Monday, 7 September 2015

224. Calm before the storm

3rd October. I've always liked these old travel posters (& art works) of the Côte Basque - so much so that I finally knocked up a short video of some of them. Some are influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, while others tip their hat to the Cubists or Art Deco.. Ramiro Arrue's work is in there too. All are interesting in their own way. (PS I know the music isn't Basque but to me it's a summer sound.. and it just seems right)
26th September. We were invited to an afternoon repas with the Goraki Choir in Ciboure today.. the night before they'd given a concert at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, St-Jean-de-Luz.

This is a mixed Basque choir and we know a few people who sing with them. The venue for the meal
was the parish hall, hidden in a narrow winding street in Ciboure.. The massively beamed hall was up on the first floor with stunning views across the river into the harbour of St-Jean-de-Luz - views that would have had estate agents salivating.. More photos of the concert here.

The organisation was impressive.. rows of tables had been set out - enough to cope with the 170+ guests who were expected. To go with a welcome glass of local cider, teams of helpers were circulating with all kinds of appetisers - delicious small sausages known as "loukankas", a variety of quiches, cold soups in small cups, a mix of potato salad and cod - again in a small cup - and other delights. After much to-ing and fro-ing and general shuffling about, we all eventually sat down - only to jump smartly to our feet as the room resounded with a Chant d'Honneur that was sung with an impressive vigour.. Each place setting came with its own Basque song sheet.

A number of planchas had been set up outside and a small team were hard at work cooking over well over 1,000 gambas (left). Clouds of blue smoke rose up from the planchas as the gambas sizzled. They were delicious.. and, as they had to be eaten with the fingers, each table had been well-stocked with finger wipes.. While all this was going on, a few musicians kept stoking the fires by singing some Basque favourites.. Corks were being popped like at an Irish wedding as we all settled to the task.

Meanwhile, the plancha team weren't slackening off - we could see them slaving outside over their planchas - loading them with enough ribs of beef (côtes de bœuf) to feed the assembled masses.. Teams of ladies came round with platters piled high with substantial slices of rare beef (right).. This was neither the time nor the place to be a vegetarian.. this was red beef - red in tooth and claw.. It had clearly been hung as it was as tender as you like. A long time since either of us had had meat as good as this. Nouveau cuisine..? Fuhgeddaboutit..!

More outbursts of singing punctuated the chomping of beef.. as seconds were brought around. (in case you're wondering - yes, I did!)

The choir formed up and sang for us - Basque voices have a unique timbre to them that's very distinctive. Unfortunately for non-basque speakers, the language is completely impenetrable and gives no clue at all as to the meaning of the song. On the positive side, they have some great tunes that are instantly memorable.

Cheese and dessert followed and soon the coffee came out. We had to make an early exit as our poor pooch was at home alone. Luckily he likes his sleep these days.

A great day and one in which it was plain to see the pleasure and the pride that everyone present took in their culture.               

25th September. A new expression caught my ear the other day: bourré de pognon*.. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded rather like one of those flowery menu descriptions in a trendy restaurant.. like Ecrasée de pommes de terre - which is how mashed potatoes are currently described in über-trendy restaurants here (Ecrasée = crushed). 

"Yes, I'd like the bourré de pognon to start with, followed by .." etc etc.

* For anyone desperate to know the answer, it means "stuffed with money"..

We finished up at La Plancha, Bidart this afternoon. It's situated overlooking the beach at Ilbarritz (just to the south of Biarritz). Well worth a visit..

11th September. There was a piece on Télématin (France 2) this morning that featured the Musée de l'Annonciade at Saint-Tropez. Made a mental note to go there one day. Some wonderful paintings there.. Scroll down this link and see what you think..

I gave Madame one of those internet radios the other day.. Without wishing to sound as though I'm on commission, the performance is - no other word for it - simply staggering.. Not only does it have the capability to access over 10,000 internet radios - but it can also work as a FM radio, or DAB radio.. It can also receive podcasts.. and input from other devices.. Simplicity itself to use as well.  I found myself exploring Cuban radios - and stations around the Caribbean.. before returning to European stations. Needless to say, Madame is totally delighted with it. She says it's right up there with her Mac laptop. Praise indeed..!  

10th September. If you like jazz, try TSF Jazz..

It was a visit to a Thai restaurant in Biarritz the other day that made me think of this.. If you like Thai food - and you live in Seattle, this is for you.. Drive out to Saya Restaurant (8455 S 212th St, Kent, WA 98031) and just trust me and order the Gai Yang (Thai BBQ chicken) on the lunchtime menu. By far the best BBQ'd chicken I've ever had. What wouldn't I give for one now..! Menu here. How many marks out of 10? 17..!

