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 and smelled divine: Lirac blanc with a hint of Pate du Pays and 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 Rhone 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 the embraces flow all day long. By the end of it, you have lost all feeling in your lips and 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.
The festival is 16 years old and was started by the local priest father René Durieu to commemorate 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 12th 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 Roquemaure”) and rich landowner Maximilian Richard, who owned the domaine of Clary and had introduced the disease through American rootstock, bought them. Within four years the ancient vines were healthy again and Roquemaure’s favourite son and most famous resident lives on through his own winery.
St Valentine’s remains are kept in Roquemaure’s 14th century collegiate church and paraded every February through the streets of the village not far from the city Avignon. Couples visit the church year round to renew their 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.
St Valentine was bludgeoned to death and then decapitated in 268 by the Roman emperor Claude 11 the Cruel after he had been caught performing illegal marriage services for Roman soldiers. Valentine refused to renounce God. 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. 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’” explained Jim Davidson, who I met while queuing for commemorative stamps at the festival post office.
Born and bred in Scotland, Davidson 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 those days, Hannibal and his elephants came to Roquemaure on the banks of the river Rhone, set up camp for a brief period before continuing his long and historic march across the Alps to Rome.
Before I could find out more I was grabbed from behind and swung around.
“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, but no less friendly, lady 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 “Chanson Du Amour” around the fountain in the town square, La Place de 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!” said Sylvie, a local historian. “We go for four pecks and long clinches. Un! Deux! Trois! Quartre!” she shouted, demonstrating on my cheek bones and ribs. “We hate all that air kissing. The mwaa, mwaa! C’est tres disagreable! 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 rose 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 15th 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 de Amoreux”.
I told Madame Riou that I had thought St Valentine’s Day originated 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 tasting lips in the whole of France,” said a lady in a bonnet. “Some are aromatic like Lirac rouge wine. Some are honey and broom 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 Fete du Baisir!”
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!” as I roughly translated into my schoolboy France: “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…