Thursday, May 31, 2007

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, France

Friends: If I had arrived in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer a few days earlier I would have been part of an annual gathering of thousands of gypsies who come from all over Europe to this isolated, small seaside village 25 miles southwest of Arles to honor their patron saint Sara. Sara was a gypsy chieftain who warmly welcomed three Marys from Biblical times when they arrived in this region fleeing persecution in Palestine. The three Marys were Mary of Magdalene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. The latter two were mothers of apostles and settled here, too elderly to travel further. Mary of Magdelene continued on. The "relics" (bones) of the two Marys reside in the town's cathedral and are part of the Sara celebration, lowered from the rafters of the church, where they are kept. The gypsies then carry Sara's statue, while others carry statues of the two Marys, to the Mediterranean a few blocks away. A bishop aboard a traditional fishing boat blesses one and all. The day after the ceremony, bullfights, in which the bull is not killed, are held in the local arena.

Even though the gypsies take over the town for several days, camping on its streets and on the beaches that go for miles, there was no evidence of their invasion. All was quiet with hardly a tourist, as it isn't warm enough for swimming just yet. The Mediterranean isn't the town's only attraction though. It resides on the fringe of a national park, a vast wetlands area formed by the Rhone River delta. Bird-watching and horse-back riding are popular activities. Dozens and dozens of horses, many saddled and ready to go, lined the road into town. I saw one family of four out for a ride on a trail along the road. It was mother and father in the lead trailed by a couple of teen-aged daughters, both with heads bent holding cell phones text-messaging away.

The final 30 miles to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer after a ferry across a canal were on quiet, lightly-traveled roads, a relief after passing just north of Marseille and paralleling the Mediterranean on a four-lane highway for about 40 miles with spewing trucks from the major port to the major cities of Nimes and Arles and Montpelier and beyond.

It is now 80 miles to Craig up in the Cevennes, the very same Cevennes that R. L. Stevenson traipsed about with a donkey. I will welcome a day of rest before we head off together. My legs have been pummeled by a couple of days of ferocious mistral-strength headwinds out of Cannes. They limited me to barely ten miles per hour for hours on end. They finally relented somewhat yesterday, allowing me to end my day with a twelve mph average. In any other circumstances I would have been cursing yesterday's wind, but at a quarter of what it had been, I couldn't complain. By evening the winds had calmed and I once again had that great sensation of not wanting to quit riding, unlike the previous two days when I was more than ready to call a halt to my day.

It was almost suicidal to be riding in such winds, as sudden gusts had me veering all over the road. When the embankment to my left was steep, I had to ride almost in the middle of the

road to be safe. I hardly had time to think back on all the great movies still lingering in my mind. There are quite a few I hope I will get a chance to see again in four months at Telluride. I have another bicycle pilgrimage site to pay homage to before Craig's--a plaque on the birth place of the founder of Motobecane bicycles in the town of Ganges, about ten miles from Craig's small village. As is said of the French, they do remember.

Later, George

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