The Romanesque west front of St-Trophime in Arles provides song perches for Black Redstarts and nesting niches for Common Swifts. Photo: Rick Wright
Mediterranean France is justly famous for the diversity of its birdlife and for the richness of its 2,000-year-old culture. This relaxed tour, based at a single comfortable hotel in Arles, gives participants the opportunity to enjoy both, with a Mediterranean avifauna complementing artistic and architectural treasures from the Roman, medieval, and modern periods. On some days, birding will predominate, while others will be devoted primarily to historical sites, but most of our time will feature a balance between birds and culture. Late morning starts (between 8:00 and 9:00), leisurely meals, and plenty of time built in for shopping, strolling, or enjoying the sights ensure a more relaxed pace than is typical of many birding tours, and the food, the wine, and the varied landscapes of Provence combine to make this an especially appealing European sojourn for birders and non-birders alike.
Day 1: Our tour starts at 7:00 pm in Arles, with an orientation and introductory dinner at our comfortable, modern hotel, which will serve as the base for the entire tour.
Day 2: After breakfast we’ll make the short drive down the western branch of the Rhône River to the Petite Camargue, where we can hope for a variety of wading birds including Purple and Squacco Herons and Greater Flamingo; European Bee-eater and Roller are possible, as is Hoopoe. We’ll have lunch in St-Gilles-du-Gard, whose twelfth-century church preserves one of the most important monuments of Romanesque sculpture on the pilgrimage route to Compostela. After admiring the world-famous west façade, we’ll return to Arles and a short break before dinner.
Day 3: We’ll leave Arles after breakfast for the short drive to the dramatic limestone hills of Les Alpilles, where we’ll make a brief stop or two to enjoy the birds and wildflowers of a typical French forest. Our principal destination is Les Baux, one of the most atmospheric and most carefully preserved of all France’s medieval villages, where we’ll search the village streets and ruined castle walls for Black Redstart, Sardinian Warbler, and Blue Rock Thrush. Anyone who prefers can spend more time instead in the village’s abundant shops and cafes. Arles is not far away, and we should have some free time for shopping or sightseeing in the city before dinner.
The tour completely met my expectations. The birds were great, as was the experience with the area. Rick is an excellent teacher and birder—very patient, with a wide depth of knowledge in many areas. It was fun birding with him. The hard work he put into this tour, and continued during the tour, was very evident. I’d gladly do another with him.
R. Martin Smith
Day 4: We’ll leave Arles after breakfast for Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a colorful resort town on the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way we’ll search for Slender-billed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Black-winged Stilt, and Pied Avocet, among many other marsh birds. Before lunch we’ll pay a quick visit to the city’s impressively fortified church; in the crypt is the richly draped effigy of Sara, patron saint of the gypsies. Lunch will be in Saintes-Maries, followed by the leisurely drive to Arles, where we can visit the Roman and early Christian necropolis of the Alyscamps before heading to dinner.
Day 5: This morning we’ll visit the steppes of La Crau, an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of eastern Europe in both its vegetation and its birds. Once at our birding site, we’ll walk at a slow pace nearly a mile on a level path across an open pasture where we have a good chance at most of the open-country birds of the area. At the end of our walk, the stone barn features the incised signatures of 150 years of Provençal shepherds. Along the way we’ll be looking for specialties including European Stone-curlew and Little Bustard, and there’s always a good chance of a surprise here. We’ll eat lunch in nearby St-Martin, then return to Arles, where we will reassemble in the late afternoon to visit Romanesque St-Trophime before dinner.
Day 6: Perhaps the best-known of the many artists to spend time in Provence was Vincent van Gogh. Though the painter’s most famous works are all housed in far-flung collections, his presence remains felt in the region, and after breakfast this morning we’ll head for the charming provinical town of St-Rémy and the olive groves and flowery fields made famous in the artist’s work. After a brief stop at the 2,000-year-old Roman monuments known as “Les Antiques,” we’ll visit beautiful and peaceful (and often birdy) St-Paul de Mausole, where van Gogh was hospitalized after the incident with his ear in nearby Arles. After lunch in St-Rémy, we’ll return to Arles. Dinner tonight will be on the Place Forum, site of the “Night Cafe” memorialized in one of the most famous paintings in the western tradition.
Day 7: The Saturday market in Arles has to be seen to be believed: block after block of regional specialties, from soap and herbs to olives and cheese. We’ll some time admiring the spectacle just outside our hotel—and if the weather is promising, we’ll stock up for a picnic lunch before heading out for a final day in the marshes of the Rhône delta. All of the European herons are possible today, along with Mediterranean Gull, Whiskered Tern, Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Zitting Cisticola, and Great and European Reed Warblers. We’ll enjoy our midday meal in a restaurant or at covered picnic tables along the shores of the Etang des Vaccares, then return to Arles in time for a break before dinner.
Day 8: We’ll begin this morning with a visit to the Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman bridge and aqueduct; the river, woods, and even parking lots of the visitor center offer some fine birding, with Rock Sparrow a special target here. Alpine Swift and Eurasian Crag Martin nest on the pont itself, while the surrounding woodlands and open areas are good for Common Redstart, Eurasian Golden Oriole, European Serin, and Cirl Bunting. Lunch will be beneath the massive walls of Beaucaire. We’ll have most of the afternoon free before our concluding dinner in Arles.
Day 9: The tour ends this morning in Arles.
Updated: 05 April 2011
- 2014 price not yet available
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
Maximum group size eight with one leader. Depending on vehicle availability, groups larger than four may use two vehicles.