Market Colours & Flavours
Every Provençal town has its weekly market, where locals and travellers mesh together to do their shopping. A highlight of the week, some people will travel quite a distance to go to their favourite weekly market.
Larger towns such as Carpentras have markets that cover the entire centre of town, seemingly endless, while smaller villages have just a few stalls to choose from. Mainly just in the morning (about 8am to noon), the Provençal markets are a sensory delight of colour, odour, and sound.
The jazz band plays, the spices are arranged in a rainbow of colour, their odour fills the air.
You can purchase your bread, cheese, meat, olives, fruit and vegetables, but also Provençal art and crafts, tablecloths and kitchenware, clothing, and all sorts of other goodies. Farmers bring their produce straight from the fields, and are always willing to explain how their products are made, and often offer samples to help you decide.
To note is the fabulous antique market of Isle sur la Sorgue, every weekend along the quay of the village centre.
Enjoy Fêtes de Village
Each village in Provence, even the ones with only a handful of inhabitants, have festivals. Always a joyous occasion, the festival is an opportunity for the whole village to gather and celebrate, usually all day and night, sometimes over several days. Though the festivals aren’t always themed, most festivals highlight a specific regional tradition. You’re always welcome to join in the fun: the more the merrier.
The "Fête de la Saint Eloy":
This 250 year-old tradition extends to a dozen villages south of the Durance River and north of the Alpilles mountains. Between May and September, each town organizes a lavish parade, its original purpose being the benediction of horses. The tradition first appeared around 1750, when horses began to replace cows for work in the fields.
Each year, the 2-day festival centres around the parade of a single carriage, bountifully decorated in vegetation, led by up to several dozen horses, each decorated in flowers and leaves. The horses gallop through the village – a display of coordination and strength among not just the horses but also the “charretiers”, who run beside them, helping negotiate the sharp, narrow turns in the villages at high speeds.
Lovely Village Fountains
Set in the center, often the main square, the fountain brings spring water to the village, and in centuries past was the only source of water for the villagers.
The fountains are also masterpieces of craftsmanship, carved out of limestone in great detail.
The city of Aix-en-Provence is known for its imposing fountains along its roads lined with plane trees, but even the smallest village fountains are treasures...
Les Cafés de Provence
The cafés line the village squares. The plane trees shield some of the incoming sunlight but there are always tables in the sun. All the chairs are taken, the people deep in discussion, a tiny porcelain cup of coffee in one hand. You watch the world go by, sit with a novel, chat with a friend.
There are people of all ages: here a group of retired men sitting in a line, not talking, looking toward the centre of the square, there a young couple, holding hands under the table and giggling softly.
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, “on y danse, on y danse”
The Bourgeois men and women, from all over France, descended towards Avignon to enjoy the picnic grounds, just underneath the famous bridge. There they relaxed and danced, and that is how the famous song came to be:
Sur le pont d’Avignon .... - On the bridge of Avignon
On y danse , on y danse - There one dances, there one dances
Sur le pont d’Avignon ... - On the bridge of Avignon
On y danse tous en rond - There one dances in a ring
Mas & Bastide
Mas is the term used for a traditional Provençal farmhouse. Their thick, limestone walls and reinforced wooden doors and shutters provide strength in construction and relief from the extremes of summer and winter.
Clay tiles, called tuiles romaines, are used (and still are for modern houses) for roofing and often reinforced by loose stones to prevent the mistral from blowing them off. Windows are built on all sides except for the north, avoiding the Mistral’s fury.
The main entrance is generally set to the south, with often a row of cypress trees planted to the north of the building to act as a wind break.
A bastide is a traditional building that is square in shape, and used solely as a residence. This is unlike the mas, which is more agricultural in purpose, rectangular in shape and often housed the flocks of sheep on the ground floor (this provided heating for the rest of the house!).
All over Provence, wrought iron bell towers sit atop churches, all highly ornate.
They have been a tradition in Provence since the 16th century.
Though highly decorative, and all quite different, these iron cages serve a very practical purpose in Provence: preventing the mistral winds from blowing the church bell off and hitting the parishioners below…
The Provençal Bulls and Horses
Bulls have been roaming around the Camargue region of Provence since Roman times; you will see them grazing in the flat outstretched fields.
The "Course Camarguaise" is a Provençal bull “match” in an arena that doesn’t result in the slaughter of the bull. The bull always leaves the coliseum alive.
There are several brave “raseteurs” in the arena at once, all dressed in white. Instead of wielding swords, each has an iron claw, or “crochet”, used to remove different “prizes” attached to the bull’s horns: a “cocarde” or small rosette, a white tassel and a length of string.
