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The game of boules is truly Provencal, and typifies the easy life in the warm sun with the smell of lavender and the sounds of clanking balls and glasses of pastis and the chatter of friends. Our photo shows a group of young friends playing pétanque in front of the medieval walls of Venasque. (Click on the photo for a larger view - 22k.) Boules is a general name for the game of Pétanque and its predeceders longue, butaban and roulette, which themselves evolved from mail (pinball) and quilles (skittles).

While pétanque was once a masculine sport, it's now practiced by all, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. Pétanque is also an everyman's sport: no uniforms, no special equipment, no expensive supporting teams or mechanics or engineers required. Little kids can get heavy plastic boules at the grocerie store before going on vacation. In the village of St. Paul de Vence, the famous French movie actors Lino Ventura and the late Yves Montand regularly played pétanque in the main square in front of the café, amidst tourists and friends.

The Game

In pétanque, a little wooden ball (the cochonnet) is thrown out as a target, at a distance of 6 to 10 meters. The players, with three boules each and divided into two teams, then take turns throwing their heavy iron boules to land as close as possible to the cochonnet. The boules are polished steel, and each set of three is engraved with a pattern of concentric circles or squares for identification.

A player from one team throws first, and then a player from the second team. After that, a player from the team that does not have the closest boule to the cochonnet throws. When all boules have been thrown, the team with the closest boule gets a point for every one of their boules closer to the cochonnet than the closest of the opposing team.

Comparing distances of closely matched boules is done with everything from long broken sticks or a string to a purpose-built measuring tape. When the round is over the boules are picked up, with a strong magnet on the end of a cord for those to infirm or lazy to bend over, and polished clean of dust for the next round. A throwing line is drawn in the dirt and the cochonnet is thrown out again, often back in the opposite direction, for the next round. The team aquiring thirteen points first wins.

Throwing is always done with careful concentration and great style. One usually leans forward to study the terrain, then squat down slowly, the boule held down at the side with palm and fingers facing aft. Then the boule is launched in a backhand throw to arc up and land close to the cochonnet. The player can point, try to drop the boule as close as possible to the cochonnet, or tirer, knock an opponent's boule away. When the boule knocks another far away while remaining itself beside the cochonnet, cheering is usually reserved for the next player will probably undo that fine result.

Some Provencal History

The variations of boules (longue, butaban and roulette) were very popular in Provence during the 18th century. Longue developed into the difinitive game in the early 19th century, when the boules were made of box wood sheathed in nails. The game was so popular, and the boules so dangerous, that many bystanders complained of injuries, that it forbidden to play in the more public areas. That hardly slowed the playing, however, as boules continued at cafés and in gardens (guinguettes).

In longue, the player moves as he throws, taking one stide if pointing or three strides to tirer. One fine June day in 1910, a player in La Ciotat (on the coast between Marseille and Toulon) couldn't take the three steps and decided to throw while standing with his feet together. And so was born the game of pétanque.

The player that decided not to take three steps was a former champion with arthritis, or some painfull illness like that, that prevented him from moving in the standard way. So he kept playing but without taking the three steps, and the locals played with him using this new rule out of respect of this great man.