Pay a Visit to the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau
Come to the Camargue, she said
In the south of France, the Rhône river delta spreads out wide through reedy marshes, farmland and salt flats before flowing right into the Mediterranean. This region is called the Camargue. At once mythical and medieval, this beautiful area is home to cowboys, gypsies, black bulls, wild white horses and graceful pink flamingos. These are what we came to see. The Ornithological Park at Pont de Gau is a perfect place to experience the unique long-legged and pink feathered fowl up close and personal.
Ever since I was little, I’ve loved watching birds. This is decidedly due to the influence of my mom. She would track the seasons by which birds frequented her backyard feeders. I can tell you the difference between a chimney swift and a violet-green swallow, a towhee from a grosbeak and a titmouse from a chickadee, thanks to her. So when we were planning the south of France portion of our great European summer road trip this year, I put the pretty pink flamingos, famous in these parts, on our trip’s itinerary.
PARC ORNITHOLOGIQUE DU PONT DE GAU
With nearly 150 acres of protected marshland and four miles of pathways, there are plenty of places to look for flamingos at the Ornithological Park at Pont de Gau. Opened in 1949 when a local resident of the Camargue sought to create a small zoological park for people to enjoy the plethora of migrating birds that pause here each season. His son took over in the 1970s and expanded the park’s mission to include a rescue and rehabilitation center. Today, the experience of encountering migrating birds in their natural habitat and educating the public encourages conservation. Stop and take in the informative placards throughout the park.
The park is open every day except Christmas and costs €7,50 for adults and €4 for children between the ages of four and twelve. Much of the park is accessible and possible to navigate with wheelchairs and strollers.
No matter what time of year you pay a visit to the park, you will see birds in the waters and trees of these protected wetlands. A few birds can be found recuperating in aviaries near the main entrance, while the rest of the park is open to wild, nomadic and migrating species. This is not a zoo. There is no telling how many animals you’ll see on any given day.
Seasonal migrations at the Park
Like a giant protected pit stop, the Camargue bird park welcomes migrating birds flying north to breeding grounds come spring and summer. Some stay and nest right here around the fertile waters. Other species fly south to breeding grounds during colder months. Some flamingos are present here all year round but are most active and pinkest come winter when courting rituals are in full swing.
WHY ARE THEY PINK?
The long-legged birds we encountered this summer in the south of France were a pale blush pink. And contrary to popular belief – the flamingos here don’t get their pink coloring from consuming shrimp, but algae. Filter feeders much like a baleen whale, we watched as they quietly dipped their long necks down and put their heads fully under water. Sucking in the briny seawater to get the algae through special filtering systems in their big hooked beaks.
OTHER ANIMALS YOU’LL ENCOUNTER IN THE PARK
While flamingos are the most famous and flamboyant feathered residents in the Camargue, there are many more birds to see. Almost 350 species of fowl will fly through here each year. We saw tons of white egrets, blue herons, gulls, terns, ducks and little songbirds flitting through the trees. In other seasons you may find cranes, storks, kingfishers, falcons and more.
WHITE HORSES OF THE CAMARGUE
For thousands of years an ancient breed of horses have lived in the marshy wetlands of the Camargue. These white horses are said to be one of the oldest breeds in the world. We saw them in the far reaches of the park wandering and grazing, another icon of this area. Outside the park you’ll encounter many places on the road where you can take a ride on the iconic animals. We prefered to just witness them in the wild.
Explore nearby Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer
While in the area, don’t miss the nearby village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, only a five to ten minute drive from the Parc Ornithologique. Steeped in faith, this unique place pulls you right in between small alleys and shops and cafés. Legend and myth and Christianity mingle in the quirky seaside stop.
Shops selling special local sea salts, herbs de Provence and lavender soaps will beckon you to buy. We scooped up some of each. Cafés on the harbor hawked moules and frïtes (mussels and French fries) and had it not been so hot, that would have been where I’d stop to eat. Instead we sampled some ice cream and put our toes in the Mediterranean.
ÉGLISE SAINTES-MARIES-DE-LA-MER AND SAINT SARA
Before you meander on, step inside the Église Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the city’s sacred center. The church celebrates early Christian refugees for which the town takes its name. Stories vary depending on who and what you believe, but legends are strong down here. Don’t miss the crypt downstairs where you can get up close and personal with Sainte Sara, beloved patron saint of the Roma people. The clear devotion to her is moving. 50,000 gypsies make a pilgrimage every May for a giant feast and rituals to celebrate their beloved Sainte Sara.
WANDER THE MEDIEVAL CITY OF AIGUES-MORTES
Another gorgeous little find in this part of France is the well-preserved medieval city of Aigues-Mortes, which means “dead waters” in French. But this town is decidedly not dead in the middle of summer. Walk through the gate of this walled gem and find charming shops and little cafés lining the squares and streets. Pretty pastel homes with coordinating shutters and plenty of flowers make this place pop and balance any potential kitsch.
For an experience a little less touristy, stroll the ramparts around this historic town which costs €7,50. From here, you can look down on the little lanes full of visitors come summer and see about to the salt beds beyond the walls. Imagine the city as it was intended as a fortress for crusaders heading to the Holy Land.
GOOD TO KNOW
Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau
RD 570 Lieu dit Pont de Gau, 13460
Opening hours :
The Park’s reception office is open every day (except on December 25th)
From April 1st to September 30th – 9 am to 7 pm
From October 1st to March 31st – 10 am to 6 pm
→ Note: You may exit the park anytime after office is closed before sundown. We spent about 1.5 hours at the park.
Small café is open for refreshments from April to October. Picnics are welcomed and tables available. No pets allowed in park.
Adult | €7,50
Child (from 4-12 years old) | €5
Rental of binoculars |€5 (and you must leave identification.)
→ Note: Credit cards not accepted, only cash or check from a French bank.
Closest airports :
Montpelier-Mediteranée Airport | 50 kilometers, 40 minutes
Avignon-Provence Airport | 80 kilometers, 1 hour 20 minutes
Marseille Provence Airport | 105 kilometers, 1 hour 20 minutes
Nice Airport | 275 kilometers, 2 hours 47 minutes
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As part of a two-week road trip from Denmark to the south of France and back, we made a myriad of stops and accumulated a mass of memories. So much more to share. Stay tuned. Cheers from here. Come to the Camargue, she said.
Check out our stop in the Swiss Alps here.