Trail Of The Unexpected : Les-Saint-Maries-de-la-Mer

'Biblical figures ran ashore here'
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The Independent Travel

AD40 was a busy year in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, at least according to local legend: Mary, mother of Jesus, plus Mary Magdalene and other prominent Biblical figures, ran ashore at this small town on the shore of the Camargue. Other maritime locations around the planet make parallel claims; St Michael's Mount in Cornwall was once visited by Jesus in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, and that story has done the tourist trade no harm either. But testing the claim provides an excellent excuse for a journey to the end of the world - or at least the Rhône.

The great river of the Midi rises at Andermatt, high in the Swiss Alps - but I wanted to see where it dissolved into the Mediterranean. By the time the Rhône reaches the venerable city of Arles, it has already begun to fragment; the Petit Rhône wanders off to the south-west, while the Grand Rhône meanders south-east. The triangle of wetlands formed by these boundaries, and the Mediterranean, is the Camargue - a placid region that seems unrelated to the rugged terrain of the rest of Provence, and is one of the most fascinating in France.

Once you cross the Grand Rhône at Arles, and shake off the city's retail entrails, the geography is transformed. The Camargue is as flat as a crêpe, beneath an almost endless sky. France's delta comprises a patchwork of terrain: grassland, where wild horses roam; lakes that are home to hundreds of other species of birds; and a combination of the two, in the form of paddyfields - Camargue, terre de riz, as the signs proclaim.

On a bicycle, or on foot, you can veer away from the main road that unravels to the sea, and take a track through the wetlands. I made the journey shortly after dawn, just in time for the cacophonous morning conference of the flamingoes. These pale pink creatures provide the antidote to the placid scenery. Your journey is enlivened by the flurry of watery activity as they search for breakfast, or by the occasional vivid fly-past as they flock to another location.

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is on the way to nowhere, which partly explains its appeal: the small town feels far more relaxed and unpretentious than some other resorts on the Mediterranean. It is also a working town, with La Cabine des Pêcheurs - a kind of duty office for the fishermen of the Camargue, which remains open late into the evening.

The splendid soundtrack of the region continues. At my beachside hotel, with the lovely name of Les Vagues, I threw open the window to listen to the whisper of the sea.

And those whispers about a Biblical connection? The town has become a place of pilgrimage for many of Europe's Roma population; the imposing church is said to contain the relics of St Sarah - the servant of the Marys, and the patron saint of the Roma. Later this month, and again in October, they will gather to celebrate their saint, and swap stories at the edge of the world.

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