It doesn't take long before the Marys show up for their final sprint to the water's edge.
Faithful followers (and curious photographers alike) join in to accompany the duo to the shore.
The Camargue Cross, seen in the image below, is the emblem of the church of Saintes Maries de la Mer. It is is composed of three emblems: an anchor, a cross, and a heart. The upper cross is said to represent the trident-shaped tool used by gardians. The anchor symbolizes the fishermen of the region. And the heart? A universal symbol that is easily translated in any language, n'est-ce pas*?
The gardians are the first to arrive to their Mediterranean goal. In an impressive show of horsemanship, they maneuver this way and that, steering their steeds to face the arriving saints.
As the Marys are carried into the water, a few individuals from the procession wade into the knee-deep waves to touch the statues' base, perhaps to be in direct connection to the blessings that are about to be bestowed, as the gathering crowd...
...is led in a round of Provençal songs. (Nope, this is not the music I promised you. Wait for it...)
The next to arrive at the scene is the bishop to offer blessings to all in attendance.
When the water blessing is complete, the procession heads back up the beach...
...through the streets of the town...
...and back to the church.
Below, you can see a view of the back of church of Stes. Maries de la Mer down one of the little rues.
The Marys are the first to arrive. They are carried into the church and placed at the front where they wait for everyone else to return from the sea. As the participants file in, their voices join in verses of Provençal chansons and the old stone church reverberates with song as row after row of people fill the space. (Nope, this isn't the music I promised either...)
After a brief closing word to the day's ritual is said to the crowd, the invitation is made to anyone wishing to offer up a prayer or receive a blessing to now approach the front.
A line forms in the center of the church and one by one, people advance slowly for their moment with the Saints, touching their heads, faces or hands for a blessing.
Some continue down into the cave of the church to make a visit to the relics of St. Sara - another opportunity to receive blessings or to ...
...offer prayers on small slips of paper to be left with the Saint for consideration.
And what better way to finish off a day in this region than with a ride on horseback!
We arrived at the stables right in the middle of a lively game of pétanque.
Fortunately, there were other hands available to help our group get saddled up and out on the trail. (Don't let the familiar tone fool you, dear readers. I hadn't ridden a horse since I was 10 years old. I'm surprised I wasn't thrown in the first few minutes - by the horse or the hosts!)
Camargue horses form a distinct breed - one of the oldest in the world - and are closely related to prehistoric horses, whose remains have been found elsewhere in southern France.
Like the Camargue bulls, Camargue horses are smaller than their modern cousins. At around thirteen or fourteen hands they are technically ponies. They are used in rounding up the region's bulls. They are never stabled, but well-able to survive the humid summer heat and the biting winter cold. (Not to mention the summer mosquitoes of this region!)
When we got back to the D'accord* Corral (just kidding - I didn't really catch the name), my horse headed directly to the trough for a well-deserved drink. (Actually, in this image, he was stomping against the trough because I had left the reins caught on his saddle...so he couldn't reach the trough. Oooops! See what I mean?!)
And what, you may ask, could possibly top such a wonderful day?
For a little frosting on the Stes. Maries de la Mer cake, kick off your boots, put 'em up to dry...
...and take a listen to some local talent.
Yes, that's right. The Gipsy Kings are local boys from Stes. Maries de la Mer! Hit 'play' and enjoy. Go ahead - dance! How can you help it?!
What's that you say? A tad shy? Then just give yourself permission to do a little shoulder dance right there in your seat. Because if you listen to this, you're gonna have to move something! I guarantee it!
Bon dimanche à tous!
* isn't it?
Note of acknowledgment: Merci mille fois to Vivienne Hamill, director of the CEA (Cultural Experiences Abroad) study abroad program and the Aix Connection excursions for students of all ages here in Aix en Provence. Her treasure trove of details about Stes. Maries de la Mer filled the picture in quite nicely.