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LA CAMARGUE : the vast delta of the Rhône, south of Arles…
Just to the north of Arles, Provence’s chief Roman metropolis, the river Rhône divides into two : to the west the "petit Rhône" flows down to the "petite Camargue", Aigues Mortes, and les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and to the east the "grand Rhône" which embraces the salt works (Salin de Giraud) and the petro-chemical industrial complexes of Port St.Louis, Port de Bouc, and Fos sur Mer. Between and around them lies the vast delta of salt marsh known as the Camargue. Created by the ebb flow and collision of the great river from the north, swollen by melting Alpine snows, and from the southeast buffeted by a robust riposte of the "houle" (sea swell) which douses the salt flats, forever re-designing intricate patterns of pools, ponds, and lagoons "étangs", among sandbars and desolate marshland.
The drive south on the N.570 from Arles is an experience in instant "dépaysement" (physical and spiritual dissociation). Abruptly the earth loses its verticality : flat land, sea, and sky meet on a blurred horizon and the sunlight reverberates over a landscape comparable to none other in Provence.

Like the shifting coastline of this "terra infirma" a complex tangle of history, myth and religion clings to the Camargue. Resistant to rational investigation, It is steeped in conjecture, implausibility, and mystery.
Near enough to the mouth of the "petit Rhône" to serve as a trading post in pre-Roman times, les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer once boasted a chapel Beata Maris de Ratis (Our Lady of the Raft), mentioned in the will of Saint Cesaire, Bishop of Arles. A priory in the 11th century, known then as Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (Our Lady of the Sea), later a church, it was later fortified for defence against marauders arriving by land and sea.
The bon roi René d’Anjou Count of Provence, re-baptised it les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the 15th century when it became an important shrine and the town itself adopted this "new" name in the 19th century.


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