In search of: Cowboys in Gascony

You may think that rodeo sports and the French are as compatible as Dolly Parton and Piaf.
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The Independent Travel

Yes, real cowboys in the south- west of France, where the little corner that is Gascony boasts a smattering of cattle ranches. The region's wild cows, complete with a fierce set of horns, are bred there to compete in the course landaise, some 450 competitions between men and beast lasting from March to October.

Yes, real cowboys in the south- west of France, where the little corner that is Gascony boasts a smattering of cattle ranches. The region's wild cows, complete with a fierce set of horns, are bred there to compete in the course landaise, some 450 competitions between men and beast lasting from March to October.

Hang on, that sounds suspiciously like a Spanish bullfight

Actually, the French are at pains to stress that this is nothing like a bullfight – the cows are not killed and often compete for 15 years before retiring. True, the competitions are held in arenas with the competitors kitted out in spangly bolero jackets. But instead of seeing a gory, bloodthirsty battle in which the bull rarely wins, spectators witness a spectacular display of acrobatics and nerves carried out to a soundtrack of throbbing music.

At the cow's charge, the men wait until there is only a hair's breadth between them and the horns before leaping horizontally and somersaulting over the animal (done by the sauteurs – jumpers) or swerving away elegantly at the last minute, their feet barely moving from the spot they were standing on (done by the écarteurs). You hold your breath as the cow whizzes past. The show gets even more spectacular when a line of six men stand in front of the charging cow, their feet wedged into their berets, legs tied together, and jump over it one by one. Though any competition is worth watching, the two big ones are the Corne d'Or (Golden Horn) when the best cow wins a trophy, and the Championat de France, when the best écarteur is selected.

Is there any reason why cows are used instead of bulls?

The cows have a piece of rope attached to their horns, held by the cordier, who uses it to help pull the animal's head away from the écarteur at the critical moment. Bulls are too strong to guide using the rope and after a while refuse to charge the length of the ring. Even with the rope, there is still a considerable risk of the écarteur being gored. The men get marked out of five for the level of danger and artistry of their manoeuvre, but out of seven for the much more dangerous internal écart, when a turn on the same side as the rope means the cordier cannot guide the cow's head. Occasionally, both the écarteur and the cordier misjudge the situation and the horns make painful contact. Last year, an écarteur was gored to death. More than a few eyebrows were raised when a woman joined the ranks of the écarteurs.

So where did the tradition originate?

It's a bit of a mystery. Some trace it back to ancient Crete, where a fresco at Heraklion shows a man jumping over a cow; when the Cretans emigrated, they took their traditions with them. Michel Lalanne, president of the Federation of the Course Landaise, puts it down to the English. "The first official document was found in 1457 when France took possession of Aquitaine from the English and they founded the custom then," he said. Races originally held in the streets were later confined to arenas because of the danger. Even there, they excited criticism; in the 17th century, they were forbidden by the Bishop of Aire, an act which caused a revolt. Now there are about 100 arenas in the villages of the départements of the Gers and the Landes – Estang has a quaint arena with tiled roof and wooden seating that dates back to 1901. It is so much a part of the local culture that "coming to Gascony and not going to see the courses landaises is like going to London without seeing Buckingham Palace", said Lalanne.

Where can I find out more?

There is a small museum at Bascons, but the best way to get to grips with the subject is to visit a cattle ranch. At Ganaderia de Buros in Escalens, Jean Barrere is the third generation of cattle raisers and grew up nourishing a passion for the courses landaises from childhood when he used to play at it with his bicycle. He started out as an écarteur when he was 15 but stopped 10 years later having spent three months immobile with an injured knee. During his career, he also broke his ribs and pulled tendons, but considers himself lucky not to have broken either legs or arms. "It is a point of honour if you get hurt between you and the cow and you need to get up and face them again," he said. Though the cows' horns are now taped so they are not so dangerous, it is still like "being hit by a hammer", said Barrere. Make sure you leave lots of time to visit him – he will explain the moves with the help of various videos and mannequins, tell you about the man who competed at the age of 83, give you a demonstration in his mini arena and even let you have a go on a mechanical cow. Oh, and he also has a herd of 50 live cattle to see.

So do all these cows mean that country music is big in the region?

Yes. The town of Mirande has become a focal point for country music fans and has a Country Music Festival in July. Running for a decade and reportedly the biggest in Europe, this huge open-air party has four days of back-to-back concerts featuring the likes of the UK's Sarah Jory and Rebecca Venture from the US. It is easy to find your way there – just follow the trails of people in suede tassled jackets riding Harley Davidsons. Even if you do not like country music and do not want to learn how to dance to it, it is worth going to feast your eyes on Buicks and Chevrolets, wagons and tepees, and a whole host of interesting outfits. If you want to fit in, you can kit yourself out from the stalls, which sell everything from Stetsons to cowboy boots. And if you are feeling brave, you can queue up to get a tattoo of your favourite motorbike. Here, people dress up their bicycles with a papier-mâché horse's head and reins and the children's roundabout is real ponies fixed to a carousel. There is a bucking bronco, strategically placed next to a café to entertain everyone else.

Great. So tell me how to get there

Air France (0845 0845 111; www.airfrance.com/uk) flies to Toulouse from £107 return, and Buzz (08702 407070; www.buzzaway.com) flies there from £128 return. Car hire is available through Holiday Autos (0870 400 4441; www.holidayautos.com from £130 per week.

Next door to the Ganaderia de Buros is the elegant 19th-century Chateau de Buros (0033 558 443440; www.chateau deburos.com), all turrets and shutters, its rooms full of fresh matching fabrics. Bed and breakfast costs €88 per room. About half an hour's drive away is the Chateau du Bascou (0033 562 690412), a charming chambre d'hote in the middle of the French countryside at Bouzon-Gellenave. This creeper-clad country house has three rooms, one with a four-poster bed and a superb view over the park. Bed and breakfast costs €60 per room. Dinner is €18.

The Championat de France of the Courses Landaises will be held at Nogaro on 6 October. Further details from the French Tourist Board (09068 244 123, calls charged at premium rate; or visit www.franceguide.com).

Ganaderia de Buros (0033 558 443657) is open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons, entrance €6.

Festival de Mirande (0033 562 667853; www.country-musique.com), entrance €20 per day, €60 for a four-day ticket.

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