Tuesday, 31 August 2010

82. Clock's ticking..

31st August 2010. I can't believe I started this blog a year ago.. I've decided I'm going make space for a daily Song of the Day. (I might do requests too!) This is the first one:

The clock is ticking faster than ever as far as the forthcoming commemorative march (English translation here) over the Pyrenees is concerned - it's now only 10 days away. This is the annual event that re-traces the actual trail over the Pyrenees (from Urrugne to Renteria) used by the Comet Line in helping escaping Allied aircrew en route to Spain. Its purpose is to honour and celebrate the memory of those brave men & women who supported the Comet Line (English translation here) - many of whom lost their lives in the process. It's a three day event - with vins d'honneur at town halls various, dinners in the evenings and of course the little matter of the marches over the hills!

1st September 2010. We have been in the Pays Basque three years today. Here's a song (a perennial favourite at weddings) that was made for the day..

Thursday, 26 August 2010

81. The heat kicks in..

24th August 2010. Had a good outing in a double sculler (first time for me) this evening and finished up racing the VIII over the final 2km back to the clubhouse.. (we won!) 12km (Running total 78km). I'm still steaming!

25th August 2010. Today promises to be a hot one - the forecast is for 32°.. which is on the high side for the Pays Basque. This is as hot as I ever want it. This morning we drove down to the south of St Jean de Luz to pick up some tiles following which we headed for St Jean de Luz for lunch. We'd planned to go to our favourite cafe outside the indoor market and have some sardines. However, with it being August the world and his dog were already cruising for parking spaces which were at a premium.. We visited all our usual 'bankers' to no avail but then the Parking Gods smiled at us and we found a space up by the beach. The lapis lazuli sea in the bay was limpid and flat calm. By the time we got to the cafe, the only free table was unshaded. Looking back, we should really have gone home to try another day but we sat down and within minutes we both felt as if we were being slowly grilled.

26th August 2010. The forecast today is for 35.. We're off to the beach early this morning for a couple of hours before it gets too hot. Rowing this evening could prove interesting..!

14km on the river in a coxless quad sculler this evening (including a head-on with a double sculler..!) 92km total. It was as forecast today - 35 in St Jean de Luz this morning.. and it's very warm and muggy this evening..

28th August 2010. Had a reasonably solid outing in an VIII this morning.. did 15km. (Running total: 107km) Think it would be a good idea and helpful to all if the club produced coaching notes (with pictures) so that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet. People would then know what's expected of them. I'll have to see if I can suggest it tactfully.

The things you find out - in addition to all the other facilities (like a Top 14 rugby club, an excellent restaurant, champagne bar et al) the club has its own TV channel..! Last weekend there was an Open Day on the Sunday for all those interested in taking up rowing. The boats used for this are known as yolettes and, being fairly heavy and beamy, are only really for beginners.

There will be those "out there" who'd say that a Welsh male voice choir is at least a match for the sonority and resonance of a Basque choir and this view will be amply supported by this clip of the Morriston Orpheus Choir and "Myfanwy":
I believe that the above images are from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales which provided the inspiration for many of the lyrical poems of Dylan Thomas.

29th August 2010. It's a long time since Chibby, our cocker spaniel, has featured and so here he is , in his favourite position yesterday, putting his feet up on a warm Sunday afternoon:
Think he deserves another shot at global fame (!) so here he is again in perhaps a more recognisable pose!
30th August 2010. We went for a bike ride up the Nive this morning. Perfect morning.. apart from my chain coming off again.. Did 20km up to the footbridge at Villefranque.    

Monday, 23 August 2010

80. Biarritz behind the beaches

21st August 2010. Did 15km on the river this morning in a quad sculler.. (Running total: 66km)

Each time we make the short trip to Biarritz (10-15 mins away) we thank our lucky stars that we actually live down here. We were there just a couple of days ago and as we approached the sea front the light became dazzling as it reflected off the white painted Art Deco buildings. We tried to think of other towns that are similar but we weren't able to come up with one. It has its own unique distinctive style and atmosphere. Biarritz is alive and well all round the year..

To give you an idea of what the town behind the beaches looks like, I've raided the web to try and find some images that capture the life of the town.. I've also included some houses in Biarritz - just to look at as the prices there are wince-making. Ease the pain with this stirring Basque choir while you're looking at the pics. Now I don't know if you appreciate male voice choirs but if this singing doesn't send a shiver through you, I suggest you should check your pulse! (to make sure you've still got one!) Beautiful singing and harmonies.. 

