When I heard there were going to be white horses racing on the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I couldn’t wait to get there. I sent a note to my photographer friend, Alan McBride, and suggested he join me with his fancy cameras. It was an event neither of us should miss!
Not knowing what we were getting into, Alan and I determined a meeting place near the seaside town so we could drive together for photos and a story. All we knew from the online promotion was that there was an Abrivado taking place somewhere near Saintes-Maries-De-la-Mer. Since it’s a small town we felt confident that we couldn’t miss hundreds of horses and riders.
Wrong. The town looked deserted.
“Let’s head out the beach road,” Alan suggested, hoping we hadn’t missed it all. (I might add here that neither Alan nor I speak or read French. It’s very possible we’d misunderstood the promo.)
There on the road to the beach we began to see a few people on horseback and others walking. A few cars were parked towards the far end of the beach road. Apparently we were headed the right way. We followed the traffic of people, horses and vehicles which was increasing as we walked along. Boldly I stopped several “pilgrims” to ask: “Do you speak English?” Then to query “Where does the event start?” The only answer I got in return was a hand signal “straight ahead.” So there we went – straight ahead down the road that paralleled the beach.
About this time I was getting concerned about taking photos to show off the event. “If the horses and riders come from in front of us, and the sun is shining on the water like it is now, how can you take pictures straight into the sun?” Alan seemed nonplussed. “OK,” I said to myself. “He’s the pro. He must have a plan.” We kept walking along with the others.
By the time we were a good mile or so down the road, the numbers of observers increased significantly. Apparently they had gotten the information to approach the event from another vantage point. Never mind. We were on the way … hopefully not too late. Along with the others, we crossed a gully of water and climbed a slight sand bar to get closer to the sea. Once on the beach we saw there were gatherings of kindred folk who had set up viewing spots. As much as I would have liked to join them for a tumbler of wine, we kept walking. Our intent was to get to a point where Alan could take the best shots.
“Are we there yet?” I asked, repeatedly. We kept walking.
Then … straight ahead … we saw and heard a “crack” of light and fire… and hundreds of horses, riders and people were lined up. They headed our way!
To my surprise there were bulls in between the horses and riders. What was I thinking? An “abrivado” Of course there were bulls!
As the through of horses, bulls and humans passed, it was exhilarating. “When do they run through water?” I shouted to Alan.
That’s when he made his move. He’d observed there was another group of horses and riders and bulls at the “starting line.” Another running of the bulls was ready to take off. In an instant, Alan disappeared. I looked back and watched him head for the beach road. Up and over the sand bar. Through the water, then to the side of the road. I ran to join him just before … behind me …the sight I was waiting for… horses in the water! The riders on horses were rushing the bulls through the gully. Splash! The herd followed en masse. They headed for a pool of water at the end of the road.
Oh that I had only known the rules of the game … the course of the Abrivados But … who cares!?? Could there be anything better than this?
I’m not certain how many “runs” were made that morning along the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Almost as quickly as it started, it was over. The movement of people, beasts and vehicles headed back the way we started — towards town. Soon we were in a “traffic jam.” Rather than fight the crowd, we did what any story-teller and photographer would do. We watched and took advantage of the photo opportunity.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this tour South France and the telling of the Abrivados at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Thanks so very much to Alan McBride for making our day so memorable with his amazing vision and his artful photography.
For more about the white horses and the Camargues: