The sport of pétanque – or boules – reminds me of childhood holidays on France’s Côte d’Azur. Yet the game is coming to the United Kingdom. From 5 to 7 June 2015 some of the world’s leading players will be playing in London at the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.
I used to watch games, played with metal boules, unfolding on gravel strips in parks and under trees on public squares. The convivial matches always seemed to have an air of informality and be accompanied by conversation, laughter and an aromatic blend of French tobacco. Fascinated, I’d watch players standing with their feet together – concentrating on the cochonnet (the jack) – before wristily looping a boule into the group of metallic spheres already in play. I was so impressed I invested some of my holiday money in a boldly coloured plastic set so that I could play (and beat) my brother.
Playing Pétanque in London
The Londonaise, thankfully, is not just for experienced players. My boules have not been out of the garden shed for several years now, so I don’t foresee myself challenging for any of the £5,000 prize fund.
“It’s for people to say, ‘you know what, let’s play petanque, let’s play boules,'” says Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the event, as we chat in Angelus, his London restaurant and lounge.
“All you need to do is buy a set of boules and you can play anywhere. When the weather is nice you can apply a little bit of technique and enjoy a game. That’s what pétanque is about – being together,” he says with a Gallic shrug.
International cash prize boules
“This year is the second time we’re doing this. The most important day is the Sunday, with £5,000 in cash prizes. We’ve got four world champions confirmed as coming to play,” he adds.
The competition will involve 128 teams with three players. Teams doing well in the Sunday morning qualification stage will have a chance to compete for prize money. The remainder will play-off in a wooden spoon event.
Mercury Phoenix Trust fundraising
“On the Friday we’re doing a special event for the Mercury Phoenix Trust in order to raise money for AIDS. That’s an invitation-only, celebrity event and we’ll have an auction of a Brian May guitar,” says Thierry, who is a native of Toulouse and a passionate pétanque player.
“People are coming from all over the world to play in the Londonaise. We’ve got a team from Estonia, two teams from Sweden, one each from Spain and Lithuania, two from France and the British champion. It’s serious, in a way, but still fun. The Sunday is going to be serious, because you’re playing for money. But the Saturday is far more relaxed – you can come with your family from 1pm for a 2pm start. Get some fresh air, bring the kids, enjoy! It’s in Barnard Park, seven minutes from St Pancras and the Eurostar,” says Thierry with enthusiasm.
Barnard Park, I learn, has a playing area the size of two football pitches and is surrounded by a grassy bank, trees and benches.
The rules of pétanque
I ask Thierry for a quick recap on the rules of pétanque and he’s happy to oblige.
“You can play one person against one, a team of two against two, or triplets. The first team to arrive at 13 points wins the game. So of course there’s a lot of tactics and skill,” he explains.
My face must cloud with concern when I hear those words.
“You don’t need to say ‘I won’t come to the Londonaise because people will be playing much better than me,'” says Thierry, to put me at ease. “The aim of the Londonaise is that people who know how to play pétanque will show you. That’s also the meaning of the Londonaise – sharing pleasure all together…even if you don’t have boules we have some and you can borrow some,” says Thierry.
Before the Londonaise gets underway I’ll be digging out my long forgotten plastic set for a spot of practice.
See the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival website for more details about the event, including how to register and participate. Stalls in Barnard Park will sell French food and drink during the festival.
The event will be raising funds for The Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. The charity was founded in memory of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who died from AIDS in 1991.