streets connected by bridges over canals. The town’s nickname is “Provençale Venice,” not confused with Annecy, “Venice of the Alps.” Why is France so obsessed with Venice?
It was here that we met up with Jordan’s coworker and his son for lunch. We passed numerous seafood restaurants, which I was looking forward to since we only eat seafood while near an ocean. But, instead, we settled for a pizza place since we were without reservations. After all, it was the first weekend restaurants had been open in eight months! We should have known better.
Our second spotting of flamingos was while on a bike ride in the Camargue nature reserve. Unfortunately, due to it being a holiday weekend, all rental shops we called were sold out of bike rentals. So we bought a compact bike rack for our car and brought our bikes with us. The pathway we would explore was next to a touristy beach town, Saintes Maries de la Mer. It was a shared-use trail for walkers, bikers, and horseback riders. The path cut between the marshes and the sea, providing a nice change in scenery from our typical city views.
But with water comes mosquitos, and lots of them! I had done a little research about the area beforehand and learned this was a must. We could not find mosquito repellant in Lyon but luckily found a bottle at a small grocery store in Arles. And we needed it! The minute we were on the trail, the mosquitos were on us. We would have been miserable without the repellant. Even after using it, the mosquitos clung to our clothes hoping for a chance to attack.
And with the beach comes sand. In the beginning, the layer of sand was thin enough not to impact our bikes. Soon enough, we were trying to bike through thick patches of soft sand. Our bikes sunk in the sand and came to a complete stop while those who rented bikes with fat tires effortlessly passed through. Luckily, the patches of sand weren’t too long, and we could bike most of the way. We saw a handful of flamingos along our journey and even saw a few more flying in the air. Mosquitos aside, it was a great way to spend the day.
We spent our last day in the south of France in Aigues-Mortes, a tiny town completely fortified by its medieval walls. Our French teacher recommended that we visit here, and she hasn’t lead us astray yet. So we parked outside the walls of the city and walked in. Immediately, we were amongst crowds of people exploring the area. It was a holiday weekend, after all.
This city was one of the only places that I felt weird being in a crowd of people. It was such a strange feeling to be shoulder to shoulder with people, even while wearing masks. Yes, masks outside were still required.
To escape the crowd, we paid for tickets to walk the perimeter of the city walls. Up here, we had terrific views of the surrounding area, including another salt flat! This salt flat was much more vibrant in color than the other we had seen, even without the polarized sunglasses. As we walked along the city walls, we walked through many rooms with vaulted ceilings. Some rooms had large grandiose fireplaces, and other rooms had enclosed counters displaying various artifacts. The city had turned most of these rooms into a modern art installation, most of it which went over my head.
We left Aigues-Mortes in the early afternoon, hoping to beat some of the traffic to Lyon. Unfortunately for us, everyone had the same idea again! We did not get lucky with traffic this weekend. Six hours later, we had made it back to Lyon. This time, before curfew.
The first weekend with a 9:00 pm curfew was a success. If the Camargue region had a theme, it would be the color pink! We absolutely found it with the pink salt flats, flamingos, and sunsets!
More to come: birthday weekend in Portugal, exploring a brewery in Belgium, and swimming in the teal waters of the French Riviera.