IT had been 40 years since the village of St. Maximin in the South of France had staged such an event.
The atmosphere in the village was almost feverish. Barriers were erected around the winding streets, the local cafe had put on a special table d’hote menu, men were making extra trips to the wine cave for additional supplies of the pink wine so favoured in this region, teenagers who normally disdain village life were out on the streets, and elderly residents were being assisted outside their doors and fussed over with offers of deck chairs and water.
For weeks the Fete de Votive had been announced by banners strung across the narrow village roads. A full weekend program printed on lurid yellow paper had been posted in the cafe window: a Friday night DJ party in the park, a Sunday picnic, and the main event - the one that had caused the villages their near-frenzy - the Saturday running of the bulls.
For four decades the bulls had not run through the tiny streets of St. Maximin and this Saturday that was about to change.
“Why has it been so long between fetes?’’ we asked the mayor, sitting importantly on his quad bike about to take off to inspect the barriers lining the roads.
“Because someone usually dies,’’ he replied casually and rode off.
“It can be dangerous,’’ his deputy soothed when he saw our terror. “If one of the bulls escapes and rushes into the crowd...mon dieu...it could be unpleasant.”
On that note, we took a big step back and waited with the villagers, pulling our jackets tight and stamping our feet again the chill.
Unfortunately, that morning le mistral had arrived, the vexing wind that blows through Provence in winter, but always seems to time its arrival with my own in the spring. Le mistral causes trees to shake, windows to rattle and heavy sun umbrellas to take to the air like party balloons.
We tried to ignore le mistral and waited for the bulls to run. And waited.
The teenagers became restless and squeezed through the barriers to run across to the barrier-free side of the road, a much better vantage point to first glimpse the bulls rounding the corner.
Soon too, we did the same, watching out for the mayor on his quad bike trying to coral impatient people behind the barriers.
After a very long time, a small herd of imposing horses came thundering around the bend, their hooves thudding heavily on the bitumen, the horsemen intent on steering them. They passed us in a blur of white and grey movement and thundery clopping.
Was that it? Had the villagers waited 40 years to watch a team of horsemen blaze by? Where were the bulls?
“When are the bulls coming?” we asked the teenagers. Even though they weren’t born before the last running of the bulls, teenagers know everything.
“The bulls were inside the herd of horses,’’ they told us. “The horsemen must keep the bulls inside the herd. That is the skill.”
Before we could get over our disappointment – we wanted to see running bulls, not galloping horses - the thundering clop of horse hooves announced another run and we stood on tiptoe to get a glimpse of the bulls inside the horse triangle. As they came close, one of the bulls – small and obviously frightened - escaped and ran straight at us. (The RSPCA would not approve of this event, and really neither did we, even though it appeared the bull was about to get its revenge.)
All I can say is, thank God for le mistral. Because of the cold wind, we had rugged ourselves in extra thick layers and the bull’s horns scraped jackets, just centimetres short of performing hari kiri upon us.
The teenagers were delighted. We headed to the safety of the cafe for pink wine and bouillabaisse, happy to wait another 40 years for the next running of the bulls.
St. Maximin is a hillside village on the border of Provence and Gard situated amongst cherry orchards and vineyards. It is perfectly positioned as a base for visiting all the iconic Provencal towns and villages. Less than an hour away is Roussillion, Les Baux de Provence, Avignon, Arles and Nimes. The medieval town of Uzes and the majestic Pont de Gard are just five minutes away.
We stayed at Ab Fab, a charming refurbished 14th Century property comprising three self-contained apartments and operated by New Zealander Hester Bullen. The rooms have all modern amenities and each has its own terrace. The top apartment has a rooftop balcony overlooking the unmistakable patchwork countryside of Provence. Hester ensures you have everything for a memorable time in Provence and she is happy to introduce you to the locals who in turn are happy to include you in their festivities. Village life in France in summer is magical. Not a week goes by without a festival. A highlight – and a much safer option than the bulls - is the Fete de Musique, held in June each year when hundreds of musicians give free performances in cafes and streets in towns, cities and villages all over France.
And what would a Provence visit be without the food...the wine...the patisseries...the markets...it’s just too much.
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