This unique Camargue pilgrimage is a fitting tribute to France’s most singular region

Every year, the Provençal town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer hosts a pilgrimage like no other, drawing Romani people from across Europe to the wetlands and open horizons of the Camargue. The festivities are a fitting tribute to one of France’s most singular regions, famed for its white horses and cowboys.

Published November 16, 2023

25 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Vive Saintes-Maries!” comes the rousing cry from a man in a fedora and green silk shirt, his neck strung with silver pendants depicting hedgehogs, caravans and saints.

Vive Sainte Sara!” comes the bellowed reply from the crowd that’s gathered alongside me in the sun-beaten square in the French coastal town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Call and response, music and rhythm are everywhere here at the Pèlerinage Gitan, a riotous pilgrimage that draws Romani communities from across Europe each May. I round a corner into another square to find flamenco guitarists and singers entwined in a gleeful duel. Each musical phrase is marked with handclaps and cries of “Olé!” from surrounding revellers.

Saintes-Maries is at the heart of the Camargue, the delta of the Rhône — a strange land of swampy marshes wedged between Montpellier and Marseille along France’s southern coast. For the most part, it remains blissfully undeveloped. Inhabited by vibrant flamingos and cowboys riding primeval, ghost-white Camargue horses, these humid wetlands have the feel of an interzone; a place apart. There can be no more fitting introduction to the region than the Pèlerinage Gitan, which is a festival like no other — a homecoming for a people defined by their statelessness.

As I wander the streets, I can smell the paprika of Hungarian goulash and the saffron of olla gitana (Andalucian Romani stew), bubbling in great cauldrons, jostling for olfactory dominance with shakshuka, paella and baked apples. Fragments of conversations in French, Spanish and Dutch reach my ears. The sound of flamenco dissolves into strains of Balkan brass, the ornamented cadences of Eastern European klezmer and the jaunty jig of Parisian gypsy jazz — a style of music pioneered by the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt, a regular attendee of the Pèlerinage until his death in the early 1950s. I stop at a stall to take a face-scrunching shot of tuica, a Romanian plum brandy that’s imbibed with great gusto throughout this week-long event. 

I push my way through the crowds to the town’s honey-hued, Romanesque Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer, where I’ve been granted an audience with Father Vincent Bedon, the national chaplain for the Romani in France and also the priest in charge of the pilgrimage. He’s friendly and unassuming, a small man with glasses and a shirt as grey as his hair, fastened with a dog collar. He gives me a conspiratorial grin and lifts a sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the Camargue cross (an anchor intertwined with a heart and a crucifix) on his wrist. “It’s just a transfer,” he says, laughing. “I got it here at the pilgrimage.” 

Running the festival is no small task — there are around 60,000 people here, Vincent tells me. But why have they come? The focus of the celebration, it turns out, is revealed in the name, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. “Tradition says that the four women who were the first to see the risen Christ (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe and their maid, Sarah) floated here across the Mediterranean in a boat with no sails or oars during the first century,” says Vincent. 

The Romani people who have travelled here, for all their cultural diversity, share one thing: their Catholic faith. The ceremonial centrepiece of the Pèlerinage Gitan is a mass in the church, followed by a procession carrying a statue of Saint Sarah down to the sea, flanked by white Camargue horses. The annual festival takes place around 24 May (Saint Sarah’s feast day) and there’s a smaller autumnal reprise on the Sunday closest to 22 October.“

Sarah is depicted as dark-skinned and was said to be from Egypt,” Vincent explains. “When the first Romani arrived in France in the 15th century, the locals mistakenly thought they, too, had come from Egypt — hence the word ‘gypsy’ [short for ‘gyptian’]. So, Sarah became their patron saint.” In actual fact, genetic and linguistic studies suggest the Romani originated in Northern India. Their name for Saint Sarah, Sara e Kali, seems to lend credence to this — the word ‘kali’ meaning ‘she who is black’ in Sanskrit.

“Just wait until tomorrow,” Vincent adds, alluding to the culmination of the festivities and the procession, his eyes half-closed in a reverie. “The statue, the candles, the reliquaries, the horses. The faith of the faithful — it’s a powerful thing.”

(Meet Sara-la-Kali, the patron saint of displaced people.)

