Provence is world renowned for many wonderful reasons; the never-ending summer sun, the golden sandy beaches of the Cote d’Azur, and of course, for its excellent rosé wines. But aside from its beautiful landscapes and delicious rosé, what else goes on in Provence? If you take to your car and explore the picturesque villages along the winding backroads of the region, it won’t take you long before you come across a group of frenchmen all gathered around a collection of heavy metal balls, playing the wonderful game of ‘pétanque’.
Aside from rosé, there aren’t many things more provençal than pétanque, also known as boule, and in fact the game originates from the small town of La Ciotat, found halfway between Marseille and Toulon. The story behind the creation of the game is actually quite a heartwarming one, so I would like to share it briefly with you.
Pétanque is fundamentally an simplified adaption of the game ‘jeu provençal’, a slightly overcomplicated game so I won’t explain all the boring rules to you. But in short, it involved a quick run up, before launching your metal boules down a long pitch which was usually around 20 meters. The aim was to get your boules closer to the ‘cochonnet’, the jack that literally means ‘piglet’, than your opponents.
In La Ciotat lived a passionate jeu provençal fan by the name of Jules Lenoir, although he had developed arthritis so severe that he was confined to a wheelchair and therefore unable to play the game he loved so much. However, he would always be found spectating and often playing by himself over short distances, telling those who asked what he was up to that he was « practicing ». Inspired by his determination, and through desire to help his friend, Ernest Pitiot decided to organise a special tournament for Lenoir outside his café.
The rules were simplified, the pitch halved in size and most importantly, you had to stand stationary while throwing your boules. This meant all movement was taken out of the game, and therefore Jules would not be disadvantaged by his wheelchair. The competition was a great success and soon people were only playing the new adaption, as it had made the game not only different, but better – less complicated, more accessible, more fun. It was named ‘pieds tanqués’ meaning ‘feet planted’ in the provençal dialect, later shortened to simply ‘pétanque’.
Today pétanque is a very social game, often played while sipping on a glass of rosé or pastis in the cooler evening air. Here in Cotignac, every Friday night during July and August there is an evening of ‘Moules and Boules’ held at the boulodrome, which does exactly what it says on the tin – you eat moules, then play boules.
Simply wander down at 7pm and you’ll be greeted by the mouthwatering smell of moules wafting through the air. Sit yourself down and tuck into a delicious plate of moules frîtes and of course, a healthy sampling of the local rosé! You’ll be chatting away to the locals in no time but don’t forget to sign yourself up to the ‘concours de pétanque’; the boule competition. It costs €5 to enter and you will take part in 3 matches, changing teams each time.
Its a great way to meet new people, often being a mix of locals and holiday goers, so don’t worry if you’ve never played – its a very social game. After all, one reason the game is so popular is because it requires no athletic talent! And besides, if you are lucky enough to win all 3 matches, you’ll even be walking away with a crisp €20 note in your pocket, so there’s all to play for. It’s a fantastic way to spend an evening, fully immersing yourself in some true provençal culture, so if you enjoy eating and drinking with a competitive twist, you’ll find yourself right at home.