Saturday, 7 January 2017

238. Greasy Joan weather

20th January. Frosty start to the day here - according to the car* it was -1°C.. Still, it's sunny with blue skies so mustn't grumble.

* A VW - so take it with a pinch of salt!☺

18th January. Still cold (0°C) here this morning. I was in town doing some shopping (a man's work is never started – oops, finished) and my hands were completely numb when I returned. 

17th January. Memory's a strange thing isn't it.. How is it that I can't remember what I came upstairs for and yet - listening to the opening credits of the BBC's "Maigret" series from the early 1960s is as fresh, timeless and evocative as it ever was.. It starts at 01:38..
14th January. There was a piece on the news this evening about a planetarium that's been opened on the summit of the Pic du Midi.. a peak in the central Pyrenees that's shy of 10,000ft by just a few hundred feet. Just added it to my 'must-do' list!
Mind you, I feel ill after looking at this video of the ascent by cable car.. (starts at 0:20) having been scarred for life by "Where Eagles Dare"..!

We drove down to Socoa yesterday intending to call in at our favourite seafood restaurant - Chez Pantxua - for lunch, but sadly they were closed until February. We had one look at the 23€ lunch menu proposed by their neighbour - Arraina - and seconds later, we were sitting in their cosy enclosed heated terrace from where we could watch the wintry scene outside in comfort.

The weather was disturbed - the house had been buffeted by wind and rain during the night straight in from the bay of Biscay - and while half the sky was blue, the other half appeared to feature every cloud known to man. The sea was boiling up and crashing over the nearby sea wall in towering explosions of white foam. The gusty wind was blowing seemingly from all quarters and occasionally contained large drops of rain or hail. Waves were making it through past the sea wall into the bay.

The menus arrived and our interest in the weather outside evaporated! An hour or so later we emerged blinking into the sunlight after a delicious lunch, happy to have found another restaurant to add to our list of favourites. Well worth a repeat visit.

11th January. Just back from a visit to the "rhumatologue".. For some time now, whenever I've stood up, my knees have sounded like practice night at castanet class - and so today the doc injected some silicon-based gloop into them. I've another two sessions of this in the next few weeks. On the bright side, I've been put on 'light duties' (heh heh!)..

"Gulp..!"
Hundreds of thousands of ducks are being slaughtered here in south west France in a preventative campaign designed to arrest the spread of a virulent strain (H5N8) of bird flu (la grippe aviaire). It's believed that the virus is spread by migratory birds. It was reported on the lunchtime news that it is active in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (that's us). Now, as to the question whether or not it's safe to eat the affected species of poultry, the World Health Organisation (scroll halfway down this link) has issued a statement: "The WHO and other expert bodies, therefore, do not currently consider avian influenza a food safety risk for consumers." Me? I think I'll try and avoid duck in all its forms for the next few months. This will not be easy, living in south-west France. If you experience any of the following symptoms: muscle pain, cough, fever and/or sore throat and you think you might have been at risk, it might be worth a visit to your généraliste (GP). More here.

7th January. The start of the 2017 RBS 6 Nations Rugby Tournament is drawing ever closer. Scotland and Ireland start this year's proceedings - closely followed by England v France on Saturday, 4th February at Twickenham. Unfortunately, Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born "one-man wrecking ball", is set to miss the entire campaign through injury. Great pity.. See what he's capable of here:
6th January. It's been an unseasonably cold start to the year here.. (I know.. nowhere near as cold as Wisconsin!) For some odd reason, these lines by Shakespeare, last heard in a dusty classroom many decades ago, are stuck in a recess somewhere in my head and single digit temperatures are usually all it takes to bring them out:
WHEN icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
(the rest here)
I'm not looking for sympathy but we seldom see temperatures down near 0°C here on the coast so the chill winds of the last few days have come as a bit of a shock to the system.. If I get knocked down, the Accident & Emergency Unit at the local hospital will think I'm sponsored by Damart! By the way, if you're scratching your head over the reference to 'Greasy Joan', take a look at the Shakespeare link!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

237. In the almost bleak midwinter..

31st December. Well, here we are again, waving goodbye to another year that's passed by all too quickly. It's been a mixed year for us here at Pipérade Towers so let's hope that 2017 brings all of us better health and happiness.

Best wishes to all of you out there in Blogistan! (looks like the Eiffel Tower below)

30th December. It's hard to imagine that the activity shown in this next video would be allowed to take place anywhere else in the world (and certainly not in the UK!) other than in France. Yes, it's the curious existence of the bouilleur ambulant (mobile distiller). These wandering artisan distillers tow their homemade alambics (stills) - quaint relics from an earlier age - around the countryside in la France profonde converting fermented fruit into eau-de-vie (alcohol) for the farming community. There are fewer and fewer of these primitive-looking but effective contraptions left in France. According to the commentary, this practice is "strictly regulated".

