Got to love European airlines – our little over an hour flight from Munich to Nice came with decent complimentary wine, beer, and the usual drinks along with smoked salmon and potato salad. And since Sylvie doesn’t eat fish, James made out like a first class passenger. Not bad. On arrival, we went to the vaccination clinic at the Nice airport to inquire about getting our rabies shots and found that, according to them, we didn’t need them (mainly for Africa and Asia), and, even if we did, they were out of it! Guess that solved that. Sylvie’s mom & Jean, her partner, greeted us with hugs and then took us to get our car at Europcar (yes Europcar again! We had pre-booked from the US). So far our Austrian vignette fine hasn’t showed its ugly face.
After resting for a couple of days, we took off from Grasse for the Camargue, a marshy plain wilderness area located in the South of France, 3 hours west of the French Riviera. The Camargue is known for its marshes, many bird species – pink flamingos especially- insects (including ferocious mosquitoes) horses, bulls, and salt ponds. It’s a very unique area. We stayed in a stable turned into a hotel- sans hay- in the cute seaside town of Saintes Marie de la mer. It was situated on a reserve, complete with a Camargue horse that visited us every morning.
We strolled on the beach and through the cute cobblestone old town, trying on some typical hats and Sylvie looking with envy at the riding boots and tack. Unfortunately, it is too heavy to put in our luggage and definitely not in the budget! That evening, we took a drive to the outskirts of town taking in the beautiful landscape, the “wild” horses, and a grand sunset.
Horseback riding on a typical Camargue horse is a must for any trip to the area and it was definitely on the agenda after seeing so many horses in all the countries we had been to but not riding. The best part about riding there is that you usually ride very good horses, can gallop on the beach, and really get to see the countryside. The price is decent too. So the next morning we reserved a 2 hour ride for that afternoon at a recommended outfit and visited the bird reserve/sanctuary in the morning. We were not disappointed and got close to pink flamingoes, herons, egrets, storks and other birds. We got a kick out of the flamingoes awkward landing preparation with feet out.
At 2pm, we showed up at the stables for our ride and this is where the fun began. Sylvie had asked many times to be given a spirited horse, wanting to make sure of a good ride. We both got matched up with our horses but 5 minutes later Sylvie was asked to switch horses as the one given to her seemed to really act out so she was to ride a different one which she was told was also good and usually the guide’s horse.We set off with our group of 10, mostly French, but also 2 other Americans from Santa Cruz. Our group had all levels of riders from beginners to advanced and we started to wonder how some of the galloping sections would work.
After 30 minutes we reached the beach where the first gallop was to occur. The guide asked who wanted to gallop and about half of us opted in, including James and Sylvie, a French couple, and the 2 other Americans.We were to go in groups of 2 starting with Sylvie and the French guy as those were the most advanced horses. The guide was to wait for us at the end of the beach with the rest of the non-galloping group and signal when we could go. At the last minute before the guide left, she turned to Sylvie and said “by the way, Lupio (Sylvie’s horse) is going to take off like a bomb, he’s really fast, so make sure you hold him back but not too hard as he tends to rear up”. Sylvie was suddenly apprehensive and boy could the horse feel it. Was this their pay back for Sylvie insisting over and over to get a “good” horse? The guide signaled the first group up and sure enough Sylvie’s horse took off like a bullet. Sylvie was scared to death as she could not hold him back and saw herself uncontrollably racing down the beach, leaving the French guy behind and the group watching in horror. Thanks to a combination of horse riding experience and the horse wanting to join the other horses at the group waiting, she managed to stay on and stop it. It had been a long time since she had been scared on a horse! The rest of the group galloped without any problems. After this little episode, Sylvie was given yet a different horse – not as fast.
20 minutes later we reached a different beach for our second gallop and this is where things took a turn for the worse.We were told we could race each other on the beach and the same 6 of us opted in. The guide even put her bet on James’ horse to win the race which now made James apprehensive. We were given the signal and all took off at the same time but Sylvie and James galloping ahead (and for the record it was a tie – OK may be James won by a nose) . We suddenly noticed the guide started to gallop towards us , and then passed by us without talking. We turned around and to our surprise, there was a horse galloping without a rider. The American woman had fallen off. She laid in the sand, not moving. She had fallen over the horse during the gallop and none of us (including her husband) had noticed and continued galloping. We all turned around and headed towards her. Some tourists on the beach were already attending to her. We wondered how hurt she was. Since the American couple did not speak French and the guide not much English, Sylvie was put in charge of translating. They decided to call an ambulance as she could not move (her back and chest hurt), let alone get back on a horse.
We waited for over half an hour for the emergency crew with the guide making several calls trying to direct them to our location. They finally showed up in a 4X4, with the ambulance waiting one km away as it was not equipped to drive on the beach. After the guide made sure everything would be taken care of, she headed back with the group (and they still galloped once more) and Sylvie stayed behind with the Americans to assist with the translating with the local firefighters who had responded to the emergency.Thank god the American couple did not speak French as the firefighters were highly unprofessional and inappropriate making jokes such as how the woman looked like a wrapped Christmas candy (they had put the emergency blanket on her as she was cold) among other things! She was supposed to get airlifted out by helicopter but we soon learned that the helicopter for some reasons could not make it. Sylvie really started to get annoyed and mad at them for the lack of organization, care and professionalism. They just did not seem to care!! After another 15 minutes, they decided they would have to carry her to the ambulance at the end of the beach on a stretcher but were reluctant to do so supposedly because of her weight (she was not that heavy at all, they were just being lazy) ! Poor American woman -Sylvie definitely did not translate all the conversation.
They called for reinforcement and took turns (and lots of breaks) carrying her to the ambulance. They planned to drive her to the main town of Arles about 40 minutes away to the hospital. Her husband and Sylvie got dropped off in the 4X4 back to the stables where the rest of the group had just arrived. James’ ride back was uneventful, thank goodness. The pictures you see on this post were taken for the couple’s insurance and memory purposes with their agreement. We emailed them but have not heard back, so we hope she’s OK and that they will keep a good memory of the Camargue despite this. Riding is risky and apparently accidents happen often every summer in the Camargue as people think they can hop on horses with shorts and flip-flops (this was not the case here, but she was not very advanced) and race down the beach. France puts the responsibility on the rider (as it should be) and it is up to you to know your limits. No paperwork waiver is signed (unlike in the US), and you control your ride deciding to just walk, trot or gallop. We did enjoy the Camargue very much and will keep a good memory of our ride. Thank goodness we just came away with sore legs and a sore upper back for Sylvie from trying to stop her “bullet”horse!