The “gardian”: the French way to be a cowboy – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If colours could describe Camargue, this vast marshy area located in the Rhone delta, they would be black, white and pink. Black is the colour of its emblematic bulls, white is the colour of its hale and hearty horses and pink is the colour of its famous flamingos. This vast ecosystem where men work together with nature succeeds to preserve its fragile biodiversity while welcoming thousands of nature lovers every year eager to discover its fauna, flora and magnificent landscapes.
The gardians are the emblem of this close to nature way of life in Camargue. Riding all day long reins in one hand, holding their essential trident in the other they take care of all bulls, cows and horses living in the manades, the Provencal version of a ranch. If local farm workers have been living there for centuries they became almost legendary to French people at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the doing of two men who originally had little in common but who had the same passion for bulls and action!
Jean Hamman was born in 1883 and fell in love with budding cinema as a 12 years old boy. Although his father was a businessman and his mother a former lady in waiting of Impress Eugenie wife of Napoleon III, he had the soul of an artist. When visiting the United States at 21 he had the chance to attend one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show his destiny was written! He became friend with Buffalo Bill and learned all he could about cowboys and Indians. Back to France he took the name Joe Hamman and started a new career as an actor and filmmaker. Cowboy movies got very popular in France at that time and most of them were made in France. They were called the “Camembert Westerns” and it was not only after WW2 that American westerns supplanted them.
In 1905 Buffalo Bill came to France on tour with his show. Joe Hamman came along with him to Southern France where they met Folco de Baroncelli a Provencal aristocrat who had dedicated his life to Provence, the Provencal language and traditions. Together with Frederic Mistral the iconic Provencal poet, he founded a newspaper, the “Aioli” to keep their language alive and kicking. He ruled a manade and took an active role to promote and improve the local bull breed and was called the “gardian gentleman”. Cody, Hamman and Baroncelli got on very well together and over the years the Marquis de Baroncelli lent them several of his gardians to take part in the Wild West Show and in the movies that Joe Hamman made in Camargue.
To promote the gardians and the bulls of Camargue Baroncelli brought back to life the “course camargaise” an ancient medieval tradition where men and bulls play a tough and spectacular game. Unlike the Spanish bullfight men don’t have swords and all the bulls leave the arena alive to go back to their pasture. The bulls of Camargue are smaller, more highly-strung and faster than their Spanish cousins and proudly wear long arched horns. A rosette, tassels and pieces of spring are tied to the horns and the forehead of the bull and the men have to come close enough to catch them. Far from easy! Today each man who can get one of these trophies earns a bonus and fame.
Once again, unlike the Spanish bullfight the star of the Course Camargaise is the bull not the men. People come to see and applause the bull not the torero. Some of them are real stars. They are fiery, combative, playful and smart and they love the game too. Good bulls can come backs dozens of times in the arena. One of the most famous bulls was named Goya and nicknamed Lord of Provence. For twelve years during the 1970’s and early 80’s he fought 117 times in the arena, learning all the tricks and defeating more and more men with a single blow of his long horns. Just one blow each time, he knew it was enough! He died 22 years old after a peaceful retirement in the lands of Camargue. Other bulls have their own statue and the most valorous ones are buried standing in their manade. Mutual respect and shared passion could sum up these games.
In the heart of Camargue Aigues Mortes is an ideal starting point to discover this beautiful area. There are several manades close by welcoming tourists where you will be able to see the gardians work with the bulls and cows. For an early morning hearty breakfast in the mas the traditional Provencal farm or for a late night party around a big campfire with a tasty barbecue and gypsy musicians you can have a wonderful time, sharing their traditions with the locals. By boat, in a SUV or a carriage, riding horses, these are easily found ways to visit Camargue. If you enjoy riding you certainly should discover the local breed that is said to be one of the oldest ones in the world. These horses live in semi-freedom in the Rhone delta where you will see them to galloping in the marshes raising high sprays of water.
Aigues Mortes and its port were originally built during the 13th century to allow the French king Louis IX and his armies to sail to the Holy Land. Entirely surrounded by big ramparts it was a safe place and the only Mediterranean French port of that time. Today you can climb upstairs its walls and towers and walk all around the city discovering its narrow right angled streets lined with white houses. With its high walls and towers it overlooks the salt marches and the flooded lands surrounding it. At sunset when the last sunbeams light up the marshes gone pink with the iron contained in their salts it looks absolutely enchanting.
Set in the heart of Aigues Mortes in a quiet and sunny street the “Villa Mazarin” is a 15th century house where you will be able to live a true Provencal experience. In the ancient house an impressive freestone staircase leads to the bedrooms restored in traditional Provencal style while brand new luxury bedrooms just opened in a recent building with big balconies overlooking the garden and the swimming pool. Whether in the veranda or in the quiet garden full of flowers you can enjoy a delicious meal cooked by Stephane Rouville the skilled and talented chef of the house who has already been awarded (2 forks) by the Michelin. In spite of this deserved prize you will get affordable menus at 26€ euro, a great value for money, and a great à la carte menu too. And in a town where parking your car can be a nightmare the hotel underground car park is the icing on the cake!
At walking distance from the hotel “Le Dit Vin” is a lively restaurant with a warm atmosphere at the foot of the ramparts. If you feel like having a good glass of wine with tapas or take your time for a pleasant dinner in a décor both chic and bohemian you came to the right place. And if it’s not to hot make sure to get a table in the shaded patio!
Far from the crowded beaches of the Riviera Aigues Mortes and Camargue is the right destination if you are looking for authenticity and living traditions. There you will meet passionate people whose work allowed a noble breed of bulls and their gardians to survive up to our days.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny
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