Clare Doyle explains  the “Estival”  in “Festivals”

In French the word for ‘summery’ is estival. Add the F at the beginning, and you’ve got it all, a time of celebration in the sunshine. Here in the Midi Pyrenees, we’re beginning to gear up for the festive season, and there is a huge amount on offer, from the somewhat strange to the internationally recognised, and a great deal in between.

How about the strange and eccentric?  Well, the outstanding event has to be Le Pourcailhade in a small town called Trie Sur Baise in the Hautes Pyrenees on 11 August 2011. This is a festival that celebrates the pig. There are pig races and pig markets, and the day’s major event is the pig squealing competition: contestants dress up as pigs, and compete for the most authentic pig sounds. Then everyone sits down for a meal and eats pig in all its iterations, charcuterie, rillettes, roast, sausages. This is France after all. Celebrate the animal, then eat it.

I’d also place Lourdes in the strange category. It’s a kind of holy honky tonk. The town itself, nestling in a beautiful valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is an extraordinary mixture. The centre is all commerce, and not surprisingly, the commerce is all around Bernadette Soubirous and the Virgin Mary. One or other of them is everywhere, their images adorning everything from lampshades to cigarette lighters to beer mats. There are statuettes that change colour and others that appear to wink as you pass. Closer to the grotto – where they have ‘shushing’ sounds coming over loudspeakers to remind you that this is a sacred place – there is more tranquillity but also the heartbreaking sight of seriously ill patients in wheelchairs beside the river. Because of the number of nurses, drivers, pilgrim guides, waiters, and hotel workers, Lourdes has a high proportion of young people, so unexpectedly boasts a thriving night-life. As for festivals, the 15th August is the big summer celebration and then the following week Lourdes becomes the gathering place for Romany travellers from all over France. Gitan music, colourful costumes, Lourdes absorbs them all.

If it’s music you’re interested in, there are a number of events celebrating Latin music. The reason for this apparent anomaly is said to be the result of the numbers of people who once left the region to farm in Argentina when times were hard but who kept their ties with home. So this year there is the Tempo Latino festival in Vic Fezensac (27-31 July 2011) one of the largest festivals of Latin music in Europe, which comprises concerts with some of the best of contemporary Latin artists. What is normally a small town becomes thronged with thousands of visitors, partying and dancing in the streets. Tarbes, the capital of the Hautes Pyrenees, celebrates the tango (20-28 August). The town gives itself over to dance, and many of the concerts and events are free. Then there’s Samba al Pais in Negrepelisse (1-3 July) which brings together Brazilian music and Occitan culture, music, dance, language courses. It seems a little unlikely, the rather formal traditional Occitan music, linking itself to the exuberance of Brazil, but it seems to work.

Classical and sacred music is also well represented. There are musical nights in Armagnac, a series of concerts in several of the beautiful little walled towns of the area – and then there’s the Armagnac! Many chateaux host chamber music and orchestras through July and August. Gavarnie, in the Hautes Pyrenees has a wondrous natural arena with the mountains forming the backdrop to the stage, where there are spectacular outdoor evening performances of drama and music. This year it’s Quasimodo (16-30 July). The arena is a thirty-minute walk from the town of Gavarnie and at the end of the performance flaming brands light your way back to the parking lots.

France has a strong tradition when it comes to jazz, dating back to the 1920s when black American jazz players began to settle in Paris to escape segregation. There are several well-established jazz festivals in the Pyranees region. The most important, Jazz in Marciac (29 July-15 August) attracts musicians from all over the world. The population of 1,300 swells to 100,000 over the course of the festival, transforming what is normally a quiet market town into the capital of jazz. A huge marquee on the rugby pitch seats six thousand people for the main concerts, and throughout the day there are free sessions in the main square.

If something more intimate than the formal concerts in Marciac are what you want, there are plenty of others. Take Souillac en jazz (19-24th July) which concentrates on bringing together European musicians, and those from other parts of the globe, this year there are Israeli as well as Lebanese players joining Italian and French performers. Many of the concerts are free, and the outdoor concerts have as their backdrop the magnificent romanesque cathedral, while others are held in the nearby caves at Lacave. If you prefer a view of the mountains then Jazz at Luz Saint Saveur (7-10 July) would be a good spot, the festival an extremely eclectic mix of the funky, the progressive, and the frankly weird.

Two country music festivals also take place in the region, the biggest at Mirande (13-17 July), those of us who live in the area know when Mirande is on, suddenly the roads are filled with the rich sounds of revving Harley Davidsons, the local markets see rangy men wearing cowboy hats haggling prices. On a smaller scale Gramat (18-21 August) also pays its dues to country music, concerts in the square, line dancing and western riding lessons.

In Fleurance, a beautiful bastide town in the Gers, for something more unusual, there is Cuivre’foliz (22-24 July) – a celebration of brass bands throughout the streets of the town. Over two days, there is heard nothing but the sound of brass – noisy, joyful, fun. If you want to escape the noise, you can spend time at La Ferme des Etoiles where a festival of astronomy is organised in August, star-gazing with expert input, exploring the gloriously clear skies of the South West. Then there’s riff mania in Castelnau Riviere Basse, (27-28 August) a celebration of rock, funk, noisy stuff.

Vaour has a festival dedicated to humour in all its guises, circus, one-man shows, story-telling, theatre. This town of 300 inhabitants has been host to the festival since 1986 when a group of friends, lovers of performance, decided to put on a few shows for the entertainment of the village, Vaour now welcomes upwards of 12,000 visitors during the 6 days of the festival (9-14 August) where most of the shows and performances are free.

Then there are others festivals dedicated to street theatre, marionettes, story-telling, the art of books, historical pageants, something for everyone, even a festival of fireworks. Between the beginning of July and the end of August, you could be attending a festival somewhere in the region more or less any night of the week, and that’s apart from the many local village celebrations. As far as the Midi Pyrenees is concerned ‘festive’ is the right word, and you don’t have to buy anyone presents.

For more information the website will fill you in on the 80 or so other events I haven’t had the space to describe.

Ryanair flies from Dublin to Carcassone, Biarritz, and from Cork to Carcassonne
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Toulouse and Bordeaux
Easyjet flies Belfast to Biarritz
Cityjet flies Dublin to Pau

© 2011 Clare Doyle