With map folded and a somewhat unreliable sense of direction Ali and I head south east from Roujan to the outskirts of Pezenas and then to Montpellier and south to join the coastal road skirting the Mediterranean Sea.
Destination Aigues-Mortes, a mediaeval town and walled city built in the mid 13th century by Louis IX first as a port and then fortified by two Philippes between 1289 and 1300. What a spectacular ‘castle’ in that battlement way with almost two kilometres of ramparts enclosing the old town in a rectangle, flanked by towers and arched gates through the city walls. The Tour de Constance is all that remains of the castle built in King Louis reign and is the ‘emblem’ of Aigues-Mortes royal beginnings , visible from land and sea… and in this reflection!
In 1245 Pope Innocent IV tried to persuade European royalty to lead a crusade to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Land and King Louis, later Saint Louis ,took up the challenge. With no French land on the Mediterranean coast at that time, Louis arranged a trade with the Abbey Brothers of Psalmody for the swamp lands known as ‘dead waters’ and the town was built originally as a trading port. Surrounded by malaria riddled swamps and not exactly an attractive destination regardless of its coastal location Louis granted exemptions from tolls, port taxes and forced loans and the town thrived. All this and a crusade to plan, the Seventh by this stage, and some three years later Louis IX left Aigues-Mortes with wife and children in tow and thousands of men on 100 ships leaving the Queen Mum, Blanche de Castile in charge. Six years later he returned only to leave again in 1270 for the Eighth Crusade and died in Carthage from typhus.
The swamps, coastal lagoons and Aigues-Mortes are in the Camargue which somehow came as a lovely surprise as I hadn’t expected to be travelling through the land of white horses and black bulls and there is a definite change in the taste of the air which is salty and earthy . These are the Etangs that stretch along the Mediterranean coast from Sete where they are farmed for oysters and in the watery surrounds of Aigues-Mortes, the Salins de Midi are the centre of salt French production and have been farmed for salt for centuries.. A magnet for birdlife, pink flamingos…also very unexpected…paddle around in the shallow waters and herons hunch on sand spits while traffic rushes past.
Arriving at Aigues-Mortes is a little like driving into a Breugel painting where a small ice rink is full of children skating and toppling, laughing and breathing white puffs into the air in the shadow of a castle wall. Families walk through Porte de la Gardette along the Rue J Jaures into Place St Louis and there is a very festive feel in the cold air. A sign at the main entrance welcomes dogs and forbids girls in bikinis and boys in boardshorts which would rule out a great swathe of Australian summer visitors who in Perth at least think nothing of dressing for the beach and sauntering through the city bare foot on a hot summers days.
Before we do anything vaguely touristy though we have lunch. The entry to the rampart walk is closing, shutters are dropping on windows, the tourist office has shut up shop and the main square restaurants that fringe the tall, imposing statue of Louis, by now a saint are filling up. At outside tables, families ..and it is delightful to see how inclusive the French are of their children who share meals, kisses and conversations.. cluster around pink clothed tables and dogs sit or sleep quietly, neither complaining or fussing, rather like the children. And there are lots of dogs. Leggy, handsome and copper coloured , short, active and curly haired and the very little , their pop eyed bald eared faces poking out of handbags. By 12.30 the only people working are in the kitchens and those balancing trays at shoulder height heaped with silver bowls of mussels, platters of fish and meats, bowls of paella and carafes of rose weaving between tables. With a swish of hips and well judged sidesteps, narrow gaps between tables are manoeuvred, plates exchanged, a small white whiskered dog avoided, bills tendered and tips retrieved.
Eventually we leave behind a pile of emptied mussels shells and make our way to the chateau to climb to the city ramparts and walk the perimeter of the walled city. Peering out over the battlements to the lagoons and the gleaming hillocks of salt and down onto the gardens and courtyards of the houses hidden at street level, walking the well worn surfaces and grooves of the ramparts it is not hard to envisage for a moment how safe the inhabitants would have felt within these fortressed walls.
Returning home and driving west into the setting sun flamingos still wade in the lagoons though the evening seems to be draining the pink from their feathers and claiming that colour along with the purple and orange streaking the sky.