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Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Feeling festive in the company of Gypsies


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Pilgrimages provide an extra dimension to the Camargue and a chance to see and participate in some of its surviving spectacles. Many of these events are more popular than religious in character, as the number of tourists attending them testifies. Christian, pagan and secular elements are the ingredients of one of Provence's best-known and most zestful events: the annual pilgrimage to Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the self-proclaimed capital of the Camargue, at the end of May. What makes this event worth attending is the animated presence of thousands of Gypsies who, for the two or three days of the pilgrimage, converge on this normally sleepy village from all corners of Europe.

The pilgrimage has its roots in the alleged discovery of Mary Jacob's remains here in the 13th century, a legend that quickly established Provence as the "second Palestine." With the adoption by Gypsies in the last century of Mary's Egyptian slave, Sarah, as their patron saint, the pilgrimage has grown over the years into a major event on Provence's cultural calendar, attracting not only attracts members of Europe's last wandering tribe, but hordes of independent visitors, film crews, journalists and other assorted media types.

Saintes-Maries, with its 15-km-long stretch of beach, first-rate seafood restaurants and an imposing Romanesque church built to house the assumed relics and remains of Sarah, the so-called Black Virgin, and other saints, hosts a steady trickle of tourists throughout the year, but moves into high gear with the pilgrimage. Crowds gather early on the first day, and any apprehensions that the event might turn out to be a solemn religious rite are soon dispelled as Gypsy bands and buskers strike up and flamenco dancers put on unrehearsed performances that in turn prompt other spontaneous outbreaks of street music and dancing.

It seems strange to come here and find authentic flamenco music, but then, the Camargue is in that part of the country known as the Midi, where Spanish and French culture are only too happy to blend and merge. This has resulted in such distinctive musicians as the late Django Rheinardt and the French flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata, a regular at the pilgrimage.

The main procession, following a course through the streets of Saintes-Maries and down to the beach, is held on each day of the pilgrimage. Mounted horsemen resembling gentlemen cowboys -- the "gardian" or herdsmen who look after the Camargue's sizable herds of bulls -- officiate at the procession, lending a dignified air to the event. They were said to have greatly impressed Bill Cody, or Buffalo Bill as he is better known, when he arrived in Europe with his Wild West Show, as did the equestrian displays, dare-devil bull-dusting and the riders' costumes, all French style and Spanish panache. These horsemen, leading the route through the town, wend their way down onto the beach, where they cut a swath through as many as 4,000 spectators as a sumptuously robed statue of Sarah is carried into the water for the annual Benediction of the Sea.

Suitably cleansed, the procession, its float and those who can squeeze into one of the pews back at the church, repair for prayers, masses and a vigil beside the stuffy, candle-lit crypt where Sarah, the icon of Gypsies, must pass another night.

The Gypsies who gather here are just as much a part of the spectacle as the religious relics and statuary. In a demonstration that Gypsy culture is alive and well, hundreds of caravans and mobile homes, even a few of the old horse-drawn variety, converge on the town, turning the parking area beside the sea wall into a vibrant daytime and nocturnal village, a Gypsy encampment under the stars.



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