We arrived in Arles at around ten o’clock in the evening in a sickening Seat Ritmo, having driven all the way from Barcelona in a day. The main reason for the interest in Arles at Ascension is the Romany pilgrimage, the annual convocation of Gypsies at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer. On the edge of the desolate salt marsh of the Etang de Vaccare, the celebrated Camargue is home to herds of half wild white horses, Europe’s last breeding ground for the pink flamingo, and also a breeding ground for the fighting bulls of Provence.
I had been entranced with the idea of the Gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries (as it is called locally) since reading about it in Jan Yorrs’ book The Gypsies.
The town is so called because of a legend concerning the origins of Christianity in Provence. A boat without oars or sails was set adrift from the Holy Land not long after the death of Christ containing a cargo of Saints. Among them were St Mary Magdalene, St Mary Jacobe, the sister of the Virgin, St Mary Salome, the mother of James and John, and Sara, their Egyptian servant. It found its way, miraculously, to the site of this little town on the shores of the Camargue. St Mary Jacobe, St Mary Salome and Sara stayed on at what became Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, the rest scattered throughout Provence to spread the Holy Word.
In a chapel in the church at Les Saintes are the bones of the two Maries. In the crypt is the tomb of Sara and in the church a very lovely statue. It is Sara, the humble black servant of the two Maries, who has been adopted without the benefit of canonisation as the patron saint of the Gypsies. On May 24 her statue is carried to the sea, washed then returned to the church.
And so it is that every year on that date, gypsies from across Europe gather in and around Les Saintes, today very much a seaside resort, a village more like the south of Spain than the south of France, a strange hybrid of Manly and Malaga, to make their obeisances to Saint Sara.
And it was on the 23rd of May that three Australians checked into the Nord-Pinus, and were ushered into Room 2 whose magnificence was attested to by the brass plaques on the grand double doors.
Nord-Pinus, described in Archibald Lyall’s charming and useful book The Companion Guide to the South of France as a hotel of “engaging eccentricity” (As Lyall describes: “The only hotel where I have ever barked my shin against a penny farthing bicycle parked in the cloakroom”) which it most certainly is, even more so today in many ways than it was in Lyall’s time.
The Empress Marie Therese of Savoy, the matador Jose Luis Dominguin, the actor Fernandel had all stood on the balcony and looked down to the Place du Forum, across and into Mon Bar where the workingmen of Arles still bang dominoes onto wooden tables all night long.
The room itself, for 150 Francs (at the time around A$26) is vast. Two double beds of the white curly wrought iron variety, a gigantic gilt rococo mirror over a ditto table, a long oak Jacobean rectory table with four high backed red velvet Jacobean chairs, matching three seater against a wall, a rocking chair and an open fireplace. A dressing room with a walk-in closet leading into a deep two seater bath large enough for six-year-old Mam’selle Lillian to swim laps in, a bidet and toilet. The walls lined with a green and gold paper, the floor covered with a lush oriental carpet.
We are dumbfounded. The amusing and melancholy Jean Pierre mutters “If there is anything you want, er, you call me, oui?”
If I make the Nord-Pinus sound grand, it is not the imposing haut bourgeois grand of the Jules César, but a shabby bohemian grandeur, a grandeur that has seen better days. The leather couches in the foyer are cracked. When you sit on them, myriads of puces leap into the air and onto your arms. The bar, a trophy room of the bullfight (for this is and was always the resting place for both matadors and aficionados of the bullfight, alive and well in the south of France) is dusty and, mostly, under lock and key.
“If I leave it unlocked, the things, they disappear from the walls” complains the manager, Jean-Pierre, giving me a guided tour of the treasures of the bar; the matador’s uniform in the glass case; the photograph of an unsmiling Cocteau dining with Dominguin hanging over the bar; the bunch of flowers, now dessicated, high on the opposite walls, a gift to Madame Bessiere from Baron Celli the patron of the Gypsies; the sword; the lances; the shield mounted head of a once brave bull.
The front of the Nord-Pinus was built around a fragment of the pediment and two Corinthian columns from a Roman temple that backed onto the ancient Forum. Pieces of Roman ruins, time eaten marble busts and old amphorae are scattered throughout the hallways of the hotel.
But perhaps the most fascinating relic of a fascinating past can be seen in a room to the right of the front desk. Surrounded by memorabilia and half decaying plates of dog and cat food reclines Madame Germaine Bessiere, one time chanteuse, younger contemporary of Edith Piaf, friend and confidante of the most famous names in French theatre, film, art and letters for the last forty years, then eighty four years old, sharp, chic and cantankerous.
