The Camargue – Provence – South of France
The Camargue is an interesting region in the south of France, very much like its own separate little country. The scenery takes on a huge change from elegant chateaux or medieval villages to vast stretches of marshes and wetlands, pastures, dunes and salt flats which make up the Camargue. This region was designated as a botanical and zoological nature reserve in 1927 and 1970, which helped to conserve its natural wild beauty. A unique variety of flora and fauna flourish here and we are told to be on the lookout for flamingos, egrets, ibises and other species.
As we take snaps of the black bulls grazing on the pastures, they in turn stare back at us. Spring and Autumn are the best times for seeing the birdlife of Camargue. Also spotted in the fields are small, white, sturdy horses which are ridden by the guardians or cowboys. It’s a bit intriguing to think of cowboys in France, but when we saw them in town, they were decked in boots, hats and all. The Camargues live a traditional life which in turn keeps the Camargue traditions alive.
As we headed for the village of Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer, we saw in the salt marshes long lines of salt mountains drying in the Provencal sun, and the checkerboard salt-pans. The salt marshes (salins) of Salin de Giraud can be found in the southeast corner of the Camargue, near Salin-de-Giraud and the Grand Rhône. Another salt marsh, the Salins du Midi, is located in the southwest corner, west of the Petit Rhône.
Salt production in the Camargue began since ancient times by both the Greeks and the Romans, and continued through the Middle ages. Salt was transported along the Mediterranean coast and then inland on the Routes du Sel (Salt Roads), up into Piedmont.
During the months from March to September, seawater is pumped about 30 km across the salt tables, to form a saturated solution of sodium chloride. The solution is then directed into crystalising pans, about 12 cm deep. The solution evaporates all winter and into the summer. From the end of August until October, the salt crystalizes.
Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer is the gypsy capital of the Camargue and it is also a compact seaside resort town, filled with shops and activities oriented towards the tourist trade. We arrived in town on a very hot summer’s day. Unfortunately at lunchtime, most stalls and shops were closed and Tony didn’t get to check out a very nice cowboy leather belt. Apparently, it does get busy during their festive seasons.
The annual pilgrimage and gathering of the gypsies or gitans takes place here on 24-25 May. The gypsies start arriving in Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer during the preceding week and during this time, marriage requests and baptisms take place. The saint’s day for Mary Jacobe is 25 May. This is also a time to venerate their patron saint, Sarah.
The parish Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the central attraction of this village. Viewed from the outside, the church resembles a fortress due to the height and bulk of the building. Above the entrance door to the church an original cross welcomes us. This is the cross of the Camargue, made up of three symbols:
- At the top is a cross, which is a sign of lived FAITH. This is decorated in cowhands’ forks, which represents daily work.
- The cross is rooted in the sailor’s anchor, representing a sign of HOPE amid the storms of life and the history of humanity.
- The cross is surrounded by a heart, being an invitation to LOVE and to share with those who are near and those who are far away.
So who are these gypsies and where do they come from? There appears to be no written record of when they arrived at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, but are believed to have been here since time immemorial. It is reckoned that they migrated from the north-west of India around the year 900. Having got as far as Persia, they broke up into different branches, then spread out throughout Europe and beyond. In nearby Arles, they are recorded as having been there in 1438.
More of the gypsies and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in next blog.