Man holding petanque boulesMarseille is the undisputed capital of pétanque and each year in early July hosts a five-day world championship of boules, created in 1962 by the pastis king, Paul Ricard. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

From relatively humble beginnings the tournament now attracts over 4000 teams and 12000 players from a wide range of countries, including China and Madagascar, as well as from across Europe and North America.

The charismatic young Dylan Rocher (pictured below) from Le Mans in Northern France is one of the stars of competition pétanque.

He proves that you don't have to be an old, pastis-swigging provençal guy in a flat cap to play it. The sport can be enjoyed by people of all generations, backgrounds and levels of expertise.

Today a reported 17 million French people do it just for fun (it's the country's tenth most popular sport). But pétanque has caught on worldwide with spectacular success. Bankers play it in New York and it has long been the official sport of the Thai army.

Founded in 1958, the Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal claims to have 600,000 members and national chapters from 86 countries. It's estimated that around 14% of its French members are women. Click here to read more about how boules became fashionable.

Dylan Rocher playing petanqueThe game, in various guises, has a long, long history. Egyptian tombs have been found to contain both papyrus scrolls with images of players and even boules themselves.

It was played, too, in Ancient Greece and Rome and probably introduced to France via Marseille by one of these invaders.

Such became the public craze for boules in Provence that it was banned in the 14th century, first by King Charles IV, then by Charles V.

By contrast, over in Italy, in the early 16th century, the game found favour with Pope Julius II. He formed a crack Vatican team that consistently beat the opposition.

The ban was briefly lifted in France and boules regained its popularity. The 16th century French satirical writer François Rabelais commented, "Neither rheumatism nor any other malady can prevent anyone from playing this game: it is suitable for all, from the very young to old age".

In 1629, boules was outlawed once more under pressure from the manufacturers of a rival game, paumes (an early version of tennis). Even then boules continued to be played in secret especially, it seems, in monasteries.

Eventually the ban was lifted again and, in 1792, a game of boules played a small but explosive role in the French Revolution.

Incidentally early boules were made of natural materials such as wood or box tree roots, studded with nails. All-metal boules - first brass, then later steel - were a 20th century invention.

The current version was invented in 1907 (or, by some accounts, 1910) just outside Marseille in La Ciotat. The legend has it that a former boules champion named Jules Lenoir was (despite Rabelais' claim) prevented by chronic rheumatism from playing the game, which at the time involved running with the ball before pitching it.

He and his colleagues invented a new rule to enable Lenoir to join in. According to it, players remain standing or seating in a fixed position. It was named pétanque, from the provençal phrase pèd tanca, meaning "anchored feet".

Like the best games, pétanque is both simple and devilishly strategic. It involves either lone players or teams of two or three, a set of six heavy, metal boules and a small light wooden jack called a cochonnet, or little pig.

The aim is to get your own boule closest to the cochonnet. There are two basic styles of game-play: tirer, or shooting, involves knocking your opponent's ball out the way, while pointer, or pointing, involves placing your own ball accurately.

Players generally specialise in one or the other tactic and a team should include both types. A common question of a new player is "Tu tires ou tu pointes?" The full rules of pétanque are described in detail here.

News for petanqueYou can find out more about all this at a tiny Musée de la Boule (Boules Museum) on the place des 13 Cantons in the Panier (Old Town) of Marseille. It's a fun mix of shop, museum and indoor pétanque court, where you can cast a boule or two - and entrance is free.


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