Monday, 8 December 2014

217. Seasons greetings to all!

8th December 2014. Or, as they say here, "Zorionak!" I can't believe that Christmas is once again upon us and almost within touching distance.. From us here in a dripping Pays Basque (at least it's still not freezing) I wish all of you "out there" our best wishes for a very Happy Christmas..

A few posts ago (here) I listed some of the Eternal Laws of DIY that I've discovered during a long career of exercising what I laughingly call my craft skills. This is not an exhaustive list..! Carrying on from where I left off last time, here we go:

15. Never start a job on a Sunday afternoon.
16. You can never find the thing you need until you don't need it.
17. Someone will have used the last bandage/band aid the day before you do involuntary finger surgery.
18. The only known supplier of the part you need closed down last weekend.
19. The most useless tool in your tool box is the wrong size Allen Key!
20. Superglue is a must for many DIY tasks - it is guaranteed to rapidly and permanently stick objects to anything other than that intended.
21. Despite clearing up after a job and putting everything back on the right hook, in the right box, in the right place on the right shelf - things disappear.

This is an image of the Pays Basque that captures something of the brooding quality of the landscape here.
Jean Cazeaux

23rd December 2014.  I knew I'd forgotten to mention something.. About a week ago we finally made it to Chez Mattin, a highly recommended little restaurant buried deep in the heart of Ciboure. We'd known about it for a while and it had long been on our "to do" list.. but it had been another of those places that for some reason or another we'd never quite got around to visiting. I think it was because if we ever find ourselves in this neighbourhood at lunchtime, with the food "Low Level" light showing steady red and we want something fishy, we are normally drawn irresistibly to Chez Pantxua at nearby Socoa.     

However, not this time, Moriarty! We took the precaution of booking because a few weeks earlier, we'd (meaning me) had a rush of blood to the head and we'd swung by Chez Mattin one lunchtime looking to ease our way in, only to find that it was fully booked. (which says it all) 

It's simply furnished, almost in a "bar" style, but when listening to the owner reciting the specialities of the day, you quickly realise that this is a serious establishment.. A friend had recommended that we try the "Ttorro" - a rich fish soup with monkfish, hake, langoustines and mussels. 

I think this is an instance where a picture is worth a thousand words.. Served in a heavy copper pan, we ladled it out and savoured the rich steamy aroma that rose up.. The soup hid numerous great chunks of fish.. This was a dish that will live long in the memory. 
The wine list had caused me to pause - because there were some serious bottles there. In the end, we settled on a half bottle of the local Jurançon, a 2013 Domaine Cauhapé (Geyser). This was really a great white wine.. one to stop you dead in your tracks. I'll try and remember to keep an eye out for Domaine Cauhapé the next time I'm standing hypnotised in front of a few hundred metres of shelving in the wine department!

So - Chez Mattin - one to remember then.

30th December 2014. If there's anybody out still reading this, have a great night tomorrow evening and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015!


Friday, 18 July 2014

216. That time of the year again!

18th July. Here, Bayonne is bracing itself for the annual invasion of the barbarian hordes, aka the Fêtes de Bayonne.. For the past days the council has been erecting 2m high wire barriers in the most unlikely places to try and stop car drivers parking their vehicles where they often do during the other 51 weeks of the year. Roundabouts were the first to be fenced off, followed closely by the central reservation of dual carriageways.. You would not believe some of the places I've seen cars parked when there's been a major rugby match here. The difference is that this time over a million visitors are expected here during the 5 days (and nights) of the Fêtes. The barriers are also to stop people from sleeping in places considered inadvisable.. (such as roundabouts and the central reservation of etc etc..!☺)

Then there's the Fête itself.. here's the opening ceremony from 2013..

and the parade of the bands..

and then there's this..

For us, the Fêtes de Bayonne is a good excuse to head for the mountains and the cool crisp air.. This year we're off to the Hautes-Pyrénées..

We went to a concert by a local trio last night in Anglet - and Lascia ch'io pianga (Handel) was on the programme. I thought the soprano gave a praiseworthy performance of what is an extremely difficult piece. I had to remind myself this morning of it - here's the great Cecilia Bartoli's interpretation of the same piece (from "Rinaldo"):

Now if there was only one piece of music you could listen to before shuffling off this mortal coil I'd still be dithering between the following two pieces when the man with the scythe came a-knocking..

Wednesday, 23rd July. Here's a live link to the opening ceremony of the Fêtes de Bayonne this evening at 2200hrs local.. (9pm in the UK and 4pm in the US (eastern seaboard)..

29th July. Had a few days away at Argèles-Gazost up in the high Pyrenees during the Fêtes de Bayonne.. This is something to try next time we're there:
This is a favourite location of ours - it's the Col du Tourmalet that's often used in the Tour de France.. (click to enlarge it)

I discovered almost by accident that the Womens' Rugby World Cup was being staged in France. I only caught up with it live on French TV (France4) the other day in time to watch the semis between England and Canada. I've not been able to watch much womens' rugby in the past and it was always a case of after a few minutes the "off" button on the remote seemed an increasingly attractive option. In the past, the womens game was played with seemingly little in the way of commitment, intensity and basic skills - but I'm happy to say that this is no longer the case. Tidying my sock drawer isn't my preferred option any more! Take a look at this:
20th October 2014. Whooo-ooosh - that's the summer gone! Well, almost. For the last few days we've been enjoying an Indian summer here - it was 30°+ yesterday with more of the same forecast for today. I'm still in t shirt and shorts - but don't worry, I've warned the neighbours!☺

Yesterday we met up with Perry & Caroline (Taylor), a lively and charming Anglo-Dutch couple who I've mentioned before here. They live in the heart of Gascony a couple of hours to the east.

