Great music is all it takes for a great rock festival. But if you add the charming Breton coast, an ancient privateer town, and a (seemingly) mysterious afterparty, then it’s so much the better. Andrea Gambaro reports.
As I light up a cigarette in the back seat of the car, a conversation I barely understand unfolds in the front. My friend Paolo speaks French and has been doing most of the socialising since we arrived yesterday. It’s our second day at La Route Du Rock Festival and we are getting familiar with how it works. Pro tip number one: don’t rely blindly on the shuttle service, hitchhike instead. That’s how we reached Saint-Malo this morning.
Our lift back to the festival area is Bernard, whose chain smoking suggests he has had enough of driving. I grasp he has been travelling from Paris and this is not his first time at the festival, I think. Whatever he is saying, the conversation sounds more focused than mere small talk. Paolo translates:
“Apparently there’s an afterparty at the campsite, some big tent called Macumba.”
It seems like we’ll be looking for it later on.
Day One: Assimilation
Even if we had known about it, yesterday we wouldn’t have been able to endure an afterparty. I arrived in St. Malo at 7am, after a sleepless night on a vile ferry seat; Paolo made his way there on a 24-hour bus ride from Italy.
Perhaps a reflection of my weakened spirits, the city looked rather gloomy at first. The grey morning light made colours as uniform as the austere buildings tidily aligned as if standing to attention, protected by thick city walls. I thought I was approaching a military base, or a huge boarding school; some place where people wear uniforms.
But as I drew nearer, the buildings’ facades revealed interesting details and oddities, while the old town looked less impenetrable seen through the gates I walked by.
I entered the town to the smell of coffee and freshly-baked bread…
I reached a vantage point off the main gate: in low tide, the beach stretched far along the coast and wide into the sea, sparsely dotted by the footprints of dog walkers and early morning runners. I entered the town to the smell of coffee and freshly-baked bread, as shops were opening and bars were setting up. While waiting for my espresso, I was already feeling more at ease with the surroundings.
After Paolo joined me, the shuttle took us to the main festival area, Fort Saint-Père, 10 kilometres south of Saint-Malo. It’s a roughly 30-minute ride, stopping at the city centre, the train station and a big shopping centre.
The campsite was still half empty when we arrived. We hesitated between a spot in the open field, where the sun-flooded tent would turn into a sauna the morning after, and a shady patch along the fence, a likely late-night urinal. We opted for the open field. After pitching our tent, the sunny weather was a good-enough reason to postpone the nap I was in great need of, and by lunch time we were back in Saint-Malo.
We hesitated between a spot in the open field, where the sun-flooded tent would turn into a sauna the morning after, and a shady patch along the fence, a likely late-night urinal.
The small stage at the beach, La Plage ARTE, hosts the afternoon gigs. We had a beer there while the tide slowly came in and covered a trail linking the beach to a small island. The French guys next to us, Paolo told me, mentioned without regret the dreadful weather of the previous year. As a first-timer who was getting into the mood of the festival, I started wondering what I should expect from the upcoming three days: were most attendees regulars like them, or casual goers? Was it a mostly-French, or an international crowd? Was the festival more about the party, or the quality of the music? Naturally, I could only wait and see for myself.
On the way back we stopped by the shopping centre, but soon after wished we hadn’t: a long queue lined up at the shuttle stop, the first bus passed by already full, and the vague information provided by the only steward on site was rather discouraging. It didn’t look like we’d make it in time for PJ Harvey’s show. The following shuttle let a handful of people on and pulled off to the piercing screaming of a girl’s foot being caught in the closing door. Not a good omen.
We asked the hesitant steward for information and almost resorted to walking to the campsite. But either he took a liking to us or was really confused, as he counted us in the first bunch who were to board the following bus, leaving behind others who had been waiting much longer. Nobody complained.
We stopped quickly by the tent, had a couple of beers, and headed for the entrance. Booze is not allowed in the festival area, but the atmosphere seemed relaxed enough to try and smuggle in a moderate amount.
The solemn attack of PJ Harvey’s ‘Chain Of Keys’ resounded from behind the fences. Pity we missed that one, we agreed, but it could have gone much worse. The rest of her show was as powerful as her latest album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, the darkly-dressed band supporting her like bishops and rooks shielding the black queen on a chessboard. I couldn’t have hoped for a better start.
Not as thrilling were Car Seat Headrest, whose sound struck me as the tired version of something I had listened to before. Then IDLES hooked me back in, staging an adrenaline-fuelled punk show loaded with rage and urgency.
Pro tip number two: draw a 50cl bottle of clandestine whiskey during Helena Hauff’s hammering techno and you’ll make plenty of friends, no matter how cheap the whiskey.
The acts kept ping-ponging between the two stages facing each other, offering muscular and overall compelling performances. Pro tip number two: draw a 50cl bottle of clandestine whiskey during Helena Hauff’s hammering techno and you’ll make plenty of friends, no matter how cheap the whiskey. Still, my last couple of hours went on mostly out of inertia.
On the way to the tent, Paolo and I concluded there must be an afterparty somewhere, but the thought of going to look for it didn’t even cross our minds. I was still longing for the sleep I had hoped for some 15 hours earlier.
Day Two: The Beach
On Saturday morning, a solo traveller named Arianne was enjoying the last days of a road trip she had taken across France. At the time we woke up, she must have been driving somewhere in the region east of where we were, roughly one hour away.
We showered off our mild hangovers and decided to go again to Saint-Malo beach, thus dropping tacitly our previous, committed plans to visit the nearby Mont Saint-Michelle, Cancale or Dinan.
Once again, the shuttle stop was a disheartening sight. There were enough people waiting to fill up at least three buses. We skipped the queue again, this time to make our way on foot along the main road. It goes without saying that the first car to pass by as we pulled our thumbs out was Arianne’s, bored after many hours of solo driving. The turn signal blinked, arguably marking the luckiest hitchhike attempt ever.
After travelling for a couple of weeks, La Route Du Rock was Arianne’s last stop before heading back to the south of France, where she was from. Hers was a bit of a soul-searching journey, or at least that’s what my poor understanding of French made out. I tried English and Italian, both of which she spoke a little. She hadn’t come to the festival to see any particular band, she said, as her taste in alternative rock was rather broad.
“But I bet you guys don’t wanna hear this,” she noted, skipping Céline Dion’s soulful voice coming out the radio.
The beach was more packed than the day before, and the sky brighter. I sported my trunks and walked towards the sea, already knowing that I wouldn’t go much further than toe-testing the water. Which was indeed freezing, but standing a few minutes on the shore was still rewarding: some bathers were plunging into the tidal pool from a diving board, while others seemed to be as keen on going for a swim as I was; further back, people started gathering by the stage. Such a pleasant mix of festival and seaside vibes made me glad we hadn’t gone off playing the tourists.
I headed back and suggested making for the stage, where Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was about to play. Paolo agreed, and so did Arianne. By the time we stood up and shook our towels, however, she was gone, not even leaving behind a vanishing cloud of smoke. How had she disappeared so abruptly? We climbed on a rock next to the stage and stood there a while, clearly visible from the crowd.
“In case she is looking for us…”
We re-planned the afternoon and realised it was getting late. No doubt Arianne’s had been pleasant company, but we were also counting on the lift back. The crowds entering the walls of Saint-Malo lead the way. Then a group of people dispersed revealing a familiar black-haired girl, who was also leaving. We couldn’t help but call to her, her awkward reaction falling somewhere between surprised and bothered.
She said she’d got lost, but more likely she had decided she needed some alone time. In any case, she nicely agreed to give us another lift and dropped us by the shopping centre. There we met (the aforementioned) Bernard, who told us about Macumba and is now taking us to the campsite.
Where is Macumba?
At the parking lot, Bernard gets out the car with a triumphant “Now I’m ready to drink!”, to which we toast heartily. Later, when we stumble upon him inside the campsite, he looks oddly lost, moving around slowly and warily; half an hour and he passes by again, this time headed confidently somewhere with a snappy stride and nervous look. Not that any of this makes him an unreliable source, I suppose.
We reach the main stage a few songs in to Parquet Courts’ show. Pro tip number three: no matter how dense the crowd, there is always a safe passage to the left leading right in front of the stage. We have some food while chatting with a group of English guys. The girl next to me says in her northern accent that she can’t wait to see Temples. Later, when they do play, I see her chatting with a friend by perhaps the only spot from which the stage is not visible. Her expectations must not have been met.
Indeed their performance is much alike Car Seat Headrest’s, while The Jesus And Mary Chain have me throw my empty plastic glass as a sign of appreciation. Pro tip number four: search the proximity of the stage at the end of each gig, as empty plastic glasses have some value if returned to the stalls.
By the time the music is over we are not exactly in the best shape. Still, we are determined to find the afterparty. Several people around us mention ‘Macumba’, dispersing our subtle disbelief about its very existence. Rather, the mythological aura hovering around the tribal-sounding tent grows larger and larger.
Several people around us mention ‘Macumba’… the mythological aura hovering around the tribal-sounding tent grows larger and larger.
The main path winding across the campsite feels too obvious, so we cut through the crammed stretch of tents. Surely Macumba must be in a remote corner somewhere. We wobble in the darkness while trying to dodge the tent pegs scattered all over, our ears strained to catch even the faintest echo of music.