10th September. If you somehow managed to miss the final of the Mens' VIII from the world rowing championships at the beautiful lake of Aiguebelette in the Savoie last weekend, you're in luck - click here.. The race ended up as a "toe to toe" slugfest between Germany and Britain. Keep an eye on the stylish Kiwi crew.. A pity they ran out of gas in the last 500m. A future race-winning boat if ever I saw one.

9th September. Spare a thought for your poor correspondent - he's frantically trying to finish translating a number of speeches (fortunately from French => English) that have arrived late from various people so that they'll be ready in time for the weekend.. Desperate measures have been called for!   

7th September. I'll probably get howled down for being a complete philistine (again!) but I think this next piece would have received J S Bach's imprimatur.. It's his Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major played on a synthesiser.. (cries of "Hanging's too good for them!")

Compare it with the more traditional version:

What do you think? I'm not saying one is better than the other - I think the modern version can stand comparison with the original. 

Anyway, moving on, loins are being girded in anticipation of the forthcoming weekend's exertions.. Yes, it's the annual Comète commemorative weekend - where around 100 or so people from all parts of the world gather together at St-Jean-de-Luz to pay homage to those of the Comète Line who gave so much during WWII. On the Saturday and Sunday, we'll be tracing one of the wartime escape routes taken by the Comète guides and the evading airmen from Ciboure over the Pyrenees and into Spain. 

At times like this, I wish I'd spent at least a few days up in the hills this year but for one reason or another that didn't happen. However, I know I won't be the only one! Here's the forecast for Saturday and Sunday.. looks like it could be damp. Warm but damp..

223. Memorial for 2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF

I've mentioned my interest in and involvement with a local association "Les amis du réseau Comète" ("The Friends of the Comet Line") in earlier posts here. The Comet Line was a network set up during WWII by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of enabling Allied aircrew who had been shot down in northern Europe to be repatriated back to Britain from Gibraltar. This laudable aim was achieved via a thread of volunteer helpers that stretched from Brussels, Paris, the Pays Basque and on into Francoist Spain.

The history of Comète contains many individual stories of heroism, courage and adventure by innumerable brave souls - both civil and military. These shining examples of 'grace under pressure' were counterbalanced by many unspeakably brutal acts by an opponent whose savage deeds were a barbaric throwback to medieval times. Several books have been written on the subject and there are also many personal accounts available online.

During the course of the annual commemorative weekend, "Les amis" retrace the old routes over the Pyrenees. Before other inland routes were pioneered, the original route taken by the Comète guides and the evaders led from Ciboure (close to St-Jean-de-Luz) up into the mountains before descending to cross the Bidassoa, the river that marks the frontier between France and Spain. After crossing the river, the evaders would make their way to a safe farm where they would be fed before taking a well-deserved rest.

During the course of reading the accounts of these crossings (one of which is Peter Eisner's excellent "The Freedom Line"), I became aware that two men were tragically drowned  during their attempt to cross the wintry Bidassoa on the night of 23-24th December 1943

One was Count Antoine d'Ursel, a Belgian civilian who had formerly been the head of Comète in Belgium. The other was 2nd Lt James Frederick Burch, USAAF, a 27 year old native of Terrell, Texas, who had been shot down in his B-17F over Holland on 10th October 1943.
2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF
(taken 4 days before being shot down)
Trying to ascertain the facts of this tragedy with any degree of reasonable certainty at this remove (70 years after the event), at a time when little or nothing was committed to paper (for obvious reasons), is made more than usually difficult by the circumstances of that night. 'After action' reports were written - but given the darkness, the language difficulties, that the river was in flood, the fact that the evaders came under fire from the Spanish side, the fear and the fatigue, it is not surprising that the accounts differ in the detail.

Count d'Ursel's widow later caused a memorial (right) to her husband to be erected on the banks of the Bidassoa and, as an example of how we can sometimes be blind to the obvious, I unthinkingly accepted the fact that there was no memorial to Jim Burch. It was only after reading more into the events of that night that caused me to ask myself "Why no memorial to Jim?".

I put this short video together to shed some light on what happened that night - best viewed in full screen:

fundraising ideas for schools, churches, and youth sports teamsYes, there's a memorial to Count d'Ursel but, sadly and unaccountably, there is not one for Jim. We, in "Les Amis..", decided that even 70 years on, that his sacrifice and his passing merited a memorial so that future generations may be prompted to ask who, what and why. Accordingly, we have started a project to provide a memorial on the river bank to Jim Burch, the only aviator to lose his life while in Comète's hands.

