Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Provence: tourism & sightseeing
Visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Provence, France)
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is at the southern edge of the Camargue, in southern Provence and on the Mediterranean. It can be reached most easily from Aigues-Mortes to the west or Arles to the north-east.
On a thin peninsula jutting into the Petit-Rhone delta region, the town is almost completely surrounded by water, and numerous beaches and dunes are to hand, as well as the possibilities of exploring the Camargue region - indeed it is almost the only sizable town in the Camargue.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a small town, dominated by its church, and surrounded by attractive streets of simple white washed houses, many of them now shops focussing on the tourist market. There is a small active harbour in the town to amble around, with a couple of harbourside restaurants etc
The fortified church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is very artfully lit with halogen lighting, and the stone interior not over-cleaned, making it very atmospheric. You can see the statue of Sara in the church - go to the rear of the church and descend the stairs. There is then a separate entrance to the side of the church where you can ascend to the ramparts and look out over the town and the Camargue (there is a charge for this part of the visit).
Detailed visitor guide - a guest article for Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Tempting as it may be to discard Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as just another beach holiday destination in the South of France, that is simply not the case.
Much of the town’s charm lends itself to the fact that it is situated in the beautifully uncultivated Camargue, known for its wild white horses, bulls and flamingos. At first the little town appears to be typically French with groups of friends playing boules in Place de Gitan (the main square), children running down the street clutching baguettes and narrow cobbled streets. This French town however, is infused with a strong sense of all that is typically Spanish too. The town’s explanation for this inimitable mix derives from folklore as does the town’s name itself.
The name of the town - a little history
Legend has it that Marie Jacobé, the aunt of Jesus and Marie Salomé were washed upon the shores of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer from Palestine in the first century AD, thus giving it its name. On arrival, the women’s accompanying servant Sara is said to have vowed to protect the gypsies of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer having heard that their children were being killed, and in consequence she became their patron saint.
Nowadays the town still holds great importance for gypsies which explains the strong presence of flamenco music, dress and dance. (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a pilgrimage town for gypsies, who gather in great numbers in the town each May to commemorate Sara.)
At night the streets of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are filled with the celebratory sounds of live Spanish guitar and singing. A popular spot, just opposite the tourist office is La Siesta where every night, flamenco music bursts from the little stage at the edge of the café. With its comfy white chairs and fuchsia pink parasols this quirky space is perfect for either an aperitif or an after dinner coffee or cocktail. The bars either side of La Siesta have live flamenco music too but they are far enough apart that the groups never drown each other out or compete.
In terms of places to eat and drink, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has plenty to offer with or without the accompaniment of live music. L’Avenue Federic Mistral for example, is a single street dedicated to restaurants and cafes, several of which have very large full paella pans out the front in order to entice potential customers. A little way off the beaten track but still only walking distance from the centre is Bar de L’Etang in L’Etang des Launes.
If arriving in the evening, the first thing you will notice is the phenomenal sunset over the river just opposite the restaurant which of course offers the best view imaginable when dining. A classically French vibe is eluded and perhaps due to this, many guests are seen to be enjoying the favoured dish, steak-frites. Another very typical dish is gardiane de taureau, bull stew made with red wine usually accompanied by rice, which can be found in many of the town’s restaurants.
A favourite place amongst both locals and tourists is on a corner of Place de Gitan, which is well known for the boules tournaments it holds, is the stunning bar- restaurant La Bodega. Its leafy exterior is enchanting whilst inside the ambiance is warm and inviting. On one of the many little tables outside is the perfect setting for a glass of wine in the evening where there is no pressure to order any more than a drink and slowly unwind in the warm night air.
On the other hand, there are also larger tables both inside and out where you can order from a large range of delicious tapas, including octopus, as well as less adventurous options of pizza and salad. Also along the edge of Place de Gitan, is a real local hangout, Lou Gabian, which locals often flood to after long games of boules. A great way to catch this typically French game, relax and soak up the afternoon sun is to sit outside with an icy beer or coffee at a table overlooking the square.
When it’s not packed with people playing boules, the main square holds a market which is yet another example of how both the French and Spanish cultures intertwine. There are stalls selling everything from olives, cheeses and local French wine to flamenco dresses, fans and large brightly coloured hair flowers. It’s especially on market day (Monday and Friday) that you will see young girls wandering about in their Spanish frocks, waving about their fans, more to show off than to cool down. What’s more, being a town that hosts numerous bull fighting events, there are naturally also stalls selling bull terrine for those brave enough to try it.
Bullfighting and events
Charming as this little town is, it must not be left without having viewed some kind of spectacle at the arena, where nearly every night there are different events. For the more faint hearted or simply those who want easy entertainment there are often concerts by tribute bands and even comedy shows.
If it’s real culture that you are after however, the Bull Fighting events are incredible and particularly emotive when accompanied by a live flamenco group. Before buying your ticket though, it is important to be aware that you are letting yourself into not only something rich in cultural value but also something very gory and brutal. A lighter hearted event is Toro Piscine which runs twice a week during July and August and consists of a bull, various participants, a swimming pool and no killing.
Summer in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is full of fun so there are also a number of equestrian shows, bull riding contests and even performances with acrobatics on bulls.
Getting here by air
As described, this is one town with two potent cultures that flow and fuse seamlessly and beautifully as one. In this way Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer manages to abstain from being another soulless, boring beach town and is instead something really quite special. In order to reach this intriguing destination by plane, the closest airport is Nîmes followed by Montpellier and finally Marseille which is still only an hour away.
Map of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and places to visit
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Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is classified as a recommended detour town (plus beau detour)
Address: Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Arles, Bouches-du-Rhone, Provence, 13460, France || GPS: latitude 43.452, longitude 4.4286
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Sightseeing & tourist attractions to visit nearby
- Etang de Scamandre: site of natural beauty (20km)
- Towers and fortifications of Aigues-Mortes: national monument (23km)
- Saint-Gilles: secteur sauvegarde (25km)
- Saint-Gilles ancienne abbatialle (monuments on French pilgrim routes): heritage site (25km)
- Pointe de l'Espiguette: site of natural beauty (25km)
- Camargue: grand site of france (29km)
- Arles église St Honorat (monuments on French pilgrim routes): heritage site (30km)
- Eglise et cloitres de Saint Trophime, Eglise de Saint-Honorat des Alycamps (Arles): religious monument (30km)
- Roman Arles: heritage site (30km)
- Arles: secteur sauvegarde (30km)
The French version of this page is at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Francais)