Wednesday, 26 May 2010

63. Trois Rivières

25th May 2010. Yesterday morning I found my way down to the clubhouse of Aviron Bayonnais, the other rowing club situated in the heart of Bayonne on the Nive. I'd signed up to row on the final day of their annual Trois Rivières event during which rowers tackle the Gave, the Adour and the Nive over a 3 day period - starting with 22kms on the Saturday, then 32km (ouch!) on the Sunday, followed by the final 20km flog up and down the Nive on the Monday. Clubs from all over France were represented - the furthest having travelled from Metz, situated just a few km from the Franco-German border in the north east..! I'd only returned to rowing 2 days before with a short outing on the Saturday having had an enforced 6 month break due to a few knee problems so yesterday's outing was still by way of a refresher (ahem!).

The club was a hive of activity as the rowers gathered together and boats were prepared to be put in the water. There must have been 20 or 30 'fours' and the chaos at the start was in true anarchic French style! The two of us from my club were teamed up with a couple from Avignon and it worked quite well.
While I really enjoy rowing on the wide open spaces of the mighty Adour (above), it has to be said that the winding Nive (below) is far more picturesque.. The town of Bayonne is built around the confluence of the two rivers.
This chap has the right idea..!
We did about 20km in the scorching heat (three times the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race distance) - think it must have been about 25C or more - and I finished up ab-so-lute-ly whacked from the heat and with blisters all over my unhardened hands.. I think I may have been overly ambitious for my come-back row! But fortunately - France being France - things didn't stop there..!
After pulling all the boats back out of the water and rinsing them off, we returned to the clubhouse for a welcome shower and change and then it was upstairs to the stylish bar/restaurant (below) that overlooked the river.. for an 'apero'.. (that's Bayonne Cathedral in the background) This was the first time I'd been in a rowing club anywhere where there was a dedicated bar just for serving champagne.. in addition to the more usual bar.
The first cold beer was a life-saver.. so I had a couple more just to be on the safe side.. After a short speech by Gérard (le très génial responsable), who'd organised everything all so well, a Basque male voice choir sang some stirring Basque songs which had us all on our feet and then it was time for another apero which the club offered to all 120 of us - champagne..! (only in France!) Then the serious business of the day started - it was time to eat. Between courses, the choir kept us entertained with some more marvellous singing and all too soon it was 3.30 and time to disperse..

I'm still shattered.. I'm supposed to be rowing again this evening but I still haven't decided on that yet..

Sunday, 23 May 2010

62. Summer's here

23rd May 2010. Up early (just after 6am) to savour the peace and quiet of a summer's morning. The window is wide open, the birds are tweeting, a church bell in town is calling the faithful to church and the early morning shadows are slowly sinking down the walls of the big white Basque house across the avenue as the sun climbs up. It's going to be a hot one today.  

I went down to the rowing club yesterday for an outing for the first time in 6 months. It wasn't a long outing - I'd guess only about 8-9k - but as far as my knees were concerned, it went fine. That is, apart from when we returned to the pontoon and I couldn't stand up in the boat to get out! I had to flop out in an undignified heap! We opened up the bar afterwards for an apéro to mark my return.. Some things don't change! It was good to see them all again. Tomorrow I'm signed up for the final day of the Trois Rivieres event organised by the other rowing club in Bayonne - Aviron Bayonnais.

Four of us from our club are going to take a 'yolette' for a 20k row up the Nive as far as Ustaritz. It's my old cycling route so at least I'll know where we are in terms of how much more pain to go.. And, of course, being France, all this will be followed by a 'pot' from midday to 1pm and then lunch till 3pm.. then a wobbly ride home on my bike..

Speaking of which, Madame and I went out this morning on our bikes up the Nive.. With it being such a beautiful morning, all of Bayonne was out there.. There were quite a few boats out on the slow moving green waters of the river too - single sculls, pair scullers, fours and a couple of eights.. in perfect weather. It wasn't all confined to the river - it was also happening on the towpath - there were trendy mamans on  inline skates swishing along at high speed with their babes in hi-tech push chairs, Mums & Dads & offspring various on bikes of all sizes.. walkers, power walkers, joggers, every variety of cyclist, fishermen, etc etc.

