‘Laroque d’Olmes, below Montaillou, was a small market town which produced cloth. At the local fair, which in the fourteenth century was held on 16th June, local cloth was sold, together with wood, fish, sheep, pottery and blankets from the Couserans.’ That’s what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie says in ‘Montaillou’, his wonderful examination of Catharism in the Ariège village of Montaillou at the turn of the 14th century.
Laroque’s June fair had already been a long-established event by then, and over the years it’s evolved. Our contemporaries in town remember when it was still a hugely important event in the agricultural calendar, something like the fair that’s still held every year in nearby Tarascon. There were animals everywhere. One area was given over to cattle, another to sheep and others to all the usual farmyard creatures. And at night there was dancing. Bands belted out dance music on both Place de la Cabanette, and Place de la Republique. It was quite a party, both for the Laroquais and for villagers from miles around.
At some point in the fairly distant past, the Fête became associated not with 16th June, but with the Catholic festival of Corpus Christi. So it’s still called Festo del Corpus, though there are no religious ceremonies.
We love the idea that this fair has an unbroken history going back nearly1000 years. If only we could love the fair itself.
No animals or shepherds now. It all begins during the week beforehand. Fairground caravans arrive and make the open ground near the river their home for the week. In the car park just along from our back garden, municipal workmen clang and clatter all day long, erecting a stage and a marquee for the various performers who’ll be on duty for much of the weekend. The locals look on, unimpressed. For scores and scores of us, the weekend means three nights of little sleep as the bands on stage boom their way through a noisy repertoire lasting from early evening, when they start to limber up, to two or three o’clock next morning. Wander round to watch the dancing on those nights, and you’ll not find many locals. It’s mainly out-of-towners, and we’ve learnt not to trust them all. Two years running, our window boxes at the front of our house were stolen: now we remove them for the duration.
We leave town for the Fête. This year, we only went 7 miles to stay with friends, though often we’ll try to take a short holiday. Popping back briefly at 11 o’clock on Saturday night, I found the town as busy as Oxford Street in the January Sales, and our bedroom windows vibrating in time to the boom of the bass notes thundering from the stage. Some years though, there are only a few hardy types twirling around in time to the music.
During the day, there’s the fun fair, majorettes, bands. But they say the fair’s expensive, and while most people enjoy a stroll round to people-watch and chat to friends, there’s little sense that this event is a focus for the community.
I wouldn’t like Laroque Fête to disappear. But perhaps it’s time to take stock and look at how it can become again what it once was: a summer event for everyone in town and to a lesser extent the villages beyond. It seems that too many people at the moment actively avoid it or at best are unenthusiastic and uninvolved. And that’s the way for an event that’s happened every year for many hundreds of years to wither and die: which would be sad.