Victoria Trott is a freelance travel writer who specializes in European travel, especially within France. A former resident of the Côte d’Azur, she is co-author of Frommer’s Provence & the Côte d’Azur with your Family and has updated many guidebooks on the region. In her latest article below, Victoria shares why travelers should take a cue from Gypsies and make a visit to Camargue, France.
Every year thousands of Gypsies from across Europe descend upon the seaside village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue in the south of France, to celebrate their patron saint, Sarah, on May 24 and 25.
Hundreds of caravans – some modern, some horse-drawn – line the roads and the étangs (lagoons); the smell of cooking permeates the air. On almost every street corner, a crowd claps while a man plays flamenco guitar and groans a traditional song from the depths of his soul; wives and daughters dance. By May 26, after almost a week of festivities, most of those who don’t live locally have left.
The Camargue is a desolate, remote region between Port Louis, to the west of Marseille, and the medieval walled town of Aigues-Mortes and is where the River Rhône enters the sea. It is best known for its black bulls, white horses and birdlife as well as its rice fields and salt marshes. Here is my guide to following in the footsteps of the gitans (gypsies), whatever time of year you decide to visit.
According to one legend, Sarah was the Egyptian maid of Jesus’ follower Mary Jacobe, who along with other followers including Mary Salome, Mary Magdalene and Martha, left Palestine by boat after the crucifixion and landed in the village that is now named after them. According to another, Sarah was the chief of a dark-skinned tribe who lived on the banks of the Rhône and helped the Marys’ boat ashore by using her cape as a raft on the rough sea. Whichever, her bones are now kept in the solemn 11th-century fortified church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer along with her dark-skinned cape-clad effigy; the latter is paraded through town and taken down to the sea on May 24 but can be seen in the church crypt during the rest of the year.
Wherever you go in the Camargue, you’ll see men and women wearing brightly colored paisley shirts and round-toed leather boots. These are the guardians, aka Camargue cowboys, who work on the ranches, where the bulls and horses are raised, or in the region’s many riding centers. In 1935 it was some guardians, along with the Marquis de Baroncelli (see below), who helped the Gypsies make this pilgrimage an annual event and who now play a supporting role. To find out what they usually do, watch an abrivado through the streets of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where guardians on horseback accompany bulls to the arena to take part in courses camarguaises (bull-baiting games), or visit the Domaine Paul Ricard Méjanes to go riding and watch or help the guardians as they go about their work.
The Marquis De Baroncelli
Folco de Baroncelli-Javon was a Provence-born, Provençal-speaking Italian aristocrat who is regarded as the “saviour” of Camargue traditions. After setting up a manade (ranch) in the area in 1895, he was responsible for protecting the breed of Camargue bulls, developing the rules of the nascent courses camarguaises and founding the Nacioun Gardiano – an organization to protect Camargue traditions. He is remembered on May 26 with a ceremony at his tomb. To find out more about this fascinating character, visit the museum in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Where To Stay
Lay your head gypsy-style in a (static) traditional wooden caravan at Grands Puits near Aigues-Mortes. Or for a more luxurious experience, book into the chic Mas de Peint, an elegantly renovated 17th-century farmhouse on a working manade to the east of the Étang de Vaccarès. On the way into Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, B&B L’Étrier has eight contemporary, rustic rooms and a gîte housed in the renovated outbuildings of a cabane de gardian (traditional thatched rancher’s cottage), which is right next to the Étang de Launes.
Where To Eat
In the center of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, El Campo serves traditional dishes like gardianne de taureau (bull-meat casserole) accompanied by the local rice and regularly holds Gypsy music concerts. The best table in the Camargue is arguably La Chassagnette, whose organic garden vegetables and locally sourced produce are turned into beautifully presented dishes by Japanese-inspired chef Armand Arnal. Situated in a stunning location on the edge of the Étang de Vaccarès, Le Mazet du Vaccarès is the place to go to sample the region’s fish and seafood – especially tellines in lemon-flavored cream.
Where To Shop
In Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, head to the aptly named Boutique Le Gardian (9 Rue Victor Hugo) to kit yourself out in guardian get-up, while Les Bijoux de Sarah (12 Place de l’Église) sells traditional Gyspy jewelry. Les Paluns (16 Place de l’Église) has a good selection of regional food and wine.
Fly or take the train to Avignon – a standard return train fare from London St Pancras starts at £119 from www.raileurope.co.uk. Hire a car or take a connecting train (20 minutes) to Arles then a bus (one hour) on to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Featured Image: Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Shutterstock.com)