Wednesday, 30 June 2010

67. Anniversaries

29th June 2010. I think someone was trying to tell us something..! Today we planned to have lunch out to celebrate a major marital milestone.. This clip is more or less how we met!
We thought we'd try one of our favourites - Bar Jean in Biarritz (mentioned before here) - as the seafood there is always good - and fresh - and there's always a vibrant atmosphere..

However, when we arrived outside, despite 1st July being only days away (start of French holiday season) it was unaccountably closed.
Plan B clicked instantly into action.. This entailed a quick trip down to St Jean de Luz to the open air cafe that operates adjacent to the covered market there - but only when the market has finished for the morning. Again, seafood as fresh as can be - never had a bad meal there and it's great for people watching. Horrors! At 12.55 the market was still in full swing and no sign of his tables and chairs being set out..

No worries - Plan C was launched. This was to try Chez Pantxua in Socoa - just the other side of the bay.. the seafood is the best in the region (IMHO) and there is a fine selection of Basque art (inc. work by the noted Ramiro Arrue) on the walls inside:
Ten minutes later we were staring disbelievingly at the row of restaurants at Socoa - one of which was closed. No prizes for guessing which! 

We looked at all the menus from its neighbouring restaurants before finally settling on one establishment. (no names!). We were shown to a table outside in the welcome shade and there were 2 menus on the table. Within a few minutes we'd decided what we wanted - Madame's selection was gambas followed by lotte (monkfish) while I chose the salade Landaise and the paella - and then we waited and waited for someone to come and take our order. Finally, a waitress turned up. Oh, it turned out that the lotte was off - no more left - so Madame asked for the sole. Also off! So she chose the fish soup. We sat and waited again. And waited some more. The waitress didn't return to ask if we'd like an apero - which we would have liked - nor did she return to put some water or bread on the table. Everything was telling me that we should just get up and leave.. I don't make a habit of this - in fact, I don't think we've ever done it but this time I was getting more and more agitated.. Finally we managed to catch the eye of another waitress to ask for a wine list.. and to order some aperos while we were at it - a kir for Madame and a pastis for me. Ten minutes later, she returned with 2 kirs. Ye godfathers..

When the food arrived, it went from bad to worse.. my salade Landaise was awash in almost neat olive oil; Madame's gambas floated in an oily sauce that BP would have been proud of; her fish soup was watery and my paella was sponsored by BP as well.. Without boring you with all the details, suffice to say that, for the rest of the day, we both felt rotten. What was that about the best laid plans of mice and men..? This was the first time - in 3 years of living in France and in 20 years of visiting the region - that we've had this kind of experience. All we can think is that perhaps the restaurant in question had recruited unsuitable staff for the season.

30th June 2010. While Madame was in town, I decided (perhaps not 100% true!) that the windows needed cleaning; the stairs, the living room and the dining room carpets needed vacuuming; the front path needed sweeping and the dining table needed waxing (I threw the last one in as a freebie).. I worked myself into a lather in the morning heat accompanied by this playing in the background: 
More music for a summer's day:
1st July 2010. Up early this morning - swimming things on - and down to the beach at Anglet before the sun climbed up too high. We stayed there for 1½hrs and very pleasant it was too. I'd recently started re-reading Peter Mayle's "Hotel Pastis" again, his amusing and enjoyable tale about an adman opening a hotel in the Luberon, and I finished it there on the beach this morning. In re-reading the book, I was reminded of the sheer awfulness of the BBC TV series "A Year in Provence" with the late John Thaw in the lead role. I watched about 5 minutes of it once when it was first transmitted in 1993 before switching it off. I can only imagine how Peter Mayle must have cringed and squirmed with embarrassment when presented with such a steaming and odiferous adaptation of his work. This was banal television at its most banal. And while never a fan of the curmudgeonly John Thaw, his selection for the Peter Mayle role was a piece of mis-casting on a truly epic scale. Fine in other roles but definitely not this one. The series is available on YouTube.. I tried watching it again just now and it's still every bit as turgid as I remembered. It has every cliché in the book.. The first scene in France is accompanied by... guess? An accordion playing in the background and cicadas..? Well done! How the humour and deftness of touch of this genuinely funny and enjoyable book was transformed by the dead hand of the BBC into this 33 carat dross remains one of life's little mysteries. Watch it and weep.. (Edited to add: It looks like someone has had a rush of common sense to the head because the video seems to have been removed. Phew!)
A mega-yacht belonging to one of the world's mega rich was moored at the bottom of the road this morning. It's the very distinctive-looking "Skat" - it comes with its own colour co-ordinated helicopter (natch!) - and it belongs to an extremely wealthy former Microsoft software engineer (is there any other kind?). All that money from ones and noughts - I guess the tricky bit is putting them in the right order..! 
This was a few evenings ago down on the beach at Anglet looking west:
And finally, a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G-Major (I-Allegro) on a Moog synthesiser.. (pity this is ingrained into everyone's memory as the old "Antiques Roadshow" intro..) I prefer this version:

