Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, or Saint Marys of the Sea as it translates to in English, is a commune that can be found in Southern France where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean Sea. The land on which the village rests is comprised of marshland and alluvial land, and contributing to the geography of the general area is the large Etang de Vaccares lagoon. The scenic allure of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has a lot to do with its strong tourism industry. The area’s extensive beaches also attract travelers, especially during the summer season. Other reasons to visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer include the sailing possibilities, the wildlife viewing opportunities and the yearly Gypsy festival that honors Saint Sarah. This dark-skinned saint is believed by some, namely Gypsies, to have been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys who inspired the village’s name.
Beaches certainly figure among the main attractions in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Long sandy stretches separate the village from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and they attract people throughout the year. Of course, most of the swimming is done during the warmer summer season. Situated along one of the beaches is another Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer attraction. It is the village’s bullring. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of the Camargue region, and it should be noted that this region is not only famous for its horses, but its bulls as well. Some of the fighting bulls are exported to Spain. Others are more fortunate and feature in French bullfights, which don’t result in the death of the bull. Families should know that near the bullring is a seafront playground.
When Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer visitors aren’t relaxing on the beaches or taking in bullfights, they can check out the village’s Romanesque church or duck into the museum that occupies the former town hall. The Church of the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was built between the 9th and 12th centuries and partly served as a defensive installation in its former life. It towers over the village and houses a statue of Saint Sarah in its crypt. Another interesting feature of the church is its 4th century B.C. pagan altar. The village’s museum honors the marquis Folco Baroncelli-Javon and offers insight into the history and culture of the Camargue region. The marquis Folco Baroncelli-Javon lived from 1869 to 1943 and is a symbolic Camargue figure.
Horseback Tours Image: sjdunphy (flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the most popular things to do during a Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer visit is go on a horseback tour. Along the road that leads north of town and on to Arles, there are clearly marked places where it is possible to arrange such tours. Riders take to the brush at certain points during the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer horseback tours, and this allows them to get directly in touch with nature. Eagles and hawks are among the birds that are commonly seen flying above, and it is possible to see both bulls and horses grazing in the fields. Spring and Autumn are considered to be the prime season for Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer horseback tours, and tour guests are encouraged to bring binoculars, bird books and cameras along for the ride. The Camargue area is a botanical and zoological nature reserve, so there is plenty to see while touring the terrain. As a side note, it is also possible to arrange Jeep safari tours in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
The Three Marys
According to legend, a boat arrived on the shores of what is now Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer around the year 40. This boat had no oars or sails and lacked supplies as well. It had come from Jerusalem, and among the people on board were Mary Magdalane, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe – the Three Marys. These women are believed to have been the first witnesses to the empty tomb that resulted from the resurrection of Jesus. After they died, the tomb of Mary Salome, Mary Jacob, and Saint Sarah became a cult object. It has attracted pilgrims to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for centuries. The largest pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer occurs in late May and coincides with the saint’s day for Mary Jacob (May 25). The bulk of the pilgrims for this occasion are Gypsies (Roma), and they gather in town to celebrate a festival that honors their patron saint – Sarah. The other main pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer occurs in late October. It coincides with the saint’s day for Mary Salome (October 22), and among the festivities is a procession to the beach that ends with a blessing of the sea. An interesting fact has it that Bob Dylan visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer during the Gypsy festival of 1975. During this visit, he composed the song, "One More Cup of Coffee."
There are a number of hotels in and around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, so travelers should have little trouble finding a place to stay while in town. Most of these hotels are either 2, 3 or 4 star lodging establishments, so travelers can choose accordingly. Hotels aren’t the only kind of accommodations that are found in the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer area, however. Seasonal rentals are in rather good supply throughout the general region, and there are also area campgrounds to consider. During the pilgrimage periods, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer accommodations tend to go fast, so it is best to book in advance.