A French Street Party

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The French are exceptionally good at street parties. I remember going to my very first one in a village somewhere in southern France when I was about 20 years old and I have been hooked on them ever since. Throughout the summer little signs appear all over the place announcing the dates that each village will be having a party, or be “en fête“. In any given area during the summer months there is nearly always somewhere to go each weekend for fun, dancing, outdoor food and other entertainment.

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However it soon became apparent that the fête in question was a little out of the ordinary.  There were huge signs everywhere, even in the bigger towns, that advertised something very special. This was “Cigogne en Fête” which literally means “Stork Party”. I was fascinated and realised I needed to find out more! I asked a friend who has lived in the area for a long time what it was all about.

Charente Maritime has become one of the major breeding grounds in France for storks, and we see them everywhere. They nest high in trees, on huge electricity pylons, and in specially built nesting boxes. I see them flying around the fields every day in season and they’re always out stalking the wetlands of the Marais, searching for frogs, snails and other goodies; they certainly seem to live here in abundance. However, it wasn’t always like this. Decades ago the stork faced extinction in France and the proud people of this area made a decision to try and revive the giant birds’ breeding numbers, building specific nesting sites for them in an effort to encourage a growth in numbers.

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Over the years the storks used the new nests with huge success, and now the population is one of the largest and most established in Europe. The story of their triumph is fantastic, and local people started the tradition of “Cigogne en Fête” as a simple celebration of the success they had helped to start. Over the years the event has grown into a hugely popular annual attraction, and each year it is held in a different village in the area surrounding Rochefort known as Rochefort-Océan. This is an administrative area which comprises 25 communities and approximately 63,000 inhabitants in southern Charente Maritime.

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The excitement had been building for over a week. Signs informed us that roads would be closed for the weekend and driving through the nearby village last week, fields were being cordoned off as temporary parking and I could see people hard at work on houses, barns and other structures; huge boxes of electric lights were being unloaded from lorries and fairy lights were being strung in between rows of centuries old houses. Street lights had been covered in red plastic to add to the ambience. On occasion I could hear faint music as rehearsals reached their peak down dusty alleys.

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This was going to be quite a change for this normally sleepy quiet little village.

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Cigogne en Fête is no longer really just about storks, and as an event it’s turned into a street party that is probably the best I have ever been to. This was the 17th year of the fête; it was a cocktail of music, theatre, singing and dancing. Held over two nights from 9.30pm until 1am, it surely involves every inhabitant of the village. People open up their gardens, their garages and their barns and around 20 or so different groups perform, both professional and amateur artists.

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Walking around the illuminated village, down narrow lanes we never even knew existed, a show or act would suddenly appear in the semi-darkness, emerging out of some ancient front door or gracefully unfurling behind a low stone wall amongst old orchard trees. There was something to watch or listen to at every turn, sometimes silent and sometimes accompanied by music.

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The soft summer night hummed with revelation and quiet soulful intensity. Literally thousands of people mingled together in a very understated but attentive way, thronging the small makeshift bars in old buildings where people sold refreshments, and eating and laughing softly at the trestle tables that completely filled one street; covered in white tablecloths with a vase of flowers on each one, the scene was simply beautiful. People shared bottles of wine, passed food from fork to fork and what struck me most was how good natured it all was. There was no drunken revelry; the fête really was just a huge crowd of people of all ages having the most wonderful time.

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Thankfully the evening was warm and pleasant; the children found school friends and went off in different directions, perfectly safe, and a meeting place was arranged for 11.30pm; Roddy and I mingled with the mass of people and just, well, wandered. It was a fabulous, truly memorable occasion and something I shall look forward to repeating in another village, elsewhere, next year.

