InspireKeith Van SickleProvencal History & Traditions

Cowboy Culture Living Dangerously in Provence

“The bull has escaped!”

Cowboy Culture in Provence

I looked up to see a thousand pounds of anger barreling down the street at me. Everyone scattered, frantically jumping over the metal barriers to safety. The bull thundered past, followed by closely by French cowboys on horseback. It was a terrifying moment, the kind you remember all your life.

Cowboy Culture Provence Abrivado @PerfectlyProvence

Just south of Arles lies the famously wild Camargue, a vast, marshy territory that is home to bulls, pink flamingos and white horses running free. This is where the gardians live, the French cowboys who form a living link to France’s romantic past.

Every region of France has its own customs, and one of the things unique to Provence is its connection to bulls, evident in the cuisine, the festivals and the local sports.

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

One way the young men of Provence demonstrate their bravery is in the Course Camarguaise, what some people call French bull fighting. But it’s not fighting at all and the bulls don’t get hurt. Instead, little doodads are tied around their horns and the young men, the rasateurs, have to run up to the bulls and take off the doodads without getting hurt. It’s a popular event, filling arenas throughout Provence.

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

My wife Val loves the sport, mostly because of the rasateur’s traditional outfit of tight shirts and even tighter white pants. She once confessed this love to our French friend Sophie, who made her own confession.

“I like to watch American football on TV” said Sophie. “I don’t understand the game at all but I like the way the uniforms show off the player’s butts.”

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvenceCowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

This led to a discussion between Sophie and Val of French versus American butts, with me of course rooting for the home team.

Courses are usually preceded by an abrivado, an exciting event in itself. Bulls are run one by one through the streets of town, ending up at the arena.

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

At the abrivado, a truck door opens and a bull charges out, ready to escape. He is met by gardians on horseback, both women and men. The gardians form their horses into a V shape, like a flock of geese, ready for the bull. As he exits the truck he charges right into the center of the V and the gardians take off, trapping the bull in the V and leading him to the arena.

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

To be able to do this—controlling the bull without being gored—is a great test of horsemanship that only the best gardians can pass.

The streets of the town are lined with metal barriers and everyone stands behind them to watch the spectacle. Then, at the end of the event, they clamber over the barriers into the street. There they discuss what just happened, whether the gardians had shown proper form, and of course, where to have lunch. This was where I was standing the day a bull slipped away and made a run for it.

The gardians did not earn top marks that day.

Cowboy Culture Bulls Rasateurs Course Camarguaise Provence @PerfectlyProvence

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Keith Van Sickle

Keith Van Sickle

Keith and Val Van Sickle made their first trip to Provence decades ago, and it was love at first sight. After that, they came back every year until 2008, when they began a part-time life there, splitting their time between Provence and California.

Over the years, they’ve travelled all over Provence, seeing sights both well-known and obscure. Their French friends have introduced them to favourite restaurants and wineries and picnic spots and taught them funny local expressions (not all for polite company).

Keith now shares this local knowledge in his new book, An Insider’s Guide to Provence. Packed with the Van Sickles’ favourite things to see and do, it’s a must-have for anyone travelling to this glorious corner of France.

Keith previously published two books about the couple's experiences in Provence. One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, and Are We French Yet?, both are available from Amazon.

You can see all of Keith’s blog posts at Life in Provence.

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