In the heart of the Camargue, the village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, more commonly known as “Les Saintes”, lies right on the Mediterranean Sea.
A popular seaside resort, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is particularly lively in summer with its visitors, beaches, cafés, restaurants and shops, its music and other entertainment. But despite the tourism, the village has kept all its charm, its traditions and its authenticity.
In winter, you find another atmosphere with its long and deserted sandy beaches, the salty sea air, the gentle breaking of the waves and the cries of the seagulls... Until the month of May and the gypsies' pilgrimage, when the party gets started again!
It's heritage, old and more recent, as well as its aquatic activities make the town of Saintes-Maries worth a stop, and even a longer stay, there is no lack of hotels, vacation rentals or campsites.
Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, capital of the Camargue
View of the old town hall of Les Saintes
The bell tower of the church in Les Saintes as seen from the parapet walk
The saints Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome in their boat
Ranchers parade in the town
Running of the bulls on the beach of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Ranchers and Camargue horse
Boat ride for discovering the Camargue
Little houses with whitewashed façades
Rancher's cabin and its reed roof
The town's origins are quite interesting. According to legend, around 45 AD, after drifting along on the Mediterranean, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Cleopas, accompanied by Martha and Lazarus “risen from the dead”, landed at this spot in the Rhône Delta. Here, they were welcomed by Saint Sarah (Sarah the Black) who became their servant.
They are said to have built an oratory devoted to the Virgin Mary before Mary Magdalene went to Sainte-Baume, Martha to Tarascon and Lazarus to Marseille to become its first bishop. Mary Salome, Mary of Cleopas and Sarah stayed behind and upon their deaths were buried in the oratory, since become a place of pilgrimage for 19 centuries now.
The present-day church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer was built on that same site in the 9th century and altered in the 12th and 14th centuries by the monks from the Montmajour Abbey so as to be incorporated into the town's fortifications. (What better spot than a church to pour boiling oil on your enemies!)
You can visit the church. Its upper chapel is a veritable keep and from the top of the tower the views are amazing. Its eery crypt is devoted to Sarah and each year gypsies from all over Europe take out the statue of their patron saint, the Black Virgin, for a big procession and blessing in the sea, all with music and dance.
Twice a year, the church in Les Saintes Maries provides the setting for hours of intense fervour during the Gypsies pilgrimages: on May 24th and 25th for the festival of Mary of Cleopas and to venerate Saint Sarah and at the end of October for Mary Salome.
Historically, the two pilgrimages are very old and part of a Christian tradition honouring the landing of the first Christians on the shores of the Camargue. The gypsies' celebration is more recent, dating from the mid-19th century.
There is also an arena in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, built next to the beach in the early 1930s. It hosts Spanish bullfights, Portuguese bullfights (without the killing of the bull), bull racing and equestrian shows.
Just across from the arena, an unpretentious restaurant, O Pica Pica, serves fresh fish and seafood direct from the sea (and not the freezer!): shellfish and fish à la plancha. Okay, it is served with plastic knives, forks and glasses, but what a delight nonetheless!
Les Saintes-Maries lives to the rhythm of the many events that liven up the seasons: the “Fête Votive” on the third weekend in June, the “Féria du Cheval” horse festival around the 14th of July, "Camargue Plurielle" around August 15th and the “Festival d'Abrivado” with the running of the bulls on November 11th.
With about twenty miles of beaches it goes without saying that Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer offers many possibilities for swimming and sunbathing as well as all types of water sports such as kitesurfing and windsurfing. Its speed canal attracts many thrill-seeking windsurfers.
It's worth walking a bit to find a peaceful spot on the beaches, which are often crowded in summer. That will also give you the opportunity to see the Launes Cabins, some thirty ranchers' houses situated to the west of the town. Built in the 1950s and all identical, these are Camargue cabins with real reed roofs. Prototype of a housing estate or architectural curiosities unique in Europe? Go see for yourself!
Or you can go visit the Camargue. Near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer many ranches offer horseback riding in the salt marshes and along the beach to see the bulls and pink flamingos. Others organise tours in jeeps or quads. Or you can take one of the many walking trails. In this flat land of the Camargue, these trails are accessible to all levels of hikers. And don't forget your binoculars – the region is a paradise for birdwatchers!