I visited the Camargue and Saintes Maries de la Mer during one of my trips to Provence with Ornella. A land to love: Wild, rich in traditions. Where nature seems to have taken over.
Of beautiful places, I can say I have seen them: from the tropics to the alpine landscapes but I confess that the Camargue has a special place in my heart. It was an almost accidental discovery since I hadn’t planned any visit but, since I was in Provence, everyone I heard about during our trip advised me to pay us a visit. So Ornella and I set off from Arles, where we were staying, to discover the magnificent Camargue.
Camargue where it is located
From Arles the Camargue is only a few kilometres away but I assure you that the spectacle is truly unique: arriving along the road that passes in the middle of the coastal dunes until you reach Saintes Maries de la Mer reserves numerous surprises such as herds of galloping horses, pink flamingos that stop in the numerous ponds and a nature that seems untouched.
We arrived in Saintes Maries de la Mer, a small fishing village without a destination, ignoring the fact that it is an important pilgrimage destination for the gypsy people. Curious by the strange name of the town, I began to investigate its origins.
Saintes Maries de la Mer
I don’t know how many people know that the origin of Saintes Maries de la Mer dates back to the 4th century and housed a temple erected in honour of Ra, the famous Egyptian god.
Before telling about the peculiarities of this almost fairy-tale village, it is good to say that it is in an ideal position to visit in depth this territory adjacent to the Rhone delta which is the Camargue, a protected area to safeguard the important ecosystem present here.
A church dedicated to the three Marys
Saintes Maries de la Mer, owes its name to the plural (Sante Marie del mare) because legend has it that after the resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magdalene accompanied by Mary Jacobè and Mary Salome arrived in this very place together with Sara the black, their servant; and it is this last figure who is honoured by the Roma, Sinti and Gypsies on May 24th through a real pilgrimage that from all over Europe has the Camargue as its final destination.
The same legend tells us that Sara was Maria Salome’s servant, while another one tells us that she was a woman of Egyptian origin who had a vision: a boat with three women and a man who was shipwrecked and saw the place and went to the rescue of the shipwrecked. Thus began the evangelization of France with Sara who asked for baptism for herself and her people.
Visitare Saintes Maries de la Mer
We began our visit to this village with its white houses, the Romanesque church dedicated to the Sainte Marie de la mer. The building dates back to the 12th century and is in pure Romanesque style and was reinforced and fortified during the 15th century, taking on the severe tones of a fortress. If you climb on its roof, you will be able to enjoy a panoramic view of the entire surrounding area and realise the intricate urban fabric that is articulated right from the church.
The crypt of Santa Sara
Although Sara la Nera is not really a saint recognised by the church, she is one of the most venerated figures of the gypsy people. It is exciting to go down into the crypt where the remains of Saint Sara rest. The feast dedicated to her, also called ‘le Pèlegrinage des Gitans’, takes place on 24th May and continues the day after. The event attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe to participate in one of the many processions that see the remains of the Saint, cross the town and reach the sea for the blessing. The festivities are articulated with horse races, non bloody bullfights, traditional games, music and gypsy dances and thousands of people who liven up the Provencal town.
Non bloody bullfighting in Camargue
La corrida in Camargue si svolge sia durante la festa delle Sante, che nei giorni festivi a Saintes Maries de la Mer e la loro particolarità è che sono non cruente: il toro alla fine del gioco se ne torna solo un po’ stanco e arrabbiato nel suo recinto, ma comunque sulle sue zampe.
At first I wasn’t so much inclined to participate, but after seeing it I must say that we really enjoyed the way these bullfighting shows take place where the skill of young people dressed in white with a red waistband challenges the bull by trying to rip off a cockade that he holds right between his horns.
Visit the Camargue
I can assure you that it is a discovery really full of emotions that continues with the visit of the Camargue, a land that has remained truly wild and that makes the happiness of all birdwatchers and nature lovers. The first thing I recommend is to go to the tourist office, as we did, and take all the maps that are available to visitors to have the convenience of viewing the various destinations on your itinerary.
Etang du vaccares
About four kilometres from Saintes Maries de la Mer, in Pont de Gau, you will find the Ornithological Park which covers a vast area of the Camargue adjacent to the Etang du Vaccarès, a marsh where many species of birds find an ideal habitat.
Taking one of the many paths (all well signposted) we found some specially made stations to admire the resident fauna such as purple herons, pink flamingos, water blackbirds, beavers and wild horses.
Needless to underline the fact that respect for all animals and the environment that you will have the opportunity to visit, must be a constant of your excursion remembering that, in this case, the guest is you.
Excursion in Camargue
It’s a wonderful land that you can get around thanks to a rented bike or a horseback ride to the lighthouse which is about ten kilometres from the city. We reached the Gacholle lighthouse by car, following the D36B road and, once you arrive, you can visit the permanent exhibition that will introduce you to the fauna present in this stretch of coast. If you prefer adventure, you can leave your bike and car behind and go on a horseback ride, going to one of the riding stables in the area and with the company of an expert guide, discover truly unique places.
Alternatively, choose a boat trip on one of those tours that go up to the mouth of the river to admire the wild nature in all its beauty from an unusual vantage point.
After enjoying the unspoilt nature, we got back in the car and drove towards the fortified town of Agues Mortes.
The spectacle is unbelievable: the walls burnt by the sun welcomed us on our arrival.
The charm of the Camargue
If you allow yourself to be captivated by the charm of the Camargue, it will be inevitable to wander around to savour its atmosphere. the only problem we have faced is that, since these are still in the natural state, you cannot rely on fast food or bars ‘around the corner’, so you have to organize yourself if necessary: water, snacks to satisfy your appetite but also trekking shoes, comfortable and practical clothing, sunglasses and protective creams must be part of a sober but complete luggage where binoculars and a camera should not be missing.
Unlike what we discovered on site and completely by chance, my advice is to draw up a sort of day-by-day itinerary, because the Camargue is so varied and beautiful that you can dedicate three or four days to ‘savour’ it a little bit.