Tuesday, 21 December 2010

103. AVE trains

21st December 2010. It was announced during Télé Matin (France2's breakfast TV) this morning that Spain has become the European leader in high speed train technology. With the opening of the Madrid - Valencia line last Saturday, Spain's AVE High Speed Rail network now operates over 2,000km of track compared to ~1900km of TGV in France and Spain's high speed rail network is set to grow further in order to meet the target of ensuring that all major cities in Spain are no more than 4hrs from Madrid. This clip (apologies for the 'iffy' quality) shows the space age looking RENFE AVE train..

And another one:

Meanwhile, here in SW France, there is much, much, much local opposition to the further extension southwards of the French LGV (Ligne Grande Vitesse - high speed track) through the politically sensitive Pays Basque. It is planned to be completed by 2020 but a lot can happen in the intervening years. I've noted elsewhere that the Basques have an almost visceral attachment to their houses, farms, land and their 'Pays' and I don't think that the central planners in Paris have quite hoisted this fact on board. It's my guess that future opposition will take a more concrete form. The debate is far from being over.

The long term strategic vision is clearly to put in place a high speed rail network that will straddle Europe and link up all the major capitals. A laudable enough ambition you might think. However, the southern extension of the LGV through the Pays Basque will generate even greater opposition than we've seen so far. Looking at it from the point of view of those directly concerned, ask yourself the question - how will this new line benefit them? Are these the sort of people for whom a shorter rail journey to Paris is a boon?

I'm reminded of the story of the contribution to an egg and bacon breakfast from the point of view of the chicken and the pig. By providing an egg, the chicken has an interest but in providing the bacon, the pig is committed. In the case of the Pays Basque, we stand to lose far more than we'll gain.

As far as I can see, while the spread of LGVs across the map of Europe might convince our elected representatives in Paris and beyond that they are achieving something and that they are doing us a favour, the reality is that no-one here wants what they're offering. Opening up this blessed corner of France to mass tourism is not something the people here need or want. The new line will cause local property values to take yet another upward hike thus making it virtually impossible for locals to keep a foothold in their patrimoine. It's estimated that 1300 homes will be touched by the LGV. Unfortunately though, in matters like this, it's usually the "big battalions" that win the day. If anyone needs a reminder of the ties that bind the Basques to their homes, take a look at this poem by Gabriel Aresti that I featured in an earlier post.

To see the scale of the problem, here's a short clip that illustrates all too clearly the impact of the proposed new line on the tightly packed coastal belt of the Pays Basque.
I despair of reading about high speed trains in the UK. Our politicians - of all colours and persuasions - are incapable of looking further ahead than next week and investing in long term infrastructure plus they seem to lack the political will, imagination, drive and competence to bring in a major project on this scale. So far, the only winners appear to be the plump legions of rail consultants who, for years, have been making a nice living out of advising successive British governments. All that's on the table at the moment is a nebulous project to join London and Birmingham with a high speed rail link but, yes, you've guessed it, the Transport Minister has his long screwdriver out and is fiddling around the edges with the routing. The history of high speed trains in the UK makes for sorry reading. How many decades are we behind? Our current main line express trains (built 20 years ago) have been re-branded as InterCity 225.. the "225" element being its top speed in kph.. which is intended to sound faster to the long-suffering travelling public than 140mph. I know from bitter experience that trying to drink coffee on an InterCity train whilst dressed for a business meeting is not to be recommended. In contrast, the TGV is rock steady at 300kph - or 186mph - whichever you prefer. And just to drive the point home, the TGV entered service between Paris and Lyon in 1981.

PS Still no snow! Yippee! And the forecast for tomorrow (22nd) is for - you're not going to believe this - 17C!

23rd December 2010. I went to Cazenave in the centre of Bayonne yesterday afternoon for one last item for Madame's Christmas stocking.. I've mentioned Cazenave before here but each time I step over the threshold and enter what can only be described as a Temple of Chocolat I'm stopped dead in my tracks by my olfactory sensors going straight to Red Alert..! The intensity of the rich and all-pervading aroma of chocolate is astonishing. Normally, the shop is staffed by one or perhaps two ladies. Yesterday I counted five.

At Cazenave, they make their own chocolate - from cocoa beans to the finished product. The window is decorated with beautifully made items in chocolate ranging from simple castanets to sculpted boxes - made of chocolate - for filling with chocolates. If it's a box of chocolates you want, they have a range of empty boxes on display from which you select the size you want and then your assistant will fill it with the individual chocolates that you select from the range on display.

Yesterday I was there to buy a box of Marrons glacés. Once the assistant had finished filling the box she weighed it (having first weighed the empty box!) and wrote the price down for me to take to the cash desk while she automatically gift-wrapped the box. While I was paying, the charming lady at the cash desk offered me a dish of dark chocolate pastilles. I once hit the jackpot with Madame with some plain chocolate-covered Marrons glacés I'd bought in Italy but I've given up trying to find some here in France. I found an online supplier in Spain but they wanted 35€ just to post them here..
I'm reminded of one of Woody Allen's old stories. He was telling a friend that he had a new job down at the local strip club.

His friend asked, "How much a week..?"

Woody replied, "Two hunnerd bucks.."

His friend commented, "That ain't much.."

Woody sighed, "It's all I could afford..!"

I almost told that story to the lady on the cash desk in the context of a woman working at Cazenave but I decided against it - there's nothing worse than a blank look. My ability to tell a story in French isn't up to it.

I must brush up my Ferrero Rocher pyramid building skills.. the centrepiece of all diplomatic receptions... apparently (!)


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