The drive south from Arles along the D570 road through the Rhone River delta passed by downy pastures, flooded rice fields, and beds of reeds under a muggy early-summer sun, a flat rural landscape dotted with occasional farms roofed with red tiles and interspersed with dry scrubby patches. A few kilometers later, I caught my first glimpse of the town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a cluster of whitewashed buildings with blue shutters, its church topped with a pyramid of arches in which the church bells hung. The feel was more sleepy Greek island village than French coastal resort.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the horizon
A closer view gives this town away. The road into town leads past a painted carousel, the modern tourist information office, and the arena. After rounding the turn by the arena onto what passes for the main drag, boulevard de la République, I found that staple of France, the weekly farmers’ market, set up in dusty place des Gitans with its two petanque courts, next to the town hall. The shops lining the place were jammed with garishly colored, inflatable beach toys and guarded by sidewalk racks of postcards. A block away, a paved promenade overlooked pleasant stretches of sandy beach reaching down to the Mediterranean. Many of the restaurants’ menus were flagrantly posted in three languages: French, German, and Spanish. At least the sunburned visitors who must crowd these streets in July and August apparently don’t come primarily from the U.S. or the U.K. But in early June, the summer crowds had not yet arrived, and even on market day (Tuesday), the town seemed somnolent, with only a few sunbathers scattered on the beach. Still, the slate-paved pedestrian quarter, with its alleys winding between whitewashed buildings, made the impression of a laid-back Greek village hard to shake.
Stes-Maries is named for a trio of saints named Mary: Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead), Mary the mother of the apostle James, and Mary Magdalene. According to local legend (and The Da Vinci Code), these three Marys, along with Lazarus, their black servant Sarah, and several other friends of Jesus, were set adrift at sea off the shores of Palestine after Jesus’s death, and eventually they washed ashore in the Camargue. After converting many of the people of Provence to Christianity, the saints died and were buried here. Their relics were discovered during the frenzy of relic acquisition that possessed Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages and are now housed in the town church.
The Church of Saints Mary-of-the-Sea is an unusual church. Built during the Dark Ages, when this coast was plagued by pirates, the church served as a fortress and sanctuary as well as a place of worship. Though of modest size, it is imposing, tall enough to serve as a watchtower, almost a mix of castle and church, with battlements and arrow slits, and at one time there was even a fresh-water well inside in case of siege.
The gypsy, or gitan, tradition here is related to the Sarah of the legend, whom the gypsies revere as a saint. As a consequence, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a pilgrimage site for gypsies. As many as 10,000 gypsies from across Europe descend on Stes-Maries for a religious festival on May 24 and 25. After a ceremony in the crypt, the statue of Sarah is carried, clad in robe and jewels and accompanied by singing and dancing, from the church to the sea for ritual cleansing. This festival is also the occasion for many baptisms and marriages, as well trading and bartering.
The town arena is set near the beach and the market place. Here, if you wish, you can see a course camarguaise, the bloodless Camargue bullfight in which the bull is not killed. In this version, you will see the agile bull "fighters" evading the bulls while attempting to hook a circlet of pompoms around the horns of the bull. While undoubtedly the bull doesn’t enjoy these escapades, no blood (at least of the bull!) is spilled. Check at the tourist office for the schedule of upcoming bullfights. While the traditional Spanish-style bullfight including the kill is designated a corrida or novillada, anything called a cocarde, abrivado, or bandido will not involve the killing of the bull.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Tourist Information Office Website