Bull Fighting in Marsillargues, FranceMy friend Gwen Dandridge sent me this post about the amazing bull fights typical of the southern France Comargue region, which she and her husband went to see when they were living in Montpelier for several months in 2005. (Unlike Spanish bull fighting, the bulls survive.) Gwen has many talents ranging from fantasy writing to gardening to Morris dancing. You can find out more about her at her blog.
After getting settled in Montpelier, we tried to figure out where the bullfighting was held. Every time I asked, people would say “You just drive out and find the signs.” I would object that I didn’t know where to drive, what time, or what to look for. My follow-up questions of “where do you get the tickets”, “who do I call to order them”, fell into the American/French cultural translation abyss. Finally, one of the grad students at the institute where my husband and I were working took pity on me and tracked down the schedule for the Course Comargue.
Thus directed, Josh and I drove out to a small town named Marsillargues near Lunel. Once there, it took us a bit to locate the arena, which had been set it up behind the local church. We parked on the street and went in to see the show. All became clear why my questions were unanswered. These are small local entertainments. Each little village has its own event and in the smaller towns an arena is thrown up just for the day. You can’t order tickets online. Some of these events are even free.
The arena was set up with a three-foot high wooden barrier. A small lip was at the bottom of the barrier, just wide enough to get a foot on. Beyond that was a six-seven foot wide corridor and finally the bleachers, four or five feet high with metal guard rails rising up another three feet.
The process went as follows: first a man comes out and hoses the arena to keep the dust down. Then other men come out all dressed in white, six with their names in black lettering on their backs and two with red lettering. Soon after, a single bull is released into the ring. On their horns were cockcades, ribbon-like things. The object of the game was for the men to run up to the bull, remove the cockades using a special comb-like tool attached to their hands, and avoid getting gored. The one with the most cockcades is ‘the winner’ but I think the real winner is anyone who doesn’t have to ask his girlfriend what kind of bleach to use to get blood out of the clothes.
The bull would enter, circle the area, paw the ground and bellow threats to the audience. The game would start with the men running close enough to the bull to get it to charge them, but not so close as to make contact.At first, the men maintained a respectful distance from the bull. The bull would be furious, making quick rushes at the men. The men would run diagonally across the bull’s path and then hop over the fence to safety. The way the men escaped was to run to the fence, place a foot on the lip and leap up with the next foot to the top of the wall and then fling themselves like a flying squirrel across the six-foot corridor to the bleacher railing. This worked great unless the bull chose to follow them, and many, many of them did.
Some bulls liked jumping this fence and would just jump over, leave the arena, and refuse to be coaxed back in. One bull was so determined to get the person escaping that it flew over the barrier like it wasn’t even there and barreled headfirst into the wall with a very loud crash and surprised many people! The barrier is supposed to at least slow the bull down. This bull didn’t seem to notice that it had just about knocked itself silly. Several bulls tried to imitate the flying over the barrier routine, but not quite as successfully, sometimes catching their hind feet on the railing and tumbling over the barrier; in one case a bull landed upside down on the other side, unhurt but even angrier than before.
One of the bulls caught on to the game early and refused to play. He would jump out of the arena and stay in the corridor on the outside. The men then spent vast amounts of time trying to coax, tease, or insist that he join them in the ring. One time, they got him cornered so he could go nowhere but through the gate and the bull lost it. He was so frustrated he bashed his horns against the gate over and over. Another bull wasn’t quite as clever but would also jump out. The men would maneuver him into the arena and slam the gate. He would turn and stare at the closed gate before attacking the annoying men. This happened to him six or seven times. Jump the fence, get jockeyed back to the gate (white handkerchiefs waving at him were the favorite taunt) walk through the gate, the gate slams, and he turns and watches it.
Anyway, it was great fun. After some chasing, the bull would get tired, his cockcades all removed, and he would be allowed to return behind the gate. Sometimes, of course, the bull would refuse to exit (I’m sure feeling, “it can’t be over yet- I haven’t killed any of them”) and a steer with a large bell would be sent out. The bull was delighted to see some critter that looked familiar. The people behind the scenes would then call the steer back and the bull would trot after him. They did this seven times with seven bulls. Everyone survived. Yeah!!!
We left the arena and looked for our car. Oddly, people were lining the narrow (read very, very narrow) street where we had left our car and our car was gone. Then, down the street came a parade. The horses came first. Six of them, white, as all Camargue horses are, in a tight “V” formation, body against body. Someone screamed and many people leapt backwards, including me. Seven men came hanging tightly onto a very large black bull, dragging it and them down the street. Not the kind of thing we see in America!
Oh, our car was towed. Normally, that street was okay parking, but not that day. That day, the road was reserved for the bull. And the locals knew better then to challenge him. We were able to retrieve our car and the police were very nice about it, but it did cost us more than the admission to the Course Camargue.
You can read more about Comargue bull fighting here.