On Thursday I joined a busload of Bréau pensioners on a day trip to Aigues Mortes. I went because it must be at least 40 years since I have been to this massive medieval port in the Camargue. I also wanted to support the organisers of the trip – le Club Lou Rossignol (Margaret is one of the three office holders, though sadly unable to come this time). The club has done a lot especially for pensioners who cannot do trips under their own steam. I did enjoy aspects of the day, but it was also a bit of a disappointment.
The two-hour bus trip wasn’t as bad as I feared. I enjoyed eavesdropping the conversations around me, invariably in broad Cévenol accents, and reflected on how often the talk is of connections, family connections, who is married to whose niece and where they are now living.
We then had four hours on a péniche, a canal barge, cruising round the network of canals surrounding Aigues-Mortes. The mistral (the northerly wind the Camargue is famed for) was blowing violently and I was one of the very few to spend two hours on the deck. In my innocence I had thought we would be going through one of the Camargue’s famous nature reserves; instead the canals are cut through an unspectacular very flat landscape, with few distinctive features. The only stop was to visit a bull farm – a predictable tourist event.
Lunch was down below and I was at a table of six, of whom I knew three casually. One – Ghislaine – retired last year from the Chataigniers, so I know her well over the years! They were all very friendly, but it proved an exhausting experience. The four other women led most of the conversation, while I was opposite the one husband, who spoke a particularly incomprehensible local dialect. The noise of about a hundred pensioners (there was another group on the boat too) meant my attempt to follow the conversation was challenging. Still, they were very friendly and welcoming and the food (inevitably featuring an excellent taureau stew) was good.
You have to hand it to the Cévenols: they have far more stamina than me. The table next to us was particularly raucous, average age well into the eighties. One was the former mayor of Bréau, René Masseport, who was given a present in honour of his ninetieth birthday. His good friend, Lulu, sitting at the next table must now be 93, still sprightly, though no longer entertaining us with his splendid repertoire of songs, many in Occitan.
In the afternoon it was free time, to visit Aigues-Mortes. I marched off, intending start with a circuit o the ramparts – but gave up after a while because of the really powerful wind. A shame really, as the thirteenth century city walls – over 1.5 km in length is the most spectacular feature of this town. Aigues-Mortes was built on the marshlands by the French king, Philippe III, as a port from which to embark on the crusades. It only declined in importance towards the end of the 15th century, when Marseille officially became part of France and the main Mediterranean port.
Next on my list was a visit to the Tour de Constance, all that remains of the medieval castle of the king. I wanted to see where protestant women, including those from Bréau caught secretly praying up at Mouzoules, were imprisoned. For, despite Aigues-Mortes being a centre for the Protestants the Tour de Constance had been turned into a prison. Again I was frustrated, as the lift refused to stop at the second floor, so I never saw the prison. Still, I did get to the top of the tower and admire the splendid view over the medieval streets and to the salt dunes in the distance. They are stunningly pink, apparently it is the light shining on algae in the salt.
The visit took me longer than planned as, despite my queries at the ticket office, there were several difficult flights of steps without railings (I have become sadly anxious about steps). I thought I had half an hour left to visit the town itself. But no, I got a frantic phone call asking where I was. I had not heard the announcement that the free time had been cut by half an hour. So embarrassed, I climbed onto the bus, apologising to people for holding them up. Nobody minded, they all smiled sympathetically. I suspect it was just the driver wanting to get home.