Dear fellow travellers
The main highway that skirts the northern fringes of Thessaloníki is no place to linger. Summer has come early to northern Greece this year, and several warm sunny days with still air have left a hazy pall of pollution over Thessaloníki. But the hinterland of the city still packs a few surprises. Just north of the ring road is the small town of Langadhás, which this week comes alive for the feast days of Saints Constantine and Helen. The commemoration of the saintly duo involves a three day frenzy of folk piety, commencing tomorrow with a remarkable display of fire-walking. Dancing on hot coals is a fiery test of faith, yet the pious fire-walkers of Langadhás really seem to survive quite unhurt.
The Orthodox Church in Greece never seems quite certain what to make of the fire-walkers, refusing to endorse the Langadhás spectacle as evidence of the supernatural. The practice is not limited to this single Greek village, but pops up elsewhere in the southern Balkans, most notably in some of the deeply devout Orthodox communities of the Strandzha mountains in southern Bulgaria. In the village of Bulgari, a tiny spot tucked away deep in the Strandzha, the fire-dancers also come out to mark the feast days of Saints Constantine and Helen - but because Bulgaria still uses the Julian calendar for many ecclesiastical matters, the annual bout of Bulgari fire-walking is not till early June.
Roma gather in the Camargue
With so much talk of globalisation making disparate parts of Europe ever more similar, it is always good to stumble across examples of deeply cherished religious and cultural traditions that still flourish. While many Roman Catholics mark Corpus Christi this Thursday with outdoor processions, thousands of Roma and Sinti people are this week making long journeys across Europe to reach the Camargue town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by Friday. Some devout Roma travel from as far away as the Carpathians to ensure that they can attend the three day festival of prayer and music in the small town at the seaward end of the Rhône delta. It is an extraordinary event in an extraordinary landscape: salt marshes and meadows rich in sea lavender, tamarisk and wild irises. And plenty of white horses and pink flamingoes.
Nowhere else in Europe hosts such a large annual gathering of Roma, who are a cultural minority that is perpetually pushed to the margins of European society. The colloquial term 'gypsies', often used pejoratively, masks a rich variety of sub-groups: Gitanos in Spain, Romnichal in England, Kale in Wales and Sinti in the Rhine valley. The annual festival at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is held in late May and brings together thousands of European Roma to mark their collective devotion to the Virgin Mary and to their own particular patron saint: Sarah, often referred to by the Roma as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the Black). It is an extraordinary gathering: three days of quiet piety and heady music, and for many Roma a reminder that there is still a place for them in modern Europe.