I felt as if I were looking over Van Gogh's shoulder as he painted. I gazed out at the liquid and layered landscape of the Camargue, the delta where the Rhone River flowed into the Mediterranean Sea just south of Arles in Provence. In the foreground, slate-toned marshes interspersed with ivory-colored salt flats, yellow-tipped reeds, pale-green rice stalks, red-flowering heathers, and scrubby evergreens. Just beyond were striated rows of vineyards, corn, sunflowers, and wheat fields. Throughout, dotted here and there, clustered flocks of pale pink flamingos mingled with white horses and black bulls, some bulls with stark white egrets perched on their backs.
The distant horizon held unbroken lines of dusty-green junipers that cut upright into the cobalt blue sky. I stood mesmerized, trying to fully absorb the immense beauty of this textured and multicolored marshland.
Arising from an alpine glacier near Lake Geneva, the Rhone River had journeyed five hundred miles southward to merge its fresh water with the salty sea. Along the way, it had forged a deep divide that separated the French Alps on the east from the Massif Central on the west and formed a natural north-south highway that drew many life forms to it, including humans from Neandertals and Cro-Magnons to Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and us. We all came for the same reasons, the good life defined by good food, drink, and shelter, all in a stunning natural setting.
From the moment I'd arrived I'd felt myself shift from being a tourist to being a pilgrim. I couldn't put my finger on why, for all around me flocked tourists and I was doing tourist things. Moreover, this was a rare trip where I was not trekking as my main mode of transport, and further, though walking, biking, and horse riding trails interlaced all around me, I had come here in the most un-iconic, and unromantic, way: via minivan carrying twelve riders arriving here from Avignon. But it didn't matter. The incredible multilayered beauty all around me flooded my cell tissue and infused me with a presence that transcended movement and affected deep awareness and well being.
The Camargue is a wetland biosphere reserve that covers some 193,000 hectares, among the largest along the Mediterranean. It contains some of the greatest biodiversity of plant and animal life, including more than 400 species of birds who called it home, either all year or on seasonal migrations, including those flamingos that are as natural to Provence as lavender. It was early autumn and the marsh was becoming a fiesta before my eyes.
I'd made Avignon my base. It is home to one of France's largest theater festivals (in July) and an idyllic setting for theater, both manmade and natura. It serves as a transition place from salty rice flats to craggy alpine hills dotted with stately wine chateaux.
Perhaps the sensation of pilgrimage came from the magnetic landscape? Or the presence of so many before me navigating this natural highway? Or perhaps the warm welcome locals gave so easily everywhere I ventured? Such as Monsieur Philippe, the owner of the hotel in which I had rented a studio with kitchenette on the uppermost floor. He'd told me on my first day that while Provence had its own unique culture, everyone belonged in Provence and this was what made it special. He himself was half Catholic and half Jewish. His hotel manager was half Bretagne and half Italian. His staff were half North African and half French or half Spanish. Locals spoke Provençal, Catalan, Italian, Spanish, English, and Arabic, as much as French.
The culture was unique and had been forged by all the many half-this and half-that peoples who had come here over the many millennia, using the sea and river to pave the way. Today, I felt their footsteps and the splash of their oars.
A pink flamingo suddenly pulled its long neck up from a flock of several dozen huddled in the marsh. It fanned its wings open to its full four-foot wingspan, displaying a dark stripe of fuchsia on the upper wings and jet-black feathers on the lower. A black bull lifted his head to watch the flamingo as his companions remained intent on their grazing, as did the dozen white horses, who, now that I looked more closely, had small grey flecks on their coats almost the same color as the flaky fleur de sel salt harvested from the flats nearby. A white egret took off from the back of a bull.
Ah, la belle France, I thought, and no sooner than these words flitted through my mind, there came a violent swarm of mosquitoes, stingers leading the way, charging toward me like lance-brandishing knights. The fiesta turned to feast. I flew to the van.
I hadn't noticed until now that my companions had already fled. They watched me from behind the glass as I sprinted toward them. At the moment I arrived, Hiroshi threw the door open just long enough for me to enter, then slammed it shut. I fell breathless into the seat next to him. Some of the monsters had made it inside and I swatted at them furiously, seeing around me others in the same agitation and misery.
There were June and John from England, now largely contained under their safari hats with a mesh covering their faces. There were the Cornish couple and the Australian couples just behind them, slapping themselves and each other and beginning to fall into uncontrollable manic laughter. There was Gabi, a young German woman just behind them, her face in her hands, willing the mosquitoes nonviolently to go away. And to the other side of Hiroshi, was Yumi, his wife, who with lightening swiftness swatted her husband and herself, followed quickly with quick dabs on the spot with an alcohol pad, many of which she carried, individually wrapped, in her purse.
