I’m on my way back to the US of A after a great time with friends and family in the homeland. I’ve posted a few photos of my trip on Flickr already, and a digest on Tumblr, but time permitted I’ll post pictures and the corresponding cultural tidbits here in the next few weeks. I like to show a different side of France on this blog now and then, and if all else fails you get to learn new jokes about the French — it’s a win-win. First up, the spectacular “course camarguaise” in Southern France. In this local version of bullfighting, the objective is to remove the ribbons attached to the bull’s horns. Competitors are on foot and rely solely on speed and agility. The bull is unhurt, and lives to fight another day. The participants are mostly unhurt, and live to buy new underwear.
More photos below. Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.
I’ll preface this post by saying I do not condone traditional forms of bullfighting. People in Southern France or Spain might consider it fine art, but there is no doubt in my mind that baiting and killing bulls for fun is a blood sport, even if you are wearing a colorful yet über-tight silly outfit. You could argue that supporting non-lethal variants of bullfighting doesn’t really help making this controversial tradition a thing of the past, and I would give you that. My point is, I’m rooting for the bull. Team Bull. Go bull.
Bullfighting or Spanish-style corridas are popular in Southern France. Among France’s most important venues for bullfighting are the ancient Roman arenas of Nîmes and Arles. Since we were staying in the area, we had the opportunity to check the former. The French version of bullfighting is unique in that the bulls have a choice not to fight (source: wiki). That would imply the bull is somehow surrendering — the jokes write themselves I’m telling you.
A more indigenous genre of bullfighting, and the subject of these photos, is known alternately as “course libre” or “course camarguaise”. This is a bloodless spectacle dating back the 60′s and common in the Provence and Languedoc areas, 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 and Nîmes but also in other towns and villages (source: wiki).
Before the course, an abrivado or encierro — a “running” of the bulls in the streets — takes place, in which young men compete to outrun the charging bulls. While I’m not certain this is still in effect nowadays, I’ve seen a few on French TV in the 80′s and the prospect of running among 1,000 lb pointy beasts worries me a bit. Your mileage may vary. Update: Flickr user Katy Siroul contacted me to confirm this is still going on, as seen in her great photos. According to her, times have changed though, for safety reasons mostly. Back in the days the abrivado was a real trip from the fields to the arenas; it is now confined to one or two streets only, from one truck unloading the animals, to another. Still, press your luck and you might catch bulls released on our beaches, as seen here in Palavas or Le Grau du Roi. Or picture a hundred bulls running in the streets of Lunel.
The course itself takes place in one of the hundred small arenas erected in town squares, in our case in the village of Uzes, where my mother and her husband were hosting us.The raseteurs, wearing all-white, compete to snatch rosettes tied between the bulls’ horns. They do not 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 (seen here, here, and here). Now I can’t help wondering why Tim Burton didn’t put bulls in Edward Scissorhands…
There are three attributes to grab from the bull’s horns, in order. The cocarde is a red ribbon (seen here and here) a few inches long that is tied to a rope top/center of the animal’s forehead. There are two small, white pomp-pons attached to ropes at the base of each horn. Finally the ropes themselves have to be removed too — the higher the bull’s ranking, the tighter they are. Each attribute is worth a certain amount of points, allowing the best raseteurs to be determined at the end, and a bounty sponsored by the audience or local stores. The bounty increases rapidly over time and is announced through loudspeakers, inciting the participants to work harder (source: fr.wiki). And hard they work, when they are not literally jumping over the bulls.
A typical “attack” on the bull involves different steps and roles. One participant, the tourneur (usually a former raseteur) tries to get the attention of the bull to line him up with the raseteur, taking his handedness into account. The raseteur makes a run for it, hoping for the bull to charge towards him. Wrap your head around that. Both cross path in a phase called the raset, which is the single opportunity offered to the raseteur to grab an attribute with his hook. More often than not, the raseteur will then jump over the fence and hang to the arena’s wall to avoid getting trampled, hoping the bull will not jump after him. Turns out, he often will, oops.
Afterwards, the bulls are herded back to their pen by gardians (Camarguais cowboys; indeed, we have 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, even more so than the raseteurs. As opposed to Spanish-style corrida, it is forbidden to hurt the bull, and should accidental harm happen the course may be suspended.
This type of bullfighting is truly astonishing and will have you on the edge of your proverbial seat. These bulls are fierce, you can feel the heft of these animals when they charge or go for the fence. As for you, the raseteurs, tip of my beret, you give bravery a new name. Check your local listings the next time you travel to Southern France, grab a drink, find shade in the arena, and enjoy the show.
Check back in a few weeks for videos.
Friend Bennett took a few shots:
Flickr user Benoît Suzanne has a nice collection:
Flickr user marcdelfr has pictures for your consideration:
Flickr user Olivier Autissier has photos available online:
Flickr user John Kroll was around: