Last November, bored and feeling miserable about the declining temperatures, a friend suggested taking a break to a music festival in France. While we wouldn’t be escaping the winter weather, the idea of a buzzing music festival in a different country seemed very appealing. I thought of it as the final hurrah of 2016. A Christmas pre-game.
One of the biggest draws of the winter festival circuit is Les Rencontres Trans Musicales, or Les Trans as it’s popularly known. The French festival place on the outskirts of the medieval Breton city of Rennes. It’s been knocking about since 1979 and is where all the top European festival bookers go to suss out up-and-coming talent. In fact, you’re guaranteed that some of the artists that played at last year’s festival will pop up on this year’s Body and Soul or Electric Picnic bill.
Over the years it’s hosted the likes of Portished (who played their first ever international gig here), Bjork, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Orbital, Daft Punk, Cypress Hill, Tony Allen, Herbie Hancock and LCD Soundsystem, but the focus is primarily geared towards emerging talent.
The international line-up runs from hip-hop to house, folk to funk, Afrobeat to avant-garde and every conceivable genre in between. The festival even introduced me to a new genre of music this time: Icelandic feminist rap. Irish acts are regularly included on the bill too. Rejjie Snow came last year, with New Jackson, Le Galexie and WIFE taking to the stage in the years preceding.
My friend's suggestion of hitting Les Trans was very tempting. I liked the idea of combining a festival with a city break. During the days we could wander through the city, hit the Christmas markets and stuff ourselves silly with fantastic French food and during the night we wouldn't have to worry about keeping ourselves entertained as we had the festival to look forward to. Ideal.
After a two-hour journey from Paris on the high-speed TGV train, we arrived in Rennes on Thursday, December 1, just as things were kicking off. After checking in to our hotel and loading up on bread, cheese and wine, we took the 15-minute shuttle ride from the centre of Rennes to the Parc l'Expo, an enormous airport hangar where the festival takes place.
Nine hangars are set up to accommodate the 16,000 people who join the festival each day and it was pretty easy to get our bearings. As soon as we arrived we were presented with a wristband microchip that can be pre-charged with credit to purchase food and drinks on-site without the need to carry cash. It reduces queues at the bars and made it easier for us to stick to a budget each night. Genius.
Each day we arrived at 10pm - although the festival kicks off between 2 and 5pm - to join the wine-guzzling, chain-smoking locals getting lost in the music. There were no glow sticks, no floral headbands and no painfully long queues for the portaloos. There was enough to keep us entertained until the wee hours of the morning and although most soldiered on until 6am, we’d call it a night at about 3 or 4. A shuttle bus leaves the park every 15 minutes so there's no fear of having to splash out on a taxi.
On Thursday we took in Scottish electro composer Anna Meredith, Irish rapper Rejjie Snow - who attracted the biggest and most enthusiastic crowd of the night - and French electronic producer Yuksek. In between acts we'd stock up on plastic glasses of wine with a quick swipe of our wristband and people watch.
Everyone was dancing. And it didn't matter if they were alone or in a group or if their arms were weighed down with coats, scarves and cider, they were there to dance. It was also a more laid-back crowd than what I'm used to at home. The queues for food, drinks and portaloos were never manic, everything and everyone moved with ease.
Everything moved at a pretty easy-going pace. There was nothing hectic or frenzied about the evening. It all felt rather lovely. The warm glow I was feeling probably had a lot to do with the cheap (and delicious) red wine I was swigging but really, it was mostly due to the charming festival vibes.
Friday, feeling slightly more energised, we kicked the night off with Radio One-friendly London rapper Tiggs da Author. His enthusiastic performance eased us into the night and after a brief stint in the Heineken dance hangar (we weren't drunk enough to stick it out) we stumbled across a band I'd never heard of, an Australian act called No Zu. This is the beauty of Les Transmusicales, introducing you to something completely unexpected that elicits a giddy, enthusiastic and appreciative response.
While the eight-piece party band have a cult-like following in their hometown of Melbourne, they’re relatively unknown internationally. They've created their own genre called "heat beat," which, according to the band, combines elements of "no wave, funk, house, techno, and global percussion". Their festival set was a dizzying mix of psychedelic soul and post-disco grooves. It was a highly visual performance, which is exactly what you're looking for at 1am on a festival Friday.
Saturday gave us our Les Trans highlight, BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), a seven-piece band from Soweto. They describe their sound as “ecstasy Afropsychedelic" and the tribal sounds worked the crowd up into a stage of voodoo frenzy. Jean-Louis Brossard, the festival's answer to Michael Eavis, even joined them on stage for a dance - such was their hypnotic appeal. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they appear at an Irish festival this summer.
While our nights were filled with music, our days were filled with exploration. Rennes is the historic capital of Brittany and its charming medieval core is particularly striking. Grand open boulevards give way to winding medieval streets which pour out into a maze of cobbled lanes, tumbling alleyways and topsy turvy buildings that appear drunk.
Think of Belle's hometown in Beauty and the Beast, but with fashionable boutiques, chic restaurants and cosy bars, and you've pretty much summed up the Old Town. The Gothic architecture is gorgeously 'Instagrammable', especially the postcard-pretty "maisons à colombage" (half-timbered homes that look like they belong in a children's storybook) which date back to the 15th century and run in a higgledy-piggledy fashion along the cobbled streets.
When it came to food, we were spoiled. Brittany's hearty cuisine is most appealing on a winter's day and, this being the home of the pancake, we couldn't resist munching on crepes for breakfast. The Christmas market makes for a pretty wander but the best place for snacks is the Marche Les Lices, the second-largest market in France. Some evenings we'd skip dining in a restaurant and just grab lots of great produce from the market and eat in our hotel room, allowing us some extra time to enjoy a pre-festival nap.
At night, we'd meander along Rue St.-Michel, known to locals as “la rue de la soif” (the street of thirst). A warren of colourful taverns and clubs, with a slightly dishevelled look, this is where most of the student population gathers to sip cider, smoke and dance. After dining, we'd follow the sound of music into a bar with the most appealing songs and have a few drinks there before making our way towards the festival.
What I enjoyed most about our time there was how we could combine a holiday and a festival in one. Our days in Rennes were just as enjoyable as the nights spent getting lost in music at Les Tranns. We could move at our own pace and design a bespoke experience.
So when people are getting caught up in the rush of the summer festival circuit, don't put yourself under too much pressure. If you're the last one in the office to book time off for the big Irish festivals and miss out on securing dates, don't even stress about it. Remember there's always another party to look forward to in winter.
Fly Dublin to Paris with Ryanair (from €72) and take the PGV (from €12) to Rennes. We stayed at the Mercure Rennes Centre Gare Hotel (double rooms from €58.90) which was located a mere two-minute walk from the festival bus stop and five-minute walk to the Old Town.
Early bird tickets to Recontres Trans Musicales are priced at €50.
One day tickets are priced at €99 and three-day tickets are €169.