Looking at one of those maps that turn out to be impossible to fold back to its original shape, it seems that from Pond de Crau to Saint Marie de la Mer it might take you about 40 minutes by car. And maybe it is true but it is worth trying to drive slowly so that one can enjoy the views of the lush vegetation and the arrogant trees throwing their merciful shadow when the sun heats the atmosphere so much it becomes difficult to breath. I cross a small part of what it was, a long time ago indeed, an island devoted to the Egyptian God father of the sun Ra. This island is now part of three different areas: Arles, Port Saint Louis and Saintes Maries de la Mer. It is the largest humid region in France and the fourth biggest one in Europe. You can see it perfectly in the fresh green colour of the vegetation, so perfect that it makes you think of a photograph. But it is not! I arrive in Saintes Maries de la Mer expecting to glimpse, even if only fleetly, what the Camarga is known for: its wild horses galloping freely and bulls grazing peacefully. And I also arrive there with two questions that have been bugging me ever since the moment I left Arles: Why is the village called Maries in plural? And why is the Camargue and more specifically Saintes Maries de la Mer a holy place for the gypsy pilgrims?
The first impression I have from the small village is that of an extraordinarily orderly place clogged with little houses of a yellow colour that stand out in the sharp contrast with the deep blue of the sky. Tourists walk lively in its streets and I am surprised to spot very quickly a beautiful grey sand beach nearly empty. Later I’ll find out that at five o’clock in the afternoon the water is frozen and maybe this is the reason why at half past ten nobody wants to venture a bath in the sea.
I walk towards the church I see from far and once there I examine a square where a “bailadora”, a flamenco dancer, carries out a galvanising exercise following the rhythm of the Spanish guitars. For a second I need to remind myself of the fact that I am in France and not in Andalusia. Of course! It is due to the gypsy tradition! Here the flamenco and the bulls are part of every day’s life. Two gypsies approach me to ask for money but I dissuade them quickly speaking Russian. They simply can’t communicate with me. The trick always works.
The church behind which the stage has been build is the church of Notre Dame de la Mer. Well at least here they seem to be talking only of one virgin Marie and not more… I look at the performance for a while and then I decide to book a ride alongside the river on a boat. The Camargue is a delta area with no less than 25.000 arable hectares. Rice, salt and wine are produced there. The typical dish is bull meat and rice and restaurants offer menus for prices that are the same we would pay in Costa Brava.
At half past three the boat departs with us passengers hoping that the journey will provide some fresh air to calm down the furious effect of the sun. It seem to me the most natural thing in the world to have a region such as the Camargue devoted to the God Ra. Here you can feel the power of the king amongst the stars more harshly than anywhere else! The nearly 90-minute-journey goes by quickly because my eyes are trying to grasp the beauty of some of the treasures of the region: some bulls, a wild horse splashing in the water ignoring completely our presence and some birds I could not name that are by far not so eye-catching as the flamingos. They have not honoured us with their visit.
When the guides are sitting and since I have already grown tired from going from one side to the other of the boat taking pictures of everything so I jump at the chance to ask the boat staff and satisfy my curiosity. I want to know why La Camargue is gypsy territory. The non-beatified saint Sara Kali, or Sara the black, is worshipped there. And many gypsies around the world who can’t get pregnant go there to offer the saint a shawl so that she makes them fertile. I will find out later about the story behind Sara kali I think while listening to the explanations of the two guides. Apparently the bullfight in La Camargue has nothing to do with our Spanish corrida because in the French region the bull is not killed at all in the celebration. It is embellished with some objects that the bullfighter has to skilfully take away from the bull. It fills my heart with joy to realise that the inhabitants in La Camargue have been able to adapt our tradition keeping the dignity of the bull and the bullfighter. According to the guides the farmers in the area take part in a contest every year and the best bull is chosen amongst all of them. The best animal receives a “golden bull” award and the farmer is famous for half a decade.
The typical Camargue bull is quite different from our Spanish bull. It is thinner and its horns point to the sky. I also find out in complete astonishment that the white horse that we know from the Camargue is born either black or red and turns white as it ages. I feel hypnotised by the blue colour of the delta and the trees shaping up a nice skyline in the bright sky. I think back of what is bugging me: the history of Sara Kali, which I will find out more about later.
As the legend says, Sara Kali was a black slave from Egypt that accompanied Maria Magdalena, Maria Salomé and Maria Cleofas after the dead of Jesus. Apparently they were sent out on a boat and reach the Camargue after a rather difficult travel. In fact it was so dangerous that Sara Kali promised Jesus if they survived the travel she would cover her head with a Shawl forever. For this reason married gypsies cover their heads with kerchiefs.
When they reached the French region save and sound they started spreading the story about Christ the redeemer.
Some very mean sources claim that when the boat reached la Camargue the party did not have any money and Sara started begging which is why she became the saint of the gypsies. Other sources mentioned the fact that Sara was Egyptian and since it was long time believed that gypsies came from that part of Africa they made her “their saint”. The similarity between the words gypsy and Egyptian are clear, I guess.
Other sources point out at the resemblance of Sara Kali with the Indian Goddess Durga. In fact gypsies might originally very well come from that area.
Christianity indeed was successful partly because it integrated elements of other religions in its own. Think of the Christmas tree. The evergreen was worshipped in northern Europe and it has become a part of our Christian tradition. The devotion to virgins could very well date back from the times the goddess nature was worshipped. We all know that the deity of fertility is widespread in many ancient cultures.
The truth is, that the most modern version of the arrival of the Maries contains a terrible time mistake. It is said that the three ladies were accompanied by two men, one of those being saint Trofim, who was indeed born at some point in the 5th century ad and not four hundred years before. However, the anachronism does not blur the spell of the legend of Sara Kali, that has been made even more interesting with a new theory: She is supposed to be the daughter of Jesus and Maria Magadlena. That of course is a story we have to thank to the “Da Vinci Code”. The origin of Sara Kali is and remains a mystery that does not steal from any Gypsy heart any bit of devotion or love for her. Sara kali is worshipped in this lovely village in La Camargue that has been able to provide a home for the gypsies that want to go on a pilgrimage to France. On the 24th and 25th of May Saint Maries de la Mer fills with crowds of gypsies from all over the world that celebrate the festivity of saint Sara Kali.
Driving back to Arles on my car I can’t help thinking that it will be very difficult for me to ever forget this magic place. Magic for two reasons: due to its superb landscapes and to the spell caused by the pleasant mixture between French and gypsy elements. And who knows: maybe one day some Pope will decide to make the community of gypsies happy beatifying their saint. It would be a nice way to make up for all the discrimination they are still having to face…