Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The leading medieval festival in Provence

The challenge of the towns in the amphitheatre.
Les Festes du Castrum d'Arcus - the four-day medieval festival in Les Arcs-sur-Argens - has certainly earned its 'Qualite France' title awarded by the 'Federation Francoise des Fetes et Spectacles Historiques', making it the leading medieval festival in Provence.

Staged in July on every odd-numbered year, the festival - which attracts around 30,000 visitors to the town of 6,000 over the four days - is the brainchild of its current president, and former Nice Matin journalist, Georges Yevadian.

Georges Yevadian (front right) and members of his committee. Photo: Var Matin.
It was back in 1985, when he was reporting on the declining interest by young people in the Festival of St John, that he was inspired by the town's own medieval history to create a different type of festival. Medieval festivals were not often seen in France at that time.

The town's saint, Ste Roseline, whose mummified body rests in a glass case in the chapel bearing her name just outside Les Arcs, became the basis for the original performance, which took place beside the chateau where her first 'Miracle of the Roses' occurred.

Since then, the festival has grown exponentially, with a committee of volunteers who work throughout the two years leading up to each son et lumiere - creating the storyline, writing the play - and music if required, crafting the scenery, designing and sewing the costumes, designing the lighting, the sound effects, the special effects - such as animated animals, and this year's giant griffins and mythical beasts, also practising jousts, sword fights, dances, designing labyrinths and so much more.

One of the twice-daily parades along Boulevard Gambetta.
It is a total coming together of the townsfolk, plus others from the Dracenie region, and today there are more than 200 members of the association. Not only do they prepare each festival almost from scratch, but the artisans are also often the actors - showing pure professionalism and a total dedication to the crafts of the Middle Ages.

The baker was kept busy using traditional ingredients and methods.
Of course the committee is responsible for much more than the spectacle; the organisers must also plan the medieval market in the town centre, where this year there were more than 60 stalls, including a working bakery.

There are art exhibitions, demonstrations of medieval illumination, displays of paints and pigments, plays and stories for children, 13th century marionettes, and medieval board games to try as well as ropes to ply and the pillori - stocks - for anyone misbehaving.

A giant animated dragon, called 'Dragonium' - patron of Draguignan, the large town just north of Les Arcs - breathes real fire at various times.

Even swordsmen have to rest between bouts.
Nearby is the Camp de Vie - showing how life was lived in medieval times - it is an encampment of tents complete with embroiderers, weavers, people creating chain mail, soothsayers, washerwomen, leatherworkers - and occasionally where disputes are settled with sword fights.

Beside this is a village where the animals - sheep and geese - are kept, blacksmiths work on creating spears, arrows and lances, while lepers and those afflicted with the plague are quarantined.

The fox, the lion, the cat, the wolf and the chicken.

Amongst all this are the wandering minstrels - some dressed as animals acting out a farmyard fable, others incorporating jugglers, dancers, all playing medieval instruments, singing bawdy and sometimes wistful songs.

Preparing to fire the engin de guerre.
Beside the Real river, is a massive 'engin de guerre' (catapault) which is fired several times each day and consists of a man-sized treadmill which is turned to tighten the ropes as the arm winds back to fire the cannon high into the air and land several hundred metres away.

Then there are the horseback challenges in the amphitheatre where surrounding towns pit their skills against Les Arcs to roars of excitement from the crowd.

Each day of the festival - in the morning and afternoon - the participants parade through the town creating music, mayhem and excitement.

The committee works hard to make sure all bases are covered - that there is always something happening in the town centre, by the Real river, in the medieval camps, in Place Paul Simon and high up in the Parage, overlooking the town. Festivities start at 10am and continue through to midnight.

Musicians and a juggler entertain in the square.
The festival is a credit to its founder and every Arcois - the shop keepers, business people and restaurants enter the spirit of the event by dressing in medieval costumes and redecorating their shop fronts. Not only does it attract locals, but thousands of holidaymakers - and their children - from all over France and internationally.

This year's was the 28th festival staged in the town - so make sure you don't miss the next one. Pencil in the 29th Les Festes du Castrum D'Arcus on your calendar for July 2017.

* Once again apologies to French speakers for the lack of accents on French words.