Now and again, I've come into contact with this 'rocket fuel'. Towards the end of a meal, someone will produce an unlabelled bottle from under the table with a knowing wink and offer to add some to your coffee. I was once given a plain unmarked bottle of this colourless product and I was surprised at how drinkable it was. I've no idea what strength it is but from a cautious sip, I would say at least 50% BV. (I call it C-Stoff!) I'd expected it to taste like after-shave or something similar but I must say that it was smooth and it went well with a coffee. I think that may have been the night I tried to take my trousers off over my head!☺

26th December. Here's a little Christmas treat for me (and perhaps for you).. We were fortunate to have experienced Paris in the 60s in our early days and we still look back on those times with great fondness - they remain very special. Here's a reminder as the incomparable Charles Aznavour spells out this paean to his youth in Paris in La Bohème:
Down to the beach at Anglet this morning for a brisk walk and a quick blast of sea air.. 8°C in still air with some mist over the sea.


24th December. I'd like to wish all those of you still here a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year..


23rd December. I was dispatched into town earlier on a mission to buy some beurre de baratte. If you're anything like me, you'll have heard of salted and unsalted butter and that's probably the extent of your butter knowledge (ie, good for 2 minutes including questions!). However, I've just learned that beurre de baratte is "butter made the old-fashioned way; churned rather than extracted with a centrifuge". I must admit to never having heard of this "centrifuge" method - I'd always thought that butter was still made by churning - albeit on an industrial scale. We'll see..

Listening to the news that the terrorist thought to be responsible for the Berlin truck atrocity has been shot dead in Milan at 3am this morning, it struck me that someone ought to point out to would-be jihadis that there's one great flaw in their rationale. As I understand it, these 'martyrs' are promised 72 virgins in the afterlife - but maybe they wouldn't be so keen to die for the cause if it was pointed out to them beforehand that this would also mean 72 mothers-in-law..

22nd December. To me, a Mens VIIIs Final is one of the great sporting events and the Olympic Final at Rio in the summer was no exception. Best watched in full screen.

This isn't a good time to be a pig in the Pays Basque. One of our favourite shops in town is Maison Montauzer.. and one of the gastronomic highlights of the next few days will be a lunch of Montauzer's boudin blanc with sautéd apple.. in which I'm afraid Monsieur Porc will play a starring role. This is an annual treat that's greatly anticipated by yours truly.

It hasn't escaped my notice that there's a growing pile of intriguingly wrapped packages under the Christmas tree.. So far, I've have been able to resist having a surreptitious squeeze and rustle of a few of the more tempting ones - but I'm making no promises. Sooner or later, I'm gonna blow! ☺

With only a few days left to run to Christmas, here's a radio station that will help to put you in the festive mood while you search the house for those elasticated waist pants!

21st December. Today sees us 'enjoying' the shortest day of the year.. From now on, the days will get longer and longer until the long-awaited day when my shorts make their public appearance again!  

20th December. Into town this morning to do some food shopping for Christmas - the highlight of which was a visit to the indoor market to buy some cheese. The range and variety of cheese has to be seen to be believed.. I was under orders to return only with a Vacherin Mont d'Or (left) and a Brillat-Savarin (right).. I was sorely tempted to disobey my instructions and return with an armload! One of these days, I'd like to have a meal composed entirely of cheese (from mild to strong.. with wines and bread to match.) Then there were the poultry counters.. selling everything from free range turkeys to guinea fowl, chapons (capons), ducks, geese, pheasant, quail plus others I can't remember. And for English readers, hardly a Brussels sprout to be seen!☺

19th December. Madame came out with another couple of her expressions the other day: "mâtiné cochon d'inde".. and "trois fois rien".. I think the first expression refers to an animal of unknown origin. The second one means three times nothing - or, as we might say: a very small quantity - like zilch or peanuts.

7th December. Feeling in need of some fresh air and, more importantly, a vin chaud, we shot down to Biarritz in the late afternoon. One of the odd things about Biarritz is that there's a distinct absence of cafés with atmosphere - strange but true. We tried a couple of places but with no joy - no vin chaud.. We ended up on the Grande Plage at the Café de la Grande Plage - and settled for a hot chocolate while we watched the sun going down. It was still warm enough to be sat outside on the seafront. If anyone knows of a good café in Biarritz, drop me a line - please!

