Thursday, 3 October 2019

272. Tiptoeing into Autumn

23rd October. Here's another piece that our choir will be reprising in 2 concerts planned for late Spring next year to mark our leader's final season before he retires - it's Vivaldi's Magnificat RV610 - and this is a fine interpretation of it by the English Chamber Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir conducted by Vittorio Negri in 1979:

21st October. How is it that we've ended up with politicians like these - oozing insincerity from every pore? We are forever being told today by those who wish us to remain in the EU that we (the poor dumb electorate) were lied to repeatedly by the Leave campaign from 2016 onwards  - but this video shows the reality. Watch this and weep for the country..

I imagine that all those connected with French rugby will still be seething this morning at Sébastien Vahaamahina who committed an inexcusable foul - a 'red-cardable' offence - 8 minutes into the second half of their quarter final match with Wales and got himself sent off. No excuses. France are now on their way home. Wales squeaked home 20-19 courtesy of a Ross Moriarty try in the 74th minute against a 14 man France.

In the other quarter final, the South Africa's Springboks overcame Japan's Brave Blossoms by 26-3. Japan made a lot of friends around the world with their all-action style, coached by former All Black Jamie Joseph.

19th October. What a day for England rugby..! It was Day One of the RWC Quarter Finals and England faced Australia. (Reader(s) in Australia look away now!) It was probably their best performance ever against the Wallabies as it finished up 40-16, with England scoring 4 tries to Australia's one. In the semi-final, England will meet New Zealand (who won their match with Ireland 46-14) in what should be a cracking match.
Tomorrow morning, Wales take on France and South Africa play Japan. It hurts me to say this but I think Wales are capable of reaching the Final. (On reflection, I think Wales have two chances of beating the Springboks: fat chance and no chance)

18th October. A big weekend of World Cup rugby coming up: first, England v Australia tomorrow morning - followed by New Zealand v Ireland.. then on Sunday, it's Wales v France and South Africa v Japan.

We went to the Town Hall earlier today to pick up my new carte d'identité - but after having signed yet more paperwork I was told it should be ready to collect in the week before Christmas! Who said this: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.” Answer at the foot of this post.

17th October. Good to see that Ye Olde Pounde Sterling is creeping back up again from almost parity with the euro to more welcome rates of exchange (at least for me!). When we lived in the UK, the exchange rate was of passing interest - a footnote to the day's news just ahead of the weather - but since moving here, given that most of our pensions are in £ sterling, it's become of prime importance to us.

16th October. I was in Oloron-Sainte-Marie last week for a 2 day symposium on Trans-Pyrenean evasion networks during WWII. On the return I visited the wartime detention camp at Gurs. While little evidence remained of this shameful and tragic episode perpetrated by the Vichy government, it didn't need much imagination to realise the picture the horrors of life there for those judged to be "undesirables".

We were in Saint-Jean-de-Luz this morning for some shopping and there were quite a few people swimming - but what a pleasure to not have to circle around like a vulture looking for a parking space..!

Nutty, our larger-than-life cocker spaniel, is developing new habits. In addition to his obsession with lizards in our garden, he now checks under every car in the avenue as he trots by - in case there's a cat there. Neither of us have ever encouraged him to chase cats but he hasn't needed any prompting in that direction. What's next I wonder?! 

Here's the Tour de France route for 2020 - great graphics by the way - not much planned for the Pyrenees:

8th October. It was raining in Bayonne this evening when we went out to watch Woody Allen's "A Rainy Day in New York". It's billed as a romantic comedy but in my opinion, it's 99% free of both romance and comedy. In the interest of fairness, I should add that a chap a few seats away from me was laughing out loud in the exaggerated manner of a theatre audience in London's West End (ie, to encourage the cast) while my facial muscles remained twitch-free. It's probably the least engaging film Woody Allen has ever directed and I honestly felt that I could have got up and gone home at any moment during the screening and I'd have been in no danger of missing anything.

Top tip: still tempted to go and watch it? Resist the impulse at all costs. Tidy your sock drawer instead. Sweep out the garage. Put your CDs in order. Throw out all the books that you'll never read again. I should add I've been a longtime Woody Allen fan but this film is no more than a potboiler containing much recycled material. Apart from some good old American standards on the soundtrack, this gets my 37 carat dross alert!) 

I've got a better idea - draw the curtains / drapes / close the shutters / lower the blinds / whatever works wherever you are - light the fire - then pour a couple of Glenmorangies - one for your squeeze and one for yourself - and play this.

