Friday, 12 August 2016

234. Back in town..

23rd August. I was out at the déchetterie (tip) earlier this afternoon and 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 a lightning 1½ day tour of all the Pays Basque hotspots (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Dantcharia, Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, Bayonne, Biarritz), we found ourselves in a gift shop in the beautiful border village of Ainhoa. There was a stack of berets there and 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 flown 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 infamous Route Nationale 7, an old-style national trunk road that linked Paris with the Côte Azur before the advent of the autoroutes. After WWII, the French economy - and car ownership - boomed ("Les trente glorieuses") and thus the stage was set for the RN7 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 RN7. 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 to Paris via the RN7. 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 post war years.

Something similar happened here with the RN7. 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 RN7 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 the 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.     

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

231. Into summer

1st July. I'm not one of those slightly obsessive fans of all things railway - but I must admit that the "Jacobite" train that runs from Fort William to Mallaig through magnificent mountain and coastal scenery on Scotland's west coast has my full attention! 
The Glenfinnan viaduct (aka the Harry Potter viaduct)

Yes, I know it's not fast but speed isn't everything. It's only a 42 mile trip as well - but what a 42 miles! (it takes just over 2hrs) I've been on much longer train journeys (one in particular lasted 4 days) but there's something about this journey that appeals to me very much. Those Scottish hills are made for steam.. Pity they couldn't find an observation car to hitch on the back.. Or, even better, a US-style "club car" with a rounded end where you could sit and watch the world go by while enjoying a dose of Dr Glenmorangie's finest 12 year old tincture!☺ Watch it in full screen and see what you think:

27th June. I was out and about this morning in Bayonne when I spotted one of these (right). I've been meaning to mention for some time the appearance in Bayonne of some of those exotic-looking modes of transport from Thailand - yes, I'm talking about the Tuk-Tuk.. They look like a nice way for tourists to get about the local area, especially when it's hot. Personally, I wouldn't be seen dead in one! They remind me of those 'trains' that circulate on the roads around resorts, like this!

There's another curious mode of transport (this time for small packages) that's sprung up here - the oddly-named Hemengo Erlea company that runs these pedal-powered delivery vehicles (left)..

Buried by all the EU Referendum froth over the weekend was this stunning performance by England in winning the final Test Match against the Australian Wallabies. A truly thrilling match in which the lead changed hands no fewer than ten times, it was impossible to guess which team would emerge victorious at the final whistle.. Some great rugby was played by both teams and there was an avalanche of tries.. Boring it wasn't. I haven't had time to watch it again but I will be doing so. To win all three matches of a Test Series against Southern Hemisphere opposition in their own backyard was a monumental achievement. Remember, this England side were booted out of their own World Cup (by Wales) only last year. How times have changed.
Meanwhile, the seismic aftershocks following the result of the UK's referendum on our continued membership of the EU continue to rumble on. The European media is full of wild speculation and much ill-judged and premature comment from opportunist politicians of all persuasions. I think the wisest course of action would be for everyone to sit on their hands for a while. My view is that the referendum tapped into a long-simmering discontent with the direction that the EU has taken towards a superstate, with the loss of sovereignty implied in that. The unelected cabal of the top echelons of the EU failed to seek popular support from the electorate across Europe for their grandiose ambitions for a monolithic state. I think they seriously misjudged the mood of many. Indeed, over the last weekend, many French friends were supportive of the outcome of the UK referendum and expressed the wish that they too could vote on this issue.      

25th June. We had an enjoyable lunch yesterday with fourteen of Madame's painting group at the Hotel/Restaurant du Chêne at Itxassou.. It's well worth a visit if you're ever in the area. It was our first visit in 25 years! (images here) It came as no surprise to me that, as a result of the hot news of the day (the outcome of the UK Referendum), many of the group were curious about my reaction. They seemed fully in sympathy with my view that the EU had outgrown its original remit. In my opinion, the cloistered political classes in Brussels led their ideals run away with them and they embarked down a path in a direction that few wanted, other than themselves. I think the results would be quite instructive if other countries were to ask themselves the same Leave/Remain question. However, I'm not holding my breath. A wise American once said to me: Don't ask the question if you can't stand the answer. I think that applies in this instance.  

