Avoiding the horns

This morning, first thing (well, first thing for everyone else) Jud announced that in honour of his favourite eatery in the whole world, he wanted to be known as Jud McDonald. This came as a huge surprise to me but he is quite defensive when it comes to what he puts in his stomach. In other news, he managed to fix the fridge which was acting more like a cooker before he wove his magic.

Apart from the above, today was Arles Day (Jud claimed it was a Everyone Can Do What They Want Day but then told the Judlings they had follow him) and I set off at 11 o’clock given it was time for a beer and the rest of the apartment was still wondering if they needed socks or not. I made it as far as the nearest tabac – very near – and settled down with a glass of glory and waited.

For me, today was about the Bull Race. I really had no idea what this would entail. In fact I was rather proud of my ignorance given how much I love surprises in the guide of traditional folkloric events. I deliberately bought the tickets without looking too much into the actual event.

As we walked by the arena on our way to the Wednesday market we didn’t get to, I looked in awe at the building, completely enthralled at the prospect of sitting in it and watching anything.

Arles arena

We’d stopped for a beer while the others continued on down the hill towards what Sharon described as “It’s the bric a brac markets not food. Reasonably high on the crap factor.” in a warning text which more or less decided us on staying at the bar and having my second beer.

We found ourselves in the middle of a tour group, as we sat and soaked up our own sweat. A woman was holding forth, presumably telling the group what they were looking at (a rather large Roman amphitheatre or Van Gogh’s Yellow House that wasn’t because the Germans destroyed the original). At first it appeared she had a small group but then Mirinda realised, the group was fragmented into smaller grouplettes, scattered around the al fresco tables.

It became obvious that the very large group was together when questions started to be asked from all over. It was then that we realised the entire group was made up of women. And each and every one of them was Chinese. We couldn’t work out what kind of group they were though perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the Women’s Institute could be a reasonable and fair guess.

Eventually we figured it was time to move on so we headed next door where Mirinda bought two little figurines of local character to join all our other figurines of local character at home. It was in this little shop that we learned about the free bus that circles the town from station to archaeological museum every 20 minutes. How could we ignore such a delightful thing?

So, finding the bus stop, we sat amid the detritus of the day’s market as men packed massive rounds of cheese and women carried far too many bags of shopping, and waited for the next free bus. Imagine my surprise when it turned out not to be free. I happily boarded and the driver asked me for money. I paid the measly coinage and he took us to the Arles Archaeological Museum. (I later discovered that it isn’t, actually free and we hadn’t been scammed by a money making driver who was trying to get rich on our €2 like Mirinda thought.)

The air conditioning at the museum was utter and pure bliss and, apart from a short meal at the van outside, masking as a cafe, we drowned ourselves in the frigid air.

They do a nice charcuterie spread and the cheese coins are very special

Having returned to the comfort of the sub zero temperature inside, we had a text from Sharon to say she was abandoning her family to jog over and join us at the museum. We waited and she soon walked through the doors.

The Arles Archaeological Museum is superb. From the finds to the design, the whole place is excellent. Nice and big and airy; no dusty display cases with ancient scrawled labels and barely room to walk between here. Or, as Naomi said later, large book length explanations of every object papering the walls as she’d discovered somewhere in Italy.

Best of all the displays was easily the boat.

Originally used for river transport, this 2,000 year old, over 100 feet, barge lay, forgotten on the bed of the Rhone, some of it a mere 13 feet from the surface, until 2004. It was painstakingly excavated and removed from the river then even more painstakingly preserved (think Mary Rose but with more modern techniques) before going on permanent display in the museum.

Almost as good as the real thing was the short video describing the whole process. Honestly, I was among a group of people who were enthralled by the video, something that rarely happens in museums.

After such an amazing exhibit, it was going to be a tough gig to follow. Still, the mosaics were very impressive as was the sheer volume of sarcophagi, moved from the necropolis to somewhere a little more secure – the Romans sure liked their arty coffins.