The former station - la gare du Midi
Here's a familiar view of the town centre (from just above the Casino), showing the Galeries Lafayette department store (or Biarritz-Bonheur as it's known locally):
Avenue Edouard VII (for mega-bucks shopping!)
Rue Mazagran
Casino Municipal 

centre de congrès, la place Bellevue, Biarritz
22nd August 2010. We went for a bike ride up the Adour as far as Villefranque (~20km altogether) this morning before the sun climbed too high.. Lots of people out jogging, cycling, roller-blading, walking. At one point the chain on my bike came off and wedged itself firmly between the frame and the nearest gear-wheel. I was looking at it and trying to work out a way of freeing it that would minimise the transfer of oil & gunge to my hands when a French couple out on their bikes stopped. She asked if her husband could help? Quick as a flash, he reached down, took hold of the chain, heaved it out of the jam it was in and put it back where it should be.. Voila! What a gent..!   
Some bijou residences..
Slideshow here..

This evening the thermometer on the terrace showed 33°C in the shade at 7.30pm.. Phew..!

The centre of Bayonne has been reverberating and echoing all weekend with the sound of multiple Ferrari V-12s running around town.. What magic do Ferrari work on their engines to make them sound so musical?

While I was waiting to cross the road by the Place des Basques, a young lad on a Solex moped next to me was looking wistfully at the pack of Ferraris across the road - none of them taller than a dining table - and he asked me what it was all about.

I told him it was 25€ for a ride in one.

He said, "How long do they let you drive it for..?"

He looked downcast when I explained it was a ride in the passenger seat only..  

Thursday, 19 August 2010

79. The brown brown grass of home

16th August 2010. I've been trying to encourage the lawn in our garden to grow green and weed-free for the past few years but I'm starting to wonder if I'm flogging a dead horse. After a long hot rain-free summer, the 'lawn' is definitely bien cuite.. ie, burnt brown and patchy, despite raising the height of the cut on the lawn mower. After weeks of baking heat with no rain - just the odd shower - we had a torrential downpour at 6am on Sunday morning that was so loud it sounded as though the house was being driven through a car wash. But it was a case of too much too late - the damage had already been done. Needless to say, I'm going to have to try again. There must surely be a variety of grass that can tolerate the climate here.

This evening we walked over to the beautifully landscaped gardens that have been laid out in and around the old ramparts surrounding Bayonne. It was so pleasant to sit there on a warm evening (25C in the shade when we returned home) almost in the heart of Bayonne and yet be in such a peaceful setting.  There's clearly an enlightened council at work here.

17th August 2010. This morning I finally loaded up the car with all the junk from the cellar and took it to the nearby déchetterie on the banks of the Adour.

Whilst there, I spotted a nice wooden winebox that had contained Château Plantey 'Pauillac' that somehow jumped into the back of my car.. I must admit to collecting these (below) and it seems I'm not alone!

Rowed this evening.. had a good outing in an VIII. Did 15km.. (Running total: 41km)

18th August 2010. We went for a bike ride this morning along the Adour as far as Villefranque. It must be almost 20km there and back. It seems only a few months ago that the first shoots of corn started poking through and now the fields are a good 8 feet high with a rustling mass of corn stalks, and I believe the corn is destined for animal feed.

19th August 2010. Arriving at the rowing club this evening I spotted the team coach for the Agen rugby club who play Bayonne tomorrow parked outside the hotel nearby. And as I was walking away from the club after the outing, I noticed 5 massively built South Sea islanders with their Easter Island profiles in their Agen t-shirts strolling along the river bank.. It's not until you see the new generation of rugby players that you realise just how big they are. And as for trying to stop one with the ball running at you..

Very warm out on the river this evening.. went out in a quad sculler and did 10km (Running total: 51km) 

Friday, 13 August 2010

78. Sounds of old Europe

That old street organ I heard the other day set me thinking about the cimbalom, another musical instrument that must surely be high on the endangered species list. What exactly is a cimbalom? According to Wiki, it's "a concert hammered dulcimer: a type of chordophone composed of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top". Got that..? No? I didn't think you did..! On the basis that a picture's worth a thousand words, here's a picture..

