Walled in Gem: A Day in Aigues Mortes

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Aigues Mortes, France

The little walled city of Aigues Mortes doesn’t get much of a write-up in English guide books – it comes across as being a somewhat dull afterthought in the Camargue region.  Therefore, when I disembarked my bus, I was surprised to see how bustling it was – it was full of French tourists.

So. The French are trying to keep this place to themselves, huh? Keep it as their little secret.

Well, fair enough.  On a very hot day in August, the town was packed with visitors. Honestly, if the place made itself better known, it probably wouldn’t be able to handle the numbers.

Aigues Mortes owes its existence to the French King Louis IX.  In the 1200s, most of Provence was owned by the Holy Roman Empire, while the stretch from Montpellier to Catalonia was under the rule of the King of Aragon.  This didn’t leave the French with much coastline, and having a decent port for trade was important – almost as important as having a port from which to launch a fleet to join the Crusades.  What am I saying? – the Crusades were more important to King Louis; this was the 13th century.

Monty Pythonesque flippancy aside, Louis was a sensible chap.  Aigues Mortes became France’s main port and it had a monopoly for goods coming in and out of the kingdom, which was good for revenue.  Unfortunately, the area of the coast that Louis had at his disposal was not the best, and he built his new port-city on the edge of a lagoon.  Advantages: it was largely open to the sea, but protected; offered deep moorage; had shelter from winds.  Disadvantages: it was a marshland.  It had marshland diseases.  It was prone to silting up.

Yet Louis was determined to make a success of his pet project.  He endowed the city with a highly advantageous charter – unlike any other in France – which gave its few occupants extensive privileges, and brought in new residents.  Building work commenced on the Grosse Tour du Roi (now named the Tour du Constance), which when it was completed in 1248 served as a lighthouse.  Then there was the matter of linking the city to the rest of France, and soon work was underway to create new infrastructure – new waterway links to Arles and Montpellier, extended roads, new bridges…  By 1270 most of the fundamentals were in place to have Aigues Mortes functioning as the maritime city of France.

In 1266, Louis instructed that ramparts be constructed around the town but for some reason the work was done slowly.  By 1286, they still weren’t finished, which was a problem because France and Aragon went to war over the affair of the Sicilian Vespers (a Frenchman supposedly harassed a Sicilian woman at vespers – it led to the massacre of four thousand French people on the island and a desire to overthrow their unpopular rule).  Aigues Mortes was attacked and the Aragonese cut supply-lines and made off with several ships.

Funnily enough, the ramparts of Aigues Mortes were finished pronto after this.

Expansion and the creation of better routes into France led to the warehouses of Aigues Mortes being filled with eastern commodities, English wool and merchandise from Champagne.  These were short-lived glory days.  The port silted up, and even though efforts were constantly made to control it, eventually nature took over.  Luckily for France, in 1481 it gained control over Marseilles – which is still a great port city – and a few years later Aigues Mortes’ monopoly on trade was rescinded.

Due to its strategic position, Aigues Mortes received investment to improve its facilities in 1532, and the city was prestigious enough to host an important meeting in 1538 between Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.  They were life-long enemies and the meeting was supposed to resolve certain issues regarding the Protestants, and after three days of lavish living and humility-posturing (you can read more about that in this article: www.academia.edu) nothing was really resolved.

It’s somewhat ironic that they discussed the Protestant threat in Aigues Mortes, because Calvinism took root in the city in the 1560s, and it came a Protestant stronghold during the Wars of Religion.  In 1574, the Huguenots took over the city, and two years later Aigues Mortes was made one of the eight places de sûreté (safe havens) for Protestants.  In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and deprived Protestants of their rights – the option was to renounce their faith, or leave the country.  Those who did neither were imprisoned, and in 1686 the numerous towers along the ramparts of Aigues Mortes became a jails to hold men and women until they were sentenced to death or sent to the galleys.  For more on the lives in the tower, please click through here.

Aigues Mortes sleepily drifted through to the 19th century until it found itself caught up in a new trend: a fashion for sea-bathing.  From the 1850s, Aigues Mortes started serving tourists, and a boom-time started.  And things got better – in 1856, the salt marshes were taken over by the Compagnie des Salins du Midi, which started a large scale salt production process still going today.  Then, the final fortuitous event for the city: in the 1870s, France’s vineyards were badly affected by the phylloxera crisis, but the local vin des sables were not harmed, due to the sandy soil.  Another boom time for another industry.

