Monday, 22 June 2015

221. Le massif de l'Esterel

11th July 2015. Here's a short guide to the beaches between St-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye on the Côte Basque:

9th July 2015. The annual madness that is the Feast of San Fermin is well underway just across the border in Pamplona. In the third video you can see that slippery stone sets combine dangerously with a solitary bull.. Feel like proving your manhood? (or perhaps losing it!☺) Step right this way..!

Hemingway in 
Spain 1923
I don't pretend to like bullfighting - far from it - but, like it or not, it must be admitted that, in an increasingly homogenised world, the whole spectacle of the Feast of San Fermin at Pamplona is one of the last authentic remaining folk festivals in Europe. It combines the fascination of Mediterranean man with the bull, religious mysticism, alcohol, bravado and death. That's an unusual combination by anyone's standards. San Fermin gained much renown and notoriety via its promotion by Hemingway with the publishing of his book "The Sun Also Rises". Hemingway - a man who could have kept a psychiatrists convention entertained for several months - found that the excesses of San Fermin provided the perfect antidote for his particular personality. I'll leave it there!

I was in Biriatou on Tuesday - a village that's said of it that anyone finding themselves there is either lost or a local who lives there. One of the most charming villages I've found in the Pays Basque, it's on a bluff overlooking the river Bidassoa that separates France from Spain. There's an auberge that I stopped at for a coffee - the Auberge Hiribarran.. Unchanged for decades inside, with a dining room that overlooks a stunning view and with a "spoilt for choice" menu, it looks like a prime candidate for a visit!   

26th June 2015. This is a lady whose voice has the power to hypnotise.. She's also extremely funny..
22nd June 2015. Even if you've never sat in a rowing boat, I'm sure you'll enjoy this short video.. It's the explosive final of the mens' VIIIs from Varese in Italy yesterday. For years, Germany has been the reference - the VIII to beat - and yesterday they were beaten. After a race like this, none of the oarsmen would have anything left in the tank.. and there's only one thing that makes the total exhaustion worthwhile - and that's winning.    

20th June 2015. I was saddened to hear on the lunchtime news today of the death of that great American writer James Salter. I discovered his work only a few years ago and I wish I'd found it sooner. I greatly envied his ability in his first book ("The Hunters") to nail all the disparate elements that combine to form military aviation. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I would suggest that "The Hunters" would make a good starting point. His later books repay slow reading as they're densely written. At the moment I'm re-reading "Burning the Days" and taking my time.. line by line.. I found I missed the richness of his prose the first time around by my usual speed-reading and I had to learn to pace myself. He had the knack of being able to paint pictures with the minimum of words, his imagery was memorable and, perhaps most importantly, he had the uncanny ability to articulate our unexpressed thoughts - well, mine anyway. No-one else wrote quite like him.    

"Once in a great while, a talented writer survives combat to produce a work of literature. Rarest of all is a literary novel written by a blooded fighter pilot. In the English language, perhaps two works truly qualify. One is Winged Victory by Victor Yeates, who flew Sopwith Camels and brought down five Germans in the First World War. The other is The Hunters by James Salter. Salter tells the story of Captain Cleve Connell who arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill—sometimes under dubious circumstances — Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war."

If military aviation isn't for you, try "Burning the Days".. He wrote beautifully about France as the NY Times explains: "And for the evocations of places, and especially of France, "the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it. I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings." And Paris: "Early morning. Its cool breath astonishingly fresh. Its elegance and ancient streets, its always staggering price. The sound of early traffic. The sky blemishless and wide." This the expatriate's France: Salter knows that the secret is never to pretend you belong there."

Here he is interviewed in the Guardian.. and some of his quotes.

10th June 2015. Busy catching up with life after a week away in the Massif de l'Esterel. This is another of those blessed and much-visited corners of France and it's situated between the Mediterranean and Provence. We stayed at a hilltop hotel (with views to die for) near Les-Adrets-de-l'Esterel to the north of Saint Raphaël. I'll get around to posting a few photographs one day.. Meanwhile, have a look here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

220. La Tantina de la Playa, Bidart

Thursday, 28th May. A few months back I was browsing YouTube looking for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 (2nd Movement) - a well-known piece that was one of my father's favourites - and I stumbled upon Yuja Wang's interpretation of this most lyrical of piano concertos. I'll never complain about China's exports again!

