France Travel Planner by Tom Brosnahan & Jane Fisher   Spellbound: A Story of the Camargue
by Posie Beam, a writer, voice artist, equestrian, and former diplomatic wife who raised her family in Morocco, Burundi, Algeria and France. She lives on a horse farm in Viginia.

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The Camargue...a wild, watery wedge of land between France's Grand and Petit Rhône rivers as they make their way to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a land rich in flora and fauna, alive with wildflowers and wild birds, black bulls and white ponies, and Les Gardians, men-of the-earth, who look after them.

It’s a land unto itself, so old that the demi-god, Heracles, traveled through it on his way to the Isles of the Hesperides in the Alboran Sea. It’s a land where the Christian God and more primitive gods blend to create a special union of man and nature.

On a bit of coast just east of the Petit Rhône river is an ancient town with a history steeped in myth. One tale has it that forty years after the birth of Christ, Marie Jacobé, sister of the Virgin, Marie Salomé, mother of Lazarus, and four others were abandoned on the sea near Egypt in a barque without a sail or oars or provisions. Sarah, the black servant of the Maries was left behind in despair. Marie Salomé threw her robe on the water and it became a raft by which Sarah was able to join them on the barque.

Through divine guidance, the boat grounded on the spot known today as Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. There, the women built a small crude chapel.

Although the four others went their separate ways, the two Maries and Sarah lived out their lives in this sacred place and after their deaths, their remains were placed in the Chapel. Sarah, mysteriously emerged as the Patron Saint of Gypsies and each year toward the end of May, Gypsies from far and wide gather in the area of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to honor her.

When I told the children that this was where we would be going for the five-day Ascension Week holiday in May, they freaked out. My son Jeff, a senior in high school, said it sounded like the most uncool place on the planet. What would he tell his friends? Couldn’t we go to Nice? That would be cool, and he thought his friend Elizabeth was going there.

Jocelyn, a tenth grader, said she would die being away from “the Champs”, meaning Paris's Avenue des Champs Élysées, where she and her friends were wont to hang out at one or another of the Métro exits to see who was coming and going.

Kate, who was only in second grade, announced that she hated long car rides, but she would spend all day riding a pony. I told her that the Camargue was famous for its beautiful white ponies.

It was a good start.

We had come to Paris to live in the mid-1980s and were focused on getting used to its rhythms and ways, trying to fit in. I firmly believed that travel and tourism around the country were very important and that this 5-day holiday was a great opportunity.
The trip from Paris to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was a twelve-hour drive. We broke it up by stopping for a night at Le Puy in the Auvergne region, a town with bizarre rocky outcroppings and famous for its lace.

At noon the next day, we stopped for lunch in Nîmes, where the André family fabricated its now ubiquitous serge de Nîmes, or “denim”. Then, we stopped one more time at Arles, the doorway to the Camargue, and wandered through an open-air market.

On our way back to the car, a troop of strolling minstrels appeared and bade us follow them. As if under a spell, we allowed ourselves to be led to an ancient courtyard where the troop enacted a medieval morality play in medieval French.

The kids were thrilled…not.

So, it was the afternoon on the second day of the holiday when we started across the Pleine de la Camargue.

It was soon evident that we had entered a different world.

The landscape became increasingly empty. The road became straight and flat. Then everything began to look straight and flat except the sun, which looked round and flat above the straight flat horizon. The trees looked like cardboard cutouts against a flat sky. It looked like a background with no foreground and we were the only things moving around in it.

It felt lonely, and creepy, and we became apprehensive. It was nothing like what I had read about, nothing like what I expected, and I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in pressuring the kids to spend the holiday on a trip that wasn’t cool, but getting consensus on anything else hadn’t worked either. So here we were.

I had confirmed our reservations at a hotel in Les Saintes Marie before leaving Paris, so we reassured ourselves that we’d be fine once we got there.

The road followed the westerly meanderings of the Petit Rhone for a while and then turned due south. A little farther on, we came to a fork in the road in the middle of nowhere with a crude signpost indicating that the left fork went to Les Saintes Maries and the right fork went to a place called Aigues-Mortes, a gloomy sounding pair of words meaning “dead waters”. It was described in our guide-book as a melancholy country of swamps whose whole value is in its sunsets.

What were we getting ourselves into?

As I understood it, the Ascension Week holiday in France begins at noon the day before Ascension Day, which is always on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter, and lasts through the weekend. What I did not know was that it is also a rite of spring when all the pallid, winter-worn, sun-starved souls from the north race madly, desperately, joyfully to the beaches in the south and cast off their clothes, hungry to be touched and warmed by the sun. To be toasted to a golden brown is a moral imperative. Every minute counts.

