Thursday, 15 August 2013

Something wacky this way floats

Something a bit Wacky Races in the bay of Collioure
Sitting on the beach on Sunday afternoon, a man walked past, resplendent in medieval attire and with two dogs on leads of the sort that seemed entirely bred to be appropriate accessories to his costume.

Were it needed, it was a reminder that Collioure has an eccentric air, and that the village was preparing for the annual Fêtes de Saint Vincent, which manages to combine drinking, art, music, dancing, fireworks, religion and an all-round party atmosphere.

Oh: and people walking around looking medieval. I’ve seen on a previous visit, when, having just come out of Carrefour, two knights on horseback passed me in the street, with pages on foot.

A small procession had passed along the front on Saturday evening, a lone drummer in front, as we were looking out of the window and over the harbour. That was all it took for an appropriate Monty Python quote to break forth from The Other Half’s lips: something about “k-nigets’.

The festival was first celebrated in 1701, when the relics of the village’s patron saint, one Vincent, were returned to the village, to lie in the tiny St Vincent chapel, which now sits above a beach.

Vincent was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the deacon of Saragossa, before being martyred under Diocletian in 304.

When torture didn’t manage to shake his faith, it only remained for him to be placed in a luxurious bed, whereupon he went and died. His mortal remains were thrown onto the rocks, to be fed on by the vultures, only for his corpse to be defended stoutly by ravens.

Medieval-style entertainment, complete with belly dancer
The cult of Vincent spread, up to and beyond the Pyrenées, and as far north as Narbonne and Béziers, passing Collioure on the way.

And with it spread bits of his body too.

In 1175, his relics were taken to Lisbon, so the story goes, although there are other claims that the relics were taken to Castres in 864, while Cremona, Bari and other cities have also claimed to have relics to have various bits and pieces of him – plus, of course, whatever is in the reliquary in Collioure.

And not to be left out, there’s a leg bone that’s supposed to be his in Notre Dame, Paris.

You wonder what the ravens bothered for.

It rather brings to mind the Roman emperor Julian’s description of Christian churches as “charnel houses”, given the obsession of the faithful for sticking bits of dead people in them.

Get up and start dancing
Vincent, the patron saint of wine makers, has his feast day, for Catholics and Anglicans, on 22 January, and on 11 November for Orthodox believers.

And then, very much in the land of the living, this festival comes along in August, although the religious aspect of it is hardly central.

All sorts of things have been and are happening, although the corrida no longer takes place. We never made it to such an event, but in the last summer before the little bullring was dismantled, we did go to the toro piscine, which is a sort of bull run for youngsters and children, involving very young bulls.

It was a fascinating and fun experience.

While I have reservations about actual bullfighting, I get a tad tetchy about the attitude of the women who run a local ex-pats’ publication down here, and who applaud madly that it has ended. If you don’t like the culture of somewhere in the first place, don’t go and live there.

And frankly, if you want to start worrying about cruelty to animals, start tackling the industrialised, ultra-centralised abattoirs that are pretty widely acknowledged as being dreadful. A bull that dies in the ring has probably had a damned sight better life than one that has been reared and slaughtered in an intensive and industrialised manner.

Anarchy afloat
We possibly ate meat from just such a bull once – not here, but in Nîmes, two years ago, where the boeuf à la gardiane that we ate was advertised as coming from a toro and, nearby, stood the arena, built by the Romans in 100CE and still used to this day.

The fêtes started yesterday evening, with an opening in the Place du 18 juin – named for the day, in 1940, of Charles de Gaulle’s iconic radio appeal to his compatriots from London). It’s officiated at by Michel Moly, the town’s mayor.

But before he spoke, we were entertained by a group of medieval-style entertainers – stilt walking (and dancing), juggling, music and singing – and jolly good they were too.

Then M Moly introduced local artist Marc-André2Figuères, who had designed the posters for this year’s festivities, which also means it’s on the special fêtes wines and the ‘goblet ecologique’, which you can wear on a lanyard as you totter between wine tastings.

He then welcomed François Bernadi, who had designed this year’s bandana.

'I'm not interested in those stupid boats – put me down!'
An elderly artist, he grabbed his moment in the sun by grabbing the microphone and launching into a lengthy reverie on how hard life had been for his father, who had been a fisherman.

He almost had to be hauled away as a band prepared to play some thoroughly ebullient music and we waited for the canon fire from the nearby Fort Miradou to formally open the festival.

This is the ideal moment to point out that, while I could see what he’d tried to do with his design, by lining angles of the church tower and the mast of a traditional Catalan barque up against the angles of the triangular bandana, it didn’t really come off. And besides, the fireworks look far too like pastel version of Van Gogh’s starry skies.

This is also the part of the celebrations where the mayor announces who is to become the 'honorary' mayor for the duration. This year, M Moly announced, although they'd had seven candidates (it's usually a local celebrity) it was going to be us!

After a snifter on Boromar watching the sun go down, we ambled back to the house and consumed little soles that I’d bought that morning at market, with tomatoes on the side.

A boat with the iconic Collioure bell tower
This afternoon brought the opportunity to watch the inaugural ‘Coulapic’ – the first world championship of ‘unidentified floating objects’.

In other words, races on the bay between improvised ‘boats’: a sort of ‘flugtag’ for the water. And the Titanic did indeed sink.

There were all manner of floating rafts, made from rubber tubes to bamboo. A great deal of time and effort had been put into building both these craft, and working on the costumes. And the crowd loved it.

It was a hoot, and rapidly descended into the sort of anarchic chaos that seems utterly fitting for Collioure.

Various sardanes – the traditional Catalan dance – are taking place throughout the village, and there is music everywhere as bands wander around, stopping every so often to play.

None of it feels remotely organised and all of it feels ebullient and quite joyful.

Even as I write, another band has begun playing on the front just below our window. Then another band struck up just a few metres further along the promenade – playing, among other things, Roll Out the Barrel, which given the part of the world we live in, felt frankly surreal.

Later, as I opened the door from the kitchen onto the street, ready to cook duck breast, another band was heard around the corner, where residents and holidaymakers were joining in an impromptu party, complete with glasses of Pastis. I was dancing while trying to cook!

Wonderful stuff – and even more to come tomorrow.

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