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Day 11 South of France: Roman Ruins and Romany Gypsies - 24 May

Today, we had planned a visit to La Camargue, and its main city and port, Saintes Maries de la Mer. With it's white wild horses, black bulls and pink flamingoes, it's an area that has fascinated Peter for years. 
However, seeing that ancient Roman ruins sat virtually outside our front door at the Villa Glanum, we thought it a good idea to check them out first before heading out to La Camargue. We arrived at the archeological site just as they opened at 9:30 am, before the bus loads of tourists and students invaded at 10.

The Glanum Archeological site:
Systematic archeological digs were first initiated at the archeological site of Glanum, St Remy de Provence, by architect for historical monuments, Jules Formige in 1921. Under his authority, Pierre de Brun oversaw the works for 20 years. The Glanum archeological site presents a sophisticated example of urban development through the ages.

The first inhabitants, the Gauls, settled in this city around the 6th and 7th centuries BC. Protected by a dry-stone rampart blocking the road to the Alpilles for a length of 300 meters, their settlement was motivated by religious reasons. They believed that their gods lived in the waters, which were thought to have healing properties. Subsequent relations with the Greek world brought wealth to the inhabitants of Glanum. This led to the extension of the inhabited zones and the construction of buildings in the Hellenistic style in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Then Glanum became a Roman colony in the very early years of the Augustus reign (63 BC-14 AD), resulting in the rapid transformation in the city’s monumental architecture. The city was eventually abandoned in 260 AD when the inhabitants were unable to resist the Alamannic invasions.

After spending a good hour at the archeological site, it was time for the hour's drive to La Camargue and Saintes Maries de la Mer. With clear blue skies and sun blazing, temperatures were predicted to go as high as 30 degrees. And it wasn't summer yet!

Saintes Maries de la Mer:
The heart of the Camargue is located in Saintes Maries de la Mer, a little town that sits right on the ocean, the Gulf of Beauduc. Despite being fairly commercialized, it still manages to retain some of its charm. The Church in the centre of Les Saintes, which was fortified in the 14th century against pirates, contains the statue of “Black Sarah”. This saint is venerated by Romany Gypsies, who gather at Saintes Maries de la Mer every year on May 24-25 for a religious festival. 

As luck would have it, Peter and I managed to be in Saintes Maries de la Mer on the first day of the gypsy’s festival, 24th May. Sensing the congestion as we were driving towards the town, we wisely parked our car just outside the main roundabout of the city and walked in. We had guessed that once the procession started, that barricades would be erected. Caravan upon caravan lined the streets and filled all the parking lots, with several generations of Romany Gypsies in festive clothing, sitting around and relaxing on makeshift tables and chairs, all here for the same thing: to dance, sing, and join in the procession in celebration of “Black Sarah.”

With sounds of buskers, accordions and violins, and flamenco guitar and wails filling the streets, bodies needed little excuse to break out into spontaneous dance. Shops were doing a roaring trade while cafes, restaurants and eateries were filled to bursting point with diners trying to get a feed before the opening ceremony in the front of the church at 3 pm, which signaled the start of the procession. The whole town had turned into one big party and Peter and I were quite content to walk around and soak up the atmosphere and colorful vibe.

By about 1:30 pm, though, it was time for some lunch. However, experience has taught us that choosing any restaurant on the main drag of any city will more than likely earn you some great foot traffic but a very mediocre meal. And since we had our hearts set on seafood, all the more reason to be particular with our choice of restaurant. So off we went to the less commercial parts of the city in search of some good seafood. We found it in  a restaurant just by the water but on the quieter end called Le Bruleur de Loups ( 9 Rue Léon Gambetta). Less hectic and more civilized, we were able to enjoy a delicious and very good quality lunch of oysters and fish of the day.

It was 2:45, and I was hell bent on watching the opening ceremony of the procession, although Peter wasn’t so keen. Crowds are not his “thing”. Nevertheless, he was prepared to indulge me. Making our way to the church plaza, it got noisier and more crowded. By the time we got to the plaza, it was pandemonium. Spontaneous dancers, lost in the beat of Latino and modern gypsy beats, drew large crowds around them, urging them on and becoming hypnotized by the rhythm. While I edged in to get a closer look, grasping my small shoulder bag tightly to my chest, Peter stayed at the parameters of the crowd, with his hands tightly wedged into the front pants of his shorts, hanging on to his wallet. The  energy was amazing, the crowd acting as one body.

All of a sudden, I felt light fingers testing the contents of my pockets, feeling for any money. While they were empty, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. With a crowd such as this, anything could happen. I searched for Peter and momentarily panicked when I couldn’t find him. Looking around for about five minutes, I was relieved when I spotted his baseball cap. “Let’s get the hell out of here. This can turn in a second.”, I said. Peter needed no encouragement. Walking quickly towards the edge of town, we saw that the police had put up barricades, with no one able to drive in or ouit of town. Thank God we had parked some distance away!

Parc Ornithologique de Pond de Gau:
To regain our equilibrium before driving back to St Remy de Provence, we stopped by at the Parc Ornithologique de Pond de Gau, Camargue’s bird sanctuary. It was tranquil, peaceful, and a pleasure to hear bird calls in contrast to Latino beats. We saw exquisite pink flamingos in abundance, typical wildlife that is found in La Camargue, along with the white horses and bulls. Feeling rested and calmer, we felt ready to make the 1 hour drive back to St Remy de Provence.

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 24th May, 2012 | Trackbacks
Categories: France

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