Once upon a time, according to legend, there was a Roman legionnaire who arrived in Dax with his elderly canine companion. The dog suffered from rheumatism and walked so slowly that the soldier left him in Dax while he went off to do whatever it was Roman legionnaires did, coming back for his old friend a while later. In his absence the dog had been rolling in the mud on the banks of the river and such were the health giving properties of the mud that the dog’s rheumatism was completely cured.
Dax has been well known as a spa town for a long time now, though whether it dates back to Roman times, I couldn’t tell you. The town’s other claim to fame is its annual fête, held over four days around August 15th, the second largest in the south west of France, beaten only by Bayonne.
I thought it’d be rude not to take a look.
The first thing that struck me as I approached the town was how wrong my clothes were; almost everybody else was dressed in white and red. There were stalls on the roadsides, selling shorts, tee-shirts, neckerchiefs, scarves, all in white and red.
I could see a large crowd by the side of the river, so went to see what was happening. It was the opening ceremony; groups of people were dressed up as all kinds of Romans; soldiers, dancing girls, elders from the forum, camp followers….. There were battles re-enacted between the Romans and the Gauls, then Caesar and his wife appeared, riding in a chariot. It seems that normally they arrive by boat, but the water level in the river was too low this year.
I walked into Dax for three of the four days, dressed appropriately, having unearthed white shorts, a white and red tee shirt from the back of the wardrobe, as well as a pair of red earrings. The bull fighting events didn’t interest me, but the stalls showing various aspects of local history and traditional local crafts were fascinating. In the area around the arènes were several big marquees, all of which were restaurants, catering to the thousands of hungry visitors. I didn’t want a sit down meal, but treated myself to an excellent cone of chicken kebab and chips from one of the many fast food vans.
On the last two days there was the “grand défilé”, or procession. Groups of musicians and dancers from numerous countries, as well as locals and the inevitable Bandas bands, join in this event, all dressed in traditional costume. There were Mexicans in sombreros, Spaniards in flamenco costumes, Scots in kilts, playing bagpipes, Ecuadorians, Basques and lots of others. One of the Bandas bands apparently choose a theme each year, dress up and play music appropriately; their theme this year was Charles and Camilla. The musicians all dressed up as beefeaters and played “Land of Hope and Glory” while the “King and Queen” were pulled along in a chariot.
There were all sorts of events, from a competition to see who could kick a rugby ball the furthest across the river (they’re rugby mad around here), to stilt dancing and initiation into walking with the traditional stilts, used by shepherds when the land was mostly marsh. There seemed to be bands playing in many of the bars and the atmosphere was great.
I was advised by several people only to go in the daytime; apparently the nights get quite wild. Certainly in the mornings there were plenty of cars parked all over the place, windows and/or doors open, full of sleeping bodies and certain parts of the town smelt distinctly unsavoury.
A very interesting few days, though I wouldn’t like to have to clean up after it.