Every year the months of April and May make me fondly reminisce of my time in France in 2010 with my dear friends Vicki and Janan. Last month’s blog, I wrote of our visit to the hospital that Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year in the country outside of St. Remy. But in May I always think of Arles. My friends and I spend five glorious days in the south of France, using Arles as our base camp. Much to our unplanned surprise while in Arles, we witnessed the Feast of the Guardians on May 1st.
This event celebrates the history and heritage of Arles and marks the anniversary of the founding of the ancient Brotherhood of the Herdsmen of St. George in 1512, the oldest fraternity still active, which celebrates the life of the cattle herders of the Southern France’s Camargue region.
A guardian is a mounted cattle herdsman from the Camargue delta region in Provence. The Camargue is a natural region located south of Arles, between the Mediterranean Sea and the two arms of the Rhône River delta; the Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône. Herdsmen work is akin to that of the charro or cowboy.
The city has hosted the festival for over 500 years and the men and women of Arles dress in traditional Provencal costumes of the 17th century and are accompanied by the Guardians on their white horses. The women wear beautiful silk and laces dresses and wear their hair in a unique twisted bun. The men of Arles wear costumes of shirts made from traditional Provencal fabrics, matching jackets and pants, and a fedora hat. Each horseman carries a staff, which is used to herd the cattle. All the men ride a special breed of white horses that is unique to this region. Every participant is adorned with a small bouquet of Lily of the Valley flowers on their lapel or dress. The participants are of all ages – and as you can see in my photo, even the babies are dressed in period clothes and pushed in antique prams. The parade is lead by flute and drum players who perform traditional Provencal music.
The parade meanders through the streets of Arles, stopping at various points in town for commemorations, with its final stop at the Notre Dame de la Mayor Church for a mass and blessing, which is spoken in the ancient language of Provence. At this church a new captain of the Brotherhood of Herdsmen is elected and on every third year, a Queen and her attendants are elected.
The festival then moves to Arles’ Roman Coliseum built in 90 AD, which seats 12,000 people. For the balance of the afternoon, the Camargue horsemen and women participate in equestrian games of skill and bravery.
What was a pleasant surprise about the South of France was its rich history from across the ages and cultural influences. Here you will find many remnants of the Roman Empire, such as the beautiful colosseum here in Arles. In addition, France also has a rich history from Spain, which is very evident in Arles (and elsewhere) with bull fighting in the colosseum, as well as large communal paellas being cooked in the piazzas. In the two photos below, these paellas were being created right outside the cafe’s front door. Patrons can sit in the cafe patios, sip the local wine and watch as their lunch of paella is being cooked in the open air. Just delicious!!
Southern France is filled with seasonal festivals throughout the year. Hopefully you will stumble upon a festival such as my friends and I did here in Arles. But it is always best to check calendars and city websites for listings in the area.
Viva la France!