Detail of Roman sarcophagus

As wonderful as the museum was (Mirinda claimed she could have stayed another hour though I’m thinking that could also be because of the temperature) we soon had to leave to catch the not free bus back to the arena for the highlight of the day.

I would recommend if anyone is staying in Arles during the bull racing season that they head over to the arena for some amazing excitement and displays of skill. It has everything you could possibly want from a sporting event. Mind you, when the participants were introduced at the beginning all wearing white, Mirinda was concerned we’d conned her into seeing a game of cricket. Nothing could be further from the truth unless it was some new form of cricket which involved massive black bulls and a bit of parkour.

To set the scene, let me explain the basics of The Bull Race. ( However, before I do that, I need to add that this explanation came about after a lot of input from our group and a French chap who was sort of explaining what was happening to some American tourists sitting next to Sharon. It really was a group effort. Well, apart from Mirinda and Jud who refused to sit with the rest of us.)

Now, what happens is, eleven men in white try and remove small ribbon like objects from the head of a black Carmargue bull while trying to avoid his lethal horns. Each bull has three of this ribbon things – one across the head and one on each horn – and each one is valued according to sponsors bidding higher amounts on each one in real time.

The man who successfully grabs one of the ribbons, holding it aloft for the cheers of the appreciative crowd, gets the amount at that point. The men in white must weigh up when to go for the ribbon and how long to wait out the rising amount of its worth.

Dotted around the inner ring are trainers/coaches shouting sometimes encouragement, sometimes admonishments. And in the seats around them are the fans, like the Romans before us, excited and thoroughly entertained…but without any bloodshed.

Wonky panno as the crowds filter in

In fact, rather than blood shed, the bulls are well looked after. They begin their careers aged between 3 and 5 years then retire to a life of joy on the open plains from about 15 to 17 years. I reckon they have a longer professional career than the men in white given the amount of running, jumping and hair raising they have to go through every time a new bull is introduced to the ring.

Sometimes the excitement gets a bit much for the bull and he doesn’t want to leave the ring. Perhaps he gets a little too obsessed with the adoration and the spotlight. When this happens they have a very effective tool. It’s a bull wearing a big cowbell.

The gates open and the (what I called) sensi-bull enters, jiggling his bell. He runs around the stationary bull and then starts trotting back to the pens. The bull in the arena happily turns and trots after the bell wearing bull. It was remarkably funny and a very lucky Naomi captured the whole thing on video.

Something else that can happen is the bulls manage to climb the small fence and enter the inner ring to go careening around the corridor reserved for the men in white and their coaches. Normally the bull is convinced the best place for him is in the ring and he is directed there by the use of wooden gates with specific directional hinges. Mind you, sometimes the gates will get a bit of a battering and then need bits replacing.

There was one moment of high drama though when one of the bulls got a bit over excited, climbed over the fence into the inner ring then managed to wedge himself in a narrow gap that led into the small corridor that runs parallel to the inner ring.

Helping the bull

There was a lot of hard work put in to release the bull. The rush of people to help was amazing. Eventually they managed to get him free and the game recommenced.

I find bull fighting abhorrent and I do not understand how anyone could possibly enjoy the sight of a man with a big sword killing a magnificent beast simply because he’s a man with a sword and the bull has lots of spears sticking out of him. I see no glory in that. I see man trying to justify cruelty and pain for no reason at all.

On the twixt-hand, I find bull racing thoroughly brilliant and something I would definitely return to again, and again, and again. And I wasn’t alone. All of us thoroughly enjoyed it even Mirinda and her views of sport are very well known and generally involve ignoring it at all costs.

Afterwards, we wandered back into town, stopping at a delightful little restaurant called Gaudina (we couldn’t find anything American for Jud, I’m happy to say) where we all had a marvellous dinner with some excellent wine. The perfect end to an almost perfect day.

A bit long but thrilling none-the-less

I should add that, apparently, the fridge only remained working for a while and is now, once again, showing signs of heating the whole apartment rather than cooling the beer.

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