This Dreamy French Countryside Is Basically A Living Romance Novel

Dream of white horses, skinny French cowboys, and rosé this Valentine's Day.

These wild horses can drag us away | Peter Adams/Stone/Getty Images
These wild horses can drag us away | Peter Adams/Stone/Getty Images

They stomp through the marshes in herds called manades, seemingly transplanted from the cover of a romance novel. Wind whips through their white manes as the saltwater splashes their glistening hooves. They have no need for shoes; these majestic beasts are sturdy and tough, able to withstand hazardous conditions. They're also kind of short, but don’t say that to their faces. 

Known as the “horse of the sea,” the white Camargue is said to be one of the oldest breeds in the world, galloping into icon status for this untame French region of the same name, where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean.
An isolated, sparsely-populated wetland of rice paddies, rose-colored salt flats, and isolated beaches, the region of Camargue is also home to over 400 species of birds, including pink long-legged flamingos, seemingly an anomaly without their usual counterparts of balmy weather or Golden Girls. Birdwatchers can get their fill at the Parc Ornithological wildlife reserve housed in the Regional National Park, where your chances of glimpsing the Camargue horses running semi-wild also increase.
It’s a pretty good life for the horses, which number less than 4,000 in total. Today they have owners, and some have jobs herding or giving rides to tourists. But for the most part they run free in their respective enclosures, whipping their hair in haughty disdain at passersby.

"Yee-haw!" Or whatever French cowboys say | Peter Adams/Stone/Getty Images

For 500 years the horses’ keepers have also been star attractions. Now the last of their kind in Europe in a profession bestowed by birth, these French cowboys—known as gardians—are fitting fixtures in this wild west. Rugged yet elegant and French-skinny, they don subtle flared trousers and short-brimmed hats that would be at home in Brooklyn. Like all cowboys (probably) they have an affinity for cheese, but they likely pair theirs with a nice rosé rather than whiskey.

The gardians wield a long pole with a trident on the end (said to be a gift from Poseidon) to subdue the other animals in their care: the wild Camargue black bulls. The cattle— also French skinny—are used for the traditional sport of course camarguaise, a bloodless, more humane version of bull running than its Spanish counterpart. It happens in a 2,000 year-old arena in Arles and surrounding villages from April through October, with the most prestigious, the La Cocarde d'Or, taking place on the first Monday of July. 

Here humans are more in danger than the animals. Raseteurs—runners—compete to snatch a rosette or tassel off the bull’s horns before getting the heck out of the way. The bulls may be skinny, but the horns are sharp. And they are basically local celebrities: Their names are written on the posters for the matches alongside the rasteurs. One particular star, Goya, has his own statue in the town of Baucaire. 

Aigues-Mortes and pink salt flats. What a dream | pixelshop/Shutterstock

Painting the whole scene a dreamy hue is the nearby Salin d'Aigues-Mortes salt flats, pink thanks to micro algae which elsewhere would be eaten by small shrimp. Here, for whatever reason, the shrimp have no desire to preserve themselves in high concentrations of salt. Visitors can tour the salt flats before stocking up on fleur de sel treasure, flakes of salt manually harvested from the top of the flats after evaporation, regarded by those in the know as the caviar of salt.

Reflected in the pink of the salt flats is the majestic Aigues-Mortes, a walled medieval city built in 1302. Today the fortified walls, once the home of Crusaders, surround restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and galleries—and tourists, who come for nougat and jaunty gardian hats for souvenirs.

But no trip to the Camargue is complete without stopping by the Domaine Royal de Jarras winery for its famous Pink Flamingo rosé. The pink stuff—kissed with cool salty Mediterranean air, its vines preposterously latched in sandy soil—was made here long before it was a ubiquitous staple of summer. And on property is another opportunity to see the Camargue horses, as the winery owns a manade of over 60 mares and stallions.

They run free and pity you as you chug by on a little tourist train.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She once rode a Camargue horse. The horse was not into it.