Garbure
We had a very pleasant surprise last night.. we'd been invited to a friend's for an apéro.. but when we arrived it soon became clear that we were actually going to be treated to something very special instead. Our friend had grown up in Arzacq, a commune that sits astride the border between Les Landes and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, close to Pau, and one of the regional specialities is Garbure.. (also a great favourite of mine). We were six around the table - and we were served from a huge steaming tureen.. I think it went back to the kitchen twice more to be refilled..! After that, we still managed to do justice to her homemade crême caramel (right).. A great evening!



6th December. I don't often recommend books I've read to readers of this blog - but here's one that you should find a place for. I'm grateful to 50% of my Australian readers (OK, one person!) for recommending James Rebanks "The Shepherd's Life" to me, and I'm more than happy to pass it on. (Thanks for the tip Sue!) This autobiographical account describes in some detail the life of a shepherd/sheep breeder in England's Lake District through the seasons. Health Warning: I don't think a page goes by without sheep being mentioned!

It would be fair to say that my bookshelves are not exactly groaning with sheep sagas of any description. However, in one of publishing's success stories this year, the author's passion for a way of life that came to him through a family involvement stretching back some 600 years jumps off the page as he describes with unexpected lyricism the appeal of working closely with his Herdwick sheep on his beloved land. I surprised myself by enjoying this fascinating insight into the normally closed world of the Lakeland sheep farmer. 
I've only ever seen the Lake District from the perspective of a tourist so this behind-the-scenes look at the harsh reality of farming against a bleak climatic background was eye-opening to me. Here's the man himself talking to ABC Australia's Richard Fidler. (well worth a listen) 

The final words in the book resonated with me: "This is my life. I want no other". I think the world would be a better place if more of us could say this. At the risk of sounding smug, his words express exactly how I feel about our life here in the Pays Basque.

The NY Times takes a look at the man behind the book.

I think there are parallels with the pastoral life here in the Pays Basque. This is a powerful poem that explains the visceral attachment Basques feel for their land and their house:

My Father's House - by Gabriel Aresti, 1963 (translated from the original Basque):

I shall defend the house of my father.
Against wolves, against drought, against usury, against the Justice,
I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall lose cattle, orchards and pinewoods;
I shall lose interests, income and dividends,
But I shall defend the house of my father.
They will take away my weapons and with my hands
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will cut off my hands and with my arms
I shall defend the house of my father;
They will leave me without arms, without shoulders and without breasts,
And with my soul I shall defend the house of my father.
I shall die, my soul will be lost, my descendants will be lost,
But the house of my father will remain standing.



The love for his way of life as expressed by James Rebanks is of a similar intensity to that of our Basque hosts at the gîte we rented on arrival here in 2007. I wrote in Post No 10 that: 
"One Saturday evening, we were invited down for drinks with M and Mme D.. It was still warm and we sat outside. He had a bottle of pastis, a bottle of home-made pineau and a bottle of malt whisky on the table. He speaks French with an accent so strong you could lean on it..! At one point he was talking about his love for his land, his farm and his animals and his eyes clouded with tears.."
If Controller Household asks what you'd like for your Christmas stocking, then assuming there's some financial headroom left after the mandatory bottle of Glenmorangie (as previously advised), see if you can slip in a late request for a copy of James Rebanks' "The Shepherd's Life".

4th December. England finished their season yesterday with a convincing win over Australia at Twickenham by 37-21. It has to be said that England rode their luck in the opening minutes as Australia made a blistering start. But for some close refereeing decisions, the Wallabies would easily and deservedly have been out of sight after 15 minutes of non-stop attacking rugby, inspired no doubt by the need to prove a point after being on the wrong end of a 3-0 series whitewash against England earlier in the year. England had clearly given Eddie Jones a good listening to at half time because after the break they simply blew Australia away and virtually all of the second half was played in Australian territory. The Wallabies are a classy side with many talented attack-minded players - such as the all action Hooper, Pocock, Falau, Haylett-Petty, etc - but I think England had self-belief in spades - and, importantly, a stronger bench.

Australia could rightly feel aggrieved with some of the refereeing decisions.. the replay after a Marland Yarde try was given by the TMO clearly showed it to be a knock on - and I think Haylett-Petty was unlucky to be given his marching orders for a mindless late tackle on Mike Brown. On another day, with another referee, it would have merited just a penalty. Having said that, I think England deserved their win. It augurs well for the Six Nations next spring.