Nothing. Considering that the concerts have just finished, the whole area seems all too quiet. The far end of the campsite, the toilet area, doesn’t seem like the place we are looking for. We take a different route through the field. Finally, we hear some music coming from a tall, cone-shaped tent. But as we get closer, the low volume is not that of an afterparty.
The whiskey in our trusty bottle is now running as low as my energy levels, which have been further lowered by the fruitless search. I’m not sure what Paolo’s intentions are, but I give up. I find our tent and fall asleep to the cryptic silence of the campsite.
Day 3: Afternoon naps vs. Sunday football
On day three the hangover is always harsher, and the air mattress flatter. As I try and fail to get some more sleep, a proper bed is a 72 hour-distant memory. Paolo has been up for some time. He says yesterday night he had another walk around, but ended up getting lost. It took him a while to find his way to the tent.
“These guys have been up drinking all night,” he says, hinting at the group of tents next to ours. “If they don’t know where Macumba is, who does?”
Maybe this afterparty is but a myth after all.
Saint-Malo feels too far today, so we reach the nearby village of Châteauneuf-d’Ille-et-Vilaine on foot. Over lunch, I complain about my stamina. It seems like I can no longer take two drinking nights in a row without them revealing merciless signs of ageing. Who thought the 30s would strike this hard?
“Tonight we might as well take it easier”, I say, inconsistently holding the first beer of the day.
The smiley cashier at the grocery store lets us charge our phones while we look for a cash machine in the surroundings. We find the local football ground instead, a good spot for an afternoon nap.
The ongoing match doesn’t look like a professional one, but the opposing fronts of supporters, though few in numbers, are too lively for a simple Sunday kickabout. Two people watching from behind the goal tell us it’s the first round of the Coupe de France, which is open to amateur clubs too. Theoretically, one of these teams could go all the way to the final stages and play Paris Saint Germain, Lyon or Monaco. The home team scores as we join their side; then the other does. We don’t know the score, but spirits are getting heated.
Well into the second half, one of the linesmen fails to call a five metre-wide offside which cries out for justice, and it’s another one for the away team. I expect no less than a pitch invasion, but things don’t escalate beyond resounding unrest among the local fans. At the final whistle we find out it’s a draw. We also find out that the two linesmen were picked from the teams’ staff, so one of them must have been on the right side when he decided to turn a blind eye earlier on. It will be either overtime or penalty shootouts, the referee seems to be undecided himself. We leave without knowing the final score, but surely amateur football beats afternoon naps hands down.
One Last Night…
We collect the phones from the grocery store and are unintentionally joined by two Frenchmen along the way. One of them looks all but sober. He speaks cheerfully and fervently in broken English, his red wine-inflated breath making him come across as less friendly than he’s trying to be. Implicitly, he ridicules my earlier concerns about stamina and age: roughly ten years older, he doesn’t seem to be having any trouble partying. We get rid of them at the entrance to the campsite, where they approach the security staff with the same enthusiasm as when they approached us before.
Later, the lineup follows along the lines of the other nights, Angel Olsen, Mac DeMarco and Interpol being among the most-awaited artists. La Route Du Rock Summer Edition 2017 hit an almost impeccable series of performances, where miscues were only scattered exceptions. Nor were there many sensational highlights, in all honesty, which is the only flaw I can think of. But overall the festival exceeded my expectations, striking an ideal balance between party vibes and quality music.
We consider skipping the last concert, but since we have come this far… Plus the smuggling technique has worked once again, so we have a few more toasts during the Tales of Us’ closing show. Then I drag myself to the tent, where I reluctantly set the alarm for 7am.
When I wake up, the long journey back to London is anything but an appealing scenario. Still I try to ignore the headache and turn on autopilot. I attempt a farewell, only to get from Paolo an undefined muttering. That’s exactly what I’d do if I could sleep a few hours longer. We’ll speak later over the phone.
It has been a grand three days and I’ll surely keep an eye on the festival’s lineup next year, but now it’s not the right time to think about that. Now I only want to focus on what separates me from a real bed, step by step: shuttle, ferry boat, coach, tube.
The sun already beams down and some people are still messing about by a big tent. As I get closer, I can’t tell the music coming from there apart from the droning in my head. What’s that now? A guy turns off the speakers and shouts: “Macumba c’est finì!” No way. How could we not find it? I keep walking. A girl’s hoarse laughter resounds. Macumba is over. Until next time.
La Route Du Rock launched in 1991 in Saint Malo, Brittany, and since 2006 is held twice a year. The summer edition 2017 was attended by 28,000 people. The next edition will take place between 16th and 19th August 2018 and then again in February and August 2019.
Ps. this is not the first time Urban Travel Blog has enjoyed a little fiesta time in France. Check out what happened when we attended the Dinard Film Festival, also in Brittany.