The Gardians of Arles
If you read Monday’s Nouvellettre®, then you know I spent the weekend in Provence, my third favorite area of France…Paris is Number 1; Nice is Number 2. So, the landscape is first very urban, to moderately urban, to not urban at all!
Each area of France has its appeal, but what’s at the top of what makes it a great place to live (besides the beauty, since just about all of France is beautiful) are the important practical aspects—great weather, good transportation and easy access to go anywhere anytime, and a thriving American community. These three parts of France fit the bill for real livability.
While Provence is more remote than Paris or Nice, access to Marseille’s international airport is a big plus. So, even though one must have a car to enjoy living in Provence, and one can expect to spend a lot of time in that car traveling from one town to the next, it still is a lot easier to travel just about anywhere in the world thanks to the proximity to the Marseille airport.
My friend, Barb Westfield, lives in the tiny and beautiful town of Ansouis. My niece has property in the neighboring town (just as charming as Ansouis) of Cucuron. Both are a hop, skip and a jump from Lourmarin, one of the many “jewels” of the Luberon. This is my top spot of all of Provence.
Early Monday morning we hopped in Barb’s Mini to head toward Arles, winding through the Provençal departmental roads while the fog was still thick. By the time we parked at the edge of the outer ring road of the city, the sun was shining bright and the sky was blue, blue. Along the route into the city center on foot, we passed the riders and their white Camargue horses, lining up for the annual Fête des Gardians parade.
Barb had warned me to wear sturdy shoes that I didn’t care too much about because it was highly likely we would step in horse manure at some point during the day. Our day had barely begun when we were already in a minefield of it! By the end of the day, it was everywhere on the streets of Arles, but knowing it would be cleaned up and spotless by the afternoon, once the cleaning crews had done their thing.
Organized by the brotherhood of the Gardians (created in 1512) in honor of their Patron Saint George, the Gardians’ festival traditionally takes place on May 1 with the parade of the Gardians through the city on their way to the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Major to attend mass. In the afternoon, the Gardians, Arlesiennes and Mireilles* meet at the arena of Arles for the Gardian games where each one tries to prove his courage and his ability during different tests on horseback.
*Mireille: Since the French Revolution, Provence has asserted its identity through its language, costumes, jewelry and remarkable headdresses. It is undeniably an important element of our cultural heritage, and many writers have been sensitive to the charm and aesthetics of these women wearing the garb of Provence, including Frederic Mistral’s “Mireille,” a young women from his Provençal poem: “Je chante une jeune fille de Provence. – Dans les amours de sa jeunesse, – à travers la Crau, vers la mer, dans les blés, – humble écolier du grand Homère, – je veux la suivre. Comme c’était – seulement une fille de la glèbe, – en dehors de la Crau, il s’en est peu parlé.”
The brotherhood was set up shortly after Provence became part of the kingdom of France. While a war between France and Italy was being prepared, the Gardians were highly appreciated for their riding skills. They organized themselves into a brotherhood in order to avoid enlisting in the royal armies. A chapel in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Major in Arles is home to a polychrome statue of St. George slaying the Dragon, protected by a wrought iron gate.
Once inside the city center, it was strange to me that there was no one in sight at the famous Roman arena and that I was able to capture it in a photo at such an opportune moment. Within one hour, all that would change, once the city came to watch the parade that was to begin at 9 a.m.
It was easy to find a good place to stand on the Place de la République just in front of the Hôtel de Ville of Arles (City Hall.) The members of the brotherhood and their families begin the parade along the city center’s streets, which is a quiet and large procession of men, women and children dressed in traditional Gardian and Arlésienne clothing. This comes just before the parade of hundreds of white horses, with their riders. The paraders barely speak—just walk and ride as the residents and visitors look on.
The women’s dresses are made of beautiful fabrics, even if contemporary, but fashioned to be authentic of that time. They push babies in prams made a century or earlier. Their hair is all elegantly tied up off the napes of their necks and they have special traditional hair ornaments perched on top. The men are all in black velour jackets and stylish hats. Their shirts are fashioned from Provençal prints. It’s quite a sight to behold, with the Roman ruins of Arles as the backdrop.
The traditional male costume, which includes French panties, stockings or garters, a vest, and a jacket, was historically worn by peasants and artisans, but originated from a city costume. Over time, this type of costume was neglected by the city’s bourgeoisie, leading to its uniqueness. The only lasting element is the red wool belt, called “taillolle,” worn at the waist. In the 1920s, the traditional guard costume was introduced, consisting of taupe skin pants, a colorful riding shirt, and a black velvet jacket, tie, and wide-brimmed hat for special occasions.
