Carousing at a communist café

La Basse-Île, Pays de la Loire, France

lenin

The sun is dipping behind a cluster of trees when we pass Le Lenin Café; if it were any lower, we might not have spotted the café at all. We’ve been cycling all day. This is day six of a fourteen-day cycle holiday across the breadth of France, and tiredness is setting in. I’m keen to find a campsite before it’s too gloomy, and reluctant to stop.

“Come on, Herod!” goads my friend Max. “Let’s stop for a bit.” I’m irked. ’Herod’ is the nickname I’ve earned amongst our group for perceived levels of oppression in my capacity as chief map navigator. I hesitate. I have been hoping for a more flattering sobriquet – so, quietly, I relent. We park our bikes.

The lure of a refreshing drink draws us in, but what really hoists our eyebrows skyward is the shambolic café-museum hybrid inside. The name is no mere marketing gimmick: Le Lenin Café is an establishment doggedly devoted to the memory of communism’s fallen leader. To order a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc (squeezed from local grapes, naturally), we must first shuffle past an astonishing collection of Lenin-themed coins, paintings, busts, puppets and other apparently authentic artefacts.

The owner, a cheerful and verifiably eccentric French lady, was active in the radical student demonstrations of 1960s Paris, and her revolutionary spirit never quite faded. The café therefore serves as a shrine to a political hero, as a focal point for the small community of La Basse-Île (an island in the middle of the Loire river), and as a quirky stop off for thirsty cyclists.

Inevitably, one glass becomes many, the towering sense of achievement felt after a hard day’s slog on le vélo making each sip sweeter. We have a happy, merry evening, and reflect on our achievements thus far (250 miles since Paris; another 100 or so to reach La Rochelle and the Atlantic ocean). It’s not only alcohol but good company and the thrill of serendipity which intoxicates. Would we have stumbled across a whimsical Soviet-themed bistro in the middle of a French island, had we sped past on four wheels, instead of two? It seems unlikely.

Suddenly, it’s dark. We sheepishly ask the café’s owners, in our piteously broken French, if we could camp in their garden, having spent much of our week pitching tents in fields on the side of the road, worrying about shotgun-toting farmers.

“Of course you can!” the owner cries in perfect English, throwing her arms in the air. “Stay in our attic!” Any lingering negative French stereotypes, poisonously etched into our collective English psyche, evaporate into the balmy night. We are effusively grateful, and vow to return one day.

Giddy from such a successful evening, not to mention a near-continuous flow of wine, we settle down onto the dusty mattresses laid out for us in the loft, and sleep like logs, safely cocooned under our first roof for a week. Even the cruel King of Judea rests easy. We won’t manage many miles tomorrow.

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A wooly Welsh wander

Presteigne, Powys, UK

[Last month, I entered Penguin’s Summer Wayfarer competition, a rather excellent little travel writing opportunity. I didn’t win, but I was genuinely honoured to make the final ten with my rather silly video entry, and the shortlisted essay below, which I can now publish for your perusal. Thanks again to all who voted.]

35881_587253929101_5834956_nNestled in the folds of the oscillating Welsh landscape, there is a farm. This is not exceptional in a country where sheep outnumber humans, but for me, it is significant: this is my grandparents’ farm. Deep in this Radnorshire valley, they happily raised children and sheep – separately, you understand – for over forty years; today it is just home to my grandfather, who lives quietly (or noisily, if there is enough wine) with his two dogs. These green terrains shape a very formative sort of paradise.

Memories sing from the hills. I step out of the farmhouse – a grand, fusty old structure of stone and wood – and trudge through the first field, where each of my grandfather’s four daughters held their respective wedding receptions. I try to geographically locate a golden family moment or two: could that be the place where my parents shared their first dance? Today, the spot is occupied by a solitary sheep, idly chewing on a clump of grass, and its air of nonchalance somewhat dims my attempt at sentimentality.

I head deeper into the farmland. The first field dips sharply into the groove of the valley and leads to a medium sized woodland, a jumbled 25-acre expanse of ancient trees which my grandparents bought up some years ago. As I approach the gate, a congregation of sheep near the gate eye me with deep misgiving, before collectively charging for the opposite corner of the field. Since my grandmother, affectionately known to her grandchildren as ‘Sheep Granny’, died some years ago, these animals are now owned by neighbouring farmers, and I have struggled to forge the same kinship as with the sheep of my childhood. I ignore the woolly newcomers, climb the rusty auburn gate, and head into the woodland.

