Our furthest journey eastwards for this holiday took us along the Mediterranean Coast (map) away from Sète, near to beach resorts such as Carnon Plage and the port of La Grau de Roi and past the modernistic pyramid/ziggurat buildings of La Grand Motte. Driving alongside the shallow coastal lagoons known as étangs we caught our first sight of the famous Camargue flamingoes in the Étang de Perois and the Étang de l’Arnel near to Palavas les Flots.
Our first stop was the ancient and well known town of Aigues Mortes (pictured) from which the Crusaders set sail, its curtain walls solid and dominant in the flat landscape alongside the Sète Canal. I remembered this place from a previous visit and had always wanted to go back but somehow this time I was disappointed. Compared to walled cities I have seen in other parts of France in recent years, in particular Guérande in South Brittany and Brouage in Charente Maritime, Aigues Mortes seemed to be more tourist orientated than I remembered and it was packed with sightseers, including us of course. We found it particularly difficult to park, especially as some of the car parks were not available to us with the height of our car and roof box. I would have liked to have walked a circuit of the walls but this was just too difficult for our party, particularly in the extreme heat. However, away from the shops, the ancient structure was just as fascinating as I remembered and outside the walls, we could see the distant piles of Camargue salt. For centuries salt from the “salines” of the Camargue was transported by boat along the Mediterranean coast, and then inland through the mountains by mule along the Route de Sel. I would like to go back to Aigues Mortes again sometime, though would choose to go out of season, particularly when the weather was cooler.
We wanted to visit the Camargue, a flat area of land in the estuary of the Petit Rhône famous not only for its salt pans but also for its flamingoes, wild white horses and black bulls, which are rounded up by Camargue ‘cowboys’ known as ‘Guardians’. We were glad to see the bulls out in the pasture in their natural surroundings and were sorry to see that bullfighting of any sort took place. We were unconvinced by the publicised lack of cruelty, said to be kinder than the better known Iberian bullfights as here the participants aim to snatch ribbons from the bull’s horns. Our destination was St Maries de la Mer on the western side of the Petit Rhône as it enters the Mediterranean which owes its name to the legend that around the year 40 a boat without sail, oars or supplies was launched in the Holy Land, drifting across the Mediterranean until it came ashore at this site. The refugees in the boat were: Mary Jacobe, mother of James and sister of the Virgin Mary; Mary Salome mother of the apostles James the Great and John; Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha; St Maximinus; Cedonius, who was born blind but cured and Sarah, the servant to the first two Marys. Though on landing most went their separate ways, Marie Salome, Marie Jacobe and Sarah remained in the Camargue and eventually were buried in the oratory to the Virgin built to mark their safe landing. The tombs of these three saints became a cult centre, attracting pilgrimages for the past nineteen centuries.
At the centre of the resort town of St Maries de la Mer is the fortified 9th Century Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, which replaced the oratory. In its crypt the focus is on St. Sarah (or Sara) the Black, the patron saint worshipped by many gypsy or Roma peoples across Europe. We entered the cool of the church from the baking heat of the late afternoon, descending into the crypt which was so filled with candles that the low vaulted roof was black with the soot of centuries. It felt as if we had walked into an oven. The dark faced and richly dressed statue of Sarah stood in one corner surrounded by written prayers, flowers and offerings. We were glad to leave the oppressively uncomfortable atmosphere of this superstitious place and return to the relative cool outdoors.
Arles and Nimes with their Roman ruins and the hilltop city of Les Baux de Provence, which we had so admired from the Tour de France coverage on television this year were close by, but it was late and they would have to wait for another day. In the end, we never went back, partly due to the volume of traffic in this area which added so much time to our car journeys. Sometimes it felt too much like driving in the London rush hour! They will all have to wait for another holiday, perhaps at a quieter time of year.