Ramblin' On with Pat Middleton

Author, Pat Middleton continues her journey to find great waterway cruises for greatriver.com travelers!

The Rhone River Delta
The Camargue
Lausanne, Switzerland

The Camargue
Les Gardians



Map of the Rhone River Delta


Gypsies of the Camargue
by Pat Middleton  ©
Part 3 of 5


Anyone who has read, "Bury Me Standing," the best-selling gypsy history will find a treasure of living history in the gypsy culture of Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer. The gypsies have a long history in Europe. It is estimated that they left India as a group of nomads around 900 a.d. reaching Persia in  950 and Petit Egypt 1230. By 1370 the gypsies, or GITANs as they are called in France, were totally enslaved in Romania. They arrived in Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer in 1438 and Spain in 1539. While most of the family groups still speak a mix of Romanian and Sanskrit, those from Spain speak Spanish -- the Catholics cut out their tongues during the Inquisition so they couldn’t speak Romanian.

wagon.GIF (67590 bytes)The museum along the Route d'Arles--Le Musee des Roulottes-- is a private collection of  seven or eight traditional wagons, the use of which dates back some  400 years. The self-guided tour showcases such amenities as marble fireplace, wood stove, and fine furniture. There is a shepherd's wagon, quite small, where one can barely stand up. It has a closet-style bed, a wood stove and a hand carved wooden door. Another wagon features lace curtains, with  lace accents throughout and gas lights.

Typically, the gypsies were travelers, with the family names of Tinker, Tartar or Traveler in Ireland and England. White-skinned Europeans were called Voyeurs, Gitans in France or Spain, Tzigane in Romania. They might be jugglers, trapeze artists, puppeteers, or train animals for the circus. In France many gypsies are still circus people. A miniature 3-ring circus model in one museum wagon took 6 years to complete.

The museum curator was a man with a passion. I was reminded of how few private museums one finds now in the US. He was sorry to see the wagon era end. These were true gypsies he explained. " Now," he sighed, " its just young kids coming in trailers and motor homes to party."

The gypsies converge upon Stes Maries-de-la-Mer  during the annual May pilgrimage. This nomadic culture, much maligned, is seldom welcomed to great cathedrals and law-abiding communities. Yet in Les Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer they are welcomed to the 9th century fortified Romanesque church and the St. Sarah Crypt. Sarah, the patron saint of the gypsy culture, was the housemaid for Mary-Jacobe and Mary-Salome and Lazarus. According to local legend, when the Maries and Lazarus were sent out to sea in a small boat during the persecution of Christians by the Jews, they left Sarah behind. She cried out and one of the Mary's threw her coat onto the water. Sara stepped onto the coat and it bore her to the boat.

The little community of faith landed safely on the shore at the present  Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer from which Lazarus made his way to Marseilles to evangelize and the Marys stayed in the area between Taracson/Arles and the Camargue. The 9th century church was built to accommodate pilgrims visiting the shrine at the site where the Marys were buried. Recent excavations of the crypt indicate that, indeed, the bones are those of an Egyptian woman from about the 1st century.

An elaborate gypsy festival and pilgrimage is held about the 3rd weekend in May. stes maries Gypsy families from around the world make their way to Stes  Maries-de-la-Mer for Baptisms, family reunions, and other events. Everywhere are the bejeweled women in long, colorful skirts, full white blouses, and kerchiefs. The gold leaf statues of Sara and the Maries are carried again to the sea for prayers and veneration.

Continue, part 4 of 5
"Birding in the Camargue"


[ Camargue Overview ]  [ Map of Camargue ]  [ The Gardians ]  [The Gypsies
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