Trees now line both sides of my vision, initially in neatly ordered rows of recently planted pines, then yielding to a sprawling mess of oaks, ash and hazels. In the summer, the extended family will descend chaotically on here to chop wood, ensuring my grandfather has enough to burn through winter. For now, it is an ocean of serenity. It’s a well-managed forest, and there is enough space between the foliage for sunlight to creep through, giving colourful life to the floor below. The blanket of spring blossom offers an intoxicating visual and fragrant tonic: a brilliant sea of bluebells here, a smattering of snowdrops there, the occasional yellow flash of wild broom.

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I stagger through the forest as it undulates between small knolls and hillocks before opening out into a round grassy clearing. This mound’s resemblance to the curvature of a breast has lent it the informal title of Abraham’s Bosom. In Jewish texts, the Bosom of Abraham was where the righteous dead sought comfort while awaiting judgement day; here, it is a favourite camping spot, where my cousins and I would seek comfort in a pop up tent under the stars.

I playfully kick the black ash from a recent excursion and plod on towards Presteigne, the nearest town. Before the valley behind me shrinks into the horizon, I turn around to soak in the view. The view consists of a single scruffy sheep. We stage the briefest of staring contests. Then it sniffs with indifference and gets back to the grazing at hand.

Rug-booze

Twickenham, London, UK

943032_10151998167434465_1029163078_nIt’s always heartening to see birthday parties break free from the shackles of the pub and do something a little different. So, when an invitation appeared to celebrate a 28th with a full day of International Rugby 7s, well, colour me intrigued – especially when it was being sold by the organiser as “basically a day of drinking in the sun”.

Rugby 7s, for the uninitiated, are not quite the graven-faced high-stakes affairs of their Rugby Union cousins. Essentially a 7-a-side version of the more famous 15-a-side game beloved of Brobdingnagian alpha males, it provides ample bitesize excitement for we of the viral generation. Each half lasts seven minutes, or no longer than the average YouTube video. And crucially, each game encourages something of a party atmosphere, with fancy dress, jumbo-screen “bongo games”, and morning-to-night boozing. Today’s theme was ‘safari’. Six Nations, this ain’t.

Anyone looking to witness both the best and worst examples of the British spirit need only to have been in the vicinity of Twickenham on this particular May morning: here, in the quasi-biblical throngs of animal costumes, you could see the humour and ingenuity for which we are celebrated the world over, right alongside the lads-on-tour debauchery for which we are rebuked. As I walked to the stadium I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the residents of this south-west London suburb who at 10.30am on a Saturday were confronted with, for instance, an inebriated zebra puking into a neatly manicured front lawn.

Still, this was ostensibly a day of sport, not safari. Rugby is a thrilling spectator game, one which appeals to the two basic human instincts: running and fighting. We feel a surge of excitement whenever someone makes a running break for the touchdown line, and the primal caveman in each of us feels particularly in thrall when the players – probably our closest modern equivalent to cavemen – willingly fling themselves into one another, in a glorious and wholly consensual gladiatorial collision of flesh, sweat, and turf.

It was tremendously exciting, and yet maybe the first sporting occasion I’ve been to where the majority of the attendees weren’t really there for the sport. During the first game, the heavily made-up lioness sitting to my left quietly asked me: “So, when they put the ball down at the end, does that mean they’ve scored?” (I could only semi-confidently confirm as much.) Much of the crowd watched the athletes with the kind of attentiveness and scrutiny that restaurant diners give to a lounge pianist. Attention naturally spiked when England played (“WAAAAAY”), or when any of England’s vague rivals played (“BOOOO”); but otherwise, the players were mere conduits for a much bigger party.

By the day’s end – the plastic-cupped alcohol having flowed as far as extortionate pricing structures might allow – our due regard for athletic competition was fading fast. I never really found out what, if anything, was at stake with these games. Is there some sort of Rugby 7s league? Did anyone, y’know, win the cup, or something? I remain none the wiser. As a day of sporting excellence, it was surreal and almost perfunctory. As an exemplification of such British pastimes as dressing up like a twat and drinking until you act like one, however, it was a fine day indeed.