Each time we drive north from here, we pass the turn-off for Biscarrosse after about an hour - and it's somewhere that's been on my "must see" list for a long time. Biscarrosse was once the centre for flying boat operations in France when, for a few short years, many people thought that these magnificent aeroplanes represented the future of aviation - especially on the transatlantic routes. This remarkable aircraft - the Latécoère 521(right & below) had six engines - four pulling and two pushing - and it could carry 72 passengers and stay aloft for 33 hours..(gulp!) This manufacturer had some strange ideas.. (see here) Looking at the finished product, it seems to me that the aeroplane was assembled by someone who hadn't read the instructions..
A museum has been established at Biscarrosse to celebrate the golden age of the flying boat in France. Have a look at the Biscarrosse webcam..

3rd December. A splendid lunch yesterday in good company. I'm on the committee of a local association and our president had kindly invited us all to his home for a seasonal lunch. There were ten of us seated around a long table.. and we quickly got up to taxying speed with the aid of some 10 year old Aberlour single malt whisky. 

He told us that the day would have been his sister's 90th birthday. (Sadly, she passed away in June 2015). He showed us a photograph of his sister in happier times with her husband after the war. We raised our glasses to a very special lady.

She and her parents had been actively involved during WWII in sheltering shot-down Allied pilots and helping them to return to the UK via Spain and Gibraltar. They had been arrested in early 1943 and had suffered cruelly in their interrogations and during their subsequent deportation to the hell holes that were the concentration camps of Buchenwald (the father) and Ravensbrück (mother and 16 year old daughter). 

During the hubbub of conversation that followed, this story set me thinking  and my thoughts went back to someone I'd met a long time ago. I'd spoken to the president's sister a few times and I was always struck by her physical resemblance to a lady I once knew on a Greek island in the 1960s. She was a Jew and she had been deported from the island, along with almost 1700 others, via a long and harrowing journey to Auschwitz. Amazingly she survived - and she was one of a handful who returned after being liberated. She lived next door to me in the old town and sometimes I'd hear her screaming during the night. She once showed me a faded blue number tattooed on her left forearm. She had a haunted expression on her face and looked at least ten years older than her husband (who was actually older than her). She'd seen things that no-one should ever see. RIP Maria.

Friday, 4 November 2016

236. Season of mists etc

30th November. I've been listening to several versions of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus - it has to be one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written. I like the interpretation below by the Vienna Boys' Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben). I might have said this before here but music like this is the perfect rebuttal to those who think we emerged dripping from the primeval ooze aeons ago and that we simply exist, without a soul.

Here's a beautifully sung Italian flash-mob a cappella version from the Galleria in Turin.. (it starts at 2:17)

27th November. We were out early yesterday evening in nearby Lahonce at an exhibition of paintings (mainly watercolours) by Madame's painting group. Of course, France being France, all of them had prepared little foodie treats that were laid out temptingly close by - along with some interesting looking bottles. I've met this group a few times now but I'm still embarrassed by my inability to put names to people I've previously met. I was talking to the husband of one of the artists and he is promising / threatening to teach me bridge. He told me that there are a couple of sociable bridge clubs in the area. We'll see. I'm not 100% sure that this is for me. 

24th November. If you're anything like me and you only have to hear the magical thrummm of a Merlin-engined Spitfire for it to send an electric shiver racing through your bones, then this will give you a thrill - and all without having to leave the house! Imagine being given one of these at the tender age of 18.. (Turn the volume up). I grew up close to an airfield where the last Spitfires in RAF service were based. The sight of an all-silver Spitfire flying overhead my school was a daily occurrence in the 1950s. In one of those curious juxtapositions of events, a few months before the last Spitfire left active service in 1957, the maiden flight of the English Electric P1B (below) - a Mach 2 beast - took place just across the Ribble estuary at Warton. I doubt if either of those organisations concerned were aware of the significance of the other.
A large vee-shaped formation of cranes has just gone over the house heading south..  and most of them sounded as if they were chuckling. Seemed like a good idea to me! Why do they fly in formation though? I knew you'd ask.. Look here.
23rd November. It's been raining all day here so we took a gamble and went across the border to Spain for some shopping. As we'd hoped, the supermarket was blessedly free of the seasonal crowds who come in coaches from all over south west France at this time of the year to fill up their drinks cupboards..! There was snow on the mountains there and the car indicated 4½°C (40°F).

Never a Dull Moment Dept: Madame just came out with another of her classic colourful expressions: "passer du coq à l'âne.." or going from the cock to the donkey.. Or, as we'd say more prosaically in English - changing the subject - or, from the sublime to the cor blimey.  Try it out the next time the vicar calls around for his annual sherry.. 

19th November. I came across these lines of Dylan Thomas earlier.. “And I rose in rainy autumn, And walked abroad in a shower of all my days...”. I don't think there's ever been a poet who used words and language quite like him.

