Tourism brings money. Money is good, so people can buy something. Whatever. Bananas. Coffee. Strawberries for Christmas. Green asparagus at any time of the year. Money means something. Everyone should have access to sufficient amounts of money. To aromatic strawberries, tomatoes in their variety and splendor, to blooming lavender and to the oceans of this world. But about the way to get there, everyone should argue and reflect. Sometimes as well about the dreams that the marketing industry creates. Maybe we have entirely different wishes.
Postcard idylls that have been widely advertised have disappeared into mass tourism since the 1950s when the first desire to travel arose. Whole regions and villages were lost beyond recognition. The Camargue and the former fishing village Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer live on only in the memory of the people who were the first there fifty years ago. Yes, there are photographs and film clips about the Camargue when it was still wild, and the village with six hundred locals lived off fishing and also the Gypsies. When tradition was more than an addition to marketed folklore.
Today, the Camargue is no longer wild, and the village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has grown into a booming standardized recreation center with two and a half thousand inhabitants who are always at your service, merchandising everything that can be done. Even themselves. In the restaurants no fish tastes like the sea anymore, no clam is fresh. Everything is optimized. And also the pilgrimages with the black Sara and the two saints Maria Kleophae and Maria Salome have degenerated to attractions. Rarely that the emotions, the devotion are more significant than the cravings for Selfies. The blissfull and the untamed is seldom to be felt among the holy women in the Camargue. Even if the black Sara, the smart servant, is standing in the old fortified church all year round and the candles are burning. She knows more, she gives away a glance into heaven, and in return, she is carried out by the Gitanos into the water with a thousand lights and comes back again and again.
The first time I went to the south of France was in 1969. I didn’t know much about Provence, about the Camargue. Only about Marseille. There an uncle had tried to embark, after the escape from the German fascists. His affidavit expired. He landed in Merano, crossed Italy down to his boot and married a princess in Burma. The son returned to his father’s hometown, Hamburg. His mother, the princess, followed a few years later and became an excellent Hanseatic.
I drove with a Citroën, the Dyane. In red. And the trip took two weeks. Along the Moselle. Crisscrossing. Then along the Rhone, left and right through the villages. In zigzag, surveying everything. Even the old harbor of Marseille. Later around the Etang de Berre. From Miramas to the port of Fos-sur-Mer with its fortresses and further to the mouth of the Rhone. Along the river, through tiny hamlets. The fields protected from the Mistral by reeds. From time to time a sign to a farm, to a cabane. With a table in front of the door, chairs. Those who sat down got a cold jug of rosé, bread, small fried sardines. Then the patron put a plate with pizza and one with spaghetti in the middle. Then a dish of fried fish was served. Cheese, then coffee. We paid twelve francs between the two of us. A bottle of Rosé was given by the tavern keepers as a gift and the advice that we should not leave the car.
There would be not only wild horses but also wild bulls. And so we drove through small salt fields and swamps, through reeds, past the herds of camargue horses. Past flamingos in all colors. From time to time a hut, in which cattle shepherds had a shelter. Men who caught bulls and horses. Men are working on a field with fighting bulls. A woman with children lived in a cabane. She cooked for the shepherds. The smell of the sea, salt, and swamps, sand and sun, was inexpressible. In front of us lay the kilometer-long beach of Beauduc. At its other end was the fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Those who try to drive this stretch from Marseille today come thru substantial industrial plants. The herds of the Camargue horses are all well guarded and protected in the nature reserve. Wild bulls no longer exist. No more men who train on their own with bulls or catch horses. Everything is in perfect order, protected and the beach cordoned off.
At that time, in May 1969, we drove along the beach with the Citroën, pitched a tent in front of the dunes. Across the many kilometers, there were only a few cars, small tents. Gitans from Spain had built a small wagon castle from tarpaulins and driftwood. Two gendarmes arrived late in the afternoon. They had the ID´s shown to them, explained how to make a barbecue fire in the sand, how to collect Tellines and told us not to camp in the dunes. The Gitans sent two children who invited us for dinner. Then we all ran into the rising tide. Happiness.
The next day we drove along the beach to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. At the harbor, we bought fish from the boat. In the small Supermarket wine, cheese, oil, bread, Merguez for grilling. In the church, we lit for all three saint women candles. The Gitans appreciated that and invited us to dinner again in the evening.
