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Thursday, 12 April 2007

The Gypsy Pilgrimage of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer - Page 3

Written by Anna M. Mays
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In the desolate Camargue region of southern France -- an untamed coastal plain marked by salt marshes, wild horses and wayside cowboy ranches -- sits a small seaside village with a unique history and a colorful ancient tradition that is still celebrated today. The press call it the “Gypsy Pilgrimage.” This quiet town, known locally as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, comes alive each year in early spring as thousands of Roma from across Europe make the long journey to celebrate the annual festival of their patron saint Sara Kali. For hundreds of years, the village of Saintes-Maries has served as the sacred pilgrimage site for Europe’s Roma peoples.

musicEach year, during the fourth weekend in May, thousands of Roma from different groups -- Roms, Manouches, Tziganes and gens de voyage -- arrive by caravan, trailer, motorbike, and on foot to pay homage to Saint Sara. During the Saturday Mass, all crowd into the ancient church and sing praises to Sara while the casket with her remains is slowly lowered from the church ceiling. Her statue is then brought up from the crypt and the congregation processes with the statue on a bed of rose petals down to the sea. The evening follows with much music, dancing, and celebration. The pilgrimage is not only a time to celebrate the patron Saint Sara. This event has also become an important moment of gathering for disparate groups and Roma families to come together at a given time each year. Many baptisms, marriage proposals, and reunifications of families occur at this time.

Is there an ironic paradox in the concept of a pilgrimage undertaken by a nomadic people for whom travel is a part of daily existence? Perhaps for the Roma, eternal pilgrims on life’s many paths and for whom the road has not always been easy or welcoming, a pilgrimage in community towards a rooted saint takes on a deeper meaning. This meaning may be incomprehensible to sedentary populations for whom travel is a choice and homeland is a constant.

musicPerhaps the answer can be found in the parting prayer the Roma sing to their patron saint as they leave Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer each year.

“Saint Sara, guide us on the right path, give us good faith and give us good health. And whoever may think badly of us, change his heart so he may think kindly.”

The Camargue region and town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are easily accessible from the near-by cities of Arles, Montpellier and Marseille. Respectful visitors interested in attending the May pilgrimage can find lodging at the village campground, “Camping Le Clos du Rhone” or through the Office du Tourisme des Saintes Maries de la Mer. www.saintesmaries.com

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© Anna M. Mays

(Page 3 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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