Tag Archives: festivals

The Mystery of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is a quiet, pretty seaside place with small holiday homes and fishermen’s cottages hung with buoys, nets and anchors, with shops selling buckets, spades and plimsoles, a broad esplanade with a painted merry-go-round, a town square dominated by a statue of a Camargue bull and a skyline pierced by the tower of its fortified church.

The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer
The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer

Yet it’s a place with a hint of mystery, none so much as in its name. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, in English, is, the Holy Marys of the Sea. It’s a name that begs the question – Who were the Holy Marys and how or why did they give their name to this little town out on the far edge of the Camargue?

According to the bible, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, three women paid a visit to his tomb. They found it open and empty. The three women were Mary Magdalene, the famous follower of Jesus, Mary Salome, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and Mary Jacobi, the mother of James, the apostle.

According to an old French legend, back in the very first days AD, three women, their uncle and their dark skinned servant, were washed ashore on the coast near the mouth of the Petit Rhone. They had set sail from Alexandria in Egypt. According to that same old French legend, these three Maries were none other than Marie Magdalene, Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi. Their Uncle was Joseph of Arimathea and their servant was an Egyptian girl named Sarah. They had come to spread the gospel of Jesus and to avoid persecution in their native land.

According to the Knights Templar, Dan Brown, and a large number of others, a woman named Marie and her daughter, Sara, were washed ashore on that spot. The woman was none other than Mary Magdalene and her daughter was the child of Jesus. They had fled Jerusalem to escape death.

According to Gypsy lore, two women named Marie, half-dead from thirst and starvation, in a boat without oars or rudder, were washed ashore on that spot. They had been put to sea in the Holy land and sent off to starve, dehydrate or drown, a common way of dispatching undesirables (read Christians) at the time. They were rescued by a dark-skinned woman named Sarah. These two Marys were none other than Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi. The dark-skinned woman was Sara, patron saint of the gypsies.

The place where the Marys landed was known first as Notre Dame de Ratis (our Lady of the boat) then Sainte Marie (for just one Mary, if so which, or because one Mary stands for all?) Finally, in recognition of the two, or three, Marys and the sea which had delivered them, in 1838, it was named Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.

Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi lived out their days in that place at the mouth of Le Petit Rhône. After their deaths, their sacred remains were sealed in a casket and placed in the town’s fortified church. They remain there today. A statue of Saint Sara, clothed in finery, keeps vigil nearby.

Pilgrims have been coming to Saint Maries since the 15th century. Arles was on the route of Saint Jacques de Compostelle and as Mary Jacobi was the mother of the apostle James or Saint Jacques, they made the short detour to Les Saintes Maries de La Mer to pay homage to her.

Every year, Gypsies from all over Europe gather in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 25, to celebrate the fête, or feast of Saint Sara. Early in the morning a special Mass is celebrated in the church. The casket containing the relics of Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi are lifted from the vault and along with the statue of Saint Sara, it is carried to the sea in a solemn procession. Long into the night, the Gypsies dance and sing.

The story of Les Saintes Maries and Sainte Sara, fascinating and mysterious as it is, is just one of the stories of this town. There are many more. Likewise the Fête of Sainte Sara is just one of the town’s fêtes. There are many more of those too, like La Fête des Vierges (festival of the virgins, in the sense of unmarried girls) started by Frederic Mistral, the great Occitane poet, in 1904.

Check out the others here: http://www.saintesmaries.com/fr/accueil/agenda.html


Cuba Street, The coolest street in the capital of cool

If Wellingon is the world’s coolest capital, then Cuba Street is the capital’s coolest street.

Tiger Eye Beads
Tiger Eye Beads

During that time in the second half of the 20th century, when chunks of the city were being sacrificed to motorways, Cuba Street was ear-marked for a traffic by-pass. As it awaited the wrecking ball, businesses de-camped and any upkeep on buildings was more or less abandoned. This, as it transpired, was Cuba Streets salvation. Rents plummeted and along with those seeking low cost accommodation, came others seeking alternative lifestyles – hippies, artists, innovators, visionaries and creators. Buildings were rescued and businesses were reborn. Second hand shops, bargain stores and galleries opened. Bars, cafes and restaurants set up alongside them. Colourful graffiti art colonised blank walls and alleys. Cuba Street was alive again. Cool and rather chic, in shabby kind of way, it was a distinctive part of the cityscape. Cuba Street became Wellington’s Bohemian Precinct.

The by-pass plan was dumped. In 1969, Cuba Mall was established. Buskers and street performers moved in, the famous Bucket Fountain was built and Cuba Street became a playground, a favourite meeting spot and one of Wellington’s most visited and vibrant quarters.  Finally, in 1995, Cuba Street was preserved forever under the Historic Places Act, as a registered Historic Area.

