At the edge of the Natural Regional Park of the Camargue, exactly where the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea meet, lies Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Local culture and traditions flow through the streets of this authentic village in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. You may even come across a Camarguan cowboy- or girl. It’s also an important gypsy pilgrimage. Every year in May, gypsies from all over Europe, and even further, come to worship their Saint Sara.
The Big Blue
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of the Camargue, the untamed strip of nature formed by sand, stones, the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea. Don’t confuse it with Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer though; a coastal village situated a mere 200 kilometres further south in the Pyrénées-Orientales department. Because the village sits on the banks of the Rhône as well as on the Mediterranean coastline, water plays an important role. That’s why I started my visit at the Port Gardian, with its bobbing pleasure crafts on a transparent stage. I’ll save the tempting boat trip out to the Big Blue for another time…
Walking from the port to the heart of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I counted many Camargue crosses. This local emblem is made from three symbols: the Latin cross stands for faith, the anchor for hope and the heart for charity. That pretty much sums up the virtues of the native inhabitants. The centre of the small town is a colourful mix of original boutiques, souvenir shops, tourist trap restaurants, and charming eateries. Rather touristy, yes, but also interwoven with folklore if you look a bit closer. A remarkable building is the Museum Baroncelli, located in the former town hall. Unfortunately, it is currently closed until further notice.
Église de Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer
On to the next steeple, the one belonging to the church. You can actually climb the small tower of the Église de Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (for 3 euros per person) to find yourself at the top of the church. And then you can climb the roof! How cool is that?! Beware of the slippery structure though, as there are no barriers. It was my highlight of visiting Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, as the panorama was amazing. It’s also worth going inside the church, as it’s the home of the three Saintes Maries. The legend goes that the three Maries who witnessed the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection probably set sail to Egypt after the crucifixion. Somehow, they disembarked on their vessel on the shores of a fortress named Oppidum-Râ (Râ from the word ‘ratis’, meaning boat). The three Maries decided to stay at this precursor of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for the rest of their lives.
In 1838, the village name changed from Notre-Dame-de-Ratis and Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer into Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to honour the three Maries. It is still uncertain if Sara, the gypsies patroness, welcomed the three Maries or was their handmaid. In the church, you will find the statues of Sainte Marie Jacobé and Sainte Marie Salomé in their vessel. A statue of Sainte Sara in striking clothes and jewellery also stands in the crypt. Every year on the 24th and 25th of May, two processions take these statues and their relics from the church to the sea. Gardianes, the French cowboys, women from Arles in traditional costume and believers surround these processions. When I was in the crypt, some gypsies paid tribute to Sainte Sara. It was such a moment of purity that I felt like an intruder. But it made me realise that traditions are still very much part of everyday life in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.