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http://www.loumessugo.com/en/blog/entry/all-about-france-17

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78 thoughts on “A French Street Party

    • Thanks Heather, it was magical, there is no other word for it. It’s a pretty village anyway, but it just came alive, illuminated in the darkness in the middle of nowhere, a very special night. Susan x

  • May I be the first to tell you that I’ve just turned green with envy? Yeah. I want to LIVE in France! Luckily, we’ll be in Theoule in two weeks so I’ll get my neighborhood on!
    But–you mentioned the marais and frogs. Did you ever see the movie “Les Enfants du Marais”? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167926/
    It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a sweet and lovely little film!!!

    • Hi Catherine, you will certainly have your fill of parties in the South of France and only two weeks to go, I’m excited for you! Have never seen the film, but have just looked it up and I shall now be sure to watch it with the rest of the family, Thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Susan x

  • Lovely description of a special time and the photos make the story come alive. Does look magical and memorable!!

  • This reminds me very much of the living streets traditions in Amsterdam, what a wonderful way to pass the time! All the lights are beautiful.

    • Hi Lily, I don’t know Amsterdam at all, I visited as a child but don’t remember that much. It sounds lovely, I know our eldest daughter is very keen to live there. Have a lovely holiday weekend, Susan x

  • What fun! They really did go all out. At our village fete everyone brings his own plate, glass and silverware, so we all arrive carting pretty little baskets.
    La Cigogne en Fete is clearly far more highly evolved.

    • This was huge! I spoke to the Mayor a few days before when I stopped to take photos, he said they were expecting 10,000 people over the two nights. But spread out over an entire village it really didn’t feel too crowded. Also most people ate before going there, as we did and arrived anytime after 9.30pm, the bar was purely snacks and drinks for anybody a little peckish! Happy Mother’s Day to you. Susan x

  • Thanks so much. What a treat this morning to read this. Do the storks stay all year or go south in the fall like the flamingos?

    Ali xx

    • Hi Ali, some of the storks do stay here all year round, some stay here all year round. I understand more overwinter here than anywhere else in Europe as we really have a very mild temperate climate. They start nesting very early in the year, around the beginning of March when it can still be as cold as any winter day. Susan xx

  • The French have an immense capacity for enjoying themselves with all age groups included. You are so lucky to be able to take part. Two weeks after we arrive, the Félibrée 2016 is being celebrated in our neighbouring village, St Aulaye. We are really looking forward to that. Much effort has been put into the preparation and there will be as much ,if not more, celebration.

    • Hi Gill, I have heard of the Felibree festival, it sounds like a fantastic celebration, so lucky you arrive before it takes place and that it is so going to be so close to you. Have a fantastic time and enjoy every second. As you say the French know how to have fun, the elderly along with the young, no one is worried about age, teenagers are happy to mix with their parents and grandparents, it’s one of the things I love most about France. Susan x

    • Thanks Kim, it is tough at night, some were not as clear as I would have liked, but there was nothing I could do, it was pretty dark! I just took endless photos and hoped some would come out! It was so much fun, a traditional French village fete, only much bigger than normal! Have a lovely Memorial weekend. Susan x

  • What a lovely communal spirit! I am very intrigued as to how this tradition of people opening up their houses came about, there must be an awful lot of trust involved.

    Beautiful photos!

    • Hi Helen, there is a lot of trust,and I think in this day and age it is wonderful, that and the fact that children are free to roam an entire village late at night in the dark. This is what indeed makes life here so special, it’s a wonderful way to live. Have a lovely holiday weekend, Susan x

  • I have been to several French fetes, and have always loved every one of them. This made me want to come back to France more than ever, thank you, I felt as if I was there.

    • Thank you Jane, as I said, I have been hooked for two decades now! I love the atmosphere and the fact that everyone joins in, young and old, teenagers and grandparents, age is not an issue. Have a lovely holiday weekend, Susan x

      • Thank you to you, as a result of your blog I have persuaded my husband that we should take a week in France this summer. We hadn’t planned our holiday and thought we might stay at home, but you’ve made me want to visit. So excited!

      • Not sure yet, thinking of taking the ferry to St malo and spending a few days in southern Brittany.

