who's closestThere are two sports of importance and obsession in the south of France: rugby and pétanque. I haven’t gotten into rugby but it’s hard not to immediately love pétanque.

balls lined up 2For one thing, it’s sedate. Players toss steel balls, not too fast, and then leisurely amble over to see the result. The Carnivore even has a magnet on a string to not have to actually bend over and pick up his balls–so important to avoid spilling one’s p’tit jaune. Mostly it involves standing around. The biggest effort is probably climbing the six steps to the buvette for refreshments.

standing throw
The Standing pitch

So it’s a game for all ages and all abilities. Kind of like horseshoes, but even more universal, because you don’t even need a stake. Just a flat area, best without grass.

squat
The Full-Squat pitch

You rarely hear more than the clackety clack of the balls during pétanque. Nobody yells “Oui!” or “Yes!” Enthusiasm is expressed through a lifting of eyebrows, or, at the extreme, a smile. Very French.

half squat
The Half-Squat pitch

Here’s how it works: There’s a little wooden ball called the cochonnet (little pig) that’s tossed into the playing area, or terrain. If you’re playing singles, each player has three balls; for doubles each has two balls. You stand in a little circle and toss your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet. For all the rules, see here.

balls lined upA friend who helps run the local boulodrome explained that there are two kinds of pétanque: lyonnais and provençal. Lyonnais involves running or something, he said, shaking his head as if such a thing were lamentable. Provençal is the calmer version.

boardStill, the players exhibit many techniques for tossing their balls. Some stand, some squat, and some are crouched in between.

There’s an official license and everything for playing in tournaments. It costs about €22 and involves a photo and a medical certificate. Then you become a card-carrying pétanque player. Official is official.

prizesThe benefits are multiple. There’s insurance (!!!) and of course the prizes. For example, a recent tournament awarded various levels two magrets de canard plus two bottles of wine; two chickens and two bottles of wine; two bottles of Ricard plus two bottles of wine; and the top prize was six magrets and two bottles of wine. Sense a theme?

The Carnivore had a license one year and happily set off at 9:30 one evening to the boulodrome, his little bag of balls in hand. He came home many hours later as excited as a kid: he and his partner had won the gros lot, and he had a bunch of meat to put in the freezer.

boules on ground
What you need: steel balls, a cochonnet (this one is nicely visible), a measuring tape and a magnet on a string for picking up your balls.

In 2010, Karl Lagerfield unveiled his cruise collection in Saint-Tropez, including, in his fashion, an old-time game of pétanque with special Chanel boules.

While you might not have time to get a license during a vacation (proper bureaucracy can’t be rushed), you are certainly welcome to use the boulodromes you’ll find in any town or village across the south of France. It’s the perfect sport for a hot summer night.

distant shot windup

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18 thoughts on “They’ve Got Balls

  1. One of my elderly female neighbours asked me once if I wanted to play as her partner on a regular basis. Her previous partner had died. She loved to play but found the sport very male dominated and really wanted a female partner for moral support. I couldn’t commit to playing regularly and so I turned her down. I probably should have said yes just for all the interesting cultural experiences and the improvement in my French it would have led to.

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    1. Oh, yes! The night I photographed, it was 99% men, but I have several women friends who play. Pétanque came up recently in a conversation and a female friend informed us, “I play to win.” And I bet she does win.

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  2. Thank you. I’ve seen pictures of the game from time to time and wondered vaguely about it. Your explanation makes sense — it seems a bit like pool on a larger scale, strategy and all that.
    Maybe it’s time for women to start playing it in numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My Grandfather had a set of these…many, many years ago in Bryn Mawr, Pa. He tended the court every day and would invite various family members over to play! We had a huge, extended family. Oh he loved it. I have no idea what happened to the set. But he/they had spent months each year back in the 30’s and 40’s in parts of France, mostly hiking and that’s where he picked it up. I love to watch it when we’re in France!

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  4. We spend a ridiculous amount of time watching games when we come across them. One time in Bandol, we witnessed an argument….one gentleman was so angry that the measurement was incorrect….his ball was not the closest….he swooped over picked up his balls, and stomped off. It was so funny….but we did not laugh because it was very serious business and everyone was shocked. My husband would love to buy an antique set….very heavy to pack and bring home though.

    Ali

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  5. Your post brings back happy memories of camping holidays in France during the 70’s where we were invited to participate in games of pétanque. I’m hoping that before very long I could be playing again. It’s a great game for uniting players of all ages.

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  6. What a fun post! For my husband’s birthday, I instituted an annual Pentanque/Barbeque for our whole family. Probably not as “official” as your French version, the beauty of this game is that everyone from 3 – 65 could play! I matched up children with adults as pairs, and we had a grand time. No permits required. 🙂

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  7. Well told! It is a family favourite here too, and even before living in France, we joined a predominantly French set of players for a weekend tournament a couple of hours out of Melbourne, several years in a row. At school, too, I used to introduce it to my French students. They loved it. No doubt as much as for the fact that it took them out of the classroom as for the activity itself. Then, at home, in suburban Melbourne, it didn’t matter how small or rough the terrain, we would throw our boules with our similarly-besotted-with-all-things-French friends. It didn’t take much to keep us happy!

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