We spent 5 days in Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue - the Rhone delta where the great river reaches the Mediterranean. It's a land with a kind of stark, desolate beauty. Once the tourists left around midnight Sunday night it reverted from "Beach Party Central" to a quiet historic village.
You may be wondering about the name - why multiple St Mary's? The tradition of the three Maries dates from the dawn of Christianity.. The Saints, and especially Sara, who has emerged as a kind of Gypsy fertility icon, are still celebrated with annual festivals, gypsy pilgrimages, parades, processions and the immersion of Sara in the sea. Here's the legend behind this ancient place:
The 'three Maries' escaped persecution to which Christians were subject in the Holy Land, and were forced into exile. The Romans sent them away on a makeshift raft that drifted across the Mediterranean. It eventually ran aground on the shore of Camargue, in a place known as oppidum-râ or Notre-Dame-de-Ratis (ratis in Gallic meant raft). The place became known as Notre-Dame-de-la-Barque, then Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer until 1838, when it its name was changed to Saintes-Marie-de-la-mer.
The Christian tradition has it that the three Maries landed with several companions. Among those were Martha, Lazarus, Maximin of Bethany, Sidonius and Joseph of Arimathea, the bearer of the Holy Grail. All these characters set off across what is now France in order to spread the Christian doctrine.
The three Maries remained in the village, where they died and were buried. According to another version, Mary Magdalene left Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. She retired in a cave in the mountains of La Baume, in the department of Var, where she was buried. This version appeared in 1279, when a sarcophagus was discovered in the crypt of the church of St. Maximin in La Baume. The many miracles that occurred on the site led the church to recognize it as Mary Magdalene’s tomb.St. Maximin-de-La-Baume became a place of pilgrimage.
The Christian tradition also tells that the three Maries and their companions were met by Sara la Noire when they landed on the shore of Camargue. Sara became their servant. Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome and Sara la Noire were buried near the oratory they founded."
In fact the site has history dating well before the dawn of Christianity:
"The excavations uncovered also a temple dedicated to Artemis and built by the Phoenicians who founded Marseille around 600BC. The Romans, who colonized Provence in the 2nd century BC, dedicated the temple to Juno, the Goddess of Marriage and to Mithra the divinity of Covenant and Oath. The Christian Church later superimposed its traditions on the pagan’s, and thus transformed the three Matres into the Three Maries.
Sara la Noire - Black Sara, became Sainte Sara, the Patron Saint of the Gypsies. ...It was not until 1936 that the Gypsies began the tradition of the procession to the sea, during which they immerse the statue of Sara up to the waist. This tradition of immersion is of course related to the legend of the Maries landing on the shores of Camargue and disembarking into the water. This rite is also inherited from Pagan rites associated with the purification of body and soul."
Those are the legends. The reality is it was HOT - very hot 110 - 110 degrees nearly every day and we were grateful to have a fairly modern air conditioned apartment with a small balcony (where clothes dried in an hour! but where people only enjoyed sitting in early morning and late evening) and an enclosed courtyard for the bikes.
One day we had to go to Arles to meet with a notary as part of the process for selling a property in Satellite Beach. The meeting took some time but we spent the afternoon exploring the ancient Roman city of Arles, which has all kinds of Roman artifacts including an Abbey, a forum with a working fountain much appreciated by local canines, an intact coliseum that is still in use for bull fights, and a subterranean labyrinth constructed to support the forum.
Another day we explored the acient village and fortified Chateau of Les Baux - you might think going up to the mountains would escape the heat but it was actually hotter up there!
One day we cycled along the beach toward the big Rhone on a path that was sometimes compacted sand and other times deep sand. Of course the famous white horses of Camargue were everywhere. Les Saintes and the entire Camargue was a favorite haunt of Van Gogh, so he is celebrated everywhere. Each day we enjoyed the coolest part of the day exploring the town with its shady flower-lined alleys and dining in the beautiful historic square in the shadow of what is claimed to be the oldest church in Europe.