July 10, 2009

The Camargue – Cowboy Country of the Rhone Delta

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"Sand, little maritime trees, marshland, broken and beaten down by the wind, on the un­speakably melancholy expanse! There is hardly a ripple in the flat land. The whole vast empty area speaks with opposing voices of an immense desolation, echoed by the moaning of the nearby waves. Everything is born and everything perishes ceaselessly .... "

The waste land, described here so mournfully by Charles Maurras in his book
Anthinea, is the Camargue: the thinly populated, marshy plain that lies fifty miles to the West of Marseilles, between the mouths of the Grand Rhone and the Petit Rhone. The Camargue has an area of 290 square miles and is not really vast, but its uninterrupted stretches of pas­tureland, marsh and swamp belie its smallness and give one an acute sense of space and solitude. Apart from the Saintes­ Maries-de-Ia-Mer, on the coast, there are no real villages, on­ly odd clusters of houses and an occasional mas, or large farm, evidenced by a wall of trees which shield it from the mistral, the fierce prevailing wind, but otherwise invisible.
There are riding stables ev­erywhere in the Camargue. If you have sufficient stamina, go on a whole day's ride to the forest of Silvereal. This is the best way to see the coun­try, because, on horseback, you can penetrate to the remoter areas where there are no roads. The marshes are infested with mosquitoes and bugs, so it is advisable to buy an insect repel­lent before setting out.
The distinctness of the Ca­margue landscape is matched by the idiosyncratic and inde­pendent character of its inhab­itants-a product of local tra­ditions and a local way of life which geographical inaccessibil­ity for a long time helped to sustain. Today one still has the feeling of being in a separate country. Reference seems to be made only to the Saintes- Maries, Aigues- Mortes and the villages of the neighboring Bas Langue­doc. Arles, so close, is rarely mentioned, nor is the country beyond. Marseilles is only fifty miles away, yet most people seem never to have been there.

Until the 1930's there was no good road from ArIes to the Saintes- Maries, only a rutted track, called the draille, made up of earth and broken rock and obstructed in winter by water. It was a difficult journey, dis­couraging visitors and preserving the area from outside influences.
The paving of the roads to ArIes and Aigues-Mortes open­ed the area to large-scale tourism, and today the Saintes ­Maries is crowded with holiday­makers from May to September. It is not a very attractive town: a jumble of white, box-shaped houses huddle around the for­tress-church; a long bald prom­enade gives enormous provi­sion for parking-and in sum­mer is packed solid; and to the East of the town there is a large camping site. Tourism is welcomed by many because of the money it brings, but the life of the local community goes to ground until the siege is lifted in the autumn. One finds here too, as in so many holiday resorts, the unfortunate by-product of brittle shopkeep­ers and hoteliers. The town seems gloomy in its new-found prosperity and I would not recommend it as a place to stay. The beautiful old town of Aries is only twenty-five miles away and is an excellent centre, not only for visiting the Camargue but for travelling more widely through the rest of Provence. Yet the history of the region is centred on the Saintes- Maries and the town is worth visiting.

There is a legend that, shortly after the death of Christ, the Virgin Mary and her compan­ions in Palestine were put into boats by the Jews and set afloat without oars or sails in the expectation and hope that they would be drowned. One of these boats came to shore on the Provencal coast. Mary Magdalene and most of the other saintly survivors travelled through Provence and further into Europe to preach the Gospel. Only Marie-Jacobe and Marie-Salome, attended by their servant Sara, remained in the village that is now named in their honor. Each year on May 24 and 25, the holy relics of the saints are carried in pro­cession along the water's edge, the priests, townspeople and gypsies walking in separate groups, and the whole assembly accompanied by horsemen.