Perry is a talented graphic artist and recently he's been producing a series of cartoons that take a wry and affectionate look at the people of Gascony. I think he's found a seam of life in la France profonde that's rich in comic potential and his latest offering - Petites Gasconneries - could well be his breakthrough book.

Publishing is a notoriously difficult field for a new author to gain a foothold in but I think he's well on the way to getting there.

Here's one of his takes on local life that makes me laugh each time I look at it:

If you'd like to know more, take a few minutes to look through his website - his work deserves a much wider audience! This book will keep you going through those long northern winters until your next visit to the south west of France - a region that has preserved its strongly flavoured country traditions largely intact. If you love this blessèd region of France this would be an ideal stocking filler! (and no, before you ask - I'm not receiving any commission for this!☺)

21st October. "Where Did The Time Go" Dept.. We realised with a jolt last month that we've been here for 7 years already! (how did that happen?) There are always the same old questions that everyone seems to want to ask - and they all run along the same lines: do you miss England / do you have any regrets / do you think you'll go back one day? The answer is below*. We miss seeing our friends but as with so many of us these days, our friendships tend to be widely dispersed and so even in England we didn't see our friends that regularly.

I think for every one of us who takes the plunge and moves to France there must be ten (at least) who would like to but who can't for various reasons - reasons that usually involve parents or children and especially grandchildren. This is understandable but nowadays the world has become a smaller place. Once upon a time, if friends moved abroad, it was as though they'd moved to another planet. Today, with the extensive network of low cost flights around Europe travel has never been more affordable. And to fill in the gaps between visits, there's Skype.. one of the minor miracles of the age.

To those of you who are free to consider a move to France, the hardest part of the move is making the decision to go. Once you've done that, everything falls into place. If you are thinking about a move here, don't skimp on the decision-making process. (repeat ten times before going to bed!) When in England, I watched many of those French property shows that consider  the house finding process in isolation. It's so easy to be seduced by low prices, sunshine, a glass of wine on the terrace and the French lifestyle that's perceived to be "laid-back" - whatever that means. Before you even start looking at houses here, you should be asking yourself what kind of life you want to lead. (We moved here on retirement and so we only had a limited number of questions to ask ourselves.) What are your plans for the long term? Is it to be a permanent move? Could you see yourself one day in a French nursing home? Or would you be looking to return to the UK for the final "hurrah"?

Only you will know what questions to ask yourself. Be honest and clear with yourself about what you really want. It might be that renting a gîte here every summer would get rid of the "itch"..

For us, the move here closed one chapter and opened another. I think that far too much is made of the so-called French bureaucratic nightmare when newcomers engage with the institutions that govern life here. I was astonished at just how helpful people were to us. I think the key is to do your homework - research what is required and make sure that before starting on the bureaucratic paper trail that you are in possession of all the various forms and original documents required.

* For us, the answer to the exam question is, to a greater or lesser extent, no to the questions posed above - the move has been a very positive experience.
We were in Biarritz yesterday afternoon and while people were on the beach, I noticed that the chap who sells hot chestnuts was already in business outside Galeries Lafayette.. (bottom right hand corner above)

1st November. A long outing this morning on the river - I went out in a yolette (a beamy IV) and we went up-river as far as the weir at Ustaritz. This made for a round trip of some 25km.. but because we gelled well together as a crew, it was not as tiring as it can be sometimes when the boat is all over the place ("a technical term, your honour") ie, when the timing is approximate and there's no balance.. The weather was an unbelievably unseasonal 25° and the river has never looked better. The trees had just started to turn a russet green/brown and a few leaves were spiralling down in slow motion. If only it was like this every week! We beached the boat just under the weir and someone produced coffee and croissants.. (my old rowing master at school never did this!)

4th November. Well, that's it.. I think we've seen the end of our extended summer. I was out yesterday evening at choir practice and when we all left the building afterwards there was the mother of all monsoons raging outside - with the kind of rain normally reserved for Hollywood films.. This (left) definitely wasn't me last night!

My shorts and t-shirts are about to be put away back in the 'summer' chest.. Only last week, there were plenty of people sunbathing and swimming at Biarritz. Can't believe Christmas (there, I've said it) is next month.

We had the roof re-tiled (ouch!) a few weeks ago and so far all appears dry! Fingers crossed. The next job (there's always one isn't there?) is the west-facing back wall of the house which has some small cracks in it. As it's west-facing, it bears the brunt of the storms that blow in from the Bay of Biscay and so these cracks can't be ignored any longer. We've had several companies out to look at the wall and we'll have to decide which estimate to accept because I'd like to have this work finished before winter sets in. At this rate, we'll be having sausages for Christmas! (one each!) (maybe☺)    

Here's a video that shows off our corner of the world - in 25 years of first visiting and now living here, we've yet to tire of this beautiful region..  

