Saturday, October 21, 2023

France 2023 - Bullfights and Ramparts

Before we arrived in France, I was curious if Michael and Anna had been learning any French. I didn't remember them ever mentioning it before, so I had assumed they were getting by with hand signals, a smile, and translation apps where required. What they've actually been doing is intensive Duolingo daily training, speaking to people as much as possible, and immersing themselves in the local community and culture. We were both very impressed with their language skills. Neither Ana nor I speak French, but I do know most of the words commonly found on the French side of cereal boxes. It is a little embarrassing being Canadian and not speaking French, but I'll blame Quebec politics for that and their perpetual assaults on the English language and English speaking Canadians. Language in Canada is a war, not a celebration and it's a shame. Spending this time in France has reintroduced me to a beautiful language spoken by kind and helpful people and I hope to improve on my ability to speak it in the future. Oh, one note to Quebec - in France their stop signs say "Stop" and not "Arret", so that visitors can understand them. It's what good hosts do.

Aigues-Mortes is our destination for today and is a seaside walled city know primarily for its pink salt marshes. You may well have consumed salt that was produced here.

We pull the VW into a sea of cars parked in a field and see a big stadium set up outside the city walls. There's definitely something going on here today. As we walk towards the city entrance we hear the crackle of voice on a loudspeaker mentioning the word "taureau" which can only mean a bullfight! Michael and Anna tell us that this region of France is also known for its cowboy/bullfighting/horse culture.

Surprisingly, I'm able to slip between the bars of the steel gate into the rodeo circle. Inside is a centre area encircled by a steel fence with two separate piles of stacked up hay bales - refuge for the dozens of blue-jean wearing teenagers mulling around. Around the outside are wooden barriers with bleacher seats built on top of those. There is maybe twenty feet between the fence and exterior creating an open path around the track where one could race go-karts, but in this case I'm imagining a thousand pound bull running here, stomping teenagers or flipping them into the bleachers. This is going to be fun.

There's not much going on here yet so we walk into the town. The walls are massive and the town walls look to be perfectly rectangular with huge turrets on each corner. The perimeter probably runs a mile or so and it looks like you can walk the entire span on the ramparts.

We turn our attention to the town and begin our wanderings. We find ancient buildings, narrow passageways, and dozens and dozens of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes. I buy a lovely white long-sleeved shirt and a small bag of nougat, which not only tastes good but is also one of my favourite words. Ana picks up a scarf and some jewelry. We meet up with Anna and Michael for our 12:30 lunch reservation in the main town square which is jammed with people. There is a marching band playing Spanish sounding songs as revelers flush with wine and beer watch on. A band fires up on a stage and their ambitious setlist far surpasses the vocal ability of the singer, but she gives it her best. A crew of local hooligans swarm a few tables near the front of the stage and have brought their own bottles of Coke and rum and are mixing thick ones as they light off brightly coloured smoke bombs near the stage, obscuring everything and creating a horrible stink. We drink pastis and wine and eat shrimp, bull stew, bull fillet, oysters, soup, and fish as we enjoy the festival atmosphere. We see a single man with a bottle of champagne, dining on the seafood feast for two, piled high on a platter with crab, shrimp, fish, and oysters and we speculate on his story. Inheritance? Recent divorce? Rich bachelor? Or did he perhaps steal one of the An(n)s's credit cards an hour ago? In any case, he enjoys his lunch as do we.

We buy our tickets for the rampart tour and climb the stairs. From here we can see the pink sea marshes in the distance with mountains of fine white salt piled up on the shoreline near the production facility. There are information displays in the various towers we pass through and we learn the history of this structure. Construction began in 1272 and the walls have stood since then. The ground on which we walk has a small drainage channel carved into it and I imagine what what have flowed through these in the middle ages - blood, piss, shit, and rainwater to wash it all out and down to the ground. We soon reach the part of the wall looking down on the bullfighting ground and each claim a gap in the rampart for optimal viewing.

In a stroke of luck, the event starts shortly after our arrival and a bull is set free in the stadium. He is pissed off! He gallops several loops around the outside track, taking runs at the people who taunt him by running close to him and trying to grab one of ribbons attached to his horns. He gets close a couple of times but the experienced kids always manage to leap onto the bleachers and hoist themselves up, just out of his reach. With no success on the outside track, the bull leaps the fence and lands in the inside area then chases a teenager around until he jumps to the safety of the hay bales. Not so fast kid - the bull rams himself into the stack and sends kids flying. A gasp erupts from the crowd, then cheering. Soon, that bull tires and another one is sent out in his place. He is bigger and meaner and is looking for somebody to stomp. He does the cartoon bull move where he lowers his head and drags his front hooves through the dust, snorting and grunting. One ambitious bullfighter runs across the field, hoping to snag a ribbon, but he trips and the bull tries to spear him with his horns, but misses and instead just tramples him, earning a loud reaction from the crowd. I'm not sure if they are cheering for the kids or the bull, but I'm for the bull mashing up his aggravators.

This is great fun and we look at each other across the rampart gaps frequently, laughing, in awe of what we're seeing. We see several more close calls, another successful ribbon snag, and one final teen stomping then decide to move on and complete the circumnavigation of the mighty wall.

Back at Chateau Olson, apero is served on the back deck and we are bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun which creates a beautiful hue on the stone walls. Michael sends up his drone and catches a magnificent panorama of us and our French habitation.

We enjoy a simple and delicious dinner of burgers and coleslaw then move into the fireplace room for a final magical evening with our hosts. Anna and I play a game of chess. We all snack. The conversation flows as we laugh and joke. Ana tells us of the recent migration of American ex-pats to the Azores and how they can't find anywhere to get their eyelashes done. Fools! Portuguese ladies spent most of their waking hours removing hair from their faces, not adding to it, as any man married to a sumptuous southern European beauty can attest to.

Our last evening with Anna and Michael is perfect and caps off an amazing five days with them. Tomorrow, we begin phase 3 of the trip - driving a rental car across the south of France. I wonder what will happen next?

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