While the rest of France was celebrating Bastille Day – their national holiday – with military marches and parades, the little town of Mahalon marked the occasion with an atmosphere of fun and carnival…and a bit of hospital bed racing.
It is perhaps not surprising that the people of Mahalon do things a little differently than their brethren. Set amongst the rolling pastoral hills of Brittany, the town is about as far west as you can drive before you fall into the sea. In truth, the town is just as close geographically to London as it is to Paris and the people of the region claim a Celtic history more akin to the people of Ireland and Scotland than that of their Frankish neighbours.
It’s easy to know when you’re in the verdant heart of Brittany because you will notice that the streets sign become dual language. Not French and English, as you might expect, but a language closer to Welsh! This is Breton, a Celtic language particular to Brittany, which shares common root with the Cornish and Welsh languages from the British Isles.
From as early as the 5th century AD people from Britain began to settle this north-western corner of modern day France. For centuries it was known as Britannia minor and even as Little Britain, long before the UK gene pool spat out whoever inspired Vicky Pollard.
Even today, Brittany is idiosyncratically and stubbornly different from the rest of France; and Mahalon’s Le festival de l’Insolite – or Festival of the Unusual – is the perfect example.
If you try and look for rhyme or reason to the little town’s Bastille Day celebrations you’ll be sadly disappointed. It is fragmented and chaotic; as if, over the years, the boring bits had been carved away and good ideas tacked on as people thought of them.
A racetrack has been lain out in hay bales circumnavigating the town’s church, the smell of crepes has begun to waft from the purpose built crepe tent, and three tough, old hospital beds have been wheeled onto the road, painted in the colours of the French flag, no less.
Manning each of the beds are two pushers and one lucky ‘driver’, the one who probably picked the short straw and now has to hang on for dear life as the occupant of the speeding bed. Fancy dress reigns – we’ve got guys in blond beards and kilts, we’ve got girls in mechanics jumpsuits. In the crowd a samba band is belting out rhythms and the day’s MC is eliciting regular laughs in his quick-fire French.
The heats of the hospital bed races are frantic. For 30 years Mahalon has been holding this race and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they were the original beds. Keeping them going in a straight line seems to take more skill than most of the pushers possess as they streak down the hill, collecting hay bales to the shrieks of their driver.
The true spirit of the day becomes apparent when the children of the town rush out onto the track to assist the last placed bed, helping it to cross the line to even greater cheering than the actual winner receives.
As if that weren’t bizarre enough, to break up the hospital bed heats they have included additional races, one of which involves pushing around the track a huge papier-mâché likeness of the iconic squirrel from the Ice Age movies. As I said, don’t look too hard for reasons.
With the track races finished and the winners decided, the whole town then moves to the park for the next part of the fun. The large grassy clearing has been set up with tents and trestles, and a wide arc has been cordoned off. Along this radiating cone are placards hammered into the ground marking the distances for various world records.
The children of the town (and many of the adults) then attempt to spit, kick, toss and throw their way into the record books! Events include apricot-pip spitting, crepe tossing, beret throwing, thong (flip-flop) kicking and egg throwing.
Needless to say, quite a few of the eggs and a number of the crepes, ended up in the crowd through sheer exuberance.
With the crowd and the supply of eggs exhausted, the people of Mahalon sit down to a fabulous feast of roasted pork and mussels as a Celtic (of course) band plays on the stage. The evening ends with fireworks and everyone is sent home to set their sights on one of next year’s strange records.
Mahalon’s Festival of the Unusual is boisterous and fun, the townsfolk are welcoming and they make crepes so paper-thin and delicious you’ll be begging for them to wrap you in them. If you find yourself out in Brittany on the 14th July then fame, fortune (or at the very least) a good laugh await you in Mahalon.
What: Le festival de l’Insolite – The Festival of the Unusual
Where: Mahalon, Brittany, France
When: Bastille Day, 14th July every year
How Much: All the events are free to enter
Why: The irony of ending up in hospital due an infirmary bed racing accident is as delicious as the crepes.