These two weeks of February have been a moment of great celebration in the Occitan valley in which I spent almost all my childhood. After five years, the most important festival of that area, called “Baìo”, has taken place again and is going to finish on the 23rd of February. This is a really particular celebration that the people of Sampeyre have been celebrating for more than one millennium, now, and one of the biggest events in what could be called an Occitan cultural and linguistic revival.
The Varaita valley (in Italy), Val Varaita (Occitan, Val Varacha) is a narrow valley located on the Italian side of the Cottian Alps, only recently rediscovered by tourists, especially for outdoor activities in the summer and in snowy winters. Due to its narrow bottom and its steep roads which do not easily allow flows of goods nor of people, this valley has always been more isolated than the surrounding ones, and this has facilitated the preservation of several traditional features.
If we follow the road that from Saluzzo and Piasco leads towards the French boarder, starting from Frassino (Occitan, Fràisse) we find signs on which the toponyms are written both in Italian and in the Occitan language, which is still vividly spoken from Venasca (Occitan, Venascho) until Chianale (Occitan, La Chanàl), the last village before Colle dell’Agnello (French, Col Agnel), where the boarder with France is marked.
In Sampeyre, a small municipality of 1000 inhabitants circa, adjacent to the historically more important Casteldelfino (Occitan, Chasteldelfin, also named “La Vilo” by the locals), an event called “Baìo” (plural, Baìe) was celebrated during the last two weeks, an event which takes place every fifth year.
This celebration commemorates the expulsion of the Saracins invaders who occupied the valleys to control the alpine passages operated by the local population. Despite the war motive which is at the origin, Baìo has incorporated more and more features typical of the Carnival, throughout the centuries, which made this celebration a moment of joy and pacification.
The Baìe are four: one coming from Sampeyre (called by the locals “Piàsso”), one from Rore (Occitan, Roure), one from Calchesio (Occitan, Chucheis) and one from Villar (Occitan, Vilà), but in the past there used to be many more. The events take place according to a traditional format. On the second Sunday before “Thursday before Lent”, the Baìo from Chucheis visits the one in Piàsso, where the abà (the village-leaders) meet and solemnly cross the swords to establish an alliance.
The following Sunday the various Baìe meet in Piàsso, in a colourful and joyful parade. The sapeurs (literally, “diggers”) destroy the wooden obstacles that the Saracens left on the ground during the flee and groups of sonadours (“musicians”) play traditional folk music in every street. The parade is closed by two symbolic characters, lou viéj et La viéjo (“the old man and the old lady”) who represent the end of the celebration but also the end of the winter. On the “Thursday before Lent”, the Trezouries (“treasurers”) of each Baìo are processed for theft and robbery. All the characters who take part to this celebration are embodied by men and also small girls are embodied by small boys. Women can assist, but were traditionally not allowed to play a role in the performance.
This is just one of the numerous celebration concerning the Occitan language and traditions. In the latest ten years, la Lengua d’Oc underwent a very important revival, especially due to the strong influence of folk-bands who were able to give a new and modern shape to traditions which can be dated back to more than a thousand years ago.
MA student at Leiden University / Freelancer at Brill