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 Choir of New College, Oxford. I might have said this before here but music like this is the rebuttal to those who think we emerged dripping from the primeval ooze aeons ago and that we 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 (watercolours) by Madame's painting group. Of course, France being France, all of them had prepared little foodie treats that were laid out 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 unable to make anything 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 win against a below-par South African Springboks side yesterday. (England still managed to leak 21 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 also this song by the Beach Boys that was 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!)  

Friday, 12 August 2016

234. Back in town..

31st August. "It gets earlier every year" Dept! This morning, I received an email from a Christmas card company showing their latest offerings. A card showing Santa's sleigh swirling on high through the wintry streets (right) caught my eye. Can the first sighting of an Easter Egg be far behind?

I can't believe that both July and August have flown by so quickly. It was near the end of June (but it seems like only yesterday) that I said to Madame that the summer season was about to kick off here with the great annual influx of visitors. With all the uncertainties of foreign travel, I think we saw more visitors from elsewhere in France than ever before here. Still, September is the best month to visit the Pays Basque in my opinion. The great wave of summer visitors (plus kids!) have returned home and now it's the "silver tourists" who remain. The temperature will settle down at a comfortable 25°C, the skies will be blue and parking will once again be possible in Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz and elsewhere along the coast.

28th August. It must be at least a week (!) since I've posted anything of Mark Knopfler's - so here's one of his timeless tracks:

Madame came out with another one of her colourful expressions a day or two ago: ménager la chèvre et le chou.. Strictly speaking, the literal word-for-word meaning is "to arrange (or satisfy) the goat and the cabbage"! But the expression really means "to have it both ways", "to keep a foot in both camps" or "to try and please everyone"..

Then there's vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre - this literally means "wanting the butter and the money of the butter". Or as we'd say in English: you can't have your cake and eat it.

There are many of these expressions that stem from France's rich agricultural heritage. I'll try and remember to include some more.

Then there are odd ones such as "beau comme un camion".. which means "beautiful as a truck/lorry". Or, more usually: "you're looking good!".

26th August. We're off out this evening to try and find a bar on a beach somewhere where we can drink something exotic and watch the sun go down. Surprisingly, there aren't as many as you might think - and those that we know of, switch to serving more profitable meals in the evenings.

25th August. Give your French a work-out with this documentary (below) about the French holiday routes of the middle decades of the 20th century over which a number of nostalgia addicts (code for obsessives!) re-enact the summer treks to the south (including "retro-camping") in a variety of period vehicles. They even go as far as re-creating traffic jams - complete with a François Hollande lookalike acting as a fake gendarme! (at 1:20:40). You couldn't make some of this up. Health Warning: Their re-enactment strays into retro-kitsch at times as these dotty collectors proudly show off their 'vintage collectibles' - such as formica guitars with built-in clocks! Think of it this way: for every obsessive living the 60s dream out on the road in his rare caravan, another hospital bed is freed up! (I'm joking - it's all harmless fun..)

The French revolutionised camping in the 50s and 60s when they pioneered lightweight aluminium-framed tents with zip fasteners, mini Campingaz Bleuet stoves, lightweight camping chairs and set up fully-equipped campsites (with hot showers, shops & entertainment). The tent we had at home in the early 60s was supported by sturdy wooden poles and it was made out of heavy duty canvas that was designed to ward off everything a British summer could throw at it - whereas the French equivalents were made out of modern lightweight waterproof fabrics designed to keep out nothing more threatening than a stray mosquito. The Campingaz stoves (right) were a revelation as well.. the starting ritual was simple: turn on the gas, light it and start cooking. My father had a Primus paraffin stove (left) and I remember it always being a struggle to light the blessèd thing - especially on a windy evening. A ring of methylated spirits had to be lit to pre-heat the jet out of which the pressurised paraffin spray would emerge. Occasionally it would light like a military jet afterburner which always amused us children! Keeping it lit was another challenge - if it went out on your watch, it was a good time to hide!

Don't worry if you struggle to keep up with the French - just enjoy the scenery (you might want to skip from 10:10 to 20:52). The old route from Paris to the Pays Basque - the N10 - is featured at 1:01:17 and the Pays Basque itself comes in at 1:30:34:

23rd August. I was out at the déchetterie (tip) earlier this afternoon and it was h-o-t.. the car thermometer was indicating 39½°C..(had to convert this one: 103°F)

The summer is passing by too quickly. I can't believe we're already in the last week of August. We had some visitors last week and after we'd taken them on a lightning 1½ day tour of some of our favourite Pays Basque hotspots (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Dantcharia, Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, Bayonne, Biarritz), we finished up in a gift shop in the beautiful border village of Ainhoa. There was a stack of berets there and, as no-one was looking, I tried one on. Miraculously it fit - so, after almost 10 years here, I finally bit the bullet! I now find myself the proud owner of a beret Basque. They come with quite a large overhang thus allowing for some individual styling. All that remains now is to mould it into a suitable shape (right) for my 100% Anglo-Saxon (with perhaps a dash of Viking!*) head. I'm slowly being transformed into an alien..! I also recently had to exchange my UK driving licence for a French one. I was surprised to see that it doesn't entitle me to stop anywhere and have an al fresco pee..(another avenue of pleasure closed off!☺)

* with apologies to Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock!

I found this well-written article about the Pays Basque in the NY Times.. The author manages to say in one column what I've been struggling to say in 7 years! Worth a read. There's a slideshow as well (just give it a moment or two to load).

We were having lunch on our terrace the other day when there was a dull thud from above, followed by the sound of something plummeting down through the hortensias (hydrangeas in English). Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something small as it shot by to land on the gravel path. My curiosity aroused, I got up to see what it was. Lying on the path, beak down with its backside in the air, was a young sparrow that must have knocked itself out by flying into an upstairs window. To my surprise, it was still alive so I picked it up and took it back to the table. It was its lucky day because it just appeared to be stunned.. After a minute or two, it hopped onto my finger and after a few more minutes, it flew off.

The following day, I found another less fortunate young sparrow lying feet up on the terrace. It was absolutely unmarked and it too had probably flown into a window but sadly it must have broken its neck as it was stone dead.

14th August. We were down at the beach at Anglet (below) early this morning for a good walk before it became too crowded - but it wasn't quite early enough as this weekend is probably the peak of the tourist season. Joggers were out en masse - and I saw one t-shirt slogan that I thought contained much truth: "The real workout starts when you want to stop"..

Today's forecast is for 34°.. Ouf!
13th August. What a great row by the British Men's VIII in Rio this afternoon.. fantastic performance..! It's the first time they've beaten the Germans in 2016 - so what a time to pounce! 

8th August. We're back home after a few days away in central and eastern France. It was really to escape the noise, crowds and bustle of the Fêtes de Bayonne but it was also a welcome break and change of air. This time, it was just the two of us - our little feller was greatly missed. 

We'd booked "demi-pension" at a number of country hotels (in the Logis group) choosing ones wherever possible that had "3 cocottes" (this is the highest ranking for food for Logis hotels). Our first night was in the Auvergne, followed by a few nights in Burgundy before finishing up in the Haut-Jura,  One hotel in particular excelled itself in the food department - and instead of offering us the standard set menu for those staying on demi-pension terms, they generously allowed us choose anything from their 27€, 37€ and 51€ menus.. We had no trouble sleeping while we were there..! That's all I'm saying..!

Route Nationale 7
At one stage during our peregrinations across central France near Moulins, we found ourselves on the legendary Route Nationale 7 (known as the RN7 or the N7), an old-style national trunk road that linked Paris with the Côte Azur before the advent of the autoroutes around 40 years ago. After WWII, the French economy - and car ownership - boomed ("Les trente glorieuses") and thus the stage was set for the N7 to become Europe's most dangerous road. For many, August was the traditional holiday month and the capital would rapidly empty during the first weekend as people in their thousands flooded out on to the roads, with the majority heading south on the N7. There were songs written about it, its dangers were discussed endlessly, there were colossal tailbacks, and accidents were frequent and violent.. It was soon became known as the "Road of Death". In short, during the hot summer months, it was a nightmare.

In the late sixties I remember driving from the south of France north up to Paris via the N7. It was totally uncompromising and unimaginably busy and it required all my concentration. My abiding memory of it is that there were a total of 3 lanes - one going north, one going south and one in the middle. This third lane could be used for overtaking by motorists heading in either direction! (Pause while you absorb the significance of that one!) Yes, the dreaded suicide lane.

 There are many similarities with the fabled Route 66 in the US that once was the main artery from Chicago to Los Angeles but which also went into decline when it was superseded by the US interstates. Roadside communities failed and became ghost towns. Nowadays, it's become fashionable for tourists to rent Harleys to ride on Route 66 to see the America of the early part of the 20th century.

Something similar happened here with the N7. Eerie is perhaps the wrong word for it but there was definitely a brooding sense of being in the presence of living history when I found myself alone on this broad ribbon of shimmering tarmac, lined with flaking restaurants, boarded up hotels and deserted cafés. This once-mighty highway unrolled before me in a arrow-straight line to a vanishing point that lay on the southern horizon. And the rear view mirror showed the same scene in reverse.