This is a piece we started learning last night for our choir leader's final season - Puccini's Requiem:

5th October. England had a bruising encounter with Argentina earlier today in the Japan RWC - and came away with a 39-10 win against a 14 man Argentine side after Tomás Lavanini had been red-carded for a high tackle on Owen Farrell in the 17th minute.

One to watch in next Saturday's Crunch match with France - scrum-half Baptiste Serin.. he's a quick-witted player with lots of tricks up his sleeve. I'm sure Messrs Underhill and Curry will keep a close eye on him.

4th October. I keep returning to music like this (Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata).. the adagio sostenuto was one of my father's favourites and when he played it, all was well in the world. It's played here by Dong-Hyek Lim, a noted Korean pianist:
I've been sparing you from having to read any more of the endless poisonous discussions involving Brexit - as they could, for the most part, be summed up by this quotation from "Macbeth":
it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
.. and there's no shortage of idiots! However, I came across this extract earlier from a very worthwhile article by Ben Knight, who worked as a civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union between 2017 and 2019. These two paragraphs neatly sums up my reasons for voting Leave. In my view, Brexit is not about immigration, the proposed EU army, the economy, the Euro or any of it - these elements all come under the heading of detail. The fundamental issue at stake is Democracy - because from that, everything else flows - and it's clearly stated below:
"Brexit means the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and of EU law, returning sovereignty to Britain. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that rulers should be chosen by the ruled; but no voter elects the Presidents of the European Parliament, Commission or Council, nor any one of the European Union’s 20 Vice Presidents. The only elected organ of the Union, the Parliament, has no powers to initiate legislation and only limited powers to scrutinise the Commission".
"The extension of Qualified Majority Voting means that Britain’s voice can be routinely overruled, and that the British people can be subject to laws for which not a single British individual has voted. This is plainly an aberration and an assault upon the core tenets of basic political rights. No: the only legitimate form of governance is one in which those with the power to make laws are directly accountable to every individual to whom those laws apply. The restoration of full parliamentary sovereignty in the United Kingdom will mean that our 650 MPs, each of whom we directly elect, are solely responsible for deciding the laws of the land".
His words deserve to be carved in stone. Having read the above, I can't understand how and why anyone could vote other than Leave.  

There's a grassed area (wouldn't call it a lawn) in front of the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) not far from here. There are two great horse chestnut trees on it and beneath them is a carpet of leaves the colour of burnt copper and enough conkers to supply the needs of at least a hundred schoolboys. Sadly, conkers can't be eaten.

There are some oddly-named houses on my dog-walking route as well - one in particular always has me wondering why would someone name their house "Malgré tout"? According to Google, this has a variety of meanings in French including: 'nevertheless', 'nonetheless', 'even so', 'notwithstanding', 'all the same', and 'despite everything'. I remembered from my schoolboy French that malgré tout means 'despite all' and it's the only one that makes any kind of sense to me - but even then, it's an odd name for a house. There's another house that's simply called 'Christmas'.

House names in the UK tending to be more descriptive (see here) although 'Dunroamin' and the pessimistic 'Journey's End' were once fashionable.

People sometimes have asked me if I miss certain things or tastes from England - and I always have told them that there was only one that sprang readily to mind - and that was Stone's Ginger Wine (essential for making a Whisky Mac). I wrote about it here back in 2012.

In the lead-up to the recent Comet Line weekend in the Pays Basque, an English friend who was planning to attend kindly asked me in advance if there was anything he could bring me. Well, what else could I say! I hoped he might be able to slip a bottle into his suitcase.. but when he arrived, I was bowled over to find that he'd brought me a box of six! What a star!

Then, a few months ago, we were invited round to a neighbours for drinks and I was asked the same question. I suddenly remembered one day that a favourite breakfast used to consist of cereal plus a few (canned) grapefruit segments plus cold milk.. Whenever I remembered to, I'd look in any supermarket I was in to see if I could find them anywhere before finally realising that canned grapefruit segments simply don't exist in France. So that was my answer to the question.

Yesterday, we invited them here for supper as they'd just returned from a month away in the north of France and the UK (and you can guess what's coming next!). They passed me a heavy carrier bag containing several big cans of you-know-what..

So now, all my needs have been met for the forseeable future! (I must have perfected my whining technique!)

3rd October. Some more from the "I don't believe it" Dept.. I was returning from taking the pooch for a run through the calm of the beautiful woods at nearby Pignada this morning when two things caught my eye.

The first was a council truck with a high lift platform on the back and they were busy attaching the Christmas decorations - yes, the Christmas decorations! - high up on a lamp-post. This must be the earliest in Europe - but feel free to tell me if it's already happened to a lamp-post near you.

