It’s Saturday afternoon and, after an excellent birthday lunch for my son, we find ourselves in a square before a medieval church watching one of the more unusual village events we’ve ever attended.
We’re in the little village of Pellegrue in the Entre Deux Mers area of Aquitaine as it celebrates its annual Fête de la Palombe (wood pigeon festival). Many of the men are wearing berets: so many that it looks like an English parody of a French village.
We assume that the berets with the pigeon emblem are being worn by members of the local pigeon fanciers club, but they don’t seem to be pigeon fanciers in the English sense. They don’t keep pigeons in lofts and race them, it is more about capturing wild pigeons with decoys and elaborate traps. But what they do with them after that is anyone’s guess, perhaps they are gourmets who capture pigeons for the table.
A couple of trees have been set up in big concrete containers in the square so that they look as if they grow there naturally. In the air above us a man in a harness has hauled himself up into the greenery of one of the trees and is demonstrating various pigeon fancier activities with an array of tools clipped to his workbelt. Quite what he is actually demonstrating is hard to work out, and it’s not helped by the commentator on the ground with a mic. The PA system is turned up so loud it’s distorting and we can’t hear what he’s saying.
Then there’s the tall man with a long grey beard and broad-brimmed hat who’s herding about 20 geese with two sheep dogs. The dogs are constantly circling the geese, concentrating and anticipating their movements.
The goose-herder doesn’t even need to issue instructions to the dogs, they do it by instinct. Only now and again does he stop talking to hush a goose if it starts to puff itself up and stretch its wings.
Now a Gascon folk dancing perform just in front of the church door. One of the dances is particularly odd. It starts with couples promenading slowly to a dirge like tune, the men pulling extraordinary faces, as if they are drunk or gaga. Then they break into a joyful lively dance before going back to the peculiar promenade. This is repeated several times.
Back to pigeons. The programme calls it a ‘cooing competition’. A successions of men go into a hide and appear at the window as if they’re on pigeon TV and start cooing into a microphone. One competitor, a little boy, shouts in annoyance “I haven’t finished yet!” when the man holding the microphone, thinking the boy has finished his impression, tries to move it away, Three judges sit in rapt concentration with their back to the hide, judging the competition.
My favourite competitor – who goes on to win – has a very impressive moustache and is of course wearing a beret.
The announcer awards prizes to all the wrong contestants and one of the judges has to step in, take back in all the prizes, and re-allocate them.
In the early evening there’s a concert of Gascon folk music in the church, but the sound is mainly lost in the building’s terrible acoustics. Then outside a Gascon banda plays very upbeat music in the main square of the village, before dinner is served under the early twentieth century iron and glass covered market. The main dish of course is wood pigeon.