Friday, 2 October 2020

284. Especially when the October wind

25th October. Here's Yuja Wang (a favourite of mine) with her interpretation of Rachmaninov's Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5:


Here are some other great performances by her. I don't think I've ever heard a more beautiful interpretation of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus18 than hers (the second piece on the above link). 

21st October. This evening, President Macron delivered a moving homage to Samuel Paty in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. Samuel Paty was the teacher who was foully murdered outside his school a few days ago. The President's words are worth reading. 

The online system for Brits to apply for residency permits to stay in France after Brexit is now live. All the background info you need is here - apply via the French government (bilingual) website here.

14th October. We can usually still eat outside during October and sometimes on into November - but not this year. Threatening skies, intense showers that blow through, low temperatures - October feels more like mid-winter. On the plus side, The "vitrification"* work we had done on the stairs and the cellar has dried off - so we can sleep upstairs again. 

* I think this means something different in French.

11th October. I like the originality of Glen Baxter's quirky old style cartoons:

7th October. The diary is filling up quickly with dates for various events.. The wooden stairs and the joists in the cellar have both needed treatment against woodworm - the stairs needed sanding first before they and the joists were treated with a toxic-smelling product. One of the outcomes was that we had to sleep downstairs as the product was still soaking into the stairs. Then next Monday, the stairs will be treated to what they call here a vitrification process.. so another restless night sleeping on the floor downstairs looms! 

We're also looking at changing the car - and trying to find our way through the mass of information presented by the concessionaires. We have a few test drives awaiting us - the main aim being to assess whether there's enough leg room for me - and also to check on the compliance of the suspension over the sometimes bumpy roads here. Our current car seems to bump and jolt its way over the slightest deformations of the road surface. We're looking at a petrol-engined car as we don't do much driving. I'm more than happy to stay in this corner of France with only the occasional trip elsewhere!  

Then after 10 years or so of various treatments to my knees, the scope for further treatment has reduced to zero and so I'm booked in for a replacement right knee in early January. First, I have to have 15 sessions of physio (3 per week for 5 weeks) to prepare my muscles for the surgery (to improve my recovery time) - then the "op" - after which I'll spend 4-5 days in hospital - before going to a centre for "re-education" (ie, more physio!) for 2-3 weeks. Madame seems to think I'll need a tablet of some kind to keep on top of my emails (and a couple of my blogs) - French daytime TV being just as dire as that in the UK.

Something to look forward to then!

3rd October. Driving rain and thunderstorms this morning.. I went out briefly to buy some logs - and returned soaked. Meanwhile, Nutty is waiting patiently for a gap in the rain for his morning walk. He's checked the garden over a few times but it's not the same. 

2nd October. Never has Dylan Thomas' poem about October seemed more relevant.. Over the space of a handful of days, we moved from a "shorts and t-shirt" summer straight into mid-Autumn (and worse) without the respite usually offered by those golden days of September. 

Before September was out, I seriously thought about lighting our wood burner but I was talked out of it. Great leathery leaves (a foot across) from platanes have been swirling and drifting down the avenue for days now - and burnished conkers abound under the chestnut trees and beech nuts are all over the pavements (sidewalks).  

The wonderfully resonant sound of Gautier Capuçon's 300 year old cello that we heard during the concert at the Château de Baroja in August has been on my mind of late too. It was the first time I'd ever heard a solo cello live (so much more alive than a CD) and the clarity of that sound cut straight through all my mental baggage and registered directly with my emotions. It was something I'd not experienced before and I lost myself in the performance.  

Max Bruch's Kol Nidre is arguably the finest piece ever written for a cello - and it's played here by arguably the cello's greatest virtuoso - Jacqueline du Pré, who contracted MS (of all things) and from which she died tragically young at the age of 42.        

