Bonjour Madame and Monsieur and welcome to the Route du Poisson (say that in your best French accent)! Also known as the Fish Road, this 300-kilometre cart horse race through the French countryside is a popular event that occurs every two years along the route from Mareyeuses de Boulogne to Compiègne. It is not a trek for the faint of heart, as it’s held in 22 stages and completed in just 24 hours! Competitors follow in the footsteps of the ‘old tide hunt’ – and to find what the old tide hunt actually is, we’ll have to take a trip down memory lane…
The Route du Poisson has been embedded in French history since the 13th century. Fishermen and their catches were a necessity to the people of France as they provided a staple part of their diet. To move their fish around, the fishermen would hitch two pairs of horses to a specially designed, cradle-shaped cart with wicker sides resting on two high wheels with rims. But transporting their produce was a dangerous venture, as the highways and main roads were vulnerable to highway robberies. To make it safer, the kings of that time regulated the sale, transportation and purchase of fresh, salted, pickled and smoked fish. Therefore, in large cities such as Paris, there would be about 100-200 pounds of fish a day (holy mackerel!) being carted along certain roads. The fish would have to be caught at high tide when the water was closer to shore, so no time was wasted and the quickest routes were taken to get the fish to market in time. Hence, there was a tide hunt! This daily ritual continued until 1848, when a new railway line rendered the road journey unnecessary.
To honour this piece of history, teams of horses and fish-laden carts race from Boulogne-sur-Mer to Compiègne in 24 hours over 22 stages, with ten pairs of horses, ten drivers, ten grooms and a big support crew making up each racing team. Events are also organised in the cities and towns along the route, with historic re-enactments demonstrating how the fish were caught and brought to the land, horses pulling boats from sea to shore, agility tests and relays. France’s nine draught breeds are displayed in all their glory: the Ardennes, Auxois, Breton, Boulonnais, Norman Cob, Comtois, Poitevin, Percheron, and Trait du Nord. In fact, the event was established in 1991 for the purpose of supporting these breeds, many of which had become endangered. Competitive and pleasure driving provided a new motivation to breed and train these heavy horses, which have since slowly increased in numbers. The Fish Road not only showcases the historic traditions of French fishermen and the toil they went through to get their fish to market, but also the honest, hardworking values represented by the draught horses’ spirit.
I’m not much of a fan of fish myself, but how cool is that history, globetrotters? I think that would be great fun to see and maybe even be a part of! Have you seen this event yourself? If so, we’d love to know what it was like – let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: Ça drache en Nord,, Guy Sadet / Nature Ailes.