However, for the traditionalists, here's the same piece played on conventional stringed instruments:
So - which one does it for you?

Monday, 28 June 2010

66. Provence & the Jura

22nd June 2010. Back home on Sunday evening after what seems like weeks away. Phew.. We'd planned a four legged journey (a 3 stop strategy in Formula 1 terms!) around France to take in the Perpignan area, the Luberon and the Jura. 

We'd planned to stop off first for a night with Madame's brother, O and his wife F, who were taking a early summer break in a beachfront apartment at Le Barcares (circled at right on the map), which is on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Narbonne and Perpignan. Driving across SW France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, on the northern side of the Pyrenees, the landscape changed subtly as the blood-red Basque houses slowly thinned out to be replaced by apricot-washed houses which started appearing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as those towering dark green cypresses beloved of Van Gogh.
As we neared the Mediterranean, Carcassonne suddenly appeared off to the left looking like nothing less than a complete medieval town teleported into the 21st century. Another place that we must visit. 
Le Barcares is one of those purpose-built family holiday resorts with rows of apartment blocks along the sea front in that peculiarly French ziggurat-style. As it was mid-June (ie, outside school holidays), we weren't plagued by hordes of kids. The majority of tourists were baby boomers from all over Europe - many of them in camper vans. After we arrived, we took the dog for a welcome leg-stretch along the beach in the late afternoon sunshine. It was retiree country alright.. silver haired power walkers and cyclists abounded! And then we spotted the wagon train of Camper vans which were circled up on a sea front car park. There's clearly a parallel universe of baby boomers who have dropped everything to travel and move around Europe - and didn't they look a happy and contented crowd! 

Back at the apartment, we sat out on the terrace and started off the evening with a couple of ouzos (yes, I ignored the warning klaxon!) before moving on to the red infuriator with our dinner..

Needless to say, the next morning I felt more than a tad fragile.. so I got up early and took the dog out for a run along the beach. It was already quite hot at 8am.. and the breakfasts were in full swing among the camper vans. Multi-national sun-tanned retirees sat at small tables outside their campers - from the small Brit contingent, the unmistakeable smell of fried bacon drifted slowly across while the rest of the EU were downing coffee and croissants.

After a spot of breakfast, we set off towards Provence (which I'd not visited before) where we'd booked a nice country hotel outside Apt for a few days. During the drive up from Le Barcares to Apt I had the cruise control set at 130kph.. and after a while I was aware that something was extremely familiar.. After puzzling with this for a few minutes, I suddenly realised the car engine was turning over at exactly 2175rpm. "So what?" I hear you thinking.. Well, I spent 7 years in the seventies sat between 4 Rolls-Royce supercharged V-12 piston aero engines which we operated at - you've guessed it - 2175rpm.. Funny how a sound or a vibration can trigger old memories. (Like, for example, the story of our resident USAF exchange officer who had so many medals on his dress uniform that he was instantly christened "Magnetic North".)  
This was my first visit to the Luberon.. and it was Peter Mayle territory par excellence. His books about France, and more specifically Provence/Luberon, have consistently entertained several generations of Francophiles. I was relieved to find that he hadn't exaggerated its virtues at all. Between the low hills the valley floor was intensively cultivated in a cross-hatched tableau of small fields - there were numerous cherry orchards heavy with fruit, olive groves, vines (with roses planted at the end of each run) and almonds.

We explored all the local villages.. some of them impossibly picturesque. The landscape was studded with tall cypress trees and was pure Van Gogh.. We had one day of heavy downpour which caused severe flooding and several deaths in the Var down to the south east.. but we were well out of it. We had lunch at a riverside restaurant at Isle sur la Sorgue* (right) before we finally found Lourmarin** which was a real little jewel.. almost like a stage set. We had a great lunch there too (at the cafe in the centre of the pic below) - rabbit in mustard sauce with pommes dauphinois.. really memorable..
* reading Keith Floyd's obit earlier I was surprised to discover that he once ran a restaurant in Isle sur la Sorgue..! 
**edited to add: Peter Mayle is now quoted as living in Lourmarin..

Van Gogh nailed the look of the Provençal landscape exactly with his ink sketch of the fields cultivated like a patchwork quilt:
There's something about these oh-so-typical tree-lined French roads that makes you want to stop what you're doing and jump in your car and drive and drive..
This picture though reminds me of one summer in the mid-90s when we'd broken our journey southwards in Paris en route to the Pays Basque. The next morning I had the Mother Of All Headaches (please - no sympathy!) as I discovered that whisky does not a good aperitif make. We set off at around 8.30am with a long, hot 8-9 hr drive looming ahead of us. Despite trying to drown it with the best part of a litre of Evian, the MOAH refused to budge and it felt like my frontal lobes were tied firmly in a reef knot. As we were passing Poitiers we decided - meaning me - that we had to stop to have some lunch in the hope that this might dislodge the incessant pounding in my head. We turned off the autoroute at the next exit and followed our nose to the nearest village. There wasn't a soul on the main street (it was lunchtime) as we cruised slowly along looking for salvation. We spotted the only restaurant in the village and its fixed price lunch was about 110frs (£10-11 at the time).

We sat down and everything happened in that wonderfully pre-ordained way that lets you know that one, you're happily back in France and that two, you are about to enjoy an extremely pleasant experience.. I remember the main course was Lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes) - a Pipérade favourite - and I think we might have had a glass or two of wine with it. By the time the coffee arrived, I felt completely restored and able to continue driving. (Note to the reader with the raised eyebrow: I'm not a wino!) 

Back to the present! We then headed off up to Dole (right) in the Jura region for a few days with S, Madame's auntie. We were lucky enough to be present at her memorable 50th wedding anniversary celebrations (described earlier in Post #34) in 1996..

One day, the three of us visited M, one of Madame's cousins in Belfort (equidistant from the German and Swiss border) where we had an unforgettable lunch with them there too (sounds like all we were doing was eating!)..(you'd be right!). M's husband B offered us some great wine - champagne to start with, then a wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé followed by a noble Gevrey-Chambertin. He then produced some unlabelled bottles with the coffee (muted submarine klaxon!).. the label on the one I tried said Prune - but it was 100% rocket fuel.. (ouch!) He toasted "ze Royal Air Force".. it being the 18th June (a big day for France as it was the 70th anniversary of De Gaulle's famous speech on the BBC - "We have lost a battle but not the war.."). We then drove back to Dole..(!)

The following day we returned to Bayonne - a comfortable 850km in a day. We went via Clermont Ferrand on the A89 - a spectacular new motorway - v modern bridges & viaducts.. amazing.

On opening the mailbox on our return I found a missive from the UK Inland Revenue.. advising me that I'd underpaid tax by - wait for it - a massive 13p.. Wonder if they'll accept instalments..! 

(For those interested in such things, we did ~2,700km and the car returned an average of 5.4l/100km or 53mpg. Which I think is pretty good. Plus my knees didn't suffer!)

25th June 2010. We went to Biarritz this afternoon and the holiday season has started.. the beach was crowded with all kinds of delights..!

28th June 2010. Late notice..!! The legendary Fête de San Fermin 2010 in Pamplona (just over the border from Bayonne) is from 6-14th July 2010. Fashion tip: if you go and you're contemplating running with the bulls, forget the white pants - pack a brown pair! (explanation below) And if you need a reminder of what it's all about, click on this short clip:
There was a famous American naval captain of the war of 1812 who, when his ship went into battle, always wore a red shirt so that, if he was seriously wounded, his men would not see the blood and become demoralised. So now you know why I said pack a brown pair..

This last pic is enough to put you off surfing - for life!

PS This blog is a World Cup-free zone.. Aren't you glad! 