There were many independent garages (advertising bodywork repairs!) and large restaurants - the majority closed down - every few kilometres. The roadside restaurants and cafés were clearly once oases for the hungry traveller and his family - and each of them came complete with vast car parks that could easily swallow a few hundred cars - but which are now simply dustblown.

A nostalgic view of the N7 here - with a couple of very collectable cars in there.. like the Morgan 4/4 and the TR3. This video repeats at around 1:50..

Question du jour.. What on earth are the curly-wurly shaped "things" that are given out to each medal-winning athlete in the Rio Olympics? Each time there's a presentation, it appears that they continue to intrigue each recipient.. I wonder how many will end up on top of the nearest wardrobe once back home?   

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

233. Where's the heat?

26th July. It's started - the first wave of those coming to Bayonne for the Fêtes de Bayonne (France's biggest festival) have arrived. Streets which are normally car-free have now sprouted cars parked with two wheels up on the pavement as the trickle of people heading here has turned into an unstoppable torrent. The police habitually turn a blind eye to all but the most flagrant abuses of parking laws. For 5 days, cars will be seen parked in the unlikeliest of places ("How did the driver get in there?") and tents will spring up on pavements and - well, everywhere. We're off!

25th July. I surprised myself by liking this song called "It's the last one who spoke in your house who is right" by Amina Annabi. It was France's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1991 when it finished 2nd to this instantly forgettable bit of Eurotosh (and I'm not just talking about the choreography!). Back in 1991 the ladies taking part were, for the most part, clean-shaven (unlike today!)  See what you think:

The Fêtes de Bayonne start on Wednesday - but the scale of mass public gatherings has been toned down this year due to the national state of emergency brought on by terrorist activity.

24th July. In Paris and just fancy strolling around and taking it easy in a fascinating quarter? This video should whet your appetite! We always find ourselves drawn to this part of Paris:
Looking at this video though, it must have been filmed on a Saturday afternoon.. I've never seen it so crowded.. I'm not really one for crowds.

22nd July. Listen to Charles Trénet's poem to the sea.. and follow through the words in French and English here.
The alarm bells are sounding for yet another one of life's pleasures according to a gloomy new analysis. The report's findings reveal that "alcohol causes seven forms of cancer, and people consuming even low to moderate amounts are at risk".   

21st July. If you're interested in getting the French perspective on current events - but your French language skills aren't quite good enough to follow news stories on French language news sites, then try this live feed from France 24 - it's a French news channel in English.. If you watch this first, then have a look at the news on TF1 or France2, you might find their output easier to follow.
19th July. I didn't forget Pamplona this year - but here's a gentle reminder of the fiesta as it was (before you-know-who discovered it!):

18th July. I spoke too soon asking "Where's the heat.."? Apart from a quick visit to the beach at Ilbarritz this morning, we've been skulking indoors with the shutters closed since then as this part of France has been sizzling under 38° temperatures. Time for something cold..
Plage d'Ilbarritz

16th July. This is the sound of the France that I love.. It's a forlorn hope that we've seen the last attack against innocents, those out for a carefree stroll on a summer's evening. It could have been any of us.

15th July. While people were dying in Nice, this was happening in Paris.

Shocking news overnight from Nice.. Appalling carnage on the Promenade des Anglais.. What a world.

Zoko Moko, 6 Rue Mazarin
12th July. We went to St-Jean-de-Luz this morning and stayed on to have lunch at Zoko Moko. This is a restaurant that we've been hearing good things about for a year or two and so today we finally decided to give it a whirl. It's a little off the beaten track - go to the Place Louis XIV (with the bandstand) and you'll find the restaurant at 6 rue Mazarin - between the harbour and the sea front (here). If you haven't booked (as we hadn't), I'd advise arriving early - there wasn't a table to be had later on. There are 2-3 fixed price menus plus à la carte. We had the menu du marché and it was e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t! Right up there with Chez Pantxua at Socoa.. so - praise indeed. Choice of only two starters, two main courses and two desserts (always a good sign!). The main course was filet de canette (duck breast) with braised peaches. This was the best duck breast we've ever had - tender, tasty, pink & juicy. I also spotted that Madiran Château Bouscassé (mentioned before here) featured on their wine list. We were once given a bottle of this as a substitution a few years ago and it really is something special. This is definitely a restaurant we'll return to. (Other top Basque restaurants here.)

The late Joe Dassin wrote some good songs before he died at the age of 42.. This is one of his best:

This is a strange summer. This morning at St-Jean-de-Luz it was around 18° and the beach was virtually deserted.