The second was a "For Sale" sign on a bakery that we've been using ever since we've been here. All I can say is that the owner must have a non-business reason for selling up, unconnected with his products - because while they were uniformly excellent, his crusty baguettes 'Tradition' were the best in the area. Generally speaking, the one thing that bakers in France are rarely short of is customers. The buying of fresh bread on a daily basis is ingrained in French life. Sorry to see him go.

2nd October. As the 'pneumatic road drill' treatment on my knee (as described in earlier posts) didn't appear to bring any lasting benefit, it's back to the tried and tested injection of a silicon-based gloop (technical term m'lud) into it. It's a two-part process: first, the doctor had to manoeuvre the needle alone into the heart of my knee (a wince-making exercise if truth be told - my stiff upper lip has never been stiffer!) - then he attached the cylinder containing the product to the needle - all the time while discussing France's win over the US in the Rugby World Cup in Japan; the  state of play of the Brexit negotiations and then England's chances of progressing to the RWC Final.. He seemed to think we (England) stood a good chance. Personally, I think he was trying to take my mind off what he was doing! 

1st October. Nutty's fascination with the lizards in our garden has morphed into a full-blown obsession! He now spends his time by the garden door in the kitchen itching to be let out - and as soon as he's out, he darts around to his favoured viewing place in front of the border where the lizards are. He stands there absolutely motionless, staring intently for any sign of movement, poised and desperate to catch one. I think the lizards are safe though!

Answer: It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow..

Friday, 6 September 2019

271. September in the Pays basque

30th September. I was watching the TV coverage of the funeral of former President Jacques Chirac at Saint-Sulpice when I heard this sublime piano piece being played. It's Schubert's Impromptu Op.142 (D.935) No.2 in A flat Major - played here by Daniel Barenboim and I later learned that it was President Macron himself who had been inspired to select both the piece and Daniel Barenboim's interpretation of it. The same piece was repeated over the images of the hearse as it drove away through the eternal streets of Paris, preceded by a phalanx of police motorcyclists. Very moving.

An avuncular figure, Jacques Chirac was renowned for his love of France and her people, and to many here he epitomised all that was good about France and he was well-liked across the political spectrum. He was equally at home at the Elysée Palace or at the annual Salon International de l'Agriculture at the Paris expo Porte de Versailles where he clearly took great pleasure in many of the things that France is noted for - including two of my personal no-go areas: andouillette and tête de veau. On occasion he would stay at Biarritz and reportedly would walk down from his hotel (Le Miramar) to the Hotel du Palais for a gin and tonic. Thinking about it, I thought that he had much in common with that great American president Ronald Reagan. 
Jacques Chirac 1932 - 2019
Schubert is a composer whose works I've completely overlooked. Here's Vladimir Horowitz with Schubert's Impromptu in G flat Op. 90 No. 3..
29th September. It was a beautiful September morning here in the Pays Basque and where better to spend it than at the Bleu Café, Biarritz admiring the endless Atlantic breakers. A silvery mist hung over the town this morning and it seemed to add sparkle to the scene:

28th September. In mid-August, we had a break in the stunning Ossau valley.. to the south east of here. Take a look at these images of this majestic landscape which is off the tourist trail. Robert Frost summed it up best:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Last December we were in Bordeaux in connection with my application for French citizenship (which came through by the way) and we stopped for lunch at Ragazzi da Peppone - one of the most authentic Italian restaurants I've been in. I noticed the other day that a branch has opened in Bayonne and if it's anything like its parent restaurant up at Bordeaux, we'll soon be regulars! Here are some reviews..

27th September. Time for a bit of Django..

26th September. In the 2019 Rugby World Cup being held in Japan, England played the USA in what turned out to be a mighty physical clash.. There was much "beef on the hoof" on show from both sides and there were more than a few ground-shuddering tackles that must have registered on a Richter scale somewhere. 

Piers Francis (Eng) was cited after the match for a high tackle on Will Hooley in the opening seconds that left the American full-back concussed. Meanwhile John Quill (USA) was sent off later on the game for a high tackle on Owen Farrell. 

