Last week I spent several days in Provence attending the annual Gypsy pilgrimage that takes place along the Mediterranean Sea in a village appropriately named Saintes Maries de la Mer ( Saint Marys of the Sea). This small town, which receives its annual fifteen minutes of fame every May, is tucked into a marshland preserve known as the Camargue (famous for rice, flamingoes, and white horses). Every year between eight and ten thousand Gypsies from around the world come in their caravans, ( covered wagons or contemporary campers) to pay homage to their Patron Saint, Sara. She is not officially recognized by the Catholic church, but this is of little importance to the Gypsies.
According to legend, Sara may have been a Gypsy herself, and served Mary Jacob and Mary Salome when they landed on the shores of Provence from Palestine. For centuries, May has been the month to celebrate their commemoration beginning with Sara on the 24th, followed by the two Marys on the 25th. On the first day, Sara's statue, that of a black madonna, is brought up from the crypt of the local 9th century church. A procession through town leads to the sea, where Sara enters the water, held high above the shoulders of her worshipful followers.
On the 24th I arrived a little late due to a delay in the train schedule that caused me to miss my bus connection from Arles. I had to wait for the later bus, but this gave me time to spend the day in Arles which is worth writing about in another blog. The atmosphere on the bus headed towards Saintes Maries de la Mer was a bit like being at a renaissance fair. There were backpackers, a few tourists, hippies and Gypsies. Everyone was friendly and jubilant in a chaotic sort of way, but this was only a preview of the bedlam that was in store at my beach-front destination. I arrived on the outskirts of town because the streets were so overloaded with Gypsies and other travelers that the bus driver couldn't go any further. "You'll just have to walk in" he announced. I didn't mind because were surrounded by ranches full of beautiful, white Camargue horses. The horses were quite friendly and I stopped to pet a few as I hiked into town.
I arrived just in time to catch the procession of Saint Sara returning from the sea. After taking a few photographs, I jumped into the procession and walked alongside the other pilgrims back to the church, at which point Sara was dramatically swept back into the crypt.
After the procession, I walked along the beach taking in the vast number of caravans and campers that were parked bumper to bumper (by nightfall, these camps were being set up just about anywhere there was space still available: in parking lots, on the street, outside hotels....). Even the dogs have their own caravans!
Downtown, I continued walking, and stopped off to hear various musicians. Flamenco dance and music was well represented with a high number of Spanish Gypsies in attendance. Note the painting on the musician's guitar, it's a mix of Spanish and Rroma (Gypsy) language. The inscription reads Alma Gitano (Gypsy friendship). Alma being the word for "friendship" in Rroma, and Gitano being the Spanish name for Gypsies.
There were also Eastern European musicians, accordion soloists, and Jazz Manouche (in the style of Django Reinhardt), among others.
The high quality mix of music was intoxicating and I lingered a long time, watching and listening to each group. Being among musicians, gypsies, and spectators gave off a merry street-fair vibe but with a bit of a harder edge at times (though nothing dangerous mind you, just a bit of persistent begging that involved a little arm pulling).
On the 25th, the Gypsies and the local people of Provence celebrate the arrival of the Mary Jacob and Mary Salome in a similar style procession and benediction at sea. Local guardians (ranchers, aka French cowboys) ride the well known White Camargue horses that are bred in the area. Alongside the statue of the two saints, a wooden painted trunk also rides to sea. Inside are said to be the saintly remains of the two Marys. Scientific examination of the bones has dated them first century and of "Oriental" origin. For this procession (my second), I headed straight to the beach to ensure a good vantage point.
A group of traveling gypsies carried a cross that reads "Gens de Voyage" (traveling people) in solidarity with nomadic families. The illustration on the cross features a painting of the trunk of the Saint Marys' remains.
As I walked to the outskirts of town to catch my bus ride back to Arles, I could still hear the music and merriment trailing behind me.