The view down the garden has changed during the last week.. We have a platane that overlooks the terrace and last weekend I removed this year's growth of branches - leaving a stark skeleton behind. We also have a maple down the bottom of the garden and within the last day or two it's started to drop its leaves. In this case, a picture's worth a thousand words:


16th November. You can always tell when the current French president is getting nervous about the possibility of a resurgence of support for Nicolas Sarkozy (his nightmare opponent) as some old 'story' gets dusted off anew in another attempt to smear him. The latest story to do the rounds is a "claim" by a French-Lebanese businessman that the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave €50m (£43m) to fund Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 campaign for the French presidency. Funny old thing, isn't it, that this claim has taken almost 10 years to surface - completely coincidentally - only days before the presidential primaries for the Republicans party.. Sarkozy has been investigated frequently - he's been treated appallingly - he's had his apartment searched while he was away, he's been interrogated for hours, accused of just about everything short of badger watching on Clapham Common at 1am - but all to no avail. The Left-leaning French magistrates have never been able to make any of these unsubstantiated charges stick - so once again, it's out with the smears.. sowing doubt in the minds of the electorate. If he wins through to the second round of the primaries, stand by for more (unproven) revelations. 

15th November. Biarritz was strangely quiet this morning.. This is the time of the year when several businesses take the opportunity to close their doors for a couple or three weeks - either to give their hard-pressed staff a break after the long season, or to re-decorate, or both. Our old favourite Bar Jean was closed, as was the Art Deco Plaza Hotel.. Despite these very minor whinges, it was a pleasure to wander the pavements free of the human congestion of just a few short weeks ago. It's a place we never tire of visiting and having the place to ourselves for once was a treat. In case you were wondering, Biarritz is a town that is active all the year around.. with two months (July-August) when life is very hectic.. but this was it this morning..





14th November. This afternoon a trip to the new IKEA shopping centre just outside Bayonne was called for.. Now known as "Ametzondo Shopping", it's an unimaginably gargantuan complex on 3 levels - about the size of at least 8-10 aircraft hangars (if not more). To your wizened correspondent, it's not on a human scale. In wandering around IKEA, we ended up in what looked like a warehouse, but which in reality was still the shop, with racks laden with goods towering 60 feet - and more - high above us. In the last few days, many other shops have now opened for business in these vast spaces. I found the whole experience charmless and depressing - and I couldn't wait to get out. It was like the foretaste of a "one size fits all" future.. In the middle of all the glitz, the bright lights and glitter, I spotted a lone Basque farmer - wearing his beret - looking lost. I wonder if it will take off with the locals.

To me, places like these point to a worrying trend. If, in future, we all shop at these vast commercial centres, and read the same books, listen to the same music, watch the same films, buy the same furniture, have the same likes and dislikes, it will be heaven for the manufacturers and suppliers of these mass produced consumer goods. However, if people only have access to identical cultural offerings, how can they ever develop independent and original thought? How can original voices emerge and be heard?

In Bayonne and Biarritz, there are still a number of family owned shops but with the continuing shift towards the convenience and competitiveness of shopping online, coupled with the advent of all-in-one shopping centres (with free parking), the day will soon dawn when quirky individual businesses will be forced to close their doors. In the time we've been living here, we've seen several old established family concerns cease trading.


After that, we drove south to the refreshing normality of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, that dazzled in the bright sunlight. Difficult to be sure but it seemed free of tourists.



We walked along the coastal path from Anglet to Biarritz yesterday afternoon under threatening skies, heading for Le Rayon Vert, a friendly beach-side café for a final drink there before it closed for the season. There was a definite end-of-season mood there - with the staff tidying up things prior to a 3½ month shut-down. The skies outside were grey and rain showers were sweeping in from Spain. The seas were a wintry green-grey and it was difficult to remember that only 2 weeks ago that people were sunbathing. In the warmth of the café, vintage rock and roll was being played..
12th November. England extended their unbeaten run with a convincing 37-21 win against a below-par South African Springboks side yesterday. (England still managed to leak too many points)
11th November. I read somewhere out there in cyberspace this morning that France is a monarchy disguised as a republic - whilst the UK is a republic disguised as a monarchy. I think there's a truth buried in there somewhere.

I think the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election could be summed up thus:

There is good news and bad news:

The good news is that Mrs Clinton was not elected. The bad news is that Trump was.

10th November. I must be getting soft in my old age but this made me laugh..!


One to annoy the traditionalists - an electronic version of J S Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". To my untutored ear, this sounds every bit as good as the organ or orchestral versions (if not better if I'm honest). Volume to max and open the windows!!
(There was this song by the Beach Boys that was also inspired by Bach - but with a less happy outcome.)

