Sunday, August 16, 2009

La Fête Votive de Vauvert -- Bulls, horses, carnival and more

When I moved to Arles, I became aware of a local tradition called the Feria. It was centered on the Spanish style bull-fights held in the ancient Roman Amphitheatre just up the street from us. However, it seemed most particularly to include plenty of sangria, paëlla, bull games in the streets and partying in general. It was different, you might say, from my childhood in the tree-lined streets of Westchester, NY. As Erick and I lived in the area of town most affected, I came to see it as amusing for the kids, but more than anything noisy, invasive, and akin to Frat House Row during pledge nights. A bit much? well, I have a thing for men pissing on my front door, vomiting on the sidewalk, picking fights and calling in the cops at 1 in the morning...

But, there is another take on local festivals. When you leave the big city of Arles (comparitively) and head into the smaller villages of the countryside, these traditional festivals take on a very different note. There is individuality amongst the blur of repetition. And more than anything, there is pride in traditions that go far back in time.

Being at the edge of the Camargue, the large expanse of marshlands nestled in the arms of the Rhône and the Petit Rhône rivers, the importance of the local manades (ranches), gardians (cowboys), chevaux blancs et taureaux (indigenous white horses and bulls), is intensely felt and shared.

This past week has featured the Vauvert Fête Votive, the week before it was the turn of the little village of Le Cailar (where my potter lives). The carni-folk set up shop right beside the town's new red, cement arena (aka le chaudron). Sand was deposited on numerous angled corners of the local one-way streets (to limit slipping as the metal-shod horses come careening by), metal barriers were put up to limit traffic and guide incoming horses and bulls. Outdoor bars and food stands serving Pastis, basic wines, sodas, fried foods, pizza and sandwiches got to work. Tables were set out with many a chair and bench. A bandstand was put in place to receive a rotation of different local rock bands -- including one fully white reggae band with a seriously tastless man in a wig of dreadlocks held on his no-doubt bald head by a snug, crocheted, red, green and gold tam.

Kids and parents roam the streets from sun up to sun down and far into the night. The focus of the day and week, or rather that which fixes its major rhythms is the arrival of the bulls herded by the snugly formed gardians atop their sturdy, white horses in from the outlying fields. This dramatic arrival is followed by bulls running through the streets, and numerous bull games in the arena: toro piscine (think water, crazy young men who've drunk too much and taken a dare dashing amidst smart and quick and powerful bulls); the courses Camarguaises -- men in white with red cummerbunds, accepting money for running around, leaping into the stands, and nearly being stabbed in the behind by smart and quick-footed, sharp-horned bulls.

Everyone is there, or at least everyone with local roots. Some outsiders or recent arrivals might find it a bit much, but, all the rest are out and about, enjoying a drink at a local bodéga (a temporarily transformed wine cellar with a splendid interior courtyard), taking in a concert or two, dancing le rock, watching their kids spin on rides or karoom about in bumper cars, autos-tamponeuses (useful new vocabulary word, don't you agree?), nibbling on sweet and salty fried foods, quaffing local wines from the Cave Cooperative and in general enjoying a week of festivities during one of the hottest times of the year (it reached 100F/40C more than once this week!).

With JP and his younger Brother Stephane and his family we went out multiple evenings for a drink, to socialize, to watch a sexy salsa dancer/singer and to enjoy the pleasure of Stephane's daughters as they took in the rides and general neon scene.
However, the highlight of the week for me was this morning's bike ride out to the fields to accompany the gardians, horses, and bulls into town.

JP woke me early (7:45 ... horror of horrors). I kneaded my bread and enjoyed a cup of chai, then we headed down to town where our bikes were waiting for us at his cellar. Once the tires were freshly pumped up, we headed out to the fields, about 8-10 kilometers from the village. Down small winding country roads, over a bridge, in the moist and fresh mist of the morning, past the Rivière le Vistre (one of the reasons the tiny village of Le Cailar is regularly flooded) and out to the fields of a local manade.

Once there, we parked our bikes and joined in a saucisse and fougasse laden breakfast alongside the Club Taurin to which JP belongs (in an attempt for this otherwise rather solitary man to connect with some of his neighbors and what he calls, le Vauvert profond). There were teens asleep on the ground, their faces rubbed gray with ashes (a local ritual), their eye-lids terribly heavy after a night of partying in town till 3AM, followed by after parties in the fields around camp fires, music, and ... The field was filled with many a Vauverdois there to enjoy a boisterous and communal moment, wine in hand, the fanfare (roaming brass band) lending musical accompaniment.

While we nibbled on bread, the above-mentioned anchovy and crackling lacedfougasses, , greasy saucisses, pâté and wine, the gardians were picking a few vachettes (female taureaux) from the herd and readying themselves for the ride to town. Other gardians, bicyclists, runners, and horse-n-buggy drivers gathered their forces, awaiting the signal to depart.

And then, it was time. We hopped on the bikes and rode quickly across the large field to be there just as the caravan of horses and bulls trotted past us. We were anything but alone. The most dangerous part of the trip was the large numbers of bicyclists and runners (who often tired and simply slowed or stopped right in front of us). One bull did escape from his guard, and a couple gardians dashed forward to get him back under control. Imagine a dozen horses, nose to tail, surrounding 5 small bulls, these last looking at all times for an opening to escape. It's pretty strange and marvelous.

The ride took about 45 minutes, past the river, over the bridge, under the trees, and at last past the recently built villas on the outskirts of town. Once at the town limits, the gendarmes held back traffic and we followed the circuitous route to the arena. Tadaaa... Time to watch young men dash about a sandy arena hoping to touch a bull's horn without getting stabbed, then out for a drink, and up to the Mas for a well-deserved lunch and a long nap.

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