Leaving the church, I walk through Saintes-Maries’ pretty streets, lined with low-slung, terracotta-roofed buildings that look more Spanish than French. Nearing the beach, I find a huge car park filled with vans and motorhomes. Licence plates speak of a continent-wide caravan: Italy, the Netherlands, Romania. There are also French Romani here, of course. France’s Romani population is estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000, but the exact number living in the Camargue today is unknown, as they’re mostly itinerant. 

Among the vehicles are traditional wooden wagons, hung with the Romani flag: a spoked wagon wheel on a background of blue and green. They’re also carved with images of dogs and hedgehogs — the latter a Romani symbol that’s thought to have originated in 19th-century Austria-Hungary when Romani groups were attributed coats of arms depicting native animals. Hedgehog meat is also considered a delicacy among some Romani cultures. Dogs, meanwhile, are popular Romani pets — chihuahuas are tied to kennels shaped like miniature wooden wagons that sit alongside their full-sized counterparts.

Beside one wagon is an elderly lady in a wheelchair, receiving a queue of visitors like a living saint. She’s smartly dressed in a dark suit jacket and a straw sun hat, her shoulders hung with a necklace of vermilion spheres. Cobalt-blue bangles clack on her wrists as she shakes the hand of each successive devotee. Feeling curious, I join the queue. “My name is Jacqueline Baroncelli,” she says, when it’s finally my turn. “My grandfather, Folco de Baroncelli, was the one who started the pilgrimage back in 1935.” The Romani queue to meet Jacqueline because she’s a living piece of Pèlerinage history. “It’s a unique event,” she tells me. “The only one where Romani communities come from all different places to celebrate their collective identity.”

The next morning, I get to the church an hour early and bag a spot near the altar. It’s already packed and filled with the heat of the Camargue swamps; steam rises from the heads of the congregation as sunlight pours in through the open door. The service is more folksy and less formal than a typical religious mass. Flamenco songs intersperse the liturgy, drawing cries of ‘Olé!’ from the crowd. The atmosphere builds as a wooden reliquary is lowered slowly from the ceiling towards the altar, the crowd lifting lit votive candles to meet it. The voice of the father rises as tears fall down the faces of the faithful and palms face upward in prayer. I’m not religious, but I feel rapturous. I sense a bead of sweat rolling down my cheek. “Vive Saintes-Maries!” the faithful chant. “Vive Sainte Sara! Amen!”

When the reliquary reaches the altar, Saint Sarah’s statue — life-size, with a dark complexion and wreathed in robes of pink, gold and blue — is released from her crypt, and the procession begins. Flanked by mounted cowboys in shirts, ties and fedoras, the statue is carried a mile or so to the sea, where it’s placed on a small boat, bobbing about amid a rapturous crowd that I follow into the ocean. Before me, snow-white horses, up to their bellies in seawater, are neatly arrayed before banners and pennants in regal red and gold. Behind them, a storm is gathering, dark clouds broken by shafts of sunlight. It’s like a painting of the Napoleonic Wars. “Vive Saintes-Maries!” comes the final battle cry. “Vive Sainte Sara!”

Camargue cowboys

The following morning, I open my eyes to a similarly majestic lineup of Camargue horses, this time looking down at me from an arty photograph on my hotel room wall. They’re moving through a shimmering wetland, white coats pristine against the mud, their reflection fragmented by splashing hooves. Images like this have come to symbolise the Camargue and can be found plastered across hotels, restaurants and offices throughout the region. They neatly encapsulate its two biggest attractions: hardy white horses (one of the oldest breeds in the world) and their otherworldly marshland environment. I decide I need to experience both up close — and, as luck would have it, there’s a riding school, Crin Blanc, just across the road that can take me.

“Don’t worry,” says my instructor, Marine Tont, as I awkwardly clamber atop my steed later that day in preparation for a ride through the wetlands. “He’s a very calm horse. His name is Espanyol.” He’s a handsome beast, with a thick white mane and the Camargue breed’s characteristic small frame and white coat. “They’re born black or brown and turn white at six years old,” she says as we set off, Marine leading on her own horse. Wearing a yellow floral shirt and black jeans, my instructor rides with a breezy confidence — she’s from Marseille, but moved to the Camargue after university to work with horses. “If you like horses, the Camargue is the place to be,” she says with a smile.

