Mardi Gras in Southern France

in Limoux (not all that far from Carcassonne) to be precise.  Limoux has a carnival tradition which reaches back unbroken to the middle ages, and the carnival takes place each weekend from early January to mid March.  You’ll find the 2013 programme here.   Now, the carnival in Limoux is not like the famous one in Rio, or like some in Germany or elsewhere in France.  There are no floats, nothing particularly showy, just costumed people.  It is a lot about tradition, and it is “by the town for the town”, so not designed to be a magnet for tourists.  My experience of it started on Mardi Gras 2013, mid morning, when I arrived in Limoux with a small group of friends.  The town square, Place de la Republique, where the carnival takes place, looked deserted.

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For a moment we were wondering if we’d picked the wrong day.  But then we came across a poster, and sure enough today was marked, so perhaps we were just a little too early.  So off we went to the Cafe du Commerce for some coffee and hot chocolate.

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When we re-appeared the square already looked a bit livelier.  The carousel in the middle was being uncovered, and a stall had set up, selling carnival masks and such.

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Place de la Republique has arcades around three of its sides a feature in several towns in the area (Mirepoix and Revel).  On the fourth side a mock arcade had been set up, and we thought the action would start there.  Wrong!  It all started outside the Brasserie la Concorde, with the band playing a tune, and the costumed characters emerging from that establishment, to dance a waltz with some of the bystanders.

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The group then proceeded along to the corner, and into the next bar, for a glass of Blanquette de Limoux, what else?

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Limoux has a great many different bandes des carnavaliers and each group is allocated a day, during which they entertain the public three times.  They first come out at 11am, again at 4.30pm and finally with flaming torches at 10pm.  The morning “outing” is dedicated to local events, the afternoon and evening have a “Pierrot” theme.  I saw the morning outing of “Les Anciens” and the characters were superb.  The most fascinating face was the one we called the sweetie lady – she had a cart loaded with sweets and biscuits which she offered to the bystanders.

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Then there was what I thought was the town crier, who carried a drum and later on a megaphone.

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I don’t know who the man with the big wig was supposed to represent, but his mask was particularly life-like.

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The waiter was also very good and later on he would turn into Monsieur le Maire.

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Not to be missed was the curé or town priest

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And even the pope had made the effort!

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Leading the dance (for it was a dance) was Mr Andrieu, the grain merchant who also sold small livestock – he had chickens, pigeons and goldfish on his cart!

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The miller is a traditional character of the Limoux carnival, the millers are the ones opening the very first session each year.  Tradition has it that he carries a whip, why I don’t know?

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The barber was carrying a huge comb and pair of scissors, and occasionally he would try to comb someone in passing 🙂

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The butcher had a clothes rack with him, where he’d suspended a selection of goodies!

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There was a gent who could have been a chauffeur with his peaked cap.

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And then there was a rather large lady with long hair, who had a slightly crazed look about her.

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I’m fairly certain that there was no woman hiding behind that mask.  In fact it was not all that long ago that women were admitted to the carnival groups, before that it was all exclusively male!

There were a few other characters, who could have been anything, local gangsters or mafia or just guys dressed in dark suits.

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Back to the action.  After that first brief dance everyone had piled into the first bar, just off the square for a quick drink.  Meantime everyone outside was eagerly awaiting their reappearance, and as time went on the crowd seemed to be growing.  And then they came, the band struck up again, and they were off in their dance, one or both arms held aloft, turning with graceful movements.  Every so often the grain merchant would throw a shovel-full of wheat or maize over the bystanders, and so they went through the arcade at the bottom of the square and into the next bar!  One thing though, there was an air of solemnity about the procedings, an earnestness that was not spoilt by cheering or clapping from the crowd (except that we did of course, instantly marking ourselves out to be strangers!).

Here’s the video I took for you – sorry about the shakiness, and no the sweet lady is not going to beat the children with her stick!!

Re-emerging thoroughly refreshed, they headed for the third arcade, where they made a pit-stop at the Cafe du Commerce, all that dancing must make one mighty thirsty!!  Or perhaps the rubber masks make you incredibly hot and you just need to take them off for a moment or two?

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When they emerged from their third bar-stop, they made their way up to the fake arcade, and opposite that the crowds were now eagerly awaiting what was to come next.  I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be great fun!  Even the chickens thought so, they’d started exploring the cart, and wait, where did the enormous ears come from on the guy with the big wig?  Monsieur le Curé was destined to have a good time with his bottle of blanquette!

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So it turns out that the guy with the big wig was in need of a haircut.  The barber tried with his yellow scissors, but they proved to be useless for the job, so he fetched a pair of hedge clippers!

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Off came bits of the wig, and of course later on the whole wig.  Swiftly followed by first one and then the other ear!!  Ouuch!!  Then it was time for a shave!

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The poor man was covered in shaving foam, and the whole then rinsed off with a bucket of water that was thrown over him!!  Lucky there was a plastic sheet covering him!  Meantime the butcher had been cutting up bits of offal and throwing it to the crowd, the curé had popped the cork and showered everyone with bubbly, and the grain merchant slung out several more shovels of barley over the heads fo the crowd.

Just when I thought it was about over, I could hear the band play again.  Oh yes, where had the musicians disappeared to?  Now they were coming down a side street, preceded by the loveliest majorettes I have seen in a long time :-), closely followed by the driver and M. le Maire.

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And then they all started up again, not going far mind, because there was another cafe just by the corner…

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The crowds started to disperse and we thought it was time we should look for somewhere to eat.  We had a look into Brasserie La Concorde and saw that they were advertising vin chaud; since it was cold we thought it was just what we wanted.  And while warming ourselves with that we had our last glimpse of Limoux Carnival as the characters came into the bar for their last stop, or perhaps it was their headquarters, as they all disappeared downstairs.

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My first experience of this famous carnival and I’m very certain that I’ll be back before too long!  We finished our morning with lunch at Le Cafe Gourmand on Place de la Republique, which I can heartily recommend.  The lunch menu was EUR 14.50 for three courses and included a glass of wine and coffee.  The food was freshly prepared and delicious, and the service very friendly.  We all had Potee aux Choux for main course, a wonderfully warming stew with beef ribs, smoked sausage, potatoes, carrots, celery, and of course cabbage.

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After that we went for a walk around Limoux and bought some Blanquette, but I’ll leave that for another post!

10 thoughts on “Mardi Gras in Southern France

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