There is so much written about Roulottes, where to start? It is generally agreed that Gypsies are an Indian people who left the subcontinent in the 10th century for Persia. From there the exodus continued to Armenia, Syria, the future Iraq, Byzantine Greece, the Balkans, Western Europe, and North America. Long past World War II, roulottes remained a way of life for European Gypsies.
Initially these groups left on foot, carrying their heavy loads but later acquired donkeys to transport their belongings. The more affluent would buy wagons which were drawn by oxen and these would be covered by a felt cover – the original gypsy caravan, or ‘living wagon’. At the beginning of the 19th century the first wooden carts were used as houses and by the end of the 19th century wooden Gypsy caravans replaced the wicker wagon predecessors and so became real homes on wheels with door, windows, shutters and chimney.
Two distinct types of Gypsy caravans traveled throughout France at the end of the 19th century, the two or four wheeled covered ‘voiture’ on a wooden base, usually green or brown and pulled by a horse or donkey. The other wooden caravan was more like a house, and was covered by a tarred roof, and had a stove inside. Made individually by a professional meant that the origin of each caravan could be traced.
There are more recycled roulottes in Provence than anywhere else in France because here they have long observed ‘les gens du voyage’, or travellers. Every May, Gypsies from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Camargue to the whitewashed coastal town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their patron saint, Sara. Like little wooden homes on wheels, roulottes have captured the imagination of all those who have seen them roll along the lanes and villages of France. Now they are being rescued, restored and new designs based on the originals are being created to bring them back to life again representing the spirit of the proud nomadic people who lived in them.
In 1888 van Gogh painted 'Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans', in the area of Arles. In Bemelman's, ‘Madeline and the Gypsies’, written in 1959, the famous schoolgirl Madeline and Pepito join the circus and tour France in a roulotte. The great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt is also connected with the roulotte as are the Gipsy Kings, who come from Gypsy communities in Arles and Montpellier.
Thy Gypsy caravan, living wagon, bowtop, vardo, roulotte or woonwagen as they are known in Holland symbolize freedom, magic and romance and a journey into the unknown.