The zen of pétanque, how boules became cool and the game that stopped a tram in its tracks: five fun facts about Provence's favourite sport.
1) A Buddhist monk has published a book, L'esprit de la pétanque, advocating the game as an aid to meditation. Maître Kaisen was born Alain Krystaszek to a family of Polish immigrants in northern France and now lives in the Dordogne. He has practised the game for over 30 years and still plays once a week.
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His slim, 95-page volume maintains that similar qualities are required for pétanque and for Buddhist prayer, such as an ability to focus entirely on the game and to ignore outside distractions.
"For me, pétanque is more than a game, more than sport and more than a contest," Maître Kaisen says. "It is a fabulous opportunity to develop exceptional human qualities and to allow the player to communicate better with the world and, above all, with himself."
In May 2010, after the Chanel Cruise show in Saint Tropez, Karl Lagerfeld hosted a starry pétanque tournament for Vanessa Paradis and Diane Kruger and other beautiful people and a friendly boules tournament has since become a traditional annual fixture at the Paris spring / summer men's shows.
Chanel has created boules sets engraved with its insignia and Louis Vuitton has also produced a limited edition set of boules (made, unusually, of canvas) in a soft leather case for 1,800 €uros. And France's biggest boules manufacturer, Obut, has launched a line in avant-garde tattooed steel boules aimed at teenagers (alas, they do not conform to competition standards).
3) (A not-so-fun fact, this): in Marseille, on the 29 April 1792 - the eve of the French Revolution - a few members of a club called Friends of the Constitution relaxed one night with a quick game in the cloisters of the Recollets convent, which was then being used as a powder magazine.
As they hit the paving stones, the boules emitted sparks... Result: 39 deaths and many more casualties.
4) It's official: boules are still dangerous objects, along with knives and guns, according to this sign, pictured, by the security checks at Marseille-Provence airport (Marignane).
If you buy boules in France to take home as a souvenir, make sure you put them in your hold bag - and make sure you have a generous weight allowance. A case of six boules, plus the cochonnet (the small jack), will weigh 4-5 kilos / 9-11 lbs.
There are strict guidelines for the size of competition boules, though a certain leeway exists within these, and players chose their set depending on the size of their hand and style of play. "Pointers" (players who specialise in placing their own boule accurately) choose heavier, harder and larger boules. "Shooters" (who specialise in knocking the opponents' boules out the way) go for light, softer, smaller and smoother weapons.
On the most modest scale, you can acquire a basic pétanque set of six boules and a cochonnet for around 15 €uros.
5) Marcel Pagnol often wrote about pétanque and his 1932 film Fanny includes a famous scene in which a tram is stopped in its tracks in order to allow the game to continue (this clip is unsubtitled but, as ever in Provence, the gestures speak volumes).
Note that the players are following the "old" rules, and run before pitching, rather than playing the "anchored feet" version of pétanque generally favoured today: click here for the full story of the origins of pétanque.
One of pétanque's most venerable and amusing traditions, that of the Fanny, is apparently unconnected with Pagnol. La Fanny, qu'est-ce que c'est? Click here to find more about Fanny in pétanque.
Find further reading, playing and viewing on Amazon:
L'esprit de la pétanque by Maître Kaisen. Zen and the art of pétanque, elucidated in this cult book.
Traditional Garden Games 8 x 73mm Boules in Canvas Bag A very modestly priced set for anyone who wants to join the boules club.
Marcel Pagnol's Fanny Trilogy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] Marcel Pagnol is the iconic writer of Marseille, where he grew up, and this bittersweet romantic trilogy, based on his successful stage plays, celebrates a milieu which he knew like the back of his hand.
Les Invincibles, starring Gérard Depardieu, is a comedy about roguish pétanque players which was shot in the Marseille area and released in France in 2013.