From the first time I heard one, its jangling strings resonated with me and I felt a nostalgia for the older European musical traditions (Magyar, Yiddish, gypsy) of our folk memory that are now virtually lost to the present generation. (Lady Gaga just doesn't come close!)
The sound of one always puts me in mind of the film noir genre that would invariably have the ultra sinister-looking Vladek Sheybal (below) cast as the softly-spoken bad guy - complete with cigarette holder of course..
Vlad the Impaler..
I've been a fan of the sound of the cimbalom since I was introduced to it during the course of a memorable visit to the legendary Le Grand Mayeur, the Russian/Hungarian taverne/restaurant, now sadly defunct, in Brussels. Here's the short video that tells the story of a much-loved Brussels institution:

Located in the Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels, Le Grand Mayeur was housed in a tall building (of 3 or 4 storeys) and the centre of each floor had been removed - making 3 mezzanine floors - so from the ground floor there was an uninterrupted view all the way up to the roof. It was candle-lit and, upon entering, there was a sense that this was a different world to the workaday Brussels outside. A gypsy orchestra consisting of a singer accompanied by a cimbalom, balalaika, guitar, piano, violin & bass provided the magic..

Le Grand 
Thé Slav
I think the bulk of the clientele must have originated from the backroom staff of many of the Central and Eastern European embassies based in Brussels - judging by the number of ill-fitting grey suits when I visited Le Grand Mayeur. One of the specialities of the house was Thé Slav - which was tea with Slivovitz or shoe polish (I was never quite sure which). The first indication that things were about to look up, or take a turn for the worse - or both - came the moment when the waitress served me with a glass cup of Thé Slav - pausing only to light it with a sudden whoof! The trick was to drink it before the flickering blue flame heated the rim of the glass sufficiently for it to bond directly to skin - as in lips! Drinking one felt like the blood in one's veins had been instantly replaced by 130 octane aviation fuel.. If the first cup tasted strong and removed all capacity for rational thought, the second scrambled all motor functions but curiously enabled you to understand Polish☺. So, a useful drink then.. The repertoire of the lively gypsy singer consisted of old folk songs which she sang in at least 5 or 6 central European languages, but somehow the enthusiastic cosmopolitan audience knew all the words, and after a Thé Slav or two, I found I did too..

That old favourite of mine - "Dark Eyes" - sounds very "listenable to" when played on the cimbalom:
Some of the characters from Le Grand Mayeur..

This clip captures all the eerie echoing sound of the cimbalom that seems to speak to us from another time and another place:
Places like Le Grand Mayeur are few and far between. It seems bizarre that one had to visit a restaurant to discover that we shared a common folk heritage with our European neighbours. Le Grand Mayeur was far more than just "a nice restaurant with a band" - it reminded us that, whatever our nationality, we are all part of that broad river of humanity. Alas, for all of us, its doors have closed for the last time..
You may be excused for thinking that what started out as a look at the cimbalom has turned into a tribute to Le Grand Mayeur.. You'd be right! So here, finally, is a last glimpse of it as it really was:
By the way, if anyone knows how to make Thé Slav, I'd be curious to find out. If you'd like to tell me, use the comment form below. Thanks!  

Sunday, 8 August 2010

77. Blast from the past

8th August 2010. I thought I'd take the dog for an early morning walk while it was still cool to his favourite Place des Basques - a grassy tree-lined square on the edge of the town centre - where he can go loose. We were walking down the big avenue that's lined with apartment buildings on one side which leads to the Place when I thought I heard in the distance the distinctive sound of a street organ. I suddenly realised that the mellifluous tones weren't coming from a radio somewhere but from the genuine article. This was the first time I've heard one of these in years and it was being pulled along the road surface by a father and son team.. (straight out of a 60s Italian film - except they were probably East Europeans) Mounted on rubber tyres, it was about the same size as the one in the clip below and it sounded very similar.. Pops was cranking the handle and Junior was holding out a tin cup to catch any centimes that might be thrown down from the balconies..
At just after 9am on a Sunday morning, I thought they were being just a tad optimistic in trying to generate some interest and a few euros from the still-shuttered apartment blocks. I doubt if many people would be up and about and the only people out on the streets were a few dog-walkers like me or those in search of a fresh croissant or baguette. I think the penny suddenly dropped with him too for he suddenly stopped the music in mid-crank and they headed back towards town.  

I'd like to have filmed the two of them as it was a real sound from an age gone by..

For the last few evenings we've had to endure the sound of bullfights from Les Arènes (just a few hundred metres away) - the stupid music, the whistles, the applause and the jeers.. I don't understand how, in an otherwise civilised society, the State can continue to sanction the practice of this degrading and cruel activity within its territory in the 21st century. And, to add further insult to injury, the bull ring is part-financed from our local taxes.