England ran out convincing winners and I think they were fortunate to emerge unscathed. They're still making more handling errors than they should (said he from his armchair) but in their defence the ball was clearly slippery. They put some excellent moves together that, with a bit more assuredness, would have resulted in a bigger scoreline. But - let's not be greedy - this was a good win against a powerful American side. 
Here's a beautiful early morning shot of Bayonne looking south towards the misty Pyrenees.. showing the confluence of the Nive in the centre with the mighty Adour flowing from the left towards the open sea. The boat (right) soaking up the sunshine is a floating restaurant (still on our "to do" list after 12 years) with the colonnaded Town Hall behind it. Click to enlarge!
Sorry to have left the blog on the back burner for the past few weeks - but I've been very busy in the aftermath of the recent commemorative Comète weekend - so, like the mayor of Pompeii in 79AD, I'm waiting for the dust to settle. Innumerable emails in and out, photographs to gather and videos to piece together - plus I've got a symposium coming up in October on the subject of escape/evasion lines in and around the Pyrenees.. and much preparation work is required for that.
7th September. Nutty (our cocker spaniel) has discovered a small colony of lizards in the garden and he's become obsessed with trying to catch them. They lie immobile on our hot pebbled paths soaking up the heat only to take off in a frenzied blur when he charges up at them. He's way off the mark but that doesn't stop him in his latest obsession.

There was a letter in today's Daily Telegraph that caught my eye:

SIR – What country in its right mind would want to leave the world’s largest trading bloc and risk financial ruin by going it alone without a deal? What country, attempting to hold together a union of disparate political entities, would risk that union when many of its inhabitants do not support the break-up in the first place? What country’s leaders would be prepared to take a reckless leap into the unknown in the illusory hope of a brighter, more prosperous future, free from outside interference?
The answer, of course, is the United States in 1776.
They must have been insane.
Nicholas Young

London W13

6th September. Life has been increasingly hectic here with the imminent approach of one of the highlights of the year - yes, it's time for the annual commemorative Comet Line weekend in the Pays basque that will take place 13th - 15th September.. I've been busy translating innumerable speeches and preparing this, that and the other.

In the meantime, here's a long programme that features some of the most beautiful squares in Paris. If the commentary is distracting, just turn the volume down a tad. One particular favourite of ours is the Place des Vosges. If you want to go there directly, start at 23.47..

The square makes a defining statement about the French love of control of Nature, of planned formality, of "statement" architecture, of order and precision - and, in my view, a fundamental distrust of anything that looks unplanned by the hand of Man. In a nation sometimes seen as unruly and indisciplined, this square reveals and underlines a fundamental contradiction in the French character - a desire for order and symmetry in a disorderly and asymmetric world. This may be one of the reasons why they consistently fail to understand the occasional anarchic shenanigans of British politics! (like the rest of us then!)

We like the Place des Vosges for personal, entirely different, reasons! It's a fascinating place to walk around under the colonnaded arches - I'm not the world's best shopper by any means but there are some individual shops, galleries, restaurants and cafés there that repay closer inspection. Once there, there's a sense that you're in an oasis of calm. The centre of the square is formal - but despite that, it's one of our favourite places - and it's an ideal spot to ask someone a question. Enough. As the presenter rightly says, it's a place that's easy to overlook if you don't know it's there. See what you think:
1st September. If there's a month in which to visit the Pays basque and experience it at its very best - it's September. I realise I could be pushing my luck saying this but the weather is generally stable with average temperatures of 25°C; the sea is still warm; those seasonal visitors with children of school age have returned home - and finding a parking space in the same time zone as the place you are visiting becomes possible - maybe!    

Friday, 2 August 2019

270. Maximus Augustus Temperaturae

31st August. From the "How Times Flies" Dept.. Tomorrow, it will be 12 years to the day since we arrived here in the Pays Basque - thus fulfilling a long-held dream. There's always an element of risk in taking the decision to live out a dream - as dreams can sometimes turn out to be fantasies - but, prior to making our decision, we tried to think of all the likely (and unlikely) possibilities that could arise and assessed the likelihood of any of them happening. We had a plan for each one. Our biggest risk was moving to the eurozone with our sterling pensions (but that's another story). In the end, it came down to a yes/no decision - and we took the plunge and it worked out very well for us.

A few years ago, we encountered someone who was clearly something of a fantasist. One hot summer's day, we stopped for a drink in a traditional café in the heart of an ancient market town a few miles inland from here. On trying to order something from the waiter - and getting the blankest of looks in return - our suspicions that the café was owned by a "subject of her gracious Majesty" (as they say here) were confirmed when we spotted beer-battered fish & chips chalked up on the menu board. Again, nothing wrong with that - but not here, in a traditional village in la France profonde.

The waiter went back inside and a few seconds later, a lady - clearly the owner - came out to help.

Even I could hear that she had attended the "Edward Heath School of French" (for readers with long memories!) and she was as English as could be. Again, nothing wrong with that of course, but a café plays such a central rôle in the life of a village community here that her rudimentary language skills and inability to be able to serve standard menu items doomed the project to failure from the start. I admired her pluck in trying it but the odds were heavily stacked against her making a go of it. Sure enough, a few weeks ago, we passed through the village and sadly her café was no more. 

29th August. In 1975, the UK held a referendum that addressed its continued membership of the EEC. The question as asked was: "The Government has announced the results of the renegotiation of the United Kingdom's terms of membership of the European Community. Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?" In a 64% turnout of the electorate, the country voted to stay by 67% to 33% (figures rounded up/down to nearest whole number).

In June 2016, the UK held another referendum to ask the electorate a simple yes/no question: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" In a 72% turnout, the country voted 52% to 48% to leave. 

It should have been a straightforward process for the UK to leave an international organisation it had joined freely and of its own volition some 40+ years ago. After all, it's not as though the EU is the Warsaw Pact. However, the EU has treated the democratic result of the UK referendum with outright hostility from the outset. France's erstwhile president Hollande threatened darkly that "there would be consequences". Perhaps the reason why UK should be subject to the EU's punitive and frankly hostile stance may emerge in the fullness of time. 

Amid a storm of protest, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acted with characteristic decisiveness to suspend Parliament for just over a month. As I see it, this was to forestall those in Parliament who have been working furiously to derail any moves to leave the EU without a deal. The protesters claim that Parliament is being denied its voice. To that, I would say that we have endured 3+years of listening non-stop to parliamentarians and endless media speculation and we are still no nearer now to implementing the referendum result than we were in 2016. As long as our efforts to leave the EU remain stalled, the worse it is for Britain and the EU at large across the board. We need closure on Brexit and we need to move on. So - well done Boris. At last, we have a prime minister worthy of the name.      

27th August. Here's a recent shameful quote from Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator: "My mission will have been a success when the terms are so brutal for the British that they prefer to stay in the union.” This comment merely serves to confirm my belief that the EU remains, for all its fine words, a deeply politicised club that we are well out of.

Barnier's appalling statement was followed by one in similar spirit from Donald Tusk - the president of the EU Council - who declared just before the G7 that "the one thing I will not cooperate on is no deal".

Barnier contrived to lock the UK into a 'brutal' deal - one that no freedom-loving country could accept - and so the only alternative now is to leave on No Deal terms - and in this Tusk says he will refuse to cooperate. With "Friends and Partners" like these, who needs enemies? 

I can't imagine for one second that Winston Churchill, Britain's greatest-ever Englishman, Prime Minister and statesman, would have ever uttered either of the statements quoted above.

He had it right: “Never Give In, Never, Never, Never, Never Give In – In nothing great or small, large or petty – Never Give In, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” There's an excellent overview of Churchill here. To get a sense of this true giant of the 20th century, I can unreservedly recommend taking the time to visit his home - Chartwell, in Kent. 

25th August. I was out with the dog this evening - it was warm and sultry - when I saw that a substantial metal barrier (about 3 metres high) had been erected from wall-to-wall across the road at the top of our avenue, thus securing access to the Law Courts (which have been fenced in and guarded by armed gendarmes). I noticed that four armed gendarmes - all in full heavy tactical kit - were watching me closely and so I thought I'd go across and congratulate them on providing a safe and secure environment for the G7 - and in doing so, show them that no, we don't all hate the police.. Their surprise turned to pleasure when they realised I was on their side and, amid smiles all around, we had a friendly chat (one or two even tried out their English on me!) and we shook hands. For those who think the gendarmes have it easy, I'd say try standing out in the heat and the humidity all day wearing all that heavy kit - being provoked and abused by elements of the public. Given that Biarritz was selected (rightly or wrongly) as the venue for the G7, I think the forces of order (as they're known here) did a superb job in providing a secure environment for it. Well done!

A bit of action in town last night - an entirely predictable protest by the usual suspects that turned into a "let's confront the police" situation. Surveillance helicopters chuntering overhead all day. Protesters and people with cameras in equal measure looking for saleable photos or videos with protesters only too willing to oblige. Protesters shouting "We all hate the police". I wonder how many of them could explain what capitalism is? And what viable economic system they would propose to replace it with? All very sad.

