This village on the edge of the Camargue, in southern Provence, looks as if it came out of the pencil of a draughtsman.
Saintes Maries de la Mer is a small network of white houses around a marvellous Romanesque church, surrounded by a wild landscape and imbued with an evocative atmosphere: a long windswept sea awaits you, with immense white sandy beaches, picturesque gypsies wandering around the small squares with guitars and black hats, fortune tell ers reading palms and many small restaurants where you can sample the region’s delicacies. The charm of this village is incredible: you will feel as if you have been there before in another life.
It is also an excellent base for calmly exploring the Camargue: we recommend that you set aside two or three days for a thorough, unhurried visit to discover the lush nature that surrounds Saintes-Maries de la Mer. In fact, in this marvellous land, animals live in the wild and the best way to see and photograph them is to immerse yourself in nature through the many paths on foot or by bicycle, binoculars in hand. You will find all the maps at the tourist offices in the town.
With just over 2,500 inhabitants, the village of Saintes Maries de la Mer attracts thousands of tourists every year who come to delight in its picturesque alleyways, to experience its centuries-old traditions, to stroll along its windswept seafront and to taste its special flavours.
But visiting this sunny town is also an opportunity to admire its bewitching surroundings: the wild Camargue, its pink flamingos, its bulls, its wild horses and its festivals. Whether summer or winter, you will be fascinated by these untamed and wild landscapes.
It is impossible to go to Saintes Maries de la Mer without visiting this emblematic village building.
Built in the 9th and 11th centuries at the mouth of the Rhône, in pure Romanesque style, this fortified church was intended to protect the town from the incursions of Saracen and Arab pirates, who attempted to invade and plunder the village. Don’t forget to climb to the roof of the church: from the panoramic terrace you can enjoy a wonderful 360° panorama of the entire Camargue, especially in the golden hour of sunset.
Don’t miss a visit to the crypt where you will find the statue of Saint Sara, the Black Virgin, and the relics of Saints Marie-Jacobé and Marie-Salomé, found in the church in 1448. During the festival of the gypsies, the crypt is immersed in a truly unique atmosphere: the many lit candles create mysterious lights and shadows, enveloped in an incredible warmth while the statue of the saint, festively adorned, is kissed by pilgrims amidst religious ecstasy and uncontrollable crying.
Every Monday and Friday morning, the colourful market of Saintes-Maries takes place. It is an excellent opportunity to come into contact with the local population and to discover regional products.
You will be enchanted by the colours and scents of the stalls, which display local handicrafts, but above all, the best gastronomic specialities of the region such as anchoïade, bohemienne (a speciality of vegetables, rice and Camargue bull), olive pâté, cured meats, cheeses and amazing wines.
You will be able to take home all the flavour of the Camargue and perhaps improvise a delicious snack by the sea.
One of the symbols of the Camargue is a very special cross, formed by the union of an anchor and a heart. But do you know what it means? The cross represents faith, the anchor embodies hope and the heart charity: these are the three virtues that should guide man. Together they form a kind of trident, reminiscent of the gardians, the Camargue cowboys.
The very first Camargue cross, made by a blacksmith from Les Saintes, can still be seen and is located at the top of a stone column on one side of Pont du Mort, at the western entrance to the village.
These are the traditional houses of the famous Camargue shepherds, also used by fishermen. These huts are emblematic of the Camargue, many scattered throughout the Rhone delta. With their whiteness, blue doors, Camargue cross on the façade and sloping thatched roofs, they are one of the most authentic sights in town.
Some of these pretty little houses, designed to turn their backs on the mistral, sheltering from the cold of the sea, can be seen in Saintes-Maries, near the historic Camargue cross, a few steps from the beach. Some are even rented on Airbnb.
If you want to admire the bursting nature of the Camargue and the surroundings of Saintes Maries de la Mer at close quarters, we recommend renting a bicycle. Pedalling eastwards, following the Digue à la mer, the raised dike separating the sea from the marshes, you can admire wonderful views of sun-broken land, cobalt-blue sea, iridescent ponds and pink flamingos flying over your head.
To reach the Phare de la Gacholle, 11 km to the east of the town, you will need about 4 hours, cycling 26 km round trip. Remember to take water and provisions with you, because for several kilometres you will not find any fountains or refreshment points. In late spring and especially in summer, set off armed with protective sun cream, lip stick (especially for those suffering from cold sores), comfortable clothes and a windbreaker. In fact, on this route, the wind is unforgiving and you risk getting sunburn and sunstroke.
The route is not demanding, since it is flat, but in some places it can be tiring: in fact, the road is completely unpaved, full of holes and in some places even covered with sand. Once you have arrived at the lighthouse, you can also continue towards Salin de Giraud: the road leads to the wildest and most isolated, but for this reason incredibly fascinating, parts of the Camargue. Incredible colours, pink flamingos, breathtaking views.
Considering the photo stops, the possibility of access to the sea in some places and the length of the path, the hike can take up to a full day. We would like to remind you that from the lighthouse onwards towards Salin de Giraud, the first place to stop for a meal is the Mas de Saint-Bertand, an old farmhouse with a wonderful, refreshing dehor under the plane trees: here, terroir dishes are served amidst sculptures made from rusty farm tools.
Please note that this area, which can only be visited on foot and by bicycle, is a labyrinth of elevated paths in the middle of marshes and the sea. Be careful not to get lost and stay on the main tracks, especially if you are travelling with children.
If cycling is not your thing, you can also reach the lighthouse by car, following the D36B road for 17 kilometres to the lighthouse parking area. At the lighthouse, but only in spring and summer, there is an exhibition illustrating the coast and its wildlife. At other times, only the picnic area is accessible, but without drinking water.
A stone’s throw from the town centre and the sea, these beautiful all-white arenas were erected in 1930 and are home to many local events. Here, from Easter to September, the famous Camarguese non-bloody bullfights take place: these bullfighting shows involve neither the wounding nor the death of the bull.
In fact, the skill of the participants, young men dressed in white with a red sash around their waists, is to challenge the bull by trying to tear off a rosette hanging from its horns. Amidst singing, popular dances and parades of guardians, bullfights are part of the culture of this very special city and are an unmissable event for its inhabitants and tourists alike.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
Every 24 and 25 May, Saintes Maries de la Mer celebrates the festival of the gypsies, Le Pèlegrinage des Gitans: every year, some 15,000 gypsies arrive from all over Europe, like their ancestors before them. Pilgrims of all ages and generations gather in this corner of the Camargue to venerate Saint Sara, their patron saint, whose remains are preserved in the crypt of the church.
According to legend, Saint Sara, the black servant of Mary Salome and Mary Iosé, who were present at the cross of Jesus, undertook a long journey from Egypt with the two saints after the resurrection and landed on the village beach where she was welcomed by the local gypsy community.
Although she is called a saint, she is not recognised as such by any of the major religious denominations. Worshipped by Roma throughout Europe, on the occasion of this great pagan festival, the gypsies decorate her statue with sumptuous clothes and jewellery that change every year, then carry it in procession to the beach and into the sea, where the blessing of the gypsies takes place, to commemorate the Saint’s landing in this way.
During this festivity, the whole town comes alive and becomes the focus of an incredibly exciting celebration: not only processions followed by entire families of weeping gypsies, but also heartfelt popular traditions such as the butteri race to the bullring, the inauguration of the non-bloody bullfighting season,les courses camarguaises and the Provençal horse games .
Travelling to Saintes Maries de la Mer on the occasion of this spectacular occasion is a unique experience in Europe, where you can witness the deepest culture of this region.
Accommodation of all types abounds in Saintes Maries de la Mer: to sleep in the town and the surrounding areas, you can choose from luxury hotels by the sea, charming houses in the middle of nature, Gardians’ chalets, rented chalets, B&Bs and campsites, depending on your needs and budget.
Remember that during the period of the gypsy pilgrimage and ferias, the city is taken by storm by tourists. It is therefore preferable to book your accommodation well in advance to find the best solution for your stay in Saintes Maries de la Mer.
Saintes Maries de la Mer is located in one of the most remote corners of Provence, far from the main tourist routes. The best and most convenient way to get there is certainly by car, for total freedom of movement.
If you have chosen to reach Saintes Maries de la Mer by plane, you can book a flight to Marseille airport, where you can rent a car and be completely autonomous.
In the event that you prefer to use the means of transport, we anticipate that travel becomes much more complicated. In fact, you will either have to use a Flixbus to Arles and from there continue to Saintes Maries de la Mer, or arrive at Marseille station, take a train to Arles and continue by bus to the Camargue town.
Saintes Maries de la Mer unfortunately does not have a train station. To use the train, you will first have to go to the Avignon or Nîmes TGV stations or the Arles or Aigues Mortes stations and then continue by bus.
The most frequent bus connections to Saintes Maries de la Mer are:
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A place of pilgrimage and a seaside resort, Saintes Maries de la Mer is located in the Bouches du Rhône department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region.