It is a lovely, balmy evening in Provence – perfect weather for alfresco aperitivo and a few games of petanque. Handily, our hotel, Le Couvent des Minimes, a swanky spa resort set in a converted convent at the foot of Mane, a medieval hilltop village, has its own plane tree-shaded boulodrome (petanque pitch). And standing before us, armed with a box of shiny metal boules, is a veteran of the local petanque scene, Bernard Raymond.
As we sip champagne and nibble on almonds, olives and cherry tomatoes, Bernard regales us with the rules and techniques of a pastime that's played in towns and villages across France, but particularly in Provence, its spiritual heartland, where it rose to prominence in the early 19th century.
Describing it as "a convivial game to play with friends" (albeit one with a competitive edge), petanque, says Bernard, revolves around le cochonnet (the piglet). Games begin by tossing this little wooden ball – also known as the jack – about six or seven metres down the dusty, uneven boulodrome, with players, who must stand in a "throwing circle", then trying to launch their (much larger and heavier) boules as close to the target as possible, using a palm-down, back-handed flick-of-the-wrist technique.
Games usually involve two or three pairs of players, but we split our group into threes – with Bernard's blessing – and play until sunset. Cue lots of awful throws that end up out of the boulodrome (mainly from me), lucky shots and half a dozen genuinely superb strokes that have Bernard purring: "Oui, oui, c'est bien!"
Although petanque is often seen as a man's game it's increasingly popular with women, and indeed some of today's best throws fly from the hands of the females in our group (especially the ones that clatter into enemy boules, knocking them further away from the jack while taking their place). The score is calculated depending on the other boules' position; so for example, if one team wins but the next-closest boule belongs to their opponents, the winners get just one point.
But if they also have the second- and third-closest boules they earn three, with the first team to accumulate 13 points triumphing. Most of our games are fairly close, with no whitewashes so Bernard says there's no need to worry about partaking in a dreaded custom.
According to legend, many years ago, in Cafe de Grande-Lemps, a boules-loving bar in northern Provence, there was a waitress called Fanny, who promised a kiss on the cheek to players who lost a petanque game without scoring a point.
After being whitewashed, the local mayor approached Fanny for his consolation prize. But Fanny, who wasn't on the best terms with the mayor, instead dropped her underwear and presented her backside. Humoured, the mayor kissed both cheeks – and a tradition was born.
While today's losers aren't expected to plant a smacker on anyone, at many boulodromes you'll find a carving or a picture of a scantily clad woman hanging on the wall, which teams losing without notching a single point must kiss. I find myself chuckling at the end of nearly every one of our games for an entirely different reason.
While the rest of us bend down to reclaim our boules, Bernard remains standing, hauling his ones up using a magnet attached to a piece of string. "Petanque is great because you don't have to walk far," he says, with a wry smile."But if you play too much, you end up with a bad back."
A two-night stay at Hotel Le Couvent des Minimes, including two gourmet evening meals and a petanque lesson, are among of the highlights of Butterfield & Robinson's five-day Provence Biking tour, an experience that promises ravishing rural scenery, invigorating exercise and fantastic food and drink, along with cultural encounters designed to deepen your understanding of this most evocative of French regions. Running from May to October, the tour costs from $US4995 per person; www.butterfield.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson.