I had never heard of French cowboys before I visited the Camargue in south-east France. It was one of the last happy trips that my ex -husband and I had together. We joined my family on a barge and traveled on the canals in Provence in the European summer of 2003. This was before my sisters had children – my middle sister was pregnant with her first child. We commandeered the barge, shopped in local stores along the way and cooked for ourselves. It is very funny going back to your family unit when you are an adult. I, for one, thought that I was all grown up and over my childhood wounds. But it didn’t take long before I was three years old again, crying, and being told by my mother not to fight with my sisters. I had a rather scary incident with a bicycle. I found out, that holiday, that I had never learned to ride a bicycle properly. I got on the bike, lost control of the peddles (I’m not sure how) and went hurtling towards a large dam – my brother-in law and my ex-husband running after me shouting “Brake, brake!”. We ate a lot that holiday. Delicious baguettes and mouldy cheese washed down with French, red wine. My pregnant sister and I nicked grapes from a local vineyard and escaped, running and laughing, all the way back to the barge.
But the highlight of that trip was the Gardians of the Camargue.
The Gardians of the Camargue are part of a Brotherhood which was formed in the 1500s. They are the protectors of the wild, Camargue region which is famous for its white horses, bulls and flamingos. In this part of France, they have bull fights, but the bulls are not killed. The Gardians look like cowboys, with their panama hats and waistcoats. I should say that cowboys look like them as the Gardians have been around for longer.
The Camargue is one of the most beautiful areas of the world that I have ever travelled to. It is 300,000,00 acres of perfectly, preserved marshland filled with groups of magnificent pink flamingos and wild, white horses which run in herds in the water. One of the closest towns is Arles, where Van Gogh lived and painted for a while. Many of his paintings are of the surrounding countryside and the town itself. Arles is an ancient city with a Roman amphitheatre and wide, cobbled streets. We stayed in a little bed and breakfast in Arles and visited the Camargue in day trips.
There are many festivals in summer which is when we visited. We attended a festival at Sainte- Maries- de- la- Mare. This is the town where the two Mary’s, who witnessed the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, are supposed to have arrived after setting sail from Egypt to escape persecution. They arrived with their black servant, Sara – who is, interestingly, the Saint of the French gypsies or Roma. It is believed that it is they who brought Christianity to France.
We joined a crowd of excited people who had lined up on a street to wait for and cheer the Gardians as they rode. The atmosphere was electric. There is something very special about being part of a group of (good) people waiting and watching. And then, there they were, riding on their white horses, wearing their hats and waistcoats, to shouting crowds. I was one of the loudest shouters in the crowd. They were magnificent. It was thrilling. My mother turned to my ex-husband, pointed at me, and said “Look at her face!” which must have been red with excitement. I have a poster of that festival on my wall in my apartment. It is a constant reminder of that day and that time.
The Gardians of the Camargue are a dying breed. Economic and social pressures are making it harder for them to maintain their lifestyle. There are, apparently, only 40 of them left. But I like the whole thought of them. I like that they were called to protect that astounding area in France. I like the way they dress, the way the people adore them, that they have a calling. In this crazy, brutal world, the Gardians of the Camargue, ride. That is a good thing.