You have heard of the Oktoberfest, the Lemon Festival or the Pig Festival. But do you know the "Bear Festival"? It is one of the oldest celebrations in Europe, which takes place every year in Catalan country, in Prats-de-Mollo - La Preste. This ancestral, carnival and burlesque tradition is held from February 26 to March 1, in a cheerful atmosphere. Bring out the bear inside you!
The legend of the demonic bear
Once upon a time, near Perpignan, a few kilometers from the Spanish border, there was a small town in Roussillon, Prats-de-Mollo - La Preste, renowned for its Vauban fortifications. One day, a lone bear was roaming the area, looking for a mate. Desperate, he kidnapped in the village a young shepherdess whom he kept prisoner in his cave. The beast in heat hastened to steal the virginity of the "gentle shepherdess".
Medieval legend says that a great bear hunt was then organized by the villagers to pull the young girl from the clutches of the ugly plantigrade. The hunt through the high massifs of Canigou lasted for days and nights. After long clashes, the animal was captured by villagers eager for revenge. They chained the bear and led him to the village square. There, the mayor organized a big party for the victory of these brave men. And, to humiliate the bear, he ordered that it be shaved with an ax. It is said that the beast took human form. As for knowing what became of the poor shepherdess… the legend does not say it!
The "Bear Festival", a tradition that continues
Since then, every year, the Pratéens celebrate “the diada of the bone”, a carnival celebration. More than a simple tradition, this festival symbolizes, in Catalan country, the victory of man over the beast and the powers of evil. Goodbye Winnie the Pooh or other Little Brown Bears from our childhood clichés: let the bear hunt begin!
On the day of the “bone diada”, the whole village gathers under the amused gaze of tourists. The festivities begin with a first dance entitled “sardane”: a light-footed round, during which the dancers, hands raised to the sky, seem to touch the ground only with their tiptoes before bouncing back.
The young men then begin their metamorphosis. The ritual takes place on a hill above the village, in the moat of Fort Lagarde. This is where the Pratéens disguise themselves during well-watered grills. Three young men from the village put on bearskin and smear themselves with soot and oil, the symbol of the last three bears in Costabonne. The other revelers dress up as hunters dressed in white: a real role-playing game from ancient times ...
Don't come dressed as a shepherdess
It was then that the first rifle shots fired by the hunters echoed through the village, with blank bullets, of course ... The drunken "bears", armed with clubs, - no worries, it's all about of a tradition - then descend the hill and attack the city. Mercilessly, they smear soot the faces of passers-by who fall under their claws, with a preference for young girls. Be careful, don't come dressed as a shepherdess! No gratuitous provocation ...
To curb the fury of the animals, the hunters, gourd of good wine slung over their shoulders, shoot (again blank) on the bears, which collapse. In a euphoric atmosphere, the bears are revived by a good glass of wine. They say that time heals wounds ... or is it Catalan wine?
The hunters then make their appearance in the village, acclaimed as true heroes. They chain the "animals" and shave them, as is the custom, in the public square, in front of the angry crowd. With the animal skin and soot removed, the "bears" gradually take on human form. Once this ritual has been accomplished, a music draws our happy friends to the rhythm of a frenzied round "Le ball de corre". The bear, meanwhile, has become human. Man has conquered the beast. This is the moral of the story and, in any case, a good opportunity to celebrate carnival while having fun.
Or sleep ? Where to eat?
Hotel Le Bellevue-Resto Bellavista: decent and well-kept rooms, some with balcony. The restaurant serves an excellent veal shank from the Pyrenees and very good local specialties. Service until 20:45 p.m. Tel. : 04-68-39-72-48. Internet: www.lebellevue.fr.st.