The biggest and the best, the strange and the quirky, the festivals where you can eat yourself to a standstill, and the ones where you’ll have so much fun, you’ll want to go back year after year! Marathon races that serve cocktails – or Champagne. A strawberry fete where you’ll get a slice of the biggest strawberry tart in the world. Pig squealing, baptisms of a giant where the baby is nearly 7 feet long, son et lumieres and more.
We reveal the real France, authentic and sometimes a little weird but always fascinating…
And in the Q&A section we answer a question about the French law that requires men to wear itsy bitsy teeny weeny trunks in public swimming pools. Is it true – or not?
Find out more in this fun episode...
Thanks for listening!
Episode 14 - Fantastic and weird Festivals in France
Janine: Bonjour and welcome to the Good Life France podcast – everything you want to know about France and more. I’m Janine Marsh, I’m an author and travel writer and though I was born in London, UK, I now live in a tiny village in the far north of France with 60 animals including a rescue dove called Doris.
Olivier: Bonjour, and I’m Olivier, I’m an ex-Parisian and I now live in in the UK, west of London. We like to think of ourselves as entente-cordiale upside down! We love chatting to you all about France and all things French!
Enough about us! Let’s crack on with today’s topic so - Janine, what are we going to be talking about?
Janine: Fabulous French festivals and fun events is what we’re going to be talking about! The biggest and the best, the strange and the quirky, the festivals where you can eat yourself to a standstill, and the ones where you’ll have so much fun, you’ll want to go back year after year!
Olivier: It is true that we French just love to celebrate – well everything really, and we do it all year round! So let’s get festive!
Janine: No one has any idea how many festivals take place every year in France, there are literally thousands. It feel like everything is an excuse to celebrate, to have a bit of a party, for people to get together and share in the fun of honouring something from the humble chick pea to Bastille Day, which we will dedicate an entire episode to. Some festivals might only attract a few people, some may attract hundreds of thousands! Oli – do you have a favourite festival?
Olivier: Well it has to be the Fete de la Musique for me. It’s held every 21 June, the day of the summer solstice and there are hundreds and hundreds of free music concerts all over France. There are professional musicians and amateur musicians taking part and every kind of music from accordion to Electro, choir to operas and everything in between! Most of the performances are open air – in streets and parks, museums, train stations and even in shops! The Fete de la musique in Paris is super good. It’s not a huge town, so all day and all night you can walk from an aera to the next, enjoying all the types of music. I’ve done that so many times, it’s great!
How about you Janine?
Janine: Oh don’t ask me that – it’s way too hard. This time of the year I love Carnivals! Nice Carnival is wonderful - it’s one that blows the winter cobwebs away and it’s such a feelgood event. I always take the train everywhere, so I arrive from Paris, and it’s held in February, so normally I’ll have left under grey skies, rain, sleet or snow, freezing cold. And then you arrive in Nice to blue skies, people eating outdoors in TShirts, relaxing on the beach and it feels like you’ve arrived in another country, not just a few hours from Paris!
And then just down the road at around the same time is the Menton Lemon Festival where huge sculptures and the parade floats are created from oranges and lemons – around 145,000 kgs (320,000 lbs!).
… and soon after that the Cannes film festival where the beautiful people go to see and be seen. Cannes isn’t all glamour and glitz though, if you go there, make time for the old town which is just lovely, winding hilly roads lined with pastel coloured houses and little cafes, which lead to a hill top castle with wonderful views over the city and the sea, plus a fabulous market.
I have so many favourites, and I absolutely love the Dunkirk Carnival…. Which isn’t like other festivals – no grand floats – but instead giants walk among the crowds and there’s singing and dancing, it’s said to be the noisiest carnival in France – because there’s so much singing! And kissing, there’s a lot of kissing going on, la bise, you know the greetings kiss on the cheek and everyone does it – you’re not strangers here, your Carnival friends! And everyone dresses up so you see all sorts of fun sights! It goes on for a few weeks with dances in the town hall at weekends and then on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday there’s a big parade in the town where the giants are and the singing and dancing takes place and at the end of the day the Mayor of Dunkirk chucks a load of smoked herring to the crowd from his balcony at the town hall and everyone tries to catch one to take home for their tea!
