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krisek Aigues-Mortes - A travel report by Krys
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Aigues-Mortes,  France - flag France -  Languedoc-Roussillon
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krisek's travel reports

Bulls running on the streets of Aigues-Mortes.

  6 votes
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This medieval little town on the border between Languedoc and Provence is magical. Its almost entirely continuous city wall surrounding the core centre is a sight in its own right. Its bull festival is another. A great place for a lazy afternoon.

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When I was visiting my friends in Montpellier, and one of them had to figure out how to interpret the communication patterns of an killer whale family for her PhD dissertation, the other took me on a small tour in the neighbourhood. I knew little about the area. I expected it to be full of superb scenery, historic places, magical cities, picturesque little villages. It is all true. But when I was taken to Aigues-Mortes, I was gobsmacked! It appeared to me almost as if it was purposely built for a medieval film set about creepy little town full of dark secrets, sleazy traitors, papal conspiracies, and this poor young couple, whose parents would not give them consent to their marriage. And yet, it was real! A true model of a town from Middle Ages, complete with incredibly thick walls surrounding the core, massive and austere gates and huge watchtowers sticking out above all the rest.

The town inside the walls did not disappoint either. The narrow, one way, lanes lined with little shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, and households, whose little windows with their colourful wooden shutters, complemented the picture of a mysterious town, which must be hiding deepest darkest secrets from the centuries ago. And there would be plenty of reasons to hide them. For this town was notorious once.

Marius Caius has been mentioned in the literature as the possible founder of the city around 102 BC, but the first document mentioning a place called Ayga Mortas (dead waters) dates back only to the 10th century. Three centuries later, when Louis IX of France rebuilt the town to create a port, it was France's only Mediterranean harbour at that time. However, since the town was not on the coast, the nearby lagoons and many of the river estuaries, had to be connecting Aigues-Mortes with the sea. For a port, from which several crusades departed, must have been a witness to all sorts of shenanigans, and home of all sort of characters.

Favourite spots:
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The Constance Tower built in 1254 on the former site of Tower Matafère, (apparently built by Charlemagne around 790 AD), to house the garrison of the king, was my favourite sight. Its diameter is 22 meters, its height at the top of the lantern - 33 meters, the thickness of the walls at the base - 6 meters! The guards' room was on the ground floor with access protected by a portcullis. At the center of the room, a circular aperture provided access to the basement, which served as a pantry and ammunition storage. On the first floor, was the access to the Hall of Knights. Its structure was similar to the guardroom. In this room, Marie Durand, one of the most famous Protestants was imprisoned for 38 years in the 18th century. Above the Hall of Knights, one could access the terrace which offered a great view of the entire town (truly magnificent!) and the surroundings - a clear testimony that the tower was an important part of the defense system, a magnificent and mighty watchtower.

What's really great:
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The tower, apparently, was built first and designed as a part of the larger structure, which might have been the castle of the king Louis IX (aka Saint Louis, the only canonised king of France, by the way). It is the only remaining part of that structure today, and it does stand out from all other towers. Then came the walls, which stand intact until this day. The 1,650 metres of the walls, although built in two stages, took remarkably little time to erect, in space of approximately 40 years, and yet it took two different rulers to complete them, the son and the grandson of Louis IX, actually. The walls surround the town completely in almost ideal rectangular shape.

The state of preservation of Aigues-Mortes is phenomenal. Not only are the walls in a great shape but the town inside them look like they had not changed for centuries. Also, some of the lanes in the city were humming with shoppers and visitors, but just a few yards away, there were lanes that beamed with tranquility.

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The main sight of Aigues-Mortes was the entire old town itself. It would be hard to single out individual features of it, although I think I already have... The old town was rather small, just about 300 yards by 600 yards. So, perhaps it would be too much to expect too many monuments from this tiny place.

Anyway, it would be completely impossible to miss the old city walls! They were seriously spectacular and exceptionally photogenic, although when I visited (on a couple of occasions) weather was not great at all. It was not raining that much, but I did wish I could have taken better pictures.

