Two of our dear friends live in the village of Quarante, not far from Béziers in the department of Hérault. Each June, the festival of the running of the bulls — la fête taurine — takes over the main street of the village. It’s a big party, steeped in tradition, but also fully contemporary (translation: plenty of beer, fried food, and young-people flirting).
Quarante is a lovely village. Its church and historic core date from the 11th century. Peaceful and tidy, with a boulangerie, two boucheries (butchers), two coiffeurs, and a bar-restaurant at its principal crossroad.
For the fête, the village erects steel barriers. To protect the villagers and tourists from the bulls, or the other way around?
The village square outside the church fills with a kids’ bouncy house, non-stop refreshments, long tables for enjoying the refreshments and company of fellow villagers, and a brass band.
We learned that this type of running of the bulls is called the abrivado. The practice and tradition are particular to this part of France, in and near the Camargue region. The Camargue is the wetlands of the Rhône River delta. Among its splendid diversity of flora and fauna, the Camargue is famous for its white horses and lithe cattle.
The abrivado is the herding of the Camargue bulls from their home in the Camargue to markets around the region. Traditionally, horsemen, on spirited Camargue steeds, rode with the bulls. They corralled the bulls between the horses — to manage the bulls as well as to protect people along the way. The story is that, as the horses and bulls passed through villages en route, the young men of the village would try to wrest a bull free from the herders. If they could entrap a bull, they could keep it. The village would enjoy a feast of Camargue beef.
Today, bulls are brought in trucks to the end of the fenced course in the middle of the village.
At two times during the day — lunch time, when the beer, sangria and wine are flowing freely; and apéro (pre-dinner) time, when the beer, sangria and wine are flowing freely) — the horsemen and horsewomen escort the bulls one a time from one end of the course to the other.
Young men, senses heightened by adrenaline and testosterone, and perhaps lubricated by a drink or two, wait to ambush the horses and their bulls. Often the phalanx of skilled horses and their riders keeps the boys at bay. But sometimes they get through. They pull on the tail of the bull; they swarm the bull and try to push it over.
These Camargue bulls are a bit smaller and less aggressive than the bulls used in Spanish-style bull fighting. But they are nonetheless big beasts. During one of the runs, the bull broke free of the horses before the young men could amass. Suddenly the young men threw themselves up against the same barriers against which we were pressing. Serious business, this challenging a running bull!
A Quarante resident (whose daughters are 14 and 17) told us that, in times past, the abrivado was a big courting opportunity for the young people of the village. The young ladies would attend in their best outfits. The young men would show off their bravery and boldness. The men who were able to tackle a bull, and who sported a bit of blood to prove it, could hope to catch the attention of the loveliest young ladies. I bet you imagine that flirtation as if it were 100 years ago. Today’s teens and twenty-somethings are too cool for all that, of course. Right.
Today’s rituals include ambulant pitchers of beer and sangria…
…fried potatoes and onion rings…
…and delicious roasted mussels.
Some residents get very caught up in the spirit of the taureaux.
Between runnings, the whole village gathers outside of the bar-restaurant.
We really enjoyed the party energy of it all. When you pass through French villages on a weekday, they appear very quiet, unpopulated, a bit closed up. It is great fun to jump into the real life of the village during a festival day. People of all ages are out, socializing, having a good time. What seemed before to be a picturesque tiny stone village comes to life with a remarkably large number and diversity of ordinary folks.
While the “sport” of trying to catch the bulls was interesting (and incites bigger debates about bull fighting in general), watching the horsewomen and men and their splendid Camargue horses was loveliest of all. The boys running after the bulls were as goofy as young men often are. The equestrians and equestriennes were elegant, poised and powerful. Wonderful!