268. The longest day

26th June. While waiting during the rehearsals for our concert at the weekend, I was talking to the French horn (cor anglais) players - and one of them kindly gave me an impromptu burst of the Rondo Allegro - it starts at 12:30..
25th June. Temperatures of 40+° in the next few days in France are being spoken of - but I don't believe we'll experience them here - the modifying influence of the sea should ensure that. 

Flat peaches
24th June. One of life's little pleasures down here is in eating fresh fruit and vegetables as they come into season. So far, we've had asparagus, strawberries and flat peaches (I have to add that a flat peach straight from the fridge takes some beating!). Today, it was the turn of the humble cherry! After spending the morning putting things back in place after our concert yesterday evening, I came home to find that Madame had made a pipérade - which we enjoyed outside on the terrace - served with several slices of jambon de Bayonne. Afterwards, she brought out a large bowl of plump cherries - and it was all we (OK, I!) could do to restrain ourselves from finishing off the bowl! One consequence of the fruit season is that the pavements in our neighbourhood are studded with ripe cherries fallen from overhanging trees.
20th June. Summer's arrived here like a ton of bricks. Yes, I know this is hardly "Sumer is icumen in" (I remember singing this song at school), but it's the best I could do at 7.30am! The other evening, it was 38° on our terrace. Whatever happened to the slow merging of one season into another? The gentle transition from Spring's chill breezes into the more balmy temperatures of summer? Suddenly, there was a mad scramble here to find a pair of shorts.. And my night was made complete 2 nights ago by the sweet music of a lone mosquito at 2am with only one target in mind (guess who!). Where did we put the anti-mosquito plug..?? And putting the bedroom light on - where the heck has the blessèd thing gone? Thankfully, the plug worked and we could go back to sleep. We don't get many here but those that do are all programmed to find your correspondent. Happy days!

Looking at the date I've just been reminded that it's the Summer Solstice tomorrow.. I think. Wiki explains all. Stonehenge will be on red alert at dawn tomorrow ready to receive its annual visitation of wannabe Druids (on motorcycles), tree huggers, stoners, flautists, crop circle enthusiasts, circle dancers (spare me!), bongo players, a few of the last remaining Hare Krishna acolytes and other assorted ethnically-dressed 'heads'.. all expressing themselves in that slightly self-conscious diffident manner that is Britain's gift to the world!☺
17th June. If there's anyone out there who still smokes but who'd love to quit.. this story is just for you. I smoked on and off for most of my adult life - and about 3 years ago, I realised I was pushing my luck by continuing. I used to think - aah, it's always someone else isn't it? I'll never have to sit looking across a desk at a doctor with a serious face telling me I've got cancer will I? That would be the moment when all I could hear would be the sound of rushing waves and I'd see his lips moving - except I wouldn't hear a thing he said. I suddenly realised I was coming up to 70 and I'm subject to exactly the same rules and luck as everyone else. I used to smoke cigarillos.. and I'd inhale.. (yes, ouch!)

After that belated realisation, I decided to stop. I had the odd relapse but I quickly stopped having those too. Then I'd be out somewhere and I'd smell smoke.. or I'd be in a situation where I used to fire one up.. I told myself smoking was simply a habit and not an addiction.

Then one day I smelt smoke on someone and I thought, "Yeeuucchh!". Now, I don't think about it at all.. What brought this to mind was that I was in town earlier and I saw two girls in a café and one was smoking. I felt like saying something to her - but you can't. I walked on. So, if you find yourself wanting to stop - stop buying them and just do it!

13th June. I was down at the beach this morning with the dawg.. here he is attempting to dig down to Australia! He undergoes a personality change on the beach as soon as he realises he's totally free - he gallops in big lazy circles, rolls over on his back, digs as many holes as he likes, chases gulls.. shows me his sticks!
I had the beach to myself.. apart from a number of diggers who were clearing the beach of a winter's worth of detritus.. mainly trees. Surfers were out in force too.
Later in the afternoon I had a follow-up appointment with the rhumatologue.. I'd been to see him a few weeks ago about my knees.. and on that occasion, I was expecting an injection of a silicon-based gloop into the joint as he'd done in previous years. However, a good rule in life is always to expect the unexpected!

Six weeks ago, he declared that he was going to try a new treatment on me. He asked me to point at the exact spot where the worst of the pain was (and like a fool, I did) and then he switched on a vibrating hammer-like device (about the size of a domestic hair dryer) that sounded like a mini pneumatic drill (or jack hammer for US readers) - and felt like one - and he applied it to the spot for about 3 minutes but it felt like 10. It was banging away like a demented stone mason about 3-4 times per second. Now, I don't usually subscribe to the "man pain" theory - but I had to restrain myself from jumping out of his window. Today was the second visit and, as a toe curling experience, it was right up there. One more to go after this. This had better be doing me some good.

It's not yet 6pm but I'm more than ready for a Scottish tincture. Then choir practice. First though, Dr Glenmorangie's company is requested!     

12th June. I was so impressed by the whole experience of travelling up to Paris about a month ago on the TGV. Clean, rock steady, f-a-s-t and very quiet. The guard turned out to be something of a comedian - as he made a few announcements over the PA in the style of former French president Giscard d'Estaing! Now, take a look at SNCF's record breaking technology as a fully instrumented train broke the world speed record in 2007 at an eye-watering 574km/h (357mph) - the high speed run starts at 2:40..

This speed (faster than some aircraft I used to fly.. Ouch!) is almost twice the speed that the TGV routinely achieves in day-to-day service. Meanwhile, in the country that invented the railway, I'm ashamed to admit that there is still no comparable high speed rail service (apart from the Channel Tunnel link) almost 40 years after the entry into service of the TGV in France (in 1981).

