It was a serendipitous decision to spend a Sunday in St. Remy-de-Provence during the annual festival in celebration of their saint’s day. The day began with the running of a bull through the town. Most spectators stood behind temporary barriers, but some were up trees or on walls or light poles. The true ‘crazies’ just stood about and scattered when the bull came down the street. It was hilarious to see them panic when the bull turned and started back toward them. A large group of Camarguaise horsemen, the Gardians, dressed in black and carrying trident spears, trotted along behind on their white horses, generally herding the lone bull in the same way they herd the semi-wild horses and bulls of the region.
We had been to St. Remy on their regular market day. Vendor stalls of every kind radiated out from the town square into the side streets. Everything from bras to bananas to baskets was available and attractively displayed: clothing, antiques, art work, jewelry, fabric, and flowers. There were foods of all kinds, enough to make a serious foodie weep for joy to see them, or for sorrow that so many of them are not available at home. A few days later that square was jammed with carnival rides and games. I don’t know how they wedged them all in there. We wandered around town, entertained by a strolling brass band. Everywhere we looked there were folks in Provençal costume, all very happy to pose for pictures. One lovely woman, dressed like van Gogh’s L’ Arlésienne, chatted with us and described the various parts of her costume.
For lunch we went a bit south of town to Glanum, the site of an ancient Roman city. Their restaurant offers lunch as the Romans would have enjoyed it. The dish of the day was the Domitia Plate, four different things: a dish of mashed chick peas with olive oil, pepper, and cumin; roast pork with an absolutely delicious sauce of honey and - yes! - anchovies; duck pâté on toast; and melon chunks tossed with olive oil, cumin and coriander. I don’t think the Romans lacked for culinary delights if they ate a meal like that one.
Lunch under our adjusted belts, we went back to the town arena to see the Camargue’s version of the bullfight. Much to our surprise, it turned out to be the grand re-opening of the arena, with all the local dignitaries on hand for some pomp and circumstance. The speeches and entertainment were accompanied by the same band, now in more elaborate uniforms. There was an amazing group of whip-wielding men performing a rhythmic, snapping, routine. We wondered how they kept their wrists in shape for such strenuous tricks. A few more speeches, and then, to our delight, in came all of the Gardians on horseback, performing a practiced quadrille, and the costumed folk we’d seen that morning. From little girls to elegant gentlemen and ladies, including L’Arlésienne, they did a measured promenade and a lively version of a May-pole dance.
Before ‘Inauguration’ we had located our ticketed seats and decided it was going to be a tight squeeze. Some folks had already spread out into our numbered spaces, so we hopped up and sat on the top wall where the view was unobstructed and perfect for taking pictures. Our move delighted some of the locals already sitting up there. They’d rarely seen tourists at such a local event. After the Inauguration the ‘Course’ began. Despite the language barrier - I’m only a bit conversant in French - they got over to us all about what would be happening.
This is a bull fight where the bull has all the advantages. The ‘fight’ is called la Course à la Cocarde, or the Course Camarguaise. Teams of agile men, dressed in white, vie for the cockades or knots tied to the bulls horns. The ‘raseteurs’, the ‘shavers’, wear a small rake-type device over their knuckles, and they dart in to meet a charging bull, trying to rake or snatch the knotted string from the bull’s horns. The team winning the most knots wins.
The bulls are a small breed but their horns are wicked. They run the teams all over the arena. You can bet those men are extremely quick. Twice we saw a bull jump over the arena’s guard wall in pursuit of a raseteur. Many times they chased men who had to jump up on the guard wall and then up onto the concrete wall of the stands in order to evade those horns. But when the bull starts to tire, when he starts to foam at the mouth, he is quickly retired and a fresh bull enters the fray. Do the tired men get replaced? Mais non! Certainly not! At the end we couldn’t tell which team won and which lost, but it can be said, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that for several hours there was never a dull moment.
Exhausted and elated, we headed back to our château home-away-from-home to celebrate our day with a bottle of good Rhone wine.
À votre santé!