The Alluring Pilgrimage of Saintes-Maries de Mer in Provence

May is an important month for Gypsy communities in Europe as it is the time of the year when they flock to the southwestern coast of France in the town of Saintes Maries of the Mer. A village overflowing with history and tradition, this village is also the site of worship for the Gypsy’s patron saint, Sara La Kali or Black Sara. During this period of late spring, the streets of the seaside town would be filled people enjoying festivities and a celebration. The journey is both a site of religious tradition with all the excitement of a carnival.

Historical Background of the Pilgrim Tour

There are several theories on how the gypsies came to revere Sara La Kali in the town of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. One legend tells how St. Sara have arrived in the town from Palestine in the 16th century as the servant and companion of the two patron saints of the town: Marie-Jacobé and Marie Salomé. Another origin story tells how St. Sara was a Gypsy woman who had been one of the first to settle in the shores of Provence. She then generously welcomed the two saints who had been exiled from the Holy Land. Because of her kindness and hospitality, the Gypsies regarded her as a saint even if the Church in the Vatican does not officially recognize her.

Sara La Kali

Festival Traditions of Sara La Kali

As part of the pilgrimage, various groups of gypsies such as the Romanies, Tziganes, Manouches, and Gitans, get together and fill up the streets, squares, and beaches of the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. All over the continent of Europe, they come together for 8 to 10 days while on pilgrimage for St. Sara. Often, these days serve as reunions for friends and family as well as baptism time for most children in the town’s Church of Saints. Before the grand procession wherein the statue of Sara La Kali is accompanied by parades of people on the shore, the Gypsies hold a ceremony for her relics during May 24th. Accompanied by songs and praises, Sara’s relics is fetched from the reliquaries.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Afterward, crowds of gypsies accompany the procession where St. Sara’s statue is carried to the sea from the town by guardians (horsemen). This tradition is meant to symbolize the anticipated arrival of Saints Marie-Jacobé and Marie Salomé from the legend. It is repeated the next day, but her statue is now accompanied by the figurines of the patron saints.

Other Highlights of the Pilgrimage Activities

During the pilgrimage and when not in procession, the statue of St. Sara is located in the local church of Saintes Maries. There, it is customary for them to light candles offer prayer notes to her statue which are pinned down in the saint’s brightly-colored robes. While performing the procession to the sea, a young gypsy woman is picked to represent St. Sara and accompany the guardians to the sea. The people shout out, “Vive Sainte Sara!” as they follow along in the midst guitars and accordions playing Eastern European music. After the saint’s statue and relics are returned in the local church, the party officially begins with lively Gypsy music and flamenco dancing. Parades, horse riding contests, and light and music shows make up the rest of the Gypsies’ pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.