Once upon a time, I lived in Provence, on Observatoire Hill, high above Cannes, and within walking distance of Picasso’s pottery town, Vallauris. In February, I waked to see, through fragrant blooming mimosa at my bedroom window, the serene but blindingly blue Mediterranean.
In winter, I could see Corsica from that same aperture. With my passion for Napoleon, seeing his homeland was a thrill. Even though my neighbors in the villa snorted at all my visits to the Musee Napoleon in nearby Antibes: “That Corsican!”
My narrow curving balcony was planted with the wild herbs of the “garrigue”, the scrubland, which Provence shares with Corsica. It’s local nickname is “le Maquis”, which basically means a tangle of nearly impenetrable shrubs and weeds – and gave its name to the noble Resistance in the South of France.
When the wind blows over the garrigue, especially le mistral, it is scented with rosemary, thyme, savory, and something the Provencal call “pebre d’ail.” My balcony held and transmitted that perfume, by night and by day.
I traveled all I could each day of my year in Provence. Friends from home came and shared some of those incredible, indelible excursions.
One of the best was my Manhattan roommate from the 60’s, Joan Stouffer, an architect who specialized in historic restorations in Washington D.C. She was soon to be headhunted from her D.C. firm to work on the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, returning home to transform the support building for the Museum, which holds all the nuts and bolts of machinery required to keep the Museum functioning. Joan is now Joan Scharnberg, still my friend since college days at the Detroit Free Press, filling in for vacationing women’s editors.
Joan was graduated from Smith, having spent her junior year studying in Aix. When she’d be in Paris, the locals would not her Aixoise accent. I, on the other, hand, this one-year habitant of Provence, has studied French for two college years with a nun who had never left Indiana and never wanted us to. She certainly hadn’t taught us how to converse with French people, especially not men. I didn’t know the familiar endings for any of the verbs. So when my Cannes neighbors began to ‘tutoyer’ me, to use the familiar with me, out of affection, I didn’t know how to do it back.
Joan loved haute Provence, la France profonde, the hill towns, the garrigues, the scruffier and more paysanesque (peasants) the better. By this time, I had tired of La Cote d’Azur, and was ready for any remote setting Joan desired.
Arles isn’t THAT remote, but it’s OLDE Provence, and very not Cote d’Azur. We went there for Palm Sunday weekend. Posters alerted us to a custom we would not miss — the running of the bulls. We’d both been Hemingway addicts in our teens, so of course we were going to do this. It wasn’t Pamplona, but we will never forget it.
Arles has many convoluted cobblestoned strees near the Arena, where the bullfights themselves would take place the following day. It was before noon, long shadows, coolness in the ‘rues” (roadways). There were pretty flimsy barricades of metal pipes alongside these roads, behind which we took our places – the only Americans we saw or heard. Everywhere, the young people of Arles began sprinkling each other wildly with flour.
Joan’s perfect French and my insatiable curiosity + Indiana pre-school French, were of absollutely no use. Not a single person could tell us why.
It was somewhat hilarious.
Boys and girls were running, flinging flour, skidding on the cobblestones, now white as snow.
Then they began cracking fresh raw eggs on one another’s hair, already white as their grandparents’.
Again, our “Comments?” and “Pourquois?” were inutile/useless.
Suddenly, the crowd changed.
People began to move against the ancient walls, tense and all staring in one direction.
A roar went up, such as one hears while a bullfight is going on.
Many young people, mostly garbed in white, now egg-and-flour bedecked, were moving erratically. We pressed up against the metal rods, trying to understand what was taking place.
Black heads, dark horns, glaring eyes, flaring nostrils, huge furry bodies came hurtling toward us. The bulls, also, slipped on the flour, now mixed with raw egg as though for some bizarre cake. The bulls also began to wound the runners. Blood on white shirts, white pants. Blood on the cobblestones, mixing with flour and egg. Angry bulls, who did not like skidding. Confused bulls, who reversed partway through this strange corridor, and somehow turned round and kept pouring toward us
This is all I remember, and I have no pictures of my own to share.
Those bulls ultimately ended up at the arena, where they would engage with matadors, toreadors, and picadors the next day. Yes, to the songs of the opera, Carmen – which had been written about bullfights in France, not in Spain.
Joan would attend the next day’s full bullfight.
I would drive over to Tarascon and Beaucaire, for ancient literary reasons, and on to Maussane, where the Provencal Nobel Prize-winning Poet Frederic Mistral had lived. I would stand in the shade of Mistral’s trees outside his home, honoring his determination to preserve his true native language, no matter how the French would strive and even battle to take it from these staunch people.
Joan would brave the bullfight entire.
Reunited, we would figure out at last that the entire bullfight had been something of ancient times, purely pagan, an inescapable fertility rite.
A far cry from the Palm Sunday rituals of childhood!
Here is a soupcon of a web-explanation, about what we experienced:
Easter Feria in Arles
updated: November 5, 2014
arles feria poster
Arles (13 Bouches-du-Rhone, Provence) starts its bullfighting season with theFeria de Pâques (Easter Festival) from 3-6 April 2015.
Many visitors may feel squeamish or even disapproving about the spectacle of bull-fighting, but it is a long-maintained tradition in Provence and southern France, especially in the Camargue. You can however still enjoy the spectacle (and avoid the risk of any gore) by seeing the noisy and colourful parades and bull-running through the town. My view is that if you really object to this form of “entertainment” then avoid the area.
The bull-fighting (corrida) takes place in the spectacular Roman Arena in Arles, and there are other options such as the Course Camargaise, which is another local form of bullfighting without the drawing of any blood.
About course camarguaise: It is a summer pastime practiced in many small towns around Arles and the area. There are local leagues which are reported in local newspapers..
This different kind of bullfighting is known alternately as “course libre” or “course camarguaise“. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull.
The participants, or raseteurs, begin training in their early teens against young bulls from the Camargue region before graduating to regular contests held principally in Arles andNîmes but also in other Provençal and Languedoc towns and villages.
Before the course, anencierro — a “running” of the bulls in the streets — takes place, in which young men compete to outrun the charging bulls. The course itself takes place in a small (often portable) arena erected in a town square.
For a period of about 15–20 minutes, the raseteurs compete to snatch rosettes (cocardes) tied between the bulls’ horns. They don’t take the rosette with their bare hands but with a claw-shaped metal instrument called a raset or crochet(hook) in their hands, hence their name. Afterwards, the bulls are herded back to their pen by gardiens (Camarguais cowboys) in a bandido, amidst a great deal of ceremony. The star of these spectacles are the bulls, who get top billing and stand to gain fame and statues in their honor, and lucrative product endorsement contracts!
See what I mean? No explanation about the running of the bulls, the flour, the eggs — some mention of blood. That’s Provence!
Vive la France!