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The Camargue: Wild West of France

This post is the latest in the series Places, Experiences and Objects to Dream About, which profiles marvelous locations, unique life experiences and objects of interest to modern explorers that Kike discovers during my travels.

The Camargue region is sometimes known as the “Wild West of France.” Located in the southeast of the country, it is Western Europe’s largest river delta. It is a panorama of rippling swamps, marshes, rice paddies, and ancient villages. The Camargue attracts nature lovers from around the world for its diverse population of wildlife. These visitors may know the region from its emblematic white flamingos, their flocks blooming like flowers from the marshes. Hundreds of thousands of birds converge here during migrating season in spring and fall; the Camargue Natural Park area includes a massive UNESCO designated wildlife reserve.

Camargue Horses by National Geographic Photographer Kike Calvo
Camargue Horses. Photo © Kike Calvo 

Continuing the tradition of the Camargue’s white wildlife icons are the famous Camargue horses, one of the most ancient breeds in the world. These horses have lived in the region for thousands of years, where they are traditionally ridden by the Gardiens: Europe’s only cowboys. The horses are coveted for their stamina, agility, and beautiful cream color.

The Camargue is also a center of human history and culture; it is home to the medieval city of Aigues Mortes, which once served as the main Mediterranean departure point for the Crusaders. Today, the walls of the city rise up out of the marshes, forever awaiting their return.

The path of this history brings us to the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. It lies directly on the ocean, battered by winds blowing in from the water. Its patchwork of cream and red tile roofs mirrors the stones and shells drawn in through the ages by the restless waves. For much of the year Saintes Maries de la Mer lies quiet, but at the end of May it is flooded with crowds of thousands of people.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The statue of Sara, carried by the Gypsies to the sea, symbolizes the waiting for and welcome of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. Photo © Kike Calvo 

The annual festival celebrates the Black Sara, patron saint of the gypsies. Pilgrims come from the farthest reaches of Europe and beyond, filling the empty spaces of the city with their caravans. This time, I was able to join them.

Thanks to the help of Serge Krouglikoff from Create Away I spent the festival in the company of one of the oldest gypsy families. Several photographers from different levels joined the experience, but only Philip Volkers and myself were allowed up the tower chapel. “We were introduced to the head of the Gypsy family and as a result we accepted into the clan,” said Volkers. “They allowed us to get in close and be part of a very sacred event that few people have been allowed to witness. I considered this to be a great honor.”

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
A reduced number of people, many belonging to the same Gypsies families, are allowed into the ìHigh Chapelî . A private and special ceremony brings down the reliquaries containing the relics of Patron saint of the Gypsies Sara using a winch. Photo © Kike Calvo 

The family I met is hardly the only representative of gypsy culture at the festival. Although many people might consider gypsies as one homogenous group, they are actually a collection of many smaller peoples. Among the eight or ten thousand people who make the pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer, there are three main groups of gypsy ancestry.

Gitan is the French word for gypsy, but in reality it belongs to one particular group, the most dominant in and around the town. Much of their history dates back to Spain, and these roots can be seen in their dark hair and the melodic tones of their traditional language, “kâlo.” Some know them as “Catalans,” and some as “Andalusian.” There are many Gitans in the south of France and neighboring Spain and Portugal. They are well known for their music and influence on flamenco dance.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Gypsies camp during several days during the Gypsy Festival where pilgrims take Sara, the Patron saint of the Gypsies to the sea. Photo © Kike Calvo 

The Roms are a people of Indian origin. Their ancestors are said to stem from the Ganges Valley in northern India around 1,000 years ago. After passing through the Balkans and the Carpathians, they arrived in Europe, where they still reside today. Their women still wear the traditional multicolored skirts and scarves for which the gypsies are often known.

The Manouches are also originally from the India area, and their language bears echoes of this ancestry. Some famous entertainers come from their number: musician Django Reinhardt, painter Torino Zigler, and many well known circus performers such as Zavata and Bouglione. Many of the Manouche people are more reclusive, although they are known for the music schools they created in the Alsace region.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The statue of Sara, carried by the Gypsies to the sea, symbolizes the waiting for and welcome of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. Photo © Kike Calvo 

These groups and more make up the diverse culture of the gypsies. At times like these, they all come together; as fits their nomadic culture, the pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer is a deeply religious act. They arrive for a week of music, prayer, and revelry, in what is a part of the gypsy Catholic tradition. The journey is made with the idea of penitence and prayer for those in need.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The statue of Sara, carried by the Gypsies to the sea, symbolizes the waiting for and welcome of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. Photo © Kike Calvo 

