bull course camarguaiseThe black bull is the proud emblem of the Camargue. Here we explore bull fighting, bull games, ranches, bull meat in cuisine - and the curious cult of the Camargue western.

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An invisible divide in Provence separates the Italian-influenced area to the east of the Rhône from the Spanish-accented region to the west.

Cross the river into the Camargue (and beyond it, Languedoc) and you notice it instantly. A strong Spanish flavour dominates the food, the music, the traditional costumes, the language and, especially, the culture of bull games.

BULLFIGHTS AND BULL GAMES

The Camargue bull (or biou, as he's known locally) is smaller than his Spanish cousin and all black with lyre-shaped horns.

He's light, fast, fierce and intelligent, all qualities which make him ideal for bullfighting: what the French call tauromachie.

Traditional corridas, where the bull is killed at the end, are widely held in Provence. The season begins officially on the second Sunday in March, really gets under way at the Arles Easter Feria (Festival) and continues until the first Sunday following 11 November.

rudy ricciotti corrida goyesqueImportant fights are held in the ancient Roman arenas of Arles or Nîmes, but most towns have their own modern bull ring. For small events, a temporary arena may be erected.

The tide of public opinion has been turning against the corrida and there have been repeated efforts to ban it.

And indeed bullfighting is illegal in France - except in those regions where it is a long-established local tradition, where it continues to be tolerated. Even so, in 2016 bullfighting was stripped of its status as part of the nation's official cultural heritage.

The big corrida in Arles' Roman amphithéâtre at its September Feria has been rebranded in a bid to detach it from the stigma of a blood sport.

Now called a "Corrida Goyesque", it's framed with a lavish spectacle, classical music and sets by leading artists such as the couturier Christian Lacroix. Pictured above: the 2013 Corrida Goyesque, designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti.

But bull games don't just involve corridas. There is a wide variety of other popular events at which the bull isn't killed.

And, because the bulls survive to play another day, the bravest of them become stars and enjoy a career of ten years or more. Posters for bull games highlight the names of the bulls rather than the human players. Some bulls even have their own tombstones or statues.

vovo bull statue saintes mariesPictured, this splendid one by the English sculptor Peter Eugene Ball shows an animal called Vovo breaking out of his paddock. He stands in front of the arena in Saintes Maries de la Mer.

We've watched one of the most popular games, the course camarguaise, on several occasions, once in the grandiose setting of Arles' Roman amphitheatre and once n a makeshift arena (which was actually more exciting and immediate).

At the game, players called raseteurs encourage a bull - a "cocardier" - to chase them around an arena. The object is to detach a trophy (usually a ribbon or rosette) from the animal's head using a hook.

Bonus points are earned if the bull is lured into crashing into the barrier (un coup de barrière). It's not uncommon for the bulls to climb over the barrier too! But they are quickly shooed back into the ring by a handler.

A session is likely to involve half a dozen different bulls in sequence, with each one spending 15 minutes in the arena. At the sessions we saw, the bulls were young and some were, in fact, cows.

The raseteurs were students in their teens, all of them male. At one session, a group of tiny kids, some of them as young as eight, opened the proceedings.

course camarguaise young playerAt first we were worried for their safety. But when the "bull" ran into the arena, proudly heralded by a fanfare, he turned out to be their instructor, pictured, holding a pair of horns. ("Has he been castrated?" the commentator wondered!)

Accidents and injuries are not unknown at the courses camarguaises. But they do seem to be run responsibly.

There were no fancy suits at these sessions. The young men wore track suit bottoms and T-shirts with their names printed on the back, footballer-style. When they qualify, they will be entitled to wear the full, all-white raseteur costume.

Each bull was given a minute after entering the arena to orient himself. Then the players started racing around, leaping up on the barrier or ducking behind a metal screen when the bull got too close for comfort.

course camarguaise arlesThough it looks like each one is acting individually, it seems that they work as a team to some extent, depending on who is right- and left-handed.

All the while a running microphone commentary logged pledges of small amounts of money from various sponsors.

The speaker described the action, with little blasts of music, mostly from Bizet's Carmen, at high points. The bulls were bellowing too to add to the din and it was all very dusty.

The first recorded course camarguaise was held in Arles in 1402, but it didn't become widespread until the late 19th century.