24th August. While I love Irish rugby - I love English rugby just that little bit more. The two sides met today in a Rugby World Cup warm-up game - and this was the first time that coach Eddie Jones showed his hand. There were plenty of fast, powerful and mobile players out on display from both teams today - but I'll leave it to you to decide who deserved the most plaudits. Pity there's no full length video of the match - but despite that, these highlights should give an idea of which way the wind was blowing.. I wish commentators would refrain from using words like 'humiliation'. It was a heavy defeat - nothing more.
 Meanwhile, north of the border at Murrayfield, Scotland recovered from being 3-14 down to France - only to show remarkable spirit in fighting back to win 17-14..

22nd August. You're getting some real musical treats this afternoon - and all at no extra charge! With jazz, I always think less is more.. (you're entitled to differ of course) but this track by Chet Baker is very close to perfection (in my opinion). Guess who wrote it? (answer at the foot of the page):

I never tire of listening to this piece by Beethoven - his Sonata Pathetique, Op. 13: II. Adagio - and it was one of my father's favourites that he used to enjoy playing (I had no idea at the time). A few months ago, I posted Matthew McAllister's version on the classical guitar - remind yourself of it here. Now listen to Daniel Barenboim's sublime interpretation of it on the piano (it starts at 9:46).
Here's the great Ry Cooder with his slide guitar and his "Feelin' Bad Blues" on the soundtrack of the cult film "Crossroads" (1986) - the guitarist in the clip below is played by actor Ralph Macchio: 

21st August. I came across this poster (right) for the Train Bleu earlier and it was a timely reminder that we are far from being in a Golden Age for travel. There was once the old-fashioned notion that the actual travelling was part of the pleasure of a holiday; this, however, has long been overtaken by the grim reality of travel in the era of mass tourism. 

Nowadays, we have to park - with our luggage - in windswept lots that have different post codes than the airport; with check-in two hours before take-off; then there's the mandatory queueing; the printing of our own boarding passes & tickets and now self check-in (this happened to us on our recent trip to Naples); the searching of personal belongings (shoes off/shoes on etc); walking down interminable corridors looking for the departure gate, plus the sheer numbers of fellow travellers - not all of whom make for ideal travelling companions.

The Train Bleu dining car
This photo of the dining car of the fabled Train Bleu puts me in mind of the age when the "getting there" could be just as enjoyable and memorable as the holiday itself - for the lucky few. 

For them, the overnight train journey south on the Train Bleu must have been a highly pleasurable method of launching a holiday on the Côte d'Azur between the wars. Those well-heeled travellers maybe would have kick-started their holiday at the magnificent Le Train Bleu restaurant (below) at the Gare du Lyon, Paris (more here) before descending to the platform to join their train for the delights of the south. (Thinks: "Now where did I put that cheese sandwich..?")

(Here's a little known factoid for when it goes quiet in the snug: In most countries, the “rule of the road” for trains is the same as for road traffic. For example, in England, where cars drive on the left of the road, trains run on the left hand of a pair of rail tracks, while in Germany, where cars drive on the right, trains use the right hand track of the pair. France is an exception to this rule. Cars drive on the right, but trains run on the left. This is because the early railways were mainly built using British expertise and standard equipment “out of the box”.) 

18th August. With less than a week to run before the 45th G7 Summit takes place (24th-26th August) at the hyper-luxurious Hotel du Palais at nearby Biarritz, security in the area is getting tighter than a tight thing. Biarritz itself has been divided into two zones (only accessible by those who are accredited) with pedestrian access only in the immediate seaside area. Those not attending the G7 are being advised not to try to access the town and/or its beaches. The frontier with Spain is being closed and commercial flights into Biarritz are prohibited.

Looking at the attendees, I'm asking myself why the EU is there - represented by messrs Tusk and Juncker - neither of whom have been elected. It begs the question why on earth are two of them needed?
The declared theme of this G7 is - and I quote - "the fight against inequalities" which explains why the attendees and their entourages will be roughing it at the 5 star Hotel du Palais (above and below). You couldn't make it up.
I've just heard that counter-demos by the usual suspects (aka G7EZ) are likely to be mounted as of tomorrow and it seems that Hendaye and possibly Bayonne will be likely locations (gulp!). The heightened security profile was evident during our return from the Ossau valley last Friday. At the final péage on the A64 autoroute from Pau, gendarmes (and possibly CRS) were pulling cars over for a document check if the occupants fitted the profile. As we've now come to expect, we were waved through! 

"Aaarrgh! You don't have to reply
when a biker thanks you..!"
Changing the subject, I don't think I've ever mentioned a ridiculous gesture employed by French bikers (motards). If you move over to the right slightly to enable them to overtake (as they inevitably must), you will often be thanked - motard-style. That's to say - he will stick out his right leg as a thank you. As gestures go, I must say that this is one of the weirdest. Where else in the world does an extended leg mean thank you? Apparently they are unable to raise their right hand in a thank you gesture that lasts maybe ½ second - as presumably in their eyes, the right hand belongs on the throttle. As a former rider I think I could bear to raise my right hand for that long without being a danger to myself or others. This extended stiff leg looks anything but cool (which I think is the effect that they're looking for).

