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dispatches from europe: france (the camargue)

Sitting in a seedy-ish cafe on the outskirts of Arles drinking coffee and recharging my camera and laptop batteries is a welcome moment of relaxation. It’s all go go go, my European cycle touring style. ‘Stealth’ camping in these densely populated unfriendly ‘developed’ countries requires late stops and early starts and cheap eating means bleak windy excuses for picnics.

And I’ve been sleeping out, tentless, next to mosquito infested canals. But I can’t begin to explain how much I like sleeping on the ground just any old where – wind, rain, mosquitos – all of it good when every time you turn over you can open your eyes to the sky above. It is the very best kind of home there is.

Yesterday, I cycled across the Camargue, a swampy wetland, which is France’s and possibly all of Europe’s biggest ‘wilderness’ area. All sea walls and dykes to stop winter floods, crawling with people and crossed in a couple of hours, it’s something of a sorry kind of wilderness, but despite all that it does remain a huge nesting area for birds migrating between African wintering sites and European summering areas.

A little ornithological park I visit seems more zoo than genuine wildlife reserve with a series of dreary cages housing birds of prey, stonily unblinking owls and aloof eagles, so still and expressionless that it’s hard to believe they are breathing. The storks and herons and egrets are that used to people I could get close enough to clearly see the downy young in the nests.

And thousands of flamingos. Whoever would have imagined flamingos in the south of France? Not me. But there they are and they even have a nesting colony which I see later in the day in the distance in a wilder more inaccessible part of the nature reserve. But these ones in the park are unfazed by people and I can see the pupils of their beady little yellow eyes. They are weird ungainly birds walking around with their heads underwater sucking up stuff like demented aquatic hoovers. They are at their best when they fly, normally at dawn or sunset, in those long v-shaped lines, honking in melancholic tones with their long legs trailing behind them.

An ornithologist in the nature reserve gives me chocolate biscuits and water and listens to my stories. He is convinced I must be world famous for the simple act of riding a bike here and there. I am charmed by his attentions, even though in the end he says he can’t offer me a room in the lighthouse – yes, a real lighthouse! – for the night because he isn’t single. I mean, really! Who does he think he is? There are so many things wrong with his statement I can’t even muster a sigh but cycle off into the wind scoured dunes to look for somewhere out of the way to sleep.

And so that is how this morning I woke to a real Van Gogh sunrise. Truly. The clouds were exactly like that. I don’t know if it is a Van Gogh painting that I’ve ever seen or even exists and maybe if I hadn’t been 20 km outside of Arles I wouldn’t have seen it that way at all. But the clouds were crazy pink swirly curly lines, visibly brush stokes, and the poplars trees were waving back and forth against the wild sky and the canal was right there.

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