There 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.
For 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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
Still, 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.
The 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.
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.