Jamie Ivey the author of the Moon Guide to Provence selects his favourite 5 Provencal festivals
Fete de Transhumance, Saint Remy de Provence, Whit Sunday
I love this festival. My favourite part is the astounded faces of the tourists who have alighted upon it by accident. I can’t really blame them. It’s not every day that you happen upon 1,000 or so sheep cantering through the center of a town. There are plenty of donkeys as well, plus miscellaneous other farm animals. The whole riotous occasion celebrates the ancient custom of transhumance – driving the wildstock on a 10 day hike to the Alps to seek fresh pastures and avoid the summer heat of Provence.
Gypsy festival, Sainte Maries de La Mer, 24/25 May
A long long time ago, three Marys were swept ashore on the wind beaten coast of the Camargue outside the town of Saint Maries de La Mer. The novelist Dan Brown made a fortune over fictionalising what happened next. One of the women, Mary Magdalene, was according to Dan, pregnant with Jesus’ child. Cue a centuries old conspiracy theory about the Holy Grail being not a cup, but the secret of the whereabouts of the surviving heirs of Christ.
However for the locals and the thousands of gypsies who flock to this festival, the important Mary, is Black Mary, who was the gypsy servant of Magdalene. The highlight of the two day long event is watching Black Mary’s statue being carried into the sea. Be prepared for a wild party and plenty of boats.
Feria d’Arles, Easter weekend
This one is only for the brave. 500,000 people flood to Arles for the opening of the bull fighting season. There are street bands, bars spill over onto the street and everybody swills sangria. If you book into a city center hotel don’t expect to sleep much. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of bull fighting the Feria demonstrates the “sport’s” continuing cultural importance to the region and how deep seated it is in the identity of Arles and the Camargue.
Sea urchin festival Carry Le Rouet
Maybe it’s because there is not much else to do in Provence in February, but this month-long sea urchin festival or oursinade, is one of my favourite events. February is when sea urchins are at their plumpest and best to eat. The town fills up with gourmands. You buy from street vendors and sit anywhere you can, on a bench, on a rock, even in someone’s garden, and savor the freshest oursin money can buy. (As an aside, tourists in Provence who don’t buy anything are said to have an oursin in their pockets – every time they reach for their wallet they get spiked). For those not so keen on seafood there’s usually a friendly troop of cheerleaders with pom poms on parade.
Course Satin – Manade Mogador, nr Arles.
The second Sunday in June witnesses one of the wildest horse races you are ever likely to see. Bare back gardian cowboys from the Camargue hurtle around an impromptu race track, barging and nudging their opponents, kicking and cajoling their mounts, in a desperate attempt to return home with the coveted golden silk scarf which is awarded to the winner. The whole thing is said to date back to 1589.