Friday, 31 December 2010

104. New Year's Eve aka St Sylvestre

31st December 2010. Phew..! We've been taking a break from the pleasures of the Christmas table since our visitors left on Tuesday. A whole slew of rich vittles have flowed under the bridge since I was last here in Blogistan but now we're closing the lock gates for a few days (after tonight!).

Last Monday we took our visitors to San Sebastian - they'd not been there before and they were both impressed by its style and the splendour of its baroque architecture. The weather was also favourable - think it was around 14-15°C and sunny.
After taking in a few of the grand boulevards and a stroll along the sea front of La Concha we went to the old part of town to - no prizes for guessing - Aralar (our fave!) for a few pintxos and a humungous sangria.

We were in St Jean de Luz a couple of days ago and the temperature was an almost sultry 21°C! We sat outside and enjoyed a drink in the sunshine.

Yesterday we had a phone call from Madame D from our old gite in Villefranque where we stayed for 5 months in 2007/8 when we first arrived.. She's kindly invited us for lunch this Sunday. Who says the Basques keep to themselves..?

Now all that remains is the question of finding a suitable New Year's resolution.. hmm.

1st January 2011. Happy New Year to all.. If you find yourself sitting in front of your computer today feeling just a tad jaded.. then here's something to take your mind off it for a few minutes. Often copied, never equalled - it's that memorable car chase from "Bullitt", featuring the late Steve McQueen. And if you tell me the downhill sequences don't have you hanging on to your desktop - I'm sorry, I simply won't believe you! Enjoy! (but don't blame me if you spill your Horlicks!) Edited to add: I've just read that Peter Yates has died..
Question du Jour: how many times does that green VW Beetle get overtaken..?

Django Reinhardt demonstrates his complete mastery of the Manouche guitar here aided by Stephane Grapelli on the violin:
The streets of Bayonne were almost entirely devoid of cars and passersby this New Year's morning when I wandered into the unusually quiet centre to find a baker who was open for business. All the usual suspects were closed so I started looking for someone, anyone, carrying a baguette. Among those like me in search of a baguette were a handful of hollow-eyed, rubber-legged revellers searching for that last elusive drink for lurching off home to bed. Spotting an old gentleman with a Basque beret with a baguette emerging from a side street, I found the only baker in town that was open.

There was a long queue - an uneasy mix of early birds and party animals - that stretched outside the shop and straggled across the pavement to the river's edge. Events took a comical turn for the worse when 2 young lads - who were almost "completely relaxed" - decided to provide an impromptu cabaret by joining the queue not at the end but at some point near the front. This provoked a masterclass in righteous indignation from various quarters and it wasn't long before voices were raised and fingers were being wagged. They were all still arguing as I picked up my bread and headed off for home. Happy New Year!

One of the shops we visit over the border in Spain has started stocking the Balvenie "Doublewood" 12 year old. What can I say except I'm tempted..! If you appreciate single malt whiskies but haven't tried this one I'd say it's never too late. To me it's right up there with the very best.
Here's an enigmatic clip that's capable of many interpretations.. what would yours be?
5th January 2011. Very sad news about Gerry Rafferty this morning. His timeless 1978 hit "Baker Street" encapsulated his experience of life in London - with that unforgettable soaring sax from Raphael Ravenscroft running through it... RIP Gerry.
6th January 2011. Back out on the river in a coxless quad sculler this evening - there was a warm southerly wind blowing down the river and a glorious sunset. Had to remind ourselves that today was 6th January! Did 10km before dusk. (Running total = 343km) 

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 (!)


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

102. The Big Chill

15th December 2010. A bright and cold day today - blue skies, dazzling sunshine, c-o-l-d but luckily no wind... The temperature out there this morning was a bracing -3°C. I took the dog for a long walk along the river and came back via the Christmas market - the stallholders looked frozen. I had a squint at what they were selling and I must be honest - there was nothing there that made me even want to slow down, let alone insert a hand in a back pocket.

At midday it had warmed up to a balmy +1. I think we could be in for a dose of snow tomorrow.

18th December 2010. The last few days have seen us in a bit of a frenzy of activity getting ready for Christmas. Presents have been retrieved from hiding places to be wrapped; we've put up one of those Christmas trees that's guaranteed (?) not to drop its needles and last night Madame worked her customary magic on the house with a profusion of decorations that appeared miraculously from dusty storage containers. Not much left to do now. I think one last raid into Spain for some last minute shopping is planned for next Tuesday. Beautiful weather this morning in the Pays Basque - cold, yes but with blue skies, bright sunshine and no wind.