      • We spent several very happy weeks in the Morbihan, I remember the weather was fantastic and we had so much fun. I am sure you will have a wonderful time. So happy to have inspired you to come back to France! Enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Susan x

  • That’s fabulous, Susan! What a great night and how much fun it must have been to enjoy yourselves without all the aggro we get over here when something like that comes along. If that happened in Brighton or Eastbourne you wouldn’t have been able to move for police and there would have been unsavoury allsorts everyhwere. It really sounds as though you’ve found a place with echoes of the same sort of freedom as existed here 40 or 50 years ago. Jealous I am, madam, just a bit. 🙂

    • It was a lovely evening Phil and that’s what was so special, it was so relaxed. A couple of security men did walk past us. I commented on it. They were easily in their 60’s if not more and quite obviously retired and volunteers, very casual, they looked as if they were having as much fun as everyone else. I hope this remains to be the case in France always, it is wonderful to feel safe and for the children to have so much freedom. Susan x

  • I too fell in love with French street parties when I lived there. My husband and I will never forget a very special evening in Sarlat, in the Southwest. Never, ever forget that moment.

    • Hi Anita, then you know exactly what I am talking about. It’s the entire atmosphere, it is quite contagious and quite magical. Have a wonderful Memorial weekend, Susan x

    • Everything is always late in the evening here, very often in the summer no one eats until at least 9pm, it’s something we all just get used to! the children went back the next night with friends and had yet another very late night! Have a very happy memorial weekend, Susan x

  • Wow – just have to love the way that the church is lit up, Susan. I adore events like this in France, and there is something always so special about the way the French do them – whether it’s the atmosphere, the smell of open-air cooking or just the general bonhomie that prevails. Everyone always seems intent in just having fun. By the way, villages ‘en fete’ would make a great TV series – how are your video capabilities ?

    • Hi Simon, thank you, these fetes are very much a part of the summer scene here, you sound as if you know them well too. I agree with you everyone is there purely to have fun, old and young alike, it is magical. It would make a great to series, not so sure my video skills are up to this! I have just got good at filming tennis shots and that’s about as far as my skills go at the moment! Susan x

  • Well, judging by the way your photos turn out I suspect you’d cope with the video just fine, too.

    I notice Philippe asked about a book – have you thought about that at all? I’m sure I’m not the first to say that your take on life in France is very fresh and different – that’s what makes it so appealing.

    Regards from a very grey London. I wonder where summer went….

    • You are too kind, but I think I’ll stick to photos for a while, although our eldest daughter is home from University and she’s pretty good at video, maybe I’ll pick her brains, watch this space!!! A book, indeed several people keep mentioning this, maybe one day if I can ever find the time!!! If it makes you feel any better it’s bucketing with rain here too, the garden’s happy it has been so dry, so at least someone is smiling!

      • Ah well, I’ll just dream about a book then. Something to read on cold winter days would be a real bonus. And I hope Gigi has her Andy Murray flag flying over the gate – I wonder how far he will go this year?

    • Hi Esme, welcome to the blog! Great to have you following along and taking the time to comment, always very much appreciated. The fete was so much fun, not sure which village it is in next year but if you are in the area do come and visit it, we will certainly be going! Susan x

  • You painted such a perfect picture of the village party. I felt as if I was there and I am still imagining letting my children run free, not something they’d do here in the States. Thank you for allowing me to dream a little

    • Hi Eliza, thank you so much, there is something quite magical about letting our children roam free, just as I did when I was a child. We all need to dream a little, I believe it’s good for the soul! Have a lovely week, Susan x

    • Couldn’t agree more, and it was all so calm and quite wonderful at the same time, quite a mesmerising evening. The children went back with friends the following night too! Susan x

  • One of our first festivals was a soup festival, raising money for charity. We had not been long in our little village and didn’t know what to expect. There was a band and dancing (at least the exuberant Australian children danced…) but the real highlight of the night was, naturally enough, the soup. We tasted, and voted on, the different soups that had been prepared and a winner was declared at the end of the night. Very serious business! We all loved it and sought out as many different festivals as possible after that.