Here she is again with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 - a notoriously difficult piece:
For those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh for the Festival in summer, she'll be playing at the Queens Hall on 26th August. (Other concert dates here)

Monday, 25th May. Went to see Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" at the Theatre du Midi in Biarritz on Saturday.. The theatre is housed in the magnificent former Gare du Midi that served Biarritz during la Belle Epoque and it seemed to be sold out for the performance.

The former railway station has to be seen to be believed.. Built at a time when Biarritz was the preferred summer watering hole of many of Europe's crowned heads of state, the sheer style, power, originality and grandeur of its architecture is still able to induce involuntary jaw-dropping in all but the most jaded of onlookers. I've not seen another building quite like it anywhere. One hundred years on, we seem to have lost confidence in our ability to express the vitality and spirit of our age -  eg, look here and here - but that's another story.

There were over 400 musicians and choristes on the stage. I was familiar with the opening and closing movements of the piece known as "O Fortuna" but the other elements were all new to me.. I have to say that much of it was wasted on your correspondent.. in fact, I was enjoying a temporary out-of-body experience during it until Madame woke me up with a well-placed nudge..! Listen to the whole thing here and see what you think:

Tuesday, 19th May. Two things I've been meaning to do here.. The first is to post in date order - with the newest entries at the top.. Don't know why it's taken me so long!

The second is something I've also been meaning to mention here for a long time and that is the difference in the rules in France that govern the use of credit cards (like Visa) compared to how they are managed in the UK - and perhaps elsewhere. 

In the UK, the credit card companies would constantly dangle the benefits of gold and platinum cards in front of me. They were marketed there as indicating not only your financial but also your social status. (Question: why is it that this phrase - non modo... sed etiam- is the only fragment of Latin that remains lodged in some dusty recess of my skull some 55 years after it was embedded there?!)    

* not only..  but also..

Anyway, to continue, I also found that these glittering cards would arrive unasked for and that, unlike my salary, my credit limit was constantly evolving upwards - again, unasked for.. There was never any pressure to post a cheque to pay off the outstanding debt at the end of the month - and why should there have been? (as the credit card companies ratchet up their interest rates on outstanding credit balances and I suspect this is where they make their money.)

Here, as in so many other aspects of life, things are different. At the end of the month, my Visa Carte Bleue* automatically extracts the outstanding balance from my bank account - and running over the line into the red is Streng verboten    here. Simple. No more sleepless nights.. Works for me..

* It's a debit card but my bank account is only debited at the end of the month. I find this approach gives me more peace of mind as I'm not tempted (or allowed!) to let any spending carry over into future months.  

Sunday, 17th May. We had a recommendation from a friend a few weeks ago about La Tantina de la Playa - a fish restaurant that overlooks the sea at Bidart..(just to the south of Biarritz). We thought we'd try and find it yesterday and take a look at its menu. It looked promising so we booked a table for lunch today.

This is not somewhere that you'd find by accident, it being approached via a tangle of narrow roads before finishing up with a winding descent of the cliffs - with the sea within touching distance, front and centre.. (the address for your GPS is Rue de la Plage, 64210 Bidart) There was only limited parking space down below as we found today so after dropping off Madame and the dog, I squeezed through the tight press of manoeuvring cars and went back up the steep road and was lucky to find a vacant spot within the same time zone.. In the height of summer, parking must be a real problem.  

I think the restaurant has been repainted since the above photo was taken - but with the stunning views of the ocean outside, I doubt if many diners would be scrutinising the décor. The restaurant is on the upper floor of an admittedly unattractive concrete building (left) that looks out on the pounding surf below. 

I won't bore you with the details of what we had - suffice to say we'll definitely be returning. All I'd say is that if you are ever in the vicinity and are looking for a great seafood restaurant with a stunning west-facing sea view, La Tantina de la Playa will not disappoint. OK, I did say I wouldn't bore you with the details but this is what we had as a starter (minus the baked potato and tomato):
The only slight downside is that there's no set menu, it's all à la carte. Reviews here. As French diners traditionally vote with their feet, we were reassured by the fact that there wasn't an empty table to be seen.   