It's not a blood sport, but it is quite exciting - though not for the very squeamish. And one does wonder just how much the bull is enjoying the game.

In summer there's at least one course camarguaise somewhere pretty much every day: the website for the French Federation of the Course Camarguaise has an up-to-date diary. Many, if not all, of them are free. The most important one is called the Cocade d'Or and is held in Arles on the first Monday in July.

There are all sorts of variants on this game. At an encierro, metal barriers are erected on the streets and the bulls let loose to run along them with anyone bold - or foolish - enough to try his or her luck.

One man from Arles told us about taking part in another bizarre version, the "taureau piscine" ("bull swimming pool").

In it, he had to fill pails of water from a paddling pool set in the middle of the arena and run up a ramp with them to fill another reservoir.

danger bull street signIn theory, although not always in practice, the bull dislikes water. So players can also jump into the pool to escape from him. You can watch a taureau piscine game here (though this particular one doesn't seem to involve the pails).

Our favourite bull show is the hugely impressive demonstration of herding skills by gardians (cowboys, and a surprisingly large number of cowgirls) - on white Camargue horses.

One of the top events of this kind is the Fête des Gardians in Arles each year on 1 May. But it's not difficult to see one: over 3000 are staged in Provence each year. It's generally free and especially dramatic when performed in an inner city environment.

The manoeuvre is called a bandido or abrivado, depending on whether the bulls are being herded to or from the pasture.

In an urban context, a long street is cordoned off and the gardians drive the bulls from one end to the other. We'd expected a slow-motion cattle drove such as you see in a western. But it all happened at high speed with the ten riders galloping furiously in close formation.

bandido arlesYou could hardly see the bulls in the middle, though occasionally one managed to break out.

The skilled gardians quickly surrounded him and the commentator triumphantly announced, "Le taureau est enfermé" ("The bull has been contained").

Five or six variants of the run were demonstrated with varying numbers of riders and bulls. The public was urged to stay behind the barriers

But crowds of kids could not resist the urge to slip through and run behind the phalanx. This is definitely not recommended. Accidents, including fatal ones, are not uncommon.

Insider tip for watching a bull runPosition yourself at one end of the street. It's a better vantage point for photos and you can watch the cowboys gathering to discuss techniques and groom their horses during the long intervals between the runs.

ranches

A manade is a herd of bulls and the word also refers to the ranch where they're based. It's possible to visit many manades, but in most cases you can't simply drop by unannounced to have a look around.

You need to attend one of their specially organised days or evenings. A typical programme might last six or seven hours.

It will include some, possibly all, of the following: the branding of a young bull, demonstrations by the cow hands, a course camarguaise, a bull or cow race, a tour of the ranch in a horse-drawn cart and a riding session. It's not cheap but the visit should include lunch or dinner.

However the Domaine Paul Ricard de Méjeanes is set up for casual visitors, who can put together their own programme from a range of activities such as horseback rides or a tour on a fun little tourist train.

COOKING WITH BULL MEAT

Camargue bulls are raised for fighting. But those animals not selected for the bull games will end up on a plate. Camargue bull meat, which must come from non-fighting animals only, enjoys an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) label. As they are allowed to graze freely, the meat is lean and gamey.

You can buy it at specialist butchers in the form of steaks, sausages, burgers or saucissons secs (a salami-style sausage where the bull meat is likely to be mixed with pork in order to moisten it).

Best of all is gardiane de taureau, a rich, slow-cooked bull stew, ideally served with Camargue rice and Costières de Nîmes wine. Most restaurants in the region serve it.

THE CAMARGUE WESTERN

A rancher named Folco de Baroncelli became fascinated by Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which he saw in 1905 while it was touring Europe. Thinking that the Camargue was in many ways France's own Wild West, he decided to make his gardians and land available for filming westerns.

camargue westernTogether with his collaborators, the director Jean Durand and Joë Hamman, a young Frenchman who had worked on a ranch in the United States, Baroncelli created many silent films between 1909 and 1914.

The First World War and, after that, the dominance of American westerns cut short the reign of the Camargue cowboy.

But he did make a brief comeback in the charming children's film Crin Blanc / White Mane (1953) and in D'où viens-tu Johnny? / Where Do You Come From Johnny? (1963), a musical western starring Johnny Hallyday.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, Arles Tourist Office, SJ for Marvellous Provence (five images), vintage film still.

 

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