The UK could, and should in my opinion, have invested some of the North Sea oil revenues into a high speed rail network. Norway managed their unexpected windfall far better than the UK.. A comparison of both countries' handling of North Sea oil and gas is here. Read it and weep.    

10th June. I found this video of Amalfi, Positano and Capri (Italy) on YouTube - a nice reminder of our trip there a month ago:
Having said that, the beach scene shown above is a million miles from how I like to spend my summers. When July and August come around here, finding a parking space on the coast can be "challenging". That's one of the reasons why the inland regions are so attractive here - as even in high summer, we're able to escape the crowds who occupy the coastal belt - and who spend their time in shimmering queues of cars, all looking with varying degrees of patience for that vital car parking space.   

8th June. We changed our car today from a diesel to a petrol jobby. We've only been doing about 7000 miles a year - because honestly, if you live here in the Pays Basque, why would you ever want to leave? And each time we have left home, I can guarantee that before half an hour has elapsed, one or the other of us will have said, "Why are we leaving?". And having left, we can't wait to return home. Perhaps one day the appeal of the Pays Basque might wear off - but after nearly twelve years, there's no sign of it doing so.

We were invited out last night for an apéro-dinatoire by some neighbours in the road behind us. There must have been twenty of us and we all brought something - either sweet or savoury - and it was a really great evening. They set up a couple of tables in their driveway and a few chairs for the oldies (who said, "Like you!"?) and away we went!  

5th June. I've mentioned old Bentleys before in the blog - but I think the one featured here is very special indeed. It's the 1931 8 litre straight six model made by Bentley just before the company went into receivership. What an engine and what a car! (More here)

I was prompted to search for this model after reading Woolf Barnato's biography. He was one of the so-called "Bentley Boys" and a three-time winner of the Le Mans 24 hour race in a Bentley. Here's a special 3½ litre Bentley that's had a twin turbo 8 litre engine shoehorned into it..   

2nd June. Here's Julie Andrieu (a French TV presenter) having an in-depth look at local products from the Pays Basque - how they're produced, cooked and eaten in this blessèd corner of France. It should give your French language skills a good work out - but if it's all a bit too much, I'm sure the images will tell the story. She visits some of our favourite places that I've mentioned here before - the magnificent valley of Les Aldudes (including the omnipresent Pierre Oteiza), the Irouléguy vineyards (above right) that wrap themselves around the steep slopes near Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry (France's most south westerly vineyards) and much more - before she finishes up with an über-Basque meal (the singing must have been edited out!):
I can never watch enough of these videos that show different aspects of Bayonne. Fortunately for me (and you, I hope), they just keep on coming!
1st June. What can I say..? Not a great match but what a result..! The story of the match: an early penalty awarded to the Reds following a disputed hand ball - followed by 80-odd minutes of eminently forgettable football during which Spurs enjoyed most of the possession - then a rapier-like shot from Divock Origi right at the death that must have broken Spurs' hearts ensured that the Cup was Liverpool's for the sixth time. To see Liverpool at their surging best, watch the semi final match against Barcelona. I don't think I could stand to watch the final for a second time - and I'm a long time Reds fan.
At last, summer's here.. Looking up at the blue sky this morning, large numbers of swallows were darting around the rooftops with their characteristic twittering. And there's a 'three' in the temperature forecast..! We're looking at 30° today. 

Tonight, it's the final of the European Champions League - however, to me, it will always be the European Cup - or old "Big Ears" as the media like to call it. I've stocked the fridge in the garage with some San Miguel - plus some Sangria.. What to have this evening? Decisions, decisions!

Istanbul 2005
Who will I be supporting? There's only one possible answer to that. En route to the final, the Reds beat French champions Paris (aka PSG), then German champions Bayern Munich, then Portuguese club FC Porto (2nd in the Portuguese League) before going on to beat FC Barcelona (1st in La Liga & European Cup favourites) in what has been described as one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history (since Liverpool's pulsating win in Istanbul in 2005) despite Liverpool being without Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino. In a memorable match, they overcame a three goal deficit from the first leg to win 4-0 (the odds were quoted as 66-1 against Liverpool winning 4-0) and this against a Barcelona team featuring Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.. Here's how French TV reported the match - their commentator sounding as if his trousers were on fire! - and I make no apologies for linking to this post-match video that captured the emotion of that unforgettable match. Like many, I had tears in my eyes..

Their opponents this evening are Tottenham Hotspur - who finished 26 points behind Liverpool in England's Premier League. All this counts for nothing this evening however as the match starts with 0-0 on the scoreboard. This is going to be a loong day.            

267. Nutty in May

31st May. The forecast for here today is 33°C (91°F).. We were drifting along in the high teens, with the occasional foray into the low twenties - and then - boom! Whatever happened to the gentle progression of the seasons? This same unexpected surge in temperatures from OK to scorching happened last year too. Outside, it's a cloudless sky and the plancha (right) is still in the garage. There's my job for this morning!   

I wonder if planchas have started to make inroads into backyard cooking in places other than in Spain and south west France yet? There are many advantages associated with a plancha - I've mentioned them before here numerous times - compared to a barbeque, but I can understand that if you've invested in a gas barbeque, then there's a reluctance to change horses. Take it from me though - nothing cooks better than a plancha.

Later: we've just had a few rouget fillets on the plancha (all cleaned up afresh ready for the summer).. with some cold rosé.. (shorts on, neighbours warned..) with a fresh pineapple and kiwi salad and chocolate sorbet and pistachio ice cream to follow.