If you intend to visit with your current loved one (or soon-to-be loved one) for a 'special' dinner in the evening, the thing to do would be to look at the time of sunset at Bidart (try here - the things I do for you!) and try and book a window table for perhaps 45 minutes earlier..    

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

219. Bye bye winter blues..

Tuesday 10th March.. I think I may have been out in the sun too long!☺

Here's yet another reminder (as if you needed it) of just why the Pays Basque is such a special place..

Thursday, 19th March. Yes, I know the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament has been rumbling on over the past few weeks and this weekend will see the title being decided. (I've been busy!) All I'll say is this: so far England beat Wales; Ireland beat England; Wales beat Ireland.. This weekend England play France, Italy play Wales and Scotland play Ireland. Who's going to take the top spot - your guess is as good as mine. Here's how the bookies see it.

Here are some highlights from last weekend's matches:

Sunday 22nd March. The rugby world is still buzzing after one of the most thrilling rugby weekends ever. It started with Wales and then Ireland racking up big scores against Italy (20-61) and Scotland (10-40) respectively before the final match of the tournament - England vs France. This long-awaited finale to the 2015 6 Nations tournament had just about everything (except 6 more points for England!) to stir even the most jaded of armchair viewers and, right from the start, it was a treat for lovers of attacking rugby. England needed a 26 point victory against France to seal the championship but it wasn't to be. How many visiting teams score 35 points at Twickenham and still find themselves on the losing side? How many times have England scored 55 points against les Bleus? This was a game of fine margins.. 


Well done to Joe Schmidt and his Ireland side - worthy winners of the tournament..!

Never been to Paris? Got 3 minutes to spare..? Watch this:

Thursday 16th April. In common with many other regions of Europe we've enjoyed some stunning weather during the last few days with temperatures up in the high twenties. It's officially the start of the shorts and t shirt season.. and we've been eating outside again. What a difference the sun makes to a day. While the first 3 months of the year were unremittingly wet there is one happy outcome - the green bit in the garden is looking like a lawn..! Wonder how long I can keep it looking like that? 

Long term readers of this blog (yes, you at the back, madam!) will be aware of my interest in the Comet Line / réseau Comète - the network set up in WWII to enable shot down aircrew to return to Britain to continue the fight. After housing and feeding them, nursing the wounded back to health, kitting them out with clothes and equipping them with false papers, Comète brought the evading aircrew from Holland and Belgium down through Paris and on to the south west of France before pausing in the Pays Basque. From there, they would cross the Pyrenees by night into Spain, where they would be picked up by a British diplomatic car and whisked off to Madrid and Gibraltar - and then home. 

Comète's operations here were run by the indefatigable Mme Elvire De Greef (aka "Tante Go") and her family who lived at the "Villa Voisin" in Anglet - midway between Bayonne and Biarritz.. The De Greef family were Belgian refugees who'd fled their homeland following the invasion of their country in May 1940 and had taken up residence in Anglet. The mayor of Anglet offered them an empty property to them and this was the "Villa Voisin".  

Every September, the Comète faithful assemble in the Pays Basque to pay tribute to those brave souls who gave so much in the cause of freedom at great personal risk. We visit sites of interest and re-trace the old footpaths over the Pyrenees into Spain during the course of a long weekend. One of the sites we traditionally visit is the "Villa Voisin". 

When I first saw it some 5 years ago, it sent a shiver through me as it appeared completely unchanged from the very few wartime photos of it that exist. It appeared abandoned and access was impossible. All the photographs of it taken in the last few decades have the same viewpoint - from the garden gate. 

We learnt recently that the property has been bought by a developer and it is scheduled for demolition in October of this year. A lady living nearby has been authorised to sell off the contents - some of which date back to the De Greefs - and a few days ago, we (the committee of "Les amis du réseau Comète") were given access to the property to photograph it inside and out. 

It's something of a time capsule and it's not too hard to picture it as it was. here are a number of photographs that show, for the first time, this property that knew so many secrets.


