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Make a Detour to France’s Gypsy Mecca: "Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer "

Independent Travelers Can Reap Rewards by Keeping Options Open

I didn’t finish reading The Da Vinci Code or join any of the throngs headed for the Louvre or other sites in the book. So, it’s surprising that a chance encounter with a matador on a street in southern France should have led me straight to one of the novel’s main mysteries.

“The bull’s horn went through here,” the former matador said, lifting his shirt to point to a wide bandage wrapped around his abdomen.

“Now my bullfighting career is finished,” he said, pointing to a photo hanging in his shop in the town of Arles. “But the Saint Maries protected me.”

Intrigued, I decided to make a detour to the seaside church dedicated to the two saints and combine a day at the beach with some historical sightseeing. The religious significance of Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer dates to the dawning of Christianity 2,000 years ago, when, according to the Gospel, Mary Jacob (sister of Jesus’ mother) and Mary Salome (mother of St. John the Apostle and St. James the Greater) were set adrift in a boat after Jesus’ crucifixion. They eventually landed on the southern coast of Provence where the Rhône River meets the Mediterranean, about 40 kilometers south of Arles.

Since then, the landing site has been an important site for Christian pilgrims. It is also home to another saint—Black Sara, patroness of the Romany gypsy people. All three saints are celebrated in annual pilgrimages when their statues are carried to the sea by the faithful.

The village offers a winding promenade alongside windswept bays and tempting beaches, but the heart of the town remains its dark Romanesque church. Constructed in the 12th century, it once provided the local population with refuge from invaders and still protects the holy relics housed within. Above the entrance door is a Camargue cross comprised of three symbols—a heart, a sailor’s anchor, and a cowhand’s fork—representing love, faith, and work of rural life.

An alcove within the vaulted interior of the church preserves the statues of the two Saintes Maries, holding urns of aromatic spices inside a blue boat. Nearby, is a stone altar believed to be their “pillow,” a marble rock polished to a fine sheen due to centuries of veneration by the faithful

Beyond, are dark stone stairs leading to a crypt, where the bones of the two saints were discovered in 1448. Now, it holds the statue of Sarah-la-Kali or Black Sara. Her origins are unclear. Some legends say she was an Egyptian servant. Others claim she was the daughter of Mary of Magdalene and Jesus, born after Mary’s flight to Alexandria. Her blackness may be a symbolic representation of how her identity was hidden by the secret society described in The Da Vinci Code.

Despite the mystery surrounding her origins, for Romany pilgrims, worship is more than just an act of religious devotion. For their nation without a country, Black Sara unites them in the face of centuries of persecution—including slavery, death within Nazi concentration camps, and widespread discrimination.

I took a place among the devotees to pay my own respects. Black Sara towered over us, dressed in finery and draped in colored ribbons. The room was dark, except for the flickering of hundreds of votive candles. Following the lead of others, I touched her below her downcast eyes and placed an offering in the box beside her. Her brown face was serene and warm.

Later, my Camargue cross and gitano good luck charm were intriguing souvenirs of an ancient mystery. They were also reminders that it’s worthwhile to leave time for detours when traveling.

For more information on Saintes-Maries’ history, accommodations, and events refer to its official website: www.saintesmaries.com. To get there, travel via Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com), which offers direct service from major cities to Arles. From there, take a local bus at a cost of €5 one way.

Michele Peterson, Local Encounters columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, has written for The Boston Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, 50Plus, The Toronto Star, and The National Post, as well as many more. She is a contributor to the anthology Sand in My Bra, The Risks of Sunbathing Topless, and A Woman’s Asia.