And talking of giants I have to tell you about one of the weirdest fetes I’ve been to – the baptism of a newborn giant! So in the north, we have these huge wicker giants that attend carnivals and events, they’ve been around for centuries, they used to be biblical figures but now there are all sorts, I’ve seen Romans generals and fishermen for instance. Anyway they get married and they have babies! So in the town of Gravelines on the coast of northern France, a giant called La Matelote gave birth to a baby and the town held a huge party for her. There were bands, the mayor made a speech and so did the local beauty queen which you know was a bit unexpected but very French, and then the mayor welcomed the midwife to make a speech and she told us the baby weighed 12 kg (26.5 llbs) and was 2.32 m (7.6 feet) tall and everyone cheered. And then the baby was carried out by 6 strong men, she was wearing a long dress and full make up and had her long blonde hair curled and a priest then conducted a blessing and scattered holy water over the crowd and then she was paraded round the town and we all followed her. It was quite mad and I was quite new to France then, it was still my first year in France and I knew then that I was going to love festivals!
Olivier: And talking more of giants – how about the Giant omelette festival in Bessieres, in southwest France? Every Easter Monday, they don’t eat chocolate eggs here but real ones! 15,000 of them! They are made into a giant omelette, it’s so big it takes 50 volunteers to make it, one and half hours just to break the eggs, and they stir it with a telephone pole in a giant frying pan! Why do they do this? Well Napoleon Bonaparte stayed a night with his army close by. He stayed in a local inn and the innkeeper made him a delicious omelette. Napoleon was so impressed, he ordered the townspeople of Bessieres to gather all the eggs in the village to make a gigantic omelette for his army the next day!
Janine: And one more giant thing! The French claim to hold the world record for the biggest strawberry tart ever made. In fact they make it every year in the town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordgone in Limousin. And the French also claim to be responsible for the delicious sweet taste of strawberries! The common woodland strawberry was known in Roman times and grown in Europe since early days but it was much later that the sweet red strawberry will know today was cultivated. In France they are called fraises.
In 1714, Amédeé François Frézier, an explorer, mathematician and naval military engineer of Louis XIV was sent to South America to spy on the Spanish who had ports there. He returned to France with some strawberry plants from Chile and gave them to the gardeners at the King’s Royal Gardens in Paris. The fruit was white, quite large “as big as a small egg” said Frézier and not particular tasty. The Paris gardeners sent the plants to Brittany where they were cross bred with other berries grown around the town of Plougastel near Brest. They produced the succulent tasty strawberries we know and love today.
Anyway in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, every second May, there is a Fete de la Fraise, everything strawberry and they make an 8 metre (almost 27 feet) wide tart that uses 800kg (almost 1800 pounds) of strawberries. I don’t think I could eat a whole one.
Olivier: And now… Chickpeas or as we French say pois chiches, yes even this humble little pea gets its own festival in France! In Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence, each year there is the Fête des Pois Chiches organised by the Confrérie du Pois Chiche de Rougiers – the brotherhood of the chickpeas! Chickpeas are what socca is made of, like a superfood in the south of France, you can get socca chips and pancakes and all sorts and at the festival you can get everything chickpea from chickpea tapenade to chickpea wine. And you can also get truffles at the festival because the town of Rougiers, where the brotherhood comes from, is also famous for its truffles… yum!
Janine: So enough foodie festivals because you’re making me hungry!
Let’s go to a Son et Lumiere… I love these sound and light shows that are so popular and take place all over France. The Chartres one is wonderful, with the great Gothic cathedral lit up, as is the wonderful Cathedral of Amiens in the north and Orleans in the Loire Valley. I love the castle ones too – like at Azay le Rideau which comes to life after dark in the summer and you feel like you’ve gone back in time as soft music drifts on the air and floats on the moat and the castle is awash with colour. And in Blois also in the Loire Valley there is a wonderful son et Lumiere at the castle which tells the history of the building, of its dark past and royal residents – it’s spectacular.