In the village, we found a cinema next to the fortified church. From Friday to Sunday night there were movies on. A wooden bull arena stood behind the harbor. Very small. It was not about killing the bulls, but about a celebration. All were festively dressed. The men in heavy dark suits and with hats, the women wore colored veils. The children raved. The bulls were decorated with garlands of flowers. The fight was about the cockade between the horns of the bulls. The man who succeeded in conquering them was a glorious winner. We applauded, he got wine, he laughed. It was not about viva la muerte. Long live death, that is how it was and is in Spain. These bulls came afterward again on a trailer and onto the pasture.
That was an adventure then. Also the cinema. Army of shadows. A movie by Melville. A Resistance movie. A film with Lino Venturo. The screening began at 10 pm. Before it was dinner. Everywhere. In the two restaurants, on the beach, at the Gypsies, at the harbor. Food was exchanged. Thus I got to know many fish, clams, sea snails and the taste of grilled chicken and beef with spices, which I had never tasted before. In the cinema, everyone shared their sweets. Nobody was interested in the movie, but everyone looked rapt and with a devotion at the moving pictures, a devotion I experienced the next day again during the procession.
On May 24, 1969, the elders of the Gitans took the saint and wooden Sara from the crypt of the church. Hundreds of candles bent in the heat, crosses were made. Sara’s robes caressed.
For many of the Roma, Manouches, Sinti, and Jeni, this pilgrimage is still the highlight of their year. The large families from many countries make their way to Saint Sara at the end of May. Their patron Saint. Convoys of caravans.
At that time, in 1969, the tents and caravans all stood on the kilometer-long beach. There was campfire, cooking, dancing, singing. The fishing boats were out on the sea with lanterns. Boards were rocking on the water, full of lit candles. The black Sara.
The statue of the Saint had been taken from the crypt and stood in the nave. Only her head was still visible. So many embroidered capes and scarves were tied around her. Who it was possible for, touched Sara. During the service, a wooden box with the relics of the two Maries was lowered from the upper church on ropes. “Long live the Holy Marys! Long live Saint Sara!” The shrine sank in the light of many burning candles.
Four men carried Sara on their shoulders through the village to the sea. Guardians rode ahead. Sara, the servant, the gypsy, the black Maria was accompanied by dozens of horsemen. The statue was carried out as far as possible into the sea, sprinkled with water, set on a boat. The big noise of joy turned into a blessed silence until Sara was back on land and carried back to the church. An evening prayer and afterward everyone celebrated until dawn. Laughing and singing in the alleys and out there on the long beach. Not until after a week was the village empty and quiet again.
The gendarmes drove along the beach, looked, warned, helped a couple set up the tent, said that a mistral was coming, that our tent would not withstand it. We packed everything and drove to Aigues-Mortes, the former harbor town, the old prison town for Huguenots, just a village behind mighty city walls in 1969. The Mistral came, and we flee to Arles to a hotel. On both sides of the streets, caravans were overturned.
In 1970 a part of the Camargue was declared a nature reserve, but the beach, the bay of Beauduc, remained free. We drove again and again into the Provence, to Marseille, into the Camargue. Until the beach was closed off. The village had finally transformed. But what´s it changed to?
In an overcrowded tourist spot, because there is that longing. Not everyone in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is happy, happy about the hardly manageable influx of travelers who do not find what they are looking for. Because there are still memories of how it used to be. A fishing village with two pilgrimages a year. In May for Sara, in October for the two Maries. Back then everyone was more miserable. Fishermen and farmers. Today everyone can rent out a room. But very few of the locals get rich because others get the big business. With a marina, apartment complexes, windsurfing facilities. Huge campsites.
In the sixties, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer became an insider´s tip of the French “Bohème,” the European beatniks and students. A secret tip. As long as it lasted. The community grew from six hundred and eighty inhabitants to almost three thousand. The infrastructure changed completely. What has remained are the holy Sara and the two relics of the Virgin Mary, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer being a place of religious importance for the Gypsies. Sara stands in a sea of candles all year round and is carried into the sea every year.
Some of them have memories. They have the memories because they discovered a secret and then betrayed it until the secret became a postcard. And a place of yearning.
This Text was translated by our Fan and Friend Heidrun Klemmer.
Since 1966 Monika has lived in Münsterland, Westphalia, Germany and the Netherlands. She is happy with her adopted home and her family. For forty years. (Photo: Barbara Dietl)
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