Thursday, 1 September 2016

235. Another milestone..

15th September. I was wending my way to Dantcharia for some shopping this morning via a tangle of lanes - I think the usual way must have been blocked with fallen trees after the storms of the other night. I decided to swing by the Pont du Diable to see how the new memorial looked - minus the crowd..

The evading airmen would cycle here from Bayonne and then make their way on foot to an old sheep barn that was, and still is, amazingly well-hidden. I doubt it can be seen from further than 20 metres away. There they'd wait until the conditions were right for a night crossing of the Pyrenees. The Germans patrolled the high ground along the border area and so the Comète guides would lead the airmen along stream beds in the valley bottoms, being careful to avoid being spotted from on high.     



Coche Mari Etcheveste
Memorial to the Basque passeurs
of Larressore, Espelette & Souraïde 
12th September. I'm just letting the dust settle after another memorable long weekend with the international Réseau Comète family in the Pays Basque.. This year we were privileged to welcome the daughter and grand-daughter of a Basque smuggler turned Comète wartime guide (right) who had come all the way from California to be with us. As with so many people connected with Comète, he hadn't spoken about his exploits to his family other than in broad general terms (that gave little away). It was an emotional occasion for them when I showed them the memorial that "Les amis du réseau Comète" and the village of Larressore had put in place at the Pont du Diable. (Coche Mari is second from the left on the bottom row) As soon as I've gathered together all the photos of a weekend that's still reverberating between my ears I'll post the details.

In the meantime, here's Angelo Debarre with Thomas Dutronc (Françoise Hardy's son):

8th September. I was just browsing through some historic images on the Aviron Bayonnais website and I came across this one - it appears to be a colorised version of a black and white print. It shows a club crew sitting in a clinker-built wooden four (clinker built = made of overlapping planks). When? I would hazard a guess as sometime in the 1920s or perhaps the 1930s. What struck me - and depressed me a little if I'm honest - is that I started out rowing in boats exactly like this one. The oars were also all wood.. with a leather collar that needed an application of tallow before the sortie. The oar sat in a brass "gate". Boats (and oars) like these were heavy but once up to speed they would 'run' in the water. Aesthetically I find them more pleasing to the eye than their modern carbon fibre equivalents - which, I have to say, are far lighter and more rigid.. but are not as easy on the eye. Modern oars and sculls are made of carbon fibre with plastic fittings to hold them where they sit in the gates (now plastic so no need for tallow any more!). These old clinker boats were beautifully built with fine wooden ribs, brass screws and copper fastenings and the highly varnished boats of my youth would gleam in the sun. Sigh... OK, nurse, I'll go back to my room now!

 4th September. As the end of the cycling season approaches, La Vuelta a España (Spain's big race) visits our part of the world. Here are the highlights of Stage 14 (which starts from Urdax.. which is just a hop, step and a jump across the border from us.) Spare a thought for the riders because these hills are steep.. I've mentioned Urdax several times before.. it's a quaint, picturesque Basque village (in Spain) that deserves to feature on any list of "must visit" places in this area..

1st September. Today, we decided to mark our 9th year here with lunch at La Plancha, Bidart (just to the south of Biarritz). It's set in an idyllic location, right on the beach, beneath the Chateau d'Ilbarritz. On the map here, it's been incorrectly labelled - La Plancha is actually the much larger building directly across the road that someone has incorrectly tagged as the Plage de la Creeck.

We did some "bronzing" on the beach before arriving at La Plancha for lunch.. (they don't accept bookings). More photos here

What did we have, I hear you ask? We started with a sangria while studying the menu - then we ordered some sardines between us - followed by lotte (monkfish) cooked Spanish-style (left) served with a baked potato. "Spanish-style" means it was cooked with enough garlic to stun a medium sized warthog and also to keep the flies away from me for at least a week! Joking aside, I have to say it was de-lic-ious.. A 50cl bottle of dry Jurançon* (a great local white) eased everything down. 

* Read the Jurançon link above.. trust you-know-who to bring you-know-what into it! ☺

The great mass of tourists have clearly decamped and so the roads were markedly more "fluide" than just a week ago. Life is slowly returning to normal.. (phew!)  

Friday, 12 August 2016

234. Back in town..

31st August. "It gets earlier every year" Dept! This morning, I received an email from a Christmas card company showing their latest offerings. A card showing Santa's sleigh swirling on high through the wintry streets (right) caught my eye. Can the first sighting of an Easter Egg be far behind?

