La Camargue is a national park in Southern France, formed by the great Rhone river which, born from the snow-capped peaks of Switzerland, ends here its long run, of more than 800 km, by throwing itself into the sea.
I was lucky enough to visit the Camargue a few days ago for a special event, a colorful party, The Pilgrimage of the Gypsies.
In the unspoiled heart of the natural park every year, the 24 and 25 May for centuries, gypsies from all over Europe have gathered to celebrate the feast of Saint Sara, their protector.
Like many parties, the gypsy party in Saintes Maries de la Mer it includes moments of entertainment, intimacy, devotion, community communion, family time, commerce, and even occasions for conflict and competition. The May festival for the Saintes Maries and Santa Sara hosts distinct communities of Travellers (Gypsies, Roma, Manouche, Tsigane who come from various parts of Europe and belong to different clans) and tourists curious to see the show.
Saintes Maries de la Mer is a village of only 2.500 people, during the festival the people who come here sometimes even exceed 50.000!
This already makes us understand how "felt" this party is.
Brief history of Santa Sara
The "3 Marys" are mentioned several times in the Gospel. It is about Maria salome, Maria Jacobé e Maria maddalena, all 3 disciples of Jesus.
Camargue and Provençal traditions say that Marie Salomé and Marie Jacobé, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus, were forced to flee Judea on a boat without oars and sails and landed right at the mouth of the Rhone 5 years after their departure.
Marie Salomé and Marie Jacobé remained in the Camargue, living on the spot where the church of Saintes Maries de La Mer now stands, and were buried there. The others went ahead and brought Christianity to the rest of Provence, and then to all of France.
The story of Sara the Black it binds to theirs. Although there are different versions, the story tells that Sarah arrived here with them (it is not known whether she is a servant or their equal) According to another story, Sarah was one of Pilate's wives, an Egyptian who witnessed the events of the Passion of Jesus converted to Christianity, traveled on the boat with the two Marys and evangelized the gypsy people.
In yet another tale, Sarah was the leader of a dark-skinned people who originally inhabited the Camargue, who greeted the Marys upon their arrival and asked to be baptized.
The feast of the Gypsies of Saintes Maries de La Mer
Every year, on May 24th and 25th, the white village of Saintes Maries de la Mer literally finds itself invaded by thousands of gypsies: after the long winter, his quiet and sleepy life is awakened by brightly colored clothes, gypsy music, dances, horses and bullfights.
Although Sara is not canonically recognized by the Church, many in the Gypsy Catholic community or Gens du Voyage believe that Sara is an integral part of the history of the Saintes Maries.
Gypsies come here to pray and celebrate the Marys and Sarahs, and the party is an occasion for family reunions, baptisms and weddings. They consider Sara as their patroness, treat her with tremendous devotion and come here to manifest it. For them, this holiday is a more religious time of the year.
For this reason, even if the party takes place only on the two days of 24 and 25, the gypsies who arrive from afar with their caravans even a week before the event.
The people who arrive, mostly families, take advantage of it to meet again with other relatives or friends, have dinner and they all party together.
I have been twice to the Saintes Marie de la Mer gypsy party and the second time I also went a couple of days earlier to see how the small town was preparing for the event.
The church was open to receive visitors and Sara's crypt was constantly lit with devotional candles and ex voto items, as small groups of people arrived to visit and take photos with the statue, which is covered in layers and layers of brightly colored cloaks that serve as devotional offerings.
The whole city has practically been celebrating since the previous days with banquets, tents, dances, musicians, artisans from all over Europe.
On the day of the procession, May 25th, we went in front of the church: not only was the church overflowing with people, but it was also impossible to move around the square and the nearby streets… a real incredible crowd.
Outside the church, a crowd waited for her statue to be brought out, adorned with a glittering tiara and laden under layers of colorful cloaks.
An honor guard of the gardiens, the traditional herdsmen who still work on the farms with the bulls, wait with their white horses to accompany Sara through the streets to the beach.
The big party then reaches its climax with the great procession in which the gypsies, with their white horses accompany the statue of the Saint to the sea, in which it is immersed three times to be purified.
The moment is extremely exciting, between entire families of moved gypsies, immersed in the musical notes of their violins, before finding themselves observing the inauguration of the non-bloody bullfighting season, les courses camarguaises and the Provençal games on horseback.
The celebrations continue throughout the evening and also the day after.
Walking through the characteristic alleys you can observe gypsies reading cards and hands, groups of gypsies cheering up diners with their instruments, children playing chasing each other on all sides, songs and dances all strictly "gypsy" style.
Among them, scattered and with a dreamy air, groups of tourists amazed by the party who take thousands of photographs with their reflex cameras (among them me).
So take advantage of this colorful event to visit this splendid natural park, a jewel between land and sea, where the white horse still lives in freedom.
If you can, try to leave the party for a while, get away from the music to seek silence, to stop and observe, with your hair ruffled by the Mistral wind, the endless meadows where the iridescent greens and yellows are dotted with red gods. poppies.
Stroll in the middle of the lagoons, the waters slightly rippled by the marsh breeze, which are the home of more than 400 species of birds, and, above all, try not to forget to dedicate half a day to visit the Pont de Gau bird park, where you can admire hundreds of cheerful pink flamingos up close.
Useful information for visiting the Festa dei Gitani
1 - Book as early as possible: you can still find accommodation even a few kilometers away, but if you want to stay in the evening to enjoy the party and the atmosphere you must stay in Saintes Maries, where hotels are sold out even 6 months in advance.
2 - Don't be afraid: even if they are gypsy communities you are absolutely safe, they come here to celebrate!
3 - dress comfortably and with closed shoes: there are so many people that surely someone will pass on your feet. Bring also some clothes spare parts, may it never be that you don't want to follow the statue of the Saint into the sea like the gypsies!
4 - there is full of stalls, clubs and restaurants so you will not struggle to find where to have lunch.
5 - carry a bottle of water with you: the hot-humid is really deadly
6 - have fun and don't worry, it will be a beautiful experience.
This post was written on June 4th 2013 and updated on June 10 2020