The game of boules is truly Provencal, and typifies the easy life in the warm sun with the smell of lavender and the sounds of clanking balls and glasses of pastis and the chatter of friends. Boules is a general name for the game of Pétanque and its predeceders longue, butaban and roulette, which themselves evolved from mail (pinball) and quilles (skittles).
While pétanque was once a masculine sport, it’s now practiced by all, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. Pétanque is also an everyman’s sport: no uniforms, no special equipment, no expensive supporting teams or mechanics or engineers required. Little kids can get heavy plastic boules at the grocerie store before going on vacation. In the village of St. Paul de Vence, the famous French movie actors Lino Ventura and the late Yves Montand regularly played pétanque in the main square in front of the café, amidst tourists and friends.
In pétanque, a little wooden ball (the cochonnet) is thrown out as a target, at a distance of 6 to 10 meters. The players, with three boules each and divided into two teams, then take turns throwing their heavy iron boules to land as close as possible to the cochonnet. The boules are polished steel, and each set of three is engraved with a pattern of concentric circles or squares for identification.
A player from one team throws first, and then a player from the second team. After that, a player from the team that does not have the closest boule to the cochonnet throws. When all boules have been thrown, the team with the closest boule gets a point for every one of their boules closer to the cochonnet than the closest of the opposing team.
Comparing distances of closely matched boules is done with everything from long broken sticks or a string to a purpose-built measuring tape. When the round is over the boules are picked up, with a strong magnet on the end of a cord for those to infirm or lazy to bend over, and polished clean of dust for the next round. A throwing line is drawn in the dirt and the cochonnet is thrown out again, often back in the opposite direction, for the next round. The team aquiring thirteen points first wins.
Throwing is always done with careful concentration and great style. One usually leans forward to study the terrain, then squat down slowly, the boule held down at the side with palm and fingers facing aft. Then the boule is launched in a backhand throw to arc up and land close to the cochonnet. The player can point, try to drop the boule as close as possible to the cochonnet, or tirer, knock an opponent’s boule away. When the boule knocks another far away while remaining itself beside the cochonnet, cheering is usually reserved for the next player will probably undo that fine result.