So, when we arrived at Les Saintes Maries, instead of entering a quiet, picturesque seaside village as I had imagined, we were plunged into a colorful carnival-like scene thronged with boisterous people, who had spent the day at the beach. There was a Ferris wheel, street entertainers, vendors, loud music, balloons, flags and gaiety. We were feeling much better as we made our way through the crowds and found our hotel.

They said they’d never heard of us.


After trying to convince them otherwise, we gave up and naively asked if they could help us get a room somewhere else. They laughed.

Hotel L'Abrivado, Les SAintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
A hotel room? Now? Are you kidding?

"Ah, non…….c’est impossible.”

Absolutely every room and every bed, without exception, would be taken. We would have to go back to Arles to find a room. They must have thought we were out of our minds to show up on the evening of the second day of Ascension week and expect to find accommodations, reservations or not.

We had been living in France long enough to have picked up on the fact that if you don’t keep up, or if you step out of line, you lose your place. But in Les Saintes Marie-de-la-Mer, it became a lesson well learned.

Jocelyn begged to stay in Les Saintes Maries anyway, room or no room, because it looked like it could be even more fun than the Champs.

“We could sleep on the beach or just stay up all night.”

“Sounds like fun,” I said quickly before anyone else could second the motion, “but I need a bed. Now, please get in the car.”

Katie whined that she wanted to see ponies and I was happy to be able to tell her with conviction that we’d definitely see ponies tomorrow. Jeff threw in his two cents saying in a deadpan voice, “I want to go to Aigues-Mortes.”

No more than ten minutes after leaving Les Saintes Maries, Jeff suddenly cried out, “Hey! Katie. Look…….ponies!”

Ponies in the Camargue, Provence, France

We all turned to look. There on the left was a cluster of buildings and some paddocks. In one of the paddocks close to the road, was a small band of white ponies that no one could remember having seen when we passed going the other way. Anyway, there they were and I slowed the car for a better look.

“Hey! Rooms available!” Next to a sign identifying the farm as Le Mas des Barres, was another sign that said, “Hotel-Restaurant. Rooms available”. Really?

We hardly dared hope as we turned into the lane that led to the main building. I found the owner in the dining room and gave him our sob story. He came out to the car and looked us over. Then he told us his rooms were all taken and he was very sorry about the sign. He did not say that two days into this holiday, we should have known that there would be no empty rooms, sign or no sign.

However, he studied us a moment more obviously mulling something over. Then he told us that he had a friend who was fixing up an apartment to rent out. He offered to call him and ask if the apartment was ready enough to accommodate guests. He disappeared into another building and returned a few minutes later with good news. We had a place to stay. He suggested we go back to Les Saintes Maries, have dinner, and his friend would be here when we returned. What luck!

So back we went to Les Saintes Maries. We ate on tables set up outside, stuffing ourselves on fish and pretending we knew what was going on.

The town was so lit up we didn’t notice until we were leaving, that night had come. As we headed back to Le Mas des Barres and the lights of Les Saintes Maries disappeared behind us, we were gradually absorbed by an inky blackness the likes of which none of us had ever experienced. There was no moon, no stars, no lights from the windows of houses or from other cars. There was nothing but our own headlights to tell us we were on solid ground.

The darkness was total. For three kids from Paris, the City of Light, it was unnerving to say the least.

Nor did it help that the ten-year-old cult movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was still running in Paris in its own theater, and was still regularly attended by loyal fans.

In his most high-brow accent, Jeff intoned a couple of the first chilling lines...

It seemed that fortune had smiled on Brad and Janet and they had found the assistance that their plight required.” And then in a low ominous tone…or had they?

Back at Le Mas des Barres, we found the owner having a glass of wine with his friend, whom he introduced as Monsieur Giran, owner of Le Mas de Frigoules. Without further ado, the two men threw a mattress into the bed of Monsieur Giran’s pick-up truck and the next minute we were tearing down the road after him.

Again, we were swallowed by unfathomable darkness as we hurtled after Monsieur Giran trying to keep up.

I could hear Jeff and Jocelyn whispering to each other in the back seat. Then, obviously annoyed, Jeff asked, “Who is this guy? We don’t know him. We don’t know anything about him. He’s just some random guy who says we can stay at his place."

I was focused on not losing the “random guy” and didn’t answer.

Hello…you’re wet.

Yes, it’s raining, Jocelyn replied sweetly to Jeff’s stony voiced statement.

He went on. I think you better both…come inside….

“It’s not raining,” said Katie, confused.

Well babies, don’t you panic. By the light of the night, it will all seem all right. Why don’t you stay for the night….and maybe a bite….

