Behind the scenes

During the summer months there are so many things going on in the area – it’s hard to keep up with it all, and harder still to write about it all at the time that it happens.  So some stories get put by for later, when it’s a little calmer, and when a reminder of summer is welcome.

The tourist office in Beziers had a full programme of guided visits during the summer.  I found time to go on one guided visit, which was a tour of the Arenes de Beziers, the arenas where the Feria, the annual bull fight festival, takes place each August.  This impressive building is located on Avenue Emile Claparede, a little way from the centre of town.

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Bull fighting has a history in Beziers which pre-dates the opening of the arenas in 1897, no doubt having been introduced from Spain.  Before this present structure was opened, there had been a number of temporary and makeshift arenas in Beziers.  In the above picture you can see some of my fellow visitors, waiting for our guide to arrive.  At the time of my visit, the Feria had only recently taken place, so the posters were still all in place.

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Once our guide had unlocked the enormous gates and let us in, he explained a little about the building.  The outside walls are made from stone and brick, and the internal structure for the tiers is made from reinforced concrete. The diameter of the building is 107 metres and it can seat up to 15,000 spectators.  With that information we set off to explore the building.

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A number of plaques lined the corridor we walked along.  The first reminded us that from 1898 onwards several famous French composers created works under the impulse of Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, a patron of the arts from Beziers.

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The symbols on the tiles are the branding marks of the various manades, the farms which raise the bulls.

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The plaque below commemorates a prize which had been awarded to the Guardiola ranch, for their bulls.

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We finally came to the end of the tunnel, and into the light:

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Standing inside this huge arena is awe-inspiring to say the least.  The pictures below don’t really manage to convey the sheer scale of the place!

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We walked across the arena to the toril, where the bulls and the toreadors enter the ring.  Our guide took us behind the scenes!  Here’s a good look at the underside of the tiers:

This is what a changing room of one of the bull fighters looks like – stark and spartan:

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Apparently there is also a chapel on site, where the fighters pray before going out into the arena, but we couldn’t see that.

Our guide explained that the arena is used throughout the year by the Beziers bull fighting club for training.  He showed us two contraptions used by the aspiring bull fighters to practice their skills.  The first is for working practising with the fabric, which does not have to be red, apparently it’s the movement of the fabric which irritates the bull.

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The second contraption is for practising with a wooden sword.

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At that point our guide also explained a fundamental difference between the bulls used in the Corrida, and those used for the Course Camarguaise. The horns of the bulls which appear in the Corrida point forwards, at the toreador, whereas the Camarguaise bulls’ horns point upwards.  If you have been following this blog for some time you may remember my article about bull fighting in the Camargue.  If you want to read it, this link will take you there.

We then looked at the area where the bulls enter the arena, carefully separated from any other animals or humans.

On we went, to the platform above the toril, where an orchestra is usually placed to entertain the spectators in between fights.  From there I got a good picture of the prized seats, the boxes, right at the top of the arena.

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That’s where we were headed next, so we went down again, into the ring, and across to the other side.

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The sign below indicated that we were going in the direction of the boxes.  Vomitoire is the name of the wide corridors, which allow lots of people to enter and exit quickly.  I imagine that the word has Latin roots!  And no, it’s not a place where the Romans would have vomited

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The staircase up to the boxes was quite something, especially if you looked down from the top:

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Finally, we had reached the boxes.  Our reward for climbing all those steps was a most amazing view:

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The seating inside the boxes was not all that much more comfortable, but the big difference was cover and shade!!  A Corrida lasts two and a half hours, and in the blazing sun that could be uncomfortable!!

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After a good look around the boxes, we descended the stairs and headed down some more corridors – it felt a little like being in a rabbit warren.

We emerged into the sunlight once more, and made our way to the very top of the arena.  Another great opportunity for a panorama shot!!

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From the top we could see outside the arena, and the views of Beziers were amazing.  When the arena was first built, it would have been mostly surrounded by fields!

What about the bulls, you may ask.  In a Corrida the bulls always come to a sticky end. Each fight lasts for 15 minutes, and at the end of it the bull is usually dead.  I must admit that I have a difficult time with the idea of killing as a sport or an art, but I respect other people’s views on that.

Now, going back to the composers that I mentioned earlier and the patron of the arts, Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, there is a period in the history of the arenas, when they were famous for other things apart from bull fighting!  Beauxhostes realised very early on that the acoustics inside the arena were superb, and ideal for outdoor opera!  He persuaded his friend Camille Saint-Saëns (remember the Carnival of the Animals?) to cooperate.  Legend has it that Saint-Saëns was totally against bull fights, and that he was only persuaded to participate after having listened to the acoustics whilst wearing a blindfold, thus not knowing where he was.  Whatever the truth, in 1898 Saint-Saëns premiered the precursor to his opera Dejanire in Bezier.  This marked the start of a very successful opera festival, which took place annually until 1929, and for which people travelled from all over France.

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If you are interested in visiting the arena yourself, the guided visits take place during July and August.  Bull fights take place during the Feria, which takes place during the second week in August each year.

