Friday, 20 July 2012

191. In the footsteps of heroes

17th July 2012. What retirees get up to in the Pays Basque! (part of a series). I'm involved with an association concerned with Comet, the WWII escape network for Allied aircrew that was very active in these parts. Each September there's a long commemorative weekend in the Pays Basque attended by people from all over.. (there's even one lady who comes all the way from Australia..) We re-trace the route the escapees/evaders took in crossing the mountains to Spain. This year, we are going to walk an inland route that we've not done before that was used from 1943 onwards.. It started from Anglet quartier Sutar and ran along the Nive before heading for Ustaritz, Larressore, Espelette where it crossed the border in the vicinity of Dantcharia in Spain. For the commemorative weekend in September, this will be walked over two days. Last Monday, a small group of us did a "dry run" of the mountain element of the second day's route with the aim of finalising the route details. Three of us from the committee & two wives were to be guided by the son of one of the wartime passeurs

In a slightly ironic twist, Madame and I often do our shopping at Dantcharia - now a major shopping centre - and to get there we follow the exact same route as outlined above - except we use roads. What was then a hazardous and physically demanding journey conducted at great risk to all concerned is now a simple 30 minute car trip with no passport control at the unmanned frontier. How times have changed.. I never drive this route without thinking of former days.

We started at 9-ish near Itxassou and headed up a grassy track that quickly turned into a stony one that went up and up and up. We had to cross marshy ground and fight off pesky flies (what wouldn’t I have given for a rolled-up newspaper!) before we eventually struggled up the eastern side of what felt like a 1 in 1 slope (but probably wasn’t) to the very top of the mountain ridge and suddenly the whole of the Basque coast was revealed before us in the sunshine.. We were presented with a stunning and unforgettable view of the western end of the Pyrenees seen through the blue mountain air and it revived our spirits. From our vantage point on high, we watched heavily-winged vultures describing lazy circles in up-draughts of warm air as they scanned the slopes for morsels of food.. (aka hill-walking pensioners!)
From the summit of Artzamendi

There were pottoks (wild horses) with foals and even some wild cattle and calves on the lower slopes.

To the south, the Pyrenees unfolded and faded away to the east in a distant blue haze. The temperature was around 25-27° with a soft breeze to keep us cool. We walked along the ridge until we hit the very milestone (#76) that the wartime escapers aimed for that indicated we were on the border. To focus on why we were there, one of our number read a few words and then his wife sang Hegoak in her lovely Barbara Dickson-esque voice.
True to the spirit of Comet, this was followed by the opening of a bottle of rum punch.. Florentino Goicoechea, the legendary Basque guide, used to fortify his groups of evaders in a similar fashion so we were in good company! I just had enough to rinse my teeth - as they say.

Someone pointed out the farm far below where lunch had been arranged for us. We set off again and we arrived there at 2pm. First, some hearty bean soup then the waitress brought out a serving dish with a mighty omelette made with at least a dozen farm eggs covered with slices of mountain ham.. served with salad. Did that hit the spot or what! A carafe of red wine sat largely untouched - at least initially! - as we had to make the return journey back to the cars.. After some Basque cheese and black cherry jam (traditional here) and coffee we set off for the return via a different route. 

We got back to the cars at 6.45pm and once home after a shower and change, a long pastis and something to eat, I started shivering so I went to bed early. I was tired physically but not mentally and I couldn't sleep.. Getting out of bed the next morning was a real struggle!

Overall though, a great day and despite being at the height of the tourist season we saw but a handful of other people all day. Incredible views up there and I can understand the euphoria the WWII escapees must have felt after their long dangerous journey from N France, Belgium or Holland. They had to do the crossing at night though which became increasingly tricky as, according to our Basque guide, the Germans deployed some of their crack Alpine troops in these frontier regions in an attempt to combat unauthorised cross border activity such as this. The result was that the passeurs took their charges down from the high ground to the valley bottoms and ravines which offered more cover against prying eyes. Many of the tracks we used were clearly formed by rushing water in the rainy season and the going was difficult at times both going up and descending with loose and broken rocks, fissures and occasionally treacherous swampy ground - as one of our number found!

