I think it's a peninsula wide thing... if not, country wide. I'm sure someone will tell me...
Anyway, trotting is certainly a big thing in Breton culture. We came across it in a naive and I suppose a typical foreigner, 'incomer' kind of way...
We had decided that we needed a break from renovating. A whole day off! Wow! We would take a picnic; a baguette plus a random selection from the fridge... garlic sausage, cheese, some salad stuff, a bottle of wine, sparkling water, some fruit... even a corkscrew and, this time, knives and forks... well a knife anyway. Usually when work on the house just got too much; too long without a break, we would head off at about four in the afternoon to round off the day with a bit of R&R... a walk around the nearest lake or up and down the towpath of the canal. But today we were doing it properly.
Initially it was just ..."OK, where shall we go?" With a bit of initial... "Beach? Lake? What do you want to do?" passing between us as we drove. I think we had decided that we would just drive toward the coast on the medium 'B' type roads and see what happens. In Brittany this means they were more like Cornwall's lanes... also meaning that because it's Brittany the chances of meeting anything coming the other way would be remote. Anyway we had only travelled about 5 or 6 kilometres when we passed a poster flapping on a telegraph pole. "Hippo Courses" it said. Even now as I'm typing this and checking it on Google Translations it's still giving me 'Hippo Racing'... but even on that day... Bastille Day - one of the most important bank holidays on the calendar, I don't think I expected there would be any Hippos around... Even I knew that we got the word Hippodrome from its association with horses... So I guessed this is what was being advertised. A few more kilometres and there was a bigger poster and this time an arrow had been added at the bottom. So, turning down the next, even narrower lane, to the right, seemed sensible. A little further along I was cheered by the fact that there were actually some people walking toward 'something'. The landscape around was still desolate enough to make you expect the worst. Like it would be we were following an old trail. The Hippos were last weekend. Actually that had happened to us before. It was our usual kind of luck.
But things were looking up. Just around the next bend and over the next brow there was bunting stretched across an otherwise normal and deserted gateway. Around here that means something is going on. We drove through and along a bumpy and empty track. I was beginning to think we must be trespassing when I saw cars parked up in a field. There was even a man with a high-viz jacket organising the parking. So, we did as we were bid and we parked. On getting out of the car it was refreshing not to be accosted for money. And, following the trickle of what I now realised were latecomers I realised we were not being asked to pay for entry to the Hippo racing either. Note: In the UK parking and entry to what we were about to witness would have set a family of four back about twenty quid - but this is Brittany.
We approached the event through a paddock lined with liveried horse boxes and trailers where jockeys and grooms, wives, mums and girlfriends feverishly prepared their mounts. The horses were all magnificently turned out ready for what was to come and those that had already competed foamed around the saddle areas and steamed with achievement as they were cooled, combed and cosseted. At the top of the paddock and across a sand strewn bridleway was the track and, for a 'miles from anywhere' event this was an amazing sight. With a grass racetrack stretching left and right from this paddock bend the view was of a thousand or more people lining the rails, lounging on the grass, picnicking, barbecuing, imbibing at the tented bars and generally having the best time. On the track the joy and excitement amongst the crowd was obvious and the bookmakers were ratcheting up a constant trade as, between heats, were the ox-roast stall, crepe, gallette and pizza vendors. As each race began the noise level quadrupled and the whole crowd hit the rails to cheer on their favourites. But the best... the piéce de resistance was yet to come... Hippos with trailers... Le Trotteurs!
These guys know how to stare down death and danger... They rattled around a one mile track on a pair of pram wheels with their 'wedding tackle' dangerously close to a pair of thrashing, steel shod back legs and the speed blurred hooves of a thoroughbred 'hippo' thrusting the whole ensemble forward at around 50 miles an hour... Jostling for position over a four mile course each lap funnels them through the straight where a thousand enthusiasts urge them on with money on their minds before the sportsmen and their much loved horses hurtle off around the paddock curve and off around the track again.
Where is this gladiatorial chariot racing played out?... Well, no doubt it happens in many of the larger villages across Brittany, but our best Bastille days have been spent at Plouec sur Lié in the Cotes d'Armor just 20 minutes south of St Brieuc on the Emerald Coast. It's a normally unhurried, sleepy market village (a would-be town which comes alive weekly on Thursdays for its market) that rocks with, not just the 'Hippo Courses' on Bastille day but the town square gently hums and 'lights up' all through the balmy evening with Le Dodgems... the Carousel and Candy Floss and Beer & Hot Dogs after dark!
Apparently the Trotters have been gathering at Plouec for 53 years. It's hefted in everyone for miles around... I think even if there were no posters the throng would still gather waiting for it to begin.
Bastille Day, 14th July, commemorates an uprising against the famous fortress-prison which held many political prisoners who were deemed enemies of the king... The 'peoples' army' were also seeking to access gunnpowder and arms in order to continue the fight for the establishment of the French Republic.
Article 17 of the Constitution of France
gives the President the authority to pardon
criminals and, since 1991, the President has pardoned many petty offenders (mainly traffic offences) on 14 July. In 2007, President Sarkozy declined to continue the practice. I wonder what Francoise is likely to do?