fete des gardians

mayday, 2017


the ferocious weather of the day and night before had resigned us to standing in the rain to watch the annual parade of the gardians through the centre of arles. but when we woke up the sky was blue and we watched the sun rise over a bank of dark cloud which gradually faded away to the east.   it was chilly but not so bad we couldn’t all walk up to the boulevard where it was all going to happen.  as we crossed one of the canals we could hear a nightingale singing amongst the trees on the river bank.   a good omen i hoped.


further on we spotted two girls in traditional dress accompanied by their top hatted escort.  we asked politely and photos were agreed upon.  on the main street a woman similarly dressed was selling the obligatory ‘brins de muguet pour le bonheur’.  i bought one for charm as an introduction to a mayday custom i love.   the crowds were already lining the route for the ‘defile’ but they were thin enough that viv, charm and myself were all able to find a place at the front where we could get a good view and good photos.   musicians were soon heard and things began.



after the musicians came groups of walkers behind their association banners; men, women and children, some babies in elderly pushchairs but all in beautiful costumes. the men very dapper in velvet jackets and waistcoats with black trilby style hats, the women in floor length dresses with stunning lace collars, ‘chapelles’; bustles behind and their hair swept up and held in small but very beautiful ribbon headresses.

and everyone carrying muguet somewhere on their person!  i was fascinated by the wonderful haughty feminine profiles and elegant deportment of even the most elderly ladies.


after them the horses began to arrive. the chaps sitting high and proud holding their long batons (which daftly reminded me of the long hooked pole with which i opened my high classroom windows some years ago).


the horses were all white as they should be from the camargue and their colour emphasised the bright colours of the ladies skirts draped across the horses’ flanks as they sat sidesaddle behind their men.  the most moving sight for me was the number of very young boy riders with even younger girls behind them.  to be able to control a horse in that narrow path between the camera and phone waving spectators at such a young age i found most impressive.  one young rider i chatted to in the place de la republique told me proudly he was ten and his ‘lady’ was six.  that the whole thing was taking place in a france that has suffered such public outrages was wonderful and courageous.



later in the day i was able to chat to several arlesians and one gentle older woman told me she was worried about the children taking part but it was ‘la resistance’ and ‘tres important’.


this is she, an earlier photo shows her walking with a small boy

a man standing alone outside the church sported a red cap and a spectator had told me earlier the red caps were worn by catalans who had been invited to take part this year.


another very cheeky chappie told me about the bustles telling me there was a local saying that suggested if a male dancer’s hand slid down to touch the girl’s derriere while dancing, pins in the bustle would act as a rebuke!  he was most concerned that the presence of the children was very important because they must ‘prendre le relais’, carry the baton for the future.

i asked several girls about their dresses and was told a lot are made especially but they wore something antique and of the family, such as the lace collars or the jewellery.   a giggly gang of three girls told me that for two of them it was their first time but the third was an old hand at it but obviously still excited to be the centre of attention.  🙂



i noted one small girl hitch up her skirt and reveal a small bag hanging from her waist into which she pushed her ‘doudou’!  a lot of women had a gadget haging on a  chain from their waists with elaborately decorated hooks to hold up the major part of their skirts when walking.  i was told it was called a ‘page’, pronounced ‘parge’.  ‘page’ seemed a very appropriate name for a device that held up one’s skirts! 🙂


we took coffee in the place de forum, famous for van gogh’s painting of the cafe there and then braced ourselves for the walk to the church where the special gardians mass was taking place.

the horses, riders and walkers were all assembled outside the tiny church so this was the time to circulate and take photos and ask questions.  everyone was very amenable except i noted one older lady is giving me a fearsome glare in one of my photos.  after the mass the queen for the next three years was going to be crowned and presented on the balcony of the mairie but as we drew closer it was clear that barriers were keeping everyone not yet arrived out of the place de la republique and the view of the mairie.  in fact, lou and i squashed ourselves against a shop window and had a great view of the whole parade coming down the street while the cousins found a place opposite against the barrier.  more music, more walkers, more horsemen with girls behind.  an even narrower space to move through but still the horses were impeccably behaved.

after all that excitement we were ready for lunch and made our way back to the place du forum, skipping over the horse dung liberally decorating the route.   street cleaners swung into action with shovels and brooms and, later, the lorries performed an elegant dance as they sprayed away the last dregs and left the town centre reeking of disinfectant!


after lunch we sat in the little park immortalised by van gogh (who else?!) and soaked up the sun which was finally warm.  the cousins were due to visit the foundation van gogh to look at ….. van gogh while lou and i hoped to visit les alyscampes, a roman necropilis.  i know, it takes all sorts!



sadly when we got there, it was closed, one of only four days in the year that it is despite the website making no mention of it.


notwithstanding we wandered off following the yellow van gogh walk arrows passing the tour des mourges and finding a lot of the horse boxes and horses grazing under the shadow of the medieval wall.

across the road i noticed the modern cemetary of arles so we went in to look at the amazing statuary these places usually hold in vast quantities.  this one was no exception, tombs were crammed in with not a space to spare and an abundance of hearts and angels and crosses and lyres…….


photos taken and a brief sitdown in the now desired shade, we pushed on to see if we could find ‘le vieux moulin’, no 6 on our carte.  we reached an impasse as we mounted the railway bridge when the arrows we were following suddenly started to face us.


nonplussed we went down some steps beside the tracks but found nothing.  retracing our steps we sat for a while on the boulevard des lice watching the world go by.


then meandered back through the park and bought ice cream.  eating french vanilla ice cream takes me back to being sixteen years old in ste maxime on a school trip and falling in love with the taste of real vanilla.  plus strong coffee for breakfast, not that that tradition has stayed with me, always a confirmed drinker of tea for starting the day.

we met up with the cousins as planned at the tourist office and walked back to our hotel, crossing the same bridge where the same (?) nightingale still sang.   drinks in the bar and lots of hugs before they left for their holiday base in st remy.  a bit deflated we decided to try and make up for the undiscovered moulin and try for the pont de langlois now named the pont van gogh and moved further out of arles.  comme d’hab there was a fight with the gps, who did know where we should go just not that it was harder to follow his directions on the actual road layout.  arriving at the effigy of the original bridge we took our photos and enjoyed the calm of the canal as it wound off through the flat meadows.

we had driven through houses and some ugly industrial compounds to find it and i hope arles council has forbad any more development around the spot as it was a lovely place to end the day imagining van gogh painting his ladies doing their washing in the canal or sauntering over the bridge with their parasols, lumbering farm carts following them.   our ‘farm cart’ ferried us back to the hotel and an inhouse meal of local fish.  what a wonderful day, the weather gods had certainly smiled on us.

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