Bartholomew Fair, French-style
A sad story, this saint’s by all acounts: he was one who came to an especially grisly end, making him thereafter identifiable in mediaeval sculpture by a figure of a man holding his own skin in folds over one arm. Not an especially cheerful image, so let’s move on to happier ones. St Bartholomew, patron saint of tanners (that skin again – sorry; but it’s hard to escape it) and also the sick in certain circumstances (relax, we’re not going there). His jour de fête falls on the 24 August, and in London a great fair was held to commemorate it in and around Smithfield and the neighbouring Spital of Saint Bartholomew for centuries until its suppression in 1855. Ben Jonson’s play, Bartholomew Fair (1614), deals with one such event.
In France the Festival has tragic and bloody associations, as it was on the Eve of Saint Bartholomew that the massacre of Huguenots began in Paris in 1572, the beginning signalled by the steady tolling of a bell with the atrocities continuing into the next day, the Saint’s Day itself, and beyond. For from Paris, the carnage spread into 10 other cities during the following couple of months. Patrice Chéreau’s vivid and masterly 1994 film, la Reine Margot (based on the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas) covers the period from the lead-up to the massacre to its aftermath. The parallels with Bosnia are implicit, but never overdone. It was one of those seismic events in history which, later, appear to mark a crucial turning point. Things were certainly never quite the same again.
But we are not here to discuss the gruesome turbulence of the 16th century. And happily the fact remains that this festival day is – and otherwise usually has been – one where producers and buyers meet, friends and neighbours gather, good food and drink is bought and consumed, and there is music and dancing. Congeniality and conviviality meet commerce.
And that’s definitely the interpretation and the practice of observing this festival in Nice. Here an entire weekend has been devoted to a fair showcasing both local produce and patrimoine, ‘la Fête des Produits du Compté de Nice’ – la Fiera de la San Bertomieu, if you’re a resident of Nice or the arrière pays. For two days Vieux Nice turned into one great marketplace, a riot of colour and display. All this variety merged into one great shout of joy and pride in what the area has to offer and celebrate. And there’s an awful lot! Food for the body, with olive oil; honey; cheese; charcuterie; bread; socca, and
finally les vins de Bellet – it’s been a good year for them, with a cool, wet winter and spring followed by a long, hot summer. Food for the mind, with books on local history, language and culture, and the many and varied offerings of local assocations. Handy, decorative items handcrafted by local potters or wood turners, adhering to William Morris’s dictum that a house should contain only that which is both useful and beautiful. The riches on view are staggering.
Easy, then, to wander for hours, viewing, tasting – buying, even! Stopping for a chat with stallholders at a moment creux, learning about their life’s work while they await further custom. And throughout the music of the mountains is a constant accompaniment to the stallholders’ hopes, the prospective customers’ caprices. The sounds are rich and varied, ranging from the soulful singing of male voice choirs to the jauntiness and energy of dance music. Dancers are out in force, including the wonderful troupe Nice la Bella, composed of handsome men and women in colourful traditional costume performing with smiling gusto the dances of the region to the thump of drumbeats and the swirl of accordeons. They draw huge – and hugely appreciative – crowds everywhere they go, always finishing off their show with a heartfelt rendition of Nissa la Bella, the local anthem.
And that does, indeed, seem a fitting – and fittingly upbeat – end to a celebration of all that is real, authentic, natural, bio ... ours! Nissa la Bella, a hymn celebrating the land and life itself. So, all together now: “Nissa! Nissssaaaaaaaaaaaa! Nissa la BELL-AAAAA!”
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