Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day! May Day!

No, the ship is not sinking nor am I asking for help, merely expressing my excitement over today being the First of May. While throughout France it is often when laborers hold protest marches to demand better conditions, here in Arles it is the Fête des Gardians. Extending south of town down to the sea, the Camargue is a large marsh land where bulls and horses roam free. They are watched over and cared for by les gardians, our answer to cowboys. Or actually, maybe the cowboys copied their French counter parts, for their Confrérie or Brotherhood, was formed in 1512 (and is the oldest of its kind) and has gathered every May Day for nearly the past five hundred years. A mass is held in the Major Church just behind the Roman Arena, at the end of which horses and riders are blessed in the name of St. George, their patron saint. For the occasion, everyone is decked out in their finest traditional Provençal costume, which was strictly codified by the Marquis de Baroncelli in 1817 and has been proudly adhered to ever since. Everything has its place--the way a woman's hair is rolled, the pinned folds of the scarf on her shoulders, the placement of her jewellery, her shoes. 

Hundreds are decked out in their finery, from fathers and daughters, to the ruggedly handsome solo riders...

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of followers of Provençal tradition, of all ages...

And all sizes...

Thousands of spectators line the streets as the gardians make their way from the church down to the Place de La Republique, our lovely main square.

On the way, many will stop to buy a bouquet of muguet, or Lily of the Valley, which is offered today to bring luck now that the Winter is officially over...

If the gathering was especially impressive today, it was due to the fact that, on top of the regular festivities, the new Queen of Arles would be announced. Yes, despite the end of the aristocratic rule, we do have a queen. She must be from an old Arlesian family and is selected to be the incarnation of Provençal, culture, costume and language. Only five candidates presented themselves this year. A buzz mounted in the square as everyone gossiped as to who would be chosen.

After waiting for nearly an hour, the crowd grew restless as they pressed towards the front of the Town Hall. The riders raised their lances (used to prod their keep) and the spectators clapped and stomped with impatience. Finally, the mayor sailed onto the balcony with a wide grin and announced that Astrid Giraud, had been elected as the 21st Reine d'Arles. The crowd burst into cheers and then a softly sung rendition of the Coupo Santo, the Provençal anthem. I could still hear them singing as I headed through the shady back streets toward our apartment. I find this holiday so beautiful and a wonderful antidote to the brutality of the Easter bullfights. It is Provence at its most elegant and most proud. When Remi and I first moved to Arles, we were travelling the world to cover such people, who held their traditions tightly to their chests in the midst of a cookie-cutter world where we are pushed more and more to resemble each other. How surprised we were to find the same importance so close to home. It still delights me. My best to the new Queen!


  1. Like Dorothy, you don't need to look further than your own back yard to see beautiful traditions; lucky girl!
    (p.s. Mother's Day is next weekend!)

  2. Hello Heather:
    Such a delightful, intriguing and informative post. How wise of you to have found somewhere where, in the midst of this 'cookie cutter' [we loved this expression] world, traditions live on. It all looks so very charming with a simplicity which is seldom found.

    We do hope that now you are going to end the day with a typical Provence dinner [although have no idea what that might be].

  3. Oh my Les H's, I am afraid to disappoint you but we are grilling out duck that has been soaking in a soy ginger marinade--nothing the least bit typical in that! No, if we were doing things correctly we would be grilling young lamb in Herbes de Provence with a side of ratatouille! On Friday, all of the restaurants were offering aioli--another classic provençal dish of boiled veggies, potatoes and white fish that is dipped in a heavily garlic enhanced mayonnaise emulsion. I have a dear friend who has promised to make this for me so hopefully I can post about it soon.

    As for simplicity, I was just thinking the same thing as I was out walking Ben. There is nothing of the "show" about it (even though it is the only time that you will see some of these tough riders smile) and that is a large part of what makes the event so attractive to me.

    Robin--thank you for the reminder! The date is different here!

  4. Maybe it's my lingual envy, but every time my brain latches on to anything related to sinking boats, I'm left with the bread crumb left by this.

  5. What a wonderful tradition and it sounds like so much fun. Mine lily-of-the-valley are only just starting to come up and can't wait for them, we have them in pink and white.

  6. There is nothing like it, and such a beautiful day thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi Heather- this is very strange... Are you the same heather from the cave a few weeks back? I lost your contact details! Leave them again with Anthony the caviste...bises Cat l'australienne....

  8. Yep Cat, that's me. Will do.

    Trace, um, no need to have any sort of lingual envy as you are so far ahead for the mother tongue. Try as I might, I can't begin to wrap my noggin' around your phrase!

  9. fantastic and wonderful to hear that the traditions are being upheld in your part of the world.

  10. Visited Arles in 2014 and we were lucky enough to see the May Day parade and the festivities in the arena afterwards. A great day of entertainment! Some photos here and here


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