I've been reading up on Le Réseau Comète (known as the Comet Line in English) which was set up by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman. She established a network that helped hundreds of Allied soldiers and airmen to escape, evade and return safely to the UK. It stretched from Belgium in the north, down through occupied France, over the Pyrenees to Spain and hence to Gibraltar and home. By sheer coincidence, Villa Voisin, one of the safe houses at the south western end of the line in France, is in Anglet which is but a 5 minutes car ride from Piperade Towers and I'll be taking a look at it very shortly.. There were two other safe houses in Bayonne and I'll be looking at those too.

The safe houses in the Pays Basque at the south western end of the Comet Line are shown here:
It struck me forcibly this morning that I wouldn't be experiencing the pleasure of living down here in my retirement were it not for the heroism of those involved in the Comet Line. It would have been all too easy for them to have kept their heads down and just got on with daily life as many chose to. Choosing active participation in the Resistance was an extremely fraught occupation and the penalty for being caught was the absolute certainty of being subjected to barbaric methods of interrogation and punishment of the kind last seen in Europe in medieval times. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the courage of those unsung heroes who stepped forward to fight tyranny when it became a reality in their own country. To all those brave men and women of the Resistance who died lonely deaths in nameless cellars across Europe - we owe an eternal debt of gratitude. 

Sunday, 16 May 2010

61. Tourist week

15th May 2010. This week, we had M here for a few days. She's an old friend of Madame's and our first visitor of the year. After the unexpected heat of April (up to 28), the clouds and rain returned and the temps dropped down to 10-12C.. Brrr! We thought M was going to be in for a rough time but the weather gods smiled on her as the skies cleared and on Monday last it was 24.. We gave her our patented lightning 2 day tour of the Pays Basque.. On Monday morning I showed her around the narrow winding streets of Bayonne while Madame was at her painting class. As M's yet another fully paid up member of the Chocaholique Club.. (show me a woman who isn't!) I thought I'd take her to the legendary établissement Cazenave under the arcades in the Rue Port Neuf for a hot chocolat à l'ancienne served in porcelain de Limoges. But, I'd forgotten it was Monday and, like quite a few other shops in town, it was closed. This is what she missed:

Cazenave make their own chocolate and it is really the Rolls Royce of chocolate.

We ended up having a cappucino here - sitting outside the Hotel de Ville in the sunshine.
Following this, we wandered through the quiet Monday morning streets of town, stopping only at the cathedral where we walked around its ancient honeyed stone cloisters before returning home for lunch.. In the afternoon we drove down to St Jean de Luz where someone had clearly just opened a fresh box of pensioners as the streets were full of strolling baby boomers.. We must have reduced the average age of people in town by 10 years.. (maybe!)
The clock was ticking and so we upped sticks and moved up the coast to Biarritz. Walking along the promenade the temperature must have been around 24 at least.. it felt like summer was with us again.

The next day we headed inland under grey skies (ouf!) to show M some of the delights of the Pays Basque such as St Etienne de Baigorry, St Jean Pied de Port and Ainhoa (one of the most beautiful villages in all of France). St Jean Pied de Port is on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain. After walking through the timeless streets of St Jean Pied de Port, M was kind enough to treat us to lunch at the Hotel Ramuntcho. This is a classic French family-run restaurant and the reasonably priced lunch was delicious. After this we set off for the valley of Les Aldudes (which I've mentioned before). Unfortunately, it was still quite misty up there and the true splendour of the mountain scenery was largely hidden. Ainhoa was next and it's a village which, at the height of the season, is an absolute tourist honey-pot. It's almost a stone's throw from the Spanish border and it seems a long way from Calais! We found an old cafe that looked as if it hadn't been altered for 100 years and had a coffee and found space for a piece of gâteau basque.

Here's a classic track from Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton. I don't think she got the recognition her voice deserved.. her voice is pitch perfect and has a clarity all of its own.