Monday, 7 September 2020

283. September morn..

26th September. If you feel like dipping a toe gingerly into the music of the 1970s, try Nostalgie Best of 70s
The new memorial up in the mountains to those of the WWII Comet Line is now complete - however, its official inauguration will take place at a future date to be specified - September 2021 would be the preferred option - but it all depends on COVID. Here it is with the descriptive plaque (in four languages: French, English, Spanish & Basque) fixed firmly in place:
If you're wondering why we chose a stone memorial in this format - it's because there are several wild cattle and horses (pottoks) loose up there in the hills and there's a shortage of trees and other suitable scratching posts.. This memorial should avoid most of their depredations and it should also be safe from today's souvenir hunters. (New for us: we put a QR code on the panel to link straight to our blog for more info) 
25th September. Answers to questions that haven't been asked: What does "furlough" mean? Up until very recently, it was a word that wasn't in common usage in the UK. See here 
I came across this panorama of the Pyrenees in the vicinity of Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry.. It gives a superb feel for the high country to be found only 45 minutes inland from the coast here - you should be able to zoom into the image. More panoramas from elsewhere in France here.
24th September. I think there must be a mouse in the house. The deliciously moist fruit and nut cake that arrived from the Gers a couple of days ago is steadily reducing in size by the hour. Despite me being careful to maintain the wrapping in its original state, Madame seems to know (as if by magic) exactly how much cake is left and what its current rate of consumption is.. She's working on the "and who by"..    
22nd September. One of the great guitar solos in pop music came up on the radio earlier - remember this? (fast forward to 1:30 and 2:54 to enjoy the late Tony Peluso's virtuosity). 
We had a very pleasant surprise this morning - the postman arrived with an unexpected parcel for us - a large tupperware container holding a well-wrapped fruit & nut cake made by J (our friend from the Gers).. I'll be interviewing it with a coffee later on this morning once I've found my elasticated waist pants. I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but as soon as I find out, I'll do more of it! It's really very kind of her - and it's greatly appreciated - especially so when its arrival was unexpected. Looking forward to mid-morning! 😋
20th September. Stepping outside this morning around 6am, for the first time I caught the first whiff of something that smelt of autumn.. a hint of decaying vegetation, leaves and wet grass.  
18th September. C and J, our friends from the Gers, came over for a night stop at St-J-de-L on Wednesday evening. Yesterday, I took them high up into the hills via a favourite route - a tortuous single track lane that winds ever-higher and takes in some of the most spectacular views of the foothills of the near-Pyrenees. Yesterday, the country looked at its best with breathtaking views in all directions. September is a busy tourist month and sure enough, our meeting point - Espelette - was awash with 'silver' tourists and camping cars (camper vans in the UK). 
We had a brief look at the centre of Espelette and, after a quick coffee, we took to the back country lanes. At one point, I stopped to show them a gem of a stone cottage (one that I've long admired) set in a wooded valley that would make for the perfect weekend retreat. 

We continued climbing and eventually, after inching our way past groups of wild cattle and pottoks (wild horses) we broke out on top of a ridge (in Spain, just south of Gorospil Lepoa) and there we stopped. There were a couple of other cars there but considering this was still prime tourist season, it was refreshingly peaceful. C and J both remarked on the silence. This area sat astride one of the key routes used by evading Allied aircrew as they sought to cross into Spain in WWII - except they travelled by night in what must have been a nerve-jangling experience. We took a short walk via a narrow sheep track to a point of interest - the only point from where a legendary wartime 'safe house' (Xan Mihura sheltered 128 aircrew at Jauregiko Borda) in Spain could be seen far below (its small white end wall is just visible to the left of the base of the dead tree).

This stone memorial to the men and women of Comète was erected a few weeks ago - and a descriptive plaque will be fixed in place next week.

We returned to the cars and drove to Esteben Borda where we enjoyed a real Basque country lunch - soup, omelette with farm ham and home-made pork sausages, then some Brébis (sheep's milk cheese) served with the traditional accompaniment - local black cherry jam, before finishing with coffee.. All that, plus vin compris, for 17€. Here are some future sausages taking a load off!     
14th September. Normally, this weekend just gone would have seen me and many others up in the mountains walking over the exact same routes used by Comet Line guides and the evading Allied aircrews as they attempted to cross the Pyrenees into Spain during WWII (more here). Given the heat that has hung heavy over us over the past few days like a blanket, I think we dodged a bullet there!

