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Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer beach resort on the Camargue coast South France

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer [Photo courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/otsaintesmariesdelamercamargue/]


Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a small fishing village in the Camargue, which has become an important beach resort on the Mediterranean coast. Although the place is tiny, it is absolutely heaving in the summer. Saintes-Maries does have a certain charm and you can imagine that for centuries fishermen have dragged their boats and their catch up onto the beach - just as they do now.

What makes Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer stand out however, has been its historical association with Mary Magdalene and the succession of pilgrims that have visited it for centuries. Every year in May, over 10,000 Romani people make a special pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, to pay homage to the patron Saint of all Gypsy people.


Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer beach resort South France

saintes maries de la mer roof tops


We went to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer a couple of years ago, just at the end of the Covid confinement in France. Two things stuck firmly in my mind. Firstly, I thought that it was a quite a smart town. Yes there were the odd tacky tourist shops, but it wasn't like your standard beach resort. The centre of the town is very well kept and there were some beautiful old buildings. Secondly, I couldn't get over how friendly the place was. We arrived at lunch time and we were absolutely starving. My wife banned me from choosing the restaurants, because she knows that this normally involves me walking past all the restaurants in the town, doing a double loop, then triangulating with the TripAdvisor reviews, before developing an in-depth SWAT analysis on the top 3 choices. So she took charge and plumped for the second restaurant she saw. I was struck with horror. She had chosen a restaurant which also doubled as a PMU bar. I am the least snobbiest person you could meet and finding a 3 course Plat du Jour for €17.00 euros is right up my street. But a PMU bar was a step to far. For the uninitiated, a PMU bar in France is a cross between a spit-and-sawdust pub and a betting shop. They have the horse races on the TV screens, betting terminals and slot machines. It attracts a clientele who permanently have a small pencil behind one ear. If you want a fight, then the PMU bar is the place you will find it. 


saintes maries de mer horses


But we went in and much to my surprise, we had a fabulous meal. There was a specials board and I asked the Owner for the Octopus stew. He looked down at me and said "Malheureusement, Monsieur le Maire vient de commander le dernier". At which point, this huge guy, with hands like shovels comes over to our table. He was the Mayor of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. He said "Let's share the stew". And sure enough, when our food came out a few minutes later, he walked over to our table with an extra plate and he gave me half of his Octopus stew and I gave him half of my fish. I mean, where else is that going to happen?


saintes maries de mer houses france


The drive to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer from the city of Arles, follows a long straight road with flat land either side. You pass farms, lagoons and marshland. You get a sense that this landscape hasn't changed for centuries. When you finally arrive in Saintes-Maries, you have a real sense that you are at the end of the World, well at least the end of the road. 

We live near Cap d'Agde which is also a traditional French working class beach resort in South France. Saintes-Maries, is much the same. But there is a difference. The people in Saintes-Maries just seem to be in a better mood. In Cap d'Agde in August, the last 3km to reach the town is like a car park. The resort is absolutely rammed, the beaches are full and with all the water parks, theme parks and excursions, I think a family of 4 would quite easily spend a small fortune. Saintes-Maries is slightly different. I don't know whether it is the drive up to it, which helps to remove all the stress or the fact that there isn't range of attractions which soak up your money. But it just seems a simpler holiday experience. You have the great beaches, the view of the Mediterranean, the nice fish restaurants and the beautiful countryside. And it is as safe as house. I know which option I would choose.


Beaches at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

saintes maries de la merFarinette Plage beach restaurant, Saintes Maries de la Mer (Photo courtesy of https://www.farnienteplage.com/]


There are 4 main beaches in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer:


Arènes Plage, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The closest beach to the town is Arènes Plage. This is a large flat beach equipped with lifeguards, a first aid station, toilets and showers. Stone dykes shelter the beach from the winds and the waves. The beach is located close to the bullring, at the entrance to the harbour in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.


Plage Ouest, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

saintes maries farinette plage restaurantFarinette plage restaurant, Saintes Maries [Photo courtesy of https://www.farnienteplage.com/]


Plage Ouest is located out to the west of Saintes-Maries de la Mer. You walk past the harbour (on your left) and the Etang des Launes on your right and continue down along a raised promenade. This is a big, wide, open beach, which does get some decent waves. There are a couple of decent beach bars on the Plage Ouest. Calypso Plage is your typical beach bar with sun loungers, cocktails and a small menu. But Farienette Plage, which is right along at the end of the beach, is a much more upmarket affair. It almost has the feel of a fine dining restaurant. It also offers the usual service of sunbeds for hire. The Owner of Farinette Plage is Daniel Ubeda, a restauranteur who has run this beach restaurant since 2013. Prior to this, he was involved in restaurants in Montpellier. Ubeda is a member of the Conservatoire Grand Sud des Cuisines and the Association Française des Maîtres restaurateurs. I have just checked the menu on the website and it looks exceptional. You can blow the budget and go for a platter of seafood at €109 for 2 people (includes lobster, langoustines, oysters, mussles, etc), but by the same token, you can also choose a dish of Moules with a sauce at €18.00.

Visit Frienette Plage at www.farinette-plage.com. For reservations telephone: +33 04 90 43 39 98.