Olivier: Yes no one does a son et Lumiere like us French! And there are so many festivals in castles and monuments too, like the Festival of Avignon which presents theatre, exhibitions and more including at the 14th century Palace of the Popes. It’s a monumental building and for around 80 years from 1309-1377, several popes made this the centre of the Catholic kingdom instead of Rome, it’s an extraordinary history – and an extraordinary festival. And at Versailles even there is an annual ball that anyone can attend (though the tickets are pricy and you must wear costumes in the style of the 17th to 18th centuries and be masked…
But not all festivals and fetes are so glamorous. Did you know we have a pig squealing contest in France?!
Janine: You’re not telling porkies? Sorry I couldn’t resist it!
Olivier: There is a Cri de Cochon – pig-squealing – contest held each year. Its human competitors imitate amorous pigs, suckling pigs and pigs on their way to pig heaven. Of course, the contestants are also dressed for the occasion, complete with ears, tail and teats.
But there can only be one winner and often it is a man called Noël Jamet, a native of Normandy, whose impressions of a breastfeeding pig, complete with small toy piglets, are legendary: so much so that he is available for squealing at weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. We are in a completely new dimension of contests here…
<<Pig squealing sound>> This is actually performed by the World Champion of Pig Squealing Noel Jamet himself (from a video filmed by ActuMag at Paris International Agricultural Show in 2022).
Janine: There are loads of events about animals in France – one of my favourites is the Mademoiselle Poule and Monsieur Coq contest! Where chickens and cockerels compete for the title of most beautiful. My neighbour Jean-Claude was going to enter one of his chickens and it is a really pretty chicken called Princesse, but she has a foul temper (sorry for the pun) and so he had to withdraw because the contestants have to be well behaved too!
Olivier: And how about escargots? Snail lovers will rejoice if they visit the picturesque town of Osenbach in Alsace at the very end of April. The annual snail festival is a serious affair here, so much so that the town even has its very own brotherhood dedicated to the humble mollusc. People come from far and wide for this two-day event with highlights including traditional music and dance, local beer tastings and the all-important snail tastings. The festival also features a traditional snail race, which takes place on a custom-built course.
Janine: we actually have a snail race in my little village! It was set up by my neighbour Jean-Claude! He gets everywhere doesn’t he! Actually his nickname in the village is Monsieur Partout – Mr Everywhere. Anyway each year we have a little snail race on the village green and a few dozen people turn up – it may be the smallest festival ever. And we race our little snails, well not much racing going on in all honesty, and then we put them back in the garden. Well I do – I am not sure about my neighbours…
And there are kite festivals, boat festivals – in fact I am going to the Rouen Armada this year for the first time. It’s only held ever 4-6 years, and ships come from all around the world to Rouen in Normandy, along with 8000 sailors. The whole city takes on a festive air, the streets are decorated with flags and there are free concerts and fireworks – I can’t wait. It’s on from the 8 to the 18 June. There are even straw sculpture festivals – in my bit of France at least! All the villages in the 7 Valleys compete to create the most amazing straw sculptures – animals, trains, ballet dancers – all sorts of things made from straw!
Olivier: And how about the Marathon du Medoc? This marathon race runs through the Médoc vineyards of Bordeaux, where people dress up in wacky costumes – you might spot Asterix Le Gaulois, Bart Simpson or Ewok from Star Wars (they have a new theme every year!). But even more unusually, the marathon includes twenty-three wine stops and dégustations (the French word for tasting) stops along the route, offering delicacies such as the fattened paunch of pig at the halfway mark and Cap Ferret oysters at the 38-kilometre stage, and as you approach the 39-kilometre point you’ll spot a roadside sign of a cow – but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s an indication of a cattle grid: it means that there are steaks on offer! Spectators thrust cheese and ice-cream cornets at you and cups of Lillet, a fruit liqueur made close by in Podensac.
Janine: I love that, I went to that marathon once to write about it and they invited me to join in but I hadn’t drunk enough wine to consider myself trained up for the event! I’d be happy to train for the Marne Valley half marathon race though – they give you glasses of Champagne instead of water! And talking of races, we can’t not mention the big one… The Tour de France!