Nathalie and Gilles Salha
30th May. We visited Ascain today, one of the Pays Basque's most beautiful villages (the most beautiful in my humble opinion) - we'd booked a table for lunch at the restaurant Larralde. It used to be a hotel/restaurant but a few years ago they sold off the rooms as apartments and now it's run solely as a restaurant. (Warning: If you're looking for your choice of main course to be presented on a large white plate with the food artfully arranged into a meaningful pile (?!) -  with a swirl of coulis around it - then this is not for you.) If you're planning a trip to the Pays Basque, this is definitely one to note on your "must visit" list. Over the years, the fortunes of many of our old favourite haunts have waxed and waned: with changes of ownership, rising prices, the menus shrinking in size and quality taking a nosedive - except for here. Gilles and Nathalie Salha still offer country cooking at its best at a reasonable price. They have two fixed price menus - 17€ and 25€ - plus a very attractive à la carte section. Plus they feature Madiran as their house wine. You won't regret it. (Photo courtesy of Les fourchettes de Claire)        

29th May. Here's something I put together for all those of a red persuasion for whom the outcome of the European Champions League final on Saturday evening means so much. YNWA!
28th May. I see that the visitor counter on the blog has passed 80,000. Thanks to all those who come here looking for insights perhaps about the Pays Basque.. although these days my focus seems to have broadened out. A question for you: is there anything specific about living in the French Basque country that you'd like me to try and answer? How life here works as an expat? Cost of living? Housing? Work? Retirement? Or more day-to-day observations? I'm open to all suggestions. Use the contact form down in the left hand margin if you'd like to suggest something. Many thanks.  

Many years ago, before the dawn of time (OK, when I was a kid), neighbourhood chemists in the UK used to make up their own patent remedies for coughs etc and they'd be dispensed with a generic label on the bottle bearing the title "The Mixture". They didn't feature a list of active ingredients (it was probably best not to know!) and they tasted good - so much so that winter coughs were eagerly awaited.

Today, I think a "finger" of The Mixture, with a splash of whisky, would make for an interesting drink. Is that a tickle I can feel coming on at the back of my throat? Quick, Nurse, the screens!

27th May. Some major upsets on the European political scene last night as Nigel Farage's Brexit Party (formed only 6 weeks ago) gained twenty nine seats in the European Parliament - only one less than the combined total of MEP seats gained by the LibDems, Labour & the Conservatives, traditionally the three main political parties in the UK. Surely there can be no doubt now as to the mood of the UK electorate.

I doubt very much that Nigel Farage's political ambitions stretch any further beyond his desire to separate the UK from the EU - he has always been a single issue politician. This result should give the clearest of indications to the as yet unelected leader of the Conservative Party of the direction he or she should take on the Brexit issue.   

26th May. There could be more "Blood on the tracks" tonight as the European Election results come in.. I've just embedded a live feed to France 24 - the French state-owned rolling news service (English language version) in the left hand margin. It may take a few seconds to load. Let me know if you are unable to see it - or indeed if you have any problems with it. (As far as I can see, there are no UK news streams available.)

25th May. Here's a Dylan song I've always liked - from his "Blood on the tracks" album (1975).
23rd May. So - last week - we took the TGV for a relaxed ride up to Paris (only 4 hours away from Bayonne now) to meet up with our 30-strong group before flying from Paris CDG to Naples on the Saturday night. We've travelled before with this group - and they're all good fun. We were booked into a hotel at Torre del Greco, to the south of Naples, and we finally fell into bed at 1am on Sunday morning for an all-too-brief coma. The hotel was thoughtfully situated on the direct path that any flow of lava from nearby Vesuvius might take en route to the sea (!). I thought that fact might have kept me awake - but it didn't - it was too late.

I put this video montage together of some of the sights we saw.. As usual, best in full screen:

NB. I've just noticed a mistake I made when putting the above photo montage together: the old kitchen that appears at 1:45 was actually from the Villa San Michele, Anacapri - not Pompeii (that's been puzzling me for a while!).

Pompeii
We were up early on the Sunday morning for our coach trip to Vesuvius - but unfortunately a layer of low cloud obscured the 4000ft summit with its impressive crater. The local police had closed the road off near the summit due to the poor visibility - but despite that, some of the group were determined to walk up to the rim of the crater to see what could be seen. Answer: very little.

In the afternoon, we visited Pompeii - the Roman city at the foot of Vesuvius. It's the only active volcano on mainland Europe. During the eruption of 79 AD, Pompeii had been completely buried under a thick layer of tephra (volcanic ash, dust and rocks) some 25 metres (82 feet) deep and it stayed like that until the mid-18th century when excavations started.

Chile's Cabulco Volcano erupting in April 2015
When, in 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted in a series of cataclysmic explosions, a cloud of stones, ash and fumes rose to a height of 33 km (20 miles), and molten rock and pulverised debris spewed out at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second - an unimaginable quantity - ultimately releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima bombing. (Excellent explanations here of the geology of the Bay of Naples). Read extracts of Pliny the Younger's eye witness account of the eruption here. (His letters in full here. Modern assessment here. Animation of the eruption.) In case you're wondering, Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. Chile's Cabulco volcano experienced a "Plinian Eruption" in 2015.

Over the years, Pompeii has been revealed as an almost intact time capsule of a 2,000 year old Roman city. In the first of several surprising discoveries on this trip, I was astonished to see at how much more advanced, sophisticated, complete and extensive Pompeii was than I'd ever imagined. At a time when many in western Europe were living in mud huts or similar, the Romans were following the Greeks in laying down the foundations of future European civilisation. It set us both thinking about what our legacy will be to those who will follow us in 2,000 years time. It must be borne in mind that the glories of the Roman world were enabled by slave labour, drawn from across its vast Empire. The mosaics in particular show craftsmanship and artistry of the highest order.

