The Saintes Marie de la Mer gypsy festival

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Guardians preparing for the start of the procession

Guardians preparing for the start of the procession

“On white horses, let me ride away to my world of dreams so far away” so goes the evocative theme song of the 70s children’s series “White Horses”.    Although the horses are actually Lippizaners from Slovenia, it’s a song and an image that I’ve always associated with the Camargue and of horses galloping through water.  “Let me run.  To the sun. To a world my heart can understand.  It’s a warm and gentle wonderland”.

If you’re 6 years old, who wouldn’t want to go to this place? And several years later I find myself in Saintes Marie de la Mer in the heart of the Camargue.  Having done the Gaucho Festival in Argentina, seen countless rodeos throughout the US and Canada, witnessed the colour, horses and parades of the April Fair in Seville, I’m now ticking off another cowboy / horse themed festival “The Saintes Maries de la Mer Pilgrimages”.  It’s a pilgrimage in which not only “the Guardians” (Camargue cowboys) take part but also gypsies who come in their thousands from all over Europe.

part of the pilgrimage

part of the pilgrimage

According to legend, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, close relatives of Jesus and Mary, who had been expelled from Judea during the persecution, arrived together at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in a boat without sails or oars.    Whilst the disciples went further inland to convert to Christianity the whole of the country, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome stayed and converted the local population, the Romans who occupied the country and a tribe of black-coloured people who is said to have lived there.  Again, according to the legend, Sarah, the family chief, welcomed the Saints and asked to be baptised together with all of her people.  Sarah became the Romany’s patron saint and the annual Gypsy Festival takes place annually on May 24-25.  Roms, Manouches, Tsiganes and Gypsies settle in the streets and squares of the village, arriving between eight to ten days prior the Pilgrimage itself.

 

musicians clebrating the festival

musicians clebrating the festival

I arrived in the late afternoon of the 24th May, following the main Saint Sara’s procession.  The party was in full swing, the air filled with music, men playing violins, guitars and accordions.  What struck me most though was the singing.  If you love the Gypsy Kings (I do) who come from nearby Arles, you’ll be blown away by the passion and volume of the serenading of traditional songs.  Young or old, someone would begin to sing and minutes later from another part of the square or bar, a melodic reply would lustily ring out.  No one seemed in the slightest bit embarrassed, whilst others danced alone wrapped up in the music or romantically with whoever happened to be standing nearby.  It was easily one of the most authentic and traditional festivals I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, there are now very few horse-drawn carriages painted in bright colours that inspired Van Gogh, the gypsies nowadays travel in modern caravans but it was wonderful to see how they have preserved their ancestors’ customs and traditions.

a traditional house of one of the Guardians

a traditional house of one of the Guardians

Most gypsies are baptised and, one by one, respectively went to church for the religious part of the festival.   The father arrived first, followed by the rest of the family, the mother coming in last with the baby in her arms and everybody carrying a candle.  25th May sees the high mass of Saint Mary Jacobe and Saint May Salome and is followed by the procession to the beach and the Benediction of the Sea.  A colourful procession of priests, some amusingly in cowboy hats, the “Gardians” Camargue cowboys themselves in trilby’s, gypsies in their bling, the “Arlesiennes”dressed in their traditional costumes and anybody else who wanted to participate wound its way through the village to beach. The statues of Saint Mary Jacobe and Saint Mary Salome, horses, and people galore then go right into the water to symbolise the arrival of the Saints, whilst on board a traditional fishing boat, the bishops bless the sea, the land, the pilgrims and the gypsies.

flamingos in the Le Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau

flamingos in the Le Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau

Along with white horses and bulls, the Camargue will also always be associated with flamingos. The landscape around Saintes Marie de la Mer is gloriously flat, with a fantastic feeling of space and perfect for exploring by bicycle.  Bikes can be rented within the village for the 24 kilometre return trip along a natural sandbank to the lighthouse (Phare de la Gacholle).  With no cars or hills of any kind and flamingos waving you on in perfect “v” shaped formations, it’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Although it’s possible to see literally hundreds of flamingos, quite often fighting within their natural habitat of the lagoon I’d also recommend a visit to Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau, the Camargue bird park just outside the village.  Here a good representation of the wildlife of the Camargue can be seen in 148 acres of natural marshes.

Everywhere within the region and in Arles itself where Van Gogh spent part of his life you’ll see in the flesh so to speak what I’d only previously seen in paintings; sunflowers of course, the Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum (or the yellow cafe) and the little white cottages, or Gardian’s houses in Sainte Marie de la Mer.   Van Gogh fans should also head to the newly opened Foundation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, an important showcase of his legacy.

the Roman amphitheatre in Arles

the Roman amphitheatre in Arles

To get to Sainte Maries de la Mer, you’ll first have to stop in Arles, the gateway to the Camargue, a proud city with an impressive past, possessing 112 sites as National Heritage Monuments.  First and foremost though, is the Roman arena built at the end of the 1st century AD.  The amphitheatre, a huge oval construction contains 34 rows of stone seating and is 20th in order of size among Roman amphitheatres in the world.  The Roman theatre, west of the arena, was built under the emperor Augustus at the end of the first century BC whilst the baths of Constantine, built in the 4th century, are similar to the Baths of Trier in Germany. There is plenty for lovers of Roman heritage to get enthused about.

However, for me it was the quality of light, the luminosity that attracted Van Gogh to the south of France, that most appealed.   The Camargue is well known as a large wetland in the Rhone delta, diverse in flora and fauna.  However, I didn’t expect it to be quite so steeped in traditions  and although I never did get to see any white horses galloping through the water, the spectacle and the hairs on your neck raising music of the Gypsy Festival more than made up for it.

 

GETTING THERE 

There are a number of regional airports that link in to nearby airports. Into Toulouse there are links from Bristol, Gatwick, Manchester and Shannon. Luton and Gatwick has connections to Montpellier on easyJet and Marseilles is served from easyJet fly to Toulouse, Montpellier or From Marseille there are direct links to Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh and  Manchester as well as Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted.  From Marseilles,  it is an easy direct train journey to Arles. There are frequent direct buses to Saintes Marie de la Mer which is approximately 50 minutes.

 

For more information about Saintes Marie de la Mer, click here.

 

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