Gypsy Pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue
I find myself increasingly comfortable listening to conversations I don’t understand. Throaty vowels, rusty consonants, over half a dozen languages being spoken at once; French, Spanish, Catalan, American, Austrian, Italian, Romani during the Gypsy Festival, Pélerinage Gitan, in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Listening with our minds instead of our hearts, language often limits the art of being human.
Rhône River Delta
The Camargue region is one of the unique areas in France, a vast salt delta and marshland nestled in between the two arms of the Rhône River. The Gypsy Festival and pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer, in the Camargue region of Provence, has been formally taking place every year since 1448. However, the date varies according to one’s historical point of view, with some accounts as early as the 6th century. According to legend, Sara, queen of the Gypsies, was already in the Camargue region as early as the first century, when a boat full of Marys arrived. Sara waded into the Mediterranean to help them. Sara, a small black woman, or Sara la Kali, as she is known to the Gypsies, is the one who rests in the crypt of the ancient church by the sea. In the original language of the Gypsies, which was derived from an old Indian language, Kali means Gypsy woman and the black one. Black Sara is the Patron Saint of the Gypsies.
Most of the stories centre around three Marys: Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome and Mary Magdalene, though there are usually only two Marys depicted standing in a boat without sails. Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome are considered Jesus’s aunts, sisters of his mother, Mary, though many versions exist and are equally fascinating. One in particular, which persists to this day, is that Sara, known as Sara of Egypt, arrived as a servant with the three Marys on a boat having fled persecution, and there is some evidence to support this thesis. Historically, there was the worship of the Egyptian sun god Ra in the Camargue well before the first century. The church’s side altar on the left is pre-Christian and dates back to the 4th century before Christ. Relics have been found from this time, as well as women’s skulls originating from the Middle East, as in such cases, mysteries abound. Was Sara, the queen of the Gypsies, the same Sara who was with Mary at Christ’s tomb the morning of the resurrection? Did Mary come ashore in the Camargue to bring Christ’s child to France?
I have arrived three weeks before the May 24-25 pilgrimage, and already Gypsy women are waiting at the entrance to the church begging for money in exchange for a pin depicting Saint Sara. I walk past them and into the church. The light inside is dim. Over the past six years, I have attended the festival twice but have never been able to get inside the church on the night of the 24th because the throngs of chanting, praying people was impenetrable. I was told that seated in the best pews are the cattle ranchers, the Manadiers of the Camargue. Gypsy and Arlesian women carry bunches of long tapered candles, like flowers, through the aisles. Children are carried down to the crypt to kiss the black face of Sara for good luck. Today, there are but a handful of worshippers. Off to the left is the wooden boat carrying the two Marys used in the ceremony on the 25th. It is surrounded by hundreds of prayer letters from past years asking for miracles. A few pairs of crutches and canes lean against the wall, testaments to healing powers. Steps lead down into the crypt. I hold my breath as I venture forth into the low ceilinged room. There are no windows, and the room is blackened by hundreds of years of candle smoke. Rows of 3-foot high burning tapers are the only light. I breathe deeply. The air is warm and smells of wax. To the right of the altar is a painted statue of Sara. She stands about 5 feet tall and is wearing a blue and gold brocade dress. She has a lovely deep brown complexion and black hair. I buy a candle for two euros to leave by the altar but decide to take it with me instead of lighting it.
There were no sacred mountains to circumambulate, no spiritual blessings to obtain. Instead, I was jostled by tourists and pilgrims alike. I have attended this festival before, but I was startled by everyone’s homogeneity this year. However, I knew from reading Isabel Fonseca’s book, Bury Me Standing, that the Gypsies are still a marginalized, maligned, mysterious people. There was no Django Reinhardt or Urs Karpatz, just endless variations of Gipsy Kings songs. There was no authentic dress, just Chinese knock-offs of Flamenco outfits. Why must the world change like this?
Early on the morning of May 25th, the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer begins filling with people. Musicians play traditional Gypsy music in the many squares. The Manadiers, dressed in their traditional outfits, sit astride beautiful white horses. Arlesian women and children, dressed in their traditional costumes, mill through the crowds. By 10:30, the clergy from the church make their appearance holding the boat with the two saints aloft. A procession of over 5,000 begins forming, headed by the King of the Gypsies and the Archbishop. Weaving its way through the village streets, the serpentine crowd sings a repetitive chant until everyone reaches the sea. Then, wading into the Mediterranean with everyone, the priests return the boat to the sacred waters, and for one brief moment, history is repeated.
Afterwards, bullfights, singing and dancing in the streets and parties that last for days. Restaurants in the village open, and miraculously, everyone hungry is fed. This festival and pilgrimage have morphed into an oddly unholy celebration. However, it is a once in a lifetime event for those seeking a truly unique adventure off the well-beaten path.
Walking along the Mediterranean, I saw a beautiful Gypsy wagon, roulotte, one of only three in an ocean of modern white caravans. An older Gypsy woman was speaking with two young women. As soon as they left, I approached. The woman looked warily at me, but I introduced myself in French as an architect from the United States and said I thought her roulette was stunning. I asked her name, and she said it was Jeanine. I told her mine. She remarked about my unusual accent, and I gave her a brief history, telling her I lived in the Gers department in Gascony, and she visibly relaxed. We talked for a while, asking questions back and forth. She told me her roulotte was her fifteenth and most likely her last. She said she needed to take special care of it because she would make a two-month pilgrimage to Rome to see the Pope. I asked her if I could go inside and take a photograph.
How do the Gypsies keep their heritage in an ever-shrinking world? Jeanine told me Evangelicals are converting many Gypsies and banning them from attending the Catholic procession. The local mayor, a socially conservative, economically protective Front National supporter, does nothing to encourage or protect the 560-year-old tradition. I wondered aloud if the world wouldn’t be a better place if we had compassion for all human beings. Jeanine said we all need to do penance for something. We all need to heal. I couldn’t agree with her more. There is intrinsic freedom available immediately if we stop struggling with our expectations and experience what is. I believe that the art of travel is seeing the sacred in the ordinary. Within each of us resides a wanderer, a pilgrim, a gypsy, someone who longs to hit the road without a map. I don’t believe tourism is the only problem.
Clouds begin to shift in the early evening sky as the sun goes down. I put all of my change in the small box in front of Jeanine and her roulotte. She says she will make a few more baskets to sell to buy gas to make the slow trek to Rome. I kiss her on both cheeks and say goodbye. She pats her hand over her heart and smiles.
Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and contributes to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.
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