A Breed Apart

Sunday, April 17, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Day #48:  Arles, France

Down in the south of the south of France, they raise a valiant breed of bulls, or more accurately, the bulls raise themselves.  In the Rhone River delta between Arles and the Mediterranean, the hardy Camargue breed of cattle thrive on the reedy, marshy wetlands.  These ebony animals with their upward sweeping horns live in a semi-feral state watched over by French cowboys (bet you thought you'd never hear that phrase) called gardians.

The Camargue bulls are well known in Arles and the surrounding villages where they can be seen in bullrings through the spring and summer months.  Visiting the Roman ruins in Arles today, we walked over to see the amphitheatre.  Dating back to the first century BC, the Roman structure was built to seat 20,000 spectators for chariot races and less humane competitions.  Nowadays the arena is the site of summer concerts and other activities.  And today was a day for bull games starring the Camarague bulls, known for their spirit, intelligence, and speed.
The games are opened with a ceremonial dance by women and girls dressed in traditional garb of Provence.  At the end of the ceremony, they were joined by the runners who would be participating in the day's games. 

The Course Camaraguaise is not a bullfight but a game pitting the bull against trained raseteurs, men dressed in white who try to grab a ribbon between the bull's horns.  Once the bull is released into the ring, the raseteurs try to trigger the bull to charge.  When he does, the raseteur uses a small hooking device known as a raset to try to lift off one of the bull's attributes-- either the ribbon (2 points) or one of the tassels wound tightly around the horns (4 points). 
Of course, the bull, which has been bred and selected for its fierceness, is chasing the man at the time, and the acrobatic raseteurs escape by leaping over the barrier like gymnasts.  About 20 raseteurs were in the ring, so the bull was definitely outnumbered.  On the other hand, he had a significant weight and weapon advantage over his challengers.  Each bull stays in the ring for 15 minutes, or until he has lost his attributes, whichever comes first.  With the more ferocious bulls coming later in the match, the runners are facing their toughest challenges when they are most tired.
In these games, the bulls are the celebrities.  Their names appear on the posters; their bravado is cheered by the crowds.  Statues are built in their honor, and they can even obtain product endorsement contracts.  When a bull chases a raseteur right up to the barrier, running into it and tossing some of the boards, his performance is saluted with the music of Carmen.  A few of the raseteurs can become stars, as well.  They earn points for every attribute they capture and at the end of the season, a trophy is given to the top man.

The Camarague bull games began as simple farm games with the first arena game in Arles mentioned as early as 1402.  By the twentieth century, the rules had been formalized and a federation established to control the games. 

We were lucky enough today to sit in front of a very dedicated Camarague fan.  She gave us a brochure in English explaining the rules of the games as well as a 2011 season calendar.  She also showed us her souvenir attributes, which she displays proudly on her totebag.  Between her inability to speak English and our lack of fluency in French, we never really understood how she obtained these prizes, but we were quite impressed nonetheless.

One course, or set, consists of six bulls, each of which competes for fifteen minutes.  After the third bull, there is an intermission, and that's when we departed, having enjoyed this match of wits and stamina.  As athletic and quick as they were, we did leave wondering how well any one of the raseteurs would fare mano a toro.  If you want to learn more about this interesting sport, check out this great article from London's Guardian newspaper.

Bull Game Stats
Bulls:  6
Raseteurs:  20
Fans:  3,215
Score:  Bulls 5, Raseteurs 1
Cheers of ¡Ole!:  0 (This is France, not Spain.)

A little taste of the games from our iPod: