27 March, 2010

French cowboys.

My days usually open and close with the smell of baking. The variation lies more in the in between. Today I was off to the Camargue, for canals and cowboys. I lunched in Aigues-Mortes, a fortress town (population some 7,000) on the coast, whose 1 1/2 kilometers of well-preserved rampart walls date from the 13th century. Aigues-Mortes is tucked just into the western edge of the Camargue, which is the largest river delta in Europe, with nearly 1000 square kilometers. The town's name means dead waters, and is derived from the Occitan: Aigas Mòrtas.When Aigues-Mortes was built, it was the only mediterranean port France had. The Crusaders left from here, using maritime channels to make their way out to sea.To imagine where I was this bright afternoon, picture big sky, man-made canals cutting through the marshland, lakes, vineyards, rice fields and sea salt harvesting, as the water here is briny. Add wind. A lot of it.In the vast natural refuge of Camargue, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, wetlands are home to flocks of flamingo (and some 400 other bird species).
All across the rest of Camargue you find the intrepid, all-weather white Camargue horses (who aren't born white!), and the dark bulls, smaller than their Spanish cousins, with distinctively vertical horns. The corrida culture is alive and well in the south of France, having begun in the late 1600s, but there are significant variations. As I understand it, perhaps the biggest difference: the bulls aren't killed, and lead "careers" that can go on a decade before being put out to pasture. In order not to exhaust the animal, the fights are bound by time limits and strict rules, but remain garlanded with arcane tradition and terminology that is as ornate as the brocade worn by the matador. My caveat: I have yet to attend a French corrida. Against my better judgment, I went to a corrida in Madrid years ago. I was pretty dismayed by the experience. For the record, I neither see nor feel what Hemingway experienced; closer to home, my father ran with the bulls in Pamplona, at the festival of San Fermín, long before there were organized tours. It all leaves me cold: I always end up siding with the bulls, even if the men do cut a fine figure.
But today's manade (ranch) visit was simply about the periodic minuets that occur between the visibly eager, surefooted white horses and fleet black bulls. The work is fast, exciting and dangerous. Even more risky are the organized local bull games, such as the course libre (free race), also known as the course Camarguaise. (Photo below taken from the Arles & Camargue Guide). On the posters, it is the name of the bulls that are listed, mind you, rather than the raseteurs (those foolhardy few, who, dressed in pure white, try to "graze" the bull's head and remove an attached ribbon...). Today, at any rate, I came away with more respect for the French cowboy. Home before dusk, I just had time to cobble together dinner and dessert, a buttery matter of apple, candied ginger and clove on a base of pate feuilletée (puff pastry). This requires somewhat less courage to attack.


  1. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea of French cowboys. :P

    I love wandering medieval fortresses too. So fascinating to think of a time when they needed that much protection.

  2. WC,

    Think of cowboys as existing beyond the written page, the celluloid/digitized image, beyond the American West. Think of them in Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Australia, and yes, France too! So many people and places to daydream about from the comfort of our armchairs...


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