Salt, Flamingos and Pink Algae: The Salt Marshes of Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes Salt Marsh, Salin d’Aigues Mortes, Aigues Mortes, France

Quite honestly, one of the coolest experiences of my travels in the south of France was the visit to the salt marshes near the quaint and perfect walled city of Aigues Mortes.  First you have amazing pink waters… and then you have flamingos.  Flamingos!  In their real environment – not in a zoo, not artificially brought in – they’re there because they want to be.  And that is awesome.

The salt marshes are, even without the flamingos, rather beautiful.  It is incredible to think that salt can be harvested in such great quantities from these waters – and it’s good to be reminded of what a wonder of nature it is, solidifying in the shallow pools as the water evaporates.  Salt is one of those products we take a little for granted, but seeing the amount of work that goes into getting it to our kitchens makes you wonder why you don’t have to pay more for it.

What is also extraordinary is the size of the site: you get a sense of this as you do the tour, but do check out this NASA picture, which really shows the extent of the marshes: www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov

The adventure begins near the building shown above – there is a ticket office to the side and you get your place booked on a tour, wait, board a little bumpy tourist train, and start to whizz round the salt marshes, gazing out at marvellous views of dull greyish brown, dazzling white and varying shades of pink, under a great expanse of blue sky…

And then, just as you think things can’t be more lovely, you spy… flamingos!

I was way too excited about the flamingos – even the kids around me didn’t seem that bothered.  Sister-Chickpea and I were so happy to see so many of them, and even though they sadly didn’t get very close to us, we were still able to admire their weird and wonderfulness in situ.

You’ll notice that though the flamingos are pink, they are quite a light shade.  This is because, as I’m sure you know, flamingos naturally have grey feathers, and it’s only through eating brine shrimp, larvae and algae in the wetlands that they gain compounds called carotenoids, which are red, orange and yellow pigments – these eventually change the colours of the feathers.

So after seeing the site, you get to spend about 15 minutes in a little museum which houses some salt worker related equipment and shows how the marshes used to be harvested as well as having models of the birds found in the waters and some history of salt use.  Unfortunately, you really don’t get much time there to actually read the displays and because you have a whole bus load of people entering at the same time, you have to jostle to see anything.  As it happens, I was too hot to care about much, so I didn’t mind, but it is a bit of a shame.  They should really have the museum by the main entrance of the site, so that you can look around before you go on your tour.

It was the Romans who started salt harvesting in this area, and work has continued ever since.  In the Middle Ages, the salt marshes only occupied a small area of the ponds south of Aigues Mortes, but they ended up taking over most of the harbour.  The marshes were owned by individual enterprises until 1856, when the Compagnie des Salins du Midi took over the whole area and started a salt production business.

Collecting salt was arduous work, and by the end of the 19th century, foreign labour was brought in to collect the salt.  The work started in mid-August, which is, from my own experience, darn hot, and the migrants were willing to work for lower wages than the locals.  Italian migrant workers in particular worked in the industry, which caused the local population to resent them for stealing their jobs.  In 1893, a brawl in town saw at least nine Italian workers killed and many more wounded over two lawless days, when even the gendarmes were unable to offer the Italians protection.  Understandably the incident caused a stir, not least because the ensuing court cases were a joke and widely criticised by the press of countries around the world.

Once you’re loaded back on the train, you trundle along a little more before disembarking at a salt mountain.  You can walk up this compacted, dirty white mess of salt and you get great views of the surrounding countryside.

So In Summary

I was humming and ha-ing about whether we should go off to Aigues Mortes to see the salt marshes – I couldn’t quite decide whether it was worth the expense and the time.  As it happens, it was one of those things which I remember at random times with considerable fondness.  Every time I see the Baleine brand salt being sold in the supermarkets of France, I’m taken back to the pink lakes and flamingos… which is rather nice.

Further Information

There is a fee to ride the salt-train, and the ticket applies to a specific train departure time.

There is a website available in English which gives you all the necessary information you need to plan your trip:  www.visitesalinsdecamargue.com

They do trips through the day, and occasionally have tours at nightfall, which would be amazing.  Details are on the website.

They also have a great little gift shop with lots of types of salt and salt-related tat to enjoy, which I gobbled up.  There is no cafe, so if you have to wait to do your tour and are hungry, you can get some limited (non-salt related) foods in the shop.

How To Get There

If you are going to the salt marsh by foot from the town of Aigues Mortes, be prepared for quite a walk.  When we visited, it was extremely, extremely hot, and took us longer than it would have done otherwise, and the route was unmarked, so I had to keep checking Googlemaps to check we were going in the right direction.  I found the lack of a clear path for pedestrians slightly bizarre, considering that it is one of the main reasons visitors come to the town.  But I also accept the possibility that we were being stupid, because we lose considerable brain capacity when it’s 40 degrees out.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, check out a map before going.

For information of how to get to Aigues Mortes itself, please check out this post.

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