Fetes de l'Ours or the Bear Festivals
The Bear Festivals, (yes bear not beer!), or Fetes de l’ours are a tradition very specific to the region and take place annually in three local villages in the Vallespir: Arles sur Tech, Prats de Mollo and St Laurent de Cerdans. February 7th 2016 was the date for the event in Arles sur Tech and we went to see it on a beautifully warm and sunny afternoon. It was quite a surreal experience. If you go, park on the outskirts of the town whenever you can find a space and then walk into the old town centre….follow the noise and the people wearing odd costumes. When we arrived the participants were sat at large tables occupying the entire centre of the placette eating the hunters meal with crowds of people waiting for the start of the chase. I’m still a bit vague on the details of the traditional story that gets enacted out, but it involves hunters, a ‘maiden’, the bear, a priest armed with an umbrella, some trees, and some characters who have white face-paint, white clothes and are in white cylinders and have sticks with animal heads at the end, various other hunters, a man with a (real) gun, other costumed villagers and a band, but roughly speaking the bear wants the girl and the others are rescuing her and the whole thing symbolises the rebirth of nature at Springtime. From the square the protagonists set off for the ‘start’ followed by the crowds who position themselves along the route and wait for the participants to return. At various points the participants stop, the crowd forms around them and the bear and the hunters stage wrestling and fighting – the bear also tries to grab members of the crowd, mostly girls, and the scrum of the crowd swirls around trying to avoid being caught. The hunters and the priest rescue any girls who are caught, the priest by hitting the bear with the rolled up umbrella. The trees try to stop the bear escaping, and the white cylinder people also hit out at the bear. The bear is chained up sometimes and sometimes unchained. Every so often the hunter with the real gun fired it – even though he is in amongst the crowd and in the narrow streets of the town. All the time the band is playing and the crowd who are too far back to see what’s happening dance and sing. The band have their amplifiers etc on a trolley which they pull around with them as they follow the action. At some point the bear, maiden, hunters etc entered one of the houses and some action takes place on the balcony and from the 2nd floor windows, with much popping in and out and climbing across balconies. Finally they all return to the square they started from and there is more action in the story, fighting and subduing of the bear, and then much dancing. Later there is the shaving of the bear and then it all moves onto another square in front of the church for more dancing and celebrating (and eating and drinking).
We left late afternoon and as we were driving back down the valley found there was also a carnival taking place in the next village, Amelie les Bains, with a parade of brightly coloured floats processing through the village and along the main road.