(Wish I could say the same about the soundtrack to the above video though...!)

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

215. Travels with a cocker spaniel in the Cévennes*

* Title plagiarised from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic account

Sunday, 15th June. Back home again after a restful few days away in the Cévennes, that delightfully unspoilt area that lies along the south-eastern edge of the Massif Central. (Read R L Stevenson's story here)

En route to the Cévennes, we broke our journey at Carcassonne - and the view of the medieval walled town from the autoroute was stunning - and straight out of the Middle Ages (via Walt Disney...) The old town was knee-deep in tourists when we visited and listening to their chatter it was clear that the medieval town of Carcassonne is firmly on the international tourist map.  

After a short 3-4 hour drive the following day, we arrived at our home for the next few days in the heat of the afternoon (temperature in the mid-30s). We were staying at a country hotel situated in an idyllic setting on a winding lane midway between Saint-Jean du Gard and Alès. This link will give some idea of the activities in the area. Staying at the same hotel was a lively group of some 40-odd septuagenarians who graduated from Montpellier University over 50 years ago and they've been meeting up on an annual basis ever since! After unpacking we found our way to the pool for a very welcome and much-needed splashdown.

This isn't a region of France that I've visited before and so the next day we headed down to Nimes, the capital of the Gard department in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Winding our way through its shaded streets we came first to the Roman amphitheatre - a colossal 2,000 year old stone structure that's still in use today (primarily, and regrettably, as a bullring). Its profile dominates the town (above) and it serves as a powerful reminder of the impact of Roman culture on Western Europe. 
Place de la Maison Carrée, Nimes
British architect Norman Foster was responsible for the renovation / restoration / (insert word of choice here) of the Place de la Maison Carrée at Nimes. Without wishing to be too unkind to the architect, I think that when faced with the challenge of designing a building to co-exist in close proximity to the gleaming Maison Carrée (16 BC), the timelessly elegant Roman temple built in the palest of stone (above left), then whatever we build 2000 years later is always going to come off second best - unless lightning strikes. The supreme example of the lightning strike of artistic inspiration - in other words, how it should have been done - is I. M. Pei's glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris.

However, here, in Nimes, we've ended up with a bland box that, unlike the Louvre Pyramid, predictably mimics the stylistic cues of  its surroundings - in this case, the Maison Carrée - and is constructed in steel, concrete & glass (above right). It houses the Museum of Contemporary Art (but it could just as equally be a supermarket logistics centre). To me, this is just a pastiche. How is it that with all the knowledge, materials, techniques and tools available to us in the late twentieth century that this building was the best that we could do? How is it that an unknown Roman architect who's been dead for 2,000 years can still show us the way home? Norman Foster's Museum of Contemporary Art is about as inspired as the work within it. (maybe that's the joke..) No votes from me I'm afraid. (No doubt I'll be shouted down as a philistine but I feel like reaching for the keys to the bulldozer..)

We were starting to wilt in the heat as various indicators around town were showing 36-37°.. We kept the dog topped up with water but it wasn't fair to him to stay any longer so we headed back to the car. (air con to max!)    

We next found our way to Uzès.. another jewel-like ancient Roman town in the Gard. On another day it would reward careful exploration but on the day we visited, the thermometer was up at 39° and so we parked ourselves in the shade of the Place Albert 1er (below) where the dog (and us) could keep cool - him with a large bowl of water - and us with the aid of a citron pressé.. (Click on the photo)       
Place Albert 1er, Uzès
Feeling hot and sticky? Need something that hits the spot..? I've been making these over the last few days. Into a tall glass pour a fat finger of white rhum from the islands (50° BV if you can find it). Then add a good splash of sugar cane syrup, the juice of a freshly squeezed lime (or two, to taste), stir well and then top up (to the brim) with shaved ice. Vary the proportions until you find what suits you - then make another one right away!

7th July. I finished the first run through the latest piece of translation work late last night and what a relief! It's been hanging over me since April.. I wanted to finish it before the summer really got into its stride as the last thing I wanted was to be sat here while the summer drifted by outside. All that remains to be done now is to go through it and review the text one last time... and then whoosh.. off it will go into cyberspace.

To celebrate here's a "never-seen-before" seagull's eye view of a 4th July firework display - someone had the bright idea of filming within it from a drone.. Eek! watch in full screen HD.. Brilliant!   

Despite the staggering imagery of the display above, I think Japanese firework displays are in a class of their own.. marvel at this one.. (again, best in full screen HD)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

214. Backing into Spring in the Pays Basque.

Friday, 14th March. Those of you who know Saint-Jean-de-Luz will be saddened to read of a tragic fire on the top floor of the Grand Hôtel in the early hours of Monday morning that took the life of a 76 year old lady and caused much damage.

Saturday, 22nd March. The planning for this year's Comète Commemoration in the Pays Basque is in full swing. Last Sunday, a group of us headed up into the hills past Ixtassou to try out Lezetako Borda, a restaurant that's buried deep in the folds of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side of the border (this is the exact spot) - it's not a restaurant that you would ever blunder across by accident! The road there quickly turned into a single track with unfenced vertiginous drops for the unwary. 

