Friday, July 8, 2011

Country Pursuits

It's raining, so it must be the weekend in Brittany.
As it is summer, and half of France - les juiletists - take their holiday this month, HGVs are banned from the roads during the day at weekends. This keeps the way clear for the travelling public to get from, say, Paris to anywhere in the country without swearing at the lorry drivers and hurting their feelings. They curse and swear at everyone else, but fellow drivers in their packed-to-the-roof Renaults are fair game.

Even in the height of the season, though, an Englishman would be in seventh heaven to have to put up with what is seen here as heavy traffic. Only Paris can compete with the average English road on a normal day; and only the Nantes toll-point on the crossover weekend between les juiletists and les aoutians bears any resemblance to the Dartford Bridge on a slightly busy Friday at home-time.

Summer is when the country regions come alive for the outside world. In Brittany there are music gatherings: the largest is Les Charroux, which this year has Lou Reed, Pulp, the Kaiser Chiefs, and many more over 4 or 5 days. There is another at Lanfains, where for two days all manner of people will perform, including Alan Stivell - you have to get in touch with your inner 70s folk-rocker to remember him, perhaps, but there is also Dr Feelgood, and again, a cast of hundreds.

There are many other sorts of entertainment available. Last weekend there was a local country fair. This is rotated round various communes so that each year it is held on a different farm, and it is sponsored by a bank and some agricultural interests.  The day started at midday with a beef roast, for which there is a charge - after all, it costs a fair bit to feed up to 700 people. Then the fair itself got underway.

There were Breton horses being put through their paces: these are beautiful draw-horses, much smaller than the Suffolk Punch but along the same lines, and "showing"  involved running and walking alongside the horse over a short course. There were several foals, all caramel, with melted-butter manes, running freely alongside: where mum goes, the foal will follow, but if the foal doesn't go, neither will mum. You don't argue with hooves that big. There were also horse-drawn carriage rides, all round and across the show field, through and past people wandering about.

In one area was an exhibition, given by three lads aged from about twelve upwards, of motorbike skills. Several old cars and water tanks and concrete construction pipes had been laid out as a very challenging assault course, and the idea was to drive the bikes up over these obstacles, via  palettes tied on with rope, turning at the top by bouncing the bikes round, and then going over the next bit, all without putting one's feet onto the ground, or the roof of the car, or the top of the tank. The bikes had no seats fitted. I feel sure this sport should come with "Don't try this at home" written in large letters on a prominently displayed banner. I think we'll park off the road for a while.

Breton dancing is obligatory, with traditional music and costume, but never enough men, so that some poor lady has to step up and dance in trousers. And then there are the traditional sports. One in particular caught my eye: there was a pole, the diameter of a small tree trunk, about 3 metres or so in length with weights on the far end. The plan was to crouch, take hold of the near end, and lift it up to the vertical.  Should you fancy trying this, think long and hard: it is a recipe for all kinds of internal strain.

It was possible to stroll around the farm and examine the cattle and the poulty production. There was a display of farm machinery from horse-drawn ploughs to a brand new combine harvester, and numerous old tractors by Deutz and Semeca. The old 2CVs drew a lot of interest - they were originally designed to be able to be driven across a ploughed field, long before 4x4s were even thought of, not to mention suspension other than straps.

And the cost to go in was nothing - it was all free. 2000 people attended over the course of the afternoon, and only those who ate paid anything at all. It showcases farming life, which after all is what this region is about, and people meet and greet their neighbours there, and have a good time.
Simple pleasures, simply presented: a pretty good way to spend an afternoon, really - and not a traffic jam in sight.


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