Jocelyn chimed in… Come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab. I see you shiver with anticip…….(silence)…pation! they chanted in unison.

“You’re not being helpful,” I said.

But I too was beginning to feel on edge. I was unnerved going so fast trying to keep Monsieur Giran’s taillights from disappearing. Having studied a road map of the Camargue, I was under the impression that most of the roads off the main road were little more than causeways surrounded by water.

Not a pleasant thought.

Finally, Monsieur Giran slowed down and we were able to catch up and follow him closely as he turned right onto a dirt lane. A large, handsome, but dilapidated and very dark château appeared in the headlights.

We followed him around to the far side, where he stopped by an open door. In his pick-up’s headlights we could see a quaint looking, elderly woman standing just inside the doorway.

There were no other lights anywhere.

“Oh, no,” I thought to myself. If they had no electricity, they should have told us. Monsieur Giran spoke briefly to the old woman and then drove on past the house. We followed, and as we went by she grinned and slowly nodded her head.

The layout of buildings on a Mas, or farm, in the Camargue is simple. You start with the main house and attach new rooms and storage spaces as they are needed, one after the other. Monsieur Giran led us along a row of such additions until we were a good distance from the house. I had mixed feelings about that.

At the very end, he stopped. He jumped out of his truck, motioned for us to follow, then bounded up a wooden staircase attached to the outside of the end of the building. We hurried after him.

He waited for us on a small landing at the top. Then, somewhat theatrically, he produced a key and opened the door, reached inside, flicked a switch and we had light. Smiling proudly, he gestured for us to go in.

It was lovely. Everything was bright and gleaming and new and couldn’t have been more inviting. My appreciation, or maybe it was relief, was obvious.

After we went inside, M. Giran sprinted back down the stairs and hauled up the mattress. He laid it on the floor in the sleeping area by the two beds that were there. From a closet, he produced sheets and pillows, bid us a bonne nuit and left. Watching him pretty much explained why he drove so fast. He did everything that way.

I had left the car running and when we went back down to get our luggage, I moved it so that the headlights shone on the stairs. We unloaded our suitcases and I waited until the kids were at the top before turning the engine off. Then I locked the car and groped my way up in the dark. When I got to the landing, Jocelyn was standing there by herself looking out into the night.

She pointed to where she was looking and whispered, “What’s that?”

Hovering in the black void some distance away was a glowing, shimmering apparition. I squinched my eyes in an effort to make sense of it and couldn’t. It was an ovoid shape, not terribly big. Was it on the ground or hovering above? I had absolutely no idea or explanation except there was no denying it. It was there.

We stood transfixed for a minute until like the Cheshire cat, it faded away and melted into the blackness. I think I was too astonished to be alarmed. Or too tired. There had to be an explanation.

“Don’t scare Katie,” I said. Jocelyn looked at me and walked back into the room, into the light. I heard her whisper to Jeff that there was a ghost out there. “Ask Mom. She saw it.”

The kids took off their shoes and still fully clothed, huddled together on the spare mattress on the floor wondering if we would still be alive in the morning. I changed into my nightie and crawled into one of the beds, and as surreal as it all was, I was grateful to call it a day.

The next morning I woke up about 6:00 feeling wonderfully refreshed. The kids were still sound asleep. I grabbed a clean set of clothes and went into the bathroom to dress. The big new tub looked so inviting, however, that I filled it half full of hot water and got in.

By 6:30 I was ready to start the day. I decided to let the kids sleep while I had a look outside. I picked up the camera and quietly stepped through the door onto the landing and into a soft, heavenly morning light. The air was fresh and fragrant, and so gentle on my skin that I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths as if trying to inhale the feel of it.

Then I remembered the specter, the ghost, but when I looked in the direction where it had been, all I saw was a peaceful landscape of grasses and trees and wildflowers, and way in the distance a herd of black bulls. Or cows. After a few minutes, I went on down the stairs and walked around the corner of the building from where we had come the night before.

What greeted me there was too much to be taken in all at once. On the right, a pair of brown horses nickered to me from the other side of a crude rail fence under a grove of tall trees. Rays from the early morning sun filtered through the branches, while dozens of white doves fluttered and darted about in the gossamer shafts of light. Dozens of others, cooing softly, strutted purposefully around on the ground and yet others
perched in a long line on the ridge of the red tiled roof of the building. It took my breath away.

White Ponies of the Camargue, Provence, France
White ponies of the Camargue, Provence, France.

I walked over to the horses and they reached out to me, curious, or looking for a treat. I took a couple of pictures, then walked on until I came to a grassy lane that led away from the building. On the right side of the lane was a water filled ditch full of reeds. Suddenly a pair of wild ducks flew up and away, followed by a heron.