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Just bull! Well, almost!

You’ve probably heard of bull-fights, and many of you will be totally put off by the thoughts of an animal being killed for the sake of the amusement of the spectators, in the name of sport.  I have heard that those bull-fights are supposed to be beautiful, but I admit that I’ve never been to one and I have no desire to go either.  All the same, I was intrigued to find out about another kind of bull-fight earlier in the year:  the Course Camarguaise.  The Course Camarguaise is the sister of the Corrida, the Spanish bull-fights where the bulls are killed.  For both fights bulls are specially bred – but that’s where the similarities end, because where the Corrida always ends in death, the Course Camarguaise has a happy ending for the bull.

I went to see a Course Camarguaise earlier in the year at Grau du Roi, a town on the edge of the Camargue.  The setting is simple, a fairly basic arena with concrete steps (bring your own cushions) and a small area with fixed seating (bring cushions for those too).  The centre is surrounded by a fence of red boards.  The boards stand out beautifully against the creamy coloured sand, which was being watered when we arrived (to keep the dust down).  It was Mother’s Day, the sun was shining and the arena was steadily filling up.  I  sat right at the top in the last row, so I could rest my back, and still get a good view.

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Someone turned on the sound system, and music started to play.  I’m not sure what it was but it sounded very beautiful. Then a lady in a beautiful silk dress walked into the ring, slowly, looking around, and then there were more ladies, and children, all dressed beautifully and with traditional coiffes, the Provençal hairdo of a bygone age.  All of a sudden a white mare with her foal joined the small crowd in the ring, and then another and still more, until there were maybe 20 horses.

And then there was a gardien, mounted on a horse, who rounded up the other horses and moved them around the arena.  A group of women dressed as gypsies had come in at a round the same time, and with some of the children they performed a dance. And when I felt that it couldn’t get better the sound system blasted the opening strains of George Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen – and sure enough I spotted a lady amongst those in the ring, who sang the aria.  At the end the men who were going to participate in the bull-fight all walked in to a big round of applause.   I was deeply touched by the beauty of it all, what an opening!

Here is a video of the last part of the opening spectacle (e-mail subscribers, you may only be able to see the video on the website).

There was a quick turnaround, some of the horses had left their calling cards and all that had to be cleaned up, followed by some more watering of the sand.

And then we were ready for the main event!  I had not done any reading beforehand so knew very little about what I was going to see, except that the guys chasing the bull had to try and get a string or two off the bull’s horns.  What I did realise as I queued to buy my ticket was that the bulls were the real stars of the show – the names of the men were printed much smaller on the poster than those of the bulls.

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In addition to the bull there are two groups of men in the arena, all dressed in white from head to toe.  One group is called the raseteurs and they have their surnames printed in black on the back of their t-shirts.  The other group is called the tourneurs and their surname is printed in red on the back of their t-shirts.

The bull enters the arena to a fanfare and is then given a minute to survey and get used to his new surroundings.  When the fanfare sounds again the fight begins.  The tourneurs are mostly former raseteurs and they aim to distract the bull, so that the raseteurs can run up to the bull, arm outstretched, and try to snatch one of the trophies attached to the bull’s head.  At the base of each horn is wound a string and in between the horns is a cocarde, a small coloured ribbon.  The raseteurs hold a razet in their hands, a strange-looking metal contraption with four branches, which have teeth on them.  With the aid of the razet they try to snatch one of the trophies.

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So the bull has taken it all in, checked out the guys and once the signal is given the tourneurs and raseteurs start the action by running up to the bull.  They have to be incredibly fit, because those bulls can run!  Imagine being chased by a ton of muscle with sharp horns and hoofs!  And those guys can jump!  The way they hop over the barrier around the arena, or jump up onto the metal railings almost a floor up is something else.  In the video below you can see that the bull is just playing with them, but all the same, the guys have a lot of respect!

Some bulls are more aggressive than others, and some have learnt a lot of strategy over the years.  They are all loath to give up their trophies, and none of them have to chase the guys around the ring for more than 15 minutes.  All the bulls leave the ring 15 minutes, except where an animal is injured, in which case the fight can be cut short.  I can’t quite remember but I think three of the six animals did not give up any of their trophies, and only one bull lost both his strings.

All the while a bull is in the arena, the compere announces the prize money for a string, which goes up and up, being added to either by the organizers of the fight or by local businesses whose name are, of course, announced.  The more difficult a bull, the higher the prize money can climb.

After three bulls had stood their ground, there was a break – time for an ice cream, before the action resumed.  To begin with I had thought that I might stay and watch a few before leaving, but I got totally hooked and stayed right to the end!

I didn’t really know what to make of this when the announcer said something along the lines of “since it’s Mother’s Day, ladies especially for you, the last animal into the ring today is a cow”.  Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, so I guess they all thought that was great, and the cow really was one of the better chasers – very frisky!

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The next fight at Grau du Roi is on August 15, 2013, but on the website of the FEDERATION FRANCAISE DE LA COURSE CAMARGUAISE you can find a listing of all the fights taking place in the area, and I would urge you to go and watch just once.