The gypsy pilgrimage, in hon­or of St. Sara, has become more of a carnival than a pious renewal and affirmation of identity. During the week pre­ceding the festival, the streets and cafes are thronged with musicians, singers and dancers. Families play together: a father accompanying his son, his wife sitting next to him with a baby in her lap. Sometimes there are so many groups playing together in the same bar that the music merges or collides. There is an atmosphere of spontaneous gaiety and the flamenco music is often of a very high standard. The greatest champion of the liberties and traditions of the Camargue was Folco de Baron­celli, Marquis of Javon. He recognized that the primary manifestation of a people's identity was its language, and for nine years he and the poet Frederic Mistral brought out a Provencal-Ianguage newspa­per. He was also a rancher, however, and, finding that he had not enough time for both occupations, he gave up the paper to devote himself to his bulls and horses and to the conservation of the traditional equestrian and popular sports of the Camargue.
By the 19th century, the Span­ish bullfight to the death had been introduced into the region, and the prefects recommended that all the sports with the bulls should be stopped. Baroncelli reintroduced the abrivade and the course libre at the beginning of this century. His fight to sustain the Provencal language failed, but the games still con­tinue in summer and autumn at the village fetes in the Bas Lan­guedoc, and certainly a tour of the Camargue would be quite incomplete without seeing them.
Each morning of the fete, the gardian-the rancher's employ­ee who has permanent respon­sibility for the care of the herd -and the "friends of the ranch," local amateur riders, go out into the meadows to bring the animals into the village. The rider's equipment is distinctive: a short saddle with a high pom­mel and cantle, so that he can sit tight; caged stirrups to keep his feet secure; and a long pole like a trident, the implement he uses for prodding the bulls.
Most of the riders wait to one side of the herd, while the gardian and several companions select the bulls which are to be taken. The animals are gregarious and recalcitrant, and it requires con­siderable skill to separate them from the herd, but once detach­ed, the bull is surrounded by the horses and one by one the party is assembled. The riders now form a tight ring round the bulls and ride into town.
Meanwhile, the spectators run for their cars and the procession begins. It is traditional for the young people of each village to attempt to distract and upset the horses in any way they can, in order to open the circle and enable the bulls to escape. The sight of these boys demonstrat­ing their pedestrian gallantry at a backwards trot or canter, while the horsemen strive to retain control of the bulls, who for their part are doing their best to get out, is picturesque and exciting.
On the morning when I watch­ed the abrivade into Aimatgues, tempers became a little frayed and it seemed that the trident might perhaps be employed on the young men rather than the bulls; but the riders kept their cool and there were no escapes and no casualties. The abrivade was boxed in before and behind by a line of cars, all hooting, the passengers shouting encour­agement, advice and abuse. Immediately in front of the riders was an old saloon car, its top cut off to provide an ad hoc truck for twenty young aficionados. It was painted in a medley of glaring colors and covered with recommendations regarding different brands of pasfis. Its horn blared out the first two bars of a tune.
As the riders appeared in the avenue approaching the village, the people went wild, young men rushing towards the animals and shouting. One heroic youth managed to seize a bull by its tail and immediately a dozen others fell upon the animal, holding it fast. A moment of great rejoicing. A rope was then tied around the bull's horns and it was allowed to run free among the crowd. The vil­lagers fled: a scene of mass terror with everyone hurtling for cover as fast as he could go. After this euphoric interlude, the beast was driven by the horsemen into the narrow bar­ricaded street leading into the arena, and the abrivade was over. Young and old now repair­ed to the cafes and the heady smell of aniseed spread across the village.
The course libre takes place in the afternoon. A bull is releas­ed into the ring wearing a ribbon between its horns and the raze­teurs, men dressed all in white and equipped with a small metal rake attached to their knuckles, attempt to remove it. The amount of money to be paid to the successful man is an­nounced over the loudspeaker, augmented periodically by dona­tions from different local per­sonalities or organizations; but if the ribbon is not seized within a certain time, a fanfare sounds and the fight is over. The raze­feurs are agile and daring, reg­ularly leaping clear over the surrounding fence to escape in­jury. The spectacle does not have the glamour of Spanish bullfighting nor the special aura that comes from its to-the-death confrontation. But the course libre is a sport which, nonethe­less, requires considerable cour­age and skill, and one full of a certain charm and innocence.

Henri Aubanel, the son-in-­law of the Marquis de Baroncelli, is one of the ranchers who are fighting to maintain the cult of the bulls. Like Baroncelli, he regards the traditional sports as the valid expression of the beauty and poetry of his coun­try, and he too has dedicated his life to their conservation. He and his family live for their animals. "I provide sixty abri­vades a year and there are sev­eral others who do as much," he said, "but it is difficult to survive. There are no financial rewards because we very rarely kill the bulls. The cultivation of rice and the vine has taken up a lot of pasturage and the spread of game reserves for hunting is a worse threat. As for the games, some of the young people today are hostile. Perhaps they think that they represent an established order that they want to pull down. Flour and plaster have been thrown in the horses' faces and we have had difficult and even dangerous incidents. If there was a serious accident, the games might well be sup­pressed. Wherever industry is introduced, local traditions die, along with local initiative."
The jeux de gardians are anachronistic. They do belong to another age. They are non­productive and inefficient. Would not a truck provide a more satisfactory mode of transportation for wild animals than the abrivade? But these traditional games possess a rare nobility and beauty and it would be a tragedy for the Camargue if this vital part of its heritage was lost.

sorry friends, I had to re-post 'something' or 'someone' ? messed with the posting. Once more, for my dear friend Ms Edna.


Russ said...

shuks and shame. but you are back.

Ms Edna said...

Yes, the program has its idiosyncrasies .
You just have to grin and bear it.
Keep on plucking.
Look at the bright side, it’s better than blisters!