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French horns

Gorgeous décor, haunting marshlands and Gallic cowboys can all be found in the vicinity of Provence’s Easter bullfighting festival.

April 13 2011
Jamie Reid

The Féria de Pâques, or Easter bullfighting festival, takes place on April 22-25 in Arles in the South of France. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend, though many of them will have little interest in bullfighting and will just be there for the attendant music, bars, bodegas and street theatre.

It’s always been tenuous in the extreme to describe bullfighting as a sport. A blood sport, maybe – and, to many, an abhorrent and outdated spectacle. But in the Camargue, south of Arles, and the nearby city of Nîmes, it’s regarded as an art form with a long history and tradition. The marshlands are home to flamingos, wild bulls and white horses, and the Camargue cowboys, or gardians, ride as tall in the saddle as any western cowpoke. The region has its own non-lethal form of bullfighting called Course Camarguaise, in which young men known as raseteurs attempt to pluck a rosette from between the horns of the bull. The big difference with traditional Spanish bullfighting is that while the raseteurs may be injured, the bulls live to snort and rage another day.

The Camargue has long been a magnet for artistic and exotic personalities, and you don’t have to be a bullfighting enthusiast to enjoy it. Take the beautiful Grand Hôtel Nord Pinus, which is in Arles’ Place du Forum, opposite the statue of the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral. This gorgeously bohemian old town house, once a stopover on the local stagecoach route, became famous in the 1950s when it was owned by a clown called Nello and his lover Germaine, who was a Parisian cabaret singer and good friend of Edith Piaf. Regular visitors included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Yves Montand, and there are vivid black-and-white photographs of these and other guests in the bar.

Things declined for a while after Nello’s death, but in 1989 the hotel was bought by its current owner, Madame Anne Igou, who sympathetically restored the interiors without compromising its inimitable style. The big ground-floor salon is shady and cool, with an eclectic mix of Moroccan rugs, huge mirrors and 1950s leather armchairs and sofas. The walls are adorned with Peter Beard’s photos inspired by Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa, while a 19th-century image of the Arlesiennes, three local women in traditional costume, is imprinted on the marble floor.

Iron balustrades lead up to the hotel’s 26 rooms, which include the majestic Room 10, where famous matadors, such as Ava Gardner’s lover Luis Miguel Dominguín, once stayed and prepared for their Féria fights. It was also in this room that Helmut Newton shot his celebrated nude photos of Charlotte Rampling for Vogue in 1973. The most luxurious rooms, on the third floor, all have wooden floors, old armoires and chests of drawers, huge bathrooms and views over the rooftops. There’s also a three-bedroom apartment with its own staircase and terrace, popular with visiting film producers.

On May 1, the Fête des Gardians takes place in Arles and a colourful array of Camargue cowboys on their white horses will parade in front of the hotel. On the same day I hope to see the thoroughbred filly Hooray, whose trainer Sir Mark Prescott is an ardent devotee of bullfighting and sometime visitor to both Nîmes and Arles, win the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket at 14-1 with Fitzdares.