A Provence cycling trip through the Camargue to Saintes Maries de la Mer
Saintes Maries de la Mer is the capital of the Camargue region, a popular seaside resort and an important place of pilgrimage for the gypsy community. It is, in short, a very interesting town. It’s whitewashed homes were built around its disproportionately big church during the XI and XII centuries and the town centre boast beautiful narrow paved streets that lead to the sandy beaches and, further afield, the vast expanses of reeds and horse and bull farms. After cycling for hours through the wild marshlands of the Camargue, Saintes Maries almost takes you by surprise as you approach. The famous church can be seen 10 kilometres outside of the town and was strategically built from the IX to the XI century as a look out for pirates who terrorised the seas and threatened invasion.
Cycling in Provence: reaching the gypsy town
Saintes Maries de la Mer is a pilgrimage destination for the Gypsy community throughout Europe. They gather here yearly for a religious festival in honour of Saint Sara.
The French believed she was Mary Magdalene's daughter, and she was also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the black). Dark-skinned Saint Sara is said to have possibly been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys – Mary Jacob, Mary Salomé and Mary Magdalene. After the death of the 3 Mary’s, Sara drifted on a boat at sea and arrived on the shores of Provence, in Saintes Maries. Every year, on May 24th, the gypsy community gathers in the town, setting up camp in the streets, squares and along the seafront. The congregation lasts up to 10 days for this is an important celebration and many children are baptised in the church. The statue of Sara is carried by the Gypsies from the church to the sea and then back to the church, accompanied by music, dance, and the ringing of the church bells.
Saintes Maries de la Mer – enjoy a lively cultural festival on your self-guided Provence cycling trip
There are many festivals that take place throughout the year in the town. Here, we have picked out the one’s that really represent the heritage and traditions of the Camargue region and the gypsy culture that reigns.
The horse festival
Around the 14th July for 3 days, the emblematic white horse of the Camargue is the star of the show, along with the black bulls and gypsy music. The streets of the town are alive with processions, live music, equestrian films and books. The horse and bull farms are the beating heart of the Camargue and this festival is a real event to witness on your Provence cycling tour.
Bull fighting still plays a large part in the culture of the region, though it is less dangerous and brutal that the Spanish version can be. Around August 15th, famous matadors from Spain and Portugal show off their bull fighting skills in the arenas to the soundtrack of gypsy music. The main square in the town is transformed into an open-air market full of local produce and hand made souvenirs.
La Fête Votive
Perhaps the best festival to enjoy on your Camargue cycling stay is the Fete Votive. Around the 3rd week in June, all the locals, young and old, are dressed to the nine’s and adorn the streets and squares of the town with music, colour and dance. The gypsy spirit is ever present, and the horse and bull rearing culture is centre stage. A great way to discover the traditions that this town holds so dear, a real party atmosphere for all to enjoy.
A winter festival, a rare occurrence in France but one not to be missed if you are enjoying a cycling tour in France in the late season. On November 11th, the day begins on the beach with a huge communal breakfast, then the bells ring at 11am and the horse race along the sand begins. The ‘Camargue cowboys’ have 6km of sandy beach to show off their skills, strutting their stuff on horseback whilst attempting to control a herd of black bulls. The aim is to get the bulls from the beach to the arena in the town centre without the bulls escaping.