by Ashley Tinker of Curious Provence
If you’re looking for a glimpse into Provençal culture, the best place to visit would be a festival in Arles. Due to it’s location off the Rhône river, this small town in Southern France has a rich history starting as a Ligurian settlement in 800 BC all the way to being the International capital of photography today. It’s best known for it’s importance during the Roman occupation of France as well as being the inspiration for many of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Its a well known stop on popular Provence trips.
The Provençal traditions so revered today were popularized and made official by Frederick Mistral in the 1800s. Mistral fought to preserve the language and traditions of his beloved Provence. The preservation of the costume of the Arlesienne women was one of his priorities. You can see these costumes being proudly worn by locals in annual festivities.
The beauty of Arlesienne women have been mythologized by travel writers throughout the centuries. There seems to be something about the combination of those dark roman features and that costume…
Le Fête des Gardians is the annual spring festival in Arles celebrating the lifestyle and traditions of the gardians; gardians are basically the French version of cowboys that rear large black bulls. The bulls often end up as delicious slow cooked daube provençal. There’s an enormous parade, blessings of the animals, an Arlesienne queen is elected and to top it all off there’s a four hour long spectacle at the antique roman arena involving horsemanship games and bull running. The skills of these proud horsemen are impressive.
During your Provence trip, the Provençal-style bullfights (courses camarguaises) make for the best way to see a bullfight which occuring a few times a year, and happily the bulls are not killed. Instead, young men attempt to remove a tassel from the bull’s horn without getting injured. Each time they succeed, they earn money. Many times of year you’ll find bull running in the streets (encierro) where gardiens show their horsemanship by containing the bulls in tight formation, or even more entertaining (and dangerous) young men, saturated with the local aniseed liquor, tackle the bulls in an effort to stop them in their tracks. Often there’s only a temporary wonky barrier separating the spectators from the bulls. Make sure to pay attention to the bull running signs that will be all over town beforehand.
Despite these practices, you can safely wander the ancient streets of Arles during a festival while watching the white horses and impressive skills of the riders. Make sure to look up at the perfect patina colors of the shutters and crumbling bright colored plaster. You’ll easily be able to see why Van Gogh loved this place.
NOTE: We are embarking on a girls’ only guided Provence trip this October, 2017. Read more and join us here.