17th August. We're just back home after a few days away in the Vallée d'Ossau.. a spectacular valley in the Pyrenees that made me think I was in a different country. And it's only 1 hour 40 mins away from home. Here's a stunning view of Bielle:
Vallée d'Ossau
We stayed at a hotel buried deep in the countryside just outside Sévignacq-Meyracq - it's not somewhere that you would be likely to stumble upon by accident. (It's part of Logis Hotels group) It was our third visit there and as ever it was a delightful experience.

The owner and chef Jean-Pierre Paroix is clearly doing something right as every table was occupied! The restaurant features a fairly limited* spoilt-for-choice menu and the cooking is of an exceptionally high standard - and in fact, our whole stay there was perfect.

We're now seeking excuses to make another visit!
* always a good sign.
Hotel-Restaurant Les Bains de Secours, Sévignacq-Meyracq 

This video (shot by someone else) shows the drive we took yesterday morning from the lake at Fabrèges down to Laruns.. via Gabas (where one of our favourite restaurants was - now closed). In what some consider to be an ill-advised move, wild bears from Slovenia were re-introduced into the Ossau valley. Start at 6:00.. (it gets 'interesting' from 29:00)
The houses there were of a completely different style to those on the Côte Basque. Look at this sensational property that's on the market - I would be prepared to sacrifice several body parts for the opportunity to live in it!

13th August. I was recently offered a "waiter's friend" corkscrew ostensibly made by Laguiole - the ne plus ultra of such things from that quintessentially French brand. These corkscrews are hand-made and they are incredibly tactile objects. French craftsmen seem to have a real affinity, a craft tradition and a great gift for designing and making small metal objects that are seldom equalled elsewhere. More here on Laguiole. These same skills are apparent in northern Italy as well and it's no accident that some of the world's greatest cars originate from there. Back to corkscrews!

In handling it out of its box, I was astonished to find a small sticker on it to the effect that it was made in - wait for it - the P.R.C.!! I've said this before elsewhere in the blog that we in Western Europe are dooming our native manufacturing capability to extinction by exporting our know-how to China and elsewhere. Laguiole built up its reputation for top quality French craftsmanship over the years and now - what? What will we be making a few decades from now? Will we have any craftsmen left? 

The security operation that will be mounted while the G7 conference is taking at Biarritz is remarkable. Have a look at the security measures that are being implemented to ensure that our leaders will be able to carry out their business unmolested by the ranks of the seriously disgruntled. This (right) is how protests used to be conducted in the UK! (if only..!)

For those of you who have tried, and failed, recently to access my interactive map of restaurants in France that still serve meals that are cooked in the traditional way - ie, using fresh ingredients, without resorting to the use of microwaving 'bought-in' meals - you will have noticed that the map could no longer be accessed as it had been blocked by the provider. I'm pleased to be able to tell you that thanks to the generosity of the map provider (Zeemaps) I can continue to offer it as a free service. There are some nice people 'out there'. Thank you, Zeemaps!

Here's how it works:
- to access the entry for a restaurant named in the list below, simply click on its entry -  & click on the photos to enlarge them.
- to slew the map to a particular area of interest, use drag and drop.
- use the +/- buttons to zoom in or out.
- to see the map full size in the blog without the accompanying key text, click on the >> arrow at the top right of the map.
- click here to see the map in full screen. (useful if the text entry for a particular restaurant appears compressed and unreadable)
- the position of each pointer is accurate so if you select 'Satellite' at top left and zoom right in down to house level, you can see exactly where the restaurant is.

My only caveat about any of the restaurants mentioned above is that it's a fact of life that the restaurant business is fluid and that some of the owners and staff running restaurants inevitably move on. My comments relate to the situation that prevailed at the time of the visit. Enjoy exploring the restaurants on the list. Bon appetit! 

12th August. It's been a while since I've featured the great Django Reinhardt - here he is wiz ze 'Ot Club de France (inc. Stéphane Grapelli):

There's plenty more (2½ hours worth) Gypsy Jazz Manouche here.. 

