Transhumance September 03 2018, 0 Comments

This month Calisson by Gilles brings you the still living tradition of Transhumance in Provence. 

A living tradition

Transhumance, -trans- “through” (on the other side) and –humance- humus (land, country), is the semi-annual migration of grazing animals from the plain to the mountains and the mountains to the plain. It helps the shepherds overcome the drought of the summer and hard conditions of mountains’ winter.

In June, the herds steer to the nearest mountains, where the grass is green and so abundant in our pastures. They will be back from the mountains between September and November, before the snow reappears. 

The Transhumance is an ancestral know-how, and is perpetuated from generation to generation.

There are different forms of transhumance:

The "great summer transhumance" connects the low plains of the Mediterranean coast with Alpine mountains. 

The "local" transhumance refers to the rise of herds living around mountain villages area to a higher level for summer pastures.

The "winter" transhumance is practiced by some mountain herds, who spend the winter in the plains of Basse Provence.

The most famous transhumance is the one between Provence and the Alps. It is not regulated by any written law except one, which limit the width of their passage to 5 fathoms (10 meters) The mountains of Barcelonnette are the best, they are covered with beautiful grass. The sheep belong to shepherds living around Arles and Salon de Provence.

In autumn, sheep come back from the mountains fattened. The shepherds of la Crau rent the right of grazing in the mountains for six months. 

Sisteron, the sheep capital

In the heart of Provençal country, the city of Sisteron is at the center of traditional sheep farming. For centuries, Sisteron collects, sorts and delivers the best lambs for its customers every day. The lamb of Sisteron is prized for its fine and unctuous meat, it is generally cooked with herbs of Provence.Les Drailles

The “drailles” is a Provençal word, there were stony paths that were entirely reserved for transhumant herds, some of which went from Arles to Italy. Draille or Carraire (closer to Marseille) designate the transhumance path. 

Often corresponding to the most natural way for herds to join the summer pastures, the Drailles and carraires were the first lines of communication between the plains of low Provence and the alpine mountains. Some of them use the path of ancient Roman roads. In order to facilitate the progress of the livestock, these transhumance paths reached up to one hundred meters in width. They weren’t considering the unevenness of the landscape and were drawn as much as possible in a straight line. 

The routes preferably took the ridges line of the hill and mid-mountain regions in order to avoid the valleys and cultivated plains.

The drailles were delimited by stones planted in pairs, on either side, every four or five hundred meters. These roads were public roads and were maintained with royalties paid by the owners of the Arlesian (Arles region) flocks.

Over the centuries, these pastoral routes were difficult to maintain against the increasing population and new transport solutions of the industry era. 

The roads were only used two months each year, a month in the fall and a month in the spring. The locals did not hesitate, meanwhile, to use them. The rise of struggles and clashes in the 19th century led the shepherds to avoid these traditional roads and borrow the more modern ones of the valley.


The Transhumance is an event

In recent years, transhumance has made a comeback under the spotlights and is becoming a moment of celebration and cheerfulness, which allows to inhabitants of Provence to rediscover their terroir and the old professions of pastoralism. 

The ancestral practices of herd management, which had disappeared, replaced by truck transport are now revived. Because of the pollution of diesel engine, rugged terrain which are hard to reach, the tradition is back and it is beautiful to see the mountains of Haute-Provence with a shepherd and his flock of sheep!


Where and when to attend a transhumance

Where ? 

You can attend to transhumances in the Alps, at the north side of Provence. 

When ?

Two times a year

During the spring : for the climb to the high mountains where animals will graze for the summer. Or during the fall : for the descent to the lowlands for the winter season. 

Depending on the location and events, you can watch the passage of animals in the village or follow the herds from one village to another for a hike. In the latter case, it is often necessary to register by contacting the organizer, or the town hall of the village.

A transhumance hike represents on average a journey between 5 to 20 km (2 to 13 miles) , and there are different hiking formats.

One day: you can for example take your picnic, for this option, be sure to bring in your bag a box of our sweet Calisson by Gilles. All the natural ingredients in our Calisson cantaloupe, almond … will marry perfectly with the discovery of Provençal traditions and will bring you the energy to fully enjoy this moment.

Several days: nights and meals are often proposed by the event planners and registration is charged. 

Parties are usually associated with the transhumance tradition and villages are the place where beautiful and picturesque parades take place. You can see animals in the villages, kids games, markets and many other activities.

Celebration of the transhumance of Riez-la-Romaine (Alpes de Hautes-Provence): 

Watch the passage of animals in the center of the village, enjoy the folk entertainment and stroll through the local markets. Your children will love watching the sheep. This celebration usually takes place the 3rd or 4th Sunday of June. 

Celebration hike in the Mercantour - Roya Valley (Alpes Maritimes) :

Go on a 2 days trek alongside sheep and goats. You will be responsible for monitoring the flock with your kids ! From 5 to 8 hours of walking per day at the end of June. 

Celebration of transhumance in Saint Rémy de Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) :

Young and old will be truly impressed by the parade of thousands of sheep in the streets of Saint Remy de Provence. This day will also allow you to attend demonstrations of the work of shepherds and shepherd dogs. You will be able to enjoy the stunning flea market of Saint Remy. The event takes place the last week of June. 

You won’t be able to assist to all of them, so you have to choose one according to your time, your family size and your preferences! 


About The Author:

Gilles Cailleaux is the Owner & Master Confectioner at By Gilles, an online French candy store based in Orange County, California. They sell traditional French confections called Calissons from Provence. Gilles is always ready to share his 25 years plus experience of candy making and baking with everyone and want to hear about your experience with his calissons. Gilles and his team are sensitive about taste and harmony. They prepare your packages with special care and attention.