    • I love soup! Sounds like a fabulous festival. We went to a similar party in Florida! Except it was chilli not soup! Maybe it doesn’t have to be in France, maybe it is just hte communal party that is such fun, everyone coming together purely to enjoy themselves! Susan x

  • I had NO idea such incredible events existed!! We will have to come during summer to experience this tradition. How amazingly lovely in every way!!
    Thank you so much for taking us along……….as always!!

    • Summer is the very best time for parties in France! If you can visit during these warmer months you will find a whole host of different things to do and there is always a fete somewhere within reasonable driving distance. So glad you enjoyed reading about the evening, it was so much fun. Susan x

  • Now that is my kind of party! So relaxed and interesting. Do you know if someone maintains a list of the fetes. I’d be interested in a bit of party hopping or at least planning to be near one later on this year. Loved your post #allaboutfrance

  • I can imagine, I would do too! Maybe plan for next year’s Cigonne on Fete. If you can remember to message me in March or April I will be able to let you know where it is being held! Susan x

  • I had no idea that the stork was so special to Charente-Maritime. I think it’s so great that your region worked together to save it from extinction. And what a fun fête to celebrate all together! That’s one of my favorite parts of living in France- all the town celebrations!

    • No nor did I until we came here! They are everywhere, my favourite place is when I see them nesting on top of the huge pylons, it’s so funny! The village fetes and town celebrations are so special, I couldn’t agree more. Susan x

  • You’re so right that France does street parties like no one else, we are so lucky living here! This fête sounds beyond magical, it’s much bigger than any of the ones we get around here, I love that everyone opens their gardens, garages etc. You’re night photos are lovely which isn’t easy to do, I know…I fail regularly!! I also didn’t know Charente Maritime has such an important stork population. I associate them with Eastern Europe above all. Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance, did you see your post last month was one of my favourites?

    • Hi Phoebe, I did, thank you so much, I am so terribly grateful. I love villages “en fete” it is always so much fun. I have never enjoyed street parties anywhere else in the world as much as I do here, they are always so civilised! Night photos are so tricky, I took hundreds and hundreds! Susan x

    • Thanks, How is your new life in Germany? I really hope you are enjoying it and making new friends, how’s the Germain? REmember you always have a place to stay if you come to South West France! Susan x

  • wow, it looks so gorgeous. I’m not jealous, our village is celebrating the Queen’s birthday with a street party and I’m sure it will be lovely too (as long as it doesn’t rain)

    • Hi, ahh the rain! We’ve escaped it here in the south west, but it’s been grey and chilly for May, but how I feel for those in the north of the country and the floods, just too awful. I am sure the Queen’s birthday street party will be fantastic, just very English! Had great fun looking at your blog, we are complete opposites but I am glad we are enjoying each other’s countries! Susan x

  • Wonderful story about the storks. The French have street parties down to a fine art and they are also good at spontaneous events. We are helping to restore a local chapel and our work days are always punctuated by lunch, when trestle tables appear with paper tablecloths, a barbecue is improvised and a four-course meal (with aperos first, of course) is enjoyed. There is always a hiatus before work is resumed…

    • Thanks for following and taking the time to comment, as a fellow blogger, I know you know how much this is appreciated! It sounds wonderful, isn’t this just one of the best things about life in France. No matter how hectic our days, there is always time to enjoy a meal, an apero and a little conversation, so so important. Susan x

  • I wouldn’t change a thing though, perhaps add a few more hours in the day, but it’s great to be so busy, but also we do take time to enjoy life in general. In fact I am writing a post about this in particular tomorrow!

  • This looks absolutely amazing! We’ll have to look out for it next time, and if we’re out at our place in France, we’d love to see it for real! #AllAboutFrance

    • Hi Carol, it was, as I said, one of the best French street parties we have been to. I love the way everyone comes together, young and old, teenagers and grandparents, age is immaterial, everyone is there to have fun. It’s one of the things I love so much about living here. Susan x

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