Understanding Boules: Why The Game of Pétanque is Like Religion in Provence
A reason to gather in a central location, a place to rest, a circle of trust and refreshments. It is not a huge stretch to think of pétanque, also known as boules, as a form of religion in Provence.
In most Provencal villages, there is a place where the townsfolk come together for the social connection and a bit of friendly (mostly) competition. All that boules players require is a patch of relatively flat, hard-packed, unpaved ground, and hopefully a bit of shade from platanes (plane trees) or fast-growing microcouliers. There may be a few benches or stones where participants and onlookers can sit. In wealthier villages, there may even be a clubhouse where tired players can quench their thirst.
The word pétanque is Provencal its origins come from the word petanca, which means “feet anchored”. The game in its’ present day format started in La Ciotat (on the Mediterranean coast) in 1907. There are similar games in other countries such as bocce (Italy), lawn bowling (England), and curling (Canada).
Understanding the Rules and Nuances
The concept of pétanque is straightforward; the player standing with both feet on the ground tosses hollow metal balls towards a smaller wooden or plastic ball called the cochonnet or piglet. The player closest to the little ball wins the point. The game can be played with two players or up to six players (two teams of three). Here are the basic rules.
The game of pétanque is remarkably accessible for everyone. There is no physical fitness requirement to play the game, so you see participants of all ages and abilities. In fact, there are many wheelchair-bound champions. However, not everyone is immediately welcome, it takes time to gain the skills and acceptance as Paul Shore writes in his book “Uncorked My Year in Provence.”
The game starts with a coin toss. After that a small ball sometimes called the bouchon (or cork) is thrown a respectable distance away. A serious player will have their own set of balls, the size and weight are determined by their hand size. The players take turns tossing their metal balls, with the idea of getting closest to the cochonnet. That sounds easier than it is in reality, as the ground is uneven and the opposing player will strategically try to knock your balls out of the way. The first player to reach 13 points wins the match. Although it sounds straightforward, some games have surprising upsets in the final minutes.