9th November. What is it about this melody that I find irresistible?

I'm not going to talk about / mention / refer to / whinge about / go on and on about the outcome of the US Presidential Election except to say I think the electorate got it about right. In my view, there's long been a whiff of something very unsavoury about Hillary and Bill - plus I don't think she was helped by the fact that the central plank of her campaign was all about her wish to be the first woman president.. I don't think the fact that she was female should have entered into it. It's her perceived lack of competence, sense of entitlement and untrustworthiness that did for her in the end - plus I don't think that the electorate took kindly to her husband lurking in the shadows. I think it speaks volumes for Trump that with only a fraction of the financial resources available to Mrs Clinton (a reported $1.3bn) and zero politics on his CV, he still managed to emerge victorious. I'm glad I didn't have to make the choice between The Donald and Mrs Clinton. Both candidates were flawed but I think The Donald was less flawed where it mattered most. I know it's shallow of me but I don't think I could have stood 4 years of her chipmunk smile..  

5th November. I think the great Irish roar that rose up from the crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago yesterday would have been heard in the International Space Station as Ireland (my second team!) beat New Zealand's All Blacks for the first time in their history.. Here's the entire match - I think this should be watched full screen with a dram of Glenmorangie - and savoured...
 Something completely different for you - a live feed from the International Space Station..


4th November. Turning the clocks back last weekend reminded me that Autumn is making a belated appearance in these parts. Other tell-tale signs: we lit our woodburner last night.. and the Adour was hidden in seasonal mist the other morning. I was further reminded of the change of the season by a welcome email from Perry & Caroline. They're a charming Anglo-Dutch couple who live in on the border of the Gers and the Hautes-Pyrénées a couple of hours to the east of us. This is the real France profonde..(aka "Here be dragons" country!) Perry is a very talented artist whose cartoons always make me laugh. This one on the right captures the essence of the onset of Autumn here.. with that unmistakable smell of roasting chestnuts. Here's another couple of his that tickled me..!
Mamie Wilkinson


Thursday, 1 September 2016

235. Another milestone..

30th October. Yesterday was a beautiful afternoon with temps somewhere up in the high twenties and so we went for a walk along the beach at Ilbarritz (below - pity about the jerky camera work). It was like mid-summer: the beach was crowded, a few hardy souls were in the water as an endless procession of waves rolled in to explode with crashes of white surf on the rocks. It looks to me as though the video was filmed from this rented house - which is situated in a spectacular location on the cliffs at Bidart.

(More of this Basque choir here)

27th October. My tip for the French presidential election that will take place in 2017? François Fillon.. (you read it here first!) Interestingly, his wife Penelope is Anglo-Welsh. (French profile here)

Two additions to my list of the "10 Commandments for the Home DIY Enthusiast". We (no names!) managed to knock a lamp off a side table the other day - and it broke - so we went out to buy a replacement. Once back home, I unpacked the box it came in, discarded the 3 miles of wrapping paper, plugged it in et voila! Nothing..

Of course, it hadn't been supplied with a bulb and there was no indication on the box that it was bulb-less. So:

15. If you buy a lamp just before the shop closes, you will only discover that it is not supplied with a bulb once you arrive home.

16. None of the spare bulbs you have at home will fit.     

26th October. We drove south along the coast yesterday afternoon to find ourselves in a sunny Saint-Jean-de-Luz (25°C). Waves were rumbling in past the breakwaters and surging into the bay where stand-up board surfers were riding them. The narrow streets were thronged with people taking advantage of the half term holiday in the late season sunshine and the beach was crowded as on a summer's day with many in the water. We stopped for a coffee in the Place Louis XIV and I felt myself heating up in the sunshine. I could have done without my sweater.. Hard to believe it was late October.  


23rd October. We were invited out at midday for an apéro that morphed into a lunch. There were all sorts of mouth-watering nibbles on offer including some mini-blinis with a variety of toppings (tapenade, tzatziki and others), a really tasty homemade pizza and a sublime tarte aux pistaches. I tried something to drink that was new to me - a castagnou - a glass of sweet Pacherenc enlivened with a splash of chestnut liqueur from the ArdècheTrès more-ish. We were well and truly spoiled! (NB. Chestnut liqueur available here.. ideal Christmas - oops! - Winter Holiday gift!)

According to the car, it was 25° this afternoon.. (that's 77° for anyone watching in Fahrenheit..)