The following day, we took the coach into Naples (our first experience of daylight traffic mano-a-mano combat - Neapolitan-style!) to take the fast ferry over to the storied isle of Capri. Before that, I must tip my hat to all those who drove our monster coach during our week - through the narrow streets of Naples and its environs - we somehow squeezed with millimetric precision through the anarchic maelstrom of pedestrians who hadn't read the instructions, darting scooters, manic car drivers and buildings ancient and modern. I think the motto of Neapolitan drivers is: "He who hesitates is last". And you'll never read this anywhere official but take it from me, in Naples traffic lights are advisory only - and "right of way" as a concept doesn't exist. Anything goes. Don't believe me? Look here..(start at 2:40!)
Capri
I'd always thought of Capri as some kind of diminutive kitsch "island in the sun" whose best days were behind it, inhabited by wealthy lotus-eating retirees and the occasional gold digger looking for his/her next target. Neither of us expected to like it as much as we did. In fact, of all the island paradises I've visited, I'd put this one right at the very top of my list, even allowing for the ever-present tourists. The Italians have the happy knack of doing things with such style - they tread lightly and rarely put a foot wrong. In its long and rich history, the isle of Capri has welcomed many distinguished visitors ranging from the Roman Emperor Tiberius to Rochdale's own Gracie Fields (a real star of her time in my opinion).
Villa San Michele

We took a minibus up the soaring Alpine-style roads to the Villa San Michele, the former home of Axel Munthe, a Swede who visited Capri in 1875 as an impressionable 18 year old, was irrevocably smitten by it (I know the feeling!), and he finally moved there at the age of 30, having qualified as the youngest-ever doctor of medicine in France. After treating the rich and famous of Paris and Rome, he was in a position to able to acquire the Villa San Michele at Anacapri. He later became the physician to the Swedish royal family. More photos of the Villa San Michele here. Views are often described as stunning - but in this case the word 'stunning' hardly seems adequate to describe the view from the pergola of Dr Munthe's truly magnificent villa perched on cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples. Not for nothing was the phrase "See Naples and die" coined - but in my view, Capri raises the bar and puts it completely out of reach.
The house was built on the site of a villa owned by Emperor Tiberius - and apparently in digging and constructing his wonderful garden, Dr Munthe came across all sorts of buried Roman artefacts and treasures. Some bronzes were copied (the originals having gone to museums) and many pieces were incorporated into the structure of his island retreat.

Here (below) is Dr Munthe's Sphinx, (Egyptian, 13th century BC), in pink granite, with its head of a woman and the body of a lion, that looks out forever over the sublime blue waters of the Bay of Naples from its lonely vantage point a thousand feet up - and contemplates eternity.. (this is a photo you have to enlarge).

I did consider posting an image of the Sphinx's face but I think some things are best left to the imagination. Later in his life he wrote "The Story of San Michele" which was published in 1929 (and I'm reading this at the moment). How fortunate he was to have discovered Capri before the advent of mass tourism. What a paradise on earth.. Words fail me.

We later took a boat trip around the island but sadly the sea conditions would not allow us to enter the famous Blue Grotto.. (video here)

We went on to visit Amalfi and Ravello that lay on the south side of the headland, the road was flanked with some vertiginous drops.. This is prime tourist country.. lemons are everywhere.. and the shops everywhere in the region are full of limoncello (top tip: try it with lemon sorbet) and pavement vendors selling lemons including some - limone cedro (cedro lemons) - that are almost as big as a rugby ball - and that can be eaten in their entirety. We spotted Sea Cloud (right), a beautiful four masted barque that operates as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

granita al limone
Staying with the lemon theme, we each tried a granita al limone - which was the perfect drink (remembered from previous trips to Naples) - made from lemon juice, sugar and water. A slushy granita al limone is the perfect thing for quenching a thirst - or cooling the inner man. However, a word of warning, if taken too quickly, it tries to freeze the interior of your head - a place that's impossible to soothe. (ask me how I know!) Try a gelato al limon instead!

Next came a visit to Salerno and Paestum. This video explains much of what you'll find at Paestum. I'm ashamed to admit that, prior to visiting Paestum, I'd neither heard of it nor its three amazingly well-preserved temples. They are far more complete than the world-famous Parthenon at Athens but perhaps the Parthenon is considered to be of greater quality - the ultimate expression of the genre.     
The pace of our trip didn't slacken as the following day saw us at nearby Herculaneum - another Roman town buried 20 metres (50-60 feet) under a thick layer of tephra. This had clearly been a wealthy town as the quality of mosaics and objects recovered from there would testify. Documentary about Herculaneum here.                                                                                                                          Midday saw us lunching at the so-stylish Miglio d'Oro Park Hotel.. what a treat! Yet more pasta.. (I realised at this point we were eating pasta twice a day.)

After an excellent lunch, we drove to the Royal Palace at Caserta.. easily identifiable on the link by its elongated garden with water feature that runs in a straight line for 3½km. The massive palace itself could have stayed teetering at the far extremity of good taste but, without wishing to be unkind, it has to be said that the overall impression was one of over-sized and over-decorated excess. It was built on a Hitlerian scale - but without the Aryan restraint!

Finally, Friday came - our last day of visits and for this, we dived into the old central quarter of Naples. We explored its characteristically narrow teeming streets (complete with washing drying on balconies) in the morning before walking to a pizza restaurant for lunch.. (what else when in Naples!) Some of our group elected to take a taxi to the restaurant and one of them contrived to leave behind her expensive digital camera (containing thousands of un-downloaded images) in the taxi. Our guide took it upon herself to find it.