I can't believe that both July and August have flown by so quickly. It was near the end of June (but it seems like only yesterday) that I said to Madame that the summer season was about to kick off here with the great annual influx of visitors. With all the uncertainties of foreign travel, I think we saw more visitors from elsewhere in France than ever before here. Still, September is the best month to visit the Pays Basque in my opinion. The great wave of summer visitors (plus kids!) have returned home and now it's the "silver tourists" who remain. The temperature will settle down at a comfortable 25°C, the skies will be blue and parking will once again be possible in Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz and elsewhere along the coast.

28th August. It must be at least a week (!) since I've posted anything of Mark Knopfler's - so here's one of his timeless tracks:

Madame came out with another one of her colourful expressions a day or two ago: ménager la chèvre et le chou.. Strictly speaking, the literal word-for-word meaning is "to arrange (or satisfy) the goat and the cabbage"! But the expression really means "to have it both ways", "to keep a foot in both camps" or "to try and please everyone"..

Then there's vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre - this literally means "wanting the butter and the money of the butter". Or as we'd say in English: you can't have your cake and eat it.

There are many of these expressions that stem from France's rich agricultural heritage. I'll try and remember to include some more.

Then there are odd ones such as "beau comme un camion".. which means "beautiful as a truck/lorry". Or, more usually: "you're looking good!".

26th August. We're off out this evening to try and find a bar on a beach somewhere where we can drink something exotic and watch the sun go down. Surprisingly, there aren't as many as you might think - and those that we know of, switch to serving more profitable meals in the evenings.

25th August. Give your French a work-out with this documentary (below) about the French holiday routes of the middle decades of the 20th century over which a number of nostalgia addicts (code for obsessives!) re-enact the summer treks to the south (including "retro-camping") in a variety of period vehicles. They even go as far as re-creating traffic jams - complete with a François Hollande lookalike acting as a fake gendarme! (at 1:20:40). You couldn't make some of this up. Health Warning: Their re-enactment strays into retro-kitsch at times as these dotty collectors proudly show off their 'vintage collectibles' - such as formica guitars with built-in clocks! Think of it this way: for every obsessive living the 60s dream out on the road in his rare caravan, another hospital bed is freed up! (I'm joking - it's all harmless fun..)

The French revolutionised camping in the 50s and 60s when they pioneered lightweight aluminium-framed tents with zip fasteners, mini Campingaz Bleuet stoves, lightweight camping chairs and set up fully-equipped campsites (with hot showers, shops & entertainment). The tent we had at home in the early 60s was supported by sturdy wooden poles and it was made out of heavy duty canvas that was designed to ward off everything a British summer could throw at it - whereas the French equivalents were made out of modern lightweight waterproof fabrics designed to keep out nothing more threatening than a stray mosquito. The Campingaz stoves (right) were a revelation as well.. the starting ritual was simple: turn on the gas, light it and start cooking. My father had a Primus paraffin stove (left) and I remember it always being a struggle to light the blessèd thing - especially on a windy evening. A ring of methylated spirits had to be lit to pre-heat the jet out of which the pressurised paraffin spray would emerge. Occasionally it would light like a military jet afterburner which always amused us children! Keeping it lit was another challenge - if it went out on your watch, it was a good time to hide!

Don't worry if you struggle to keep up with the French - just enjoy the scenery (you might want to skip from 10:10 to 20:52). The old route from Paris to the Pays Basque - the N10 - is featured at 1:01:17 and the Pays Basque itself comes in at 1:30:34:


23rd August. I was out at the déchetterie (tip) earlier this afternoon and it was h-o-t.. the car thermometer was indicating 39½°C..(had to convert this one: 103°F)

The summer is passing by too quickly. I can't believe we're already in the last week of August. We had some visitors last week and after we'd taken them on a lightning 1½ day tour of some of our favourite Pays Basque hotspots (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Dantcharia, Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, Bayonne, Biarritz), we finished up in a gift shop in the beautiful border village of Ainhoa. There was a stack of berets there and, as no-one was looking, I tried one on. Miraculously it fit - so, after almost 10 years here, I finally bit the bullet! I now find myself the proud owner of a beret Basque. They come with quite a large overhang thus allowing for some individual styling. All that remains now is to mould it into a suitable shape (right) for my 100% Anglo-Saxon (with perhaps a dash of Viking!*) head. I'm slowly being transformed into an alien..! I also recently had to exchange my UK driving licence for a French one. I was surprised to see that it doesn't entitle me to stop anywhere and have an al fresco pee..(another avenue of pleasure closed off!☺)

* with apologies to Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock!

I found this well-written article about the Pays Basque in the NY Times.. The author manages to say in one column what I've been struggling to say in 7 years! Worth a read. There's a slideshow as well (just give it a moment or two to load).

