La Basse-Île, Pays de la Loire, France
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.