Here's a programme on Naples produced for ARTE - the Franco-German TV channel. Don't worry if your French isn't up to snuff - the images tell their own story needing little in the way of explanation.
In the afternoon, we visited the Naples National Archaeological Museum.. (another link here and thousands of images - including the mosiacs dating from 200 BC - here). Impossible to describe the riches of this museum in any kind of preference - but if I had to, I would rank the mosaics very highly indeed.
The Nile Mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii
On emerging from the museum dazzled by what we'd seen, we met up with our guide who somehow had managed - miracle of miracles - to track down the taxi driver who had taken some of our group to the pizzeria. Lo and behold, he suddenly turned up on a scooter, having driven in from out in the suburbs having finished his shift and there he was with the missing camera in his hand!! Yes, in Naples of all places. We all gave him a well-deserved round of applause while the guilty party slipped him a more tangible thank you. Without the help of our guide though, the camera would have stayed forever lost.

So ended our action-packed week in Campania - we had to set our alarms for 3am to be ready for our 6.30am flight back to Paris.. I think all of us felt the need for a holiday after that! Thank you Isobel (our guide) for whom nothing was too much trouble and mille grazie Italy for a wonderful week.
We can't leave Italy without something from Italy's greatest ever tenor.. Here's the great Luciano Pavarotti with "E lucevan le stelle" from "Tosca":

22nd May. Here's something I found that may amuse you - while I gather my thoughts about our Italian week.
That sousaphone in the background reminds me of that classic Woody Allen story - he said that "my father used to play the tuba as a young man, he tried to play the tuba, he tried to play the "Flight of the Bumblebee", and blew his liver out through the horn".

The pianist (above) is now believed to be helping the police with their enquiries! 

21st May. We returned late on Saturday night from a wonderful week in and around the Naples area.. I'll write it up in a day or two - I'm still playing catch up here (I nearly wrote I'm waiting for the dust to settle..).

7th May. The internet is an amazing resource. This morning, I caught a fragment of harmonica (or similar) on the radio this morning just as I was taking the dog out for his walk. It reminded me of an old song I'd always liked - but could I summon up the title, the tune or the singers? Not a chance. All round the dog's walk I was scratching my head. All I had to go on was that it was a duo. Back home, I googled "60s pop duos" and while scanning down a list - their names popped out - April Stevens and Nino Tempo.. with Deep Purple from way back in 1963.

It's an unusual song in that Nino Tempo sings the melody line while his sister April harmonises. The only other duo that used this technique was Frank and Nancy Sinatra with this song.. (unless you know better!) The appearance of the video makes it look like it took place a very long time ago - but as I'm sure you're aware by now, your correspondent is no millennial. (that's all I'm saying!)
2nd May. We'll be singing this wonderful piece by Gabriel Fauré - his Cantique de Jean Racine (written when he was just 19 years old) - in our June concert (that's fast arriving) and it's one the most satisfying of all choral works to sing - and I hope our interpretation of it approaches this:
This interpretation is still the benchmark for me.

We were up at Andernos-les-Bains yesterday and as we exited the last péage at Saugnacq-et-Muret on the autoroute before Bordeaux, most cars were being stopped and searched by narrow-eyed military-style police of some description (possibly CRS).
This was no doubt a pre-emptive measure to filter out people who fit the Black Bloc profile and who looked like they may have been heading to Bordeaux to create trouble on May Day. A policeman flicked a cursory eye over us and waved us through. We didn't merit a stop and search as we didn't fit the profile - clearly having reached the age now where we no longer look threatening or capable of causing trouble. I should feel slightly insulted - but I don't!

In case you're wondering about the title of this post, I gave this a tweak. (for new readers, our cocker is called Nutty..) 

266. Hello Spring!

30th April. We had a quick raid in Spain yesterday - I topped up my whisky stocks with a 2 litre bottle (think Football Manager of the Month size!) of Sir Edward's at 18.95€* - a price I couldn't ignore! I defy anyone to categorise it as a rotgut product.. We've all been programmed to believe that high price = good and low price = bad.. I'd be interested to see how people would score this whisky in a blind tasting. 
* = £8.17/litre. 

Click on this excellent piece by Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen (right), a Dane who came to the UK and worked as an NHS dentist for 20 years. His story refutes the tired old prejudiced stereotype of the Brexiteer as portrayed by the pro-Remain UK media and the Establishment. Playing to the gallery, Chuka Umunna predictably falls back on a spot of name-calling - labelling Brexit a "racist, xenophobic, right-wing reactionary project".

Here's an extract from Henrik's piece: "I am far from being one of the 17.4 million xenophobes whom Chuka Umunna has claimed are among his fellow citizens. Support for Brexit is not only to be found on the right of the political spectrum, it is across the board, and the Brexit Party is a perfect example of that. Far-right parties do not speak for me, nor do they speak for the majority of this country. Having come here as a European immigrant over twenty years ago, I can safely say that the rhetoric which comes from those on the far right does not represent what I have experienced; Britain has been open and welcoming to me."

"The Brexit Party brings together people from all backgrounds and challenges the dangerous stereotype which media outlets like the BBC push. We Brexiteers are not a monolithic group of ignorant and uneducated voters who blindly supported Brexit because they liked Boris Johnson. How will they marry up the idea of me – a socialist, NHS dentist and trade union representative, who used to live in a commune – with being a Brexiteer?"

Denmark seldom gets a mention here - so mange tak to Henrik - here's some Danish party music..

In something of a 'first' for me, I registered as a supporter of the Brexit Party a few days ago. 

Bleu Café
28th April. To Biarritz this morning with the pooch to have a walk along the sea front - and to watch the breakers rolling in with a crash at high tide. We stopped off first at the Bleu Café (right) for a coffee, ideally situated on the Grande Plage for a grandstand view of the Sunday morning crowd (photos).

