Our village is at the foot of les Dentelles, but today, with a few hours notice, we drive down to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for the feast of Saint Sarah, patron saint of the Roma people. The landscape changes on the Camargue estuary – it is flatter, even fuller of wildflowers, and drifts of water lie over the floodplain.
There are fields and fields of water, some for rice cultivation, but mostly the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue which is an ornithological refuge. It’s beautiful country, wide and wild and empty,
home of the white Camargue horses,
the black bulls,
and the gardians who raise them
The village is already crowded when we arrive – caravans, minibuses, campsites – and it will stay full for some days because this is a major pilgrimage for the Roma, a coming-together of clans and family groups. The sun is beating down and washing up again from the walls and pavements and there is a wild and vibrant excitement in the air. A girl outside the church pins a medallion on my shirt despite my protestations, and insists on a five euro payment. She is proficient in making demands in at least five languages (we run through French, Italian, German, English - yes! - and another I don’t quite recognise: she balks at Berber) and she knows where Australia is, so I give her two euros. She seems quite pleased and waves at me when we meet again later.
The 9th century church itself is beautiful
and the fact that the religious history of the area predates Christianity by centuries is the kind of thing I adore. There is a pre-Christian altar in the church that dates to the 4th century BC. I desperately wanted to see it – shades of my Basilica St Clement - but today is not the day…
The gloom of the church is held at bay - just - by thousands of candles; outside, the air echoes with music and laughter and shouting. The clothes are astounding; the young girls are stunningly pretty
and the young men are bold and arrogant and fun to watch. The church is packed with devotees of the black Saint Sarah who may have developed as an incarnation of the Hindu’s Kali. The young woman who stands in for her during the service is quite overcome;
and later, during the statue’s procession from the church to the sea, there are people in tears -
But for the most part it’s a joyful, exuberant celebration of Roma community, family ties and history,with the pretty song to Saint Sarah constantly thrumming in the background.