I got ab-so-lute-ly soaked this morning out on the river.. When I checked the weather at 6.30am it was raining and I thought - that's it, no rowing for me this morning.. but later on at 8.15 it had cleared up so I hot-foot it down to the river.

We set off in a IV and all was going well.. except that I could see some substantial-looking low clouds over the sea out to the west that looked disturbingly like a line squall. The rain held off until we were about 8km up the river from the dry clubhouse - when suddenly the skies opened. There seems to be a local phenomenon here called "Car Wash Rain". Elsewhere, rain falls gently from clouds under the influence of gravity.. Here it's a different story. What we got this morning was the full Kärcher pressure wash experience.. It lasted about 20 mins and at the end of it all I needed to complete the programme was a squirt of shampoo and then for one of those big flailing rotating rollers to go over me - front and back - followed by a dryer. I was totally sodden - nothing was dry. Still, as my old rowing master at school used to say - it's only water..

Monday, 24th March. Strange But True Dept: A Tasmanian Single Malt whisky - Sullivan's Cove's French Oak Cask - has been voted the world's best single malt whisky at the World Whiskies Award held on Thursday night in London. According to the tasting notes, if you like red wine gums, jelly babies, fresh cut grass, anise, cinnamon, white pepper, fruitcake, coconut and melted dark chocolate - then this is for you.. 

If, however, like me, you're quirky enough to prefer your single malt whisky to taste like single malt whisky, then it doesn't get much better that Doctor Glenmorangie's Famous Tincture! But watch out - in a classic demonstration of the old adage - "If it ain't broke - fix it until it is.." - in 2004, the then shareholders misguidedly and stupidly sold the company to the French luxury goods company LVMH for around £300m. I wrote about this tragedy here. Sadly, I was right. Read the next few sentences and weep..

Following the change of ownership, the Tayburn design agency was appointed to redesign Glenmorangie as part of a brand overhaul. This included the introduction of a new, more curvaceous bottle,(wow!) and the renaming of some of its variants. Its Wood Finish whiskies were given new names such as The Quinta Ruban, Nectar d'Or and LaSanta, which were also advertised as non chill-filtered for the first time. 
How about Glenmorangie with Pro-Calcium Plus?! Whatever that is.. Ill-advised corporate vandals - aka LVMH - are now aging the original perfect Scottish single malt whisky in Sauternes casks.. What's wrong with marshmallow flavour while you're at it? Or Barbeque..? The world's gone mad..

I was offered a dram of "Whisky Alsacien" (ie, from the Alsace region of France) a month or two ago. Thought it was a bit light on jelly babies, fruitcake, melted dark chocolate etc etc..☺  

My old neighbour in Scotland used to tell me that "there's nae sich thing as a bad whusky".. I wonder what he'd have made of this one?☺

Tuesday, 25th March. More rain today!

Saturday, 29th March. Is your heart a bit slow getting going this morning? Listen to this clip - it's guaranteed to set your feet tapping.. and everything else should soon join in..

And I know I've posted the next clip before, but Sidney Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mère" is worthy of a repeat - shown here as it was used to accompany Woody Allen's paean to what many think of as the most beautiful city in the world.. Full screen and the highest resolution you can manage - oh yes, and volume to the max!
Sunday, 6th April. As Europe moves slowly towards greater homogenisation, it's always a pleasure have a glimpse of a unique culture that appears to be flourishing still. Here's what happens when 15,000 Latvians join together in song:

For those of you who are straining to remember exactly where Latvia is, strain no more..

I came across a graphic this morning that made me pause - and then suddenly the penny (or should I say the centime) dropped..! The Basque village of Espelette is famous in these parts for its dried red peppers so in the above image they've linked a pepper with a pair of luscious lips - plus - d'Espelette and desperate sound similar to the French ear.. and the TV show "Desperate Housewives" is all the rage in France apparently (so the coiffeuse down the road tells me!). Anyway,  now you have it all. This is the kind of punning word play that the French love.. There's a site if you wish to see more.

I've mentioned these passages in Paris before here but I think you're long overdue a reminder! If you're in Paris and you've not visited one of these before - go and have a look!
If you've never driven a 2CV before, it's high time you treated yourself to the experience. Buy / borrow / rent / steal one and wobble out onto the highway.. What are you waiting for? It really is a driving experience like no other.. It's easy to laugh at these frail-looking contraptions as Gallic eccentricities but - believe it or not - they are supremely comfortable and they come into their own on "country" roads. The car abounds with practical features.. let's see how many I can remember - there was a ventilation flap that ran the width of the windscreen that allowed outside air in (via a mesh); the seats (cloth supported by rubber bungees from a tubular metal frame) could be removed in seconds if you felt an alfresco picnic moment coming on; there was a full length sun roof that could be easily unrolled; I seem to remember that the tilt of the headlights could be adjusted while driving; it had a centrifugal clutch; quirky yet practical flap-up windows; a fuel gauge that was nothing more than a long dipstick.. I'm sure there were more.. Oh yes, the car stuck to the road like (insert word of choice here) to a blanketIt had more roadholding than performance and it could corner at incredible lean angles in perfect safety - the passengers would be more likely to screech before the tyres did! All this and 60-70 miles per gallon..(4.7 - 4.0 litres / 100km)
Its minimalism is supported by some very clever engineering.. particularly in its long travel suspension. I once owned an early one with the 425cc engine and I think I had more fun with that car than any other before or since. And when was the last time you heard of a car being 'fun' to drive?

