According to legend, a party of disciples fleeing persecution in Judah shortly after the crucifixion sailed to the south of what is now France and landed in the location of the present town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The refugees included the three Marys: Magdalen, Salome and the mother of James, along with Martha of Bethany and Joseph of Arimathea.
In the Camargue, no-one would entertain the notion that this story is not literally true. Though the whereabouts of the Magdalen's remains are disputed, everyone knows that Salome and the mother of James are buried in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (above right) and Martha in Tarascon (below left). It is unthinkable that the popular medieval competition between shrines to rediscover relics of saints in order to attract pilgrims, the medieval equivalent of tourists, had anything to do with it.
Even leaving aside the question of relics, the association of Mary Magdalen with the area has very strong traditional roots. It was of course a part of the old story on which The Da Vinci Code was built. The Albigensian Heresy (Catharism) in the early middle ages, and the 19th / 20th century mystery of Rennes-le-Château have also some possible links to the story.
Today these churches are still places of pilgrimage, and
Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the site of an annual Roma pilgrimage in honour of their patron St Sarah, whose relationship to the ship of refugees is not entirely clear. She may have been a servant or a local woman who welcomed them.
The strength of feeling that surrounds these places is entirely convincing to romantics like me.