Provence. The Camargue: a trip to the country of wild horses and gipsies
Provence. The countryside
After touring the cities of Provence, which we saw here http://culturehikes.com/en/provence-travel-france-mediterranean-light-cities/, now it’s the countryside’s turn. I was fortunate to know the Provence countryside when I participated in a voluntary restoration program in Graveson, a village near Avignon.
In return for the work of our multinational volunteer team, in our free time, we travelled through the cities and villages of Provence. I had visited the cities myself before, but the countryside is harder to visit without locals guiding you.
Due to the large volume of material, I will present the Provence countryside in three parts.
Camargue. Passing the night in the Rhone Delta. The country of wild horses
We start exploring the countryside with the most special part of Provence: the Camargue.
The Camargue is the area that corresponds to the Rhone Delta, the largest river delta in Western Europe. It’s also a natural park, one of the most protected in the world.
As much as I recommend to you to see it in the daylight, that much I don’t recommend to you to spend the night there, as we did. Never in my life have I been bitten by so many mosquitoes… Very natural when we talk about an immense wetland.
For those who are immune to mosquitoes, however, the experience is unique, although it’s normally against regulations (Nevertheless, the police officers who saw us free camping allowed us to stay, provided we didn’t light a fire. Perhaps it was because Francis, the stonemason who oversaw us at work and brought us here, was very nice. But here it’s the Mediterranean. Don’t try it in the north).
The Camargue is mainly famous for the famous Camarguais white horses, living in semi-feral conditions here. They are driven by the Cowboys guarding the cattle of the area (including bulls exported to Spain for bullfighting).
They allow the horses to run freely in the park and round them up periodically, for medical treatment etc. Their spectacle is something unique.
Wild horses of the Camargue. Source: Saint-Zach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: EmmaLouisa97 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Camargue, however, has not only horses. A great number of rare birds also find refuge here. Source: Julien Vincent (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Holy Maries of the Sea (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer). A very special village
Inside the Rhone Delta and the Camargue, on the Mediterranean coast, lies one of the most peculiar villages of France and all of Europe: the Holy Maries of the Sea (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer).
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer from above. Note the church – fortress in the centre. The Camargue is stretching in the back. It’s on the beach lying on the right that we camped. Source: Jean-Louis Vandevivère [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, as Vincent Van Gogh saw it. In the centre dominates the church – fortress of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (The Virgin Mary of the Sea)
The area has been inhabited since antiquity. In Christian times, the village became known as Notre-Dame-de-Ratis (Virgin of the Ship). The reason was the tradition that the three Maries who discovered the tomb of Christ empty (Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome) arrived here by boat, evading the enemies of Christ. Interestingly, the same tradition exists for the village of Maries in Zakynthos.
Later the village was named Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (Virgin of the Sea). The church – fortress in the centre of the village has the same name.
A church and a fortress in one
The church we see today was built from the 9th to the 12th century. It also served as a fortress and shelter from the pirate raids of the Vikings initially and the Saracens later on. Inside there is a source. Thus, the inhabitants could stay in the church for several days.
The Virgin Mary of the Sea. It was built as a fortress because of pirate raids. Source: Wolfgang Staudt from Saarbruecken, Germany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The sanctuary of the church
The interior of the church is typically Romanesque: small openings and simple lines. Source: Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
In the 15th century, someone discovered the remains that are believed to belong to Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome.
The gipsy capital
In 1838, the village was named Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and a little later the famous gipsy pilgrimage was established. Gipsies gather once a year for a religious festival in honour of Saint Sarah.
According to tradition, the dark-skinned saint was the Egyptian maid of the three Maries. In another version, Sarah was a local woman who welcomed the three Maries. In the crypt of the church there is a statue of Saint Sarah.
The crypt of the church and the statue of Saint Sarah. Source: M.S. (Own work (own Photo)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Sarah. Source: Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ritual dives during the pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Perhaps an indication in favour of the theory of the gipsies coming from India. Source: Fiore S. Barbato [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We didn’t stumble upon the pilgrimage. But we listened to gipsy music from a small group of musicians in a bar (before going to sleep at the beach). If you want to get an idea of the gipsy celebration in their international capital, click here
But the acquaintance of the Camargue is just the beginning of discovering the beautiful countryside of Provence. Therefore, the tour will continue in subsequent articles. Stay tuned.
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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