Serendipitous Traveler (Day 7): The Salt Marshes of the Camargue

Nature Unfolding by Leah Marie Brown
The Salt Marshes of the Camargue
before a summer storm.
I have always been fascinated by ancient trades.   I am particularly fascinated by the ancient trades still practiced today, like the harvesting of sea salt, the distillation of scents, glassblowing, wine making, and cabinetry. 
There is something romantic, almost poetic, about a man mastering the elements to bring delight to the senses.  It seems a simple but noble pursuit. 
And for me, the artisans who resist the temptations of modernization, who adhere to the traditional methods of their craft, seem the most noble and romantic of all. 
So, when I began planning my trip to Southern France and Italy, a tour of the salt marshes of the Camargue became my number one priority.  I simply had to learn more about the ancient trade of harvesting sea salt.  I wanted to meet the men who stood ankle-deep in murky water, who braved the Mistral's biting winds, and coaxed the Mighty Sea to relinquish her costly, delicious bounty.

I imagined it a mystical process.  Handsome, tanned men with physiques like Norse Gods, standing on the shore of an angry, roiling sea, murmuring ancient chants while lighting flashed across the sky.  Perhaps a monstrous wave rises ominously, threatening to devour the God-like sea whispers, before crashing to the shore and then retreating, leaving a carpet of pristine white salt in its wake.  Or maybe they were wisened old men in blue and white striped shirts and knee-high rubber boots, their leathery faces creased by the weather, their backs stooped from bending and scooping the flowers of the sea.  Wisened old men who had learned the secrets of their trade from their fathers and their grandfathers before them.
As I was to discover, my imagination is far greater than reality.   

I spent the morning exploring Aigues-Mortes, a medieval walled city with a wren of cobblestoned streets. I poked around the shops selling colorful jars filled with sea salt, handmade market baskets, Provençal fabric, and locally produced soaps and candles. I sat at a cafe, sipped a drink, and inhaled the sea air. I sampled the delicious lemon cookies and chocolate covered almonds at La Cure Gourmande
Finally, it was time to drive to Salins du Midi for my tour of the salt marshes.  Throughout the day, the downy clouds that had filled the sky in the morning had darkened to an ominous shade of gray.  By the time we pulled into the Salins du Midi parking lot, fat, solitary raindrops plopped onto our windshield.  I worried that our tour would be hampered by the weather, that the photographs I intended on taking would be lost to the dying light.
We met our guide, a cheerful redhead with a face full of freckles who looked as if he should be playing a fiddle in a pub in Ireland and not driving a 4x4 through the salt marshes of southern France.  He loaded our small group into his beaten down Rover and we headed off at breakneck speed, whizzing past pyramids of harvested sea salt, until we came to a brick building with a sign that read Musée du Sel de la Camargue.
After watching a movie about the history of salt production in the Camargue, we were invited to tour the one-room museum and gift-shop.
The museum contained a variety of wooden shovels, salt boxes, and sieves.  More fascinating was an 18th century ledger tracking the export of Camargue sea salt and an antique wooden crest declaring Salins du Midi the official supplier of salt for Louis XV, King of France.
Back in the 4x4, we raced down a rutted dirt road past ruins of an 18th century soap factory and an abandoned tile roofed shack.  I asked our guide about the shack and he told me it was once inhabited by the man in charge of the locks regulating the flow of water to the marshes, back when there weren't 4x4s to race them from town to sea in minutes.  "In the old days," he said, "workers lived on the marshes.  The salt farmer would live here, work the land, and teach his sons the trade.  Today, that is not so."
I could feel the wispy tendrils of mystic mist evaporating.  I knew there weren't really Norse-like Gods who stood on the shore and summoned the sea to bring forth the salt, but I really thought there were a group of tough old who lived and worked on the marshes from sunrise to sunset.
Our guide explained that there were only ten people in charge of monitoring and regulating the flow of water into the salt beds.  Those ten people worked from six in the morning until one in the afternoon, covering about 100 miles per day.  
"What a fabulous job!  To spend the day with the sea air in your air, squishing around in the sand.  Still, 100 miles per day?  They must wear out their Wellies!"
Our guide, who spoke broken English, looked at me, confusion wrinkling his freckled face.  Finally, understanding dawned. 
"They do not walk.  They take zee 4x4s," he said, laughing.
Our guide was taking my fanciful notions about salt harvesting and brutally dashing them on the rocks.  The modern-day sea salt farmer was not nearly as romantic as I had imagined him to be. (Though our guide assured me the job was handed down from father to son after a requisite five year apprenticeship)
Our guide explained that there was one harvest per year, from August to September, and that the trucks used to scrape and haul the salt worked round the clock.
"Trucks?"  I gasped.  "You mean the salt is not harvested by hand?"
"Non," he chuckled.  "Do not be ridiculous!  Seventy percent of the world's sea salt comes from the Camargue.  We could not possibly harvest that much salt by hand."
To say I was disheartened to learn that massive snowplow-like machines scraped the salt from the beds instead of stoop-backed old men would be an understatement.
I masked my disappointment by asking our guide to explain the mysteries of the ancient method of harvesting sea salt.
"Mysteries?  There is no mystery about it.  Harvesting sea salt the 'old way' basically entails teenage boys splashing around the beds with baskets."
"Surely it is more complex than that?"
"Non, it is not.  Bend, scoop, shake.  That's it."
Perhaps sensing my disappointment, he said, "We do still harvest the old way.  Once a year, we hire local teenagers to come and work the beds."
After that, our guide prattled off a dizzying aray of facts about the flora, fauna, and feathered friends of the Camargue but I was too disillusioned to listen intently. 
He sped down the dirt road, slamming on the brake each time he saw a feathered creature. 
Speed. Slam. Squeal.
"Look!  It's a red crested pochard," he would chirp.  "Isn't it cute?  Look at it's fluffy head."
Speed.  Slam.  Squeal.  This became the pattern for the next two hours.  Each time Bird Boy slammed on the brakes, we would fly forward and face-plant into the seat in front of us ("No need for seatbelts," he had said in a slightly mocking tone, "there's little traffic on the marshes.")
Speed. Slam. Face plant.
"A kingfisher!  They use their long bills to catch fish."
Speed. Slam.  Face plant.
"Another kingfisher only this one is flying over the water.  Let's watch and see if he catches a fish."  Long pause.  The kingfisher banks up and performs a loop over the water and then flies off.  "Guess not."
Speed.  Slam.  Face plant.
"Flamingoes.  Did you know they have found fossils of flamingos dating to prehistoric times?"  Bird boy drives several feet and stops again.  "More flamingoes.  And look!  A kingfisher again."
By the end of our four hour tour, I had unraveled the "mysteries" of harvesting sea salt the ancien way and learned enough facts about the kingfisher and flamingo to win the Bird category on Jeopardy! 

