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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Transhumance


Back in March, I posted about an event that was surely to become a part of France's past--private distilling of fermented fruit into spirits.

While in les Alpes de Haute Provence, I witnessed an even more ancient, traditional event: transhumance. For those who are unfamiliar with the term as I was, it refers to the transfer of herds from low-lying areas to higher pastures or vice versa, depending on the season.

We'd had an enjoyable morning, stopping first in  Moustieres Santa Marie for some window shopping and coffee in a charming café.

We drove on through the region, pausing at any charming village that caught our eye until we came to Riez. There was a large market taking place with a reasonable-sized crowd so we parked. As we reached the market, we were assailed by the blare of horns. Dozens of hounds swarmed past us on the sidewalk and into the square beyond, herded by uniformed horsemen. Tilly, looking particularly tiny, hid behind me and peeked out from between my ankles.

Innis clapped her hands in delight.  "It's the annual fête de la transhumance. I've heard of this!" I looked at her, baffled. I hadn't a clue what she was on about.

"The local farmers bring their sheep through the village on their way to the summer pastures," Innis explained. "It's a real tourist attraction. Volunteers come from all over to accompany the sheep. I think it takes about a week to get there. We must stay for this!"

Good Lord, I can't believe she's forcing me to pause and have yet another aperitif in yet another village! Such a hardship.

However, I'm a team player so we grabbed a nearby table and ordered sparkling kirs while we did some people-watching. It would be at least 90 minutes before the sheep arrived. I was particularly entranced with a pushcart vendor selling handmade whistles for bird calls. He was very entertaining but the whistles themselves were unbelievably realistic, with their sweet, complex calls.

When the main event began, we hurried to grab a good vantage point. Tourists spread out in advance of the approaching mass of sheep, until officials herded them out of the way. The sheep were clearly comfortable with the routine.

Everywhere, cameras clicked and video cameras whirred. What an unexpected treat to have stumbled upon this without realizing. And how easily we could have just passed Riez by without a backward glance while doing our own transhumance!

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