The Camargue, the wide delta of the Rhone (divided
between le petit et le grand Rhones), is a unique place to visit in the south of
France. This beautiful marshland is a mesh of lonely roads, fresh and salt
water ponds, salt flats, tall reeds, black camarguais bulls, white
camarguais ponies, pink flamingos, and an astounding bounty of migrating waterbirds. At the end of the
hardly-traveled roads are towns that seem otherworldly,
isolated by the marsh flats on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the
other. Cowboys (gardiens), gypsies (gitans), fishermen (pêcheurs) mingle
with the many caravaners seeking the warmth of the sun and the deep
blue sea. It’s a different France…wild, odd, isolated, beautiful.
Officially established as a national park/preserve in
1972, the Parc Regional de Camargue
covers 82,000 hectares that are some of the wildest and most protected in
all of Europe. A roadside museum provides background on flora, fauna, and
the history of the area, but there's no substitute for getting out on the
dikes and dirt roads to truly experience this precious ecosystem in its
Marsh reeds are gathered,
then used to roof and fence.
A pinkish gypsy caravan, a
with Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer across the lagoon.
A beautiful spring or fall day is the best time to
visit the Camargue – fewer mosquitoes, fewer tourists, less heat to deal
with. Driving south from Arles toward Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the
landscape quickly becomes flatter, more desolate. White ponies graze
amidst the long-horned black bulls…some destined for the bull ring, and
ultimately the dinner table, as camarguais beef is a specialty of the
region. The marshes and canals are planted with reeds, les rosiers, aka
sagne, used to roof and fence in this region. Take one of the side
roads (there aren’t many) and head deeper into the delta. Birds swoop and
swirl everywhere, ducks, geese, seagulls, terns, egrets, herons, even
eagles. And les flamants roses, pink flamingos, poise one-legged in
the many ponds scattered throughout the area. To bicycle the Camargue
would be a joy because you could hear the wing noises, the cries and songs
of wildlife, and the rustle of marsh grasses as you pedaled the quiet,
flat roads. There’s so much to say about this beautiful region, but we have
to leave it at this for the time being.
Mary, Mary, Mary
A trip to the Camargue
without a visit to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is unthinkable. This odd town stands peacefully at the
mouth of the delta, overlooking the Mediterranean. More moorish than
French, more mediterranean than continental, dreamy, magical. And then
there’s the story behind the name. According to legend (and the Cadogan Guide to the South of France),
just after Christ was crucified, three Marys
(Mary Salome, mother of apostles James and John; Mary Jacobe, sister of
the Virgin mother; and Mary Magdalene) were put in a boat with Martha (MM’s
sister), Lazarus (of “rise, Lazarus, rise” fame and also MM and Martha’s
brother), Saint Maximixin and Saint Sidonius. As they were leaving the
Holy Land, Sarah (the black Egyptian servant of Mary 1 and Mary 2) wept to see
them go, so Mary Salome threw out her cloak so that Sarah was able to walk
across the water on it to join them in this Boat of Bethany, which was by
the way without sails and oars. They boated
across the sea, landed on the coast of the Camargue, and built an oratory
there. Some of these legends' relics are reputed to be in the area to this
Pilgrimage to the sea to honor
or Sarah-la-Kali as she is called by the Romany.
That landing spot
lively community of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, nestled at the edge of the sea and
the delta, with its imposing church standing
guard over the town. A grand celebration and pilgrimage honors these Marys
and this legend every year on May 24th and 25th, the
feast of Mary-Jacobe. Hundreds of thousands of gypsies come to town to pay
homage to Sarah-la-Kali (Black Sarah), the patron saint of the gypsies.
The relics of one of the saints are paraded through town and then brought
down to the sea to be blessed before being returned to their home in the
church. Not sure if I'd want to
fight the crowds on that particular weekend, but the church is worth a
visit for several reasons, not least of which is the statue of Saint Sarah
in the basement crypt…talk about eerie!
This town is a trip, and worth stopping – the sea is beautiful, the streets
are sun-drenched, the people are interesting…and its story is just a bit bizarre.
The church interior is
spooky, dark, with vaulted ceilings
and steps down into the crypt of Saint Sarah.
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