We have found a stonemason who will furnish us with a granite memorial stone, engrave a suitable inscription and set it up at the riverside. We have therefore launched an appeal for donations to finance this project. At the time of writing (25th September) we are within touching distance of the target figure. The drop down menu below has 4 options: 10€, 25€, 50€ & 100€. Please give generously.. 


On behalf of the committee of the "The Friends of the Comet network" - our heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated so generously for this worthy cause.. I will post news of the project here as and when it happens.   

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

222. Farewell to a great lady

1st September. I've just been out with the dog and even though the temperature has dropped from the mid thirties to ~20°, the humidity is still right up there. According to an online site it is 86% right now. It feels like it too!

30th August. Another baking hot day - it was still 35° in the shade at 7.30pm.

Gracy Florence
It was the funeral of Gracy Florence, the former mayor of Espelette on Saturday, 22nd August. We met her 3 years ago when the annual Comète weekend saw us gather in Espelette. This small village that's Basque to its fingertips played a key part in the story of the Comète Line - as it was the focus of several inland routes that had to be developed after the arrests of Andrée De Jongh, the founder of the entire network, and others at Bidegain Berri farm (near Urrugne).

After a ceremony of remembrance in front of the War Memorial, Mme Florence had spoken without notes, simply and movingly, of the spirit that motivated those of the network. I remember that we were left afterwards with the impression that we'd been in the presence of a very remarkable woman.

The funeral was equally remarkable and that the church of St Etienne was packed to the rafters was in itself a testament to the power of her personality and the deep love and affection in which she was held by her family and her many friends. We'd arrived early at 8.50am and were lucky to find a pew at the back of the church. By 10am, it was standing room only with all three galleries packed. The service was in Basque and there was a Basque choir in place - and the power of their singing made for a deep and moving ceremony. I think many large lumps were swallowed by those present. What a way to leave this world - surrounded by friends and with singing like this that raised goose pimples on me. I'm sure the family would have been comforted by the strength of the feeling of the community around them.  

The chief mourners were led to their seats by the former rugby international Pierre Dospital (Peyo). A mighty Basque and legendary prop forward from the early 80s, he still possesses a formidable physical presence. He welcomed me into the church with a handshake that was akin to shaking hands with a jambon de Bayonne..! Yes, I may well be taller than him but he's built like a solid oak wardrobe! Would I have liked to have faced him in a rugby match as the two front rows locked horns? This picture (right) might provide the answer..

It struck me that Florentino Goikoetxea - Comète's own Basque mountain man who led so many aviators to safety across the Pyrenees must have been cast from the same mould. They make them tough around here. As I've often said here - the Basques love to sing.. and here's Peyo with his choir's version of that old folk song "The water is wide".. While I think James Taylor recorded the definitive version (here), Peyo's would do for me! 

29th August.. Oops! Welcome to the "Egg on Face" Dept.. Looking on the bright side (I've never seen the point of pessimism), over the two matches England outscored France by 5 tries to 2. However, credit where it's due - France outplayed England for long periods and it was only after some substitutions that England came alive.. It would have been a travesty if they'd managed to win the game in extra time (as they threatened to do). In 2003, England went into the World Cup ranked No 1.. being diplomatic, I'd say that Stuart Lancaster has a few selection problems. The team he sent out looked like headless chickens for so long.. and straight from the kick off, France looked like they meant business. This is painful to watch if you're an England supporter. Fortunately it was a "friendly"..

I had an outing this morning in an octuple (an VIII sculler). With the humidity, it took only minutes before rivulets of sweat were dripping off my ear lobes, my nose and my eyebrows.. It made for an uncomfortable morning.. We did 17km and I was happy to see the clubhouse again.   

It's a baking 37° as I write.. the dog is flat out on the tiles and I'll be joining him shortly..

19th August. After returning from a couple of weeks away in the UK (6100km in 2 weeks), it's impossible to describe the sense of anticipation I felt at the prospect  at the first of the two friendlies between England and France last Saturday evening.

Here's Sam Burgess - all 6'5" (1.95m) and 18 stone (115kg) of him - extending the warmest of welcomes to two of the French team - first captain Dimitri Szarzewski and then centre Alexandre Dumoulin. He's the latest import to join the Union code from Rugby League and he looks a very powerful centre indeed.. If this is the Entente Cordiale, I'm all for more of the same in the second match to be played this coming Saturday. Please - no phone calls during the game!

It should be noted that winger Jonny May is the only player who keeps his place from the first match. The XV that coach Lancaster has selected looks extremely businesslike and I would not be at all surprised to see England run in a few tries. 

Some very familiar names appear: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); J Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens).

I don't see France continuing the forward domination they demonstrated last Saturday. It should be a cracking match..

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.