Monday, 20th April. Sad to hear on the lunchtime news that Richard Anthony has died.. He was one of the very few French pop singers in the sixties who made an impact in the UK. We had a number of his EPs (that dates me!) at home - we had the very one below - but I think he'll be best remembered for his great cover version of this nostalgic Peter Paul and Mary song:   

More here.

Wednesday, 29th April. This story on the BBC website made me laugh this morning.. the history of how the British Establishment feared the sun.

This photograph in the story caught my eye.. Apparently they are dogs receiving sunlamp treatment for rickets and a leg injury, in 1949. They look as though they're enjoying the experience!

Then there's this photograph from 1935:

It caused a wry smile to range briefly across your correspondent's wizened features.. the dutiful husband applying what could only have been "Calamine lotion" to his wife's back while she takes her mind off things by seizing the opportunity to drink a cup of tea.. (you never know when the opportunity might arise again!) 

Cue nostalgic music.. When I was a boy, there was no such thing as sun tan lotion / cream / protection / sprays in all the various guises and factors that we see today.. No, we played out in what passed for sun in the UK until we reddened like so many lobsters - at which point Calamine lotion was applied to our sizzling skins.. It was pink and with a very distinctive smell that I haven't encountered for years. Am I the only one to remember this? Surely not!

Friday, 2 January 2015

218. 2015 - off and running!

The Arcachon basin
Friday, 2nd January 2015. A lot of something or other (most of it around 13.5° BV) has flowed under the bridge since I was last here.

We've just returned from a very enjoyable few days away over the New Year visiting family at Andernos-les-Bains on the north-eastern shore of the Arcachon basin (right). We've been there before but I don't think we've ever seen it looking so beautiful and as it was out of season, the traffic was still 'fluid' and driving through the coastal pines was still a pleasure - with very few camper vans (or 'camping cars' as they're known here) or caravans out and about. The basin is famous for its oyster beds and its shores are well-supplied with oyster shacks.

On New Year's day, we had lunch at La Parqueuse at Andernos-les-Bains. This was a simply furnished restaurant in the Port Ostréicole (above) that cut out all the middlemen.. it specialised in fish and seafood direct from the boat to the table. We all decided on the turbot (right) as a main course after oysters or fish soup. I'd only once eaten turbot before - and in any case, never a whole one - and, due to its price elsewhere, I doubt that I ever will again. We were all reduced to companionable silence as we enjoyed it with a white Graves.. A wonderful fish. (for the curious, it was 21€)

Afterwards, we drove around and down to Cap Ferret (below) for some fresh air and also to move the blood around.. It's one of those 'go-to' locations that exerts a strange kind of pull on people. Property here is wince-makingly expensive and there were several highly desirable properties as we neared the tip of Cap Ferret (below). The five or so dark objects along the water's edge in the middle of the photo are the remnants of Hitler's much-vaunted Atlantic Wall. Yesterday saw the Cape pleasantly crowded with strollers like us walking off their lunches.. 

There were some spectacular views across the Arcachon basin in the slanting afternoon sunshine. It was classic Kodak weather.. with warm long-shadowed light that was perfect for picture taking. We enjoyed a bright and crisp afternoon under cloudless blue skies, but it rapidly turned cooler once the sun neared the horizon towards 6pm. On the return we stopped off at the small oyster farming community of L'Herbe.. which was almost too photogenic to be true. (video here) Access and parking in the height of summer must be a nightmare.

A tightly-knit grouping of wooden cabins - the majority of which were connected with the oyster farming culture - lay in serried ranks above the waterline. At its centre, the ornate "gingerbread" wooden facade (left) of Chez Magne - Hotel de la Plage - looked intriguing and worth a visit on another day.

I took some photos looking across the basin towards distant Arcachon:

The oyster beds for which the basin is rightly famous for and, if I say so myself, this image is worth clicking on!☺The "dune de Pyla" can be seen in the background (below). Its claim to fame is that, at 107m, it's the highest sand dune in Europe.

