Aigues Mortes - My favourite place so far

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February 3rd 2011
Published: February 3rd 2011
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Aigues Mortes is my favourite place on our trip so far – it has everything I love all in one place … nature, history, beauty, lovely locals, booze and just a little bit of craziness. I'd recommend it to anyone and would love to go back there one day.
After Fred and Becks departure, we had 1 day to go til the revival of the Fête Votive. We used it to explore the Camargue area we were in. We cycled along the canals and around beaches and resort towns, visiting Grau du Roi again and paddling in the Med … to sea by foot!
We explored L'Espiguette, a beautiful unspoilt beach with nature reserves and sand dunes scattered around its perimeter. All of the sand dunes, grasses and little yellow and black caterpillars reminded me of sitting at the top end of Dawlish Warren in the dunes as a kid. We marked our arrival at the Med with some sand graffiti and shared a hug and kiss as we looked out over the Sea. We'd brought our boat to the Med. Amazing. Next year maybe we'd take her out to explore it...
I saw many more flamingoes and was amazed to spot loads of them in the shallows right by a main road – that's something you don't see on Attenborough's shows! We watched the sun sink over L'Espiguette and breathed in the sea air. We were 2 of only 4 people on the whole beach and felt we had this little piece of the Med all to ourselves. It was beautiful. As we cycled back to Aigues Mortes, the sun treated us to another amazing spectacle as it set slowly above the canal, turning the sky a brilliant orange, streaked with deep purple and luminous crimson. I felt I was in paradise.
Chris and Phil had been in touch since we left them at Valence and had had a real struggle against the Mistral in their yacht. Her engine was smaller than ours so she didn't battle the chop caused by the wind quite as well. Also, the cockpit was open so Chris had been battered by the wind and soaked by the rain as she steered Amy down the Rhone. They'd been stuck in a harbour between Cruas and Avignon for a couple days when the wind was at its worst and were now thinking of making a diversion to Aigues Mortes for the Festival – we told them to do it! The first day had been fantastic – after wandering the town and pretending to be lookouts in the walls, Mike and I had gathered in the streets with the other spectators and watched the cowboys bringing in the bulls, then had gone to the arena to see teenage boys trying to prove their worth against the beasts, attempting to touch their heads or horns before the bull could throw them. A few times the young lads suffered near misses and just cleared the horns of an angry bull. After that we'd gone for lunch in the town square where a big group of cowboys and youngsters who'd been in the arena were drinking ricard in the street and listening to a band who were playing on stage. Mike and I had eaten our lunch and watched as they got more and more drunk and started to throw powdered paint balls at one another – that explained the pink and orange tables!
The Friday was a great day for the festival. Clearly the Thursday had been a little warm up, nothing more. We watched the bulls being run in, watched the entertainment in the arena with people trying to outwit the bulls, then went into the town to join in the fun! There were loads of temporary bars set up as well as the permanent ones, selling drinks of whisky or ricard at 2 Euros a go. Mike and I settled our selves in one at the far end of town and started drinking. We got chatting to some locals about the Festival and had a great time soaking up the atmosphere and drinking with these lovely French people. We got a couple rounds free of charge because the barman had been so impressed with us drinking ricard with crème de cassis … he thought we were 'fou' (mad) and told other punters about the crazy English. I offered a sip of the mixture to a woman who looked at me like I was nuts. She liked it and bought herself and me one.
Chris and Phil had called to say they were on their way and we'd told them where our boat was parked and arranged to go back and meet them at 5ish. As we walked back, already in high spirits, they were pulling up. We had a quick chat and a glass of wine with them before all 4 of us returned to the town and the pubs. We noticed someone had placed a bottle of Ricard in the hand of the stautue of St Louis in the Square – that's the way, get your patron saint in on the fun! It was even busier now and we installed ourselves outside a bar in the square to people watch. We had a fantastic night, drinking, eating steak in a little restaurant, chatting to the locals and dancing. I met the young lad I'd photographed almost getting hit by the bull and showed him the picture. He loved it and called all his mates over to show them the evidence of his bravery! We had a drink with them and the big group in front of the stage with the band playing and Phil and I got up on the tables for a dance, quickly followed by lots of paint covered drunken Frenchmen. Mike and Chris danced from the ground, then Chris got up on the tables too. I loved that us English had started off the table dancing! We went back to the bar Mike and I had been in earlier, where we met a mad Moroccan man who was completely drunk (I think he may have owned the bar) who bought us drinks, danced with us and chatted. We moved on down to the square again for more dancing then came back to the bar with the mad Moroccan when the band stopped. We all danced under a big tree in the bar, Phil whirling me and Chris around in a rock and roll style – he's a good mover – then swinging from the branches of the tree. We realised it was time to go home when there was only us, the mad Moroccan and the bar staff left!
The next day we all got to the town for 11.30. we'd been told by the American on the barge who thought we were rock stars that the Saturday was the best day – the biggest bulls and craziest guys came out on the Saturday. He wasn't wrong. We watched the bulls come in and saw the first battle of wits. We all felt a bit sick as we saw a young lad get picked up by a bull, tossed up and caught on its horns twice then dropped to the ground and trampled. The bulls were corralled back in to the pen and the festivities stopped. An ambulance was called and the boy was stretchered off. As soon as the ambulance had left the arena the festivities recommenced. We couldn't believe it. It must happen all the time. Our American buddy was sitting in front of us and said that every year people were injured and that last year a guy had been killed. It was just part of what happened and the guys knew the risks they were taking. He also said that in another part of town late at night and full of booze guys would literally fight the bulls to show off their bravery and that he'd seen it once and it was 'sick, just nuts'. Clearly health and safety rules were not as strict as in the UK! We later saw videos being shown on screens around the town and fairground of precisely what the guy had described – young men literally wrestling bulls in the street. And they'd thought me and Mike were 'fou' for mixing crème de cassis with Ricard!
