Mardi Gras at Limoux Carnaval
“It's a lovely day, let's go over to Limoux to check out the carnaval”, I suggested to Jeff this morning, “It's Mardi Gras (literally “Fat Tuesday”) and its the first “moment fort” today. There's a masked procession and we'll see Pierotts dancing the fécos”
“Hmmmm”, he replied in a non-commital tone. Luckily the prospect of lunch at Le Joug in La Bastide sur l'Hers after was enough to persuade him.
We duly ambled into the Place de la Republic for the 11 o'clock procession and installed ourselves at one of the cafés on the square with a grande crème apiece and waited. The square filled up rapidly with French families replete with children sporting masks and party hats and a smattering of tourists. An arena containing a rather unconvincing mountain, 3 bamboo wigwams and a pile of sarments did not give me any clue as to what we might be about to see.
“The Limoux carnaval is the longest in the French calendar”, I told Jeff, “it starts in January and runs until 10th April this year. Apparently this carnaval has run continually since the middle ages but nobody is certain about how it originated. It could be linked to the production of Blanquette de Limoux (the local sparkling wine which predates Champagne) or it could have been started by millers in the 16th century to celebrate successful trading with Aragon.”
Every Saturday and Sunday during the carnaval a masked bande and their musicians parade around the main square from café to café. Their traditional dance is called the fécos which appears to involve a bit of gentle twirling and a lot of arm-waving.
The bande we saw are called Les Anciens and rather disappointingly there was not a Pierrot in sight. The dancers were headed up by an assortment of ghostly white shrouded figures. These were closely followed by a colourful rag-tag of hippies, assorted bawdy-looking “ladies” sporting Jordanesque bosoms, short dresses and hairy legs, a red Indian (or should that be Native American?) and a hook-nosed stated official wearing a tri-colour sash. Instead of waving the traditional carabéna (a long, flexible, decorated wand) the bande were brandishing branches of fragrant mimosa. The traditional large bag of confetti had also been substituted for baskets of sweeties which were handed out to children.
Turn on, tune in, drop out. Even the smallest peace-loving hippy was symbolically beaten up by a huntsman, a gendarme in a gorilla mask and a lycra-clad spear-wielding sprite who emerged from the mountain... honestly I couldn't make this up.
The irreverent tone of the fécos pokes fun at society and its rules and it is overtly political in nature. The main performance in the arena started gently enough with the peaceable hippies sitting cross-legged around a burning bonfire of sarments de vigne against the backdrop of bamboo tee-pees. Soon, however, they were shot at by a huntsman, beaten up by a monkey-faced gendarme and stabbed by a rather alarming bright blue spirit who looked rather like Jim Carrey as the Riddler in the Batman films. But never fear! societal order was restored by the “red Indian” who ascended to the top of the mountain and the state official character (who was loudly booed by performers and audience alike).
The Native American warrior ascending the mountain to address the crowds
Just in time really as the mountain started to belch green smoke. Then the mountain started to belch blue smoke. Finally as the mountain belched purple smoke a “flying” saucer containing a gurgling yellow alien emerged. Now, I have to say at this point of the morning I did suspect that whoever had choreographed / written / scripted this performance might have taken their research of hippy ideology to the somewhat extreme point of experimenting with mind-altering drugs.
The rather portly and extremely flatulent alien and his craft. Or could he be a mad scientist in a space shuttle?
Upon reflection however, I believe this performance was a kind of modern parable about social inclusion and about the challenge of maintaining a harmonious and peaceful co-existence in an increasingly multi-cultural France. Well that's my interpretation but as the speeches were made in Occitan I fear the subtleties have probably been lost on me.
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The Limoux carnaval culminates on 10th April with the spectacular Crémation et nuit de la Blanquette. The Semaine folklorique runs from Saturday 19th March to Sunday 27th March and all the bandes parade on Sunday 20th March.