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17 August 2005

FlamingoesUp at dawn, excited, to visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. I was at first not that impressed – the Camargue looked a little bit like the Somerset Levels. But, as the Levels do, the place quickly grew on me and I was thrilled to see a whole flock (if that is the right word) of pink flamingoes in a stretch of water very close to the sea.

Sara-KaliThe church itself is extraordinary – probably unique. Built like a fortress and indeed has been one in the past, much assisted by the fresh water spring found inside it, there is a crypt containing a statue of “Sainte Sara” – in fact, Sara-Kali, Goddess of the Gypsies. To this day, Gypsies retain ancient rights in this crypt, including that of dressing the statue, which they do in many colours.  In fact, they just seem to add layers, without removing what’s below.

The photo at the left is a bit “arty” … I liked the effect with the nearby candle flames.

There is also (below right) a large painting of the arrival of the two eponymous Maries, by boat from Palestine, miraculously as they had no oars, rudder or sails. Like a double Aphrodite, they appeared in this strange spot, and began to preach to the local people.

Saintes MarieInterestingly, I read that the town was once sacred to a triple Goddess comprising Isis, Artemis and Hecate. Outside the church (and passed over very quickly by the English language guide that I read) is a lion in relief. There is also a pagan altar in the church and a hand of Fatima in a display cabinet, along with other remains.

It occurs to me also that the whole spot has a very lunar feel – the white Camargue horses and posters advertising bullfights; in the souvenir shops are bull and horse pictures and pottery. Both, of course, are lunar animals.

Below the lion is a photo of what is supposed to be the pillow of the two Saintes Marie. It looks more like an ear to me … perhaps we can whisper our secrets to the compassionate Mother?

Pillow - or ear?Finally, to show that the cult is alive and well, below right is a modern piece, apparently given to the people of the Camargue by the artist.

Modern Sara-KaliI might try to visit again on my return. But for now, had to move on, so took the motorway route along the coast to Italy. An amazing experience in itself. I had expected a few tunnels, after all, this is the spot where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, but I lost count after thirty-five or so, and there were just as many dizzying overpasses. This is one heck of a feat of engineering, the tunnels go all the way to Genoa and beyond, must have cost billions. Another thing I quickly became accustomed to was the existence of houses and whole villages just above the tunnels – often with neat, terraced gardens running down almost to the top of the entrance. How adaptable we humans are!

As usual, the Italian frontier passed without any apparent restriction to free movement. I suppose my nervousness about passing this particular frontier comes from childhood. In 1963 we visited Italy by train and I still remember being terrified of the stern “policemen” – as I thought of them – who boarded the train every so often and barked instructions at everyone. Now there are seemingly no borders and I appreciate not having constantly to change money and/or be interrogated, but I do wonder about the price we’re paying.

The other thing that I noticed immediately in Italy is that Italian drivers are exactly as the generalisation goes. Maximum speeds are universally ignored – I’m driving along at the speed limit (when I can figure out what it is) and someone passes me so fast that the car rocks. They must be doing at least 130 miles per hour. If you drive too slowly (ie at the speed limit) and have the temerity to pull out to pass a slow lorry or string of caravans, they come up behind to about three inches distance, hooting and flashing. Terrifying is the only word I can think of to describe this, and very tiring, I’ve found.

In fact, if I ever make a trip like this again, I want someone to ride shotgun – act as navigator, save me from running round the car every time we reach one of the many left-hand-drive automated motorway tolls, and gesture at Italian drivers (they use both hands and I don’t dare!) Interested? Let me know – of course, you get to pay your own expenses!

Service stations on the motorways are so different from ours, and I do like them. There are no prepacked sandwiches but a kind of mini-shop that puts our delicatessens to shame, selling good bread, cheese and ham. You have to queue twice (once to pay, once to show the barista your ticket) to get a coffee, but it is excellent when it comes, as are the home-made sandwiches and pastries. Large groups of Italians stand around, spilling out into the sun, talking, laughing, cuddling babies and children. A far cry from the miserable, portion-controlled service stations of British motorways.

Apart from getting horribly lost on the hills above Bologna, where hairpin bends on dizzying heights were mercifully obscured by the growing darkness, not much else to report from today. I did have the privilege of watching a hare from my terrifying eyrie, though.