That King Louis is commemorated in a statue and a square in a central location in Aigues Mortes is not surprising, considering that he set up the town.  However, it is important to note that King Louis became Saint Louis thanks to his energetic contribution to the Crusades – a result of a vow made on recovering from a serious illness.

As it happens, Louis was genuinely a devout Christian.  He built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house his formidable collection of relics (Crown of Thorns, fragment of the True Cross, etc), founded many hospitals and houses (including one for reformed prostitutes) and was generally of the opinion that he was working for the glory of God.  He is said to have washed the feet of the poor every Saturday, and fed over a hundred poor citizens in his palace.  His hair-shirt and scourge are in the Treasury of Notre-Dame in Paris, which goes towards proving that he took the whole penance side of things seriously too.

But he was also involved in a cruel series of acts against Jews – the Disputation of Paris.  In 1240, an ex-communicated Parisian Jew, Nicholas Donin, went to Rome as a Catholic convert and denounced the Talmud on 35 counts.  Pope Gregory IX ordered copies of the Talmud to be seized and deposited with the Dominicans and Franciscans who would examine the contents and decide whether they should be burned.  Most rulers ignored the whole thing, but in France, officials took away the books before King Louis decided to call for the Talmud to be put on trial – a bizarre attempt to show fairness in a situation where in any case the verdict was cut and dried.  Four rabbis unsuccessfully represented the Jewish cause – against Donin’s cries that the Talmud was full of blasphemy against the Church, they didn’t stand a chance.  In 1242, twenty-four wagons containing all known copies of the Talmud in France were burned in Paris.

Louis was also driven by a desire to do the right thing.  He reformed the court system, for example, where he introduced the presumption of innocence and brought in trial by jury instead of trial by ordeal.  He himself served as a supreme judge in appeal cases, and generally was involved in hearing cases and complaints brought before him, whether the plaintiffs were nobles or vassals.

In 1248 King Louis set sail from Aigues Mortes on the Seventh Crusade – in a fleet that was rented from Marseille, Venice and Genoa.  Thirty-eight ships set sail and met a fleet of 1,800 in Cyprus some months later.  He went on to Egypt, which at that point was the centre of Islamic power, and succeeded in capturing the port of Damietta.  A march towards Cairo through the Nile Delta was somewhat hampered by the rising of the river, and things didn’t go well.  Louis was taken prisoner in 1250, ransomed for 400,000 livres tournois (almost a third of France’s annual revenue) as well as the surrender of Damietta.

Embarrassing as you’d think this would have been as an experience, King Louis didn’t head back to France with his tail between his legs.  Instead, he spent four years in the Latin Kingdoms of Acre, Caesarea and Jaffa, building city defences and conducting diplomatic missions with the Islamic leaders in Syria and Egypt.  Then, Louis returned to France.

In 1267, Louis and his three sons ‘took the cross’ for the Eighth Crusade.  In 1270 crusaders were summoned to Aigues Mortes to set sail for Tunisia.  Unfortunately, what with the facilities at Aigues Mortes being non-existent, there was much quarrelling and King Louis had to arrive at the port at an earlier date than planned to sort it all out.  Finally the Crusaders set sail a month late (again in ships rented from Marseilles and Genoa) on July 1st and landed at Carthage eighteen days later.  Disease broke out in the camp, and Louis died of dysentery on 25th August.  The survivors of his still-sickly army went scuttling back to Europe soon after.

In 1297, Louis was canonised by Pope Boniface VIII, and he remains the only French king to have been made a saint.

So In Summary

The town was adorable.  No, there’s not much to do, but the salt marshes are very impressive and the experience of walking around a medieval walled town is always special.

Further Information

Aigues Mortes has its own city tourism website, but only in French: www.ot-aiguesmortes.com

You can easily spend a day in this tiny city.  There are lots of nice-looking restaurants and cafes, and plenty of shops which sell regional products.  Then you’ve also got the quiet little streets to explore, away from the bustling main area.

They have special events on during the year, including a Fete of St Louis in August, so do check out their website.

As well as having the chance to walk the city walls, you can also visit the nearby salt-marshes, for a fun experience trundling along the flats with flamingoes for company.

How To Get There

The city is easy to reach from various major cities of Southern France if you’ve got a car.  If not, I think you’re limited to buses.  We went via bus from Montpellier, which was efficient: www.herault-transport.fr but you can also get a bus from Nimes: www.edgard-transport.fr


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