An artery through Provence, the Rhone river fans out at its mouth into a marshy spread of ventricles to the sea. This region, called the Camargue, is host to a wildly different sort of habitat - and tourism - than much of the rest of France. Southward beyond Arles, industrial farmlands give way to an expansive mix of freshwater and saltwater marshes; they are home to the muskrat's whiskery cousin the ragodin, dozens of species of migratory birds, and a pure-white breed of wild Arab horse that, along with the hulking black bulls tended there, has made the area famous for its gardiens, or cowboys.
It was through this unexpectedly wild place that we sought our seaside treasure, Saintes Maries de la Mer. This sleepy beach town, popular in tourist season for its oceanfront horseback riding, has another more pious claim to fame: it is said to be here that the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe) came ashore after witnessing the empty tomb and the resurrection of Christ. Two of them apparently became beloved members of the community, and the weathered stone chapel (previously a Roman church, and a Celtic worship site before that) houses their relics. But a fourth character in the story remains a mystery: the beautiful Saint Sarah (also known as Sara-la-Kali, or Sarah the black). Her reliquary, as well as a beautiful wooden sculpture of her, are housed in the chapel's dark crypt amid a shrine of flickering prayer candles, and date back to the same interminable time as those of the two Marys. Her origins are unknown, but sources speculate variously that she was a servant to the Marys, another follower of Christ, or an African queen. The reasons for her sainthood are likewise unknown, but she has become the patron saint of gypsies, and each May there is a ritual gypsy pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Saint Sarah's reliquary is lowered from the chapel ceiling, and those visiting nomads reach for the healing power a touch is said to confer. Sarah's statue is then paraded outside, along with the statue of the two Marys in their little boat, which is taken down to the sea in a great procession.
But in the winter, this quiet little outpost confers a secret sanctity that goes deeper into the earth than even the chapel crypt, and farther out into the sea than the holiest vessel, as the rituals of human migration intersect those more ancient sacred patterns of beasts, seasons, and the sea. Strange encounters happen between migrants in Saintes Maries de la Mer, that hallowed place for travelers - tourists among them.
The first strange and wonderful thing that happened was at dinner. As we finished sopping crusty baguettes in the garlicky broth at the bottom of a steaming pot of local mussels, a pleasant, if limited, dialogue began between the adjacent table, who spoke little English, and ourselves. An older couple from north of Arles visiting their seaside home in Stes. Maries, they were excited to practice their English and happy to offer us advice about how to see the Camargue. (Our delightful hostess, who dropped everything and knocked a cat off a table with a menu, aided in this endeavor, and drew an extremely unhelpful map on a napkin.) Conversation continued through dessert (delicious île flottante - an ethereal meringue "island" floating in vanilla custard), and we found ourselves invited over for aperitifs and conversation. Since aperitifs and conversation are what one does in France after dinner, we accepted.
What a cottage it was! Scarcely larger than the 300-square-foot apartment we left in New York, it had a traditional thatched roof, a blazing hearth, and a porthole-shaped window overlooking the sea. We sat in front of the fire and talked about the town, politics in France and America, the philosophy of education, the promise of our youth, the catastrophe of global warming, and the merry lives of our hosts, Jacques and Jeannette - all with squints of concentration as we strained to decipher the others' language. The two of them had retired from happily multifaceted lives to a small farm in the mountains west of the Luberon, where, as Jacques put it, "Jeanette cares for ten animals: one horse, one donkey, four hens, three cats, and myself." The mention of France's 1968 student uprising prompted Jacques to proclaim that it was "certainly not a revolution! One person dies - only one!" - at which point I had the opportunity to form my single most coherent, intellectual French sentance of the whole trip: "La mort n'est pas la revolution, monsieur." It was a long, splendid night, full of happy incomprehension and general goodwill, and a truly unique experience for a pair of young foreign travelers.
The next morning we set off on foot for the Camargue Ornithological Center, a bird sanctuary a few kilometers inland. We encountered a fair bit of wildlife along the way: the warm, white flanks of a Camargue stallion; several leggy egrets; a number of species of ducks; a pair of ragodins paddling through the marsh; and a black-and-white, robin-sized bird that we have since seen in every town we have visited (in France, Spain, and now today in Dublin). But the real surprise came just as we approached the Parc d'Ornithologie, when we heard a powerful squawking.
Most experienced tourists will tell you that visiting France in February is inadvisable. While we don't agree, and have found many reasons to visit France in wintertime (not the least of which is the lack of tourism), the benefits of summer visiting had not gone unnoticed: there was a chill, and many things were closed, and there weren't any flowers in Provence. Even truffle season was in its final, overpriced throes. The fermé feeling had been heightened during the hotel fiasco at our previous destination, and by the time we arrived in Stes. Maries, we had just about come to the conclusion that though we were certainly making the best of the "off" season, we weren't in France at exactly the right time for anything.
We were wrong.
We were in France - in the South of France, in the Camargue, in tiny Saintes Maries de la Mer, at the ornithological park - at exactly the right time for the flamingo migration. Not only that, but the freshwater ponds in the park are their winter breeding grounds for one month in January, and apparently the only one in France. There were literally thousands of them, shrieking and stalking along on their hot pink legs and turning their awkward heads from side to side and proclaiming their fiery wingspans like an absurd dance from Fantasia. Most improbably, they flew in pairs and trios across the sunset like pink sticks with wings. The whole display was deafening, showstopping.
(And we saw some other cool birds, too.)
All this we considered later, perched on the long, rocky promontory extending out into the sea: the chance meetings of migrants in Saintes Maries. Or maybe Saint Sarah arranged them, a traveler's blessings, the promise of good fortune for the next phase of our voyage.