The goal is to remove as many prizes from the bull’s horns as possible, each prize having a different value. Each bull stays in the arena for 15 minutes, up to 8 bulls in the day, the same group of raseteurs staying for all the bulls. The raseteur with the greatest total “prize” is judged the winner, while a winning bull is chosen as well – the fiercest one giving the raseteurs the hardest time.
There traditional Abrivado is the procession that leads the bulls to the arena before the games. Over the years this procession has become a spectacle in itself. This consists of a large group of men on horseback encircling a bull in tight formation, and leading him towards the arena. The procession passes through village streets, where people try to distract and frighten the horses (today this is done symbolically to avoid danger), trying to let the bulls escape. But the horses stay calm in their formation, the bull not able to break through.
The white horses of the Camargue are a species only found in the Rhône Delta. They are robust and hearty, used to the difficult marshland conditions. They were traditionally used by the gardians to herd and work bulls; today they are used mainly for leisure. You can penetrate deep into the marshlands on horseback to explore the very heart of the Camargue, among pink flamingoes, herons, and other wild birds.
The Song of la Cigale…
In July and August, the “cigales” – cicadas in English – sing loudly from their tree branches, creating a continuous and relaxing chirp in the air. This insect is often seen as the symbol of Provence: ceramic reproductions are hung on walls, soaps are made in their shape, and they make their way into stories and fables.
Living for years as larvae in the ground, the adult insects come above ground and shed their outer shell (which can stick to a tree for days, and be mistaken for the insect itself!). Only the males have the “musical organ”, resonating sound in a hollow pit in their abdomen to attract females. They sing during the hottest hours of the day, stopping after the sun sets. Cicadas live above ground for only 4-5 weeks, enough time to mate and ensure future generations.
"La cigale et la fourmi"
Here is a fable often told, teaching children the value of hard work:
It was winter. The grain was damp and the ants were drying it.
A cicada, who was hungry, asked them for something to eat.
The ants replied:
"Why didn't you store up some provisions during the summer?"
"I didn't have the time for that..." replied the cicada. "I was singing melodiously."
The ants made fun of it:
"Ah well..." they said, "since you sang in summer you can dance in winter...!"
Jeu de boules
Under the shade of plane trees, mid-afternoon, the retired men gather in huddled groups with their pétanque balls, called “boules”. Once made of nails hammered into a piece of cork, forming a perfect sphere, today’s boules are more likely made of stainless steel, even carbon coated. The games are played on the pitch called a “boulodrome”, found in every Provençal village big or small, on a surface usually of fine gravel.
The game rules are simple: whether one-on-one, two against two, or even threes, the goal is to place your boules as close to the jack as possible. You get as many points as you have boules placed closest to the jack in relation to your opponent’s boules. You will see the players either “pointe”, an attempt to place their boule as close to the jack as possible, or “tir”, where seemingly nonchalantly but with astonishing accuracy the boule is launched in the air, smacks an opponent’s boule out of way, and stops dead in place.
Always social, nearly always close to a bar, the competition can get fierce, with even world championships organized locally in Marseille. Mostly the games are friendly however, with a glass of pastis nearby.
The Festival d’Avignon is an annual theatre festival, founded in 1947 by Jean Vilar, after an encounter with the poet René Char. It takes place every summer, three weeks in July, in the theaters and streets of the historic centre of Avignon.
It is irrefutably the largest theater festival in France, with hundreds of theater troops and tens of thousands of spectators each year. Schools and other buildings are transformed into theaters for the occasion, while the labyrinth of streets in Avignon come alive with street performances; these can even include the passers-by, caught in the grips of an actor who uses them in their performance, while a crowd gathers to watch.
There are mainstream performances by well-known troops, but also the “off” part of the festival, including experimental and fringe theater that has had its place in the Festival d’Avignon for decades.
Often emblematic of Provence, the bories are constructions made of dry, limestone slabs: no mortar is used at all. It is a highly-skilled balancing act of piling stones, first upwards and then slightly off-centre to close the roof. Most of the bories you will see out in the fields of Provence and there are still thousands – date from the 17th-19th centuries, though the tradition is much older.
Bories served as shelter and for storage, a practical way of using the stones cleared from farmers’ fields. The more spacious ones (sometimes called Jas) were used as shelter for shepherds and their flocks in between two transhumance.
Their thick walls (sometimes up to 2m) provided a year-round pleasant temperature: protection from the cold mistral in the winter but also from the hot, summer sun.