Surrounded by golden beaches in the spot where the Rhône River meets the Mediterranean Sea sits the whitewashed town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. As the capital of the Camargue region in the south of France, Saintes-Maries is a popular summertime destination made famous by the imposing Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer. Built as both fortress and refuge between the ninth and 12th century, its grand Romanesque steeple can be seen from miles away.
A 20th-century literary and artistic haven beloved by the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, Saintes-Maries has seen everyone from the Romans to the Vikings, Van Gogh to Bob Dylan. Today its narrow, winding streets and lively French restaurants bustle with summertime action.
Saintes-Maries is also a popular visit among pilgrims. Why? It’s all in the name. French for “Saint Maries of the Sea,” this is said to be where the Virgin Mary’s sister, Marie-Jacobe, and John the Baptist’s mother, Marie-Salone, washed up with their servant Sarah when they all fled from the Holy Land in a rudderless boat. In celebration, every May there is a lively Roma procession dedicated to Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies, and in October the two Maries get their own parade.
To get to Saintes-Marie you can take the 30-minute bus ride from Arles, 24 miles (38 km) north.