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Explore Cognac: A Quest For Meaning, Authenticity And Connections

A few months ago, I wrote about my new favorite French TV show, Escort Boys, which I summed up as being about “French cowboys doing sex work to save the bees.” (Spark your interest? Check it out yourself to see what I mean.) The show, set in the southern French region of the Camargue, depicts the savage beauty of an area in France that is rarely visited by outsiders. It’s the Wild West in the marshlands, where semi-feral herds of white horses and black bulls graze in the fields, while pale pink flamingos and vicious mosquitos rule the skies. For centuries, these wetlands have been cultivated for salt harvesting, which funded the construction and maintenance of entire medieval cities, from Arles in the north, to Aigues-Mortes in the south.

Having just returned from the Camargue, I can tell you that it doesn’t feel like anywhere else I’ve been in France. Technically, it’s a Mediterranean region, but it’s a little more rough around the edges than the glossy beachfronts of Nice or Cannes. And while the Côte d’Azur mixes French and Italian influences, the Camargue has a strong Spanish flair that comes across most strongly in its cowboy culture. Bulls, or taureaux, are a major symbol of the Camargue, and the area has its own Spanish-style bullfighting tradition, called the course Camarguaise, which takes place during major festivals in the Roman amphitheaters of cities like Arles or Nîmes.

The Camarguaise cowboys, known as gardians, ride indigenous white Camarguaise horses, and herd black bulls on farms called manades. The owners of these farms, the manadiers, breed as many bulls as they can, with the aim of coming out of this expensive hobby with a few winners. The most prized bulls can become celebrities in their own right, and can be rented out for as much as €5,000 for a 15-minute event.

Gardians also participate in traditional performances with their horses, which include events like the jeu du bouquet, or bouquet game. A young woman will offer a rider a bouquet of flowers, and another rider will circle them, attempting to steal the bouquet. Another feat of skill involves riding towards a small, suspended hoop, and attempting to retrieve it with a long, thin spear. But these games are often mere preamble to the main event, the course Camarguaise.

When bulls are brought into towns and cities to compete in arenas, they ride into town in a procession known as the abrivado, and out of town in a bandido. Both processions are dramatic displays of the herding skills of the gardians, as it is the job of (usually drunk) young men to chase after the bulls and try to stop them, while the gardians attempt to maintain order. Though bull events in the Camargue inflict no harm on the bulls, they can be dangerous for the young men chasing them, since these runs are fast and furious. In Aigues-Mortes, the main road in town bears the scars of hundreds of years of thudding hoofs.

In the course Camarguaise competitions themselves, raseteurs (also spelled razeteurs), or bullfighters, face off against their animal opponents, attempting to tire them out so they can snatch trinkets tied to the bull’s horns. (No part of these competitions are designed to hurt or kill the bulls, though again, their human opponents can get badly hurt if they aren’t careful.) The bulls, not the bullfighters, are the stars of the show, and are featured prominently on posters for these events. They can live long, happy lives, growing stronger and smarter with each competition. When the most famous bulls die, they are buried in the marshes, facing the Mediterranean, and statues are often erected in their honor.

While I didn’t get to see any bullfighting on this trip, it was impossible to escape images of these legendary bulls, everywhere we went. Next time, I might just have to see what all the fuss is about.

Catherine Rickman

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