24th June. I normally avoid discussing politics here but today is very special.. this song enscapsulates my mood following the UK referendum decision to leave the EU. My view: I love Europe, but I dislike intensely the undemocratic construct the EEC morphed into. The UK almost bankrupted itself during WWII to restore democracy to Europe and yet somehow it managed to sleepwalk into a corrupt political union led by unelected commissars (commissionaires in EU-speak), led by unelected nameless leaders with their own agenda, with a toothless European parliament. It's worth paying any price to free ourselves from this mess to regain control of our own affairs. (I speak as one who is in receipt of a UK pension paid in sterling.)
Another look at the "Pays Basque" from France 3 TV:
23rd June. I've mentioned Ernest Hemingway before here - he lived an enviable, though perhaps over-marinaded, life to the full in many exotic locations in those golden years prior to mass tourism - so I was grateful to the BBC for including this short tale from his former cook in Cuba.

22nd June. The forecast for this afternoon is 35°.. so I was up and out early with the pooch this morning while it's still reasonably cool. He's almost 15 and the vet says he has a heart murmur - so the old boy has to be looked after. I gave the garden a good soaking last night and another this morning as I'm trying to keep the lawn green. Probably fighting a losing battle there.

On Friday, we're heading off to the hills for a lunch with Madame's painting group.. They're a lively crowd - so we're looking forward to that.

We had an invite from the people at the bottom of the garden to an "apéro-dinatoire" on Saturday evening. In case you're wondering what an apéro-dinatoire is, it lies somewhere between "come round for a drink" and "come round for dinner".. A few households have got together to invite all the residents of their cul-de-sac and us (who back onto it). We've been asked to bring something sweet or savoury.. I think it's a very sociable idea as it will enable us to meet all those we've been on nodding terms with for a while.

And to round off the weekend, there's a lunch arranged for my choir on Sunday..!

20th June. A change of gear from the rugby.. I was browsing YouTube earlier and I happened upon this sublime piece by Gabriel Fauré.. who wrote it at the age of 19. Listen to it and, if it's new to you, I'd be surprised if it didn't have the same impact on you as it did on me. I also discovered that it's in the repertoire of the choir I sing with.
18th June. This second Test match between Australia and England is one that will go down in the history books.. What a performance by both teams.. For me, Australia came out too hyped up.. but after some initial handbags, it settled down and the Aussies must be wondering what they have to do to score against this magnificent England side. A great team effort and everyone out there played their part. It wasn't pretty but England will take the win and the series.
16th June. The latest craze for 2017?

14th June. Here are the highlights of that Springboks Ireland match I promised you.. (haven't seen it myself yet)

11th June. Today saw England play the first of a series of 3 Test matches against the Australian Wallabies - and what an epic encounter it turned out to be.. The match starts at 16:19 into the video..
Ireland played South Africa today but I missed that match. I'll post a video of the game asap.

8th June. The big local news is that by beating Stade Aurillacois 21-16 on Saturday night, Aviron Bayonnais find themselves back in the Top 14, much to the delight of the locals (an especially sweet development since arch local rivals Biarritz are still rooted in Division 2..!)

4th June. This evening we had another pilgrimage to Chez Pantxua, one of our favourite restaurants on the Côte Basque. As always, it was absolutely faultless. (They have a cod omelette as a starter on their menu - mmm!) It's ideally situated (map here) by the sailing centre at Socoa (just across the bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz) with a large car park nearby. Afterwards, a post-prandial waddle around the harbour is the perfect end to the evening.

3rd June. Two or three little-known factoids for you when it all goes quiet in the snug:

The first motor race to be called a Grand Prix was held at Pau on the street circuit that runs around the town centre. Hard to imagine that those technically advanced cars from the great German teams of the 1930s - Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union - raced around these narrow streets.

Place Royale
I read the other day that Mary Lincoln, the widow of the assassinated US president, moved to Pau in 1876 and lived there for 4 years at two addresses before settling on the Hôtel de la Paix that formerly was situated in the quintessentially French square Place Royale, Pau. The former Hôtel de la Paix has since been converted into apartments (next to Le Majestic restaurant).

Villa Eugénie
And in a similar move, the Empress Eugénie (widow of Napoleon III) moved to England following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. She lived at Farnborough Hill (now a Catholic Girls School) from 1880 until her death in 1920. She had previously spent her summers at the magnificent Villa Eugénie - now the Hotel du Palais at Biarritz.    

Following a disastrous fire in 1903, the Villa Eugénie was rebuilt and enlarged as we see it today in all its glory.
Hotel du Palais

While we're talking about Pau (which, curiously, is the capital of both Béarn and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques), there's an interesting funicular railway.. Take a ride on it going up.. or going down..