Bouches-du-Rhône (13460) Population: 2,232
Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer was a fishing village, built on an island in the heart of the Camargue, where the Petit Rhône joins the sea. The original village was grouped around the Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer church, spreading out as it grew. The town is not picturesque in the style of the medieval villages of the "back country". Today it's a compact seaside resort town, full of shops and activities oriented for the tourist trade. Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer has a wonderful location, on the sea and in the Camargue, and the atmosphere in the busy seasons is festive. Market day Mon, Fri.
You can visit Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer (and the Camargue) year-round. Summer has the warmest weather, the crowds, the activities and music. Off-season has the feeling of the sea, with long empty beaches, the cry of the seabirds, and a relaxing solitude. The gathering of the Gypsies in May is an exciting and famous period. During off-season holidays, such as "Toussaints" weekend, it's less crowded and the weather is cooler, but there's still plenty of activity.
The center of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer has some nice squares and several long streets reserved for pedestrians, and many, many shops, cafés and terrace restaurants. Although it can get very crowded in the Summer, there are sufficient number of services to cater to the visitors.
The main themes of restaurant menus are beef (taureau) or seafood, but there are plenty of other styles to choose from as well.
Church Rooftop Visit
You can climb to the top of the fortified church for an amazing 360-degree view across the town, countryside and seaside. The climb to the top is already an adventure, with 53 narrow steps in a tight spiral inside the corner tower to the roof.
At the top you can walk around the entire perimeter just inside the crenelated walls. Or, for a bit more (mild) adventure, you can clamber up across the thick tiles of the slanted roof to the ridge for an even better all-around view.
Entry cost is 3€ adults, 2€ kids 6-12 years (2017).
On a recent visit (2017) to the church rooftop in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer we were treated to a touching and romantic sight. With just a few hardy visitors here, high above the rooftops of this Medieval seaside town, a young man knelt and offered a ring to his true love. From the lady's reaction (pictured), she accepted — with a bit of applause from the other visitors.
Plage des Arènes is directly beside the town, on the sea-side of the arena (our photos). Plage des Amphores extends east of Plage des Arènes, still accessible from the town center. These two beaches together are 1 km long.
To the west, just past the small fishing port and marina, is Plage Crin Blanc, going all the way to Plage du Clos du Rhône at the mouth of the Petit Rhone. About 1-1/2 km of uninterrupted beach.
Plage Est (East Beach) begins just past Plage des Amphores and extends effectively several km past the seaside dunes to the area called Beauduc.
This is the most isolated beach area of Saintes-Maries. although there is some lifeguard service here during the summer.
In the eastern part of the Plage Est are the local Naturists Beaches.
Ancient Town Hall
A narrow building in the very center, topped with a sundial, was the Town Hall in the 19th century.
This also housed the Musée Baroncelli in the end of the 20th century (we visited during a 1996 tour of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer — our photo) but is now closed (2017).
24-25 May. The saint's day for Mary Jacobe is 25 May, and 24-25 May is the largest pilgrimage and celebration, and the annual gathering of the gypsies (gitans), who venerate their patron saint, Sarah. The gypsies, who start arriving during the preceding week, use the time of gathering for marriage requests and baptisms.
Oct 22 (nearest Sun). The saint's day for Mary Salome is celebrated by a weekend of festivities and events, including the procession to the beach for the blessing of the sea.
Arena - Bull Fights
The taureau named Garlan was renowned for his calm, his intelligence and his ability to anticipate his human opponent. In a 10 year career with 73 course camarguaise, Garlan won many trophies. In Nov 2015 he retired to a local ranch (manade).
Another bronze statue in front of the arena honors VOVO, a taureau that fought in all the arenas of the area from 1946 to 1955, when he retired to a more "productive" life style for another four years.
Ranches nearby to the town offer horseback tours of the Camargue, or sit-down tours in an open wagon-trailer driven around the Camargue in the area. Camargue "safaris" by 4x4 "jeeps" are available from agencies in the village. The Office de Tourism, by the seaside near the arena, has lists of the current offerings.
Le Petit Train Camarguais is a rubber-tired tourist train common in many towns, but with a difference. Instead of a tour around the town, this Little Train takes you on a 13-km (50 minute) tour of the surrounding Camargue. Its route is through the Camargue wetlands, along canals and rice paddies, with promised views of flamingos, black bulls, white horses and the rest of the local wildlife.
The tour is commented, including local history.
The "station" kiosk is on the south side of Ave Van Gogh, beside the Office de Tourisme. The cost is 7€ adults, 5€ kids (2017).
Vincent Van Gogh visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in June, 1888, where he gave drawing lessons to Paul-Eugène Milliet.