After watching the rest of the entertainment, the 4 of us went off to drink in the square. We managed to discover that the boy was in hospital and conscious. At 3 we came back to watch a second load of arena bull entertainment. As we waited in the stands (we'd come early to get good seats) drinking beer and eating a steak hache we saw three lads on a home made stand next to us drinking ricard from the bottle and singing at the tops of their voices whilst the swayed back and forth and danced around. Two were red heads and looked like brothers. The third was a brunette who was probably a mate or cousin. We all watched, very amused. Before long they started jumping the arena fences and trying to somersault over them. The brunette mistimed his somersault and landed on his head on the hard ground. His mates pissed themselves, picked him up and held the ricard bottle to his lips while he gulped back.
“They're having fun,” said Chris “encore” she called over with a grin as the lads finished their rendition of New York New York.
“God, they're wrecked,” I laughed “imagine if they go in with the bulls!”
I didn't have to imagine it. Half an hour later the 3 of them were in the ring, lying flat on their stomachs in front of the chute the bull was due to come out of.
“They're nuts!” I said “They'll get trampled.”
But I was wrong. As the bull came out it leapt over the 3 lads lying in the chute. Chris and I looked at each other in disbelief and laughed. The boys were far braver than anyone else. They would stand directly in front of the bull and stare it down, would move at the very last minute as it charged them and even tried to stand on it!
“They must work with them to be that brave,” Chris said
“Either that or they're completely pissed and stupid” said Phil with a laugh.
“I'd go in there if my brothers were here.” said Mike. He'd already said he'd like to have a go but I had told him I really didn't want him to, our insurance wouldn't cover treatment for him getting thrown by a bull he'd voluntarily annoyed. He agreed that he wouldn't go in, but he was drinking so I wasn't convinced I'd be able to dissuade him forever.
The lads didn't escape unscathed. The one who'd landed on his head earlier was knocked over first and sat out for a bit before going back in. Then one of the brothers was thrown up, landed in a heap and had the bull set to him with his horns. He coiled into the foetal position while his brother grabbed the bulls tail and got it to chase him across the arena. He jumped the fence as the bull dived at him. The bull then went nuts at the haystacks in the middle, catching a guy by the ass on his horn – ouch. The brother was still on the floor and his mate and brother helped him up and off. He was doubled over and limping. We watched him leave the arena with a woman we guessed was Mum. His brother and mate got straight back in with the bulls. Half an hour later the injured one was back, with beers in one hand and baguettes in the other, still hobbling. He handed the baguettes to the other 2 and they polished both off, whilst standing in the arena! At one point the bull charged past and they just casually stepped aside and carried on drinking eating and chatting – mental! We later discovered that they had worked with bulls since they were kids and that the one who had been trampled had broken his ribs... that only reinforced my notion that they were crazy!
Not long later a bull escaped from the arena, jumping up into the crowd and over the barrier in a corner. We looked on in disbelief as men and women from the stands tried to grab the bull by its kicking legs and drag it back into the arena – I'd have got as far away as possible! They didn't succeed and the cowboys raced out to chase it, followed by half of the arena. Mike had had a few beers by this point and I couldn't stop him following them. He was off, chasing across the fields toward the salt marsh before I could even protest. I got more beers while the group was off looking for the bull. Mike came back wide eyed and breathless. “It's gone into the salt marsh,” he panted “I think he's escaped properly.”
The games were started up again and a new bull brought out. Before long a horn sounded and announced the return of the cowboys. As they came back into the arena, we saw the bull, loosely corralled between them. Loads of people were crowding round so the cowboys could not execute the turn into the arena as easily as they could have. The bull broke free. They, and loads of spectators, chased it and herded it towards the pen. It didn't want to go in. A handler stepped forward held out a pointy stick and shouted. The bull charged at full speed, snorting. The handler stood his ground. The bull leapt at him, the handler dodged to one side at the last minute and jabbed at the bulls behind to send him into the pen. That was impressive. These were the guys with the skill and balls of steel ,not the drunken nutters chasing bulls around the ring!
At the end of the 'show' they announced that they'd be running the bulls back out of town. We decided to stick around and watch. Mike Phil and Chris said they were going to the archway to watch. I went to the loo, then went to look for them. I couldn't see them and guessed they'd gone into the street to watch. I saw the cowboys coming out of the arena so quickly ran across their path and into the side street. It was deserted and was clearly not the route the bulls took. I was about to go back to the arena when I heard hooves behind me. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that a big angry snorting bull had broken free from the cowboys and was running up here – the wrong way and straight at me. In two bounds it would flatten me. I have never moved so fast in my life. I ducked to the side and through the gap in the barriers just as the bull thundered past, pursued by 4 cowboys, who caught up with it and corralled it safely out of town. My heart was racing.
I ran back into the arena and saw the others a couple rows back.
“You missed the excitement,” said Chris “A bull just broke free.”
“No I didn't,” I said “I was standing it the street it ran into and very nearly got trampled.”
The next day was the last day and we got brave and stood in the outer ring of the arena instead of in the stands. It was even better there and we drank heineken in the pouring rain as more men tried to prove their worth. It seemed poetic justice that the only person who succeeded in placing a ring over the bulls horn was the one woman who joined in. The fête votive was awesome. There was something archaic yet exhilarating about it. We all agreed we'd definitely want to go to more bull running. Mike reinstated that he would like to have a go in with the bulls if we went to another festival like this. I don't think I'd be able to stop him again … must start looking into insurance that covers bull related injuries....

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