Oh la la, what a place, honestly, nothing else like it in Europe………………the country house farmhouse itself is upmarket luxury all the way and to have the addition of the authentic lifestyle riding of the Gardian (French Cowboys) on the locally bred Camargue horses,………………genuinely it does not really get better than this for a cultural horsey adventure in Europe.
We had been working with our partners in the Camargue for many years and it had been test ridden at the beginning of Zara’s Planet – I have had so many of my clients visit and come back absolutely buzzing about the experience, after 10 years, I thought, hell, I need to go see this place for myself – bags packed and flight to Marseille, hired a car (brought a horsey girlfriend for company) and we took the scenic route to the country farmhouse, slap bang in the heart of the Camargue to stay for a few nights and ride.
The countryside as you can imagine is flat, this is a wetland area, which flows down to the sea – on top of the horsey interest, there is a huge amount of birdlife to be enjoyed, over 350 species of resident and migratory birds. Pink Flamingos of course, Eurasian Spoonbill, White Egret and many more – if this is an interest for you it’s worth booking a guide to take you out – might even be a trip to take your non-riding partner, as they will be as enthralled with the birdlife as you are with the horses!
We arrived in the evening, as we drove up the long and perfectly manicured drive-way we started to get excited as to what would appear in front of us as our accommodation for the next few days and we were not disappointed! A gorgeous, renovated French style farm, with all its original outbuildings, also renovated or in the process of being upgraded. As we pulled up to the parking area, a lovely young man, came to the car and helped us with our bags into reception – which unlike most hotels, was not as you come through the front door, no, this was in a very discreet corner up a stair to the right, very cool I thought, very personal and not at all intimidating, we were greeted like friends by Patricia, my contact and partner I chat to most weeks about our bookings, great to meet her in the flesh for the first time and she was awesome!
Soon after all our chit chat and welcomes we were shown to our beautiful room in the main house, proper old French style, immaculate, with family antique furniture, massive ensuite and as expected a supremely comfortable big bed! Oh boy, already feeling spoilt and happy. A light cold plate arrived with a bottle of wine (we had missed supper) which we munched on the bed, felt very naughty, white French bread, butter and cheese, yum, falling asleep with smiles on our faces, excited for our morning ride with the Gardians!
Breakfast – well all the food really here is of the best quality, where they can it is from their own garden and failing that it is ALL locally sourced. The food here is a big part of the trip, the breakfasts were just glorious, every little detail of everything on the tables was beyond……………a selection of freshly squeezed juices, bowls of fresh berries, local yoghurts and crème freche to pour over the home made granola, selections of French breads, with cheeses, sliced meats and in addition you could order a hot dish, like eggs and bacon. The coffee, strong and robust, everything was just perfection……….!
It was hard not to go in hard at breakfast, as we were riding that morning and never a good idea to have a full stomach on a new horse, should it be fresh! The stables themselves are back down the driveway and across the road. If you have a car you can drive, it’s less than a 5 minutes, but you could also bike it over or some-one from the hotel will drop you by car. As we drove over, on the left a field full of the most beautiful white Camargue mares and foals, were hanging out, relaxed and happy, swishing away flies and munching on the grass. The yard isn’t huge, pretty much the horses live out all year round, but a barn with a few stalls should there be any sick horses that need attention.
We were met by our friendly guide and Gardian at the yard, who looked fantastic, dressed up in his authentic Gardian shirt – there is a style to being a gardian, they have these beautiful, locally made shirts for both men and woman, and scarfs, which come in all different patterns (reminded me of our own Paisley Pattern designs from home) – of course one had to buy one and the next day when we visited the nearby town of Arles, having lunch on the balcony of a hotel overlooking the main street, we spotted a great shop selling all the Gardian clothes!
Our horses were ready and saddled and on we hopped for a 2 hour ride through the Camargue, accompanied by him and another guest from the hotel who was a good rider. Within seconds I was relaxed, my horse was forward going, light in the mouth and chilled – this was going to be fun!
Straight away we were out in the wetlands, spotting bulls and lots of birds, when we hit water logged ground, our Gardian asked if we wanted to gallop! Yes was the answer and off we sped, kicking up mud and water on the way, lots of laughter and fun – but why did I wear my white shirt…………………..! The next couple of hours went fast, as we traversed the marshes, and our Gardian gave us a show of his expertise skills, when we hit upon some cattle, he darted from one side to the next, gallops and turns in between it was quite a sight – we were off to work with the Gardians on our last day and if this is what we were going to do, I was very excited!
