Kevin Pilley educates his mouth in the kissing capital of the world, Roquemaure in France.
It was my first time. I had never kissed a nun before. She threw back her coif and grabbed me. Our lips met. She tasted divine and smelled heavenly. She tasted of Lirac blanc with a hint of pâté de pays and she smelled of nine different grape varieties. She was full-bodied, very soft in the mouth and determinedly fruity. As far as nuns go, she was clearly no novice. In fact, she was no nun at all. Only dressed up as one. Her favourite patron saint allowed it, just for the day.
“That is your first grand cru kiss, monsieur,” she giggled, unclamping herself from my face. I couldn’t stop from licking my lips. Her bouquet was irresistible. “Today you will embrace all the good things that life has to offer in France. Wine, women and song!” she declaimed, picking up her habit and wobbling off down the road to assault more innocent and unsuspecting men.
Roquemaure, in the Gard region of south-east France, on the other side of the Rhône river from the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, is a picturesque and very intimate village. But, once a year, it gets more intimate than usual when everyone starts kissing anything and anyone that moves. For a whole day, Roquemaure hosts the world’s longest and most passionate ‘snogathon’. It hosts the world’s first and so far only, kissing festival.
La Fête du Baiser, in honour of the patron saint of all lovers, is held on the Saturday after St Valentine’s Day. Everyone dresses up in period costume and the wine and embraces flow all day long. By the end of it, you’ve lost all feeling in your lips and you have lost the power of speech. This is for two reasons. You have drunk too much, and you have kissed and been kissed too much, and your tongue forgets how to form the right shape to make intelligible words and coherent sentences.
St Valentine’s remains are kept in Roquemaure’s fourteenth century collegiate church and paraded every February through the streets of the village, not far from the city of Avignon. Couples visit the church all year round to renew wedding vows and pledge their troth in front of the large glass cabinet which stands in front of the altar. What are reputed to be the patron saint of lovers’ mortal remains (a couple of shins and a few ribs) are kept in what looks very much like an old aquarium.
The Festival is sixteen years old and was started by the local priest, father René Durieu. It commemorates the arrival of the relics in La Midi Mediterranean in 1868. They had been bought at a relic auction in Rome to cure the area’s diseased vine stocks. The local vines, planted in the twelfth century by the Crusaders amongst the oaks, cypresses, olive trees and chalky Lauze stones of the garrigue region, had been devastated by phylloxera (les taches de Roquemaur) and a rich landowner, Maximilian Richard, who owned the domaine of Clary, bought the relics. He had introduced the disease through American rootstock.
Within four years the ancient vines were healthy again. Roquemaure’s favourite son and most famous resident even has his own winery and wine label.
St Valentine was bludgeoned to death and then decapitated in 268 by the Roman emperor, Claudius II the Cruel. He had been caught performing illegal marriage services for Roman soldiers. Valentin refused to renounce God and while awaiting execution, he cured his gaoler’s daughter of blindness. Touched by his fate, she is said to have planted an almond tree on the Flaminian Way and he became the official ‘patron des amoreux’ in 1496.
“The custom of sending Valentine cards and messages comes from the Roman pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia which was held on Mont Palatin. The Latin word ‘vale’ also means look after yourself,” said Jim Davidson, who I met while queuing for commemorative stamps at the Festival post office.
Born and bred in Scotland, Jim moved to Roquemaure twelve years ago and used to run the town’s Clement V hotel. He told me that his village was once an important wine shipping river port in medieval days. Long before, Hannibal and his elephants came to Roquemaure on the banks of the river Rhône and set up camp for a brief period before continuing their long and historic march across the Alps to Rome. Before I could find out more, I was grabbed from behind and swung around.
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“Welcome to the capital des amoreux!” said a young and happily tipsy girl who proceeded to plant a very wet kiss on my mouth.
“Today lip pressing is like grape pressing!” giggled one of her friends, taking her turn on my bruised and battered lips. “You haven’t tasted fine wines until you have tasted them from the mouth of a beautiful woman!” Soon, through a combination of lipstick and red wine, my face was the same colour as the orange-pink terracotta roofs of the low-lying Provencal countryside.
A slightly older lady, but no less friendly, came up and offered her own mouth. I accepted her invitation to a tasting. Her mouth was smooth, combining the subtlety of Clairette grapes with the delicacy of Calidor. Her lips would have made an excellent accompaniment to Provencal cooking or white meat.
Barrel organists sang ‘chansons du amour’ around the fountain in the town square, Place de la Pousterle. There was a market under the tower on a huge rock (Rupa Maura) which gives the village its name. The tower was once the residence of Louis of Anjou. Storeholders sold local cheeses, truffles, gingerbread hearts, cacti, lavender honey, walnuts, olives and speciality sausages. Everyone else was either kissing or drinking. Free wine was everywhere and its effects wherever you looked.
“We are kissing connoisseurs!” cried Sylvie, who said she was a local historian. “We go for four pecks and long clinches. Un! Deux! Trois! Quatre!” she shouted, demonstrating on my cheekbones and ribs. “We hate all that air kissing. The mwaa, mwaa! C’est tres désagréable! Only the French know how to kiss. They have made an art of it. They have studied it scientifically. They have conducted experiments for centuries!”
Over yet another glass of complimentary Cellar St Valentine rosé, Madame Riou told me that a Prussian, Von Stephan, probably produced the first Valentine postcards in 1865. Although Valentine’s Day is only a recent custom in France, in the fifteenth century, Charles of Orleans, after twenty years of imprisonment in England, established within the French court a tradition of sending messages of love and affection. Nine million Valentine cards are now sent every year and Roquemaure opens a special post office selling envelopes and stamps, signed with a loving kiss from La Capitale des Amoreux.
Pont Saint-Benezet and Avignon Cathedral, France - Photo copyright: Iakov Filimonov | 123RF.COM
I told Madame Riou that I heard St Valentine’s Day originates from Italy where young women were hit over the head with a goat’s bladder to get them pregnant. I didn’t see her after that.
The lady dressed up as a nun was now being uninhibitedly affectionate towards a man dressed up as a monk. A man on stilts was looking a little frustrated. I was then accosted by three middle-aged women dressed as peasants.
The harrowing ordeal lasted nearly three minutes before they tottered off, carrying their wine bottles with them, in search of further prey.
“We have the best tastings’ lips in the whole of France,” said a lady in a bonnet. “Some are aromatic like Lirac rouge wine. Some are honey and bloom like white Lirac.” By way of a degustation, she gave me a small kiss or ‘poutin’ as it is known in Provencale.
A man on a penny farthing bicycle wobbled past, shouting: “Vive St Valentin! Vive La Fête du Baiser!”
A teenage girl approached singing. “Au coin de la tenre bouche. A l’ombre du nez finement aile. C’est la qu’il est, pour moi. Le plus beau lieu du monde!” she sang as I roughly translated into my schoolboy French: “At the corner of your mouth, in the shadow of your impressively-shaped nose. That is the place for me. The most beautiful thing in the world!”
The wine and the occasion were beginning to work their magic and I took things and one passing blonde lady into my own hands. I took a deep breath and crushed her lips onto mine. After a minute, faking fluster and fanning down her ardour, the lady managed a: “Monsieur!” I raised an eyebrow and gave her my ‘well-aged’ look.
Roquemaure is a small town situated on the right bank of the Rhône. This medieval-style city is surrounded by the vineyards of one of the five vintages of the Côte du Rhône. It is a link between Provence and Languedoc, located 10km from Orange, 15km from Avignon and 40km from Nîmes. The closest airport to Roquemaure is Avignon.