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

65. All Quiet On The South Western Front

8th June 2010. Another trip away coming up at the weekend. Off to link up with Madame's brother who's renting a place near Perpignan for a few weeks then we're going to take a leisurely swing through the south of France. It's the first real break we've had in 5 years or so and we've planned an itinerary that sounds wonderful. We'll then continue on up to the Jura region to see Madame's last remaining auntie and uncle there and also a cousin in Belfort before returning to the south west..

10th June 2010. Something just reminded me of this song by Syreeta.. it's another one of those songs that will stay in your head all day..
To finish up with, some atmospheric 'bluesy' slide guitar - "Feelin' bad blues" - by Ry Cooder (from the film "Crossroads"):

Saturday, 5 June 2010

64. Northern France

3rd June 2010. Back home again after a long weekend away. Last Friday we drove up to Rouen - some 840-odd kms away - in northern France for a reunion weekend with Madame's former colleagues from her old school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

The plan was for everyone to meet up outside the Tourist Office (below) at 10am on the Saturday so, as we'd arrived in good time on the Friday, we had plenty of time after breakfast to wander around the old half-timbered centre of Rouen:

We met up with our party at the appointed hour and of course the first item on the agenda was a spirited round of cheek-kissing (for the nanas) and hand-shaking (for the mecs!)..

As we saw it..

..& as Monet saw it.
We started off with a guided tour of the cathedral  - and I was pleased to find I was able to follow our guide's commentary without too much difficulty. While she was an enthusiastic fount of historical and architectural knowledge, I'm ashamed to admit that after a while I felt my eyes start to glaze over and my mind wander and, looking around, I'm happy to report that I wasn't the only one!

Lunch couldn't come soon enough and we found ourselves in a fifties retro restaurant - well chosen by the organisers.  

In the afternoon we visited the Church of St Jeanne d'Arc, who remains an extremely potent symbol in France. At moments of high domestic tension, Madame will occasionally remind me of the fact that Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake by the English (aka my cue to wind my neck in!). The brutal architecture of the church falls into the category of Love it or Hate it. Resembling nothing more than some vast grey slate-covered armadillo, it sprawls across the ancient market square in true shock-horror style (maybe that's the point) and to me it's a clumsy attempt to symbolise in stone the funeral pyre. I found the architecture of the building too intrusive, too self-conscious. This is the kindest photo I can find of it (others here):
Eglise Ste Jeanne d'Arc

In the evening we had dinner at an excellent restaurant in the market square and after that bed couldn't come soon enough!

On Sunday morning we visited a well restored old church before lunch beckoned.. Tiring all this culture! Finally we visited the Museum of Wrought Iron in Rouen which was truly fascinating.. The others all left at this point to return home while we stayed an extra night as we were heading down on the Monday to La Bernerie en Retz which lies on the coast to the south west of Nantes to stay with our friends A & J-C for a couple of nights.. We had some great walks along the sea shore and around Pornic which is just a few kms up the coast. By now we were missing our pooch and we were also missing home.
We set off for Bayonne on Wednesday. It's always a pleasure to be heading south when we're going home instead of that depressing drive up to Calais and beyond! We stopped off at the kennel to pick up Chibby (our cocker spaniel) who was beside himself to see us again.. No surprises there! 

4th June 2010. Our tame saxophonist is back in town.. He looks pretty cool as he stands there on a corner with his battered sax and his straw hat opposite the War Memorial playing the same little riff ad infinitum. I think if I lived in the flats above him I'd be going mental though as he doesn't seem to tire of endlessly playing his limited 15 second repertoire.. 

5th June 2010. Down to the rowing club this morning for an outing. I think we did about 10-12km on a pretty hot morning so I was glad to return to the pontoon. There's a new girl member at the club - from Brazil - and she offered us all a Brazilian cocktail known as a Caipirinha:

Her recipe calls for this fresh, exotic cocktail to be made with cachaça*, sugar cane syrup, a mint leaf and crushed limes, served over ice. It is always muddled (crushed with a masher or the blunt end of a wooden spoon). In this clip, they use sugar instead of sugar cane syrup but no mint leaf.. I liked it the way I had it - with the mint leaf - but I'm open to offers!
Intriguing taste - sweet, sour, bitter all at the same time and excellent for quenching the thirst on a hot day.. The second one tastes even better! It's a loong time since I've enjoyed a drink as much as this one. Note to self: remember to buy some cachaça when next in Spain..

* Brazilian rum made from sugar cane.