Before I forget, I was at our local fishmongers at ~4pm on Christmas Eve picking up our order. There were a couple of people ahead of me. The lady at the head of the queue was there to pick up her order.. She'd ordered 3 "plateaux de fruits de mer" - an assortment of langoustines, crabs, oysters, whelks, mussels and prawns on a bed of ice and presented in 3 polystyrene boats, each about 2 feet long as here (left).. I set my ears to max sensitivity to hear what her bill amounted to.. "260-odd euros.." ("Whaaaat??") The next customer picked up his order - a similar boat but this time full of oysters instead.. ("80-something euros!!") Crisis? What crisis!

When it was my turn, while my order was being wrapped up, I asked the friendly lady who was working like a dervish what time she started work that morning.. She said 2am... In France, the Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. I asked her what she was planning on doing that evening. She was going to her sister's and eating - yes, you've guessed it - seafood!

On Christmas morning, I walked past the shop and there she was again after another 2am start.. Contrary to what you might read, they don't all work 35 hour weeks in France.

Sunday, 4th January. Yesterday afternoon we went to Biarritz to walk the dog along the sea front of la grande plage (the main beach). It was a sunny 14°C.. (with the sea temperature a decidedly bracing 12°) As always, we were struck by the brightness of the light compared to that of Bayonne (which is all of about 5 miles away as the crow flies). It was approaching high tide and the sea was a foam-flecked hypnotic turmoil of conflicting waves crashing into each other. As we watched with several others, a lone swimmer (with no wet suit!) ran down the beach into the boiling surf and with a few strokes was soon heading out into the towering rollers. Brave man!

Changing the subject: here's a web site that could be a boon to any Anglo expats who aren't as fluent in French as they'd like and who are looking for English-speaking services/businesses. Give InEnglish a try...

24th January. We're experiencing a very liquid winter here..  it's not cold enough for snow - at least, not down here close to sea level. We were up in the hills yesterday in Spain on a shopping raid and the near peaks of the Pyrenees were all snow-covered. But for us, it's rain and lots of it. As we were in Spain, I took the opportunity of topping up with diesel and for the first time in a long time, at 0.999€, it was less than a euro for a litre.

The other bright spot on the horizon is that Ye Olde British Pound Sterling is doing exceptionally well against the euro.. the last time I looked it was trading at £1 = 1.34€. As most of our pensions are paid in pounds, this is very good news for us indeed! Happy days! Just to put things into perspective though, when we came over here in September 2007, a pound was worth 1.47€ just before it plummeted to just shy of parity.  The fact that the UK was not in the euro zone meant that we were exposed to fluctuations in the exchange rate and this had been the one risk, the one unknown when we were making the decision whether or not to move to France. I'd anticipated that the pound/euro rate would move around a little but neither of us were prepared for the pound's seemingly unstoppable plunge against the euro shortly after we moved here. They were worrying times but, despite the massive reduction in our income, we decided we'd sit it out.

Saturday, 31st January.  I received an email from the rowing club yesterday to the effect that all rowing on the Nive this weekend has been cancelled. This decision has no doubt been made due to the heavy rain of the last few days. It only takes a day or two for the rainwater to run off the steep sided slopes of the Pyrenees and suddenly the water levels rise rapidly and the river fills up with all kinds of detritus such as whole trees that become uprooted and barely visible tree trunks that bob along at speed. Three years ago - in January - I was out in a IV when we hit one of these trees. It was almost completely submerged and yes, the tree won. Story here. So having once experienced contact with a tree, I have absolutely no wish to repeat the experience! Here's one rower who's happy to stay at home this morning..

Monday, 9th March.. The warmer drier weather (at last!) has brought with it the first sighting of returning cranes after their winter break further south. You can see them here taking advantage of a thermal before adopting their usual vee-shaped formation.

Saturday saw me down on the river after many weeks of absence due to the heavy rain that we've been plagued with - which caused the river to be full of semi-submerged debris. The warm weather had brought many of us out and we were able to put out 2 VIIIs and a number of IVs and pairs. I went out in a coxless IV. There was a strong current running and it made the outward leg upstream a real flog. However, once we'd turned around, the boat really took off and we had to take care with all the other boats out on the river. It was hard work yesterday after the lay-off.. that's all I'm saying!