A not to be missed yearly event
Built on the banks of the river Tech, surrounded by mountains, Prats de Mollo was one of the most important border towns in the area, and today still boasts much evidence of its rich and glorious past; architectural and traditional.
During the winter months, two events traditionally take place at Prats, delighting all who attend, and causing visitors to return year after year: la journée de l’ours (the day of the bear) and the fetes de Carnaval
Blackened from soot, oil and sweat, biting and clawing at everything in its path, superb and majestic, the last of the bears of Costabonne comes down into the town. Each bears the mark of the bear, the most ancient tradition of the carnival. This is the opening to the Fete de l’Ours et carnaval de Prats de Mollo which used to take place traditionally on the 2nd February, the ‘fete de la Chandeleur’ or Candlemas but is now held on the second Sunday of the February half term. (Académie de Montpellier)
The events, according to the legend, took place near the Col d’Ares, about 13 km from Prats de Mollo,at the foot of mont Falgas,
The legend goes that long ago, a young shepherdess fainted from shock when she stumbled upon a bear whilst tending her flock.
The bear, who was actually the devil in disguise, took advantage of her swoon and spirited her away to the caves intending to seduce her and steal her virginity. The young damsel however, prayed to Notre Dame du Coral, nearby chapel overlooking the valley, to preserve her virtue, and the bear was unable to approach her.
Every time he tried, he was repulsed, causing him to howl with frustration, and attracting the attention of woodcutters felling trees in the area.
On the ninth day of her captivity, the ‘jour de la Chandeleur, they responded to her cries and, pushing aside the heavy stone blocking the entrance, rescued the young shepherdess and returned her to her parents.
The thwarted bear was furious, his enraged howling resounding throughout the valley. The hermit of Notre Dame du Coral, along with a local farm boy, followed the howling and spotted the bear at the top of a large tree overlooking a precipice, eating berries.
When he descended for the night, they cut the branch so that it was much weakened, and on the bear’s return the next day, he climbed on the branch and fell to his death!
On the second Sunday of the February half term holidays, the young people of Prats meet up at Fort Lagarde,for a boozy meal during which the bears, chosen several weeks before, are prepared for the festival. Some will play the bears (usually the fittest amongst them!) and others will be the hunters.
Bear skins are sewn onto the bears and their faces and hands are blackened with a mixture of suie (soot) and huile (oil). The bears are also provided with a very solid stick.
The hunters are provided with shot guns filled with blanks and a gourd of good wine.
Three shots from the redan Ste Marguerite at Fort Lagarde are the signal for the hunt to begin.
The bears run, the hunters follow and the crowd cheer and scream, deafened by gunfire, excited by the smell of gunpowder, drunk on the atmosphere….
Eventually the ‘hommes en blanc’ or ‘barbiers’ intervene. They are covered in flour and dressed in white with lace bonnets! They are armed with heavy chains. One of them also has an axe, another carries a botifarra (locally made black pudding!!) and a cuvette (basin)
After a final, conclusive struggle, the barbiers catch and chain up the bears who are taken to the place du foiral accompanied by music.
The bears are made to sit down on chairs where they are ‘shaved’ by the barbiers, using the axe for a rasor and the black pudding for soap and ‘humanised’
The day of the bear finishes with a Bal de Corre in which bears, hunters and barbers dance around in a frenzied circle until a gun shot rings out and the bears fall to the ground, dead.
SOME BEAR FEST VOCABULARY
The children of the village dress up in white and cover their faces in flour, after which they parade through the streets making as much noise as possible, banging on pans and bin lids with anything that they can get their hands on!
**Encadenat (link up)
Exactly what it sounds like! Young and old, dressed in flamboyant and colourful costumes, join together to form a long line as they dance through the streets of the town, conga-like!
***Ball de la Posta
The ‘posta’ is a plank of 1m50 long and 30cm wide, which a picture of a pretty girl at one end, representing the virgin, and a devil on the other side. Dancers range themselves in couples opposite the carrier of la posta and his colleague who carries a wooden sword. The dancers advance three times, in couples, towards the armed pair. The first time they bow, the second time the lady must kiss the face on the posta, choosing devil or virgin, and the third time, she gets a smack on the bottom with the plank! In olden days, this dance was a judgement on vice and virtue!
This takes place during the masked ball on the Tuesday evening. Dressed in white, covered in flour, and equipped with a lit candle, come onto the dance floor and form a circle. They then dance round in a circle and try to set the person in front alight!!!!! a chap or chapesse with a broom – le porteur du balai – is on hand to put any unfortunates out! ( Tio means log and is actually represented by a roll of paper stuck on the back of each dancer. It is this that they try to set alight rather than the whole person!!)