May Day marks the beginning of the summer months and the end of the cold winter months. In France it is also called La Fête de Muguet, Festival of the Lilly of the Valley, as it is customary to give the flower to friends and family for good luck.
May Day was first celebrated by the Romans in honour of Flora, the Goddess of Flowers. It then went through various incarnations from Pagan to Christian, with May still being the
month dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. Apparently the custom of giving Lily of the Valley was started by King Charles IX of France who received a sprig on May 1st 1561 for good luck and in turn started a tradition by giving one to all the ladies of his Court on subsequent May Days.
In our town, May Day is a Feria, which is a traditional Camargue day of festivities including bodegas (open-air bars), with Gardiens (Camargue horsemen or cowboys) and taureaux (bulls) running through the streets. This is called L’Abrivado which is a Provençal word for to run or to hurry and takes place in many small villages and towns in the Bouche du Rhone, the Gard and the Herault during the summer months. The tradition originates from when the gardiens herded the bulls from the Camargue to the Corridas (bullfights) in the big towns of Arles and Nimes etc. Nowadays they are transported by lorry (and are different bulls) but the custom remains.
On the day of the feria, we go to the end of our road where barriers have been put up alongside the street and the traffic has been cut off at either end. Outside the bar called Le Gardien, (confusing I know) the tables and chairs have been set out and people who have been drinking all day, pastis, beer and Jet, (looks and tastes like mouth wash) crowd round the open- air bar while French pop music blares loudly from inside.
The events begin with a brass band walking down the street, followed by the gardiens on their white Camargue horses.
Next a canon booms and a bull is released from a lorry at one end of the street and runs between the horsemen (and women) towards a waiting lorry at the other end, whilst boys and young men of the town chase after it.
When they catch up with it they grapple it to the ground,
where they hold it down for a few seconds until the gardien gives the word to release it. They have to be quick to get out of the bulls way as he’s not so happy when he gets up and charges off down the street.
The gardiens go back and forth with one bull at a time. Then towards the end they let the bulls out three or four at a time.
After about an hour or so of this, the bulls are all returned to the lorries and Le gardiens give a final turn down the street to the cheers of the watching crowd.
The bulls, which otherwise live peaceful lives grazing in the Camargue, are smaller than the Spanish bulls and are longer bodied, however at 80 – 100 kilos, a boy or a horseman has to do his best not to get squashed under one!
The excitement is of course when a bull gets too near to the crowd or has pinned a boy down. Health and safety aren’t very much in evidence on the day, none of the riders wear safety hats, and when a boy does get pushed over by the bull, he is left to get up and limp to the side of the crowd on his own. Having said that, there was an ambulance standing by, in case of a serious injury!
Every few years there are tales of a bull getting away. Apparently eight were let loose or got away from a Saint Remy Abrivado a couple of years ago and were found a few days later roaming in the surrounding countryside.
I later ask Raoul, who owns the bar Le Gardien, and is also one of the riders, if the bull suffers at all. He says it doesn’t, but if it’s its first time, it may be a bit anxious and they cover its horns with a metal ball so that it doesn’t do anyone harm, (I was enquiring after the bull not the riders!) but once the bulls have run a few times, he tells me, they get used to it and they know what to expect and are no longer frightened. Well he would say that wouldn’t he?
With thanks to Alex and Fiorella for letting me use their balcony to take the photos.