AIGUES-MORTES, France – Adjacent to the Riviera but seemingly worlds away, the medieval walled city of Aigues-Mortes is a mystical place. It was built by Louis IX, the future Saint Louis, as a port of departure for the Crusades. The only French outlet on the Mediterranean at the time, Aigues-Mortes was a symbol of royal power, just like Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
I was on a quest to learn more about Saint Louis’s legacy. The only French king canonized as a saint, he is revered as a model of wisdom, justice and good government. Legend has it that he often dressed as a monk, tended to lepers and administered justice from under an oak tree in Vincennes.
To join me on my journey, I lured my sidekick, my 5-year-old daughter, Jane, with (slightly exaggerated) stories of powerful queens and kings of bygone eras. Like most of her classmates in her Paris kindergarten, Jane is obsessed with the Disney film “Frozen,” set in the fictional Nordic kingdom of Arendelle. The lore surrounding Saint Louis can be equally enchanting.
He was only 12 when his father, King Louis VIII, died, and his mother, Blanche de Castille, acted as regent until he could take the helm. The first woman to rule the French kingdom, she was shrewd and sometimes ruthless, arranging political alliances and warding off threats to the monarchy. If you look closely at the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, you’ll see that it doesn’t depict the king’s wife, Marguerite de Provence, but his mother. (More powerful, even, than the queen in “Frozen,” I told Jane.)
Louis IX and his mother were brilliant politicians, creating their own legends almost 800 years before Twitter-fueled political campaigns. Jane’s eyes grew wide as I spun tales of these mighty rulers.
(Let’s be real: I think she also anticipated a hot chocolate in the train’s cafe car.)
But the story starts in Paris.
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Sainte-Chapelle is one of the French capital’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces, and no matter how many times you visit, it casts a powerful spell. In an enduring testament to its greatness, there’s always a line outside the 13th-century church on the Ile de la Cite.
Sainte-Chapelle was built in 1248 to house the Holy Relics – the crown of thorns and later a segment of the True Cross – purchased by Louis IX. The pious king had spent an astronomical sum, equivalent to more than half the kingdom’s annual revenues, to obtain these authenticated objects, thus endowing the kingdom of France with symbolic prestige in the medieval world. He was determined to create a worthy home for them. In the lower-level chapel, the azure ceilings are studded with gilded fleurs-de-lis, while in the upstairs – originally reserved for the king and the royal family – 15 stained-glass windows narrate biblical stories in wonderful detail. The chapel itself is like a reliquary, a jewel-studded treasure chest that contains relics.
Here’s a tip to cut the line: Buy tickets online, and arrive right before the chapel opens after the lunch break (2:15 p.m.). On my previous visit, I had sprinted up the stairs to the upper chapel and had the place to myself for a few magical minutes. I studied the stories in the stained glass and snapped photos of the kaleidoscope of colored light reflected on the floor. A recently completed, seven-year renovation project has restored these vitraux to masterful effect. The chapel is rife with religious symbols – intriguing clues for fans of medieval thrillers – not to mention the more subtle secrets. (Can you find the peephole where Louis spied on members of his court as they prayed?)
The most fascinating stained-glass window narrates the story of the Relics of the Passion. What cleverly orchestrated propaganda! Pious as he was, Louis IX was also decidedly ambitious; politically, he elevated France to the center of medieval Christendom with the purchase of the crown of thorns. (Today, the relics are housed in Notre Dame Cathedral.) Immortalized in the chapel’s art, Louis IX is portrayed as the legitimate successor to the biblical kings.
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Our dawn high-speed train from Paris cut through the darkness, speeding south at nearly 200 mph. Forget trying to go back to sleep; Jane was wide awake for the adventure. So we headed to the cafe car, where I drank an espresso and Jane relished her hot chocolate. We passed snow-covered hills near Lyon and spied fortified towers – perhaps dating to Saint Louis’s time – with turrets and arrow-slit windows. In the medieval era, travelers averaged 40 miles a day. Today, we can be transported from Paris to the Mediterranean in a matter of hours.
The mist-shrouded fields gave way to the sun-bleached landscapes of the South of France, lorded over by cypress and gnarled olive trees. In Nimes, we switched to a slow local train to take us to the sea. Destination: the perfectly preserved citadel of Aigues-Mortes.
It was an act of sheer will to construct a city from nothing on the slippery mud flats of the Camargue marshlands in the mid-13th century. According to legend, Louis IX fell deathly ill and made a vow to God: If miraculously healed, he would lead an army to reconquer the Holy Land. But to make good on that promise, Louis had to create a port from which the French Crusaders could set sail. In the wild Rhone delta, he purchased land from the Benedictine abbey of Psalmodi and set out to build a network of canals to connect it to the sea. Five thousand trees were felled to build the tower on shifting sands. To entice a local population to stay in a mosquito-ridden swamp, Louis offered tax incentives.
“There was also a strong geopolitical reason to build the city and assert royal power in what was a tempestuous region,” emphasized historian Patrick Florençon, who leads tours around the ramparts. Sporting a fabulous beret and curling mustache, Florençon pointed out fascinating details in the fortifications: grotesque gargoyles, checker-board games carved into stone walkways and the grisly Tour des Bourguignons, where dead bodies were salted to prevent the spread of disease after the 1421 battle against the Armagnacs. We marveled at the security measures to protect a slumbering Louis IX in the Tour de Constance. But even more interesting to Jane was the “graffiti” carved into walls by his bored guards, depicting the era’s sailboats.