22nd October. I went for a bike ride along the Nive this morning to give my knees a good work-out and on the return I stopped off at the rowing club for a chat. People genuinely seemed to think that it wouldn't be a problem if I rejoined the club - even if I had to be heaved / winched / manhandled out of the boat after a sortie - so I might just find myself wandering down there one morning very soon.  

15th October. This video explains a little about how I feel about rowing and maybe why I miss it now that I've had to stop. It was filmed at Soustons, a large lake in Les Landes not far from here (I've rowed there a few times). The aim is always to make the next stroke better that the previous one.. so you focus in turn on all the individual elements that comprise it. In doing so, I always found that I soon became totally disconnected from whatever else I may have had on my mind.. and I'd enter a zone of total concentration. The final few seconds of the video show a crew accelerating from a slow paddle to almost a racing pace.. When I was with a crew that was really together, that transition as the power came on was the moment I enjoyed the most - the surge of the boat as it came alive, the quick hands around the finish, the rock solid balance and the water singing underneath. Very rewarding.

The darling of the French Left the late François Mitterrand (the former French president) used to have a house (Latche) near here. We once came across his motorcade in the vicinity being escorted by a véritable posse of motorcycle outriders.

14th October. Coming back from San Sebastian (again!) this afternoon, this song came to mind. It was always a favourite of mine. I always thought Maria Muldaur had a wonderful voice. See what you think:
Then there's this one by Syreeta.. (Stevie Wonder's ex-wife) 

Think both of these songs are ultra-catchy and the trick will be to see how long it takes before I stop humming them in the shower! 

9th October. After lunch, we decided to have a look at Le Brouillarta* - it's the annual exhibition by local painters, sculptors and water-colourists - both amateur and professional - that's held in the gardens (right) behind la Grande Plage. One or two paintings caught my eye - but not with sufficient force to have me reaching for my back pocket!
* Brouillarta = the name given locally to an Arcus cloud..(see here). This was the scene at Biarritz in late August:
5th October. We went to San Sebastian this morning (about 45 mins away) - our first time there minus the pooch - and so we decided to stay for lunch (dogs are normally streng verboten  in restaurants in Spain). We tried KATA.4 - an oddly named oyster bar and restaurant we found just a few yards from the Hotel Maria Cristina. It featured a very interesting menu with few of the standards that we're used to in France. We ordered the pork spare ribs with Thai noodles - an extremely tasty offering. Take a look at their dishes.
  
3rd October. I had one of those "à propos of nothing" memory flashes earlier today that brought to mind an unexpectedly memorable lunch we once had when we stumbled upon a great little bistro à vins in Paris some 25-30 years ago.

We'd been walking through the centre of Paris down near the river when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the rich aroma of something delicious that appeared to emanate from the door of a bistro à vins we'd just passed. Retracing our steps we found ourselves outside La Taverne Henri IV (click on the link for a good write-up from the NY Times). A quick scan of the menu and we were in..

The atmosphere was heavy with the intensely aromatic smell of cheeses, hams, cured meats and fresh bread. It looked to be a "serious" and proper food establishment - it was cosily lit and we immediately felt right at home. We found ourselves a table and ordered some rillettes and pâté that was served with some crusty country bread. The carte des vins featured lesser known regional wines by the glass. These weren't thin "pizza" wines - far from it - and I can't now remember what we ordered but I do remember drinking a velvety-rich red from the south west and thinking that whoever bought their wine knew what he was doing.

Finally, after a very satisfying lunch, we reluctantly left to continue our stroll. The taste (and the fumes!) of one of the more memorable little lunches I've ever enjoyed lingered on with me all afternoon. This was not some ersatz themed bar - it was the genuine article. It's somewhere not to be missed. Make a note of the address and keep it in your wallet for the next time you're in Paris: 13 Place du Pont Neuf, 75001 Paris (link to map). If you do manage a visit, let me know your impressions. It would be reassuring to know that it hasn't changed. We must return.. 

Summer has gradually morphed into Autumn here.. There are no chill winds or piles of leaves swirling in the avenue or even displays of Christmas products in the shops yet.. (yet!) The wood burner has remained unlit and neither of us has seriously contemplated switching on a radiator or two. But - the signs are here.. The other days a large vee-shaped formation of cranes flapped noisily overhead, heading for warmer climes. Many of the late season human tourists have returned to the north. We're still eating outside on the terrace - but these days we check the temperature first. That plancha of mine is starting to look sideways at me.. it won't be long before I clean it off and grease it prior to heaving it to its winter hibernation in the garage. We've booked a trip to Ye Olde London Towne in early December - and in April next year we're going to Croatia and points south. Having spent a few thousand hours flying overhead that part of the world I'm looking forward to seeing it at ground level.