Mighty Morphin’ Gower Rangers

Mumbles, Wales, UK

“I have an announcement to make.” I would have been about 15. It was on one of our annual family holidays in the Gower, the lovely beach-lined peninsula that stretches from Swansea to the Bristol Channel, when I decided – with all the mopey self-interest and hubris of puberty – that enough was enough. “This”, I proclaimed, “will be my last family holiday.” The thought of all that summer fun my friends were probably having whilst I remained handcuffed to my next of kin – a political prisoner! – was too much to bear. Never again.

How times change. Now 26, I’ve quickly learned of the vast expense that even a modest break imposes – and of my own financial inadequacy. Suddenly, family holidays are no longer a tiresome burden but a welcome treat. Ten years on, the offer of a short stay at a guesthouse in Mumbles is eagerly snapped up.

Mumbles

The Gower, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (note the authoritative capital letters), is an ideal place for a young family to holiday. Covering an area of just 70 square miles, it stands out on the map of Wales like a small phallic appendage of wholesome outdoor activity. There’s rock climbing, caving, fishing, surfing, and crucially, mile after mile of sandy, welcoming, RNLI-patrolled beaches. My family came here intermittently every year for about ten years, rain (likely) or shine (rarely); this was our summer Mecca, and now we were making the return Hajj.

The area is sparsely populated: home only to a smattering of villages, the city of Swansea, and the delightful town of Mumbles, where we were staying. A quintessentially quaint seaside destination, the bewitching idiosyncrasy of Mumbles is perhaps best epitomised in its own name: the definite article is breezily interchangeable. “Mumbles” is as acceptable as “The Mumbles”, and both variations are widely used – the latter somehow evoking a mass gathering of Welsh people stuttering inaudibly at each other, like a pleasant version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Grammatical quirks aside, it was glorious to be back in our old stomping ground, if wildly different. My long-suffering parents’ role as UN peacekeepers intermediating the constant bickering of three young children, for example, has dramatically evolved. Age has taught my siblings and I – all now technically adults – the tools of compromise and mutual respect. The fights over remote-control supremacy were muted; our choice of bedrooms a virtual non-issue.

As kids, spending every day of our holiday on the beach was simply a truism: it was not “shall we go the beach today?”, it was “when are we going to the beach?”, usually in a whiny, cloying tone. This time around, on a short four-day break, we only managed one full day on the nearby Langland Bay. And it was strikingly civilised: my sister with her Kindle, my brother with his Top Gear magazine, my parents with their newspapers. I was the only one to brave the ocean, though I did so out of a sense of nostalgia as much as anything else.

In fact, most of our activities were distinctly grown-up. Perhaps this is not surprising for a family of five now all comfortably over the legal drinking age; but a visit to the Dylan Thomas Centre in nearby Swansea would have once unequivocally ended in complaints of boredom or tiredness. (In truth, Dad did manage a short nap on the foyer bench, which is really more testament to his incredible propensity and versatility for napping in any habitat on Earth, and hardly a judgement on the centre.) But the museum, a permanent exhibition on the local writer and poet, is a surprise hit: a genuinely fascinating and enlightening look at a complex hero, the sort you leave feeling inspired, as if a long-snubbed part of your brain has been abruptly awoken.

Truth be told, we didn’t spend much time in Swansea; Thomas famously called it an “ugly, lovely town”, although the retort found in cult Welsh comedy Twin Town, a “pretty shitty city”, is equally valid. Swansea is still shaking off its post-industrial malaise like a wet dog coming out of the rain.

But stunning natural beauty is never far away, and for one fortuitously sunny afternoon we all walked the stunning cliff path from Langland to Caswell Bay. Activities like these bring the contrast between young and old most sharply into vision. I clearly remember, as an eight-year-old, being dragged to a long cliff walk, and desperately struggling to see the point. We’re just going for a walk? And that’s fun, is it? Sometimes, when you’re staring at a brilliant yellow sun – an audacious presence in a habitually grey Welsh sky – against a perfect coruscating ocean, the tedium of adulthood almost seems worthwhile.