With its laidback conviviality and time-honored tradition, pétanque perfectly captures the Provençal lifestyle. This leisurely game is played in sun-soaked parks and backyards across Provence and is best enjoyed with an ice-cold aperitif in hand.

Though the game dates back 3000 years, its current version was invented in La Ciotat in the 20th century. Unlike boules, players stand with their feet firmly planted, aka “pieds tanqués” in French. Pétanque is a throwing, not rolling game – think horseshoes instead of bowling. The goal of the game is to get your steel boules closer to the plastic bouchon than your opponent does. Let discover it with Jules « Le Noir »…

La Ciotat enters the legend

On that particular morning, Jules “Le Noir” woke up in a very bad mood. In spite of the hot, dry weather, his rheumatism refused to leave him in peace. He grumbled fiercely. Some fine company were expected that afternoon on the boules pitch in La Ciotat: “It’s all over for me, the long game. With my legs in this sort of state, I’m good for nothing. I’ll have to do what all the old men do, just sit in a corner and watch”. But not so long ago, Jules has been the pride of the Jeu Provençal, a game also known as “la longue” (“the long game”).

For a few seconds, he would stare at the cochonnet, the little wooden ball that was some 15 to 20 metres away from the players. Then, in the style of a champion, he would move forwards, with his supple arm and roomy gestures, opening his hand at the very last moment to release the heavy iron boule. Taking one step to point – aiming as close as possible to the cochonnet – and three steps to shoot – dislodging the opposing team’s boules. Jules sighed. At that time, his legs had not yet failed him, but now he would have to make do with the role of a spectator, merely commenting on the game with a few well-chosen remarks.

On this day, 8 July, the players were good, but the former champion was bored. From his bench, with a gloomy look and weary gestures, filled with nostalgia, he mechanically rolled the boules a few yards in front of him. From the other side of the pitch Ernest Pitiot was watching him closely. A one-legged man, he shared the same passion for the “long game”. But like Jules, he had had to give it up.

“Oh, stop brooding,” said Pitiot. “Come on, pick up your boules, we’ll play something else.” Jules raised his head: “But have you seen us both? How do you expect us to play the long game?” “Like you did just now,” replied the one-legged man, “with your feet planted on the ground” (“Les pieds tanqués par terre”).

And at the beginning of the month of July 1910, two invalids had invented the game of pétanque…

Pétanque © V.Lucas

Pétanque © V.Lucas

About Pétanque

Pétanque is a leisure activity that may be less physically demanding than the long game, but involves at least as much skill and concentration. Like the Jeu Provençal, it is played one against one or in teams of twos or threes, with boules weighing between 650 and 800 grams, which were once made of wood and studded with nails, and today are made of steel.

Now a sport in its own right, pétanque has overtaken the Jeu Provençal for the number of players – even though the latter is still favoured by purists – and now has fans all over the world. Almost 40 countries belong to the “Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et de Jeu Provençal”.

The competitions organised in Provence often bring together players from all over the world. The French federation alone has over 800 000 members. But La Ciotat is still probably the only town in the world that has an “Avenue de la Pétanque”…

How to play Pétanque


Alexis Steinman is an American food & travel writer who is proud to call Marseille home. The francophone and francophile’s first foray into Provence was a family Thanksgiving spent in the hills of the Luberon. While working a wine harvest in Cote de Rhône, she stumbled upon Marseille. After 2 days swimming in the Mediterranean, checking out Le Corbusier, devouring fresh sardines, and marveling at MUCEM, she was hooked on the multicultural melting pot that reminds her of NY, LA, and Seattle, her former homes. If you want tips on navigating the vibrant port city, you can find her on @yeswaymarseille and on her English site, Yes Way Marseille.