26th September. Here's a short video I made that features some of my favourite images from this part of the world. The word eclectic could have been coined for the dazzling variety of architectural styles that flourished on the Côte Basque - and particularly in Biarritz - during la Belle Époque. Imaginations ran riot as increasingly extravagant houses were built that incorporated styling cues from many sources. The results are here to see:

(and in case you're wondering, Egun on = Good morning in Basque ↗)
I think I would have enjoyed la belle Epoque - provided modern dentistry was available!

15th September. I had to wend my way via a tangle of lanes to Dantcharia for some shopping this morning  - I think the usual way must have been blocked with fallen trees after the storms of the other night. I decided to swing by the Pont du Diable to see how the new memorial looked - minus the crowd..

The evading airmen would cycle here from Bayonne and then make their way on foot to an old sheep barn that was, and still is, amazingly well-hidden. I doubt it can be seen from further than 20 metres away. There they'd wait until the conditions were right for a night crossing of the Pyrenees. The Germans patrolled the high ground along the border area and so the Comète guides would lead the airmen along stream beds in the valley bottoms, being careful to avoid being spotted from on high.     



Coche Mari Etcheveste
Memorial to the Basque passeurs
of Larressore, Espelette & Souraïde 
12th September. I'm just letting the dust settle after another memorable long weekend with the international Réseau Comète family in the Pays Basque.. This year we were privileged to welcome the daughter and grand-daughter of a Basque smuggler turned Comète wartime guide (right) who had come all the way from California to be with us. As with so many people connected with Comète, he hadn't spoken about his exploits to his family other than in broad general terms (that gave little away). It was an emotional occasion for them when I showed them the memorial that "Les amis du réseau Comète" and the village of Larressore had put in place at the Pont du Diable. (Coche Mari is second from the left on the bottom row) As soon as I've gathered together all the photos of a weekend that's still reverberating between my ears I'll post the details.

In the meantime, here's Angelo Debarre with Thomas Dutronc (Françoise Hardy's son):

8th September. I was just browsing through some historic images on the Aviron Bayonnais website and I came across this one - it appears to be a colorised version of a black and white print. It shows a club crew sitting in a clinker-built wooden four (clinker built = made of overlapping planks). When? I would hazard a guess as sometime in the 1920s or perhaps the 1930s. What struck me - and depressed me a little if I'm honest - is that I started out rowing in boats exactly like this one. The oars were also all wood.. with a leather collar that needed a smear of tallow before the sortie. The oar sat in a brass "gate". Boats (and oars) like these were heavy but once up to speed they would 'run' in the water. Aesthetically I find them more pleasing to the eye than their modern carbon fibre equivalents - which, I have to say, are far lighter and more rigid.. but are not as easy on the eye. Modern oars and sculls are made of carbon fibre with plastic fittings to hold them where they sit in the gates (now plastic so no need for tallow any more!). These old clinker boats were beautifully built with fine wooden ribs, brass screws and copper fastenings and the highly varnished boats of my youth would gleam in the sun. Sigh... OK, nurse, I'll go back to my room now!

 4th September. As the end of the cycling season approaches, La Vuelta a España (Spain's big race) visits our part of the world. Here are the highlights of Stage 14 (which starts from Urdax.. which is just a hop, step and a jump across the border from us.) Spare a thought for the riders because these hills are steep.. I've mentioned Urdax several times before.. it's a quaint, picturesque Basque village (in Spain) that deserves to feature on any list of "must visit" places in this area..

1st September. Today, we decided to mark our 9th year here with lunch at La Plancha, Bidart (just to the south of Biarritz). It's set in an idyllic location, right on the beach, beneath the Chateau d'Ilbarritz. On the map here, it's been incorrectly labelled - La Plancha is actually the much larger building directly across the road that someone has incorrectly tagged as the Plage de la Creeck.

We did some "bronzing" on the beach before arriving at La Plancha for lunch.. (they don't accept bookings). More photos here

What did we have, I hear you ask? We started with a sangria while studying the menu - then we ordered some sardines between us - followed by lotte (monkfish) cooked Spanish-style (left) served with a baked potato. "Spanish-style" means it was cooked with enough garlic to stun a medium sized warthog and also to keep the flies away from me for at least a week! Joking aside, I have to say it was de-lic-ious.. A 50cl bottle of dry Jurançon* (a great local white) eased everything down. 

* Read the Jurançon link above.. trust you-know-who to bring you-know-what into it! ☺

The great mass of tourists have clearly decamped and so the roads were markedly more "fluide" than just a week ago. Life is slowly returning to normal.. (phew!)