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Secrets of St-Rémy #6: Animal Traditions

My wife Val and I live part of the year in St-Rémy-de-Provence, a charming town between Marseille and Avignon. I’ve written a guidebook about the area, An Insider’s Guide to Provence, where I share some of our favorite things to see and do. This series of articles is based on that book.

You can read the entire series right here
Secrets of St-Rémy
is a series perfect for your next trip—save it now.
It will take you to the all of best sights, sounds, and aromas of St Rémy
1. Must-see sights
2. Favorite places to eat
3. Favorite Wineries
4. Favorite Boutiques
5. Hiking and Biking
6. Animal Traditions

Provence: a Place of Many Traditions

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.

1. The Transhumance

Provence has a lot of sheep, a lot. You can see flocks of them in the countryside, with a shepherd standing nearby and sheepdogs alert for danger. Sometimes the flocks come to the St-Rémy aerodrome and “mow” the big, grassy field where gliders take off and land.

Provence gets hot in the summer, so the sheep head to cooler mountain pastures. They used to go by foot, marching through village after village, in a procession called the transhumance. This was a big deal and everyone would come out to watch it.

Secrets of St-Rémy #6: Animal Traditions

Eventually, shepherds started transporting their flocks by truck and the transhumance died out. But the tradition was revived in the 1980s with transhumance festivals and St-Rémy has one of the best. It’s held every year in late May or early June and you shouldn’t miss it.

During the festival, thousands of sheep march through town, baaing all the way. Bands play as they go around the town’s ring road, accompanied by shepherds, sheepdogs, and the occasional goat. It’s like a river of sheep!

Crowds line the road, taking pictures and reaching out to stroke the sheep as they go by. The road is long enough that it’s easy to find a front-row seat, making it a fun event for the whole family. St-Rémy has put together a great video of the transhumance. If you’d like to get an idea of what it’s like you can view it here.


2. The Course Camarguaise Bull Games

One of the things unique to Provence is its connection to bulls, which is evident in the cuisine, the festivals, and the local sports.

Secrets of St-Rémy #6: Animal Traditions

One way the young men of Provence demonstrate their bravery is in the course camarguaise, what some people call French bullfighting. But it’s not fighting at all and the bulls don’t get hurt. Instead, little doodads are tied around their horns and the young men, the ‘rasateurs‘, have to run up to the bulls and take off the doodads. It’s a popular event, and some of the bulls become so famous they have endorsement contracts!

Val loves the sport because the rasateurs wear white shirts and pants, fitted very snugly. She calls them “the young men in their tight white pants.”

A course is exciting, with rasateurs running up to a bull and then the bull chasing the rasateurs, who escape by leaping over protective fences. Remarkably, I’ve been to many a course and have seen a young man get hurt only once, and then only slightly. A course is sometimes preceded by an ‘abrivado‘, an exciting event in itself.

Bulls are run one by one through the streets of the town, led by French cowboys called ‘gardians‘ that guide them with their horses. It’s a display of horsemanship that only the best gardians can master. It usually goes off without a hitch, but once I saw a bull get away and go rampaging down the street. Luckily, spectators stand safely behind metal barriers.

3. Horses Take a Holiday

Secrets of St-Rémy #6: Animal Traditions

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 march through town in a big procession so everyone can admire them.


Have you ever experienced these Animal Traditions? Please make a note for your next visit or share your experiences below in the comments.


Image Credits
1. Man in Sheepskin Coat: Keith Van Sickle
2. Transhumance: Keith Van Sickle
3. Course Camarguaise: Creative Commons License, attribution fred.th
4. St. Eloi horse: Val Van Sickle



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