October 10, 2011
When we think of the Cote d’Azur, the words that immediately form in our mind are ‘beauty’, ‘glamour’, ‘wealth’, ‘exquisiteness’ and ‘quality’, with the word ‘gypsies’ rarely making the list altogether.
Although you would be mistaken if you were to think that gypsies had no connection to this sublimely striking stretch of coastline. The town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, meaning “Saint Marys of the Sea”, is the capital of the Camargue and boasts a vibrant history of being a town honoured by a succession of cultures, including Romans, Celts, Christians and, most recently, Roman Gypsies.
After the arrival of gypsies in Europe in the early 1400s, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, became a popular place for gypsies to reside, although the reasons for this remain hazy and ambiguous. The town’s remoteness is one valid reason why this small fishing village on the Cote d’Azur became a prevalent destination for gypsies, meaning they could remain predominantly hidden from the bustle encountered on other places on this stretch of Mediterranean coastline.
According to local legend in the village, shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the place of residence for Mary Magdalene, Marie-Jacobe, Marie-Salome and several of the other disciples, who were forced to free the Holy Land in 45AD.
After a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, the women landed their boat in the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where they became honoured by the local people. In light of this veneration, the church in the town, enshrines three wooden statues, one being Marie-Salome, one being Marie-Jacobe and the other being of Sara-la-Kali, whose identity remains a mystery.
The mysterious female statue remains the hub of worship of gypsies, who gather here each May, to embark on the ‘Pelerinage des Gitans’ meaning ‘Pilgrimage of the Gypsies’. Many of the gypsies believe that Sara was an important queen of the village who welcomed tired travellers to the shores of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.