Playing Petanque, the Game that is Uniquely French

Published by Traveller | By Steve McKenna

It is a lovely, balmy evening in Provence – perfect weather for alfresco aperitivo and a few games of petanque. Handily, our hotel, Le Couvent des Minimes, a swanky spa resort set in a converted convent at the foot of Mane, a medieval hilltop village, has its own plane tree-shaded boulodrome (petanque pitch). And standing before us, armed with a box of shiny metal boules, is a veteran of the local petanque scene, Bernard Raymond.

As we sip champagne and nibble on almonds, olives and cherry tomatoes, Bernard regales us with the rules and techniques of a pastime that’s played in towns and villages across France, but particularly in Provence, its spiritual heartland, where it rose to prominence in the early 19th century.

Describing it as “a convivial game to play with friends” (albeit one with a competitive edge), petanque, says Bernard, revolves around le cochonnet (the piglet). Games begin by tossing this little wooden ball – also known as the jack – about six or seven metres down the dusty, uneven boulodrome, with players, who must stand in a “throwing circle”, then trying to launch their (much larger and heavier) boules as close to the target as possible, using a palm-down, back-handed flick-of-the-wrist technique.

Games usually involve two or three pairs of players, but we split our group into threes – with Bernard’s blessing – and play until sunset. Cue lots of awful throws that end up out of the boulodrome (mainly from me), lucky shots and half a dozen genuinely superb strokes that have Bernard purring: “Oui, oui, c’est bien!”

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