Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the Gypsy Pilgrimage

Jo Le Borgne (May 2005)

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is ideal for those seeking the Camargue experience - namely striking pink flamingos, small white Arab horses herded by gardiens or cowboys and black bulls which compete in the nightly Courses Camargues or bullfights.

But Les Stes-Maries also has a rich religious heritage which stems from after Christ's crucifixion when the three Marys (Salome, Magdalene and Jacobe) landed here and built an oratory. Les Stes-Maries then developed as a place of pilgrimage still visited today by huge numbers of Gypsies, who come from all over Europe and the rest of the World, to pay their respects to their patron saint Sarah who was Mary Jacobe's servant girl. The 9th century church was built to accommodate the pilgrims visiting the shrine at the site where two of the Marys and Sarah were supposed to be buried. (recent excavations of the crypt indicate that, indeed, the bones are those of an Egyptian woman from about the 1st century).

When these gypsy families converge upon Stes Maries-de-la-Mer for the peleringage des Gitans which takes place on 24th – 25th May the streets are filled with music, flamenco and bullfights. This nomadic culture, much maligned, is seldom welcomed to great cathedrals and law-abiding communities. Yet in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer they are welcomed to the town, the 9th century fortified Romanesque church and the St. Sarah Crypt for Baptisms, religious services, family reunions and other events. Everywhere are the bejewelled women in long, colourful skirts, full white blouses and scarves who in the evening dance to the music played on guitars or violins by the men. The gold leaf statues of Sarah and the Marys are carried again to the sea for prayers and veneration.

Most of the Gypsy families stay from 8 to 10 days and from the 18th to 25th May there is a Marché Forain in the place de Gitans. Nowadays it is rare to see the old wooden caravans of the past but at Le Musée des Roulottes, along the Route d'Arles, there is a private collection of seven or eight traditional wagons, the use of which dates back some 400 years. Normally, gypsies were travellers or circus people, as many still are in France, and a miniature 3-ring circus model can be seen in one museum wagons; it took 6 years to complete!

There are two other pilgrimages in the year, the 3rd weekend in October and the less famous one on the first Sunday in December.

If you are interested in the exact agenda and want to see some photos here are two of many websites:

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