After a long hot afternoon yesterday, I took the dog down to the Plage des Cavaliers at Anglet for a well-deserved run.. We didn't stay too long as the heat was oppressive and there was no sea breeze to provide any respite. On the way home at 7.15pm, I notived that the car indicated that the outside air temperature was a stifling 37°C (98.6°F in Ye Olde half-timbered Fahrenheit) - and it felt like every single degree of it. 

11th September. This French song from the 1960s has been bugging me for a few weeks. I keep hearing it on the radio but it's difficult to identify a song without knowing the singer or the title. I mistakenly thought it was Gilbert Bécaud - and I suspected 'Alouette' was in the title somewhere. Fortunately, the phone rang a few minutes ago before I forgot the tune - it was a friend of mine - I sang him the tune and he came up with the title "Alouette, Alouette". Here's Gilles Dreu with his 1968 hit - a real 60s sound - and don't blame me if the tune stays in your head all day!
7th September. I just caught a snatch of this piece (one of my father's favourites) on the radio and luckily the announcer gave its name: Chopin, Les Sylphides - Prelude in A major, Op. 28 No. 7:

We went to the Grande Plage at Biarritz yesterday morning with the intention of having a coffee at the Bleu Café - it's ideally situated for watching the surfers and general people watching. However, we were surprised to see that all its tables and chairs had been cleared away - I wonder if they've been closed down* for ignoring the Covid sanitary regulations - because normally they are open till later in the season. 

* I later heard that that is indeed the case - along with another old favourite - Bar Jean.
In the end, we "installed ourselves" (as they say here) at Le Georges in Biarritz's Place Clemenceau.. 

I can't believe how quickly September has suddenly arrived upon us. However, all is not lost.. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that September in the Pays Basque is the best month of the year - the summer crowds having largely dispersed, the weather is settled - usually at around 25°C - and parking is easier. The odd shower or two revives the greenery and the misty blue mountains look their best under cloudless skies.   
"Do you remember how we danced that night away
Two lovers playing scenes from some romantic play
September morning still can make me feel that way."

-   Neil Diamond and Gilbert Becaud

Monday, 3 August 2020

282. It's scientifically proven that ...

 ... people who have more birthdays live longer.

31st August. I'm looking for some help - most UK online radio news stations make me want to put my foot through the radio - generally within the first minute of switching it on. For years, BBC Radio 4 was the benchmark but for a good few years it's been populated by 'personalities' - and it appears that we have to know their names. Does anyone 'out there' know of any online news stations other than BBC R4, TalkRADIO, Times Radio or LBC that offer intelligent news reporting but minus the blah..? If so, please let me know via the contact facility in the left hand column. Thanks in advance!

Here are a couple of old-style BBC station announcements that will take some of you back in time: here and here - before we had 'at the top of the hour'.. and self-absorbed promos like this.

The last two months - ie, the summer season - have flown by.. There appeared to be far more tourists than usual here - I heard that Biarritz received 20% more tourists than in previous years. For me though, September - the best month - is to come.    

23rd August. I spotted an extremely rare car this morning en route to the beach - it was a Citroën Traction Avant Cabriolet in pale blue in exceptional condition.

20th August. Before we leave Gautier Capuçon to fade away in our wake, here he is up in the Swiss Alps with Le Cygne (The Swan) by Camille Saint-Saëns:
18th August. We went out this morning with the dog to walk around the Lac de Saint Pée sur Nivelle - an artificial lake with plenty of activities for the young - and the not-so-young.

After a really pleasant walk we ended up in need of a cold drink - so stopping off at "Bizi" restaurant (overlooking the lake) seemed a good idea. One thing predictably led to another and we found ourselves ordering two Caesar salads for lunch. They were delicious but, as they say here, incredibly copieuse (ie, generous servings). For those who prefer a picnic, the lakeside was well-supplied with tables in twos and threes.

