Wednesday, 2 September 2009

15. Antiques and another thick head..

We had a very pleasant day out a couple of weekends ago. We set off just after 9am to go to Pau (looking for an old armoire – or wardrobe). We took the motorway and soon ran into morning mist but as we neared Pau it lifted. The countryside looked beautiful and once again I regretted not having a camera to hand. As we went over the top of one hill, the landscape ahead was hidden in low early morning mist with the tree tops standing clear in the sunlight. The folds in the landscape looked like an endless procession of blue waves rolling towards us… they receded and faded into a blue haze with telephone wires gleaming silver in the morning sun. Magic.

Pau is one of those places that had its heyday back in the twenties and thirties when, before the advent of civil aviation, the rich used to rumble down there in their Bentleys or Hispano-Suizas for the winter sun. Pau also used to host a Grand Prix that was run around the streets of the town back in the era of the state-funded German works teamsMercedes Benz and Auto Union – in the thirties. It's hard to believe that the Pau's narrow streets once echoed to the shriek of these supercharged Art Deco symbols of Nazi Germany - but they did. I firmly believe that this was the Golden Era of motor racing when Europe's top drivers struggled to keep these powerful monsters on the track - and all without any of the driver aids that today's F1 drivers are used to. Traction control was called the accelerator in those days - and 'downforce' was provided by the cars' weight! The prodigious power of these cars pushed the tyres of the day to their limits.
Looking south from Pau
It had this “lost in time” feel. The road into the town centre took us through some fairly run-down areas but once we’d parked, we found our way to the old town and there the picture changed markedly.

Place Royale
The town is built on the edge of a flat-topped hill that looks south with a splendid panoramic view of the Pyrenees. Naturally enough, the chic part of Pau is on this side.. and there were some lovely old buildings and stylish apartment blocks here as well plus an old restored castle that had formerly been occupied by Henry IV. The style of building in Pau is totally different to that in the Basque country – no big white houses with overhanging roofs – here, the roofs were more steeply pitched with flat tiles - as opposed to the pantiles that are the norm on and near the coast. Henry IV was the king who, according to legend, promised to put a chicken in every pot. We found the Place Royale (above), a square that couldn’t have been in any other country but France. It was bordered by elegant old apartment buildings in pale stone, all with shuttered windows and the square itself was lined with clipped trees in rows that surrounded a raked light gravel centre with a statue of King Henry IV. In one of life's strange intersections of history, Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the assassinated US president Abraham Lincoln, lived in this square for a few years (believed to be from 1876 to 1880). 

After a light lunch we wandered through the square to a viewpoint looking south. The flower borders were full of colourful flowers (chrysanthemums according to Madame) and there were palm trees all around. There was a free funicular railway that ran hordes of pensioners (ie, people over 60)(like me) down to the bottom and back if they felt in need of more excitement than could be found in a cup of hot chocolate.. We wandered along the edge of the hill in the warm sunshine till we found a card shop. After we’d bought some cards we just sat in the sun and soaked up the sunshine.

We had a look in a few antique shops for armoires but they wanted crazy money for them. As luck would have it, there happened to be an antique fair on that very weekend – and free admittance.. There were some OK armoires there but they weren’t sufficiently well made to prise any excess funds from the vaults…

One last thing we noticed was an English estate agent had set up here with all the adverts in the window in English and French.

By this time we’d had enough excitement (!) for one day and so we set off for home. As it was the end of the month we went downstairs to pay Mme D the rent for the month and she invited us down for a drink.. (Uh-oh!)

She put out some ham on crusty bread for us while M’sieur D took hold of the whisky bottle in a firm grip. Can he pour them…! I think I had 2 of his US Marine Corps-size whiskies (equivalent to a Jereboam!). Mme D said that the ham came from her own pigs. In fact, I’d heard the odd grunting from a sty and she confirmed that they kept 2 pigs at the moment. They’re both over 200kgs each (about 450lbs or so) and they’re both due for the chop in a month… At this point Monsieur D went into graphic detail about how the job would be done. Suffice to say, it takes them about 3 days to fully finish butchering the animals. The annual killing of the pig is embedded in Basque tradition. Neighbours combine to help each other in the cold winter months and turn the day into a festive celebration. With a few drinks of course. (Pictures here - warning: many are gory)

He said that each ham (ie, leg) weighs in at around 22 kgs or almost 50lbs.. They salt the legs to turn them into ham, the blood is used to make black pudding, they make sausages from the head and… well, you don’t want me to go on, do you..?! But they use everything except the squeal.. It does sound a bit cruel to us townies but it's the harsh reality of farm living. It happens every day at an abattoir near you – except there, the numbers are measured in hundreds or thousands.

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