10th August. We've decided to have a few days away next week as the peak of the high season draws near on the coast here. We're going to return to a small country hotel near Laruns (south of Pau) in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We've been there twice before - and there's good food, empty roads, good walks.. and the mountain air is like wine. This time we're taking the pooch! He came out of the kennels a few weeks ago with a spectacular dose of 'Montezuma's revenge' - plus I don't think he'd slept for the 3 days he'd spent in there.

9th August. We drove down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz last night for a few attitude-adjusters in the place Louis XIV where we found a band was setting up.

We found a table at the Bar de la Baleine.. and, over a couple of long glasses of sangria, watched the square fill up with August visitors.

If you happened to see that funny, quirky and highly entertaining Irish film "The Commitments" (1991), you'll know what I mean if I tell you that the group last night started playing that same brand of 60s Soul music.. and they weren't bad either - the square was jumpin'! One elder statesman (not me) caused some amusement by dancing along to the music - alone! If I had to choose one song from the film, it would be this.

If you haven't seen the film  it's well worth searching out (I believe it turned into something of a cult classic). The story? A young would-be promoter/ entrepreneur gathers together a group of dysfunctional musicians in Dublin to form a soul band (the film is worth watching for the audition scenes alone!). After grinding through rehearsal after painful rehearsal, and just as they appear to be within touching distance of "making it", they self-destruct spectacularly. This is a link to the full movie - it works fine here in France - but I make no guarantees for wherever you are. (Warning: If you watch the film, you'll need to set your "Bad Language Filter" to max!)

7th August. Words You'll Never Read Here Dept: these are some of my current favourites: 'nuanced'.. 'conversation'.. and 'narrative' (might have had this one previously).

5th August. I saw the first graffiti today about the G7 meeting at Biarritz later this month - all it said was G7EZ.. It's the acronym for the usual rentamob (aka eurotrash from all over Europe) to turn up, protest - oh yes, and while they're at it, break a few shop windows, loot shops, throw stones at the police, steal someone else's property or set fire to people's cars. Very democratic..(!)

I have no objection whatsoever to people protesting - but I totally fail to see the connection with all the associated vandalism, violence, thievery and destruction of someone else's property and/or livelihood. Then there are those who come equipped with powerful catapults and other weapons. I have zero sympathy for any of them should they get hurt. This is not a fashionable statement but I hope the CRS give as good as they get - plus a bit of interest. 

4th August. I was idly watching someone smoking (if that's the right word) an e-cigarette earlier today. As they walked along and exhaled, they emitted a prolonged cloud of vapour reminiscent of an old steam train. It looked like they were boiling a kettle! Instead of faffing around with these ridiculous e-cigarettes (which are cigarettes in name only), why don't they just give up? It ain't that hard.

Years ago, long before we moved here, when Winter would slowly morph into Spring each year, I'd start getting restless thinking of the possibilities for summer. Just to set foot in France at one of the Channel ports already involved a considerable expense as the cross channel ferry companies would jack up their prices in time for the holiday season - or the airlines would find an excuse to ramp up the cost of their tickets (no low cost airlines back then). It occurred to me the other day that my feet no longer start their seasonal tapping as we're now in the fortunate position of being able to travel any time at all - subject to the dreaded finances of course..
Hotel du Palais
We got up early this morning, took the short 10 minute drive to Biarritz and "installed ourselves" (as the French say) at the Bleu Café at Biarritz's Grande Plage. Perfect way to start the day, watching people and the ever-changing sea. In a few weeks this won't be possible as the "Great and the Good" will be ensconced at the palatial and hyper-glitzy Hotel du Palais, Biarritz, for a meeting of the G7. Security will be tighter than a tight thing - I'm not even sure if the tide will be allowed to come in while they are here. As Biarritz will be in full "lock down" mode, I've heard it suggested that Bayonne could well receive a visitation from the Black Bloc. The Romans understood the benefits of guard dogs. (Cave Canem = Beware of the Dog) I have an 18kg attack spaniel with a hair trigger tongue!☺
2nd August. I went out on my ebike this afternoon for a short ride up the Nive as far as Villefranque (at the bottom of the map) and return. My right knee is still talking to me so no harm done!

1st August. I had the third and final session of treatment on my right knee this evening - using a Swiss-made device that delivers a pneumatic drill-style hammering at the location where I'd previously told the doctor the pain was at its maximum. If I understood him (a rhumatologue) correctly, the idea behind the process is to create scar tissue around the knee ligaments. I tried to maintain a Zen-like calmness throughout but I was reduced to reflex squirming on several occasions. As a fun activity, it's one that's hard to beat on a summer's evening!  

(The post title is just a bit of meaningless cod-Latin!)

Answer to the who wrote "Almost Blue" question: Elvis Costello..