It’s a surreal landscape: boggy marsh followed by beach, with alternating ribbons of mud, water and sand stretching to the horizon. There’s an eerie atmosphere — it feels like a place on the threshold, a liminal space between land and sea. That’s evident in the plant life, which carpets the spongy earth beneath our stirrups in ankle-high beds. Marine points out vibrant splashes of colour: lilac sea purslane, bright green glasswort and purple sea lavender. They look strange to my landlubber’s eyes, not quite terrestrial nor marine, their stalks plump and succulent like samphire and their colourful flowers encrusted with crystals of salt. Evidently they’re tasty, too, as Espanyol insists we stop every few minutes so he can snack on them. 

Each sandbank is dotted with splashes of hot-pink — flamingos are another of the Camargue’s charismatic animals. We stop to watch them for a while. I’m struck by their poise and grace on one leg, perfectly balanced even while their heads scan underwater like searchlights, filtering the water for feasts of algae. The illusion of elegance is swiftly shattered, however, when they take to the air, resembling giant flying stick insects in colourful jackets. 

“There are 60,000 flamingos here in the Camargue,” Marine says. “Some of them migrate in the winter, but many choose to stay.” I don’t blame them. With the vastness of the sky, the stillness of the air, the landscape one huge watery canvas in which everything is mirrored in impressionistic brush strokes, its beauty is surely not lost on anyone. The region’s most vividly coloured inhabitants get to compare the view from water level and gliding lazily above. Spotting flamingos — as well as other birds such as herons and ducks — is among the biggest visitor draws in the Camargue, particularly at protected sites like the nearby Ornithological Park of Pont de Gau.

On the way back to town, we pass a strange thatched cottage — squat, long and whitewashed, it resembles a loaf of bread topped with a pilgrim hat. “The traditional cottage of the gardian,” Marine explains. “That’s what we call cattle herders here in the Camargue. Our version of the cowboy.” 

The chance to experience gardian culture on an agrotourism farm is a highlight of the Camargue countryside. Intrigued, I leave Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer behind, driving north in a rental car through glistening wetlands bordered by 10ft-tall grasses that rustle in the hot wind, heading for a farm called Mas Saint Germain. The flatness of the landscape reminds me of the Fens of eastern England; it creates a disorientating effect that makes me feel I could drive on forever, trapped in this marshy maze. 

In reality, it only takes half an hour to reach Mas Saint Germain, a Camargue horse and bull farm 12 miles north east of Saintes-Maries across the Étang de Vaccarès saltwater lagoon. Mosquitoes swarm around my head in whining clouds as I get out of the car. A lumbering chocolate Labrador gives me a slobbery welcome before I’m greeted by Laure Vadon, whose family have run the farm for over 300 years. Laure’s brother, Germain, as is traditional in these parts, does most of the cattle herding; Laure looks after the farm’s 40 Camargue horses and also oversees the farm’s agrotourism operation.

“People come to stay for a while, to ride a horse, brush it, build a relationship with it,” she says. “It’s harder and harder to access the natural world; people relish it.” The farm’s cosy gîtes (rural holiday cottages) are centuries-old stone buildings, one a former dovecote; pigeons were once a mainstay on the menu here, Laure tells me.

Laure takes me into a huge stone barn, with swallows flitting between the rafters and the building’s foundation year of 1709 inscribed above the door. She introduces me to some of her horses, which live a semi-feral life, largely fending for themselves in the swamps and feeding on reeds and coarse grasses. “If humans disappeared, they could survive without us,” Laure says; only in times of extreme scarcity will she intervene to feed or water them. The horses play a crucial role in the herding of Camargue cattle. “The bulls won’t less us near them if we’re not on horseback,” Laure says. “I love to work with the bulls on my horse. The three of us become one entity.”The bulls are grazing in a field nearby. “They’re a very ancient breed,” Laure says, as we wander over to observe them. “We haven’t modified them for centuries.” They’re certainly primeval looking; like a negative impression of the Camargue’s horses, similarly small but jet black, and with thick, long horns that curve like sickles to sharp points. 