After our exhilarating ride, our Gardian showed us around the place, we checked out the tack, which is all handmade, bearing the initials of Frederique’s late father’s name Jaques Bon (we would ride with Frederic the next day and hear his story) – the saddles were about £5k each, but genuinely you could see all the work that had been handcrafted into each one. Pernod was also on offer, of which we accepted of course and went for a further wander to discover a huge round arena with seating up all the sides – this is where they have their Gardian festivals, dotted throughout the year, where they invite guests and locals to visit and watch Gardians working with the bulls, branding a bull and lunch, followed by some more fun arena games – if you can book your trip to coincide with this, we think it is an exclusive cultural event not to be missed!
For lunch that day, we decided to drive 5 minutes up the road to the local village of Sambuc, the restaurant there is packed out with locals and we were treated to a set menu of local delights! Raw vegetables, with an anchovy dipping sauce, followed by tender rich beef in a thick gravy and ending in local cheeses with honey! Minimal price and accompanied by different wines which our friendly waited recommended.
Afterwards we had a walk about the village, it was perfect, a little local shop, plus a bar which we checked out to have a coffee, again really friendly and lovely place to visit, if you fancied a couple of drinks before dinner back at the farmhouse!
Our afternoon was spent round the pool, it was glorious, sun was out – and the loungers, what can I say felt like I was lying on a bed, luxury linen mattress and soft towels, added to the impression that this place is all about the detail!
I had heard and read so many good things about the evening dinner here – a real event, not to be missed, and we were not let down. The dining rooms, of which there are two and lead into each other, personal without being on top of each other were full – it seemed like locals were visiting as well as the hotel residents. Beautifully set tables, attentive staff all gathered the momentum of the ambience, and when the food hit – wow! A simple but ever so effective start to the meal of vegetables, individually placed on the plate, a swipe of sauce with the humble potatoe being the star – I know a potatoe I hear your say, but it was creamy, melting in the mouth and the taste……………..like no other! Our main, came in parts, chicken, deconstructed with an oh so tasty broth, and crispy wild herbs – desert…………….sweet, light and refreshing! At the end of the meal, one of the guests, got up and went into the kitchen and brought out the chef, and asked for a round of applause he had enjoyed it so much, we joined in and agreed!
The next day, we were led out on a ride in a different direction, heading south of the Camargue with Frederic, the late Jaques Bon’s son – a beautiful soul, who wants nothing more than to carry on his Gardian traditions, of breading Camargue horse, raising cattle and farming his wild rice for which the region is also famous. He told us all about his mother and father’s dreams which they realised of opening up their home to visitors, to show them their unique lifestyle – it hadn’t been easy and still he works hard, with new renovations of outbuildings to enrich the experience – their next project is a spa in the building currently used as the garage. There is nothing else like this in the Camargue, making it such an inspiring and special place to visit. The place itself, is adorned with the history of the family, no wonder magazines like Vogue and Tatler have visited for shoots and conferences!
It was our last day, we were excited to be actually joining in with a real round up of cattle, which were to be moved to another farm that morning. There was a gang of about 15 of us, I didn’t think we would be of any use, but in fact, they did need our herding skills (of which I had none but watched what the others did and followed) to help move the cattle in the right direction. Upon arriving at the cutting arena, it all got very serious and we had to have our wits about us, as cattle were cut and came flying out of the herd at such speed, slightly bewildered that we had to spring out of the way to avoid being garrotted in the leg by a sharp horn – so exciting and got the heart going I can tell you! Next stage was the bit I liked, where a couple of us would run the cattle up a lane at a canter and into a loading bay with a ramp to the lorry! If we got it right, the cattle ran straight up, if we didn’t there was a bit of argy bargy in the small feeder pen, lots of banging and shouting, some of the Gardians on the ground too, goodness they are brave, one switch of direction and they might have been mown down!
With great sadness, as we had to catch our flight home, we had to leave our new Gardian friends still at work and make the boring journey home – thank goodness we were enlightened with all these fresh, great memories which we chattered about to each other the whole journey back!
You have to go – this is a unique, luxury riding break, where you live and breath the Gardian lifestyle, good to go when they have a Gardian festival day where you can rub shoulders with all the locals and celebrate the culture! Perfect for a long weekend, but to be honest we were there 3 nights and could have easily enjoyed the place for 7! I think this could also easily be a honeymoon break, such was the luxury element of the stay, we were in a standard room, but they had some beautiful suites with private balcony’s! It suits mixed groups too, the perfect place to take your non riding partner, especially if the like birds!
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