Saturday, 18 February 2012

176. Biarritz dazzles

18th February 2012. We're gradually emerging from the icy grip of the cold spell that's affected most of Western Europe for the past few weeks. We've been more or less housebound for all that time - it having been too cold to venture out much further than the dog's usual walk. This morning it was 4°C as I left to go down to the river.. and at the riverside it felt very cold indeed. The river was low (low tide) which meant that the frost-covered ramp leading down to the pontoon sloped at a perilously steep angle. Despite the cold however, there were healthy numbers of us down there and enough turned up to be able to put 3 VIIIs out on the water plus 1 or 2 IVs and some sculling boats. I went out as stroke with a mixed crew in an VIII sculler (an octuple). This was my first outing for 2 weeks and I can still feel the after-effects late in the afternoon.. (creak, groan) Once we'd warmed up, we did some interval training - which made the time pass! In the end, we did 14km.

New apartment block
This afternoon we went for a walk around Biarritz with the dog. The sea front was blissfully free of the usual hordes and it was very fresh with a dazzling light. We weren't able to take the dog into the legendary Patisserie Confiserie Miremont so we stopped instead at the Plaza Hotel and sat outside in the sunshine. Think it was ~11-12°C. Walking down the Avenue Reine Victoria there was a gap on the buildings as though a tooth had been pulled. Sure enough, the house that had been there before has now completely vanished - the adjacent buildings were marked with the outline of its roof - and so no prizes for guessing what's going to replace it? Yes, yet another apartment block (above) is going up in its place. And, of course, the Town Hall won't have complained to the developers as the new apartment block will bring in more tax than the house it replaced. So gradually, the old buildings that give the town its identity are slowly disappearing. Just across the road, there used to be an old garage that had been there since the dawn of the automobile age. The closure signs went up last year and then a few months ago it disappeared in a cloud of dust and the huge site is being developed to take another apartment block.

20th February 2012. Went to see Meryl Streep in the "The Iron Lady" yesterday in Biarritz. What a stunning performance by her and one that will surely be marked with a well-deserved Oscar. I think it is the finest acting performance on film that I've ever seen. Despite that though, I came away from the cinema with mixed feelings. For a woman whose achievements could fill a six part series I found it strange that the filmmakers had chosen to concentrate on Baroness Thatcher's present state of health - a condition which, after all, she has no control over. In my view, the focus of the film should have been on those events that she was in control over. Of those, there is no shortage at all. To make a film during her lifetime that shows her suffering from Alzheimers is, in my view, totally disrespectful, ungallant, highly intrusive and a mean-spirited portrayal of the greatest Prime Minister of my lifetime. I don't believe any country other than Britain would portray a living former Prime Minister like this.
I had the great good fortune to hear Mrs Thatcher speak on one occasion. During the run-up to the General Election in 1979 I went to a political meeting (my first and last) as I knew she was in the area and I suspected that she might well make an appearance. Halfway through a turgid speech by the clueless local candidate (a walking cure for insomnia if ever there was one) I was contemplating slashing my wrists when I heard a commotion off to my right. All I could see was the multiple flashing of cameras in the doorway as a jostling crowd entered the hall. In the middle of all the TV lights, flashing cameras, minders & political agents there bobbed a blonde head - Mrs T was in the building! She made her up to the stage amid cheering applause and she took the microphone from the hapless stammering numpty and turned to us.

She spoke for about 10-15 minutes and she was totally electrifying. I've never forgotten the impact of her clarity of thought, the  power of her arguments and the sheer force of character and belief with which she expressed them that day. I've often been put in mind of this experience when reading about the Third Reich. Mrs Thatcher was not renowned for her great oratorial skills and yet she was able to inspire me like no other before or since. It goes some way to explain the extraordinary hold that Hitler - an acknowledged master of the spoken word - had on an entire nation.

A couple of years later I had a chance meeting with her and Denis out in the boondocks - she was charm personified. She polarised opinion - not many were neutral - and I think the British media and the political chatterati were and still are merciless in their assessment of her. She was that rarest of political animals - a conviction politician - one who actually believed in what she said and was prepared to fight for her beliefs -  the word compromise wasn't in her vocabulary. Once elected, she was a breath of fresh air after the grey men before her. A great lady and she will be remembered long after all her lily-livered detractors have been forgotten - if that hasn't already happened. This is the Margaret Thatcher I remember - not an old lady unfortunately suffering in her final declining years alone.

