Wild, windswept and remote the Camargue presents a challenge to explorers. But, with its black bulls, white horses and pink flamingos, it's a unique, richly rewarding experience.
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This area is a huge, complex lacework of back roads, lakes, canals, sandy spits and marshes. Unlike other popular sights, such as the Gorges de Verdon or the route des Crêtes, there's no obvious way through it. So creating an itinerary was tricky.
But, based on numerous trips to the Camargue, we've worked out the perfect route through this vast, 100,000 hectare / 250,000 acre maze. It will take you past a variety of the best sights it has to offer. Click on the map to enlarge the image.
The circuit described below is 160 km / 100 miles long and starts and ends in Arles. We haven't included Aigues Mortes, which is on the edge of the Camargue and requires a trip in its own right.
You could go round in either a westward or eastward direction: we recommend westward. If you don't stop at all, it would take about four hours by car, depending on boat timings (there are two ferry crossings), but doing it in leisurely fashion would take a good day.
The Camargue is a favourite destination for RVs and camper vans, which can be found almost everywhere.
Driving conditions are easy: the roads are straight, wide and (apart from some of the smaller tracks) well-maintained. The flat terrain and big wide horizons make for good visibility.
Cyclists won't find too many hills to climb - but they are likely to be struggling into the wind, which sweeps through the Camargue on an average of 300 days a year.
In terms of paper maps, the large-scale IGN maps are, as always, the best bet. Unfortunately you'll need three to cover the entire area: no.2943ET (around Arles), no.2944OT (around Saintes Maries de la Mer) and no.3044 (around Port Saint Louis). You might prefer the smaller-scale IGN map which covers both the Camargue and the Alpilles.
Motorists should not set out with a half-empty tank as petrol / gas stations are thin on the ground over most of this unpopulated region.
Don't rely on being able to pick up a signal on your mobile / cell phone to call for help if you do break down.
Bring bottled water and, if required, a picnic: there are few villages, shops, bars and restaurants on the route. You won't find many cash dispensers (ATMs) around either, apart from in Saintes Maries de la Mer, so don't come short of cash.
The recommended Camargue survival kit also includes sunblock, a sun hat, mosquito repellent, binoculars - and walking shoes. We've filed this route under "drives and rides", but to experience the region fully you do need to get off your bike or out of your car now and again, and take the time to contemplate its beauty. There are plenty of viewing platforms and places to stop at along the way.
Our recommendations of sites to visit aren't meant as a complete list. They're a sample of some of the typical Camargue attractions you will pass on the route.
How long you spend at each one depends on your preferences and the time you have available. Click here to read our full guide to the beaches of the Camargue, here to read about the best bird watching sites. and here to read about Camargue bulls, ranches and games.
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ROADBOOK: THE BEST ROUTE THROUGH THE CAMARGUE
You might not think of starting your tour with a museum, but the Musée de la Camargue really is worth a look. Right at the beginning of our route, about 12 km / 7.5 miles on the D570 out of Arles, it's an ideal introduction to the region and its geography, history and culture.
It's true that museums of this kind can often be dull, but the Musée de la Camargue was recently given a full make-over as part of the Marseille-Provence 2013 Capital of Culture programme.
Housed in a big former sheep barn, it has well-presented interactive displays: the section on bull ranching, cowboys and the curious cult of the Camargue western (you can watch some sample scenes on film clips) is particularly fascinating.
Most of the signage is in French but it's fairly easy to follow. Amusingly, the earphone commentary is delivered through genuine horns!
Allow about an hour to go round, more if you want to take the free "discovery trail" through the surrounding landscape, where you can see some of the Camargue's distinctive features, including a typical cowboy cabin, with its thatched roof and rounded end wall.
The trail can be walked even when the museum itself is closed. And there's also possibly the most impressive bird viewing platform in the whole of the Camargue, pictured above: a giant "ship" designed by the conceptual artist Tadashi Kawamata for MP2013.
It, and the entire site, is wheelchair accessible. Musée de la Camargue, Mas du Pont de Rousty, 13200 Arles. Tel: (+33) 4 90 97 10 82.
Continue along the route for 15 kms / 9 miles, then turn right on to the D38C towards Aigues Mortes. On the way you'll see signs to the 19th century Château d'Avignon, which is still flagged as a tourist destination though it's now closed to the public.
Cross the Petit Rhône river - which isn't really that petit (little) - on a road bridge and turn left on to the D58E, signposted to Pin Fourcat and Saintes Maries par le Bac du Sauvage.
Heading south along the river's west bank through green, fertile countryside, you'll see wheat and rice fields, orchards and the occasional vineyard too.
Wine production in the region is concentrated in this area west of the Petit Rhône known as the petite Camargue.
Continue to the Bac du Sauvage, pictured, a free ferry service across the river. The crossing takes about five minutes, but only runs every half hour (extra boats may be laid on in summer) and only takes eight cars.
Various passengers can jump the queue too: cyclists, pedestrians, emergency vehicles - and horses. And the ferry doesn't run during the holy French lunch break (12-1.30pm)! So you might have to wait.
At the T-junction after the crossing, turn right on to the D38, which takes you into Saintes Maries de la Mer.
The "capital of the Camargue" is a pleasant coastal resort renowned for its beaches and folk traditions, in particular its Gipsy Pilgrimage on 24 May each year and various festivals in honour of the region's bulls and horses.
If you're planning to eat on your trip, Saintes Maries offers the widest choice of restaurants in the region.
