1er Mai, Fête du Muguet

by Steve Martindale

The 1st of May brings with it the French tradition of the giving and receiving of small bouquets of muguets, or lily of the valley. Although the flower has become associated with Labour Day, which is the official status of the May 1st public holiday in France and across much of the world, it has its roots in the Renaissance court of Charles IX, nearly 500 years ago.

Flowering as it does in the month of May and symbolising for many the regeneration of spring and the promise of a prosperous season ahead, it was given by Charles IX to those around him on the 1st May 1561 to bring them good luck.

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Pétanque – a national sport

by Steve Martindale

The modern game of pétanque traces its creation to a moment in 1907 in La Ciotat, Provence when a local player, Jules Lenoir, did what can only be described as the opposite of a ‘William Webb-Ellis’ and picked up the boule and stood still.

The ancient Greeks played a game with flat coins and later flat stones, which involved throwing an object as far as possible. This game was refined by the Romans to include a target object. The Romans then brought the game to Provence, where the stones were eventually replaced with wooden balls and gave birth to a number of similar games, collectively referred to as boules. The most popular format of the game at the turn of the last century was Jeu Provençal, where the playing area was larger and players ran three steps before throwing their ball.

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Madame Guillotine – the terror of France

by Steve Martindale

The guillotine is an iconic execution device that made its name (and indeed, took its name) during the French Revolution. In reality, beheading machines had already been around for centuries. The ‘Halifax Gibbet’ and the ‘Scottish Maiden’ are well-documented devices that date back as far as 1286. These machines were not as precise and efficient as the guillotine and whilst the Halifax Gibbet is documented as having performed a total of 53 executions, the guillotine regularly performed that many a day in Paris alone.

In pre-revolutionary France, executions were public, lengthy and often gruesome affairs. Common methods of execution included hanging or burning at the stake. You could also find yourself bound to four oxen that were then driven in four different directions, effectively tearing you into quarters. In the most extreme version of this type of execution, you would first be tortured in public in a practice known as being ‘hung, drawn and then quartered’. If you were rich, you could buy your way to a manual beheading – a death that was usually reserved for the upper classes.

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The French Legion of Honour

by Steve Martindale

The Legion of Honour (Légion d’honneur or Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon someone in France. The order’s motto is Honneur et Patrie (Honour and Fatherland), and its seat is the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur on the left bank of the River Seine in Paris.

The order was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte as an institution that was open to all men, although initially only Frenchmen, who had either acted bravely on the battlefield or had served civil France in some exemplary way.

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Was the first Valentine’s Day card sent by a French king?

by Steve Martindale

A small town in the heart of Indre will again welcome lovers from across the country on 14th February and the nearest weekend. Why the attraction? The town of Saint-Valentin is the only place in France to bear the name of the patron saint of lovers. Residents deck their homes in blooms, the Jardin des amoureaux (lovers’ garden) opens its gates and free concerts take place to serenade courting couples. A post office, specially constructed for the week, sells commemorative stamps and postcards for the most ‘authentic’ Valentine’s card you’ll ever send.

If all that romance brings matters to a head, it’s even possible to take things one step further and tie the knot in the flower garden, with everything laid on, from hotels, hair and make-up to wedding cars, photographers and champagne. All you need to do is say “I do”….

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When it’s OK to drink from the bowl

by Steve Martindale

Every region of France has its local customs and the Dordogne is no exception. One you may have seen out and about, and which some say is the reason behind the impressive longevity of the area’s inhabitants, is to pour a splash of red wine into your empty soup bowl before picking it up, swilling it around and draining the contents, or more concisely, faire chabrol.

The tradition originates in this department, and although your grandmother may have always told you never to drink from the bowl, the opposite is the case with this old ritual. Whilst some say chabrol and others chabrot, most agree that the expression means “boire comme une chabrette” – to drink like a goat.

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