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THE JEWEL OF THE CAMARGUE
Aigues-Mortes. Which - as any reputable scholar of Occitan will be quick to tell you, means Dead (or stagnant) Waters in English. One can hardly imagine those whose brief it is to come up with names for new towns and villages rushing to emulate the nomenclature of this stunning fortified town situated in the department of the Gard. How on earth would today’s spin doctors and PR people cope with this sign: ‘Welcome to Stagnant Waters – Enjoy your Stay’ But then again Aigues-Mortes never was designed as a tourist destination and besides; its uninviting name has hardly prevented it from thriving for the best part of one thousand years. But the writer Alexandre Dumas surely struck the perfect balance, as one might well expect, between hype and history when he described this uniquely attractive part of the Camargue thus: "Our eyes set upon Aigues-Mortes . . . a jewel carefully set in a case of stone."
It was not that I was trying to avoid Aigues-Mortes’ rich and varied history – perish the thought – but I nevertheless managed to convince myself that a good place to kick off a visit would be at the Mairie, situated in the heart of the old town directly on the Place St. Louis. One mention of France Magazine and it was announced that no lesser figure than Monsieur le Maire himself, René Jeannot, would be delighted to receive me in his offices on the first floor. It was therefore somewhat disconcerting to notice, upon climbing the Mairie’s magnificent marble staircase, that René Jeannot’s name happened to appear on a plaque. Disconcerting because the inscribed person had apparently sacrificed his life for France at the tender age of thirty during the course of the First World War, one of dozens of Aigues-Mortais to have done so. A rather selfish thought hit home: this did not augur well for my interview.
“Aha” Monsieur Jeannot said upon seeing the confused look on my face, “that was my uncle – after whom I apparently took my name.” He then launched into what was obviously a well-rehearsed Mayoral patter – but it was nonetheless sincere for that.
“It’s a great honour and joy to be Mayor of this town. Quite simply it gets to your guts. You can only be Mayor of Aigues-Mortes if you are in love with Aigues-Mortes, which is most definitely the case for me. I was born in a house directly on the central square and within a few metres of the statue of the good King Louis himself. My self-imposed brief for the last ten years has been to develop and expand the town, but whilst carefully keeping its unique atmosphere.”
He has done an impressive job to date. The town owes its very existence though, as the Mayor is quick to point out, to King Louis IX, better known as Saint Louis. (Of course Louisville doesn’t have quite the same ring about it, does it, without wishing to offend our many American readers in the state of Kentucky!) King Louis decided to establish Aigues Mortes in 1240, in order to have the use of a port with access to the Mediterranean. Pourquoi? In order to take advantage of the trading opportunities which unlimited and permanent access to both Italy and the Orient would confer. Not to mention as a point of departure for the crusades. Of course old Dead Waters, with its marshlands, swamps and seething mosquito breeding grounds, was not a terribly attractive proposition to the locals – so King Louis wasted no time in granting the town an entire charter of privileges exempting it from taxes and a number of other equally attractive perks. Louis’s successors continued his work – and it was in fact the Kings Philippe III and IV who saw to it that the town’s impressive ramparts be built. This is the unforgettable sight which greets visitors to Aigues-Mortes today – the fabulously formidable and forbidding fortifications of walls, towers and gates – all of which pay tribute to the skills of the royal engineers in the last 13th century. The outer wall forms an irregular quadrilateral flanked by fifteen other strictures – ten gates and five towers. Between the defensive works, the curtain is formed from a wall 11 metres high and 2.5 metre thick. The inside of the cut stone walls is filled with stone chippings, lime and sand – the material used is a yellow ochre conchiferous limestone which probably came from quarries situated between Beaucaire and Montpellier, from where it would have been transported by boat.
Two crusades, both led by Luis IX, set off from Aigues-Mortes – one to Egypt in 1248, the other to Tunisia in 1270. Although the King died of illness just six weeks after setting sail from Aigues-Mortes that summer, he had succeeded in establishing the reputation of his town. Maybe it was as well that King Louis – his statue dominates the central place today – did not live to see the decline of his town – for once Provence had become part of France in 1481, Marseille came to replace Aigues-Mortes (in any event the town had ceased to grow for its port had silted up) with the town losing much of its strategic value. But it does not take too much a stretch of the imagination to recapture its ephemeral period of fame.
It’s a funny old word crusade. Weren’t these people the Christian faith what the likes of Bin Laden are to Islam? Violent fundamentalists who think nothing of snuffing out the lives of those who might happen to disagree with their take on the world?
“No, not at all”, says Monsieur Jeannot, formerly a history and geography teacher back in the days when the town’s College was situated intra-muros. “Its no good looking at history through 21st century eyes”, he says quite rightly. “The crusades were first and foremost a desire to set free the tomb of Christ which had been taken by the Turks and the Ottomans. So that was a kind of liberation, if you will.”
Of course the Tour de Constance is not to be missed. It is a most impressive sight. But not laden with happy memories, alas, especially for the long-suffering Protestants of France. The Edict of Nantes, promulgated by Henry IV in 1598 and which recognised Protestantism in the French kingdom was revoked – as every French school boy or girl will tell you – in 1685 by Louis XIV. There followed a period of the most awful repression marked in the Languedoc and in the Cévennes by the Camisards War. In 1686, the Constance Tower, in common with the town’s other towers, also became a prison for those Huguenots who refused to convert to Catholicism. Abraham Mazel, a Camisard leader, managed to escape by loosening a stone from an arrow slit – but of course most did not. Like the medieval cité of Carcassonne, it comes as no surprise to learn that Aigues-Mortes has been used dozens of times for film sets – and little use of the imagination is required to regress back through the centuries: it is of course the charm of visiting the town today, touristy though it be. All of this rich and fabulous history set against the backdrop of the Camargue, famed for its white horses, pink flamingos and varied wildlife – all of which means that a visit to Aigues-Mortes is an absolute must if you happen to be in the region. A walking tour of the ramparts is also highly recommended.
“Rumour has it that you are something of a crusader yourself”, I comment, somewhat cheekily to the Mayor.
“That’s right”, replies Monsieur Jeannot, without the slightest hesitation. “I am embarking upon my own crusade now. My own crusade for Aigues-Mortes. I believe that a crusade should be one of fraternity, of openness, of cooperation – to be open to the Mediterranean and at peace with the outside world.”
Far be it from me to attribute words to his His Royal Highness, King Louis. But I went away with a sneaking suspicion that the good Saint Louis would have embraced Monsieur Jeannot’s current crusade for Aigues-Mortes wholeheartedly.
The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at www.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.
Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.