On the 13th of July, we threw our backpacks, instruments and camping gear in the car, squeezed ourselves in among them and set off aboard the ferry on what was to be a bit of an experiment.
After a long trek through the UK and a rather terrifying drive through an angry French storm, we pulled up at a little country campsite near Lille at about midnight on the 14th of July. Our first go of setting up camp was in the midst of raging thunder and lightning, so we were well prepared for the rest of the trip. After a surprisingly good sleep, we awoke to the belting sunshine and headed towards the city to begin our experiment. There were two sides to this experiment: one was to see if we could play in the streets of these cities and the other was to discover if cold calling on pubs around Europe was a feasible way of getting gigs. After we had finished exploring the city, our first test was to take our equipment to one of the lovely squares that Lille boasts and set up. As soon as we took out our instruments, we were told by two policemen that we were only allowed to play for 15 minutes before moving on. We started to play and fairly quickly began to attract a crowd, so we decided to chance our arms and stay longer. After over an hour we saw the police approaching again but they merely smiled and waved at us; we reckoned their 15-minute rule is just an excuse for them to move you on if you’re shite and are annoying people who are working or having lunch nearby. The difference between playing music on the streets of Lille and playing music on the streets of Dublin was immediately obvious; soon after we started a rough-looking character approached and I was immediately on guard, but he dropped a euro into our case and then sat down in front of us, quietly drinking his wine and listening to the music. Soon afterwards a second came to us to advise us to turn the bass up! We met some great people in Lille and to top it off, as we were packing up a man who had been making jelly sweets on the square offered us a free packet as a “welcome”. So test one was a success! Next we headed off for the pubs to put our second plan into action. The first Irish pub we came across was called the Lucky Ducky and we went in to try our luck. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, we explained what we were doing and asked if we could have a gig. “Em….how’s Saturday?” was the response. Needless to say we left that pub in a state of disbelief – nothing is this easy in Dublin! We dropped our gear back to the campsite and had to walk miles through fields of corn to get a tram back into the city because the buses stop at around 6pm, but we were rewarded with an amazing night of gypsy jazz. We ended a great few days in Lille by playing a gig for some lovely people in the Lucky Ducky, and hit the road the following morning in high spirits.
Next up was Ghent, a beautiful city teeming with insanity due to a festival which probably hindered rather than helped us. There were no gigs to be had so we spent a day climbing towers, visiting castles and doing other touristy things. If we were to do touristy things in only one place Ghent would have had to be it, as every corner you turn reveals another ridiculously amazing piece of architecture. The heat was intense, but our campsite had a lake in it which provided me with some refreshing early morning swims. On our second day we set up to play and it was difficult to be heard over all the festivities around us, but a very kind lady from a cafe across the street brought us over a tray of homemade lemonade and cookies. Although a short-notice gig seemed an impossibility here due to expensive licensing problems for bars, a helpful Irish barman referred us on to a bar in Bruges where we managed to secure ourselves a gig on the 6th of August. This meant we had to tighten up on our itinerary and try to loop back around to Belgium within a couple of weeks, fitting in all the places we wanted to go in between.
If I was to pick one highest point in our trip, this city would probably be it. On arrival our first mission was to find a place to camp, and what we found was an ant-infested site where we were warned by a number of people (including the owner) to beware of the illegal immigrants who apparently break in regularly…so we were a bit worried with all the gear in the car, but that eventually led to nothing more than a series of stupid jokes about bandits and we soon relaxed. We began to search for gigs and were advised to visit the Heksenketel bar and hostel which was owned by an Irish man called Bill. Bill agreed to have us play in his bar in return for beds and free drinks and we spent our first night drinking there, singing songs with a wandering saxophone player. The following morning we moved from the campsite to the hostel and after testing the waters by having a busk on the main square it was time to prepare for the gig. As we were nearing the end of our two-hour set, a huge crowd of young folk came in and the place quickly ascended into mayhem. Bill offered to pay us if we played an extra hour to keep the crowd, who were by now dancing on the tables and taking their clothes off, entertained. We happily obliged and later agreed to stay on an extra night for another gig and another night of free beds. This gave us an extra day to explore the city, eat Belgian waffles and, in my case, rummage through the great selection of second hand shops on offer. This had also been our first opportunity to stay in a hostel since leaving Ireland, so we got to meet lots of other fun and interesting people from all over the world on their travels. We left Antwerp a very happy bunch of bunnies.