We dined at Ô Pica Pica, a simple bar on the seafront opposite the arena which serves fabulously fresh seafood and shellfish. Don't miss the local speciality, tellines: tiny, sweet, clam-like shellfish cooked in garlic, herbs and white wine.
You can go horse trekking from Saintes Maries de la Mer too, and so this is one of the best places on our route to spot these elegant white creatures ambling along the dunes or grazing by the roadside. We'll be producing a full town guide to Saintes Maries de la Mer in due course.
Take the D570 north out of Saintes Maries towards Arles. About 5 km / 3 miles along the road on your right is the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau.
This is a phenomenally well populated wild bird reserve where you can see flamingos, herons and up to 240 other species at close quarters. Allow at least 90 minutes if you plan to visit. More about it very soon.
A further 17 km / 10.5 miles along the road, turn right on to the D37 signposted to Salin de Giraud.
The road skirts the north shore of the Étang de Vaccarès. The east shore of this lake, pictured, is one of the loveliest stretches of the drive.
After 4 km / 2.5 miles you'll pass (just off the route on your right, in Méjanes) the Domaine Paul Ricard, which provides a good, if rather touristy overview of the Camargue's main attractions.
Ricard, the pastis magnate, temporarily took up rice growing here when pastis production was made illegal during the Second World War. Today his estate can be toured on foot, horseback, bike or a fun little tourist train.
There are flamingos and horses and, if you're interested in visiting a manade (wild bull ranch), this is one of the few that's close to our route. It will also accept visitors without a prior arrangement, whereas many manades will only open their doors for special all-day events.
You'll need to check ahead for what activities are available when you visit. There's a restaurant too, though you're probably better off eating in Saintes Maries. Website for the Domaine Paul Ricard.
After 10 kms /6 miles, turn right on to the D36B. A little further along this road, La Capelière is a nature reserve with more hiking trails, and viewing platforms. Website for La Capelière.
Continue for 9.5 km / 6 miles. The road turns sharp right, then left: it is the D36C signposted to Salin de Giraud. About 14 km / 8.5 miles along on your right, is the turn-off for the legendary plage de Beauduc, one of the most remote beaches in France.
However going there involves a major detour of at least several hours along a very poorly maintained track (your vehicle must also be less than 2.1 metres / 6 feet 10 inches wide).
So unless you have plenty of time for your tour, keep right on going. You'll quickly reach a T-junction, where you turn right on to the D36 into Salin de Giraud.
With its neat rows of little houses built of brick from Northern Europe, Salin looks quite unlike a provençal village. In fact you'd almost think you were in Flanders - and that's no accident.
In 1895 the Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay came here to set up a salina, producing salt used to make savon de Marseille (olive-oil based provençal soap). He built his workers' houses in the style of his own homeland.
Though fine table salt is sold everywhere in the Camargue, the Giraud salt is used for industrial purposes. Fleur de sel is produced in the salt marshes of Aigues Mortes.
The other oddity in Salin is its blue and white Greek Orthodox church (a long low building painted blue and white).
It was created for workers who migrated here from Greece in the early 20th century. Housed in the Town Hall, the Tourist Office in Salin is a great source of information about all this history and of advice about the area.
Continue south on the D36D out of Salin de Giraud to see its dramatic salt flats: if you time your circuit right, you'll be there when they glow vivid pink in the evening light, matching the flamingos you're likely to find there too. These wild, empty vistas are very different from the rich farmland of the northern Camargue.
About 2 km / 1 mile out of the town, on your right, there's a salt mountain and raised viewing platform with sweeping views, pictured, and explanatory panels in English and French.
There's more to see along this road: 6 km / 3.5 miles on is the Domaine de la Palissade, an 18th century country house in grounds rich with flora and fauna. Website for the Domaine de la Palissade.
And a little further still is the plage de Piémanson. Click here to read more about it.
But it's likely by now that time is running out and you'll need to make for the Bac de Bacarin, the ferry across the Grand Rhône which stops running in the early evening. So turn round and head back towards Salin. The turn-off to the ferry on your right just before you reach the town.
There's a small charge for cars, but pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes under 500cc go free. Don't worry if you want to avoid paying this charge, or are concerned at the risk of tailbacks in summer, or miss the last crossing.
As an alternative you can drive straight up the west bank of the Grand Rhône on the D36 back to Arles. If you do take the Bac, you'll end up in the small estuary town of Port Saint Louis du Rhône, which officially became part of the Camargue Regional Park in 2011.
There's not a lot to detain the visitor here, apart from a marina, some splendid beaches (click here to read about them).
Also, fishing: you'll see plenty of RVs parked along the river, while their owners doze on the bank in front of a fishing rod.
The town's sole feature of historic interest is the squat, 18th century Tour Saint Louis, whose roof terrace offers panoramic views. But the Tourist Office - in the ground floor of the tower - is extraordinarily well stocked with information on the region and sells local crafts and produce.
A final bonus: next to it, on the quai Bonnardel overlooking the river, is the Snack Le Gardian, (pictured, with the Tour Saint Louis in the background) a little kiosk designed like a cowboy's cabin.
It serves excellent food and Camargue wines in summer and is clearly a top haunt for locals. It's open in the evenings at weekends - the perfect way to round off your trip.
Photo credits (from top): © Office de Tourisme de Saintes Maries de la Mer, RWS for Marvellous Provence, SJ for Marvellous Provence (two images), Reflected Serendipity for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence (five images).