It’s hard to beat the experience of arriving in a small French village, expecting no more than a bed for the night, to discover the streets decked out with flags and streamers, a band playing in the square and the entire population out celebrating the feast of their patron saint. Apart from Bastille Day (July 14) and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15), there are traditional folk festivals still thriving in Brittany and the remote rural regions of the south, as well as a full calendar of festivals devoted to films and to music from jazz and folk to rock and classical.
Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the culture of French rural areas, and as a result religious feast days still bring people out in all their finery, ready to indulge once Mass has been said. Most of these occasions, along with the celebrations around wine and food production, are very genuine affairs. Other festivals, based for example on historical events, folklore or literature, are often obviously money-spinners and shows for municipal prestige – not something to go out of your way for.
One folk festival that is definitely worth attending is the Inter-Celtic event held at Lorient in Brittany every August. Another annual event with deep historical roots is the great gypsy gathering at Les-Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. Though exploited for every last centime and, in recent years, given a heavy police presence, it is a unique and exhilarating spectacle to be part of.
Bonfires are lit and fireworks set off for Bastille Day , for the Fête de St-Jean on June 24, three days from the summer solstice, and for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15. Mardi Gras – the last blowout before Lent – is far less of an occasion than in other Catholic countries, although the towns on the Côte d’Azur put on a show at great expense and in questionable taste.