Friday, May 28, 2010

Le Doudou: Fri 28 May - Sun 30 May

Actually, it officially lasts 8 days, but all the good stuff happens on the first 3. Bit like Passover. The 661st Doudou came to Mons this weekend, and with it the city's population virtually doubles in size (from around 91,000 at present). This festival, or carnival, orginated in 1349 as a way of helping the local Montois fight off the plague. The procession, which forms an integral part of the festival, was said to have been successful in banishing the plague from the city, and hence thanks to this it continues today.

As part of the Doudou, the Friday night traditionally sees a free concert in the Grand Place, the Saturday is a day of drinking, eating, dancing, and the torch procession, and the Sunday (the most important day) is the procession of St Waltrude's shrine (she being the patron saint of the city), through the centre of the city, followed by the reenactment of the slaying of the dragon by St George. This St George figure seems to find himself as a lot of people's saviour.

It's one of the most well known and revered festivals in Belgium. Well, in Wallonia anyway. My first sight of 'doudou fever,' was the steady flow of cars into the city, gradually occupying any bit of pavement, road or grassy-bank they could find in which to park. I was certainly taken aback when I also saw several portable urinals lining many streets. I never in a million years thought I'd see those same, nasty, grey things in Mons, of all places. The last time I saw them was almost 7 months ago. On a Friday night in Bristol.

Apparently, Mons does turn in to one big public toilet over this weekend. Indeed, I can vouch for this. The walk around the centre on the Monday morning, a very warm Monday morning, wasn't pleasant: stale beer and sticky floors galore. The stench you'd associate with that of a music festival.

So, I wandered around Mons on the Friday afternoon to get a feel for what was going on. Lots of the bars, restaurants and cafés had erected their own mini-gazebos outside their premises. Many had hired their own DJs, some preferred to stick huge speakers outside with dance music playing. Almost every gazebo came complete with a food and drinks stool, selling anything from the usual pommes frites, to burgers, noodles or filled baguettes.

The restaurants and cafés that live in the Grand Place had put out special long benches in place of their usual tables and chairs. By early evening, the party spirit was up and running. Indeed, by mid-evening, as me and C tried to make our way to the centre to see the concert, it took us almost 40mins to walk somewhere that would normally take only 5. Almost every street off the main square was completely rammed with revellers.

The concert itself was bizarre to say the least. Rather than the DJ I thought we were getting, we had to make do with an old Belgian act (with an old codger for a frontman) from the 80s. Needless to say, we had never heard of them, and yes, they were pants. Making our way back home involved avoiding the steady flow (I kid you not) of piss that trickled down many of the side streets. But, as outdoor parties go, this one was great! Just a lot of people drinking a lot of alcohol, dancing, and enjoying themselves. And not the hint of aggression, or sinister atmosphere, that you'd expect to see and feel had this festival been going on in England at this time of day.

Saturday pretty much continued in this vein, complete with dodging the rather heavy downpours that fell in the afternoon. During the day, a service is held in the cathedral to mark the point at which St Waltrude's shrine is taken down from its altar, ready for the main procession the next day. To mark this occasion, in the evening a torch procession, starting from the train station, is lead through the city. We caught up with it once it had made its way out of the Grand Place. Following on behind the torches are various large groups of men (many topless) who run manically, stop for a moment, and then continue running like mad. I have no idea why this happens but it just does. With the aid of a local Belgian we know, we also had various local chants translated to us. One of them amusingly being directed at the outgoing PM: "Yves Leterme, enculé," which means something very rude indeed. Good to see even a festival can't bridge the north/south divide.

Sunday morning was an early start. Up and out by 9, round to our friends' flat for tea, croissants and cakes, where because of the great vantage point of their flat, we were able to look from their window and see a stage of the procession of St Waltrude's shrine below us. The shrine is the last thing to appear. Before this, there are various groups of people of all ages dressed in medieval frocks who slowly walk through the city, accompanied by music and applause from the crowds who line the streets. We even caught a glimpse of St George himself.

The next phase of the day is the horse and carriage, carrying the shrine, being pushed up the very steep hill adjacent to the cathedral, by several dozen men and women. This is supposed to be done seemlessly and in one go. If the carriage fails to be pushed up the hill, a great misfortune is supposed to fall on the people of Mons. And of course, legend has it that they failed this task in 1914 and 1940. And apparently in 1803 as well, so I read. Luckily for us, they succeeded!

All this time, the dragon waits patiently, perched up against the wall of the cathedral. Not the fiercest-looking dragon you've even seen it has to be said. In fact, quite lame looking. It looked like something that had been put together by a year 7 art class.

At this point, the dragon is then carried aloft and marched towards the Grand Place, with hundreds of people in tow. I decided to join the throng but could only get as far as the edge of the Grand Place, such was the size of the crowd. The square is literally heaving with tens of thousands of people, all waiting for the duel, or the lumeçon: St George, complete with weapons, 3 different guns, versus the papier-mâché dragon! You can barely see a thing, although there is a big screen for those with 20-20 vision.

The fight takes place in a specially constructed ring with a huge sand pit in the middle. On the perimeter, hundreds and hundreds of men wait, expectantly, ready to do their best in attempting to grab some (horse's) hair which forms part of the dragon's tail. The latter is then held in the air, slowly walked around the ring, and every now and again dangled above the heads of the group of topless, sweaty, men. They then fight, charge, wrestle, and do all they can to get hold of a hair from the dragon's tail which is meant to bring good luck.

This goes on for about 30mins and looks rather crazy to be honest. Inevitably, the dragon gets his comeuppance and is slayed/shot by St George, who succeeds after using his 3rd pistol, the other two traditionally failing to work.

Once this is over, the ring is left to the public to trawl through the sand, and disgarded garments of clothing (I saw t-shirts, socks, shoes), and find a hair for themselves. The rest of the day continues much as the previous two: more singing and dancing, and lots of drinking and eating.

It really was a wonderful experience. I had no idea really what to expect, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I love the way that many of the streets off the Grand Place turn into mini-discos, so you may have about a dozen different sounds coming from one street, with different groups gathered around their own gazebo. Now that I've seen it and know what to expect, I'll treat next year's doudou more as a local, and less as a tourist.

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