Friendly and traditional, played in parks and on sunny squares throughout Provence with the obligatory glass of pastis in hand, pétanque aptly reflects the relaxed lifestyle of southern France. The game dates back many years – before it was called La Longue. Let’s look back on the singular story of Jules, nicknamed “Lenoir”, the inventor of pétanque.
The Village of La Ciotat
It’s 1907. That morning, Jules Lenoir got up in a foul mood. Despite the hot dry weather, his arthritis refused to leave him in peace. He was fuming because it couldn’t have come at a worse time: a big crowd was expected that afternoon at the court in La Ciotat: “I can’t play La Longue any more! With legs like this, I’m no good for anything. I’ll have to sit in a corner and watch with the old folks.” And yet, not long before, Jules had been one of the stars of Provence’s traditional game.
Playing La Longue
For a few seconds, he stared intently at the jack, aka the cochonnet – a little wooden ball thrown 15 to 20 metres from the players. Then, in true champion’s style, he launched forwards with a wide, smooth gesture, opening his hand at the last second to free the heavy iron ball. One step to point (get the ball as near as possible to the jack) and three to shoot (scatter the opponent’s balls as far as possible from the jack). Jules sighed. His legs hadn’t let him down before, but now he would have to settle for watching – and spicing up the game with a few cutting comments.
The birth of pétanque
That day, the players were good, but the ex-champion was bored. From his bench, he absent-mindedly and half-heartedly rolled some balls a few metres away. Unbeknownst to him, Ernest Pitiot, the owner of the nearby café, was watching him attentively from the other side of the court. This one-legged man shared Lenoir’s passion for La Longue and, just like him, had been obliged to take a bow. “Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself”, he shouted. “Get your balls and we’ll play differently”. Lenoir raised his head: “Are you kidding? How do you expect us to play La Longue?”. “Just like you’re playing it now”, replied the café owner, “with our feet firmly on the ground (les pieds tanqués). And that is how, in the year of 1907, two invalids invented pétanque.
Pétanque requires less physical fitness than La Longue, but at least as much skill and concentration. Try your hand at a game while you’re visiting Provence. Simply head to the village squares in the morning before it gets too hot – the Provencal locals of all ages will be happy to teach you the basics of pétanque.