If bull-fighting is to continue, then this is the sort of level playing field I'd like to see a lot more of. In my view (and you may have your own opinion) these spectators got exactly what they deserved:

Saturday, 7 August 2010

76. The old boy's knackered..

5th August 2010. Taking a break from the Do-It-Yourself job from Hell..! I've been down in the cellar for days now brushing the dust & cobwebs of decades off the wooden beams prior to slapping some toxic gunge on them.. It's not helped by the fact that I can't stand upright either - think there's less than 6ft (1.83m) of headroom down there. I can hardly breathe for dust and I've been wearing a mask which doesn't help either in this heat.. Worst job I've ever done.. but I've only got 4 beams left to do.. I'll be glad when it's finished..

With yet another of those songs that will continue to play in your head all day long after the clip has stopped - here's Jeanne Moreau singing "that" song in François Truffaut's "Jules et Jim".. (1962)
English lyrics here

That wonderful clip (Post #73) of Paris viewed from the air opens with a snatch of a Piaf song ("Sous le ciel de Paris") that's been on my mind while I've been toiling in the cellar..! Here it is in full:

I've decided I'm going to keep a cumulative total of the kilometers I've rowed.. (for my own benefit) Tonight's was 12km. (and it feels like it!)

7th August 2010. 14km this morning... (total 26km).

Monday, 2 August 2010

75. Step right this way for the green blobs..

29th July 2010. Give your 'O' Level French a free work-out (the things I do for you!) with this chart that shows which departments in France are the winners and which are the losers in terms of their residential values.. If you're feeling brave, try the source article. More here. If you can't manage the French, the colours in the link tells the story.. No surprises there.. the south and west coasts remain popular.

We've experienced the Fete de Bayonne a few times now so this year we've decided that we're going to escape from it by going east up into the mountains at the weekend. While there, we're planning on taking a trip on Le Petit Train d'Artouste. It's billed here as Europe's highest railway although this one seems to have the winning credentials.  Here's a video of it as it chugs up the mountains next to some vertiginous drops..
Fans of the bizarre Father Ted TV series will recognise this image that was used by Father Ted in a vain attempt to channel Father Dougal's thoughts upon more conventional lines.. I've found this useful myself on occasion! (The animation seems a bit 'iffy' - so if it doesn't work, just click on it..)

30th July 2010. I've just noticed that we've finally picked up a reader of this blog from the African continent - hello and thank you to Zambia..! What kept you?
2nd August 2010. Back home this morning after a really enjoyable few days away in the mountains. Madame had found the Hôtel les Bains de Secours (above), a delightful small country hotel (Logis 2*) with just 7 rooms at Sévignacq-Meyracq, just to the north of Laruns.

Set in idyllic surroundings, it was well situated for exploring the region. Stepping outside, the only sound came from the discordant tinkling of cow bells in the green pastures all about us. We set off for the Tourist Office at nearby Laruns to pick up information about the mountain train at Artouste.. With it being the start of the major French summer holidays, we booked an early train on Saturday morning.

While at the Tourist Office, I noticed that tuition was available for fly fishing. I've had a fly rod gathering dust for years but now I finally have the time to start learning the art of casting a fly. Madame - a city girl - asked me where I would get flies from. I replied from a fishing tackle shop.  She then asked me if they'd be dead or alive..! I'm still laughing at that as I type!

We first had to take a cable car up to the terminus station for the narrow gauge railway.
Lower cable car station at Artouste-Fabrèges
Billed as the highest railway in Europe, it started out life supporting the construction work in the '20s required to build a dam, one of a number in the area supplying hydro electric power stations. If any would-be traveller on the train is subject to vertigo, I wouldn't recommend sitting on the left hand side of the open carriage (as you face forward) on the outbound train or the right hand side on the returning train as the drop-off in most places is sheer - and there's no safety barrier or fence..
Arriving at the dam, we had a picnic in burning sunshine and drank in the stunning views before returning. This next clip of the Petit Train d'Artouste was filmed in exactly the same weather as we experienced:
Later we drove up several spectacular climbs that had recently been used in the Tour de France overlooked by mountains that loomed out of the blue haze:
This was the view from the summit of the Col d'Aubisque:
Finally, we returned to the hotel - both of us with an appetite you could photograph..!
The chef at the hotel is clearly an artist as every meal we had there was inventive, colourful, refined and - absolutely delicious! The waitress brought out a small dish of amuse-gueules with the aperos.. One of these was scallops and squid.. mmm. We'll definitely be returning there before long. Highly recommended. (the usual disclaimers apply)

Here's another tune that I've liked for a long time without knowing what it was - I finally googled the lyrics this morning and bingo.. a hit from 1988!  
Disappointed I haven't covered more of the Fetes de Bayonne..? Here's a story that hit the regional papers - a flashmob (don't ask!) turned up in the centre of Bayonne..