We then headed into town only to find that a braderie was in progress - ie, a sale where the shops set out all their marked-down merchandise on racks in the street. Best avoided unless you have the shopping gene! There was a "start of season" feel to life this morning with quite a few foreigners (ie, people from outside the Pays Basque!) out and about.
27th April. Most visitors to the Pays Basque don't stray too far from the coast - and, for many reasons, that's completely understandable. However, the interior boasts some fine mountain scenery with stunning views that seem to go on for ever. I'd recommend that visitors spend at least a day or two in the Pyrenees National Park.
Here's a charming short video (below) that captures much that is admirable about Bayonne. And - unsurprisingly - I wouldn't argue with any of it! When we first came down to the Pays Basque, we were immediately seduced by the undoubted Basque charms of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and, to a lesser extent, Biarritz. However, forced by the reality of property prices to look elsewhere, we backed into Bayonne in a manner of speaking - and now not a day goes by that I don't thank our lucky stars!
It's a town for living in - as opposed to visiting. That's not to say that it's not set up for tourism - far from it - but that its appeal is not as immediately apparent as the other two towns, which are largely given over to meeting the needs of tourists. We still pinch ourselves when we visit Saint-Jean-de-Luz and walk along the spectacular sea front there - and we always get a buzz when visiting Biarritz, with its dazzling light and its fantastically eclectic range of properties dating back to its Belle Epoque days - but Bayonne exerts an undeniable pull on us - and I can't imagine a day when we'd ever want to move from here. Even now, when we leave to drive north towards Bordeaux or further afield, we still ask ourselves why on earth are we leaving?  

Here's another that focuses on some of the products that Bayonne is justifiably famous for:
25th April. I took the dawg down to the coast this morning for a good run - and after rain had swept through overnight, there was unlimited visibility (as in "gin clear") and I could clearly see hills on the far side of San Sebastian - and I suspect as far as Bilbao on the northern Spanish coast. An off-shore breeze was ripping the tops of waves off in continuous arcs of spindrift (right). A beautiful morning..

24th April. The British Embassy, Paris, has been publishing a series of newsletters for British expats resident in France. The latest newsletter (dated April 2019) starts:

"The British Government continues to seek a way in which the UK can leave the EU in an orderly manner and without undue delay. In the meantime, the French Government is publishing more information about what a no-deal would mean for British nationals in France. We want to share this information with you, so we will be emailing updates to you as and when we can. This update covers the French Ministry of Interior's decree about entry, residence, social rights and professional activity in France for British nationals in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU. The second part of this newsletter covers the recognition of UK driving licences in France in the event of no-deal."
Click here to continue reading. (To sign up to receive the Embassy's Newsletters, click here).

There has been much talk here in France lately of the marked increase in suicides by the nation's gendarmes and police. As if this wasn't bad enough, there have been some shocking scenes at demonstrations by the gilets jaunes (and/or aided by anarchists and others who have infiltrated their ranks) when masked or hooded demonstrators have chanted "Suicidez-vous" ("Kill yourselves") at the forces of law and order. There are some very sick people out there. This same message has been spray painted on several police stations throughout the country. Another piece of graffiti that I've noticed both here and across the border in Spain is a charming one imported from the UK - ACAB (All Coppers Are Bastards).

It's difficult to comment on the level of hatred that makes people chant slogans like these at the police. They don't know how lucky they are to live here. Yes, life can be difficult - but when has it not been? Poverty is relative.. just the other day I saw a young man sitting on the pavement in town begging - while at the same time talking on a smart phone. The generation who grew up with leather sofas and big screen TVs took them for granted - but now they are finding out the hard way just how difficult the acquisition of these consumer products can be. For many, taking part in a 'manif' (demo) is a rite of passage - and then there are those who like to see how far they can provoke the police. Finally, there are those (above right) who simply wish to take advantage of the opportunity to attack the police. Sadly, there's no shortage of provocateurs at these demos.

There are many retired people who joined the gilet jaunes movement in the hope that the Government would cave in to their demands. In my view, they have a legitimate case - as pensions have been frozen here for a number of years while at the same time utilities (electricty and gas) have announced price hikes in excess of inflation. For those in receipt of pensions, this is a particularly cruel outcome as they have no means of topping up their income.

I believe that there's an internationalist element to these nihilistic anarchists, enabled by the internet, mobile phones and social media, that allows them to coordinate their shameful actions and to act in numbers. Added to which, we're now living in an age where the views of the previously silent majority can now be disseminated and heard. (This blog is but one very small example of that.)

There's long been a habit here for opportunist thieves or vandals (known as "casseurs" - literally 'breakers' - but 'wreckers' is closer) to join otherwise peaceful demonstrations to cause mayhem - like the one (right) who just happened to find a hammer in his pocket - and it seems that the coordination of these acts has ramped up. There are also those who come with weapons prepared to commit violent acts, like the 'peaceful' demonstrator (above left) armed with a powerful catapult that could cause serious injury to someone. The real challenge to the government is how to respond to these disturbing urban events in ways that will not be interpreted by the ever-present media (who are invariably embedded with the demonstrators) as the use of excessive force by the State. Of course, the rolling news channels pay for and feed off shocking imagery (provided by phone videos etc) and so the whole thing becomes self-sustaining.

We're not immune to the effects of the gilets jaunes in this part of the world - there have been small encampments of them on the approaches to the Pont Henri Grenet over the Adour and elsewhere for some months now. In former times, French governments invariably acceded, at least in part, to the demands of street protesters - but this time I think that President Macron has very little room to manoeuvre so I anticipate a long drawn-out stand-off. In my view, the actions by the extremists mentioned above were designed to inflame matters and provoke a reaction in the hope that it will work to their advantage. We have a long way to go yet before this will be resolved. 

