The game of Boules (or Pétanque) has gained a lot of fans in Ireland. But, does anyone know the actual rules of the game? Conor Power went to the picture-postcard Provencal town of St-Paul-de-Vence to learn and soak up the ambiance…
From so many holidays in a caravan in the Vendée, the game of boules has found its way into the heart of Irish people up and down the country. You’ll find clubs everywhere, where people get together for the social fun of chatting and playing outdoors, perhaps reliving some of their favourite memories of playing on the beaches of Les Sables d’Olonne or St Jean de Monts or Carnac. It’s a game that has become so popular that even when the new layout for Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry, West Cork was being planned in the early 2000s, they incorporated a boules pitch.
But do you know how to play the game properly? Do you understand the scoring mechanism involved? I don’t. Or at least, I didn’t: not until a recent visit to one of the most fabled places in all of France for playing this game – the Place des Platanes in St-Paul-de-Vence.
The town of St-Paul-de-Vence is an immaculately preserved village perché (literally, a perched village, so built and located on a height for protection in mediaeval times) in Provence with stunning distant views of the Mediterranean – approximately 20km inland from the Riviera coastline and north of Cagnes-sur-Mer, or a 15-minute drive from Nice Airport.
While its location and beauty have always made it popular, it really took off after the Cannes Film Festival started back in the 1950s. It suddenly found itself as one of the places to be for those celebrities who wanted to get away from the madding crowd on the coast.
Of the many famous names who took to St-Paul like a duck to water, there was none more closely associated with the good life in Provence than singer/actor Yves Montand – most famous to Irish viewers as the cunning Uncle Papet in the film Jean de Florette (Click here for a short interview from 1969 with the man playing on the famous square and talking about how simple yet difficult this game is).
The house once occupied by famous poet Jacques Prévert in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
And so, my wife and I arrived on the Place des Platanes after a pleasant drive from Nice and on a typically hot early autumn Sunday afternoon.
At the tourist office just a couple of steps away under the arch from the Place des Platanes, we met Aurélie, who showed us how to play the game. Properly.
The right drink to have when you’re playing boules – sorry, pétanque – in the South of France is Pastis. This is the aniseed drink that turns cloudy when you add water to it and is most commonly known to Irish people under the main brand names of Pernod or Ricard. I had pastis, the lady had white wine.
Genuine pétanque balls feel nice and heavy. They’re made of stainless steel and are solid metal (beware of Chinese-made cheap substitutes filled with sand) spheres that feel nice to hold and ‘weigh’ in your hands. I felt my three shiny spheres as Aurélie went through the points system for us.
One of the big things I took away from it all was that only the player who has the nearest ball to the conch gets any points. If you’re playing two-on-two, then the person who is losing (whose last throw didn’t result in them getting closer to the marker than their opponent’s ball) keeps playing until they can beat their opponent. You have three balls each so if, say, your wife fails to get any of her balls closer to the marker by either knocking yours out of the way or just rolling her one closer, then you can use your two remaining throws to get yourself some extra points. You’ll end up with a maximum of three but you might only get one. But your wife (if you’re playing your wife) gets zero points.
Simple? I think so. Adding to any possible confusion is the quantity of alcohol consumed and the fact that rules (just like they were with pool tables in Ireland when I was young) are prone to change from one region to the next.
When the game was over and I stood in the dusty breezy warm September air, sipping my pastis and supping on the sweet taste of crushing victory over my beloved, I learned another interesting fact about the wonderful world of pétanque: in an organised game, the loser(s) has to kiss the ‘fanny’. This is not quite as rude as it may sound. Fanny is a lady character and a shiny life-size bas-relief of her bottom is hanging framed beside the bar inside, concealed by small velvet curtains. Losers must go up to the Fanny, pull the chord to open the curtain and suffer the loser’s ignomony of planting a big kiss on her buttocks before everyone present.
Smashing stuff. All I can say is, I didn’t have to do any kissing of any bas-relief that day, and the next time I go to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, I’m going to book a room and spend the evening playing pétanque, smoking cigarettes and drinking pastis at the Café de la Place.