21st February 2012. Back to the present. I was browsing the web looking for a particular image of Basque culture (I'll get back to you with this as soon as I've found it) when I came across this photo.. it's of the Old Port of Biarritz and there's nowhere better for a quick lunch of sardines à la plancha and sangria than here.

Apparently the Duke and Duchess of Windsor selected Biarritz as their favourite holiday destination in the 40s - Wallis famously instructed her staff to "Chill the champagne, pack the pearls, and tune up the Bugatti" before setting off. We're no different! (ahem) 

I've often mentioned the quality of the light here. There's even a marked difference in intensity just between travelling the few minutes between Bayonne and Biarritz. When reading about Van Gogh's experience when he moved south from Paris to Provence, it was the brilliance of the light that made such a profound impact on him and his work. Living in England (like living inside a Tupperware container as Bill Bryson once memorably observed), I couldn't understand what he meant until we moved here. For example, when I walked into town yesterday I needed sunglasses. I think the atmosphere at this time of year is clearer than later in the year and the sun isn't as high so the sunlight is unfiltered and it slants straight into your eyes. For some reason, this factor seems magnified at the coast.

Here's something that made me smile!
We can't be too many weeks away now from those first warm days of spring when we can start living outside again - this being one of the undeniable pleasures of life down here. To whet your appetite, take a look at this video that celebrates all that's good about food in the Pays Basque:
Here's a reminder of some of the best known products here in the Pays Basque and Béarn:
Visiting with children? No problem..

If you prefer to escape the hectic life on the coast and seek out the tranquillity of the mountains, there's no shortage. Even at the height of the season, you can have a mountain or a view all to yourself.
If your knees aren't up to a close encounter with the hills, there are so many interesting towns and villages to visit - we first visited this region over twenty years ago and we still haven't seen everything - far from it! 

Basque culture.. where to start? I've kept away from this in all my previous posts, mainly because I can't identify with any aspect of it: it's impenetrable to outsiders - even to French. Have a look at this bizarre clip of Basques from across the border. I believe these customs stem from pagan times. (If you google Joaldunak there's more on this)  

Here are some more, on the other side in the Spanish Basque country:


I'm still discovering the odd musical gem from years gone by. Here's "Waterfalls" - a Paul McCartney song that somehow passed me by the first time around.
23rd February 2012. First time down at the river during the week for a few months.. There were enough of us to put a coxless IV together - the difference this time we were rowing, ie, with only 1 oar each.

Looking at the others, they were all competent oarsmen so I knew in advance that we should have a worthwhile sortie. We said we'd warm up during the up-river leg and after the turnaround we'd row intervals. The plan for the return leg was that we'd start with 5 'normale' strokes, followed by 5 'rapide' (in England this would be called full pressure), then 10 & 10, 15 & 15, 20 & 20 , 25 & 25, 30 & 30 (I'm getting tired again just thinking about this!) and then the same thing in reverse back down again all the way to 5 & 5. We just managed to fit all that in before we were at the pontoon again. Phew! It's a long time since I've rowed en pointe but the crew soon gelled.. and the final series of strokes were quite impressive. Another 16km and a very satisfying sortie.

The club's Olympic hopeful Perle Bouge was out on the water looking extremely tidy in her single scull. She'll be representing France at this year's Paralympics. She already won Silver at the World Championships in NZ last year. Not bad for someone who only took up sculling a couple of years ago! If her determination and dedication are anything to go by, she'll take some stopping.

25th February 2012. We were the last boat out on the water today - went off up the river in a quad sculler against a very strong current and did 14km.

If you ever find yourself in Bayonne and your cake low level warning light is indicating steady red, then my cast-iron recommendation is Lionel Raux - just at the side of the indoor market. You won't be disappointed! The cakes are a treat for the eyes - if not the back pocket! Treat yourself to something - anything - from here and you won't be disappointed.