The statue of Sara, Patron Saint of the Gypsies, lies in the Church of Saintes Maries de la Mer, bedecked in layers of vivid dresses and jewelry. She is surrounded by decorations, a reliquary, and a massive cross that is carried in the ritual procession. During the May Pilgrimage, the church is filled with revelers who hold up candles: thousands of points of light dancing under the vaulted ceiling as they have for centuries. They leave offerings: jewelry, robes, notes with expressions of hope and adoration. Many seek blessings for the sick or baptisms for their children.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Procession of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. The “craft”, with the statues of the Two Marys aboard, is borne to the sea, accompanied by the crowd of gypsy and non-gypsy pilgrims. Photo © Kike Calvo 

Some Camargue legends paint Sara as the servant of Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome in Palestine. Others see her as a gypsy herself, who welcomed the Marys into Europe after their exile from the Holy Land. No one knows for sure, as her exact origin has faded into memory; now, she is renowned as a guardian of the many gypsy peoples. As the procession leaves the church, the Gardiens on their white horses lead the way. Masses of people follow the horseback riders and statue bearers on their slow journey down to the sea.

The crowd is accompanied by a swell of song and chanting, as the gypsies cry, ‘Live Saint Sara!” She is carried to the crests of the waves as a symbol of the patron saints’ ancient arrival on these shores. The bishop blesses the pilgrims and the sea from aboard a traditional fishing boat. The procession then returns to the church amidst the sound of instruments and the tolling church bells. The prayers for the ceremony of return then begin. The festival as it is now has only been in place since 1935, when the Marquis de Baroncelli and some of the Gardiens created an official pilgrimage for the Gypsies. However, the town and its central church have been home to similar rituals for much longer.

Annual Roma pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by National Geographic Creative Photographer Kike Calvo
Procession of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome Gypsies at the procession of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. Photo © Kike Calvo 

After the pilgrimage is over, the gypsies pack up their caravans and go their separate ways, as is their custom. For most of them, the road is unending as they seek new communities throughout their nomadic journey. Many of them do not own property or a conventional “home.” However, 95% of these gypsies are citizens of France. The country has even created its own legal status for such groups: “gens du voyage,” or “people of the journey.” Their lifestyle is more than a romanticized adventure; rather, it is a longstanding tradition with its own customs and trials. The gypsies are often met with controversy wherever they go, perhaps in part because their nomadic nature makes it difficult for any sedentary culture to truly know them.

After the Festival, we spent three days exploring the Camargue alongside with Serge Krouglikoff. The idea, searching for unique photo opportunities with horses. Krouglikoff decided to return to France, after an illustrious career in international fashion photography in London. He has developed great relationships with horse breeders, making sure we visited the best locations.

Camargue Horses by National Geographic Photographer Kike Calvo
Camargue Horses. Photo © Kike Calvo 

The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue area in southern France. Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world. For centuries, these small horses have lived wild in the harsh environment of the Camargue marshes and wetlands of the Rhône delta.

In 2014 K.J. Wetherholt wrote an interesting article for the Huffington Post on these horses. “Horses and humanity have had a deeply intertwined history; horses have been an ancient fixture in antiquity,” she described. “Seen on the most ancient of cave paintings, from Lascaux and Chauvet, to other examples of early art, when human beings first tried to capture the most powerful symbols often dramatically depicting their connection with the environment.”

Camargue Horses by National Geographic Photographer Kike Calvo
Mounted cattle herdsman known as Gardians in the Camargue delta in southern France.

Fellow expedition photographer Volkers grew in the countryside in the United Kingdom. Her mother bred horses, so until the age of 10 he was always surrounded by horses and animals . “I have never experienced anything quite like the Camargue horses,” said Volkers. “They are rumoured to be one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world and their distinctive white colour is well known. I have seen the classic photographs of them charging through the marshes and i have always wanted to see it in reality. There is no way to describe seeing a herd of horses galloping through the water straight towards you, its exhilarating and scary.”

Moments like the pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer allow us a rare glimpse of the gypsies as a united people, coming together in the thousands to trade stories and celebrate their common traditions. Photographing the procession, headed by the king of the Gypsies and the archbishop, closely experiencing rituals and traditions alongside Gardians, dressed in their traditional outfits on beautiful Camargue horses and traditional Arlesian women and children made the realize once more, the importance of preserving cultural diversity and not only biodiversity.

Camargue Horses by National Geographic Photographer Kike Calvo
Camargue Horses

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Comments

  1. Grace O'Malley
    near Mont Ventoux, France
    July 18, 9:07 am

    What a great article! Informative and unusual.

    I loved the photo of the man’s tattoo, and your second image of the horses running straight ahead is BRILLIANT in so many ways.