25th July 2012. Heard this morning that another couple of 'yomps' over the mountains are planned in August to finalise and mark the routes prior to the September gathering here. Looking forward to this!

The Fêtes de Bayonne kicks off tonight with the tradition firework display at the Pont St Esprit in front of the Town Hall. These displays are usually right up there - in terms of noise - with the first 20 mins of "Saving Private Ryan"..

Meanwhile, the town is starting to fill up with white-clad hordes each with a red neckerchief and red sash around the waist.

Watch the start of it tonight live (pictures only) on this link at 10pm French time.. Sound here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

190. Back to normal..

11th July 2012. Since the beginning of March, our usually leafy avenue has resembled a Beirut film set as, amid clouds of dust, various teams of workmen have re-laid mains electricity supplies to houses, replaced water mains, telephone connections, the curb stones and more besides. Previously, most of these vital services had been strung up on various poles and the road was festooned with sagging cables and wires - all these have now gone underground and swish new street lighting has appeared. Today appears to be the end-game as a monstrous tracked machine made its slow way up and down the road excavating the road surface down to a depth of ~9" or so, spewing out a torrent of muck forward into a waiting lorry. With the road newly re-surfaced, new pavements can't be far behind. Phew.. it's been a long time. I have to say though that, where they've finished, the work has been to an impressively high standard.

I spent the morning loading programs and tweaking my new PC making sure everything is where I want it..

Meanwhile for those of you anxious for another report of the continuing craziness at Pamplona, here's yesterday's encierro..
and this morning's..

Needless to say, this isn't a recommended tactic!  
Not a good idea to find yourself in this position..
Or this.. At least this Scotsman was correctly dressed!
Another "how not to do it"...
Moral: Never argue with someone who has a 48" neck! 
12th July 2012. More wince-making images from Pamplona..
These next pics fall into the "Too Close For Comfort" Department.. 

Not a good time to try the old "It's behind you" trick..!
Avoid eye contact!

It's a nice sunny afternoon so I'm off out on my bike..

Alain Afflelou
Les Arènes
Best news of the day? Alain Afflelou, president of Aviron Bayonnais Rugby, has declared that he has withdrawn his sponsorship (English translation here) worth 500,000€ of the Fêtes de Bayonne because to continue to do so would, in effect, mean sponsoring the bullfights that take place during the Fêtes. I wish I could offer my congratulations to him in person on taking a principled stance against this most cruel, degrading and barbaric of activities - I wouldn't dignify it by calling it a sport. Well done Monsieur Afflelou! We live only a few hundred metres from Les Arènes and I see whole families (incl. children) going there to watch the fights. Bullfighting has no place in France - and what grips me is that the Town Hall here uses our local taxes to subsidise activities, including the corridas, at Les Arènes. (Factoid: Bob Dylan is playing at Les Arènes on July 20th)

I've mentioned before here my interest in the Comet Escape Line that was very active in these parts guiding escaping and evading Allied aircrew to safety during WWII. A couple of years ago I walked part of the original route from St Jean de Luz - Ciboure - Urrugne - over the mountains - wading across the River Bidassoa into Spain and on to Sarobe Farm, Renteria and safety. In 1943, this route was fatally compromised by the capture of Andrée de Jongh, Comet's inspirational founder, and others at Bidegain Berri farm, Urrugne. Under new leadership, it was decided to abandon the coastal routes as border security had been stepped up considerably and so several inland routes were developed - none of which were documented at the time for obvious reasons. Jean Dassié, the president and guiding light of the present day local organisation here has painstakingly reconstructed what is considered to be the actual inland route used. Next Monday a few of us will be stepping out on a dry run retracing that same route. It's planned to take about 6 hours after which we will retire to a local restaurant..  ("What else!")

