Dead Water

The water in the moat surrounding the old city of Aigues Mortes is neon green in color. Farther out is the marsh; it is  pink. Ironically, the name Aigues Mortes means “Dead Waters” in French, but it is the water that brought and has kept the village alive.

The Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes
The Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes and the city’s neon-green moat

My day trip to Aigues Mortes was one of my favorite adventures from our month-long home base of Montpellier. The village offers everything I love: great food, history, climbing up things, and the color pink!

Situated approximately 20 km east of the Montpllier, the completely walled-in medieval town of Aigues Mortes is an hour-long bus ride along the sea from Montpellier. There is one lone bus going to and returning from the city each day, with a five-hour-long  break in between for exploration, plenty of time to take in the city’s main sites, and at only 1.60 euros per direction with Herault Transport, it is a transportation steal.

At first, the notion of dead waters does not seem to mesh with the charm and beauty of the city. Such death, or in another sense, stagnancy, is, however, a critical element to the city’s survival and flourishing.  Since Roman times the city has been one of the world’s largest harvesters of sea salt; the pink marshes surrounding the city are so colored and prized for their sea salt, which requires little water movement for the dehydration of the salt pans. The salt pans are still in operation today and can be visited on a tour. Unfortunately, the tour is too long to fit into the few hour window between buses, so I was unable to get very close to the pans as they are separated from the village by a small canal, which can be seen in the photograph below.

Pink salt pans of Aigues Mortes as seen from the village ramparts
Pink salt pans of Aigues Mortes as seen from the village ramparts

In the 8th century, Charlemagne began to fortify the city for the protection of the salt mine workers.  Five hundred years later, Louis IX made the city his portal to the Medeterranean, using it as his launch point for two crusades. His successor completed the task of completely fortifying the town, and the ramparts still exist today. In Aigues Mortes, there are no signs prohibiting the walking on the walls like in so many other French villages, and, in fact, for a few euros, it is possible to complete the entire mile-long circuit around the town from the unique vantage point above the tiled rooftops.

The old town of Aigues Mortes from its ramparts
The old town of Aigues Mortes from its ramparts
The ramparts of Aigues Mortes
The ramparts of Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes also has several interesting churches, two of which are run by hood-wearing penitents belonging to the grey and white brotherhoods. Quite impressive is the stucco alterpiece of the chapel of the grey penitents. Also interesting are the modern art (polk dot-esque) stained glass windows and other modern aspects of the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons; the contrast of the modern art against the centuries-old stones adds an interesting element to the otherwise ancient feeling of the village.

Altarpiece of the Chapel of the Grey Penitents in Aigues Mortes
Altarpiece of the Chapel of the Grey Penitents in Aigues Mortes
Interior of the The Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons, which predates the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Interior of the The Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons, which predates the ramparts of Aigues Mortes

The village is charming. Laid out in a grid with a square in the center dedicated to Louis IX, it is possible to walk from one side to the other in a matter of minutes. The village is full of shops and delicious restaurants, and I spent a leisurely French lunch with a very inexpensive menu of melon wrapped in thin-sliced dried meat from one of the areas famous camargue bulls (“This bull’s horns point up, but the Spanish bull’s horns point straight,” the garcon explained,) moules frites marinieres or mussels in seawater (as far as I can tell) and fries together with a few glasses of lovely white wine and finished with ice cream and an American coffee at one of the little restaurants. Eating meals alone is becoming a situation I am growing more and more comfortable with and coming to even enjoy. Whereas before, I always felt as though I stood out when alone, I now enjoy the time to taste my food more deeply, people watch or read a book without feeling the need to make conversation with my dining partner. The meal in Aigues Mortes was one of the best of the solo meals during Montpellier month.

After my lunch, I spent a few hours exploring the Tower of Constance and walking the perimeter of the city along the ramparts and through the several towers before heading outside the walls to try and get closer to the pink waters. When that proved impossible, I settled for exploring the vineyard just outside the city walls. Though fall had not yet come to southern France, the vineyard leaves were beginning to turn beautiful autumnal shades. After that it was a rush to a camargue-speciaizing boulangerie to buy some bull saucisson for the Frenchman before hopping back onto the only bus back to Montpellier in just the nick of time.

This coming weekend we will be visiting France’s most famous walled city, Carcassonne, with the Frenchman’s father and step-mother, and I am looking forward to seeing how it compares with Aigues Mortes.

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Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
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Aigues Mortes

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