What was I doing when I found this clip from "Casablanca" - who knows? - but Paris is a special place for Madame and I and so I have to find a place for it..

I think it's time we had a long weekend up there - visit a few of the old haunts. It's a while since we've been there.

6th June 2014. The commemoration ceremonies being held all over the world today to mark the 70th anniversary of D Day (or J Jour as it's known here) remind me of a strange but true story. Ten years ago, I shared an office with someone who had an MSc in chemical engineering but, despite that, she was often (as in always) the last one to spot any kind of cultural or current affairs reference that happened any time before two weeks ago last Wednesday.

It was the week of the 60th anniversary of D Day and it had been all over the media and so, as was my wont, I asked her when D Day was.. Her first reaction, "Is this another one of your catch questions..?

"Nope", I replied. "It's as straight-forward as they come."

She looked thoughtful for a moment before answering, "The 18th century?"

I said "No - but I'll give you a clue.. It was the 60th anniversary this week.."

"Ah," she said triumphantly, "1920!" (and no, sadly, she wasn't joking..)

When I revealed the answer to her, her response was classic - "Well, how do you expect me to know that? It was before I was born.."

Collapse of stout party..

Sunday, 23 February 2014

213. Six Nations rugby heaven! (and chocolate..)

Wednesday, 12th February. I picked up a new pair of specs this afternoon and it's a pleasure to be back in a pin sharp world again. Now - where did I leave my teeth...?☺     (joke!)

Sunday 23rd February. Forget the Winter Olympics, it's weekends like this that convince me that the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament (cue hyperbole!) provides the world's finest sporting competition, bar none. Ireland has been the team to beat all season - experienced, hard-hitting, multi-talented and with great support. They beat Scotland comfortably in the opening fixture - the same weekend that saw England lose narrowly to France.

Over the second weekend, Ireland put last year's champions Wales to the sword in Dublin with a convincing 26-3 win and the other fixtures were predictably won by England and France (against Scotland and Italy respectively).

Over this last weekend, Wales played their socks off and hammered France 27-6 on Friday night.. and Scotland looked to be going down in Italy - the Italians just keep getting better - but the Scots scored a magnificent match-winning drop goal in the dying seconds to take a 20-21 win in Rome and the much needed points.

What could England do against Ireland yesterday..? In one of the most gripping and evenly-balanced matches in recent years, both teams were still playing and tackling like they meant it right up to the final whistle in a high tempo, high intensity encounter at Twickenham. I have to say that I think referee Craig Joubert (SA) was lenient with England's Owen Farrell who, on another occasion, could have been sin-binned with no questions asked. The last 15 minutes or so were played at breakneck pace as Ireland looked for a gap in England's defences but it wasn't to be and so England held on for a memorable, if unexpected, 13-10 win over the men in green. Games like this are won by very small margins. This is where rugby logic goes haywire.. French match commentators are fond of reminding us a certain country has logiquement  beaten another country - so in their world if Ireland thrashed Wales, and Wales thrashed France who beat England - logiquement England had no chance against Ireland yesterday.. However, when the game’s played with an oval ball, logique goes out of the fenêtre.

All of this means that the table looks like this - with four countries on 4 points in this order- Ireland, England, Wales & France..
Enjoy the highlights (or not, depending on your shirt colour!), in the order the matches were played:

Vidéo en Français..

Thought for the Day: As Dave Allen once observed, "The best battle hymn known to man is 'Here Comes the Bride'." ☺
Ainhoa (click to enlarge)

Thursday, 27th February. Here's a 5 minute film that neatly encapsulates an out-of-season visit to the
Côte Basque.. The author starts off in Biarritz at the Hotel 7B (which is, as the French say - "très design") before moving on to the interior of the Pays Basque for a short stay at the Hotel Oppoca (right) at Ainhoa - a former favourite of ours. Lunch at the "Oppoca" was always a keenly awaited annual treat for us in the old days when we'd visit the Pays Basque each summer. Unfortunately, the hotel changed hands a few years ago and the memorable country cooking that the previous owners used to offer is sadly now a thing of the past. If you're happy with what I'd call food presented in the modern fashion (you know what I mean!), then by all means go ahead and drop in. If you haven't been fortunate enough to visit this jewel of a region before, then this excellent short clip will surely whet your appetite:  

Wednesday 5th March. I make no excuses for the next few lines on the subject of the annual Chocolate days at Bayonne. I lifted the French text from the website, ran it through Google Translate to produce a suitably mangled version of English for your edification and general reading pleasure.☺ I haven't been able to find the dates yet but this event usually takes place in May.. so it would be worth keeping an eye cocked on the Bayonne web site for further details if you fancy slathering yourself in melted chocolate.. (Quiet at the back please, ladies!) 