A few generations later, France’s Golden Age would descend into the bloodshed of the Wars of Religion, and Aigues-Mortes – a Protestant stronghold from 1560-1622 – witnessed great sorrow when the Tour de Constance was converted to a prison. Inside the tower, you’ll find the word “Register” engraved on the rim of the oculus, a circular opening. Meaning “resist” in Provençal dialect, the word was left by Marie Durand, a Protestant woman imprisoned for 36 years in the tower. Today, she is commemorated as a remarkable symbol of resistance.
From the top of the ramparts, you can peer down into the ancient houses lining the perfect geometrical grid of medieval streets, today dotted with swimming pools and TV antennas. Shimmering in the distance is a mirage-like mountain of sea salt collected from the salt ponds surrounding Aigues-Mortes. This is the biggest salt production facility in France, and it dates to antiquity. In the summer, there’s a supernatural aura because of the water’s brilliant pink hue, a result of sunlight on the algae.
The summer is also crowded with visitors for a string of popular events (such as the Saint Louis medieval festival and the bloodless bullfight known as the Course Camarguaise), but in November, Jane and I had Aigues-Mortes all to ourselves. We checked into the Villa Mazarin, a lovely hotel that occupies a 15th-century manor house, and we ate multiple meals at L’Atelier de Nicolas, where the staff spoiled us with kids’ coloring books and copious plates prepared by charming chef Nicolas.
Stepping out of the city through an arched gateway to the south, we discovered a wide field abutting the marshland. In 2014, Aigues-Mortes (along with the Camargue Gardoise) was named a Grand Site de France, a label that recognizes and protects important landscapes. The surrounding natural areas have been restored, and wood boardwalks allow visitors to scope out the fabulous flora and fauna – including pink flamingos.
There’s a remarkable diversity of landscape in the Petit Camargue, also influenced by the hands of humans. Besides the medieval monks and Saint Louis himself, the Camargue has been shaped by cowboys called “gardians,” who raise Camarguaise bulls in the marshlands. Many of these animals roam free, herded by dapper gardians atop white horses.
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Although the tradition dates from the Middle Ages, the gardians saw a new spin on bull roping with the arrival of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show on their 1905 European tour. Popular lore has it that Folco de Baroncelli-Javon – a cattle breeder influential in promoting the Camargue’s culture – forged a connection between the American West and the Camargue. (His gardians participated in Buffalo Bill’s shows.) Learning about this, I’m somehow not surprised when we meet Jean-Claude Groul, the passionate manager of the Saint Louis ranch, and he shares his upcoming travel plans.
“I can’t wait to see a rodeo in Las Vegas,” he says about a first-time trip he’ll be taking to the United States. “I’ve dreamed about that since I was a little boy.”
There’s another American connection. Scenes from Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous book “The Garden of Eden” are set in Aigues-Mortes. Impressed by the quality of light on the landscapes, Papa honeymooned in nearby Le Grau-du-Roi with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer.
And in the evening, I find myself drinking a Languedoc Viognier called Thomas Jefferson en France, produced by the Caves St. Georges in Montpellier. The wine bottle’s label states: “Thomas Jefferson discovered the wines of St-Georges in 1787. His own words were ‘good quality and good for the health of the American people.’ “
The next day, Jane and I gravitate to the sun-splashed Place Saint-Louis, where a regal statue of Louis IX stands sentry over the square’s bustling cafes. From here, the Tourism Office organizes a Knights Templar treasure hunt for children.
Booklet in hand, Jane and I race through the streets noting clues and solving riddles: What secret motifs are carved into the fountain? Whose relics can be found in Notre Dame des Sablons church? The map leads us on a quest to every corner of Aigues-Mortes, and upon completion, Jane is allowed to open a treasure chest in the Tourism Office. Lifting the lid, she gapes at the hoard of gold coins. Each participating child is allowed to keep one as a souvenir.
The Knights Templar bailed out Louis IX when he was captured by the enemy on the Seventh Crusade in 1250, literally paying a king’s ransom for his return. Twenty years later, Saint Louis died beneath the walls of Carthage in Tunisia on the Eighth Crusade. But his legend lives on today – not just in France, but across the pond in his namesake Midwestern city on the mighty Mississippi.
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Nicklin is a Paris-based freelancer. Her website is marywinstonnicklin.com.
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If you go
Where to stay
35 Blvd. Gambetta, Aigues-Mortes
Housed in a 15th-century mansion, this four-star hotel has a pretty garden and a pool. Rooms start at about $130.
Where to eat
L’Atelier de Nicolas
28 Rue Alsace Lorraine, Aigues-Mortes
Chef Nicolas cooks up tasty food based on fresh, local products. The three-course lunch menu is a steal at about $20.
What to do
8 Blvd. du Palais, Paris
The magnificent 13th-century chapel was built by Saint Louis to house the Holy Relics. Adult tickets are about $10.