Saturday, July 17, 2010

Racing Bikes and Fireworks

July and August are the months when it all kicks off here. Well, ‘here’ is no different to the rest of the country. For 10 months of the year the Haute Garonne jogs along at a fairly even pace – a ‘vide grenier’ every other Sunday somewhere, a ‘fete locale’ a repas de chasseurs, a Feu de St Jean (which is a good excuse for a meal and a bonfire) – nothing exceptional. But in the next eight weeks the department will go stark raving mad.

The celebrations commence with the commemoration of the Revolution. July 14th used to be known as Bastille Day, but now it seems to be known by the more PC title of the Fête Nationale. All the blood letting which followed the storming of the Bastille has been diplomatically shelved in favour of a public holiday culminating in firework displays. Nowhere in France can compete with the Paris display – well the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mar are pretty impressive in daylight, but at night, with the sky exploding in a thousand stars, the city becomes magical.

The second best display must be the Feu d’Artifice mounted on the walls of La Cité in Carcassonne There the surrounding vineyards are illuminated by a cavalcade of fireworks which soar up from the city ramparts and roll down the rows of vines in an ever-expanding explosion of colour. The event draws in thousands who park up anywhere they can, unpack a picnic and sit it out till the night sky darkens and a lone rocket signals the start of the spectacle. The tourists prefer to cram into the old city to soak up the atmosphere, all they actually do is pay over the odds for a drink, and miss the best of the display because they can’t actually see it. But they’ll get plenty of ‘atmosphere’ – the smell of burgers and chips, pizzas and several thousand sweaty bodies struggling to navigate the crowded cobbled alleyways. Not to mention a crick in the neck, and temporary deafness when the fireworks go off from the city walls.

Old hands find a grassy knoll outside the city and bring their own food and wine. A few years ago the police had to close the Toulouse/Narbonne motorway due to the huge number of cars which had stopped on the hard shoulder to watch. Now it’s slightly more controlled, well, as far as the French ‘en fête’ can be controlled.

In the face of that sort of competition our nearest town had its firework celebrations the night before. On a suitably balmy evening after a very hot day, we joined friends at the lakeside restaurant, along with half the town, and several million flying things (ants, small flies? ) and watched the municipal fireworks, which like the Carcassonne ones are entirely free. The French government may have warned the nation that we must tighten our belts and not spend public money, but what the hell…. let’s all fiddle while Rome burns, except, being in France, we’ll replace the violin with fireworks.

In the week following the Fête Nationale the Tour de France descends on us for the Pyrenean stage of the endurance race. It usually passes within 10 miles of our village, and depending on the weather (it’s usually unbearably hot), how early they close the roads and if we have a ‘window’ in our non- existent social diary (life is one long party for retirees in rural France!) we sometimes endure a couple of hot sticky hours waiting for the pelaton to whiz past.

What am I complaining about? I’m not clad in sweaty lycra, bent over the handlebars of an instrument of torture otherwise known as a racing bike. I’ve yet to understand why they choose the hottest month of the year to stage the thing. I’m obviously missing the point, as I usually do where physical activity is concerned.

Now I have a small grandson I probably should be out there with all the other grannies and granddads scooping up the rubbishy freebies that the ‘caravan’ throws out to the eager masses. I sometimes wonder if the crowds are there to watch the race, or collect free samples of coffee, coloured pencils, packs of kids card games and cheap hats that rain down from the vans, cars and lorries. The riders speed by in a matter of seconds so I guess the freebies are the major draw.

The last time I watched Le Tour one of the riders lost a water bottle and two blokes nearly fell into the Garonne to get it. It was probably for sale on Ebay by six o’clock that night…. ‘as used by Lance Armstrong’.

As well as the major events we’ve the usual crop of August music festivals, everything from organ recitals, to hot jazz. And in case thoughts are turning to Christmas, there’s the annual exhibition and sale of Provencal santons in Saint Bertrand de Comminges. What better time to choose your Christmas crib than August?


the fly in the web said...

The contents of the bottle were probably being sampled for drugs two minutes' later...if it was from a non French rider for a non French team....old cynic that I am.
I remember visiting st. Bertrand de Comminges when i was a student...your post took me back a bit!

Jo said...

Hmm, hadn't thought of that one.I'm too innocent for my own good.

St B de C is pretty much untouched, unlike a lot of tourist sites, and they come up with more Roman artifacts all the time. It's a fascinating place.

the fly in the web said...

I loved it, so glad it hasn't been touristyfied.