Making chocolate is a tradition Bayonne is famous in the city for nearly four centuries. Today, the city still has seven chocolatiers reference. Grouped guild, they perpetuate their expertise and created in 1993, an association working for the reputation of chocolate Bayonne: the Academy of Chocolate. 

To celebrate this divine delicacy, Bayonne hosts a highlight at Ascension du Chocolat days. For two days we book with relish dipping chocolate in the streets of the city. Visitors are also invited to enjoy the gourmet bites made ​​by the master craftsmen. Guided tours of the city, across streets and quays, trace the history of chocolate in Bayonne. Exhibitions, conferences, inductions ambassadors chocolate Bayonne also enrich the program of these delightful days. 

For this twentieth edition, two significant events to report. The first concerns the merger between the Guild and the Academy chocolatiers chocolate, now chaired by Jean- Michel Barate . The second is the tribute will be paid to the pioneers of this culinary art, the Portuguese Jews settled in Saint-Esprit since the fourteenth century , and which had imported know-how.

Historically, these days will be also marked by a conference in two parts, given by Michèle Kahn, author of Cocoa and George Dalmeyda, Jewish history buff, synagogue Bayonne Friday, May 10. Among other animations also a parade of giant puppets papier mache manufactured by Bayonne , leave the city center to reach Breuer homes. They will be accompanied by dancers Orai Bat, Oreka, Street art, the Mascarene, the association for the dissemination of Portuguese culture.

Then, as every year, the 2014 edition will be punctuated by events: dipping and tasting chocolate in chocolate, making workshop topics chocolate for children, guided tours, shop around the book at the library, musical entertainment..

This demonstration is from Antton Chocolatier, Espelette:
This one's from Cazenave..
Followed up by Daranatz:
.. and then finally there's Pariès (no video I'm afraid.. you'll just have to lick the screen!☺)

Monday, 10th Match. You would have had to have been living on the Planet Zanussi not to know that England played Wales yesterday in the 4th round of the annual RBS 6 Nations tournament.. England hit the ground running and quickly established dominance over a surprisingly lack-lustre Welsh side.. Once it was clear that Plan A wasn't working, I fully expected them to switch to Plan B. Unfortunately it appeared that there was no Plan B. Danny Care was a real live wire throughout and he scored a stunning opportunist try in the opening minutes as Wales stood there as if sleepwalking.. The same fixture last year ended in a thumping 30-3 win for the Welsh and it was subsequently billed as "Men against Boys".. Yesterday's match (final score 29-18) could be described as "Men against Boyos" as England dominated Wales in just about every aspect of the game!☺


My doctor told me that jogging could add years to my life. He was right, I feel 10 years older already!

Here's a video of the Pyrenees that someone sent me - stunning images (but, if I'm being honest, the music is a bit dated)..

Best viewed in 1080p HD full screen..

21st March.. aka the first day of Spring..! While I think about it, we ate outside on the terrace yesterday for the first time this year.. I'm told by the neighbour that it was 26°!

"You know you're getting old when.."  This might become a series! I wanted to retrieve something from the car this morning and so I went out across the road to where it was parked.. I pressed the key button to unlock the doors and nothing happened. I made sure I was pressing the right button and pressed it again.. I tried the door handle - hoping against hope - but still nothing.. I looked inside to see if it had been broken into and damaged in some way.. but everything was where it should be - even down the the mini box of Tic-Tacs by the gear lever.. Then - I remembered..! There's a lady with an identical car to ours who parks her car in the avenue every day.. It couldn't be.. or could it? I stepped around to the back and looked at the plate - aaaarrgghh! Yes, it was hers..! D'oh! I'm not safe to be let out on my own!

Followers of the Six Nations rugby tournament will be aware that Ireland carried the day with England breathing down their necks a close second (but still second!). Some excellent rugby was played and a few new faces emerged.. Here's how the table looked at the end..
Here are the highlights:

No story of the 6 Nations and indeed World rugby would be complete without mentioning Brian O'Driscoll - one of the greatest players of all time. He's certainly the greatest player ever to pull on a green jersey and Ireland has produced some legendary players.. Enjoy:
There are few instruments in the world that have the power to move the soul like the Uilleann pipes.. This is Davey Spillane with a high quality recording of "Caoineadh cu Chulainn"..
To finish up with, here's Davey with that old Dubliners favourite "Boulevogue"..
One last one while we've got the Irish bit between our teeth.. Here's Planxty starting with "Raggle Taggle Gypsy O.."

Friday, 31 January 2014

212. It's that time of the year again!

Thursday, 30th January. Woke up to a white world this morning - everything was covered with a carpet of hail.. (makes a change from the rain we've been having!)

To remind us all of the blue skies and warmer days that lie ahead, here's a video of the Pays Basque as seen from Bayonne. All these places are within 40 minutes of Pipérade Towers..
Now, tomorrow sees the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament.. for me, the world's greatest sporting competition.. This year the opening day sees fixtures between Wales (last year's winners) and Italy - a match that the Welsh should win reasonably comfortably. This is followed by the mouthwatering clash between France and England (or "Le Crunch" as it's known here) at the Stade de France. I was looking at the England selection earlier and the English pack looks pretty solid. Stuart Lancaster has some new caps in the backs - let's hope they're not overawed by the occasion. For France, Thierry Dusautoir (aka "The Dark Destroyer") is unfortunately out injured and will miss the entire campaign. This fixture has some ugly history - let's hope that we're just talking about the rugby on Sunday. Raphaël Ibanez (former French hooker) always talks sense so here are his views on the match.

