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.
Driving north we are on the upward span of a long, arching bridge. Up ahead the girders of the bridge, set against the monotone grey-blue sky, make it look as if we are driving towards a door in the firmament, opening into a hazy Great Beyond.
It’s not too far from the truth. As we crest the bridge we can once again see over the pastures and fields of windmills that seem to roll on forever. The far north of Germany is almost as far into the Great Beyond as you can get and still be in continental Europe. The weather looks menacing but we’re heading to a festival where a little rain really won’t hurt anybody – Germany’s Wattolümpiade, the Mud Olympics.
40 huge, sweating men are panting with the strain; some are pulling faces like demonic gargoyles due to the searing pain in their bulging thigh muscles. For these men – these two teams of twenty – to win is to taste glory; to lose is to have ruined a good pair of shoes. This is the momentus Gioco del Ponte, the Game of the Bridge.
For 1000 years the people of Echternach in Luxembourg have been celebrating the life and achievements of their chosen saint, the good St Willibrord. In fact, they’ve been celebrating it for so long that no one actually remembers why they celebrate the way they do.
They just do, and that’s good enough for them.
‘And I’m disqualifying that team for an Americanish display of mutual congratulation – the High Five. Sirs, you should know better.’ – Judge, MC, and executioner.
The Chap Olympiad is a strange place to discover a revolution. It is also likely the only festival that you’ll hear the exclamation, ‘Syphilis? Marvelous!’ from a man wearing a dead bat as a broach.
The guy in the corner of the bar has a gaping headwound. It looks as if someone has only recently removed the axe. Yet even so, he’s chatting happily with his wife – cupping her hand in his – and with two others people at the table. This would probably seem strange under normal circumstances but the fact is that things are going to get a hell of a lot stranger over the course of the next week in this little Austrian town. Our axe-attack victim was no doubt a model for this afternoon’s prosthetics workshop and I’m having my mind blown at the World Bodypainting Festival.
As One Small World racks up the kilometres in search of Europe’s weirdest festivals, I’ve been lucky to come across many wonderful places on the road. And just like each of us have our idiosyncrasies, inexplicable sillinesses, and definite sense of self, so too do the places that we inhabit.
The annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll and Wake is without a doubt the poster-boy for the world’s ridiculous and dangerous opportunities to hurt oneself under the guise of tradition; perhaps only sharing its crown with Spain’s Running of the Bulls.
No photo you might have seen is able to do justice to the literal sinking feeling you get standing on the lip of Cooper’s Hill. The top of the hill is more like the cliff edge of a plateau, dropping away at a vertiginous angle, pitted with gullies and surprise hollows all waiting to grab at a miss-placed ankle.