Upon arrival, the ambiance immediately takes you in – garlands of multicolored flags (les fanions), lights in the trees and the warm summer air filled with laughter and the music of the bandas. These traditional brass bands (fanfares in French), often decked out all in white with red handkerchiefs around their necks and berets on their heads, meander through the city, bringing the streets to life as they walk.
Festival-goers of all ages are out on the town, many of the men wear straw hats, women have flowers in their hair, and children are carrying balloons and eating churros. You’re at the Féria and although you thought you were still in France, it’s actually time to brush up on your Spanish! Whether in Béziers, Carcassonne or Nîmes, la Féria is the grand occasion for cities in the South of France to paint themselves in bright, bold and sometimes brash Iberian colors.
Féria de Nîmes
When I first attended the Féria de Nîmes*, France’s largest with more than a million visitors over the six-day Pentecost festival, I was awed! So many long-standing traditions respected, and the amazing energy seemed to lift and carry me along with the rest of the festival crowd. The flowers, the music, the happy people – albeit quite cliché, I couldn’t help but love it all at first sight. Although most Férias do feature bull running (abrivado, bandido, etc.) or bullfighting events (corrida, novillada, etc.), a rather controversial topic we’ll approach in a future post, the various other customs and art forms that surround the arena are what make the event so special. For hundreds of years, Féria traditions have been upheld by generations of passionate people.
Pégoulade, Tauromachie and other Activities
My favorite custom is the Pégoulade – the féria’s opening procession and one of the more family-friendly features of the festivities. I had the honor and pleasure of participating in the Pégoulade one year – an experience straight out of an Almodovar film, I will never forget. Dressed as Sevillan dancers, my friends and I paraded through the street with dance troupes, singers, floats and peñas all the way to the cathedral where a Spanish mass was given in honor of the taureaux (bulls) and the toréros (matadors).
Bull themes aside, today’s féria crowd is definitely more of a mix of a few pure aficionados alongside many local families, travelers and party animals. As Renestance’s own Nicole Hammond says “I love the fact that the city is so packed with people having fun, music and bands everywhere, a really good atmosphere for all the family. There really is something for everyone!” Nicole attends the annual Féria de Béziers, which takes place the second week of August, a must for summer vacationers.
Féria Food, Drink and Dancing
Above all, Féria season means that the city is en fête! Free concerts, exhibits, workshops, dance performances and equestrian shows featuring the famous white Camarguais horses entertain connoisseurs and novices alike. Farmers’ markets featuring local and Andalusian specialties, restaurants and ephemeral bodegas regale young and old. You’ll most likely dine on an assortment of tapas followed by a generous plate of paella or gardiane de taureau and bottomless glasses of red sangria. So wonderfully typical.
Bodegas (bars opened especially for the Féria) pop up in courtyards, gardens and in the streets. They range from star-studded nightclubs with beautiful people drinking champagne to popular and over-crowded bars playing pop music for thousands of partiers bumping shoulders and sangria glasses. My personal advice: don’t wear white! For the most authentic experience, push open the side door to a more traditional bodega, where the enticing rhythms of traditional Sévillane music welcomes you. The familiar cadence and musical pattern of each song invites even the most reluctant dancers to find a partner and take to the floor. Much easier to dance than its cousin the Flamenco, you can pick up the basic steps of Sévillane rather quickly. You’ll be inspired by all the virgins, pilgrims, lovers and country folk whose stories are told by the song lyrics. It took me an hour to get twirling like an Andalusian princess – was it the music or the sangria?
The Féria party goes all night, well after the feux d’artifice (fireworks) have disappeared. Put your dancing shoes away and get a few hours’ rest because tomorrow morning, the fête will continue!
Disclaimer: Your experience after the clock strikes midnight may differ. My best advice is to head to the festivities early and call it a night shortly after dinner. The later you stay the more jovial, inebriated and rowdy the crowd is likely to become.
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*Nîmes also hosts a more intimate, family-friendly Féria des Vendanges, celebrating the harvest in mid-September.