In essence, Cuba Street is still the same as it was when those hippies, artists, innovators and creators moved in, back in the sixties.  Most of the buildings are as they were then – the narrow wooden houses, the shop-fronts with their recessed doors, ornate lead-light windows and tiles still remain. So does the grand old Salvation Army’s Peoples’ Palace, now a Quality Inn. Colourful street art weaves around them on walls and in alleys.  Second hand and bargain stores survive and thrive, many with a 21st century vintage or retro twist. Bars, cafes and restaurants still abound, but among them now are award winners, like Matterhorn and the fine dining house, Logan Brown. Buskers and street performers still hold the floor in Cuba Mall, at any hour of the day or night and crowds gather to watch them, while the Bucket Fountain splashes away in the background. Cuba Mall is still a great place to hang out and one of the city’s most lively areas. And most importantly, that Bohemian spirit not only endures but flourishes.

My Cuba street favourites


Cuba Dupa, the Cuba Street Festival, at the end of March – for a fantastic end of summer celebration and an awesome street party  – food, bands, choirs, art, sculpture, performances, people and fun.

Cuba Dupa
Cuba Dupa

Cuba Street Friday Night Market – for all of the above, but on a Friday evening and on a smaller scale.


Madame fancy Pants – for elegant vintage classics

Tiger Eye beads for a frivolous, fanciful treasure

Arc Apparel – for a rock-bottom bargain


Midnight Espresso – for a midnight cofee and a vegan snack, also because it’s a Wellington icon.

Fidel’s – for a Cuban coffee with a Cubana (the ultimate toasted sandwich) and to re-live the revolution (Cuban, that is) through the posters and memorabilia on the walls

Breakfast, Lunch or dinner

Floridita’s Cafe and Restaurant – for good food, pleasant surroundings, quick service and leadlight windows overlooking a busy Cuba Street Corner – brilliant people-watching potential


The Ferret Bookshop – to ferret out an old favourite, or a new discovery, among their amazing collection.


Slow Boat Music – to browse their incredible merchandise, to bask in the glory reflected from illustrious international customers like Robert Plant and to maybe even catch an in-house performance?


Wellington Sea market – for fresh fish, a staggering variety of seafood and mouth-watering displays.

Fruit and flowers

Cuba Street Fruit Mart, for its abundance, its colour and its fragrance.



A closer look at Piraeus

You might be tempted to race through Piraeus, bound for the docks and the fast ferry that will carry you off to an Aegean island paradise, but it’s well worth stopping, even for a day.

Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port
Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port

Take a trip up to Kastella. This steep hill has been inhabited since the 26th century BC, when it was known as Munichia. At the time Piraeus was a rocky island called Halipedon, or salt field, because of the boggy, often submerged, salt field which connected it to the mainland. In 511 BC Hippias fortified the hill and four years later it became an outpost of Athens. During the boom times in the early 2oth century, the hill was developed as a prime residential area and its elegant neo-classical mansions were built. Today Kastella is one of the most prosperous and attractive neighbourhoods of the city, with a panoramic view over Athens and the Saronic Gulf.

Take a look at the ports. By the 5th century BC, silt had obliterated the salt field, Piraeus was now part of Athens and, with its three deep water harbours, it was highly desirable.  In 493 BC, Themistocles began to fortify Piraeus and in 483 BC, the Athenian fleet moved in to build the ships which snatched victory from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis three years later.  Next Themistocles constructed the port, created the ship sheds (neosoikoi), and started work on his famous walls. By 471 BC, Piraeus was a great military and commercial harbour, serving the mighty Athenian fleet as a permanent base. Although the Themistoclean Walls and neosoikoi were largely destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC, some remains can still be seen, along with the Skeotheke (an ancient storehouse for shipping gear) and the Eetionia, a mole in the entrance to the harbour.

Explore the ruins of the ancient city in the basement of the cathedral of Agia Triada and the ancient Theater of Zea next to the Archaeological Museum. Step inside the Archeological Museum, to see the four bronze statues which were unearthed at a construction site near the Tinaneios Gardens and the  hand which was discovered by workmen laying pipes.

Take a stroll around the Piraeus town, through streets laid out by the architect Hippodemus on his famous “Hippodamian” grid plan in the 4th century BC. Browse in the shops along the central avenues of Piraeus, Iroon Polytechneiou and Grigoriou Labraki. Marvel at the grand 19th century Neo-Classical public buildings.

Stop for a break in one of the tavernas or seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Mikrolimano or Piraiki. Sample a local beverage, a Mythos, a Restsina or a Mastiha perhaps (more of Mastiha in my next post)

Take in a movie at Village Park, the largest cinema complex in Greece. Browse in the shops, dine and drink in the restaurants and cafes.

Drop into Allou Fun Park, the latest and largest amusement theme park in Athens, for rides and attractions, restaurants and pastry shops.

If you’re passing through in late February, you might catch the Ecocinema International Film Festival, which starts with the Three Kings’ Way Festival, a riot of costumes and entertainment.  In summer, you could catch a concert (Greek dancers, folk music and  bands) at the open air Veakeio Theater in Kastella, or any time of the year see a variety show at the Menandreio Theater, or as Delfinario

Finally, check out the giant 21st century vessels as you sail out of Piraeus, the largest seaport in Greece, one of the largest in the Mediterranean and one of the top ten container ports in Europe. It’s impressive!