My in laws tell me that back in the day in South-West France, during the months of October and November, there were so many people hunting wild pigeons (when the birds migrate flying from the northern lands towards the Iberian peninsula), that it was not possible to get married because the priest would have been at the palombiere.
And indeed, the national channel TF1 (https://www.tf1.fr/tf1/jt-13h/videos/chasse-a-la-decouverte-dune-palombiere-du-sud-ouest-56212386.html) confirmed in a reportage that there are people working hard during the summer to be able to take six weeks off in the fall, just for hunting the palombe (or wild pigeon).
The rural village of Bazas organizes a festival every year at the end of September to discover how the palombe hunting is carried out.
I hope there will be a chance to return to celebrate it next year, as, sadly because of the health crisis, it has been cancelled for the past two years. Nevertheless, there has been a blessing ceremony at the cathedral before the palombes have been released which always includes the well dressed confrerie de paloumayres.
Palombe hunters get up before the sun rises, dress at home, and head to the palombiere to prepare for the day. Only after the set-up is complete, will they sit down for breakfast.
The tasks include feeding the captured wood pigeons from the previous year, raising them to the top of the pine trees, with a ingenious system of cables and wires, so that the palombes work to attract the migrating ones. A hunter will pull the strings from inside the palombiere, the captured birds will flap their wings, attracting ones flying overhead and, with a bit of luck, hunters will catch them alive, trapping them in nets.
When I first arrived the South West of France I had no idea what palombieres were or looked like.
An old neighbor, an ex-butcher, invited me for the first time to his wood shack between tall pine trees, just walking distance from our house. Like most of palombieres, it had no electricity, just a tiny generator for one light bulb for the darkest days, no running water, and a jerry can that had to be brought back and forth from home. Inside was a stove to heat and cook (and warm up the water to wash the dishes), furniture coming from random places – shabby-chic before shabby chic became a thing. It had a row of cinema seats, a ladder from sleeping carriages on trains, pots and pans, mixed matched chairs, cutlery and plates, and an old sofa for a power nap after lunch and of course, glasses: as there is always at least a round of pastis aperitive drinks before the hearty meal.
But the peculiar feature of every palombiere is definitely the overhead opening from which hunters, comfortably seated, observe the sky while trying to spot a flock flying over.
The other sign that right away reveals the presence of a palombiere in the forest is the view of tunnels, meters and meters of tunnels covered in browned ferns and pine needles, so that hunters can move from one site to the other without being seen.
Hunting (wild) pigeons is a widespread tradition here and as well across the border in Spain. I admit, I still have difficulties understanding how such a bird is considered a delicacy here in France and also in my native Italy: I have always regarded as a lot of effort with very little (meaty) reward.
I have, however, been won over with the tradition of the palombiere. We take the time to have at least one meal a year in the hut.
There is no distracting tv, most of the time not even telephone reception. A clear day in the forest, with the heat coming from the old stove, the smell of mushrooms and pine, an occasional pheasant or roe deer passing by, with a rustic meal washed down with Bordeaux red wine, is a way of slowing down and make the most of a tradition that is still strong around here, but might not continue within our family.
There are only a few days remaining for this year till the closure of the season, on Sunday 21st November.
A lot of Gironde hunters experienced one of the most meager hunting years ever, even the newspaper Sud-Ouest reported a sharp decrease in number of passages (https://www.sudouest.fr/environnement/chasse/sud-gironde-beaucoup-moins-de-palombes-que-d-habitude-6923991.php), with migrating routs moving to the east, over neighboring department of Lot and Garonne.
Hunters will take some time off this winter, only to start working again at the maintenance of the palombiere in the new year.
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By Simona Palenga, an Italian living and loving all of the traditions of SW France.