Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of La Ciotat's many claims to fame is the invention of a well-known game in Southern France: pétanque. This is the game you see old men playing a lot in French films and other depictions rife with cliche. It's played with a little ball (cochonnet) made of wood and larger balls made of metal. The point is sort of like a larger, no-stick-required version of billiards: you throw a big ball and try to make it get as close to the little ball as possible without touching it or moving it. You are, however, allowed to knock your opponent's ball farther away from the little ball. It is also called "boules" in English-speaking areas (namely England) which is a misnomer of the balls (boules) for the game itself (pétanque). 

In 1907, native son of La Ciotat, Jules Lenoir, invented the game, which went on to become famous throughout France and certain other regions where French has had an influence. The first recorded version of  pétanque is in Ancient Rome, where they played what is now known as bocce--still popular in Italy! This version, anglicized, is known as bocci ball in the United States, and the version I remember most distinctly from my childhood. 

In addition to the Italian bocce, there is a similar, older French game called jeu provençal where you take running start to throwing your big ball--fundamentally different from pétanque, where both feet must be firmly planted when throwing. The name of the game is derived from this stance, in fact. The field where one plays pétanque is called a terrain. The first person or team to score 13 points is the winner. Interestingly, the area around La Ciotat is the 13th department of France, known also as the Bouches-du-Rhône. The larger region is Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur. 

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