Our next stop was Cologne and to be honest there wasn’t a lot worth reporting. Gig opportunities were non-existent and it rained constantly so busking wasn’t really an option either. We spent a couple of days taking in the city and gaping at the monstrously impressive cathedral there, then headed on to our next destination: Heidelberg. This is a gorgeous city with a river running through the middle of it, surrounded by hills which are dotted by lovely colourful houses and featuring a castle which provides a spectacular view of the city even in the mist and rain. I was excited about going to Heidelberg, not only because I’d been there before and knew how beautiful it is, but because we were going to be reunited with our old college chum Janet (she’s amazing – check her out here: www.myspace.com/janetgrogan) who lives in Mannheim. It rained quite a bit in Heidelberg too, but there were enough dry patches for us to squeeze in a couple of busks and in fact it proved to be the best spot for busking of the entire trip. We set off on our usual bar run and were made an offer we couldn’t refuse in a place called O’Reilly’s. The manager there was a friendly English man and we played two nights for him in return for accommodation in the upstairs apartment, two free dinners and some drinks to top it all off. So Heidelberg could be put down as another success!
METZ TO LUXEMBOURG
At this stage we were almost 3 weeks into our trip and were exhausted from all the early mornings, late nights and constantly trying to find places to eat, sleep and play…and all the free drinks probably didn’t help either. Metz was to be a bit of a break, so we found a lovely campsite by a river which was only a 15 minute walk from the town and set up there. Metz is a bit of a hidden gem in my opinion. I’d never even heard of it before and we chose to go there simply because it fitted well with our loop back up to Bruges, but it was a really lovely town with very friendly locals. I managed to walk to most of the points of interest in just one day before we headed off for Luxembourg. Our first task in Luxembourg was to visit a hostel and see if we could play for beds, but unfortunately that wasn‘t a possibility. We spent our first night in the hostel anyway as we had arrived on a Sunday when there was no bus service between the city and the campsite. It seemed we had stumbled upon another place where last minute gigs weren’t really available and busking didn’t seem to be a done thing either. It was a small, very relaxed city and the huge park in the middle of it was the most enjoyable part to explore. Our last night there was spent with a portable barbeque and some cans on our campsite, and then it was onto our last port of call.
I’d been to Bruges once before, in the middle of winter. When we arrived this time around, I quickly came to the conclusion that winter is the right time to visit it. It was absolutely packed full of tourists and some of the streets could be hectic just to walk down. I imagine being a cyclist in Bruges is a complete nightmare – we saw a couple of bicycle accidents during our time there. However you didn’t have to wander far from the beaten track to escape the madness and we managed to find a lovely little park where we could relax in silence for a while. What I love most about Bruges, besides the picturesque streets and bridges, are the little shops packed with old wooden toys, dolls and teddy bears. My favourite is a shop called the Bear Necessities which features tons of old-style bears, all handmade. Having done the bulk of our sightseeing, Matt tried busking but it wasn’t long before the police told him you need to apply for a permit. So that was that. We tried our hostel trick too but the weekend was approaching and they all had their music booked in advance. We weren’t too bothered though as we knew we had a gig lined up for the following night. We spent a lovely couple of days enjoying the gorgeous city that is Bruges (and its equally gorgeous chocolate) and then celebrated the end of a successful trip in The Boru bar where we played our final gig.
We came home through Oxford where we enjoyed our last night in a hostel with some fantastic people. Getting home was relatively stress-free, apart from the minor problem of running low on petrol when I was the only one with money left in my bank account and my card decided not to work. But as usual it all worked itself out in the end. I’d be lying if I said travelling didn’t have a tendency to leave me in a bit of a confusion. I’m never quite sure how to get back to normal when I come home, and never sure if I even want to. But it didn’t take long for us to get back into the routine of things and secure a couple of gigs for ourselves. The first was a daytime gig in The Pint bar in Dublin, where we got to play for a great group of young people. It was the first opportunity we had to play to an underage crowd and after the positive response we received it’s certainly something I’d like to do more of. The second was an acoustic slot in support to Kila in the Late Lounge later that night, and despite the stress of trying to make it there in time it all came off well! Next stop is another acoustic set at the Temple House Festival in Sligo this September.