The Festival Of The Guardians: Testimony And Advice From A Tourist In Arles

While I was on vacation in Camargue, I had the extraordinary luck of being in Arles on the day of the 2024 Gardians' Festival, which was also the day of the 25th election of the Queen of Arles. I seized this unique opportunity to discover two iconic traditions of Camargue and I did not regret it! I will share with you the story of this memorable day and the best tips to make the most of the festival.

An unexpected opportunity

The first thing to know about the Fête des gardians is that it takes place every year in Arles on May 1st. However, in 2024, this event was postponed to the following week due to rain.

This fortunate turn of events allowed me to attend the festivities on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. My luck that day was even greater because this typically Camargue festival coincided with the election of the Queen of Arles, another local event held every three years.

Moreover, the 25th election of the Queen of Arles should not have taken place in 2024 if the Covid pandemic had not disrupted the Arles festival calendar... The previous edition of the election, originally scheduled for 2020, was postponed to 2021. As I was in Arles three years later, I also had the opportunity to attend it.

When I booked my stay there, I had no idea that these festivities would be taking place and did not choose my vacation dates for this purpose. Yet, in hindsight, I can say without exaggeration that the Fête des gardians and the election of the Queen of Arles were the most memorable moments of my stay. I strongly encourage you to make the trip for the next editions, which should be held, weather permitting, on May 1!

A gathering not to be missed

On the day of the Gardians' Festival, I advise you to get up early to not miss anything from the festivities. Early in the morning, at 9 AM, the gardians gather in the gardens near the Boulevard des Lices and prepare to parade through the streets.

This early gathering is an excellent opportunity to photograph gardians of all ages dressed in their traditional black costumes and matching hats. These exceptional riders carry young girls and women on their horses, who also wear the traditional attire of the Arlésiennes for the occasion.

Between the horses, the gardians, and the Arlésiennes, you will be dazzled. The women's multicolored dresses contrast with the immaculate coats of the Camargue horses. This moment when the festival participants converge towards the same place is a scene that all photography enthusiasts will want to capture. But be careful! You will also need to look down and watch where you step because where there are horses, there is manure!

A festive buzz in the streets

When the procession of the gardians started, I did not follow it. Indeed, I hoped to take a stroll through the market, then find and reserve a restaurant near the arenas before resuming the festivities at the time of the blessing of the horses, scheduled for 10:30 am on the forecourt of the Notre-Dame de la Major church...

As I walked along Boulevard Émile Combes, where the market is held on Wednesdays, I could see that the excitement of the gardians' festival had spread throughout the streets of the city. Not only did I encounter Arlésiennes in traditional attire hurrying to join the procession, but I also got to see behind the scenes... I'm talking about the numerous vans parked along the boulevard that had transported the Camargue horses from the manades to the center of Arles.

Thus, even though I had distanced myself from the gardians' procession, I could still feel the festive atmosphere that had taken over the entire city. On that day, Arles was teeming with visitors. That's why it's better to be proactive and reserve a table at a restaurant and a spot for the show organized by the Confrérie des gardians in the arenas in the afternoon during the morning.

The ticket office located at the arenas opens at 11 am. Don’t be discouraged by the queue in front of the ticket booth! The line moves quickly and it’s definitely worth the wait. This show is an opportunity to discover many local traditions, such as the Camargue race and the agility of the raseteurs, as well as other bullfighting and equestrian games.

In 2024, the gardians' show only cost 10 € and it was free for children under 12. Important note: you need to have cash to buy your ticket, as the ticket booth run by the Confrérie des gardians does not accept card payments!

Arlésiennes on every street corner

In Arles, the program of the Fête des gardians follows an unchanging ritual. After the parade of the gardians and the Arlésiennes in the streets of the city, the riders go to salute the statue of Frédéric Mistral on the Forum square around 9:30 am, then they proceed to the forecourt of the Notre-Dame de la Major church around 10:30 am.

On that day, the riders and their mounts are blessed and a mass is given in Provençal. When I arrived on site, the crowd was so large that I couldn't attend the blessing of the horses. But I could hear snippets of Provençal escaping from the church and perceive the fervor of the inhabitants around me. I also took advantage of the crowd gathered around the church to photograph the magnificent dresses of the Arlésiennes, all similar in their shape but all different in their colors...

A fiery atmosphere in the arenas

After a well-deserved break at the restaurant, to regain strength by eating gardianne de taureau accompanied by Camargue rice, I was eager to discover the show in the arena starting at 3:45 PM.

For the Fête des gardians, bull and equestrian games are highlighted in these arenas where Romans once came to watch gladiator fights. If, like me, you don't want to witness the killing of a bull, rest assured! This is not a bullfight but a Camargue race!

The young people who practice this sport are called raseteurs. They do not harm the bull but try to catch attributes fixed on its forehead and horns to earn points and bonuses that increase over time.

The raseteurs challenge the bull and use a hook (a sort of four-pronged iron comb) to remove the rosettes, tassels, and strings fixed on its head. This game, which I had never seen before, reminded me of the TV show Intervilles from my childhood, with the added respect for local traditions.

The raseteurs take risks, and the atmosphere in the arena heats up quickly, especially since it was very hot that day in Arles... If you plan to attend this show or any other summer event in the Arles arena, I advise you to bring a hat and a bottle of water. You can also buy them on-site, but it's not cheap! In 2024, the hat cost €5 and the small bottle of water €2.50.

An entire afternoon of festivities

The Camargue race is just the beginning of the festivities. Once the raseteurs have left the arena, it's the turn of the guardians and the Arlésiennes to make their entrance.

The celebration then takes on a more Provençal and Camargue flavor, with the guardian games where each rider tries to prove their courage and skill on horseback. Without giving too much away, I was able to witness a game of musical chairs on horseback (Yes, really! It's possible!) and some incredible equestrian challenges.

While the entrance ticket costs only €10, I can assure you that you'll get your money's worth! To celebrate Saint George, their patron saint, the guardians organize an entire afternoon of festivities, lasting until around 7 PM.

Personally, I really enjoyed the bouquet game, during which an Arlésienne entrusts a bouquet of flowers to a rider. He must defend the precious bouquet against two other riders who try to take it from him. If he succeeds, he returns the bouquet to his lady and receives a kiss in exchange.

In addition to the incredible skill this game of dexterity requires from both the rider and the horse, this particular challenge revealed to me the chivalrous side of the guardians. Their brotherhood, founded in 1512, is the oldest still active brotherhood in France. It perpetuates not only the traditions of the guardian's trade and equestrian games but also a rare form of courtesy towards ladies and other competitors.

Author: Audrey
Copyright image: Audrey Vautherot
Tags: Arles, Camargue, election, Queen, bouquet, equestrian, church, Atmosphere, Provençal, procession, RACE, CITY, restaurant, Major, Confrérie, water, bottle, hat, Notre-Dame, forecourt, blessing, reserve, PARADE, market, Musical Chairs, strings, rosettes, iron, hook, horns, bullfight, Gladiator, Intervilles, summer, France, chivalrous, horse, flavor, Dexterity, Saint george, saint, Arlésienne, Romans, rice, The Ticket, Emile Combes, Guardians, manure, Photography, young girls,
In French: La Fête des gardians : témoignage et conseils d'une touriste à Arles
En español: La Fiesta de los guardianes: testimonio y consejos de una turista en Arlés
In italiano: La Festa dei guardiani: testimonianza e consigli di una turista ad Arles
Auf Deutsch: Das Fest der Gardians: Zeugnis und Ratschläge einer Touristin in Arles
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