Meanwhile, across the Channel, MPs have returned to Westminster after their 12 day break. Nigel Farage's newly formed Brexit Party has recruited an interesting candidate from the ranks of the Conservative Party - Annunziata Rees-Mogg (yes, Jacob's sister) and she has set out her views here.

According to the media, the stage is being set for the centre ground of UK politics to be abandoned and of course, this would be an unwelcome turn of events - if it were to happen. Certainly, the Labour Party (backed by Momentum) has taken steps away from the centre ground.

However, as much as political pundits (including those of the BBC) will attempt to smear the Brexit Party by calling it a Far Right party, I don't believe that those involved at the heart of it would ever allow it to drift off to the fringes. Mr Farage has also been accused by the media of wanting a "hard" Brexit. To me, the UK is either in or out - there's no such thing as a hard or soft Brexit except in the minds of those who are scheming for the UK to remain.

Brexit was always a cross party issue - something that the media has consistently ignored since the UK electorate voted to leave the EU in June 2016 as it doesn't fit their narrative. I've said this before but we have too much media, too many talking heads, everyone's talking and no-one's listening. Now that the genie's out of the bottle, it's probably asking too much of MPs to STFU and put their country first - but that's what's needed..

23rd April. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch any of the news coverage about the fire at Notre-Dame, Paris. This painting of Notre-Dame looming dark and heavy against the evening sky says it all to me:


Just back from lunch outside at a trattoria on the banks of the Adour. We had to ask for an umbrella as the sun was so hot - the car registered 24½°C (76°F) on the way home.

Excellent article by Bryan Gould, a former Labour minister, now returned to his native New Zealand - he writes: The Remainers' constant theme is the admonition of those who voted for Brexit and who are, as they see it, foolish enough to think that we can extricate ourselves painlessly from our entanglement with the European Union. What is remarkable about this stance is that there is no hint of any apology from them, or acceptance of any responsibility on their part, for this dilemma. It was after all today’s Remainers who urged us on in the first place and led to our being embroiled in an arrangement which, as I and others warned at the time, was contrary to our interests and from which it is proving so difficult to free ourselves. 

22nd April. Here's the late George Harrison with his catchy interpretation of Cab Calloway's 1931 hit - The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea..
19th April. The crush of people here continues.. The Foire au Jambon runs through until Sunday, so there's a crowd attached to that - then there are those in town who have come down for the Easter weekend.. then fold in the road works that have been going on for months now and you have all the ingredients in place for fun and games on the roads - not forgetting the entries for the creative parking competition (Pays Basque section). After all that talk of whisky, I think I might interview Dr Glenmorangie this evening. Here's something to put you in the mood.. 

I've recently become aware (subliminal marketing perhaps?) of "Monkey Shoulder" - a blended malt whisky. It's not a blended whisky but an 'undisclosed' combination of ‘different’ Speyside single malts.. and I've clearly taken my eye off the ball as I've yet to try one! Full list of blended malt whiskies here. It sounds interesting and I've seen it across the border in Spain. Thinking about it though, part of the pleasure of drinking a single malt for me comes from associating the taste with its place of origin in Speyside or the Highlands. With malt whisky, I like to know what I'm drinking - and by masking off that knowledge from us, I think William Grant and Sons are doing their product a disservice. I suspect they wish to make their product more "accessible" to a younger and, dare I say it, trendier demographic who couldn't care less where the whisky was distilled and matured. I detect a strong whiff of marketing here.

Want to know more about whisky? Look here. And then go out and buy one of these! Aka the gift that keeps on giving..
I remember once trying to buy a leg of lamb from the butcher's department in a UK supermarket. I asked the assistant where the lamb came from - to which she replied, "The fridge..". 

18th April. Road space and parking was at a premium here in Bayonne today due to the ongoing road works in preparation for the introduction of the Tram'bus service (presented here by Laurent Irazusta - former president of my old rowing club). Perhaps more importantly, today was also the opening of the Foire au Jambon 2019.. This is a major annual event that celebrates the Jambon de Bayonne and it attracts visitors from far and wide to meet friends, have lunch together, share a bottle of wine - and yes, sample some Jambon de Bayonne! And with this being France, any time that gastronomy raises its head, it can be guaranteed that a Confrérie (only in France!) will make an appearance - and so (with a roll of drums) enter the Confrérie du Jambon de Bayonne! (by the way, that's Basque you can hear being spoken)
16th April. Here's some music to stare out of the window by: it's the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata "Pathetique" Op 13, played beautifully here by Matthew McAllister:

I'm not sure that this is quite what Beethoven had in mind for this wonderful piece of music. If you would prefer to listen to it played on a piano, here's Li Yundi with his equally beautiful  interpretation.

13th April. Have you been mystified by some/all of the rugby videos I've posted here? Have you asked yourself why this or that happened? Here's a short animation that outlines the main rules of the game and it should dispel some of the fog..

10th April. There was a flash of light early this morning - followed a second or two later by an explosive crack and rumble of nearby thunder (very nearby!) and since then the gutters have been running with water.

8th April. By the way, I must thank Heather (a friend's daughter) again for sending us this very accomplished watercolour - an extremely lifelike rendition of our English cocker spaniel.
 
We were delighted to receive this last Christmas - out of the blue - and we were both amazed at how she'd really managed to capture the little rascal as he is (sometimes!). I don't know how she did it. Many thanks! He was still a pup in the photograph - but since then he's morphed into a 17kg (if not more) adult dog..

Someone sent me a link to a video of a 'ground-up' restoration of a 1973 Porsche 911T. It would have been waay out of my league when new back in the early 1970s - and looking at the amount of effort and skill that has gone into this painstaking "back-to-bare-metal" restoration, it still is! (I shudder to think what the labour costs would have been) However, one can but dream.

