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In early September, we went to the Fête de la Traction Animale et de la Transhumance in Villelaure, a village about 40 kms. from Aix. If you admire horsepower in the raw, this is your event. Among the highlights was a demonstration of draught horses at work, pulling a plow and making a perfect furrow, or simply showing their form by trotting by the stands and providing a close view of their humongous hulk. I never thought I would see beauty in mere mass, but really, to see one ton of muscle up close is quite something. The horses were introduced by name and weight: “On the outside, Titus, a Breton of 1000 kilos; next to him Hannibal, a Percheron of 1100 kilos,” etc. I learned about Pioles, Ardennais and many other draught horses, and couldn’t help being impressed. There is something very quiet and accepting about them, always pulling one thing or another and never being aggressive or brusque. If it didn’t sound so puny, I would call them sweet.
The Fête started with a parade of all the animals that would later on be in demonstrations or games. To begin with, there were the Charretiers du Luberon who showed off their horses and wagons, jardinières or fjords or six-in-hand, sometimes stocked with chickens or goats to take to market. There were donkeys and goats pulling children’s carts (Provençal donkeys with huge ears). There were Gardians de la Camargue on their white horses and carrying long lances. There was a pig the size of a cow, lots of goats and a huge flock of sheep. The sheep were part of the Transhumance, the estival movement of sheep and goats into the mountains and back down again. We had already seen flocks during our trips through the countryside but did not realize that this is not a folkloric event but an economic and ecological one. The flocks not only feed well in higher elevations but keep the fire hazard down and are part of the ecological balance.
The flock in Villelaure had just come down from the mountain with their shepherd, a few dogs and a couple of goats. [Apparently, there are often a few she-goats in a flock of sheep because they help nurse the lambs]. There was a marching band in Napoleonic dress with white-plumed hats, and a folkloric dance group with fyfe and drums that sang the Coupo Santo, the national hymn of Provence, in the Langue d’Oc (similar to Catalan). The entire parade ended in the town square, where music and dances were performed and then lunch was served for 600 people. For 10 Euros we ate Aioli (boiled vegetables, potatoes and codfish accompanied by a garlic mayonnaise), cheese, fruit and coffee and, of course, wine à volonté. We sat at long tables under the platanes and had a lively discussion with some Parisians who wanted to know all about President Bush!
After lunch we all moved to a huge field where the Nacioun Gardiano (the Camargue cowboys) demonstrated their horsemanship and did some medieval games where a horseman in full gallop had to put his lance through a small ring that dangled from a pole or where he had to conquer a small bouquet of flowers from another horseman and give it to his beloved Arlésienne. During some of this chivalrous activity, I heard a soft snoring next to me in the grass and found that Oscar, full of aioli and wine and happy thoughts, was taking a post-prandial nap. Only when the big draught horses came by, six abreast in a gentle trot that made the earth shake, did he wake up. The announcer had mentioned that a local farmer collected these draught horses as a hobby, the way other people collect silver spoons. “Mais ce n’est pas des petites cuillères d’argent, ça!” hé said admiringly. The grand finale of the day was the donkey stunt. This had been billed as an attempt at harnessing 40 donkeys to make them pull a hay wagon. I appreciated the “attempt” when I saw what it took to make 40 stubborn asses all do the same thing at the same time. It wasn’t easy and took a long time, but it finally worked. A world record, according to the announcer.
Happy and smelly, reeking of horse droppings and worse, we finally drove back to “civilization” and congratulated ourselves again on our move down here. At times like these, Washington seems a distant memory, indeed.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France.
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