We were preparing to leave Nice and fly back to London. And, just out of curiosity, I had a peek at what was going on in Provence. When I saw that the Tarasque Festival was taking place in Tarascon, I just had to go. So we changed our plane tickets, rented a car, and headed for Tarascon – the land of dragons.
We had visited Tarascon before but not during the festival. And, of course, I had written about the legends associated with the town on my blog and in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
Martha and the Tarasque
Tarascon is known for the story of Saint Martha and the tarasque. It seems the saint came to town during the first century AD and tamed the dragon who had been terrorizing the townspeople. You can read Martha and the tarasque’s story here. The town has been honoring the tarasque with a festival since the 15th century.
Tartarin of Tarascon
But these days, there’s another colorful character who joins the fun. In 1872 Alphonse Daudet lived in the area and wrote about a fictional, bumbling lion hunter who greatly exaggerated all his exploits. He was Tartarin of Tarascon. When the book was first written, the Tarasconians took offense at being portrayed in this way. But they eventually embraced the character and folded him into their culture. You can read about Tartarin here.
Every year at the end of June all of these characters come back to life and parade through the town. The festival runs the last weekend in June and it is loads of fun.
Tartarin Arrives With Special Guests
The highlight of the weekend for me was Tartarin’s arrival. In the story, Tartarin goes off to Africa to hunt lions, he has lots of problems and mishaps, and he comes home feeling like a failure. However, everyone in Tarascon thinks he’s a hero and they’re waiting to give him a proper hero’s welcome. When Tartarin sees this, he believes that he is indeed a hero and revels in the attention.
So Sunday morning, the whole town went down to the Rhone River to await the return of the town’s famous hunter, Tartarin. While we were waiting, there was music and flag throwing. Tartarin arrived on a large boat with lots of other passengers. It seems that he had traveled from Algeria on the same boat as Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. (You can read more about Buffalo Bill’s time in Provence in my book too.)
Bill was there along with his cowboys, a group of American Indians, and other horsemen and performers. And, for some reason, there was a troupe of cancan dancers on board as well. They all joined in a parade along with Tartarin’s camel and the lion he shot (don’t worry, it was a stuffed toy).
The Chevaliers of the Tarasque
Even the Tarasque and his handlers came out to welcome Tartarin. The men who roll the big monster through the streets are called Chevaliers of the Tarasque. They belong to the Order of the Knights of the Tarasque which was created by King René in 1474 when the festival began. They wear a special pink and white costume and they make the monster run at intervals along the parade route. The big dragon-on-wheels sometimes has a mind of its own and at one point, it tried to eat a woman along the parade path. Luckily, one of the knights pushed her out of the way.
The fun continued Saturday night with a huge outdoor dinner. Several sporting organizations cooked and sold the food. It was a jovial affair with a live music show during dinner.
All weekend, admission to the castle was free and there was always something going on: There were medieval dances and demonstrations of how things were done in the good old days of King René.
There were also several Provence-style bullfights (where the bull isn’t injured). The Camargue horses and the gardians (Camargue cowboys) were in the parade as well as the Arlésiennes (from Arles) – Basically all of Provence was represented.
Tarascon is normally a quiet place, but during the festival, it comes alive. It seems that everyone in town is in costume and in the parades (there was another, even bigger, parade on Sunday). And it all ended with a bang on Monday night with a fireworks display. It was a lovely weekend and if you get the chance to go sometime, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
If you’re in Tarascon when the festival isn’t going on, there are still a few interesting things to see there:
- King René’s castle and the tarasque statue outside
- Souleiado – a Provençal fabric museum (read more about Provence fabrics here)
- St. Martha’s church
- Museum of the art and history of Tarascon
We stayed at the Hotel de Provence which was very nice.
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