The female costume, known as the Arlésiennes, has its roots in the Louis XV era and is worn by women of all conditions in Provence. It is inspired by the Camarguais costume, and young girls start with the Mireille costume, which consists of a skirt and a simple bodice. At the age of 16, they can wear the authentic Arlésian costume, which includes a chapel (a lace trapezoid covering the chest), a large square shawl, and a long satin dress in various colors, pinched at the waist. The special headdress requires long hair and can be held in place by a ribbon, tie, or lace knot depending on the day of the week and the tasks at hand. Arlésiennes decorate their costumes with several ornaments such as silver necklaces, gold Provençal crosses, solid gold bracelets decorated with diamonds, and rings with precious stones. Only married women can wear earrings, and these ornaments are often passed down from generation to generation.
A client of ours and someone with whom I taped a House Hunters International many years ago, Karin Storlien, lives part-time in Arles. She’s a professional photographer sharing her time between Paris and the Provençal town. We met up with her just as we found our photo-op spot—she was prepared with her camera to take great photos of the event. After the parade, Karin showed us her centuries-old four-level Arlésienne village house in the center of town—one small room on each level, with steep stairs between each floor. It’s adorable and cozy and keeps her in great shape!
She then took us on a tour of the La Roquette quarter of Arles. Formerly called Bourg des Porcelet or Vieux-Bourg, the district can be found in the southwestern part of the medieval city located between the Rhône, the boulevard Clemenceau and the rue Gambetta. It goes back to the 11th-century when the district was held in fief by these Arlésian lords. After having been a district of fishermen and trades linked to the river, and at that time a reception area for numerous different newcomers, this district consists now of some 2,500 inhabitants while preserving its identity with its narrow houses and mansions. It has a particularly heterogeneous residential character and a village feel and is undergoing a spectacular revival with its restorations and the establishment of numerous stores and businesses. If I were moving to Arles, this is where I’d choose to live!
We did not leave Arles without a visit to Frank Gehry’s Luma Foundation Tower, established by Maja Hoffmann in Zurich in 2004 and dedicated to supporting contemporary artistic creation. This creative campus offers artists new perspectives for creation, collaboration, and presentation of their work to the public.
The stainless steel building is a typical Gehry creation that stands apart from anything else on the landscape. Inside there is an object that disguises itself as art, but is, in fact, a super fast slide. Wiegand, a family-owned manufacturer of toboggan runs, rail-mounted toboggans and stainless steel dry slides, has created two stainless steel slides that make for an impressive sculpture inside the tower.
Barb insisted we go down—and I must admit, I wasn’t at all afraid until I was actually on it sliding down at a million miles per hour! There’s no stopping once you’re on the spiral path. I must have been screaming obscenities all the way down and upon an awkward landing at the bottom, everyone watching laughed at the expression on my face. It took a few minutes before I was able to catch my breath and walk straight!
The seasonal produce in Provence at this moment had us licking our chops:
The onset of spring is marked by the arrival of the first strawberries from Carpentras. There are numerous varieties of strawberries cultivated in this region, with over a dozen types being sold at local markets. As a result, the strawberry season can extend from early spring to late autumn. Among the highly coveted French varieties is the Gariguette, which is grown in Carpentras and renowned for its delightful sweetness and fragrance. We ate more than our share all weekend long!
The arrival of the first tender asparagus spears on market stalls is the surest indication of spring in Provence. Asparagus has been cultivated in France since the 15th century and was highly valued by the Greeks and Romans, who considered it an aphrodisiac. Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, also believed in its amorous properties, and in the 18th century, the tips were referred to as “pointes d’amour” or “arrows of love.” The asparagus season typically lasts for about two months, mainly in April and May, but some producers extend it from mid-February to mid-June. White, violet, and green asparagus are the three varieties available, with white being the sweetest and most delicate. We had a fair share, served both warm with a vinaigrette, hollandaise, mayonnaise, or “mousseline” sauce, and at home grilled them simply with olive oil. I believe we had them at every meal.
Is Arles one of those great places to live in Provence? While Karin manages to get around without a car, she described the challenges she faces getting to the Marseille airport and other major cities. It’s not as simple as others, particularly Aix-en-Provence, which offers a shuttle from the central bus station to the airport as well as one from the Aix TGV that speeds up the entire process. You’d be surprised how something as simple as a shuttle every 15 minutes can change your life for the better!
When considering where in Provence you might want to land, think of all these things…as ultimately it makes a big difference if your interest is in traveling all over Europe from this very central vantage point.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with Barb Westfield