 Plage de la Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer

Just to the east of the centre of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, you will come to a small crescent-shaped beach called Plage de la Sainte-Marie de la Mer.

saintes maries de la merBoho beach bar, Saintes Maries de la Mer [Photo courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/otsaintesmariesdelamercamargue/]




Plage Est, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

saintes maries plage est


Plage Est is a huge long beach which runs for about 4-5 km, east from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer out towards the lighthouse at La Gochelle. The beach does have lifeguards dotted along the beach. But the water here is quite shallow and popular with families. Even in the height of summer, it is never a problem to find a quite spot on Plage Est. The beach provides a nice panoramic view back towards the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The beach is also very popular with horse riders out of season. At the far end of the beach there is a large sculpture made out of driftwood.

Plage Est forms a sandy Spit which separates the Mediterranean sea from the Etang de Monro, a large salt water lagoon frequented by colony of flamingos.


saintes maries plage est flamingos




The Gypsy Pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

gypsy procession saintes maries de la merGypsy Pilgrimage Saintes Maries de la Mer [Photo courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/otsaintesmariesdelamercamargue/]

A huge gypsy fair is held in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer every year towards the end of May. There is a grand procession throughout the town, which culminates in the statue of Saint Sarah, the patron saint of all Romany people, being carried down to the sea shore to re-enact her arrival in France.

But the story of Saint Sarah is just part of the historical legend surrounding Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the story helps explains the origins of the town's name. The story starts shortly after the Crucifixion of Christ, when many of his disciples were being hunted out of Palestine. One group of disciples boarded a boat, which according to legend had no sail or oars and was guided by God across the Mediterranean to Provence.

This group contained Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Maria Jacobe, Maria Salome and Lazarus' sister Mary Martha.



mary magdelene


Mary Magdalene is described in the Gospels (of Mark, Matthew and Luke) as one of the women who travelled with Jesus and helped support his ministry and she may or may not have been his wife, depending on which Gospel you choose to read. Certainly, the Cathars, who were a popular religious group in the Languedoc region during the 12th & 13th Centuries, believed that she was the wife of Christ. She was named as a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus (with Maria Salome) and was present at his burial. She was also the first to witness, alongside Jesus' mother, of his empty tomb and his resurrection.

On arrival, Mary Martha went north to Tarascon, Lazarus and Mary Magdalene went east towards Marseille and the other two remained in the Camargue. Marie Jacobe and Maria Salome built a small church and lived out their lives quietly. They started to convert the local population, including retired Roman soldiers to Christianity.

According to legend, they had a local gypsy servant Sarah, who has since been adopted as the patron saint of all gypsies. Rival accounts, state that Sarah in fact travelled with the Marys from Palestine. In the book, The Legend of the Saintes-Maries (1521), Sarah is portrayed as:


". . . a charitable woman that helped people by collecting alms, which led to the popular belief that she was a Gypsy . . ." 


Saint Mary Jacobe and Saint Mary Salome, both became patron saints of the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer.


gypsy fair saintes maries de la mer


Over time, this legend of the 4 Marys started to grow some legs. In 1279, an excavation ordered by the King of Naples at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, Provence, led to the discovery of the purported burial of Mary Magdalene. A huge Basilica was built on the site and even today, it towers over the town of Saint-Maximin.

In Dan Brown's popular book, the Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene was depicted as the wife of Jesus and after his Crucifixion, she fled to Gaul. She was sheltered by the Jews of Marseille and she gave birth to a daughter, named Sarah. The Catholic Church suppressed the truth about Mary Magdalene and the Jesus bloodline for 2000 years. The bones of the Mary Magdalene were entombed in a sarcophagus and buried beneath the La Pyramide Inversée, at the Louvre museum. Unfortunately, the Da Vinci Code, from an historical perspective, is a load of old guff.


The Musee Baroncelli, located in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the Camargue region.





Where to next . . .?

If you are planning a trip to the South of France in 2024, then Camargue is an excellent location. The Camargue is a stunningly beautiful part of Southern France and the largest river delta in Europe. This large area of salt marshes and wetlands is home to the famous pink flamingos, the white horses and the black bulls of the Camargue. The Camargue has more than 400 species of birds and is officially classified as a Regional Park in France. The historic city of Arles, lies in the centre of the Camargue and it was here that Vincent van Gogh painted some of his most memorable landscapes. You can also enjoy visiting the walled town of Aigues-Mortes.

If you are planning a trip to the Camargue or the South of France in 2024, then the following articles are a good source of local information:


Gypsy Pilgrimage - Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Find out the fascinating history behind the annual pilgrmage of Gypsies across Europe to the coastal resort of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their Patron Saint.


canal du midi franceAigues-Mortes tourist information

Aigues-Mortes was originally built as the principal port in the South of France. The walled town of Aigues-Mortes is now a mandatory stopping off point for visitors on any tour of the South of France.


beziers feria2

Best South France festivals 2024

See the full list of festivals taking place in the South of France during 2024. We cover everything from Jazz festivals to food festivals, wild parties, processions and medieval fairs.


beziers riverThe Camargue Region in South France

Discover the beauty of the Camargue region in Southern France, from the Pink flamingos, the White horses, the Black bulls and the special array of birdlife.


beziers airport south franceHoliday accommodation near the Camargue, South France

Go Languedoc provides high quality holiday accommodation across the South of France. Check out these stunning holiday villas & gites to rent in 2024 near Montpellier and the Camargue.


Cathars in LanguedocThe city of Arles: gateway to the Camargue

The ancient Roman city of Arles is the gateway to the Camargue region and is famous as the setting for many of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.



Contact Iain by Email if you have any particular questions you would like to ask about visiting Carcassonne and the South of France. If you liked the article then please share it with others using the Twitter and Facebook buttons below. I wish you a wonderful stay in the South of France. 



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