Joe Marler (loose-head prop) is playing for England tomorrow and he's known as an "abrasive" character. Here he is stopping George North, the outsize Welsh winger (1.94m and 109kg) dead in his tracks in full flight - it's not often you'll see this..
Here are the BBC pundits predictions for the outcome of the 2014 6 Nations. Me? I'm going with Keith Wood's prediction and so that means either Ireland or England  to win.
The clip below is a view of how les Anglo-Saxons are seen from a French perspective. I very much regret that Stephen Clarke makes an appearance in this video. He's a British writer who's happy to live in France as it provides him with a convenient platform from which he can retail - via his various blogs and books - his consistently poisonous views on everything French. I am ashamed to say that his special brand of tripe finds a ready market with some sections of the British public.

Leaving him aside, many great former players pop up here: the late Jacques Fouroux, Roger Uttley, Philippe Saint-André (now coach of les Bleus), Andy Ripley, Philippe Sella, Paul Ackford, Raphaël Ibanez and others. There's also mention of that infamous France-England match in 1991 RWC in Paris and the 5 Nations match the following year! I think those days are behind us now.. the professional era means that players (and coaches) are free to ply their trades wherever they like and so this contributes to the breaking down of barriers/prejudices/stereotypes.
Here's some of the action from the England France fixture from recent years:
Finally, here are some good quotes on rugby..!

Saturday 1st February. I was thinking about rowing this morning but opening the shutters a few minutes ago revealed a very wet world out there.. I was down at the river yesterday and it was full of detritus from upstream - tree trunks bobbing along at speed, branches and all sorts of junk as the recent storms in the mountains swept on down. Even if it had been dry this morning, I'm not sure the powers-that-be at the club would have sanctioned any activity out on the water - in any contact between a thin-skinned shell boat and a tree trunk, there's only ever going to be one winner. I've been in several boats here that have had their rudders swiped off as a major log has rumbled underneath.. plus 2 years ago the coxless four I was in rolled over after a high speed collision with a semi submerged tree.. That was in January too! I don't need to relive that experience!    

Here's an excellent argument for unmanned lighthouses - this is a lighthouse in the region of Finisterre (Brittany) taking a pounding in heavy seas in the last day or so:

Sunday 2nd February. Just so that you don't think we've escaped the bad weather that's been afflicting most of western Europe of late, this was the scene in the centre of Bayonne at 5am yesterday morning.. as the Nive started rising to dangerously high levels..
Monday, 3rd February. We were up near Arcachon yesterday so we missed the Ireland - Scotland encounter in the RBS Nations.. but my second favourite team beat Scotland 28-6.. (must find a video of that match)

Here it is:
With doing all the driving I was able to think over the result of the "crunch" game on Saturday between France and England. We watched it with some French friends in Biarritz so I'd like to watch it again with the English commentary.. France took their opportunities well but they allowed England back into the game. In the end, France emerged with a 26-24 victory. Lots of "what ifs", "could haves" and "should haves" but they're all in the nature of the game.  I think Stuart Lancaster (England coach) will be unhappy with the result but not unhappy with the character and resolve shown by his team in coming back from 16-3 down - in Paris. Were les Bleus convincing winners? I'll leave that for you to decide. I'm sure they'll take the win and move on - just as England would have. A hard first match for both sides.

Anyway, here's the match in its entirety:

Wednesday 5th February. A Spanish cargo ship - the Luno (3500tons) - was wrecked just after 10am as it exited the port of Bayonne on the river Adour to make its way out to the open sea. More here.

It suffered total electrical failure and it was driven onto the breakwater (just by my dog walking beach) where the heavy seas broke it in two.
Fortunately it was empty but there is a risk of oil pollution from engine oil. All 12 crew members were winched to safety.   

Friday, 7th February. Took the dog down to the beach early yesterday morning to give him a run and also to have a look at this half a ship that someone has inconsiderately parked on the beach.. I normally have the beach to myself at this time of day but "sapristi knockoes!" - there were already a few hundred other people there with the same idea. The sea was raging - there's no other word for it - towering waves with the strong wind whipping the tops away in curling clouds of spray and dazzling white foam everywhere.

Walking purposefully through the throng were several amateur photographers equipped with expensive-looking cameras - most of which sported foot-long lenses. You can get the general idea of what happened to the ship in less than a second by looking at the above photos. I just wonder what these camera enthusiasts will do with the pictures once they've been taken. As far as I can see, whichever way you look at it, it's still just half a ship stuck on a beach.. If you don't believe me, look here!  

In the afternoon we drove down to the plage d'Ilbarritz (at Bidart, just south of Biarritz) as it was 22°.. I've mentioned this area before.. Overlooking the beach and dominating the local landscape is the Chateau d'Ilbarritz.. It has a story that a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't equal.. Eccentric millionaire playing Wagner on a cathedral-sized organ at night with the windows wide open.. Details here.