Many years ago we were down here in the Pays Basque for our holiday and the owners of the small hotel where we always stayed gave us some complimentary tickets for an event at St Jean de Luz known as Toro Piscine.. It sounded unpromising - the ingredients were a lively young bullock, a sandy arena with a small pool in the centre and some local youths itching to strut their stuff. Unlike the despised corridas, this was more or less a level playing field and no-one was hurt, no blood was spilled. It turned out to be quite hilarious as the makers of this short clip also found:

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

189. Coming up for air..

25th June 2012. On Sunday morning I went out in the car to take the dog for a run on the beach at Anglet and I noticed that the Adour was unusually active with traffic. A tug was sending up two powerful jets of water high up in the air and I could hear ships sirens and hooters being sounded. I continued along the banks of the Adour to a point  where the river narrowed to the port entrance channel to the open sea just in time to see a small flotilla of pleasure craft (and a traînière - seen briefly at 02:11 on the video below) escorting two coastal working sailing boats that were gliding down river on the tide. I later found out that the event was the Escales Marines de Bayonne (another video here)

Looking up river, I was surprised to see the majestic sight of a 3 masted barque, the "Belem", that was also making its way out to sea. A few minutes later it slid silently past right in front of me and it dawned on me that this was the first time I'd ever seen a full rigged ship under sail. I've always been interested in pioneering technology of the kind that produced steam locomotives, cars & motorcycles from the twenties and thirties, early clocks, biplanes and much else. I found the close proximity of "Belem" to be an unexpectedly moving sight and it started me thinking about how our world had been discovered using small ships like these. I have to say I was completely transfixed and spellbound by the "Belem" and it made me realise that yes, today's ships may well be faster, more efficient & reliable, independent of the winds and all the rest of it but, like so many other advances in today's world, I think we've lost something indefinable in the process - perhaps that sense of continuity with our history.
Once we've discovered something that makes previous technology redundant, we are usually quick to junk the old. What struck me so forcibly about the "Belem" was that there are so few visible traces remaining of the age of sail. Sailing ships were very labour-intensive and many crafts and trades were necessary to build and support them. When the ships disappeared so largely did the associated small industries. All of which makes the re-birth of the "Hermione"(mentioned further below) even more remarkable. 

By the way, if, like me, you too are fascinated by windjammers and barques, then I would unreservedly recommend that you read Eric Newby's "The Last Grain Race". In 1938, 18 year old Eric signed up as an apprentice on "Moshulu" - a Finnish 4 masted steel barque - and sailed out to Australia to pick up 5000 tons of wheat, returning to the UK via that southernmost tip of South America - feared by generations of sailors - Cape Horn. The only Englishman on board in an otherwise largely Scandinavian crew, he had a wonderful ear for dialogue and he painted an unforgettable picture of life at sea  under sail. (now sadly out of print, you can buy a used copy for £0.01 here!) Arriving on the main deck of the "Moshulu" berthed at Belfast, after reporting to the First Mate, without further ado he was told "op the rigging" to the top of the main mast - all 185 feet of it.

Here, he describes a storm in the Southern Ocean:

"We were cold and wet, and yet too excited to sleep.. watching the seas rearing up astern as high as a three-storeyed house. It was not only their height that was impressive but their length. Between the greatest of them there was a distance that could only be estimated in relation to the ship, as much as four times her entire length, or nearly a quarter of a mile."

Newby goes aloft into the fore rigging:

"At this height, 130 feet up, in a wind blowing 70 miles an hour, the noise was an unearthly scream. Above me was the naked topgallant yard and above that again the royal to which I presently climbed ... the high whistle of the wind through the halliards sheaf, and above all the pale blue illimitable sky, cold and serene, made me deeply afraid and conscious of my insignificance."

This photo (left) gives an idea of the size of "Moshulu". Imagine climbing up there on a dark and stormy night..!