My other dream car - a Bentley Mk VI (but minus the whitewall tyres) - is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Porsche. Where the Porsche is minimalist - spartan even - the Bentley is like a Gentlemen's Club on wheels - all leather armchairs, Wilton carpeting, burr walnut dash and door cappings. I would hate to be put in the position of having to choose between one or the other (not that it will ever happen). An impossible choice - but I think I'd finally come down on the side of the Bentley - with that effortless straight six engine and the plush interior, it's got character and style in spades. I could see myself sitting in it in my pyjamas at 6am with a coffee. Sadly, I think the real reason would be that getting in and out of a Bentley Mk VI would be easier. More on Bentley Mk VIs here. The ultimate Bentley is surely this R-R Meteor-powered monster - yes, a development of the same engine that powered the immortal Spitfire and the Mustang - built by this company in Devon, UK. Ah well, back to the real world!

It's good to have a dream or two though - I think we need our dreams for life to be fully savoured. As you may have noticed, I'm more than happy with the life I have! Human nature being what it is though, we always want just that little bit more. (OK, in the case of a Porsche or a Bentley, it would be a lot more!)

7th April. Just watched the 2019 University Boat Race rowed under grey skies on the Thames - and Cambridge Ladies took a well-deserved win, driven on all the way by the inspirational Lily Lindsay, their dynamic stroke. I've always supported Oxford but it was clear from the start that it was going to be Cambridge's race. They looked as if they meant business whereas Oxford looked as if they were out on a Saturday morning club row. I just couldn't see how they thought they might win, rowing like that. The Ladies race starts at 13:50 in this video..
The Mens boat race was far closer and there was only a length in it at the finish. Cambridge had a lightning quick start - and sat on their lead despite a praiseworthy attempt by the Dark Blue boat to get back on terms. The Mens race starts at 1:11:27. 

I was disappointed to hear foul language from two of the four coxes in the races. I hope the clubs concerned take steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

April power showers
Another soaking for me this morning! I'd taken the pooch for his Sunday morning gallop through the woods and fortunately I'd remembered to take an umbrella with me as the weather looked a bit iffy. We'd only got about 100 yards or so from the car when someone turned the rain on..

This was monsoon-style rain - and the closest I can get to describing it is to say it sounded like someone pouring dried peas on the umbrella from a great height! It wasn't merely drumming - it was deafening - as I squelched through the empty woods - squelch squelch squelch - under my oversized umbrella. If the dog had looked only bedraggled, it would have been an improvement! He was soaked - and needed wringing out! He's still slightly damp even now in the late afternoon.

It's been uncharacteristically dry here these last few months so this morning's rainfall will benefit my "corner of a foreign field - that is for ever England". Couldn't resist that one!

4th April. The weather's a bit disturbed here at the moment - the horizon is black with squally showers blowing through now and again. I took the pooch for a run through the woods near the beach this morning and the hollows in the undergrowth were filled with hail..
Yesterday evening I parked my car in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (above) in good time for a meeting at the Town Hall - the skies were clear - when I suddenly had to dash back to the car to pick up something I'd forgotten. Returning to the Town Hall minutes later, the skies blackened ominously, the wind picked up and then I was hammered by hail.. Just what I needed before the meeting!

Here's a song that reminds me of a very happy time in my life. (full details supplied on request - if accompanied by a cheque!☺) And another one here..
3rd April. I had a meeting at the Town Hall of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the late afternoon - and when we emerged afterwards at about 6.30pm, the pavements were shiny following a recent shower. The sun was low in the south west over the distant mountains and the slanting evening light gilded the gleaming rooftops of Ciboure across the inner harbour, the surface of which dazzled and rippled like liquid gold. If ever there was a real Kodak moment, this was it! I pointed it out to a companion (a native of Ciboure) who was busy reviewing the key points of the meeting and it stopped him dead in his tracks too. Why didn't I have a camera with me..?!
  
The Nive with the cathedral in the background
2nd April. I forgot to mention that on Saturday morning I went out on my ebike through the centre of town and out along the towpath along banks of the beautiful Nive. With it being a Saturday morning, there were quite a few boats out on the river - and it reminded me of those happy mornings when I used to row there with the section Loisir (leisure). We'd try and set ourselves into a long, sustainable, almost hypnotic rhythm and before long the outside world would cease to exist. I remember that sometimes I'd suddenly realise that I hadn't seen the last few kilometres pass by due to my being so absorbed in trying to perfect all the elements of my stroke.

On the way back, I stopped off at the club and was pleased to see some old faces among the new ones who had joined since I'd left. As much as I'd like to go back there, I very much regret that I won't be. The problem was that, due to my creaky knees, I could no longer get out of the boat unaided after a sortie - instead, I needed to be pulled out! This for me runs counter to everything I believe about rowing. For me, the essence of rowing is that the crew should act together - on and off the water - and they should all do the same things at the same time. For example, when the cox gives the order to get out, all oarsmen should get out as one.. I couldn't come to terms with being the odd one out who needed assistance - so that was the end of that. I started rowing at 14 and I'd always hoped that it was a sport I could practice all my life. It's quite frustrating because from the strictly rowing point of view, I believe I could hold my own - it was just the business of getting out of the boat that was the issue. 

At choir practice last night, we continued working on another Mozart piece (Laudate Dominum from "Vesperae solennes de Confessore" KV 330 Nr 5) that we're including in our forthcoming concert in June. (and no, this isn't us below!) The "heavy mob" makes its entrance at 2:37..!

1st April. Always glad to see the first three months of the year behind me. Unlike previous years when we've been subjected to more or less continuous rain, we've enjoyed a fairly dry Spring. So, no complaints from me!