We left Narbonne Plage in southern France and drove east along the Mediterranean coast with our GPS set on non-toll roads, weaving in and out of little villages and changing highways frequently. The A9 is the main toll road, but it’s full of trucks and other people going somewhere in a hurry – we aren’t in a hurry, and want to see as much of the countryside as we can. And we’ll know where we’re going when we get there.
East of Montpelier we headed back down close to the coast, where things flattened out and started looking a lot like Louisiana – many salt water bays, called etangs here and most either created or modified by earthworks built over the centuries, and rice fields. And we started to see flamingos, and horses – lots of horses. This region at the mouth of the Rhone River where it goes into the Mediterranean is called the Camargue, and has its own distinct flavor.
Europe has, or had, local wild horse strains before civilization crept in, and the Camargue is like the Everglades or the Okeefenokee because there wasn’t much incentive for neolithic farmers to settle it, so the strain of horses here survived into the present day. They’re white and some are still semi-feral, with a herd structure where they live out in the wetlands. Like many happy free creatures, though, they occasionally get pressed into service for cattle herding, pony rides for tourists, etc.
As we were driving along we see this sign – Stes Maries sur Mer. Sharon is captivated – she’s heard all kinds of stuff about this tiny town down on the beach. There’s a medieval legend that, like most medieval legends, imbues the local environs with mystical religious significance.
The legend is that the three Biblical Marys – either Mary Magdalene, Mary of Jacob and Mary Salome, or Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome – legends are like that – set sail from the Holy Land and landed here, along with Sarah, a servant, who was supposedly from upper Egypt, and therefore black. Of course, gender roles being somewhat restricted at the time, they had to bring along Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathia as escorts. Anyway, this New Testament All-Star team came ashore, and gave rise to all kinds of Da Vinci Code speculation about the hidden location of the Holy Grail etc.
We swing on into town and it quickly becomes apparent that RVs are not welcome here. Some of that may be due to the annual pilgrimage of Europe’s Romani population, who have adopted Sarah as their patron saint. Fifty thousand or so people show up in this town of a few thousand in late May every year, and they have a big festival and a grand procession from the church to the beach with the statue of Saint Sarah. I’m very happy that the timing of our visit didn’t coincide with all this excitement – I had enough trouble driving back and forth along the main drag while Sharon hopped out to go to the church to take photographs. She was mainly interested in seeing the Saint Sarah statue, and the idea of it being just a couple of blocks away was too much to resist.
I’d reverse directions at a traffic circle at one end, and then go down to a parking area a half mile away at the other end of town. There are signs all over – no RVs – and I got the stink eye from the local gendarmes just pulling over in the parking area to wait for the road to clear so I could do a U-turn. Anyway, I got a good look at the beachfront strip, there is a marina and many touristy things along the stretch of road I kept going back and forth along. I’d stop every time a pedestrian was anywhere near a crosswalk, just to kill time.
Eventually Sharon reappeared – she had only taken her iPad for photos, no purse, no money, and kept a secure enough grip on it not to get pickpocketed – and we headed back out of town toward Arles, where we spent the night. It was really good luck to be driving along and see a sign for such a world-famous place we had been hearing about for years and never thought we’d get the chance to visit – that’s what we’re trying to do on this European voyage, get those once in a lifetime chances to see things we have only read about.