Fréjus is in the Var department of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France and neighbours with Saint-Raphaël, effectively forming one town. It is popular for its pretty seaside resort and it’s a medieval city but its history goes back much further – to the Romans who created it. Reza Amirinia takes a visit to Frejus and discovers a fascinating festival that is held annually on the third Sunday after Easter through the historic town centre…
My wife and I walked around the historic parts of Fréjus to discover a Roman town which was founded by Julius Cesar in 49 BC. We arrived in the main square where the town hall and Saint-Pol-de-Léon Cathedral is located. The square was not crowded, people were scattered around, sitting in cafés and restaurants listening to live music played by a band in the corner of the square.
The Cathedral was an amazing place of worship. A man followed us inside the church. He called a church worker who greeted us with a smile. I spoke to him with my poor French, but we continued our conversation in English about Christian beliefs, the universe and our destiny.
Not aware of what was happening outside the Cathedral. We were engaged in deep philosophical conversation when another senior priest, 55 year old Father Benoit arrived and spoke to us in broken English. The man who had followed us inside the church interrupted our conversation and called us to go with him. Outside we found a large crowd, dressed in a variety of different costumes including soldiers uniforms of Napoleon’s time we were sure. They had guns which they shot into the air. It was an extraordinary scene with the sounds of army drums, flutes and traditional dancing in medieval Provencal costume. Eventually the procession departed in a very orderly manner.
We followed our new friend through dark and quiet streets, it was a shortcut and we found ourselves in front of Saint Francois church where the procession was just arriving. After a short prayer in the church they continued their ceremony; shooting guns, followed by chanting around a tree which they then set on fire in the middle of the square. The long night passed, but I was still not sure what was the history and background to the ceremony.
My wife was sitting on a bench talking to a 70-year old woman called Monique Bletterer. It was a relief to find someone who could explain things without language barriers. People were dispersing and nobody was left by the church, but Monique patiently carried on telling us about the story of Saint Francis of Paola and how he cured the plague and other lethal infectious diseases which had killed many people.
Monique, who is a councillor and active community worker said: “Saint Francis lived a spiritual and simple life in Paola, south of Italy. He arrived by boat in Fréjus port in 1482 to pray for those were severely ill and dying. His healing power and the prayer was answered. It cured the people who were infected”.
This historical visit by the saint became a significant date in the calendar of this town. The people have celebrated the “Bravade” (meaning boldness) three weeks after Easter in his honour every year since.
Her fascinating story held us enthralled and changed our plan completely. Monique told us the procession which is a religious and traditional ceremony would carry on for another two days. Instead of departing as planned, we spent the next two days with Monique and other locals, going through small and narrow alleys of the old town from one church to another, and attending gatherings in several squares.
It was a colourful display of Provencal costumes, full of energy and joy. Lovera Alain, 50, a postman in real life – and the General who led the procession said: “I have attended Bravade since my childhood and Saint Francis is in my heart. It is the third year that I have had the honour to be the General in leading the procession.”
The pictures of Saint Francis, red and white flowers and flags decorated the buildings and houses to celebrate the tradition. The whole town was immersed in the memory and glorification of Saint Francis. On Monday, the “Bravade” ended with prayers in Saint Francis Church and the people returned to the main square to finish their festivity in the town hall.
Sylvie Scaletta, 40, the secretary in the Town Hall and her daughter Maiget, 16, described the Bravade as a wonderful occasion, especially for children looking forward to participate every year. Martha Ceppi, 81 and France Lemetais, 77 participated in the procession for the entire three days with no signs of tiredness and talked with joy about their love for Saint Francois and the pride of Fréjus to honour his memory.
This was the first time that I had witnessed such an extraordinary celebration in South of France. We were so much engaged in Bravade that we did not get a chance to visit the nearby attractions – and there are many.
I will just have to return!
How to get to Frejus
The most convenient way to get to Frejus is to fly to Nice. Frejus is only 36 miles from Nice airport. If you are interested in sightseeing, it is useful to hire a car to drive around the French Riviera’s coastlines and countryside.
Mohammad Reza Amirinia is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for documentary photography, street photography and photojournalism: www.amirinia.com