You’ve probably already seen a game of pétanque being played if you’ve ever watched an old French film. The stereotypical scene goes something like this: a number of graying men squatting over a gravel pitch, fling metal balls one by one at a small wooden ball with amazing precision. Chuckling all the way, of course.
The much-loved game of pétanque got its start in France in the early 1900s in the southern town of La Ciotat. The Occitan dialect, found near Provence, gave the game its name – petanca – meaning, “feet together.” But the history of the game goes back much further than that.
The ancient Greeks were probably the first to start playing their version of pétanque, which involved tossing coins, then stone balls, as far as possible to name a winner. The ancient Romans took things one step further by creating a target, which those coins had to reach. By the Middle Ages, the stone balls had been traded in for wooden ones, and this game of boules was soon lovingly played throughout Europe. In the 14th century, the game was actually banned by Charles IV and Charles V of France for commoners. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the ban was finally lifted.
But the game of pétanque, as we know it today, really got its start in 1907 in La Ciotat. Soon after, a tournament was created with rules and regulations to boot. Then, in 1959, the first World Championships in pétanque were organized. Since then, countries from around the globe send their best players once a year to compete for the title.
In France, the game is currently played in a variety of spots – in parks, along rivers or under a bed of trees. The one condition is that the ground must be gravel or sand, in order to get those metal balls to roll just right. Just like the name petanca suggests, players must stand with feet together when throwing the balls, and from within a hand-drawn circle between 35 and 50 centimeters in diameter. The first player throws the piglet, or jack (small wooden ball) about 10 meters away, and then the rest of the players take turns throwing the hollow metal balls – underhand – towards the jack. He who wins is he whose metal ball has come closest to the jack.
Normally the game is played in teams, so the goal here is to stomp out your competition – this can be meant quite literally. Serious pétanque players will do everything they can to knock a well-placed opponent’s ball out of prime position. But be careful – if someone hits the jack out of play, neither team scores. The game is played until one team reaches 13 points.
While you’re in Paris, head to the Luxembourg Gardens in the Latin quarter, to catch people young and old playing pétanque just like their parents and grandparents before them. While it’s considered ‘bad form’ to interrupt play, you’ll find that spectators are welcome, and players are more than happy to chat and explain the game to curious tourists!