17th August. We were out yesterday celebrating a major milestone birthday for Madame - and so we went to (another!) one of our favourite places - the Hotel Arraya at Sare - for lunch. Given that many French people appear to have taken their holidays in France this year - plus the fact it was over a Bank holiday (August 15th) weekend - the roads were understandably dense with traffic.

All the tables outside the hotel were occupied - but fortunately we'd reserved a table in their oh-so-traditional Basque dining room - leaving those diners outside to compete with the rumble of passing Harleys (ridden by aging boomers! <= interesting read).
The hotel also has a small giftshop featuring, among other things, distinctive hand-made leather goods from Laffargue, the long-established shop at Saint-Jean-de-Luz that's Numero Uno with Madame. Browsing the wines on display in the giftshop, I spotted a bottle of Irouléguy from Domaine Mourguy (right - mentioned a couple of posts ago). I'll open it when the weather cools down a little.

To say we were impressed by the Arraya would be an understatement - they have raised the bar by several notches. Given the surroundings, the views, the effervescent staff, the originality and quality of the cooking - Arraya has now whizzed straight to the top of our short list of favoured establishments in the local area. Congratulations to Jean-Baptiste Fagoaga and his friendly staff - and thank you for a superb lunch.

10th August. The police here have arrested a young man (16 years old) in connection with the forest fires at Pignada on 30th July. My question to you all is this: what do we do with him? I believe he was in care, and had been in a foster home and had demonstrated pyromania tendencies before - so it seems that he's a disturbed young man. More here.

9th August. Last night we went to an open air concert given by cellist Gautier Capuçon and Jérôme Ducros (piano) in the grounds of the Château de Baroja (right), Anglet. Five hundred free tickets were made available by Anglet Town Hall and so, with parking spaces at a premium, we decided to arrive early! Just as well - we managed to find two centre seats in the second row. What a night.. The concert started in daylight and as dusk fell, the soft lights of château were switched on and it became a magical and highly memorable experience. Several times I found my hair standing on end (and it's nice to still be able to say that at my advanced age! 😏).

Capuçon's instrument is a Matteo Goffriller cello (left) - made in 1701 - which he has on loan. It had a resonance and a sonority that was clear from the start - especially in the lower register of the strings. Astonishing to think that this instrument is still capable of performing at the highest level 320 years after it was constructed. Or is it similar to the ship of Theseus perhaps?

I remember once seeing a programme about a luthier (a violin maker) - and how he selected the wood for his violins. He would tap the pieces of wood he was interested in and usually the sounds they gave off were dull clunks (technical term!). However, if the wood rang like a bell, that was the piece what he was looking for.. (more on this here)

This is a performance he gave from his home during the lock-down.

Gautier was also one of the judges on France 2's programme "Prodigies of the Year" - and here he is with Maxime, a young cellist:
Here's Maxime with John Williams theme from "Schindler's List..

And here are some photos of the concert - I must say that the staging of the concert was superb - it was filmed and projected in real time on to a large screen. (click to enlarge the images)
Château de Baroja
Gautier Capuçon
Gautier Capuçon and Jérôme Ducros
Photos: Ville d'Anglet - K.Pierret-Delage.

Well done to Jean-Michel Barate and his team from Anglet Town Hall - and many thanks - for the flawless organisation of the event.👍

8th August. I've posted this dazzling 15 minute aerial view of Paris by Yann Arthus-Bertrand before - and I make no apologies for posting it again. The viewpoint is ideal for enjoying the city's spectacular architectural riches - particularly the jewel that's the Place des Vosges (it comes up at 12:15). This is a film that can be watched time and time again - and, need I say it, it's best in full screen. 
7th August. Here's an aerial view of the Pignada forest that was destroyed in the recent fires. While eleven houses were damaged and five were destroyed, no-one was hurt. The burnt patch (left of centre) is exactly where I've been taking Nutty for walks - and there were many tall maritime pines there:

6th August. An evening walk along the beach at the Plage des Cavaliers is called for - we went last night at 9pm and it was very refreshing compared to here (just 10 mins away).

At 6.30pm, our garden thermometer was still showing 37°.. too hot for me.     