We were having lunch on our terrace the other day when there was a dull thud from above, followed by the sound of something plummeting down through the hortensias (hydrangeas in English). Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something small as it shot by to land on the gravel path. My curiosity aroused, I got up to see what it was. Lying on the path, beak down with its backside in the air, was a young sparrow that must have knocked itself out by flying into an upstairs window. To my surprise, it was still alive so I picked it up and took it back to the table. It was its lucky day because it just appeared to be stunned.. After a minute or two, it hopped onto my finger and after a few more minutes, it flew off.

The following day, I found another less fortunate young sparrow lying feet up on the terrace. It was absolutely unmarked and it too had probably flown into a window but sadly it must have broken its neck as it was stone dead.

14th August. We were down at the beach at Anglet (below) early this morning for a good walk before it became too crowded - but it wasn't quite early enough as this weekend is probably the peak of the tourist season. Joggers were out en masse - and I saw one t-shirt slogan that I thought contained much truth: "The real workout starts when you want to stop"..


Today's forecast is for 34°.. Ouf!
  
13th August. What a great row by the British Men's VIII in Rio this afternoon.. fantastic performance..! It's the first time they've beaten the Germans in 2016 - so what a time to pounce! 

8th August. We're back home after a few days away in central and eastern France. It was really to escape the noise, crowds and bustle of the Fêtes de Bayonne but it was also a welcome break and change of air. This time, it was just the two of us - our little feller was greatly missed. 

We'd booked "demi-pension" at a number of country hotels (in the Logis group) choosing ones wherever possible that had "3 cocottes" (this is the highest ranking for food for Logis hotels). Our first night was in the Auvergne, followed by a few nights in Burgundy before finishing up in the Haut-Jura,  One hotel in particular excelled itself in the food department - and instead of offering us the standard set menu for those staying on demi-pension terms, they generously allowed us choose anything from their 27€, 37€ and 51€ menus.. We had no trouble sleeping while we were there..! That's all I'm saying..!

Route Nationale 7
At one stage during our peregrinations across central France near Moulins, we found ourselves on the legendary Route Nationale 7 (known as the RN7 or the N7), an old-style national trunk road that linked Paris with the Côte Azur before the advent of the autoroutes around 40 years ago. After WWII, the French economy - and car ownership - boomed ("Les trente glorieuses") and thus the stage was set for the N7 to become Europe's most dangerous road. For many, August was the traditional holiday month and the capital would rapidly empty during the first weekend as people in their thousands flooded out on to the roads, with the majority heading south on the N7. There were songs written about it, its dangers were discussed endlessly, there were colossal tailbacks, and accidents were frequent and violent.. It was soon became known as the "Road of Death". In short, during the hot summer months, it was a nightmare.

In the late sixties I remember driving from the south of France north up to Paris via the N7. It was totally uncompromising and unimaginably busy and it required all my concentration. My abiding memory of it is that there were a total of 3 lanes - one going north, one going south and one in the middle. This third lane could be used for overtaking by motorists heading in either direction! (Pause while you absorb the significance of that one!) Yes, the dreaded suicide lane.

 There are many similarities with the fabled Route 66 in the US that once was the main artery from Chicago to Los Angeles but which also went into decline when it was superseded by the US interstates. Roadside communities failed and became ghost towns. Nowadays, it's become fashionable for tourists to rent Harleys to ride on Route 66 to see the America of the early part of the 20th century.

Something similar happened here with the N7. Eerie is perhaps the wrong word for it but there was definitely a brooding sense of being in the presence of living history when I found myself alone on this broad ribbon of shimmering tarmac, lined with flaking restaurants, boarded up hotels and deserted cafés. This once-mighty highway unrolled before me in a arrow-straight line to a vanishing point that lay on the southern horizon. And the rear view mirror showed the same scene in reverse.

There were many independent garages (advertising bodywork repairs!) and large restaurants - the majority closed down - every few kilometres. The roadside restaurants and cafés were clearly once oases for the hungry traveller and his family - and each of them came complete with vast car parks that could easily swallow a few hundred cars - but which are now simply dustblown.

A nostalgic view of the N7 here - with a couple of very collectable cars in there.. like the Morgan 4/4 and the TR3. This video repeats at around 1:50..



Question du jour.. What on earth are the curly-wurly shaped "things" that are given out to each medal-winning athlete in the Rio Olympics? Each time there's a presentation, it appears that they continue to intrigue each recipient.. I wonder how many will end up on top of the nearest wardrobe once back home?   

