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  • Writer's pictureJanetJoanouWeiner

Life in the Town of Dead Waters

We recently visited the charming medieval town of Aigues-Mortes, about an hour south from our home. Set in the Camargue region, this small walled city is the site of Huguenot history that looms large in the Protestant psyche to this day. Join me on a brief tour and discover fascinating facts about this unique area. Spoiler alert: salt, flamingoes, and a daring prison escape are involved!

Tour de Constance

Approaching the town, the infamous Tour de Constance dominates the landscape. Originally constructed by King Louis IX in the 13th century at a strategic point on the Mediterranean to establish his ownership of the surrounding lands. The thirty-two meter tall tower served as a strong visual reminder of who was in charge when regional dukes retained a great deal of power.

In addition, the sea trade of spices and other goods was an important source of income requiring protection. We learned that the origin of pinky finger extension at the tables of nobles dates to this time (and here I thought it came from England and porcelain tea cups!) Can you guess why? I never would have imagined this, but when dining at a lavishly set table in those days, the pinky finger needed to remain clean to dip into small plates of various spices spread across the table, displaying the host's wealth as well as adding flavor.

Pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, cassia, and many more

The town of Aigues-Mortes, including rampart walls, grew around the tower. The king paid "decent" people to come live and work in what were stinky, mosquito-infested, "dead water" swamplands. He established a garrison of soldiers to oversee the town and the tower, which served as a prison for political enemies.

Entrance into Aigues-Mortes

Once inside the town, we enter the prison-fort area, which includes the Tour de Constance. Besides its impressive height, the tower is twenty-two meters wide with six meter thick walls. These guys weren't messing around.

After entering through a narrow passageway, with places overhead from which to drop boiling oil or water should enemies enter, we arrive in the ground floor room. Every aspect of the Tour de Constance was constructed with intimidation, protection, and imprisonment in mind.

Authorities held many Huguenots (French Protestants) here during the wars of religion, including young Marie Durand. Arrested at nineteen, due to her brother being an influential pastor, she survived thirty-eight years in abominable conditions.

La Prisonnière Huguenote by Jeanne Lombard

Imprisoned women of all ages housed on the third floor. Old and young, pregnant or sick, they lived in unthinkable misery. The arrow-slit windows let damp, frigid air enter in all seasons. Fed only one meager meal per day, it's hard to imagine how any survived.

Marie Durand became a leader among the women, encouraging them to stand strong in their faith as a simple "I renounce my Protestant faith and embrace the King's Catholic one" would set them free. For the Huguenots, that would amount to renouncing God.

Also, she wrote many letters asking for additional food supplies, blankets, clothes, and medicines. Sent throughout France and abroad to sympathetic countries such as Switzerland, she ensured at least a minimum of necessities for her fellow prisoners.

Prisonnières Huguenotes lisant la Bible dans la Tour de Constance by Jeanne Lombard

Besides surviving the deplorable conditions for thirty-eight years, Marie Durand's legacy includes the word Resister—Resist—which she scratched onto the tower floor. When our family first visited a long time ago, we searched for the inscription, only to find it under a small covering upon which my daughter Jessica sat. After chuckling at the relative inconspicuousness of this significant word, we honored Marie Durand's spirit of resistance.

During World War II, one of Marie's descendants, inspired by her ancestor's example, suggested the name RESISTANCE for the nascent underground movement in Paris. Marie Durand's unwavering faithfulness to her beliefs inspires to this day.

A few years ago, I taught in Paris in one of my organization's training schools. I started the week telling the story of Marie Durand to the international group, including a few French students. In my experience, outside of our region and those who remain in the Protestant stream of faith, Huguenot history is largely unknown.

After I told Marie's story, a young woman raised her hand. "Marie Durand was my relative," she said. "I'm a descendant of one of her brothers." I was speechless at the unexpected remark.

Later, she told me interesting details, such as the recent discovery of Jewish ancestry in her genealogy. This is not unusual, especially among Protestants in the south who hid Jews during World War II.

Another famous episode in the history of the Tour de Constance involved Abraham Mazel, a leader in the Huguenot's revolt against the authorities at the beginning of the 18th century.

I won't write too much about it here, as it is a concluding chapter in my soon-to-be-released Book 2 in the Huguenot Resistance Series. Suffice to say, it involves the true story of God speaking in a dream and a daring nighttime escape. Reality is often more dramatic than fiction!

Abraham Mazel and fellow prisoners escape route

You can read the rest of the story in The Light Shines Through, hopefully released this spring.

Today, the marshlands around Aigues-Mortes are famed for their nutritious sea-salt. We love the crunchy crystals of this "finishing salt." Look closely at the container and you can see the town of Aigues-Mortes and the Tour de Constance. While expensive elsewhere, it is a staple at our local grocery store. I love how each tub bears the signature of the one who gathered the salt.

In June and July, the waters flowing to the salt ponds turn brilliant pink because of a type of algae that transforms into something related to beta-carotene. All I know is that the photos are gorgeous, and I'd love to see it in this state some day.

Salt mountain in Camargue

Yet another claim to fame of the Camargue region are the black bulls and the pink flamingoes. Yes, really! The bulls star throughout southern France in Spanish influenced rodeo-type shows or sold to Spain for bull fights (sadly).

However, my husband's favorite version of the bulls is the savory, winey stew known as Gardianne de Taureau.

Flamingoes have bred naturally in the region for centuries. In the 1970s, an artificial island in one of the larger "ponds" was constructed to facilitate breeding. These pink birds with stick thin legs are an incredible sight, best seen April to November. A few years ago, for my May birthday, we drove past flocks feeding with the sunset reflecting off the waters—a majestic tableau.

Finally, the Camargue is also home to a hardy breed of wild white horses. I've seen them often in fields, but never quite like the photo below. Wild and free, I find them breath-taking. You can book rides with tamer versions on the beach. Definitely on my bucket list!

Wild horses of the Camargue

© XtianDuGard / Pixabay

Flamingoes and white horses in the Camargue

 © XtianDuGard / Pixabay

Locals racing in the Camargue

The magnificence of creation never ceases to amaze me. The stunning beauty and the infinite variety only begin to reflect the nature of the Creator. Scriptures say the whole earth groans for release into the fullness of its being. Wow! I can only imagine . . . .

Sunrise on the Camargue

©Nathalie / Flickr

La vie est belle!

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