Saintes Maries de la Mer is the place where Callum made up a new proverb: 'never camp under a leaning tree' . It is yet another life lesson that we have learned during this round the world trip, but more on this later.
We crossed the Camargues and it won our heart. Everything we had been looking for in the South of France was here. There was an easy mix of tradition and culture to be discovered in a cute seaside village ten minutes walk away from a great camping and the infinite calm of wild beaches and wide marshes to be enjoyed away from busy roads and cities.
For the French, Saintes Maries de la Mer evoques three images: the huge gipsy celebration happening here at the end of May (and if you are not a catholic gipsy, don't even try to come in at that time), dreamy beach rides on proud white horses typical to this area and traditional herds of black bulls. Nowadays, the secret is out and campervans from all over Europe are flocking here to seek the serenity of the Camargues under a big blue sky. At the camping, we got used to spacious sites, friendly neighbours, a snackbar serving delicious pastries in the morning, and large pools with slides for the kids...what more could we possibly ask for? It was a perfect place to rest and soak in the essence of Provence.
We even found the perfect spot for our van, or so we thought, near the cafe and the pool, under the shade of an old, leaning olive tree. In the evening, I gently teased Paul who had put away our old table and chairs in case they got stolen (as if...). The next morning, as we struggled to open the sliding door, all we could see was branches. The whole tree had fallen down during the night, right on the spot where the table and chairs had been, and more importantly, within centimetres of Maxim and Callum sleeping area...it took a whole day for the staff to clean out the site (it was a big tree) and five minutes for us to find a much safer place, while thanking our lucky star to still be able to do so.
Time started to slow right down after that. We walked along quiet beaches to the village, spotted black bulls, white horses and pink flamingoes making their way around the green marshes and relaxed by the pool while Maxim and Callum hurled themselves tirelessly up and down the slide.
On wednesday, we packed up and went to Montpellier, where Jean Luc, my Annecy friend's dad welcomed us to his place and took us for a walk around town. For me, it was a stroll on memory lane. I had been a happy student in this graceful town a while ago (okey, 25 years). There was a story coming back to me at every street corner, old ghosts of friends and parties hanging off windows and little coffee shops still charged with my dreams of love and travels...it was very moving to come back here with my loved ones to shown them my old haunts...the bonus was that Jean Luc knew such much about the history of this 1000 years old city and the best place to enjoy belgian beers and mussels (the frogs got a lucky escape on that day).
The next day, Jean Luc drove us across the Herault hills to St Guilhelm le Desert, a 800 years old village wrapping itself tighly around a delighful monastory. It is the type of place where time has stopped a few centuries ago and harmony reigns undisturbed despite the daily flow of tourists. it is soul refreshingly peaceful here among old stones and old hills. We are so very grateful to Jean Luc to have welcomed us and taken us to this magical place.
Once back in Montpellier, we said farewelled our kind host and drove back to our cherished site in Saintes Marie de la Mer, for a weekend of birthday celebrations.
It was an excellent move as we were (once again) just in time for the weekly market on Friday and the saturday's bull race (known as courses carmarguaises) .
On Saturday it was Maxim's birthday and to his amazement, he even got presents from our site neighbours. One of the biggest discoveries of our trip has been that the kindness of strangers knows no border. It is a precious message of hope for Maxim on his 12th birthday...
Saturday was also the day where we got to see the famous course camargaise in the town's arena. The idea is to run towards a very aggrieved bull, snatch a tiny ribbon of his pointy horns and escape in one piece... For testosterone charged young men it is a sure way to prove themselves, for the belligerous bulls it is a way to avoid an unhealthy future as a batch of smoked sausage, for the awed spectator, it is a way to experience an adrenaline show of man versus beast without the controversial violence of a fully fledge bull fight. Actually, it made an american rodeo look like a romantic walk in the park...
On sunday, it was my turn to be spoiled, breakfast in bed including sweet french pastries, a long reading session by the pool and best of all, the realisation of an old dream. I went on a two hour ride on a white camargue horse, between beaches and marshes with pink flamingos flying above my head...Me, trotting on a wild beach, on a white horse...it was absolutely exhilarating once I got over the fear of falling head first and once I learn to control my excitable stead...yes, it is another one for the memory box.
It is the strong wind, the powerful mistral which is finally chasing us away from our southern haven and is pushing us on our way to Spain...Only a few days left in France and still no frog legs to be found...Time is running short.
To be followed