Then suddenly, having contained herself and her husband, she turned her lightening on me, I found myself an extension of Hiroshi, the beneficiary of her swats and dabs until the crisis was over. She was a physician in Japan, she explained as she worked, and we needed to be careful. I soon learned that the couple had recently married in Tokyo and had come here for their honeymoon because Hiroshi wanted to revisit the place where he had spent many happy days as a university student two decades earlier and share it with his new wife.
This was when I understood why this felt more like pilgrimage than travel: this place, and these experiences were coded with bonding and transformation, bringing far-flung people together through both shared beauty and adversity.
Our guide had already paved the way.
Our day began with what was advertised as a bilingual tour of the Rhone Delta and the Camargue. Our tour guide, who was also our driver, began driving south toward Arles, passing every quintessential icon of southern France—fields of sunflowers, melons ripening on low vines, countless vineyards growing grapes for the pale rosé vins de sable, and garden stands piled high with apples, peaches, and grapes. We soon realized "bilingual" did not translate to French and English. He spoke half French and half Occitan. Most in our group were strict English speakers. Hiroshi, however, we soon learned, was a professional translator of French to Japanese. But he spoke no English; neither did his wife. We fell into a pattern of him translating our guide's words into full French so I could understand. I then did my best to render that into English for the group as Hiroshi told Yumi the same in Japanese. We were half-half all the way, and now a merry band of pilgrims bonded by our common need and experience.
Midway in all this, somewhere between leaving the large saline pools of the Camargue and visiting the town of Aigues-Mortes for a well-earned taste of vins de sable, Hiroshi told me his relationship with southern France had completely changed his life. When he returned to Japan, he'd shifted gears from business to literature and became a translator. "This is a magical place," he said, "you will see, if you have not yet, and one day, you must return to see how it has changed you." It was a curious wording but one that made sense, pilgrim to pilgrim.
June asked me what he had just said and I told her. "Oh, yes. John and I have just returned ourselves. John and I drove here long ago, in a caravan, when our children were small. We've only just returned since that time. Hiroshi is so right. You don't always see the changes until you come back to the place that catalyzed them."
By the time our group returned, slightly tipsy and welted, to Avignon, we were family. I caught a glimpse of our driver's face in the rearview mirror. He was smiling with satisfaction, as if this had been his plan all along.
The following days took me deeper into life on the great Rhone river road, upstream and to the interior. Monsieur Philippe waited for me each morning at the reception desk before I parted to listen to my day's plans and add a local's notes and suggestions. On my second to last day, he directed me to Avignon's Sunday flea market on the Place des Carmes, a small square with a Gothic church of the same name.
There I saw June, deep in the center of rows of tables and sheets spread on the ground, all covered in kitchen and household items from bygone eras, piles of clothing, secondhand books. There was an inordinate number of wigs, costumes, play jewelry, hats, and feather boas and fans, detritus from Avignon's theatrical legacy. June was just picking out a hot pink feather fan while flirting wildly with the two Romani merchants at their table as John watched, seeming to enjoy it more than she. When she saw me, she rushed over and gave me a hug and pulled me into the drama. The two men took their cue and donned wigs that sat on their display, wrapped feather boas about their necks and mine, and launched into the song about the Pont d'Avignon, which was just a few paces from the square.
"Oh, I just love that song!" June said as we all hugged, men in wigs and all. Later, I also ran into Gabi, Yumi, and Hiroshi on the ramp leading up to the papal palace where we hugged in similar familial manner and then never saw each other again.
The next evening, I carried out Monsieur Philippe's final suggestion before departing, to take in the sunset from Avignon's highest point, the Rocher des Doms where a rocky mound rises above the Rhone and lays the whole horizon at one's feet. As the lowering sun turned the pale blue sky to pastel lavender then dark rose and tangerine, I reflected on the beauty, theater, and diversity that this river had forged and all that I had seen and felt.
Monsieur Philippe saw me off to the train the next morning. I felt like a pilgrim going home, transformed by the adventures befallen on the way. Soon after I returned, I received a long letter in French from Japan. Its last sentence said, "Remember to go back." One day, soon, I hope, I will.
Travel writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami is the author of several travel books, including the trekker's comprehensive guidebook, Café Oc—A Nomad's Tales of Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France, Café Neandertal—Excavating the Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places, and The Spiritual Traveler Spain. In addition to Perceptive Travel, her essays and articles appear in BBC Travel, Fodors.com, Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, Bon Vivant, The Bark, and the Pennsylvania Gazette, among others.
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