One of the small towns near to us is Les Arcs (strictly Les Arcs sur Argens to avoid the careless Satnav user ending up here instead of Les Arcs the Alpine ski resort). Although the lower part of the town is pretty drab the upper part is a wonderfully preserved medieval quarter full of narrow twisting narrow lanes flanked by high, ancient houses and crowned by a tower. In the mid 1980s some people from Les Arcs were inspired to start an association to bring some of their history to life through plays and pageants. Over the years this has expanded into a biannual festival which this year took place over four days, taking over not only the medieval part of the town but the whole of the centre and main street, earning attendance figures that must have run into many thousands.
It’s the whole mediaeval experience and those truly involved in it wander around in allegedly authentic mediaeval garb. So there were squires, Saracens and sorcerers dressed with the sort of detail that extended to accessories, including leather sandals and waistbags for your money. (We did note however, how wonderfully convenient the medieval leather drawstring purse is as a smartphone holder.) Mind you this being France, the Middle Ages that is evoked is curiously stylish, outstandingly elegant, scrupulously clean and inauthentically devoid of rustic smells. Even the peasants seemed freshly showered.
There’s a big market, selling everything you need from swords to wimples and from maces to potions, a camp complete with 12th century type tents, cooking pots, an alchemist, an armoury, and even a leper’s camp on the edge complete with lepers bearing authentic-looking sores. In the old town you could find all sorts of craftsmen and artisans demonstrating hand-thrown pottery, fresco painting and writing on parchment. Troupes of musicians, some of whom doubled up as dancers and/or jugglers, entertained the crowds, occasionally with the use of slightly anachronistic amplification. And of course there was plenty to eat and drink, some of it cooked on spits or roasted over huge fires. And did we mention the farm animals, the horses, the processing gargoyles, the figures of dancing death and the dragon?
So in Les Arcs the present yielded to the past and so here’s a selection of pictures from the market and the artisans. Because it was so visually interesting we took lots of pictures, so we’re going to run this over three weeks. Next week, the procession, and finally, we’ll get to the knights and the sword fights.
A sobering note however was that in a nod to the state of emergency there was an extraordinary level of security which involved every entrance to the central area being blocked off by security staff, in places, strategically placed council vehicles. Connoisseurs of irony with a sense of history would have noted that a medieval town fortified against the Saracens had now once more become fortified. Plus ça change eh?