This article originally appeared on VICE France.
When people think of the north of France, they might conjure up images of D-Day or bad weather. But, as it often goes, major events and stereotypes only tell a small part of a place’s story, and this region has much more going for it than that.
Photographer Romain Ruiz knows this very well. Between 2017 and 2020, he travelled the length and breadth of this region best known for its industries and for mining in an attempt to capture its hidden treasures. Born in a small town in the area, Ruiz moved west to France’s Champagne region when he was a kid, returning regularly to visit family. The brief time he spent in this chilly climate stayed with him, and as an adult, he found himself wanting to reconnect with the area.
That’s why Ruiz started taking photos of local festivals that are unlikely to show up in your typical tourist guide. With the help of Facebook pages from the areas and random people’s tips, he put together a calendar of medieval festivals, funfairs and other events that celebrate folk traditions typical of the region.
There’s the historical Wooden Spoon Fest in Comines, two separate towns bearing the same name on either side of the French-Belgian border. Here, people have been gathering once a year since 1884 to catch wooden spoons thrown during a parade, in commemoration of a folktale about a local lord that was once freed from captivity thanks to a wooden spoon.
There’s the Turkey Fest in Licques, first introduced by local monks in the 17th century and still going strong, where people parade in mediaeval costumes with their feathered friends. And more – the nationally famous Dunkirk carnival, the iconic funfair in Douai, the Sea Festival in Boulogne.
The Turkey Fest in Douais.
The result of his photographic journey is a bright and beautiful collage of eccentric traditions that withstood the test of modern times, now gathered in the photo book Contes des Nord (“Tales of the North”, only available in French). Most of these scenes are strangely timeless, looking like they might have somehow been captured by a camera any at point between the 60s and 90s. It makes no sense, yet it works. That, too, is the magic of the north.
Scroll down to see more photos from the book:
The Gayant Festival of Douai, early July. The parade, which began in the 1500s, includes giant sculptures of the Gayant family, representing local lords that fought battles against the Normans in the 9th century.
At the funfair of Douai, in early July, one girl gets elected princess every year.
The Sea Festival in Boulogne, biannual, early July. The event celebrates the sea and involves a parade, boat tours, seafood dishes and music.
DUNKIRK CARNIVAL, January to March, depending on the year. Dating back to at least the 1800, the traditional fest involves costume parties and giant puppets which are paraded around the city.
The Icy Dip IN MALO LES BAINS, the 1st of January. A traditional dip in the icy ocean to celebrate the new year, with temperatures of about 0 degrees Celsius outside and -10 in the water.
The carnival in Dunkirk.
One of the rides at the Douai funfair.
THE Wooden Spoon FESTIVAL IN COMINES, second weekend of October.