Reminds me of an old joke:
My neighbours are always banging on the wall, even late at night. Inconsiderate b*****s!
Doesn't stop me sleeping though, as I usually stay up late anyway, practising on my bagpipes.
Château d'Ilbarritz

Here's a freebie for you.. Ever fancied learning/massacring/improving a foreign language? This site looks interesting.. There's a review of it here. I've just signed up with the intention of brushing up my French. The free site also caters for beginners - so what are you waiting for?

Friday, 3 January 2014

211. Looking forward to 2014

3rd January 2014. I hope you all had a great Christmas and I'd like to wish you health and happiness in 2014.

Here's something not to be tried after eating a Christmas pudding..! Yes, it's Course Landaise - an ancient form of bullfighting that doesn't involve any bloodshed (no bandilleros or swords). The president of the association I belong to is heavily involved in this sport and has threatened to take me along to one of his events this year. Apparently the dinners afterwards are something special..☺

Previously, we've seen a few Courses de Vachettes.. which is something of a misnomer as these cows bear zero resemblance to anything you might have seen on a farm, placidly chewing the cud..   
No, these "vachettes" come from the same stock as Spanish fighting bulls and are lightning quick on their feet and will charge anything at the drop of a hat. They weigh between 250-300kg (about half that of a fighting bull) and they don't produce milk. 

When all goes well:
And then there are days like this!

This is what I like to see..!☺
I think I've mentioned the pilgrimage walk to Santiago de Compostela here before but perhaps only in passing. The full story is here.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

For anyone contemplating walking the "El Camino" to Santiago de Compostela, it strikes me that these lines from The Golden Journey To Samarkand are very appropriate:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea..

A curious ritual takes places within the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela - the swinging of a large container - or Botafumeiro - of incense.. (go to 01:30 to see the start)   

From Wiki:
A dome above the crossing contains the pulley mechanism to swing the "Botafumeiro", which is a famous thurible found in this church. This thurible was created by the goldsmith José Losada in 1851. The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is the largest censer in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height. It is normally on exhibition in the library of the cathedral, but during certain important religious high days it is attached to the pulley mechanism, filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense. In the Jubilee Years, whenever St James's Day falls on a Sunday, the Botafumeiro is also attached in all the Pilgrims' Masses. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes and bring it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 80 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense. One explanation of this custom, which originated more than 700 years ago—although incense has been used in Catholic ritual from the earliest times—is that it assisted in masking the stench emanating from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

If you've been fortunate enough to have visited the Pays Basque (and if not - why not!), you will surely remember that tuna is a popular dish here. If you've ever wondered how they are caught, wonder no further!
This is fishing as you've never seen it before!

Sunday, 5th January. I came across these lines of W.H. Auden (from "Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno") this morning..

Out of a gothic North, the pallid children of a potato, beer-or-whisky Guilt culture..

Think there's something in this.. certainly as far as the pleasures of the table are concerned.

Monday 6th January. Sometimes it appears that people can't be saved from themselves. This clip shows the mindlessness of a young man in the face of major waves on Saturday 4th..
This was the scene a day later after two people were swept away by an unusually large wave near the lighthouse at Biarritz. They'd disregarded barriers and warning notices and were watching the spectacular seascape from a closed off vantage point when a rogue wave came along.. I believe the man managed to escape after 20 minutes in the water but his female companion was not so lucky - her body was found a few days later.
I forgot to mention that I went down to the river on Saturday morning for the first outing of the New Year. We took an VIII out that was missing (for reasons unknown) stroke's riggers.. so we went out as a VII.. As the boat was rigged for sculling (ie, with 2 sculls each) it was no problem. However, once out on the water we faced the strongest current I can remember and a significant headwind. The upshot of all this was that we progressed upstream at little more than walking pace. Instead of the usual chatter in the boat (which was streng verboten when I was at school!) we all fell strangely silent as we bent to our task (made all the more difficult by the thousands of extra calories that had been freely ingested during the preceding 2 weeks!) What's that expression? No pain, no gain..? It was never truer than on this morning in early January.

Friday 10th January. The giant wave at Belharra has been active these last few days..

In the following clip, watch the sequence from 02:45...!

Slideshow here. One wave around midday had the power to break 6 (yes, six!) surfboards.. (Dirty Harry's famous quote springs to mind here: "You've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?")
This link to an article in the Sud Ouest (local daily) also has a good video.

Aux 3 B
We went to Biarritz yesterday for a retail experience (please - not therapy, never!) and as lunchtime approached, I remembered a new bistrot I'd spotted the other day conveniently located in the Avenue de Verdun (2 mins from the Place Clémenceau in the centre of town). It's Aux 3 B (the former bistrot Ahizpak) and it's run by the genial Freddy Verdoux. It appears that it has only been open for a few days - these small places come and go - but we tried their 15€ lunchtime menu. A garlicky salade aux pleurotes with some parmesan shavings, then a faux filet and frites maison - this really hit the spot! - and then a crumble (v fashionable!).. As they say here - an excellent rapport qualité prix. Despite it only having been open for a few days, it was well patronised by locals and it filled up rapidly. A useful and friendly address to remember.