On the afternoon of our arrival the foyer is in a state of grand confusion. The chef, the aforementioned Jean-Pierre, the furtive night porter, and the gold earringed garçon cluster muttering around Madame’s room. It is in a turmoil. Rugs are being lifted. Armchairs dragged about. Curtains parted, motes of dust rise to drift through the shafts of afternoon sunlight struggling in through the grubby windows. Jean-Pierre extricates himself from the melee, brushing dust from, a black serge arm, “Quel catastrophe, Madame has lost her, how you say — porte monnaie.”
“Purse” I offer.
“Oui, purse. Every day, the same thing. Another catastrophe.”
Madame presides over the search in un-creased mauve linen, a black and gold woollen shawl pinned to her chest with a golden brooch some seven centimetres across.
“She lives always in the past. And who can blame her? The past here, it was magnifique. The stories she has to tell, M’sieu.” He casts a furtive glance back into the room, and extracts from the inside pocket of his funereal coat a micro cassette recorder. “Every day I record her stories. One day, I will write a book. M’sieu, the people she has known! The people who have stayed here! Cocteau. Piaf. Trenet. Picasso. Chevalier. Marais. They all stayed here. They all knew Madame”. He shrugs his shoulders. “So she causes a little problem. It is nothing. I am not here for the money. It is my life.” He smiles sadly.
At that moment, Waroum, Madame’s charming idiot of a mongrel, leaps to his feet, races for the front door barking mightily. He has two bêtes noires: Citroen 2CVs and punks. This time, it is the former. A powder blue convertible 2CV whines past the hotel, driven by a startled raven haired Arlesienne, a ferocious Waroum attempting to tear strips off the front offside tyre.
“Do you know how he came by the name Waroum, M’sieu?” asks Madame, magisterially ensconced in one of the flea-infested leather armchairs of the-foyer, the chatelaine of the Nord-Pinus. She speaks French, and Jean- Pierre translates that which I do not understand.
“One afternoon when he was a nameless small dog, he was running in the Place, barking at tourists, when suddenly, he arrived back in the foyer. Two Germans were sitting in that exact chair in which you now sit, M’sieu. The small dog ran up to them, and, squatting at their feet, defecated. Waroum? Waroum? they ask me. It mean why in German. And to this day we have called him Waroum.”
“Jean Cocteau, M’sieu, was sitting one day in that exact chair in which you now sit. Madame, he said, Madame, bring me a pen and paper. He then wrote, with his own hand, this phrase. Un hotel qui a une âme. A hotel which has a soul. And indeed it has M’sieu, indeed it has, to this day. Oh M’sieu, the stories I could tell you.”
Her reddened eyes were on the edge of tears. For today, alas, the Nord-Pinus is more likely to be awash with charabanc loads of wizened Swiss bank clerks, or retired German insurance clerks and their wives, ancient relics tottering around Arles to view the ancient relics. Abstemious, purse-lipped, a far, far cry from Puvis de Chavannes, Frederic Mistral and poor old one ear himself. Find a reproduction of Vincent’s ‘Cafe du Soir’. In the right hand corner you will see the left hand edge of the Nord-Pinus. “It is a perfect world, non?” mutters Jean-Pierre. “Madame, Waroum, the hotel. A perfect little world.”
The afternoon we left, Jean-Pierre and I shared a cloudy Ricard in the bar. We ruefully agreed the purpose of international travel today seems to be to allow more and more people instant access to more and more desirable places thus rendering them automatically less and less desirable.
There is much to do and see in and around Arles. The cloister of St Trophime with rich medieval carvings of biblical stories around its capitals. If you dreamed you saw St Augustine, it may well have been in Arles, for it was here that St Virgil, the first Bishop of Arles consecrated St Augustine, the first Bishop of England in 597. There is the Roman theatre and amphitheatre, and a little further away on the Place Lamartine, Van Gogh’s Cafe de Nuit still stands, re-christened the Alcazar. Alas the original Yellow House where he lived with Gauguin, later a bistro called La Civette Arlesienne, was destroyed by a bomb in 1944. The present day Civette Arlesienne
is behind the original.
Beyond the town of Arles is the landscape of Van Gogh: almond orchards, rows of cypress and poplar and olive groves. We stopped at an outdoor market at Fontvieille and bought goat cheese, Roquefort, cherries the size of soccer balls and a bottle of Côtes de Provence. This, with a baguette beneath a grove of silver birch sheltered from the mistral was the most satisfying meal we had in France, infinitely more so than the rich stomach distending restaurant meals.
But this was not the purpose of our visit. I intended to write a story on the Romany Pilgrimage, to spend long nights in front of Gypsy campfires listening to tales of travel from the mouths of the Emperors and Empresses of travel, to take brilliant transparencies of proud and garish Gypsies from the dusty byways of Europe, to learn their lore and to breath their air. We had made a preliminary trip to Les Saintes, arriving late in the afternoon. We were greatly excited by what we saw. On street corners, knots of Gypsies stood clapping to flamenco rhythms in the bright spring sun.
