We’ve spent the last week in the cowboy wildlands of Camargue, where white ponies and black bulls roam the flat marshes in between large saline pools and lakes fringed with whispering reeds, all teeming with pink flamingos, white egrets and grey herons. It’s a strange, enticing landscape, where nature and human influence have conspired to create something mad and beautiful.
I had no idea there were flamingos in Europe, yet alone Camargue – when we first saw a flock of them flying through the air I nearly fell of my seat. ‘Flying pencils’, said Chris – and indeed that is exactly what they look like in flight, with their legs and neck outstretched in both directions. We stopped to ooh and aah at them and take photos, then turned the corner and… basically there are thousands of them, everywhere you look!
The main town here, Saintes Maries de la Mer, has a whiff of SkegVegas about it – it’s a real tourist hotspot for beach-life and good times. We inadvertently hit the town on a bank holiday weekend and it was absolutely heaving, under siege by an army of campervans surrounding it on all sides. There are hundreds of bars, cafes, tacky-looking restaurants along the beachfront, plus the endless shops selling the usual tourist tat. It’s exciting and a bit rough round the edges, somehow made even more thrilling by the fact it’s a pilgrimage site for travellers, including the Romani and Gitan people. Crowds of exotic, dark faces, all seeming to be in high spirits, congregate around the church here, contrasting with the otherwise pale crowds desperate to get a tan.
The patron saint of travellers, Sainte Sarah, is hidden in the basement of the church – she is brought out once a year in May and given a dip in the sea as part of a huge annual traveller festival. The interesting thing about Sainte Sarah is that she is black, and her other name is Kali, which means black in the Romani language. My yogi antennae were immediately on alert when I heard this, as one of the Hindu goddesses is called Kali, and is often depicted as black. She is the goddess that is said to represent the cosmos, the entire universe, and is sometimes shown as a fearsome, mad-looking warrior lady with black skin and a protruding bright, red tongue, holding severed heads and stamping on dead bodies – nice. I’ve always been rather drawn to her, as she seems like a manifestation of mother earth – to me she represents the full spectrum of the power of nature, from gentle beauty to terrifying power.
Anyway, quite what she is doing in the basement of a Catholic church is an interesting question indeed, but perhaps not as bizarre as you may think. Although the origins of the Romani people aren’t known for sure, it’s generally believed that they came from northern India, and certainly the Romani language is based on Sanskrit and many of those dark faces I see here remind me of the beautiful, proud-looking Rajasthani people, so it’s probably no mystery at all why there may be some religious cross-overs here. Whatever the reason, it all adds to the mystique and charm of this wonderfully strange corner of the world.
I have loved being here. There is something about being by the sea that exhilarates me and makes me feel tingly and alive, especially beneath the huge skies of Camargue. I could watch the waves for hours – it’s better than therapy. Somehow the endless motion and restless energy of the sea causes a reactive feeling of inner calm. Yesterday was incredibly windy and the kite-surfers were out in force, but today the wind has dropped, leaving monster waves to calmly roll in after yesterday’s storm, so the surfers take the stage – it’s hard to believe it’s the Mediterranean. We had expected neither flamingos nor decent surf here – Camargue is definitely a surprising, magical place. As I type this, Chris is out there on his surfboard but I choose to stay inside and surf my own wave of words – much safer… 😉
A few photos of beautiful Camargue below – spot the flying pencil in the bottom left!