Olivier: Yes – it’s the most popular race in the world and beyond!
Janine: If you are tuning in for the first time, you may not know that Olivier, being a Frenchman, believes that if there is life beyond Earth, then all life forms will love France more than any other country as it is the most popular tourist destination in the world – and beyond!
Olivier: This is true you know! I am sure of it! Well, the Tour de France is 120 years old this year and it has been called the Greatest Free Show on Earth (yes, and maybe beyond!)… it’s watched by more than 3 billion people worldwide – not just for the cycling, but for the scenery of France! Did you know that the late, great Freddie Mercury of Queen wrote “Bicycle Race” in 1978 inspired by the Tour de France? Anyway we won’t talk too much about the Tour de France because we will do a whole episode about it in a little while! Please Janine…
Janine: But, let’s slow it down a bit for the Fetes de la dinde – the Turkey festival which is held in the little town of Liques, not far from Calais in the far north of France. It’s held in December – and you know we haven’t mentioned Christmas markets which are very festive - but that’s because we will do an episode devoted to Christmas markets. But I will tell you about the turkey festival now. Of course it involved food – there is a big marquee, a tent with loads of food, wine and beer producers where you can taste and buy everything you need for a delicious French food Christmas. There’s also a big lunch tent where up to 1000 people enjoy a sit-down lunch and dancing – old school style, with vintage music and lots of ball room moves. But what makes this festival different is that the town, which is famous for its turkey farms, holds a turkey parade. They let dozens of turkeys out to run through the main street of the town and they are all allowed to live, not sold for Christmas dinner. And they’re not hurt or scared, they’re not in amongst the crowds who come to watch, they’re carefully herded… and it’s a lovely, authentic and heart-warming event. They also have an enormous cauldron that’s so big, it has to be stirred by a main on a ladder who ladles out hot liqueur for all to enjoy for free!
Truffles, eggs, fruit, bread, onions, pumpkins, wine, champagne, beer – you name it, if you can eat or drink it, there’s probably a festival honouring it in France!
Honestly I could write a book on the festivals of France – I’ve never met one I didn’t like!
Olivier: You know we could talk for hours about French festivals but we hope we’ve given you a flavour of the fabulous fun fetes of France in this episode!
And now it’s time for the Q&A part of the podcast – where you ask the questions and we answer them! That’s why it is called Q&A. Clever isn’t it? So Janine, what is today’s question?
Janine: Our question today is from Peter Tankington who lives in Washington, USA. He asks: “I am going on holiday to France for the first time this year and I read in your book (he means me Janine Marsh and I wrote about this in my first book My Good Life in France) that it is the law for men to wear tight swimming trunks in public swimming pools. Do I have to wear them on the beach too?”
So Oli – what do you think?
Olivier: Well it is true that we men have to wear itsy bitsy tight trunks like shorts – speedos you call them I think - in public swimming pools! We call them a “slip de bain” or “un boxer”. We are used to it but I know it is a culture shock for some people when they arrive and try to get in the water wearing their normal not very tight shorts and they are told ‘non’! But no, you do not have to wear them on the beach, only in public indoor pools.
Janine: It’s true – in public pools it is the law as apparently its’ more hygienic to wear teeny weeny speedo-style trunks like the professional swimmers wear. This goes back to a 120 year old law when public pools became more available to everyone – and the law has never been changed. It’s a strange law alright!
Olivier: Tune in for the next episode when we’ll be talking about the Eiffel Tower, Paris monuments and more fun stuff!
Janine: You can find me at thegoodlifefrance.com where there are thousands yes thousands of articles about France and all things French from culture to gastronomy, history and heaps more, and on the website you can sign up for the podcast and for our free magazine The Good Life France which you can find at magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com
Oli: And you can find me at parischanson.fr, the only radio station playing the French classic songs of the 40s, 50s and 60s 24 hours a day. It goes really well with a nice cup of coffee and a pain au chocolat. Trust me…
Janine: I listen to it when I’m eating pain au chocolate with coffee!
But for now, It’s au revoir from me
Oli: And goodbye from me
Janine: speak to you soon.