Unlike many other big sailing ships, "Moshulu" escaped being lost at sea and also she also managed to avoid the breakers yard. She is now a "fine dining" restaurant (ie, expensive) in Philadelphia - which is pretty ironic, given how poorly the crew of "Moshulu" were fed in Eric Newby's time.

Here's a romanticised view perhaps of those vanished days of sail:
And some footage I've found that shows it as it was - cold, wet, highly dangerous, physically demanding and definitely not an enterprise for the faint-hearted to take on lightly!

Finally, a modern day replica of "L'Hermione", a famous XVIIIth century 12 pounder Concorde class frigate of the French Navy has just been launched at Rochefort.. (slideshow here)
Here's how this immense labour of love was realised:

4th July 2012. For the last few days I've been sweating until all hours over the latest batch of work and I finished the first run through of it early this evening. As it was a warm sunny evening - and as it was that time of day - I went downstairs to the cellar to see if I could find an old bottle of gin as I suddenly had a craving for a long G&T. Yes, there it was, gathering dust next to a 5 year old bottle of tonic water. Aah, that hit the spot even though the tonic was a bit flat.

I must mention last week's weather - we had temperatures of 37C with high humidity. It was too hot to be outside so we battened down the hatches to keep the house cool.

7th July 2012. A steamy morning on the river today.. had an outing in a mixed VIII. Did 16km but to be honest it wasn't an entirely satisfying sortie. It felt as though there were a number of people in the boat who were moving to a different tempo to the rest of us. Which leads us to one of the oldest rules in rowing - it's always someone else's fault! Next week, a group of us are going to a rowing club in Les Landes for a day of single seat sculling on a large shallow lake (above). The reason we use this lake is that it is highly likely that some will take the opportunity for an early bath.. but as the lake is only a metre or so deep, it's quite safe - in comparison to our own river - the Nive - which can flow very quickly depending on the state of the tides. With this being France, an email has gone out to all those attending regarding the all-important provision of lunch.. Some of the girls are bringing foie gras and the men are asked to bring wine.. No egg & cress sandwiches here!

After a quick shower and change at home, we headed out to Zugarramurdi (in Spain) for lunch. This beautiful Basque village has a macabre history involving witchcraft, the Spanish Inquisition and auto-da-fé. However, luckily for us, none of these were present today and so we enjoyed a superb paella in some hot afternoon sunshine with a welcome breeze. In fact, it was all-you-can-eat but after one plate I could eat no more. The car registered 32C on the way home.

8th July 2012. The annual fiesta of San Fermin at Pamplona started yesterday - and here's a clip of the running of the bulls through the streets this morning.
Question du jour: You have two choices - it's either the three minute dash through the streets of Pamplona hotly pursued by 600kgs of snorting prime Spanish beef that has dibs on your backside - or it's up the rigging of a four masted barque and out on to a steel yard high up above a lonely dark ocean. What's it to be?

10th July 2012. Here's yesterday's encierro (bull run) and a few selected images that may help you make up your mind:

Seen enough? Right - "op the rigging!"

I've had a stressful few days with my PC - it was taking increasingly longer & longer to boot up, plus there were innumerable system lock-ups, repeat instances of the dreaded "Blue Screen of Death", disappearing mouse pointers, mail program crashes, go slows, you name it. Today was the last straw though. After spring-cleaning my hard disk, defragmenting it, scanning the hard drive for malware and/or viruses (none found) and generally getting it all gussied up, this morning I experienced yet more disappearing data, mouse pointers and a final Blue Screen etc.. and I thought enough's enough. I've felt at times as though I was being nibbled to death by ducks.. I couldn't risk losing all my work. Numerous problems - if each one taken was singly they weren't too difficult to solve but coming all at once - well, I'd had enough and so I went down to our local computer store and picked myself up a real bargain of a PC - plus 100€ cashback..! The only problem is that it came with an AZERTY keyboard. Nothing is where I'd expect it and I'm having to re-learn all my painfully acquired typing skills.