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

233. Where's the heat?

26th July. It's started - the first wave of those coming to Bayonne for the Fêtes de Bayonne (France's biggest festival) have arrived. Streets which are normally car-free have now sprouted cars parked with two wheels up on the pavement as the trickle of people heading here has turned into an unstoppable torrent. The police habitually turn a blind eye to all but the most flagrant abuses of parking laws. For 5 days, cars will be seen parked in the unlikeliest of places ("How did the driver get in there?") and tents will spring up on pavements and - well, everywhere. We're off!

25th July. I surprised myself by liking this song called "It's the last one who spoke in your house who is right" by Amina Annabi. It was France's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1991 when it finished 2nd to this instantly forgettable bit of Eurotosh (and I'm not just talking about the choreography!). Back in 1991 the ladies taking part were, for the most part, clean-shaven (unlike today!)  See what you think:

The Fêtes de Bayonne start on Wednesday - but the scale of mass public gatherings has been toned down this year due to the national state of emergency brought on by terrorist activity.

24th July. In Paris and just fancy strolling around and taking it easy in a fascinating quarter? This video should whet your appetite! We always find ourselves drawn to this part of Paris:
Looking at this video though, it must have been filmed on a Saturday afternoon.. I've never seen it so crowded.. I'm not really one for crowds.

22nd July. Listen to Charles Trénet's poem to the sea.. and follow through the words in French and English here.
The alarm bells are sounding for yet another one of life's pleasures according to a gloomy new analysis. The report's findings reveal that "alcohol causes seven forms of cancer, and people consuming even low to moderate amounts are at risk".   

21st July. If you're interested in getting the French perspective on current events - but your French language skills aren't quite good enough to follow news stories on French language news sites, then try this live feed from France 24 - it's a French news channel in English.. If you watch this first, then have a look at the news on TF1 or France2, you might find their output easier to follow.
19th July. I didn't forget Pamplona this year - but here's a gentle reminder of the fiesta as it was (before you-know-who discovered it!):


18th July. I spoke too soon asking "Where's the heat.."? Apart from a quick visit to the beach at Ilbarritz this morning, we've been skulking indoors with the shutters closed since then as this part of France has been sizzling under 38° temperatures. Time for something cold..
Plage d'Ilbarritz

16th July. This is the sound of the France that I love.. It's a forlorn hope that we've seen the last attack against innocents, those out for a carefree stroll on a summer's evening. It could have been any of us.


15th July. While people were dying in Nice, this was happening in Paris.


Shocking news overnight from Nice.. Appalling carnage on the Promenade des Anglais.. What a world.

Zoko Moko, 6 Rue Mazarin
12th July. We went to St-Jean-de-Luz this morning and stayed on to have lunch at Zoko Moko. This is a restaurant that we've been hearing good things about for a year or two and so today we finally decided to give it a whirl. It's a little off the beaten track - go to the Place Louis XIV (with the bandstand) and you'll find the restaurant at 6 rue Mazarin - between the harbour and the sea front (here). If you haven't booked (as we hadn't), I'd advise arriving early - there wasn't a table to be had later on. There are 2-3 fixed price menus plus à la carte. We had the menu du marché and it was e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t! Right up there with Chez Pantxua at Socoa.. so - praise indeed. Choice of only two starters, two main courses and two desserts (always a good sign!). The main course was filet de canette (duck breast) with braised peaches. This was the best duck breast we've ever had - tender, tasty, pink & juicy. I also spotted that Madiran Château Bouscassé (mentioned before here) featured on their wine list. We were once given a bottle of this as a substitution a few years ago and it really is something special. This is definitely a restaurant we'll return to. (Other top Basque restaurants here.)

The late Joe Dassin wrote some good songs before he died at the age of 42.. This is one of his best:



This is a strange summer. This morning at St-Jean-de-Luz it was around 18° and the beach was virtually deserted.  

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

232. Chibby

6th July. We lost our dear golden boy at 1am yesterday morning. I refer, of course, to Chibby, our golden English cocker spaniel. He would have been 15 years old next month. He'd somehow managed to acquire Gastric Dilation, a life-threatening condition that took him from us so brutally.. 

I know that all dog-owners should be prepared to outlive their pets - but making the transition from perfect happiness to total despair is not made any easier when the elapsed time from the first signs of "something's not quite right" to diagnosis and then heart failure can be measured in just a few short hours. He really was the light of our lives and we're totally devastated and heartbroken. 

He was a "special" boy and, like the Spitfire, he looked good from any angle. From first to last, we never tired of looking at him. He was a real character with so many endearing ways about him and he'll be greatly missed. He's left a huge hole in our lives.