Travel editor Frank Baldwin remembers how he tried to teach the French to play cricket at a village festival, and found that in the present day it’s our cross channel neighbours who could teach us a thing or two about community spirit.
The first time I became aware of festivals in French towns and villages was back in the 1980s when my Sunday football side in Eynsford, which is twinned with Breteuil-Sur-Iton in Normandy, was challenged to a game on French soil.
As this would also be part of their annual festival, the French council dignitaries asked if we would put on a demonstration of something that was typically ‘English’ and a game of cricket was suggested.
As we drove into Breteuil-Sur-Iton, we discovered it was more like a small town. There were giant posters everywhere, plus a banner across the main high street, announcing ‘Le Grand Match de Cricket – France v Angleterre’.
What we thought was going to be a laid back bit of fun appeared to have gained top billing in a four day village festival which included a carnival procession, a massive bike race around the town, a fun fair and several meals and dances.
Although France is only 22 miles away from our shores, the majority of the population has never seen a game of cricket. Instead of a mown and flattened area of 22 yards, the wicket was 22 metres long with a white line painted around it. Our hosts had deduced from our instructions that this is where the boundary went.
The ‘piece de resistance’ was that the wicket stood in the middle of a piece of grass not much bigger than two tennis courts bordered by houses with nice big glass windows. After a bit of practice, it was fairly obvious that the French team were going to struggle with batting and bowling, but eventually Le Grand Match de Cricket – France v Angleterre got underway.
Each ball brought only more confusion for the French players but the home crowd helped the atmosphere by cheering every time one of them managed to hit a ball. Despite some extremely ‘friendly’ bowling, their wickets fell at an alarming rate. This was followed by some enthusiastic French bowling that consisted of throwing the ball as hard as they could at our heads. A diplomatic draw was announced and we all retired to the bar.
Nearly 25 years later and visitors to France will find that the enthusiasm of local communities for these festivals has not diminished.
In fact, some areas have turned them into tourist attractions and they are well worth a visit if your holiday coincides with one of these weekend long events, the history of which lies in religion. Towns and villages, whatever their size, hold a festival to celebrate the Saint their local church is named after.
In July last year I visited two festivals in South West France close to the Pyrenees. The first was a four day event in Saint Palais, a medium-size town which sits on La Bidouze river about 40 minutes from Biarritz.
In the evening the town really comes alive. Bars are moved onto the street and restaurants put on special meals, three courses with wine for only 10 euros – about £8!
While you are eating and drinking, several Bandas bands dressed in a variety of costumes tour the bars playing traditional Basque music. They compete with the noise and lights from the fun fairs that take over the town squares and the whole thing is an exciting cacophony of sound.
The following weekend I attended a smaller weekend festival just down the road in the village of Osserain.
At first glance there does not seem to be anything but a church, a school and a few houses in this quiet village. But on the weekend of the festival, hundreds of people descend on the school to join in the celebrations.
The festival is a kind of rite of passage for the local teenagers. Each year a group of them form themselves into a committee and arrange the whole event.
On the Saturday night they act as the waiting staff at a massive dinner in the school, then it’s outside where there is dancing. This band starts at around 10pm and usually plays until around 7am the next morning!
Then there is another event on the Sunday. This year the village held its Pelota and Boule finals when again large crowds turned up to watch, cheer and socialise. Although the Osserain festival is not promoted as a tourist event in the same way as neighbouring St Palais, the locals will still make you feel extremely welcome and are happy for you to join them.
These festivals involve the whole community. They are very proud of these events and they are extremely well supported. Village fetes in England sadly seem to be declining. If you want to experience what these community events used to be like, then pay a visit to one of the French festivals and sample the terrific atmosphere.