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The game of boules, otherwise known as pétanque , is perhaps the sport that is closest to French hearts. Similar to British lawn bowling or Italian bocce , the French version is traditionally played with metallic balls on a dirt surface beneath plane trees, with a glass of pastis at hand. The local boulodrome is a social focal point in southern France.
The object of the game is to throw your balls usually with somewhat of an arched back-spin so that they land closer to the small object ball (cochonnet ) than those of your opponent, or strike and drive the object ball toward your other balls and away from your opponent's.
The only really essential equipment is a set of three steel boules. A set costs anywhere from US$5 for a rusty old set you may be lucky enough to come across to US$120 for a competition set. To be legitimate for competition play, a boule must conform to the following specifications:
A player who specializes in pointing (or placing) should normally favor a small, heavy boule. A heavy boule is slightly more difficult to displace, and a boule of the minimum allowable diameter presents a smaller target to the opposition's shooters. Women and young boys, usually having smaller hands and less arm strength, frequently compromise by selecting a boule that is both light and small.
A shooter should choose a lighter boule for the best chance of success. This may seem surprising, but in fact the decreased momentum of a light boule gives it the best chance of remaining in place after knocking an opponent's boule out of the game (the perfect, and much admired, shot known as a carreau ). A shooter should not use a small boule: a shot that just barely misses with a small boule might have been effective if only that extra 5 mm had been on the radius!
La Boule Bleue of Marseille has a special web page enabling you to pick the right boule for yourself in a step-by-step process.
In choosing a boule, however, perhaps the overriding consideration is "play with what feels comfortable to you."
Desirable but non-essential equipment
A proper cochonnet is turned from beech wood and is between 2.5 cm and 3.5 cm (1" to 1-3/8") in diameter. In the South of France, the home of pétanque, a cochonnet can be bought for very small change indeed. It may help to have a brightly-colored cochonnet, especially in conditions of low light, but the rules specify that a cochonnet may be stained but not painted. A cochonnet is not regarded as essential, since in any gathering of pétanqueurs many people can be counted on to provide one. At a pinch, many natural objects can stand in.
A steel tape measure, preferably in centimeters
Usefulness of a tape measure should be obvious: to settle arguments as to which of two boules is closer to the cochonnet.
Very non-essential equipment
As with all sports, equipment shops will try and sell you whatever they can, with the assurance that "you'll find you really need this". The following pétanque trivia is definitely not necessary although some of it is undeniably fun....
Here are several sources of pétanque equipment in the USA, U.K., and France:
La Boule Bleue
Author: Ian C. Mills © 1998-2008 All Rights Reserved
Bibliography: Fodor's 99 France, Editor: Natasha Lesser, Fodor's Travel Publications, New York. Paris From $70 A Day, Jeanne Oliver, 1998, Macmillan Travel, A Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company, New York. France 1998 Discovery Guide, French Government Tourist Office, New York. Passport's France Trip Planner & Guide, Emma Stanford, 1994, NTC Publishing Group, Chicago. Let's Go - The Budget Guide to France 1997, Thomas F. Moore, 1997, Let's Go Publications, Cambridge, MA, printed by St. Martin's Press, New York.
Image sources: Pétanque ball and cochonnet (OBUT brand), from Pétanque America (web site); photo of boules in hand and two art postcards, from www.petanque.org.