Its summer in Provence and that means its time pour la fête, or, time to party. Every town and village in Provence has a Fête Votive, which is a festival that is specific to that town, rather than a National holiday. It is typically a three day event and includes fairground rides and stalls, bodegas (drinking stands), horse-riding, bull running and dinner under the stars followed by a Spectacle, a singing and dancing extravaganza, culminating with fireworks on the last night.
Each fête has a theme according to the town’s legends; our town’s theme is the celebration of the slaying of the Tarasque, a monster, part beast, part fish, that lived in the Rhône River and terrorised the nearby towns and villages until it was finally tamed and vanquished by Sainte Marthe.
During the course of the festival, a model of the Tarasque is wheeled around town by his own chevaliers (knights) who are kitted out in pink satin knickerbockers, white satin shirts and large feathered hats. And before you snort into your coffee, this is serious stuff; the Tarasque, was put on the Unesco list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
Besides the Tarasque, our town is also known for Tartarin de Tarascona book cognisent to most French school children, scribed by Alphonse Daudet who lived in Provence. I haven’t read it myself, but it involves a character who is a champion hat shooter (on account of there being no game to shoot) and who goes to Africa and comes back and tells fantastic tales of shooting lions and becomes an unlikely hero. Apparently Daudet was having a humorous dig at the characters he encountered whilst living in Provence and the book wasn’t at all popular with the Provençal folk when it came out but has since become part of the local history.
Every year a man playing Le Tartarin arrives by boat accompanied by his trusted manservant.
There is a brass band to fanfare his arrival, canon and guns are fired as he comes ashore and joins Le Tarasque and his chevaliers along with our Mayor who delivers a speech after which everyone is invited to partake in l’aperatif (pre-dinner drink, alcoholic and non) along with some nibbles. There are also various other townsfolk in 19th costume who during the course of the three days turn up in various scenarios around town.
This year one of these scenarios was held in honour of Buffalo Bill who brought his ‘Wild West Show’ to Arles in 1906 along with Sitting Bull and les vrais indiens (Native Americans to you and me). There was a re-enactment of the show at the old army barracks to which Le Tatarin and his entourage turned up and took part in an improvised scene.
Also featured were local horse-riders showing off their riding skills
Another import from the United States to our town is the line dance and the town has its own group of line dancers who happily use every occasion to show off their skills. And here they are in full period Western gear, making the most of this costume opportunity.
Now I know I only recently described the Camargue custom of men on horseback running with bulls pursued by boys, but there is another Camargue custom called la course Camarguaise, which involves men being chased by bulls. The bull is let into the arena and the men, dressed all in white (which shows the blood off nicely should there be any) try to get the bulls attention to get it to charge after them, they then try and unhook a piece of string that is tied round the bulls’ horns before hurling themselves over the barrier out of horns, I mean, harm’s way. I’m glad to say the bull isn’t injured in the process, but it is a Quälerei (sorry, slipped into a bit of German there, I just like the onomatopoeic nature of the word to tease or torment) all the same.
The last bull was very frisky and jumped over the barrier and ran round the ring, but my camera battery ran out of power at the same time, so you’ll just have to take my word for it!