It seems wholly appropriate that as we’re in France I should commit a serious faux pas.
“Ah,” I say smugly, pointing to a jolly fat man with a beard who’s about to down a frothy pint of ale. “That’s Tartarin isn’t it?”
I expect the girl behind the desk of Beaucaire’s tourist office to be impressed with my local knowledge. Instead she takes a theatrical step backwards and does something that I thought only happened in farces and cheesy British TV comedy series.
“Ooh la la!” She gasps.
How was I supposed to know that the fat man with a beard in Beaucaire’s lovely tourist brochures wasn’t the same fat man with a beard beloved of the people of Tarascon 500 metres away on the other side of the Rhone? Or that both towns had been bitter rivals since before BC became AD and the very suggestion that one would use the other’s hero in a tourist brochure was enough to cause offence and an outburst of ‘ooh la las’?
Beaucaire and Tarascon. French towns on either side of the Rhone that are similar in some ways and very different in others. Whilst Beaucaire is in Languedoc, Tarascon is in Provence. Both boast castles, built no doubt to keep an eye on the other town. Beaucaire’s was built at the end of the 12th century, Tarascon’s in the early 15th century.
Don’t tell the folks of Beaucaire, but Tarascon Castle is by far the better of the two; although both are worth a visit.
Both towns have historic centres which somehow manage to feel classically French with hints of ancient Rome and, in some parts, heavy lashings of North Africa. When we first arrived in Beaucaire after dark, parked in the car park below the castle and made our way to the southern French styled canal bank through dark narrow streets most of the people we passed were wearing djellabas. We though we must have taken a serious wrong turning somewhere and had somehow ended up in Morocco.
And both have their own monster.
In Tarascon it’s the Tarasque, a fierce scaly creature with teeth like horns, said to be half dragon half fish.
The Tarasque had been wreaking terror on the town of Nerluc until a fresh faced young woman called Martha arrived by boat at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to spread word about a new fangled religion called Christianity. Martha (Saint Martha to you and me) travelled to Nerluc and, thanks to her gentle persuasive ways, succeeded where the town’s toughest soldiers had failed; she went to the river where the monster just happened to be finishing off a meal of a local shepherd and promptly tamed the Tarasque.
Martha then made a rope from her braided hair and led the Tarasque into the town of Nerluc. The residents were so impressed with her feat that they praised her to the high heavens (which they didn’t actually know about at that point)… and then killed the Tarasque. You know, the usual way humans react when faced with a creature they’re not familiar with.
If a spacemen ever has come travelling Earth’s way, it’s no wonder he’s keeping himself to himself.
Martha castigated the people of Nerluc, pointing out the error of their ways. They were so ashamed that they converted to Christianity (nice result for Martha) and changed the town’s name from Nerluc to Tarascon in honour of the beast they’d slaughtered.
The whole sorry affair is celebrated in the town each June.
The tale might not be as fantastical as it first sounds. Some people believe the Tarasque might have been a crocodile that escaped into the Rhone as it was being brought back from Africa by returning soldiers. In those days, with no telly, nobody in Tarascon would have known what a crocodile looked like, so mistaking one for a dragon isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
The monster on the other side of the Rhone is quite different. The Drac was (possibly is) a shape-changer that could take on human form. Humans couldn’t see him in his true form. The Drac doesn’t sound too bad a creature even though he did capture a washerwoman to raise his son (no idea who the poor mother was) and kept her for seven years. But then he released her after that… which turned out to be a mistake. Thanks to a magic lotion she’d been given so that the she could see Drac and son during her seven years captivity, the washerwoman was able to see the Drac no matter what form he’d taken. One day she spotted him walking through the market. As she tried to alert others, the Drac heard her and ripped out her eye with his scaly claw so that she could no longer identify him.
After that the Drac was never seen again.
Maybe that was because the good folk of Tarascon across the river had killed him. Or possibly he still prowls the banks of the Rhone.
Even if the Drac/Tarasque been done in by the people of Tarascon, his son, Drac jnr, wasn’t…
More Tall Tales: Tartarin was a fictional hero/buffoon created by Alphonse Daudet. He was a Walter Mitty type character who spun tall tales of travel and adventure even though he’d never actually journeyed anywhere. Eventually Tartarin does travel to Algiers to hunt lions and discovers the real world isn’t quite as exotic as the one he’d painted. There’s a small exhibition dedicated to him in the Cloister of the Cordeliers and you can see images of Tartarin around Tarascon – the plump man with the beard usually sporting a fez.
However, no matter how similar they may look he is definitely not the fat man in Beaucaire’s tourist information brochure.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+