Not being one to glorify or condone animal cruelty of any form, I was caught totally off-guard recently on a drive through the south French countryside upon entering the town of Camargue, the largest river delta in Europe known for its iconic pink flamingoes and salt that has been harvested since the Middle Ages. One after the other quirky small round huts appeared, built to defy the blowing Mistral winds, historically known as "Guardian" houses of the famous black bull breeders of the area. The huts gave way occasionally to sprawling white hacienda style ranches complete with paddocks overflowing with statuesque white horses (the last ridden horse bred in France) or mean looking black bulls rutting in the dust with rippling muscles and huge fearsome raised horns.
I have never considered myself to be an ignorant tourist, but I had no idea that I was entering one of the last city bastions for bull fighting in France, a practice deeply woven into their cultural heritage.
Camargue is a city where gypsies hover, quaint horse-drawn carriages are scattered around and black bulls bred purely for bullfighting are a passion. Camargue horses help the locals (known as the cowboys of the Riviera) to manage the roaming bull herds, rounding them up with all the enthusiasm of a sheep dog having a game. The sturdy and aggressive bulls are bred in this area to fight in arenas throughout France or Spain and are one of the last 2 breeds of fighting bulls in Europe.
Held miles from the swanky Parisian cafes, the sport has long been considered by many of the French to be a blood sport of animal cruelty and a dirty little secret of small-town rural French life and its "hillbilly" citizens (think Deliverance movie...Euro style). The practice is now locking horns with 21st Century global views on animal rights. Everyone has heard of the Running of the Bulls (historically the locals were chasing the bulls through the city streets to get them to the slaughter houses), but I had always associated this with Spain, whereas Bayonne in France is the town named in the oldest written reference to the event in 1289; Spain is not mentioned until 1701.
Today bullfighting (corrida) is illegal in 90% of France, but the "bloody" bullfighting to the death occurs at Easter festivals in the south: Béziers, Carcassonne, Les Saintes Maries, Bayonne, Mont de Marsan, Dax and Arles. It is only in France that the bull actually has a "say" about whether he wants to fight or not. I suppose this is when the bull ignores everyone, sits on his rump and shakes his horny head.
In many south-west towns such as Camargue, it is termed "gentle" bull fighting, when no sword is used and no blood spilled by the bull, just an ultra rough tumble between man and beast (mischievous young bulls) where the aim is to create a spectacle and the man quite often comes away bloodied. A Camargue bullfight is known as "la course Camarguaise". The matador has to pluck a ribbon from between the bull's horns with a claw-shaped metal instrument like a hook. The matador is decked out in white clothing to attract the bull (not sure about this as the bulls are said to be color blind) and he has to constantly leap out of the way of the charging bull. Despite the bulls being small "babies" they are still as dangerous as their adult counterparts, due to their mobility and vertical horns. Quite often the bull will end up smashing its way through the arena's barriers and vent its anger on the crowd of spectators.
The star of the show is the bull, never the matador, with famous bulls ending up with product endorsement contracts and statues built in their honor. The breeders look for the bulls that are the most aggressive with combative temperaments for those to send to the ring. A Camargue fighting bull can live for a decade (depending on how smart he is), whereas those headed to a Spanish or a legal French corrida, only have one fight for their lives.
Camargue is all about bulls to the extent that every summer there is a bull festival with their own version of "running with the bulls" and an odd game of "Bull-Swimming Pool" involving the cows (they also have the long horns similar to the bulls). The cows are taunted and chased through a kiddie pool in the arena, a spectacle loved by the locals who revere these magnificent beasts. The aim is to identify the most aggressive females for breeding. Every small village in the Camargue area has a bull statue lurking somewhere. Of course the bulls that don't perform well in the arena, do end up on a dinner plate after a life of roaming the marshes.
Corrida (bullfighting) did originate in Spain, with France joining this bloody spectacle about 150 years ago. To some this barbaric practice is looked upon as a "glorious art" form - hey it inspired Picasso and Hemingway - but to others it is a barbaric tradition of torturing animals to death that should be banned. Bullfighting in the town of Catalonia was banned in 2010, but it continues in other towns under the guise of "intangible cultural heritage" of the UNESCO Heritage Convention, of which France is a signatory.
If you ever dreamed of being a strutting macho matador in a bullfighting ring, France actually has 4 bullfighting schools to learn the moves.
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