Pink Waters by Leah Marie Brown
This lock is used to restrict the flow of water into the
marshes, allowing for the right salinity for the
creation of salt.  A microscopic organism
makes the water and salt pink.
Salty Shore by Stephanie Mounts
Here I am on the shore of one of the
marshes, near a pile of sea salt.
Storm by Leah Marie Brown
When the storm clouds rolled in, the light
changed, the waters of the marsh appeared
flamingo pink.

Salt Shack by Leah Marie Brown
This shack was once the home of the foreman of
the salt production; he was in charge of managing
the flow of water into the marshes.  Today, it is
an abandoned shack, a symbol of a forgotten era,
a time before the modernization of salt production
and harvesting, a time before dump trucks,
computers, and salt harvesting machines.

I love standing on the shore, staring out to sea.  It fills me with
calm and purpose.  The Camargue, with its swirling clouds and
changeable light, moved my soul.  I asked Stephanie to snap a
shot of me staring out to sea so I could remember that
quiet, perfect moment in the Camargue.  Once I got home,
I used Photoshop to alter the sky and sea using an
infrared technique.

Tools of a Forgotten Trade by Leah Marie Brown
These wooden shovels and implements were once
used to harvest sea salt.

Scraped by Leah Marie Brown
A salt marsh/bed after it has been scraped clean of
sea salt.

Rolling by Leah Marie Brown
A truck hauls freshly harvested
sea salt from a salt bed in the
Camargue, France.

Have Salt Will Travel by Leah Marie Brown
A dump truck laden with freshly harvested sea salt
rolls down a private road in the Camargue, France.

Pyramid of Salt by Leah Marie Brown
A conveyor dumps freshly harvested sea salt into
a pile, forming a gigantic pyramid.

Gypsum by Leah Marie Brown
Gypsum forms in the areas around the salt marshes.
The white, crystals are used to make plaster.
Follow the Leader by Leah Marie Brown
Pink flamingos all in a line.  Their feathers are a distinctive
coral hue because they consume shrimp and
algae which contain carotenoid pigments.
If you would like to tour the Salt Marshes of the Camargue, contact: 
Les Salins du Midi
Pole Camargue - Route du Grau du Roi - 30220
Telephone: 00 33 (0)
E-mail: salinstourisme@salins.com

1 comment:

Ashley said...

I must admit that I often have dashed romantic notions about the harvesting of certain crops. I live not too far from here I'll have to check it out. Your friend Stephanie M. linked this post onto my Curious Provence age when I took a photo of flying over the salt marshes some time ago.