That morning, in Arles, we had stared open-mouthed as a horse drawn gypsy caravan, complete with rickety tin chimney, driven by a swarthy bearded young man had driven around the Place du Forum. Later, we drove slowly through Les Saintes, gawping. I drove Lillian and her mother back to Arles, to return that night alone for the vigil outside the church for scenes of pagan abandon, which we wisely decided would be too much for a six year old.
Now alone in the Seat Ritmo, I drove towards Les Saintes, through the Camargue. As if on cue, five white horses wheeled behind a row of cypress and galloped alongside the road. Four flamingoes stood gracefully in the silver swamp. Flamingoes and flamenco, I thought. Not a bad title. I found a parking space right near the church and filled my brand new camera with Ektachrome.
Four hours later, dejected, my pockets some sixty francs lighter, thirty extracted effortlessly by a Gypsy woman behind the church, the other thirty spent on beer in the Bar de Commerce, not one frame of film exposed, not one swarthy Gypsy beauty nor proud Gypsy king caught in my lens, I drove back through the twilight for the Nord-Pinus.
Oh, I had seen plenty of Gypsies. Tight clusters of them marching up and down the narrow alleyways. Dirty legs and fiery eyes defying contact. Tiny urchins practicing flick-knife fighting in the gutters. Their sultry elder sisters sashaying by arm in arm in flounced red satin. Their fathers in the bar in bowler hats and dusty grey chalk stripe three piece suits and cigars, grinning through mouths full of gold.
I had even heard flamenco. Two tatty gentlemen on broken guitars billed as Paco and Manuel playing a choppy, out of tune duet surrounded by embarrassed tourists. I had had my fortune told in the square behind the church by a smoothly efficient woman in a voluminous floral dress as her grubby six year old son coyly attempted to pick my pocket, his mother half heartedly swiping him aside as she begged me to cross her palm, not with silver, but with ‘billets‘. As the only notes I had were hundred franc ones, I kept my hand firmly on my wallet, as I clutched my camera and attempted to speak Spanish to her. Later, a fight broke out between two gypsy boys and a lanky German tourist. Two lone policemen, hedging their bets, carted off the German tourist to cat calls of approval.
I began to notice that tourists outnumbered Gypsies by some twenty or thirty to one. The same kind of tourists I had seen at wine and beer festivals in Germany. Rowdy punchers, wild eyed young beer and wine swillers, sensation seekers. Out on the square the timid huddled hand in hand and stared at the Gypsies. The Romany pilgrimage had made it into the brochures.
Back at the Bar de Commerce, the scene was hotting up. A group of Camargue cowboys were clapping along to a hoarse voiced flamenco singer. The floor was awash with beer and Marlboro packets. The atmosphere was getting ugly, explosive, potentially violent, like King’s Cross half an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve. I retired to the church.
Whole Gypsy families sat muttering and laughing in the pews. A cabbage hung unexplained from the ceiling over the painted wooded reliquary on the altar containing the remains of Saint Mary Jacobe. Filthy children scuffled around its base. A blind boy was lead up to rub the reliquary. Children skittered down the aisle carrying plastic Evian bottles full of holy water from the font. A lone, thin, bald verger stood on the altar sweeping it clean with a feather duster.
Outside, on the square, two French boys rolled barebacked through broken glass for centimes from the crowd. A beggar with short red hair, carrying a plastic bag with two pairs of scuffed shoes in it stood silently with his hand out and his eyes downcast. He looked like a late self portrait of Van Gogh. A beggar, yet too timid to ask for alms. I knew how he felt.
As a Gypsy chronicler and photographer, I was a washout. Too timid to steal images, too shy to insinuate myself into the Gypsy camp, too middle class to break through the deliberate barriers of dirtiness and ferocious stares.
And they were right, as always, to repel the Gauj, the Romany name for the rest of us, This was their festival, their pilgrimage, their chance to get together and swap stories, catch up on the latest gossip. It was nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with the gapers and swillers. What have we, with our settled lives, to do with the wandering Romany tribes? Yorrs, in his book, pointed out how carefully their expression, their filthiness, their ferocity is cultivated to keep us at bay.
I turned up my coat collar. The mistral was sweeping across the great marshlands of the Camargue. I slunk back to my car, drove back to Arles as the sun shot pink through the swamps, matching at last the delicate shade of the flamingoes, still standing gracefully where I had left them, back to the Nord-Pinus, to steal past an open mouthed Madame, snoring safely in her room, her knitting across her knee, to the room where an Empress had slept