Gypsy rites of the Camargue

This week, a small French town becomes the focus of contrasting festivals
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The Independent Travel
The Mistral blows straight in from the coast, carrying sea spray and sand into the small town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. Standpipes kick into action, damping down the beach with salt water in a vain attempt to stop the sand from blowing into town. Even in the lee created by the arena of the old bullring just off the beach, an old man is having problems keeping the sand wet for the Course de Cocade, which is due to start at any time.

The acrid smell of the bulls rises up from the pens. The truck that brought them from the breeding farms waits in the car park, the driver struggling to light a cigarette as he stands talking to a razatteur, dressed from head to toe in white, except for the red and blue stripe down the side of a well-worn pair of trainers.

The truck is waiting. Unlike the Spanish-style bullfight, the Corrida, in the Course de Cocade the bulls are not harmed - strings are tied between their horns and the razatteurs have to snatch these with an attachment covered with glorified crochet hooks clasped in their hands. Timing their runs to perfection, they cross the path of the bull, raking at the cocade as the bull drops its head to gore them. As the bull closes in they spring on to the low wooden fence of the barricade surrounding the arena. Sometimes the bull follows them over in an attempt to kill. When the bull is beaten or winded, and stands four feet planted square in the sand, the door to the bull pens flies open and a nervous steer is sent in to lead the bull out.

The Course de Cocade takes place twice a week during the summer, but today is a little different. The gypsies are in town.

For the previous few days, car parks and open spaces have been filled with their camps. Every night spontaneous singing and dancing breaks out in the main square around the old church.

The gypsy festival is essentially a Catholic celebration. It commemorates the legend of the two Saint Marys and Saint Sarah, who were supposed to have set out from Palestine after the Crucifixion in a boat, and were washed ashore here. Relics and statues are kept in the fortified church of Saintes Maries. These are touched and kissed by the gypsies who believe they have health-giving and healing properties.

On the first morning of the festival, a large crush develops in front of the church as gypsies, dressed in their best, struggle to get in. A solemn, reverential mood prevails inside.

Outside the church, the celebrations are cacophonous. The tension rises as the Gardiens - the cowboys of the Camargue - arrive on their white horses to escort the procession. Tempers blow up and calm down. People struggle and push, curse each other and then relax.

Then the doors of the church open and the congregation streams out, the statue of Saint Sarah held aloft on their shoulders. The statue is heavily wrapped in lace and satin shawls, and the people who have not managed to get inside the church struggle to touch it.

The procession makes its way round the town. When it reaches the beach, the crowd sweeps into the sea with the statue. The fervour reaches fever pitch, people of all ages splashing and playing and throwing flowers to bless the water

As the bearers of the statue turn to leave, the throng also leaves the water and, singing and dancing, make their way up the beach to escort the statue back to its resting place.

The music and the dancing go on late into the evening, and the following morning the procession happens again, this time with the statues of Saint Mary Jacobe and Saint Mary Salome being carried out to sea.

As the gypsies move on, the Gardiens, who have only played a supporting role so far, now start their own festival. Theirs is a quieter, more refined and private affair, culminating in a public display of Camargue and Gardien culture.

The Gardiens are the keystone of the Camargue culture and their festival commemorates their champion, the Marquis de Baroncelli. After a simple ceremony at his graveside, there is a short procession to the old Marquis house, where his son-in-law now lives. To the accompaniment of gypsy music, everyone sits under an old tree, which seems almost as ancient as the Marquis' son-in-law, and drinks pastis.

After the party, the Gardiens saddle up and gallop half-a-dozen bulls through the town. They then give a demonstration of the horsemanship intrinsic to Camargue culture. You join in if you dare, and then have for a few drinks with some of the approving Gardiens afterwards. The locals in the Camargue are well disposed towards tourists - particularly those who join in their bull-games.

CAMARGUE CONNECTIONS

Festival dates The gypsy festival takes place next Friday and Saturday, 24 and 25 May; the Gardiens' festival is the following day.

Getting there The nearest airport is Marseilles, served from Heathrow and Stansted by Air France (0181-742 6600), by British Airways from Gatwick (0345 222111) and from Stansted by Jersey European (01392 360777). The best fare is on Air France from Stansted: pounds 112.70 until the end of June. Eurostar (0345 881881) has a fare of pounds 109 return from Waterloo. From Marseilles, the train to Arles takes about 50 minutes. There are connecting buses to Saintes Maries.

Nearby attractions The Roman arenas in Arles and Nimes; Orange, with its Roman theatre and the Pont du Gard - the largest surviving Roman aqueduct; the ruined town set in the rocks at Les Baux; the fortified town of Aigues Mortes.

More information French Government Tourist Office, 179 Piccadilly, London W1 (0891 244123); Saintes Maries tourist office: 00 33 90 47 82 55.

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