I’m not a fan of bullfights, but the traditional Féria del Toro in Vic-Fezensac on the Pentecost bank holiday weekend is an explosion of sound and colour that is worth it, even if you never set foot in the bullfighting arena.
When we arrived in the town around 11 o’clock this morning it felt like we had somehow missed the party: festivities had started on Friday evening, and as we drove around looking for a place to park, we saw many disheveled young people – many of which were looking rather hung-over – sleeping in cars with feet sticking out of an open window, or emerging from a tiny tent between two cars, rumpled and bleary-eyed. First thing you need to know about any Féria in the South-West of France: the youth of today and respectable adult of tomorrow is likely to spend three days steeped in alcohol. Fact.
So we stepped around the broken bottles and overflowing garbage cans and followed the music.
And what music! Corridas are always accompanied by the traditional Paso Doble ensembles, but in the streets and around the bars you hear the bandas, loud amateur brass bands, playing everything from the customary songs based on Gascon or Basque music to Blondie and U2. I dare you to listen to them and not tap you feet!
Although the local government in Barcelona voted the end of bullfighting in Catalonia in 2010, effective 2012 (see article in Le Figaro, for example), in southern France and Spain, tauromachie – bullfighting tradition – is alive and well. There are the bulls, of course, but also a tradition of festivities and a very particular aesthetic which famously inspired artists such as Pablo Picasso and Michel Tomberau (from Nîmes).
The costumes are amazing.
The general public get dressed up, too. Usually, this means white pants, white T-shirt and some red accessories, like a red bandana, a beret and a géricko (kummerbund type belt). Others prefer a striped top, like Jean-Paul Gaultier’s famous marinière. Other prefer fancy dress. We saw a group of 4 superhero ladies (Catwoman, Batgirl, Superwoman and Wonderwoman), a Flintstone-like rock band carrying mammoth femurs, and the Jamaican bobsleigh team complete with cardboard bobsleigh.
Being well above sleeping in our car and with three kids in tow, we weren’t dressed the part. Of course, dozens of stands offer T-shirts, polos, hats and fans to remedy the situation. A lot of it is cheap crap, but I came across two young people, Dominique and Virginie, who sell organic cotton T-shirts – made in France, s’il vous plaît – with very cool designs and good quality material. Culture Féria is the name of the brand and the company is run by a group of friends who got together to create Féria clothes with a difference a year ago. I wish them lots of success.
Food-wise, a street party is not the right place to seek fine dining. Of course it was a total fat fest, with chips and merguez, fried everything, kebabs with fried onions and peppers… I cannot face kebabs, not because they don’t taste good, but because I will never forget two things: 1) the most epic food poisoning ever from a kebab in Cassis in 1997, and 2) writer Bill Bryson who wondered in his book Notes from a Small Island “how can anyone eat something that looks so uncannily as if it has been carved from a dead man’s leg?”. When you put it that way…
My kids stuffed their faces with churros and crêpes. There wasn’t a fruit in sight. They were delighted.
There was, however, one notable exception. In the middle of a square, we were stopped in our progress by a large, smoking contraption that turned out to be a mechanical spit on which two huge beasts were turning, roasting slowly on a wood fire. The sign read “ROAST VEAL – it’s our inauguration, please show us some leniency”. Well, the spuds and Haricots Tarbais (local, but inexplicably expensive type of white bean) were a little underdone, but the roast veal tasted the way it should. The price included a plastic cup of rosé and a bottle of water, and for half an hour life was pretty great.
We spent a few happy hours wandering through the thronged streets. The atmosphere was great. The flip side of such events is, as I said at the beginning, bewildered shoeless young people, soiled clothing, urinating men, ill-smelling side streets, litter everywhere, boarded up shop fonts to prevent looting and the certainty that by Tuesday morning the city would be in dire need of some serious sanitation.
What a day! And thank Heavens Féria is only once a year in Vic-Fezensac.
FYI, I’m standing in front of a life-size bronze statue. Being against bullfighting might seem hypocritical, considering I do eat meat. However, I don’t see how torturing an animal is justifiable, even if the bull is eaten in the end.
I prefer going on the bumper cars with my kids.