The Fête du Costume is Arles’ most prominent celebration of Provençal tradition. It is a three-day festival full of parades, bull games, and an overall exhibition of traditional clothing. Only people with at least three generations of ancestry in the city can participate. The fabrics needed to create an ensemble are expensive. Costumes range from the 18th to the 19th century.
The festival started in 1903, instigated by local writer Frédéric Mistral when he created the Festo Vierginenco (Festival of Virgins). According to Avignon & Provence, young girls were invited to wear the dress and hair ribbon to symbolize their passage into adulthood.
Up to age 15, girls wear the Mireille costume composed of a cotton skirt above the ankles, an apron, a black bodice and a simple scarf.
After that age, they wear a more sophisticated dress style that evolved in the 18th century, with the use of jewel-colored satin fabrics, a ribbon and a habit. A delicate lace bodice and shawl complete the costume, flattering the silhouette.
The queen of Arles is elected for three years after showing her knowledge of Provençal history, literature, architecture, arts, traditions, culture and language. The queen is accompanied by women called the “Maidens of Honor,” who are ambassadresses of the region’s traditions, attending local officials at cultural and traditional events. Also present at the festival are gardians, the Camargue “cowboys,” who herd the black Camargue bulls used for the course camarguaise bull games in southern France. Camargue horses galloping through water is a popular and romantic image of the region.
Let me start by saying that I love bunnies so much that you could call them my kryptonite. I have wanted one since I was young. Since my parents would not let me have one, anytime I see one, I cannot help but fall prey to their adorable faces, fluffy bodies and floppy ears. When I came to Arles, I was not expecting to see any, especially not at the open air market.
The Arles market has been held Wednesday and Saturday mornings since at least 1584, according to a letter written by King Henry III. The market of Arles takes place right outside the limits of the old town, alternating between the Boulevard Émile-Combes to the east on Wednesdays and the Boulevard des Lices to the south on Saturdays.
One Saturday, I went to the market and the street was jammed with vendors. The sound of bargaining French people rang through the air. The air smelled like fresh olives and paella, which simmered in huge pans. Many of the vendors sold fresh produce straight from the countryside, and others offered inexpensive clothing, including shirts and dresses from Senegal. Those were my favorite as they had vibrant colors and patterns that complimented my skin beautifully.
As I walked further down the boulevard, I noticed two tiny carts. They were filled with hay and little furry bodies. As I got closer, I realized what they were. One held a lionhead rabbit, which is a rabbit with an extra furry face, and a dwarf pig. The other had a black and white lop-eared rabbit and three snowball bunnies.
When I first approached the carts, a man asked if I wanted to know how much they were. I answered, then he joked as if he wanted to sell them as food. I immediately denied wanting to eat them as they were too cute to eat and much more suited to be pets. I pet them, held them and learned why they were there.
The two men who ran the stand explained that they rescued animals, like the bunny and the pig, and helped them get medical attention. They sold candy to raise money for vaccines so they could be adopted. He showed me an open box and gave me a sample to try. The candy itself was not so bad, just a bit too sour for my tastes.
“Thirty euros for the small box of candy can cover a vaccine for a small cat and two rabbits,” the vendor said. “And the big box is 50 euros, which can cover vaccines for two cats and a dog.
The small box of candy was actually a small circular metal tin. The words on it were French, but its background was of a serene plain with a river. There was a barn at the forefront and a small French village tucked in the mountains.
I told him, “No, thank you.” Fifty bucks? That is way too expensive, I thought, especially for such a sour candy.
But then, he hit me with a deal I could not refuse.
“I’ll give you the big box and small box for 30 euro.”
That was nail one.
“It will go towards treating a whole family of bunnies.”
That was the final nail in the coffin.
Hell, yeah, I was going to buy some of the candy! I would not be able to leave the market knowing that I did not do anything to help these poor, helpless baby animals. Buying the candy felt like I had done something really good.
When I got home to my host family, my host father explained that those guys were scammers.
Apparently, it is illegal in France for people to use animals as a tool to sell things. After my host father told me that, I felt kinda stupid. Those guys really tricked me and made me feel like a silly American tourist who was an easy mark.
But then again, learning from those experiences is what makes traveling so enriching and unforgettable!
This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.
An international reporting project co-sponsored by ieiMedia and Arles à la carte.