Flamenco in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Today I’m rewinding time by half a century. Because I am still surprised to have received one of the best travel inspirations already during my school days. The overly strict French teacher showed an unexpected enthusiasm when describing a travel experience in front of the class. For this reason, a few years later, I and a few friends pitched our tent in the magical town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the drafty campground La Brise on the drafty campground. In order not to miss anything, we had already traveled to the Camargue in mid-May.

Das Dach der Kirche Notre Dame des Saintes Maries steht Besuchern offen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The roof of the church Notre Dame des Saintes Maries is open to visitors / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the course of a week, the sleepy southern French village completely changes its character. When we arrive, everyday life in the Camargue is still tranquil. On the terraces of the bistros, the few tourists still easily find a table and hippies find sitting on the floor particularly progressive. This atmosphere is typical of the year 1978.

Gute Freunde, Wein, Zigaretten der Marke Gitanes, Käse und ein Baguette. Mehr braucht es für einen Ausflug ins Nomadenleben nicht / © Foto: Georg Berg
Good friends, wine, cigarettes of the brand Gitanes, cheese and a baguette. That’s all you need for a trip to the nomadic life / © Photo: Georg Berg

Welcome exception with tradition

From the roof of the weir church of Notre-Dame-des-Saintes-Maries, we let our gaze wander over the wide estuary delta of the Rhone. A steady movement on the horizon turns out to be an endless caravan of caravans. They soon take up every unused space in the village.

Always in May, the population of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer increases more than tenfold. Behind the countless caravans of the Roma families that have arrived, the permanent houses in the community of 2,000 souls are soon barely noticeable. To this day, I can’t imagine a better use of the available space and a better coexistence of different cultures.

Ein aus mehreren Familien bestehender Clan hat sich auf einem Parkplatz gemeinsam eingerichtet / © Foto: Georg Berg
A clan consisting of several families has settled together in a parking lot / © Photo: Georg Berg
Der familiäre Zusammenhalt ist wichtiger als alle materiellen Güter / © Foto: Georg Berg
Family cohesion is more important than all material goods/ © Photo: Georg Berg
Friedliches Miteinander ist in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer seit Jahren Brauch / © Foto: Georg Berg
Peaceful coexistence has been the custom in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for years / © Photo: Georg Berg

Newcomers are greeted with a big hello and then waved into place without much fuss. Flamenco music underscores the cheerful, relaxed atmosphere. But neither a concert is taking place, nor is any system discernible to us outsiders. Guitarists hurry restlessly through the streets, and without any recognizable announcement, a random group suddenly starts to sing one of the flamenco classics.

Die Musik als gemeinsames Kulturgut verbindet die Generationen und lässt Erinnerungen wach werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Music as a common cultural asset connects the generations and brings back memories. / © Photo: Georg Berg

Religious origin

Mit dem nach Folco de Baroncelli-Javon benannten Museum ehrt Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer den Marquis, der die Tradition der Camargue und der berittenen Gardians begründet hat / © Foto: Georg Berg

It was not until 1935 that the procession in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was founded by Folco de Baroncelli-Javon in the form that has become a tradition. Since that year, the Roma are not only tolerated in the celebration, but take a leading role.

According to the legend, the Holy Marys came here by sea and the black Sara, coming from Egypt, is said to have accompanied them as a servant. Since the Roma in the Camargue call themselves Gitanos (those from Egypt), they venerate Black Sara as their saint.

With the museum named after Folco de Baroncelli-Javon, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer honors the marquis who founded the tradition of the Camargue and the mounted Gardians / © Photo: Georg Berg

Gitanos is what the Roma of the Camargue call themselves

The flamenco typical of the Camargue is also called Flamenco Gitano. It emphasizes romantic longing more than the melancholy of the broken heart. Friends of classical flamenco find it rather schmaltzy. On our journey we met the formative figures for this style of music.

Vom Flamenco-Musiker Manolo Bissiere ist der Spruch überliefert, mit dem er nie seine Heimat verlassen hat: „Flugzeuge sind für Vögel und Boote für Fische. Aber ich gehe dahin, wohin mich meine Füße tragen, um sicher zu sein, dass ich wieder zurückkomme“ / © Foto: Georg Berg
From the flamenco musician Manolo Bissiere the saying has been handed down, with which he never left his home: “Airplanes are for birds and boats for fish. But I go where my feet take me, to be sure of coming back.” / © Photo: Georg Berg

Manolo Bissiere was world famous for his music, but in 1965 he refused a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was replaced by Ricardo Baliardo, better known by his stage name Manitas de Plata (Little Silver Hands), who toured the world several times in the following years.

Manitas de Plata zieht auch in seinem privaten Umfeld alle mediale Aufmerksamkeit auf sich / © Foto: Georg Berg
Manitas de Plata also attracts all the media attention in his private life. / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die geheimnisvolle Schwarze Sara / © Foto: Georg Berg

Figures of the Virgin Mary in the crypt

The mysterious Black Sara

According to legend, in the year 40 A.D. Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome of Galilee and Mary of Cleophas came to southern France by ship. Today, the permanent place of the statues of Mary is under the altar area in the crypt of the church Notre-Dame-des-Saintes-Maries, where hundreds of candles provide enormous heat.

But it is above all their servant, Black Sara, who is venerated by Roma families as a patron saint.

Her appearance is constantly changing, because she is always dressed in new robes that she sews herself.

© Photo: Georg Berg

Hunderte Kerzen erleuchten und erhitzen die Krypta der Kirche Notre-Dame-des-Saintes-Maries / © Foto: Georg Berg
Hundreds of candles illuminate and heat the crypt of the church Notre-Dame-des-Saintes-Maries / © Photo: Georg Berg

Pilgrimage to the beach

Begleitet von berittenen Gardians, den Cowboys der Camargue, werden jedes Jahr am 24. Mai die heiligen Marienstatuen durch das Dorf Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer bis zum Strand getragen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Accompanied by mounted gardians, the cowboys of the Camargue, the holy statues of the Virgin Mary are carried through the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to the beach every year on May 24. / © Photo: Georg Berg
Tausendfach erschallen die Rufe: "Vive Sainte Sara" auf der Prozession durch die Stadt bis zum Strand / © Foto: Georg Berg
The shouts of “Vive Sainte Sara” resound a thousand times during the procession through the town to the beach./ © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Gardians auf ihren Pferden bilden im Meer einen Halbkreis, in dem die Heiligenfiguren bis ins Wasser getragen werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Gardians on their horses form a semicircle in the sea, in which the holy figures are carried into the water. / © Photo: Georg Berg


Radio Feature: Every year at the end of May many Roma families meet in the small southern French village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mèr. In the days before the two statues of the Virgin Mary and Black Sara are carried to the beach, a lot of music is played. This is the subject of an issue of the WDR Folklore Atlas (© Georg Berg, WDR 1981)

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