Spare a thought for those who will be having Christmas on their own. I can't think of much that's worse than that.

Last night we enjoyed our first taste of Christmas Pudding.. Madame made several earlier in the year and they've been lurking down in the cellar ever since. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas Pudding - known here as Plum Pudding (a bit odd as there are no plums in it) - is the taste of Christmas. (Half fat version here) I'm convinced Rabbie Burns' most famous verse was originally written about a Christmas Pudding.. but he was later persuaded to change the target to a Haggis!
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Best wishes for a Happy Christmas to all..
20th December 2010. Still no snow here.. touch wood! Some old friends of Madame's (from uni days) are arriving later in the week by TGV. TGV services have been affected by the wintry weather - they're running at reduced speed (~200kph) in the north. 

Sunday, 5 December 2010

101. Back in the saddle

4th December 2010. Finally, a dry day.. and sunny too. Despite it being only 2°C this morning, I decided to get down to the club for an outing. I've just looked back and the last time I was out on the river was 13th November.. it having rained every single day since then. This morning we went out in a coxless quad sculler and did a relatively painless 12km (Running total 333km). I say 'relatively' because with not having rowed for 3 weeks or so my hands had softened up - so I'm now sat here with fresh new blisters.. With it being the first Saturday of the month, it was time for an apéro at the club after the outing.. As Basil Fawlty might have said, I mentioned France's crushing defeat last week at the hands of Australia once but I think I got away with it! 

Walked along the sea front at Biarritz this afternoon and around town. Christmas shopping seems to have clicked into top gear at last.

6th December 2010. It's 16°C here this morning and forecast to rise this afternoon to an unseasonable 19°C.. warmest in France. Bizarre weather. Meanwhile, up in the north, Cherbourg suffered badly from unprecedented flooding yesterday as a result of melting snow combined with a high tide.
We took the dog for a long walk through town and out along the Nive as it was a warm afternoon.

7th December 2010. It was reported on the TF1 news last night that the temperature at St Jean de Luz yesterday reached..... 22°C! 

Spent the afternoon in the garden taking down a hefty cypress tree that had got out of control. I've now got a stack of logs that I'm hoping someone down at the club can use. 

8th December 2010. We went to Dancharia in Spain this morning - just across the border from the lovely Basque village of Ainhoa, reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in France. I wouldn't argue with that. Dancharia is known for the numerous Ventas that are located there - Venta Peio is our favourite.. and with Christmas in mind we stocked up on drinks. As an example, a 2 litre bottle of Sir Edward's Scotch (made from 100% Scottish grapes*) was a tad over 16€.. (about £13.80 at today's rates). And contrary to the report in the above link, I don't find it a "rough and ready mixture" at all. I guarantee the writer of the above review couldn't identify it in a blind tasting with other blended whiskies.  The car indicated that it was a balmy 22°C on the way home.. Meanwhile the rest of France shivers. As does the UK.

* I jest!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. It's impossible to imagine how he would have lived through the intervening years.. what new personas he would have lived out, what causes he would have espoused, what great new music he would have made. More here, herehere and here. RIP John.

9th December 2010. Stop Press: I bought a cheapo (17€ something for a litre - I should have known better) single malt whisky while in Spain yesterday - it was a new offering from Glen Grant called The Major's Reserve. To be honest, that's where it should be stayed - in reserve.. There's more than a faint whiff of varnish in the aftertaste - but, being charitable, that could just be me. Whisky preference is a matter of personal taste and we all have our favourites. Single malt whiskies invariably reward the drinker with a range of subtle and complex tastes and they benefit from being aged in the cask for 10 years or more for these flavours to develop. In the case of The Major's Reserve I sense that the distillery has cut corners on the aging process. I read somewhere on the internet that The Major's Reserve is 7 years old. Years ago I had a 5 year old Glen Grant (yes, another cheapo sold on the Continent) and it was exactly the same. By the way, there's no indication on the label of how old this product is which in itself should have rung warning bells. Don't say I didn't tell you..

Pray silence for The Balvenie
Nectar of the gods
I should have paid the extra and bought my usual favourite malt whisky - Glenmorangie. The other one I'm very partial to is the 12 year old Balvenie.. (hope Father Christmas is reading this!) but the Ventas in Spain don't seem to stock it. If you tried whisky once, and didn't like it; or if you've been drinking normal whisky all your life; or if you'd like to try a malt whisky but don't know enough about it to know what to ask for - the next time the person who usually buys you a present asks, "What would you like for Christmas, your birthday or whatever.." - don't answer suspiciously quickly - ponder a moment before replying either a bottle of Glenmorangie or Balvenie.. You'll thank me for this!