According to the evening news, it was 40°C in the shade at Biarritz today.

We made a lightning visit to Saint-Jean-de-Luz this morning for some urgent shopping. I don't think I've ever seen the town so crowded. It appears that many French are holidaying at home this year.

We had a visit from Eric (aka the Magic Carpenter) at 7.30 this morning.. The recent heat we've had here had caused some of our hefty wooden shutters to warp (they were designed to keep out the worst of the winter weather - not the sunshine!) to the point where it became impossible to close a few of them.

Our four-legged friend had me out of bed at 3.30am this morning for his usual nocturnal inspection of his territory - added to which we had the alarm set for 6.30am - I think Madame and I both had some sleep deficit to make good on this afternoon behind our newly adjusted shutters that can now be closed.

4th August. I forgot to mention that flat peaches are back in season again. We keep a dish of them in the fridge and they're ideal for breakfast!

We have a red maple down the garden and already it's started to shed its leaves.. I've also noticed conkers on the ground around the base of the numerous horse chestnut trees in the neighbourhood. This isn't usual on 4th August.. or is it? Is it due to lack of rainfall?

In the mid-1990s, I was fortunate to spend several years in Pordenone (Eng sub-titles available) in Friuli in north-east Italy. It was there that I discovered pappardelle all'uovo among other things.. This is ribbon pasta (about ¾ inch wide) made with eggs - and it was de-lic-ious!

I first came across it at the idyllic setting of the Ristorante Zaia, Polcenigo, where it was served with crab*. I spent more than a few enjoyable lunchtimes on this little terrace (left) over the cooling torrent of turquoise-blue water (from the nearby spring at Gorgazzo) while sitting in the shade of an overhead vine. Happy days..

Sadly, it appears that Zaia, as I knew it 25 years ago, is no longer in business. I see that the new owners have changed the name - along with the menu. A great shame - as its situation was perfect and the whole experience was always faultless. While I enjoyed the local Pinot Nero, it was also about the only ristorante I knew in that region that stocked French wine.

For my final visit there, I'd brought a large group with me and as we were leaving, Roberto (the maître d') - always impeccable in black tie - took my elbow and said, "Signore, next time you come with your wife, it's as my guest". Where else but Italy do you find a gesture like that?

* I'm trying to persuade Madame to make it like that one of these days.

Michelis Pappardelle all'uovo al bronzo (above right) is an Italian brand and this is what we had at lunchtime today - with garlicky mushrooms and chopped parsley. Highly recommended. (Question du Jour: Why al bronzo? Answer here

My other discovery in the Friuli region was Prosciutto di San Daniele. As much as I like Jambon de Bayonne (and I like it a lot), I must be honest and elevate the local San Danieli prosciutto (right) to the top rank. Before returning to the UK, I'd pay a call to a local independent grocer and ask him for 400gms of prosciutto sliced wafer thin.

A final call would be to Vigneti Pittaro - a local wine producer - to collect a case of their excellent Cabernet. This quote - attributed to Omar Khayyam - appears on their website:
"Since the moon and planets appeared in the sky, no one has ever seen anything sweeter than the purest wine. I am full of amazement for the wine sellers, that those who can never buy better than what is sold "
3rd August. As of this morning, the wearing of masks (or "face-coverings" in BBC-speak) is now obligatory in many cities and towns in France, including Biarritz and Bayonne (more here). Tourists would be well-advised to ensure that they come prepared.

Today's special offer! If you're confined, in 'lock down' or simply stuck at home - why not relax with a coffee and take an early morning (6am) train ride in the cab of a regional train (ie not a TGV) from Bayonne to Tarbes and enjoy the scenery (the Pyrenees are on the right). You'll see how the house styles evolve as the train passes from the Pays Basque and heads into the Béarn:

2nd AugustWe were tempted to go to Biarritz for a coffee at the Bleu Café this morning - but we finally thought better of it. With it being the first weekend in August, Biarritz would be crowded with people and parking spaces would be like hen's teeth - so instead, we drove to Lac Marion for a walk with the pooch.