The bulls are the stars of the Course Camarguaise, the local version of bullfighting, which is the region’s favourite pastime. Unlike Spanish bullfighting, this version is bloodless — for the bulls, at least — and involves a bullfighter, called a razeteur, attempting to retrieve pieces of fabric draped around a bull’s horns. “It started in the 19th century, when the bulls were used to work the fields,” says Laure. “Young farm workers would play with the bulls, putting flowers and fabric on their horns and trying to capture them.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the game’s rules became codified, thanks in large part to none other than Folco de Baroncelli, the grandfather of Jacqueline, whom I’d met at the Pèlerinage Gitan. “Baroncelli was the one who gave a frame to this; costumes to dress in, a set of rules,” says Laure. Baroncelli was a writer and gardian who passionately advocated for all elements of traditional Camargue culture. Today’s gardians often emulate his natty style of dress, donning white indienne shirts patterned with colourful flowers, black velour jackets and wide-brimmed felt hats. Baroncelli’s promotion of the gardian lifestyle and the Course Camarguaise — and, of course, his creation of the modern Pèlerinage Gitan — has been hugely influential in shaping the modern image of the Camargue. 

While we’re looking at the bulls, a battered silver Citroën pulls up and out steps a wiry, silver-haired man in a dark floral shirt and blue jeans, his gait somewhat bandy-legged from decades in the saddle. His keen blue eyes dissect me icily from deep within a face of rawhide leather, tanned and grooved from a life spent beneath the searing Camargue sun. Laure introduces him as Christian Culetto, explaining that he often stops here to look at the bulls and to tell passers-by his story.

He was a razeteur, he tells me, for 13 years, from 1979 to 1992. “I was gored three times,” he adds insouciantly, pointing in turn at his knee, his calf and his behind. I wince. Does he feel the bulls are his enemies? “Au contraire,” he replies. “I love them. They’re my friends. I come here to look at them every day.” Christian explains that the sport’s most famous razeteurs become local celebrities, but they’re always secondary to the real stars of the show: the bulls.

 Legend of the Camargue

“He enchants the bull so that they want to follow him until the end, until finally he’s enticed to jump up onto the fence of the arena, and the music of Carmen blares out.” It sounds like a dance, I say. Is it sport, or art? Christian scoffs. “People here aren’t interested in art,” he says. “Passion — that’s the word which best describes it.”

Art may not be preeminent among the thoughts of razeteurs such as Christian, but it shaped the life and legend of one of the Camargue’s most famous inhabitants, Vincent van Gogh. Today, Arles — with its 50,000 inhabitants — claims the modest title of ‘capital of the Camargue’ and is the gateway to the region for many travellers. It’s rather grander than Saintes-Maries, with impressive Roman ruins and Romanesque churches looming above its medieval streets.

Van Gogh lived in Arles for just a year, but it was here he developed the unique painting style that would eventually make him a legend. The city is just a 25-minute drive from the Mas Saint Germain farm, and soon I’m heading out on a walking art tour with guide François Carre. We meet beside a bronze bust of Van Gogh in Jardin d’Été, a serene public park in central Arles. Mounted in a stone block, the artist’s face bears a suitably tortured expression. 

“Van Gogh came to Arles in 1888,” says François. “He was a machine — he produced 100 paintings in 15 months here.” Our tour is punctuated with stops at illustrated information boards marking spots he once painted, including the river harbour and the Roman forum, where van Gogh produced the first of his Starry Night paintings, and a serene colonnaded garden — depicted in his work Hospital in Arles — where he was sent after cutting off an ear following an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin.

Standing in that very garden, in front of an information board that displays a copy of the work, I’m struck by the how the painting’s sense of peace contrasts so starkly with its violent origins. 

Van Gogh’s legacy — along with many of his works — is showcased at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, a modern confection of steel and glass built around a 15th-century mansion. A short walk away sits the even more striking Luma Arles, a contemporary arts centre housed in a tower that rises above the town like a pile of crumpled tin foil. They’re a sharp contrast to Arles’ Roman buildings, which date from as far back as the first century BCE. François leads me through the ancient theatre, where modern stage and lighting rigs sit among millennia-old columns. Concerts are still held here in the summer, he says. In the neighbouring amphitheatre, beams of light break the darkness as we walk through the concourse. “This wasn’t just any Roman city,” François explains. “Emperor Constantine actually lived here at times in the fourth century, once Rome had become too dangerous.” 

It’s easy to see why he found refuge in this part of the world. The Camargue is many things — a place of riotous festivity, religious fervour, majestic wildlife and eerily atmospheric landscapes — but at every turn it feels like nowhere else, a world apart between the Rhône and the Mediterranean Sea.  

Published in the November 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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