My Fête de la Transhumance Experience in Provence’s Tinée Valley
A Sea of Sheep
I pressed my back tight against the stone facade of the ancient house on the narrow street where I stood. Around me were dozens of other people doing the same. How, I wondered, was that huge mass of sheep barreling toward us going to fit through? I lifted my camera and began taking one photo after another as the sheep kept coming. When the herd reached me, they instinctively huddled closer together to pass by. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sheep swept past me. It seemed there was no end to their numbers. When the last of them had finally passed me, with the little black and white border collie sheep dogs nipping at their hooves, I stood mesmerized and astonished. It was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before.
Fête de la Transhumance
Every year in early June, the charming mountain village of Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée hosts one of my favourite festivals in France, the Fête de la Transhumance. It’s a one-day celebration, first begun in 1989, that marks the summer return of large herds of sheep to the lush pastoral pastures surrounding the village. While the activities of the day are centred mainly around the sheep and their caretakers (the breeders and the shepherds), the festival also provides an opportunity for the village to honor and pay tribute to the heritage, language, cuisine and traditions of the men and women who lived there in centuries past.
The festivities include a market of local products, songs and dances (with fifes and drums) from residents dressed in traditional clothing, demonstrations of sheep shearing, a petting zoo for children, numerous food stands offering dishes unique to the area, tours of the local church and chapels and much more. Since I discovered this event several years ago and made a point to return each year. I’m never disappointed.
Lovely Tinée Valley
Nestled at the end of the marvellous Tinée Valley, Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is one of the most delightful and fascinating mountain villages in Southern Alpes. Located about 90 minutes north of Nice, the village sits at the foot of the famous Col de la Bonette, a high mountain pass known for having the highest paved road in Europe.
For centuries, sheep breeding has been one of the primary industries in and around Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. The practice of “transhumance,” the moving of the sheep from the mild lower pastures of Provence, where they spend the winter, to the higher mountain pastures in the summer, goes back just as far. Traditionally the animals leave the mountain pastures in October and return in June. This long trip was once made by foot, but today it is usually accomplished with the help of trucks.
Sheep in the Streets
Although there is so much to do and see at this unique festival, the absolute highlight of the day is the parading of the sheep through the winding, narrow streets of the village. Very early in the morning, a huge herd is gathered in a big fenced field at the edge of town. Then, around 9:30 AM, they are brought out to begin a journey up one tiny lane and down another from one end of the village to the other.
Led by several local shepherds, they move through the town as thousands of residents and visitors stand in the streets to watch and cheer. The sheep press their way through, filling the tiny passageways from side to side until you think there isn’t one inch of room left. One of the sweetest parts of the morning is when the herd passes by a small retirement home in the heart of the village. So many old folks living in the town sit in chairs alongside the small street to watch the sheep pass by. The looks of joy and delight on their faces are simply priceless.
After passing through many of the streets in the village, the sheep are led to another large field, this one located just next to the Tinée River on the east side of town. They are allowed to rest and graze for the rest of the day. Residents and visitors then spread out through the festival to enjoy the many activities available.
More than Sheep
Shearing demonstrations are held throughout the day, and it’s fascinating to watch how quickly a trained professional can remove all the wool from one sheep. Shearing usually takes place just once a year when the weather turns mild. Once done with special scissors, it is much more likely that an electric clipper will be used.
Among the many other demonstrations and activities, you’ll find a focus on the spinning process, whereby large spinning wheels are used to turn the raw wool into yarn that can be used to produce clothing and other products. Men with traditional saws and tools cut large pieces of wood, showing how shingles were made many years ago. Wheat is threshed, butter is churned, lavender is distilled, and barley coffee is brewed.
Milk and Bread
One of the more unique attractions you’ll find in Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is the Musée du Lait, a milk museum. It makes for an engaging visit, and when you are finished, you’ll certainly know a lot more about milk than you did when you started. Today cattle are no longer bred in the immediate area around the village, but two local shepherds use sheep milk to produce various products such as cheese, yogurt and even ice cream. There are also museums in town dedicated to the making of bread, the old mills and even one celebrating schools and learning.
More to Do
If you make the trip to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée for this wonderful festival, you might also want to plan other activities. A ski lift in town usually closes during the summer but opens for this special day. They offer free rides up the side of the mountain, where you can revel in glorious views over the village and the surrounding landscape. If you like hiking, you might even consider returning on foot. A drive up the Col de la Bonette is another excellent way to spend a few hours.
Note that the practice of transhumance is not unique to Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. Many other villages in this region have similar Fêtes de la Transhumance (including Castellane, Châtillon-en-Dois, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and more). So if you’re somewhere in the south of France and Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is not a convenient destination, it’s entirely possible you can find another celebration closer by.
Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée Tourism Office
Rue des communes de France
Located in the heart of the Mercantour National Park, the Auron ski resort is seven (7) kilometres away.
Musée du Lait/ Musée Ancienne Laiterie
Place de l’Eglise
All photos by Steve Wilkison
1. Their shepherds lead the sheep from the pasture to the village.
2. The sheep gathered together to begin the trip through the village.
3. The sheep begin their trip through the village.
4. The sheep passing through a narrow village street.
5. Another view as the sheep pass through a narrow village street.
6. The sheep as they move through the streets.
7. A man shearing a sheep.
8. A woman at a spinning wheel.
9. Men demonstrate how to cut big logs with old tools.
10. A view of Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée from the ski lift.
11. Inside one of the museums in Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée.
12. Two women dressed in traditional clothing work with raw wool.
13. The market at the festival with the church steeple in the background.