The giant gates, which somewhat interrupted the continuous flow of the walls, however could potentially be Aigues-Mortes' 'sights'. Each one of them was different from the other, and seemed bigger and more impenetrable than the other, with thicker walls and smaller passage underneath. Apart from that, within the walls, there was a small church, with Romanesque facade that looked truly old.

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Inside the city walls, there were eight hotels - from east to west towards the Constance Tower: La Villa Mazarin***; Les Arcades***; Chez Carriere**; L'Hermitage***; Les Templiers***; Le Victoria**; Le Saint Louis***; and the closest to the tower - Les Remparts***. Some managed to squeeze swimming pools inside their courts, and the 3* establishments charged a range of €60 - €120 per room per night, and the cheaper ones charged as much the upper end 2* ones.

After a very short consideration, we decided not to stay, despite the festival and the Camargue Bull shows. None of the hotels had vacancy, and all other places were not exactly a walking distance away from the old town. Although I am sure it would have been great to spend a night in this mysterious and exceptionally spectacular town. So, a word of warning - if one wants to see the festival and the bulls, make sure you make a booking in advance. Almost all of them have websites publishing their current prices and phone numbers.

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Aigues-Mortes would not win any awards for nightlife. There seemed to be no clubs or discos in town, although some of the cafes and restaurants in town put on some live music. Some of it was more of folk rather than dance, or more fit for dining (although some of it would work better if it was not there at all!). The cafes at the Saint Louis Square were best in creating some sort of party atmosphere, particularly as they had patios extending into the square.

However, I discovered that in the town of Vauvert, there was this nightclub called La Churascaïa, which guaranteed a party all night long from Easter to October, and it had patio and a garden, which was a bliss - a major contrast to a smoky interior. Of course, Montpellier was almost the same distance away, where there was a myriad of quality places to go out at night, and if Vauvert, in the middle of nowhere, did not have this extra carnival quality, it would not be able to compete at all.

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There were a few spots along the walls, which allowed for them to be climbed, however many were just blind steps leading to nowhere. I could not tell which ones the right ones. And since I was not sure if it was allowed to climb the walls, I took a very short hike, just to have a look at the preparations for the bulls' presentation.

There was a little square within the old town named after Saint Louis, complete with cafes-come-restaurants, which was a perfect place to catch one's breath, have a drink or snack, sit back and relax. Even when it rained, the owners extended the canopies and marquees above the tables, so it was still pleasant to sit outside.

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All of the three star hotels in the old town had restaurants, obviously with Les Arcades, based in the 16th century building came recommended, but since we were not staying at any of the hotels, we decided to look for alternatives. One of them was Le Bateau Ivre, on a boat, but it looked to posh, and we thought it would be great to eat within the walled old town. A great looking steak restaurant, Le Cafe Bouzigues, was actually serving dishes made from the great Camargue Bull... tempting, but we thought that we should have given them a break in the time of the festival.

After a couple of tours around the old town, we narrowed it down to three: La Camargue (apparently, the oldest restaurant in town, with €35 set menus); Le Cafe du Commerce (specialising in fish, meat of the bull, and shellfish - a range of set menus ranging from €18 - €30); and the next door L'Eden (€20 three course set menu with choice from 5 to 6 positions in each course). We ended up in the middle one. It was great!

Other recommendations:
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About half of all Aigues-Mortes restaurants publish their offers, including their complete menus, on their websites. I checked them recently, and it appears that the prices have not changed at all, since my last visit.

If the incredible features of this magnificent town itself are not enough to secure a visit, and one would want another reason to get there, for example to see the Camargue Bulls, then during the spring and summer months, there are a few bull presentations. They tend to happen every three or four weeks. I was lucky when I came, or perhaps my friend knew what was going on, as I had a chance to see these gripping animals.

It is definitely worth investigating when they are happening. In addition to that, there are a few interesting festivals, one of which enacts some of the historical events dating back to times of Saint Louis; historical costumes, knights on horses, etc. It is called Saint Louis Festival, and it typically happens in the third week of August.

Published on Monday May 25th, 2009

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Sat, May 30 2009 - 10:06 PM rating by bootlegga

Sounds like a great place!

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