The Animal Kingdom:’Only in Provence’ —Part 5
Let’s say you are strolling through a French village and come across thousands of sheep bleating in the streets. Or maybe you see horses with flowers in their manes. Or perhaps you are startled by French cowboys charging past with a bull in their midst. Where might you be?
You are probably in Provence.
The people of Provence have a deep respect for nature and for the animals that have long been integral to their rural life. And they maintain their traditions, many of which have to do with animals.
What are these traditions? Let’s look at a few.
Sheep were for centuries a vital part of the local economy. You still see flocks in the countryside, their guard dogs alert to danger.
But Provence is too hot for sheep in the summer, so traditionally they were marched to cooler pastures in the mountains, passing through village after village in a procession known as the transhumance.
Today the sheep go by truck, but some villages still maintain the tradition of the transhumance.
In St-Rémy-de-Provence, for example, thousands of sheep parade through town in late spring, accompanied by shepherds, sheepdogs, and the occasional goat. Crowds gather to watch, snapping photos and leaning over to pet the sheep as they go by.
It’s an event not to be missed if you are in the area.
That’s a lot of bull!
Bulls are raised throughout Provence, and their presence is reflected in the cuisine, the festivals, and the local sports.
One popular sport is course camarguaise, where young men prove their bravery (or is it foolishness?) by trying to remove doodads that have been attached to a bull’s horns.
The sport fills arenas and is sometimes called French bullfighting, but it is nothing like the Spanish variety—the bulls aren’t hurt and the best ones become local celebrities. They even have endorsement contracts!
A course is preceded by an abrivado led by gardiens—French cowboys and cowgirls. Gardiens are an important part of Provençal culture, riding on horseback in their distinctive clothing.
In an abrivado, gardiens show off their horsemanship by guiding charging bulls through the streets…without touching them! It’s an impressive spectacle.
Horses Take a Break
Plow horses have worked the fields of Provence for years.
Today they have mostly been replaced by tractors but you still see them here and there, doing the same noble work as their ancestors.
But everyone needs a break, and in Provence the horses get it on St. Eloi’s Day.
St. Eloi is the patron saint of horses, so when his day rolls around the plowing has to wait. The horses are cleaned up, brushed, and have flowers put in their manes or wear colorful harnesses. Then they are blessed by the village priest and stroll through town so everyone can admire them.
At a snail’s pace
A small but important industry, Provençal escargot production supplies restaurants all over France. You can be sure that as you read this article, escargot ranchers in Provence are rounding up their herds, ever so slowly.
Have you ever experienced any of these traditions in Provence? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
1.-2. & 6. Sheep, Transhumance & Escargot copyright Keith Van Sickle
3. Transhumance video via St-Rémy-de-Provence tourist office
4. Course camarguaise via Creative Commons license attribution graphia
5. St. Eloi via graveson-provence.com
Only in Provence
There is much to celebrate and experience in Provence.
This series sets out to create a collection of highlights – unique features and experiences to be had in Provence.
Use this series to create your very own must-do list.
Only in Provence Part 1 – Brilliant Roussillon
Only in Provence Part 2 – Carrières de Lumières
Only in Provence Part 3 – Provence legends
Only in Provence Part 4 – Surprising history of Jewish Provence
Only in Provence Part 5 – The Animal Kingdom of Provence (this one)