A little farther on, on the left, was a field of tall grasses and red poppies, and over the whole lay a delicate blanket of sparkling dew-bejeweled cobwebs. I leaned in over the grass and took a close look. In the center of each cobweb was a tiny brown spider.

Poppy Field, Camargue, Provence, France
The cobwebbed poppy field...

I followed the lane until it ended at a dirt road. There I turned right hoping the road might take me back towards the room. It occurred to me that if the kids woke up and found me gone it would not go over well, but I didn’t want to retrace my steps if I didn’t have to. The road curved around a copse of trees and disappeared for a short distance, but became visible again a little farther on. As I’d hoped, I could see that it led back to the building and passed it right next to the staircase that went up to the room.

As I came around the copse of trees, I was startled by the peculiar sight of a brightly painted gypsy wagon parked in a space between the trees and the road. Sitting on a step outside the wagon was a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman wearing a white gauzy kind of shimmery, luminescent dress that would surely glow in the dark. She sat like a statue watching me intently with an inscrutable gaze. I hesitated, then smiled at her and went on by. She followed me with her eyes, but there was no response.

I quickened my pace and hurried back to the apartment coming in just as the kids were waking. Or I woke them by coming in. In any case, it took them a couple of minutes to remember where they were, but before they had a chance to organize their thoughts, we heard the sound of horses moving quickly, accompanied by whistles and shouts. We hurried to the window.

Coming down the road I had just walked on was a large band of white ponies being driven by two riders. We opened the window and leaned out, actually looked down on them as they passed underneath. The riders looked up and waved. Then we hurried outside to the landing just in time to see them disappear around the corner of the building.

Camargue ponies, Provence, France
A line of Camargue ponies...

Katie’s unrestrained delight in this spectacle infected all of us. Thoughts about the twists and turns and unnerving events of the evening before never had a chance to re-surface. But I suspected that in spite of having scared themselves silly, Jeff and Jocelyn secretly reveled in that creepy scenario that so closely resembled the setting of their favorite horror show. We were all in high good spirits.

A few minutes later, Monsieur Giran came to the room to say we had been invited toLe Mas des Barres for breakfast. Katie asked him if she could ride a pony.

Mais bien sûr, ma petite, he said smiling. “The ponies will be waiting for you.”

“I’m pretty sure the beach is waiting for us too,” said Jocelyn.

“We have all day,” I said. “All day today, tonight and as much of tomorrow as you want before we head home. How about taking in a sunset at Aigues-Mortes?”

They turned to me in dismay.

“Just kidding,” I said, smiling, but thinking at the same time that making plans on our own was not working anyway. This “wild watery wedge of land …..steeped in myth,” seemed to be in charge of plans and was, in fact, doing a great job.

Yesterday we had experienced the flat loneliness of the Pleine de la Camargue, the exuberant festivities in Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer and for Jeff and Jocelyn, we had survived the darkness and drama of the Camargue at night. This morning, there were ponies for Katie and for me, a walk in a landscape “rich in flora and fauna, alive with wildflowers and wild birds, black bulls…..”, and for good measure, a ghostly Gypsy.

We had been given a glimpse, a taste of all those things, and more, that had compelled me to choose Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer as our destination for this holiday.

The only question left was…what would Jeff tell his friends? Was it cool to be “Spellbound?”

Posie Beam

About the Camargue

What to See & Do

Hotels in the Camargue

Le Mas des Barres

Rental/Hire Cars

Traditions of the Camargue


Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

About Provence


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Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France

Street scene in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France.

Fortress-like Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
Fortress-like Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France.

Paris Girls Secret Society, a novel: three girls, so many secrets...

Entrance to the Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
Entrance to the Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, with the symbol of the Saintes-Maries, Camargue, Provence, France.

Sign on the Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
"Church of Saints Marys, 9th, 10th, 12th centuries.

—Dedicated to Saints Marie-Jacobé and Salomé

—Constructed on the site of a Sanctuary already renowned in the 6th century

—Fortified to protect the people of the region and the priceless relics of the Saints from the Saracens

—In the Crypt is a statue of Saint Sara, Patronne of Gypsies."

Plaque in Provençal on the Église des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
Plaque in the Provençal dialect of Occitan: "Pope John XXIII, while he was Monsignor Roncalli the Apostolic Nuncio, came to this holy site on the 25th of May, 1948, for the 5th centennial of the discovery of the Holy Relics."

Château in the Camargue, Provence, France
Camargue Château...

Beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
The beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue.

Souvenirs for sale in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue, Provence, France
Beach-town paraphernalia...

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