Wednesday, 13 July 2016

233. Where's the heat?

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:

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..

Sunday, 10 April 2016

230. The internet at the speed of heat

27th May. Here's an intriguing question that I found at the link below.. Are the English Basque? 

Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer has presented some rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes: To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question.

First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons).

Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic.

And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea. Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.

That means that about 95 out of 100 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

More here.

22nd May. For some reason, I started thinking about La Place des Vosges in Paris. It's one of our favourite places there and it's somewhere we never tire of visiting.

If you don't know it, it's well worth noting it down on your "to do" list for the next time you visit the City of Light. (this is the best video I could find of it.. I know it's not brilliant)

19th May. We did a quick trip to Spain this morning for some shopping. Unfortunately our visit to the ventas at Dancharia coincided with that of a few coach loads of mainly French pensioners.. quite a few of whom seemed to be confused by the whole thing. Aisles were blocked as old dears in charge of shopping trolleys managed to get them tangled up (where's a chain saw when you need one?!) - while others abandoned their shopping trolleys at random (in the manner of cars parked in Naples) while they had a senior moment wondering which 2 litre bottle of pastis, gallon of white port or 10 litre wine box they were going to go for.. (usual answer: all three!). When their shopping was complete, they'd emerge blinking in the sunlight and then the new game would start: pushing an overloaded trolley through the car park traffic without looking left or right! Frightening to consider that many of them were our age! Much to look forward to!☺

16th May. We've been working hard in the garden lately and I think it's now looking close to the finished product (if you can ever say that about a garden). Since we cut down a tree that pigeons used, we've had no further holes pecked in the lawn. At one stage it started to look like a practice putting green! It's taken us 8 years to get to where we are now.. Choosing the right grass seed was by trial and error and so far, there are no signs of dry patches on the lawn. At this time of the year, the growing conditions are just about perfect with warm temps and regular light showers. Later in the year, the sun's heat becomes more intense and rainfall, when it comes, can be, and often is, torrential!

15th May. Time for a Caption Competition.. Here's today's:
Post your entry via the "Comments" below this post.

12th May. I was just re-reading the opening chapter of Peter Mayle's Bon Appétit! when it struck me that his introduction to French cooking was rather similar to my own. Read the first chapter here and see if any of it resonates with youI found myself nodding at his views of French food as he described his first encounter with it in a Parisian restaurant at the age of 19, after growing up in the gastronomic wasteland that was England in the post-war years.

I'd never really enjoyed meat as a boy as it was generally cooked to death* at home - rendering it necessary to chew it interminably. I honestly think my father would have been happier if the kitchen cooker had been replaced by a blowlamp! Meat was never allowed to have any hint of pinkness, or heaven forbid - blood! (Eek!) In fairness, I suspect that my dear mother's cooking was no different to thousands of other mothers back then. I always thought - and I still think now - that she was a great cook though. She did the best she could with what was available at the time - which, if we're being honest, was not a lot. I thought the fact that I disliked meat was my problem. Peter Mayle's account reminded me of the first time I travelled abroad in the early sixties. It was to Switzerland and, like him, I had been forcibly vaccinated with French at school (but I don't think it 'took').

* It used to be said that meat in England was killed twice.. once in the abattoir and then murdered in the kitchen. 

As an 18 year old, I remember finding myself at a loose end in Geneva around lunchtime one day. As I strolled by lakeside restaurants, the magical smells that wafted out from them caused my previously unemployed taste buds to tingle. I stopped at a suitable restaurant with a terrace and ordered a steak-frites.. which was a curious choice, given my lifelong aversion (thus far) to meat. Thinking about it, I probably ordered it because I was fairly confident of being able to pronounce it! When it came, I cut into the steak and rosy juices gushed forth. At home, this would have been the signal for an emergency call to the nearest vet or, at the very least, returned to the kitchen pronto for further remedial blow-lamp treatment.. Instead, I bit into it and voila! An epiphany moment.. So it was that I could finally say so that's what meat tastes like!! Then there were the perfect frites.. 

There's a different attitude to food in the UK.. I remember a former colleague who often asked me on a Monday morning what Madame had made over the weekend. Once, when my reply showed too much enthusiasm for whatever it was we'd had, she said, "But Xxxxxx, it's only food..". I found that such a depressing attitude.

There's nowhere in the world (that I've been to) where the preparation and enjoyment of food is treated with the same love, passion and veneration as here in France. At the very highest level, French restaurants are temples to gastronomy and the pleasures of the table are a serious business. It is taken for granted that the diner has an understanding of what is expected of him and that he will behave accordingly.
Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon, Paris, has long been on my list of places to visit.. One of these days! (Site here) (Menu here

Click on the image to get the full effect..

For more images of food in France, click on this link and scroll down.

A couple of days ago we met some English friends who were on a walking holiday in the Pyrenees. We'd arranged to see them at lunchtime at Bentas de Donamaria (below), a delightfully rustic restaurant in the beautiful Baztan valley in Spain.

The food was Michelin quality.. another place to remember!

7th May. The swallows are back.. darting and twittering around the roofs. This is normally my cue to drag the plancha* out of the garage up to the terrace where it will spend the next six months.
* Not sure what a plancha is? So much better than a charcoal or gas barbeque.. No more cries of "Scrape the black bits off, it's OK underneath..". Look here. Trying cooking the above meal on a barbeque.. Impossible! I can't understand why they haven't taken off in the UK.. If I was looking for a business opportunity, I'd look no further.

6th May. I think we've taken a giant leap into summer here from a standing start. Yesterday after lunch, I was up a ladder in the garden painting a wall white and the temperature was up in the high twenties.. It may even have been above 30°. Mad dogs and Englishmen etc.. I had to put my paintbrush down every so often and drink something cold. Fortunately, I found a couple of bottles of San Miguel  in the fridge in the garage.. Hard work this painting!

My shorts have also had their first airing this year.. after warning the neighbours in advance! Plus, we ate outside for the first time on our terrace. This is how it will be for the next six months.. 

We were in the Baztan valley (right) the other day. It's one of those places that miraculously seems to have avoided mass tourism - or indeed any form of tourism. It's just across the border into Spain (map here) and the scenery is magnificent.. with breathtaking vistas across broad valleys, soaring hillsides, distant peaks, white painted farmhouses dotting the landscape, vultures circling (yes, vultures) and all resplendent in new spring green. Don't take my word for it - look here:


The above photos are all of the Baztan valley. 

I'd been to Elizondo in the Baztan valley with some hill-walking friends a few days previously and I'd spotted an intriguing Art Deco wine cooler in an antigüedades shop.. It's very similar to the one shown here except it only cools one bottle at a time (I can live with that). In the example at left, ice is added via the central lid. In the summer heat on our terrace, a bottle of wine quickly loses its freshness so this new toy will be very welcome. It's difficult to be sure what the metal is (it isn't silver that's for sure) - I'm thinking from my brief examination of it that it may be nickel plate - or similar. In any event, it's the ideal gift for someone like yours truly who never has a clue what he wants for his birthday.. Madame and I went back there a day or two later to pick it up. Regrettably, I'm told that it has to stay hidden away in quarantine until the day itself.

1st May. We ventured deep into la France profonde today.. We'd been invited to lunch by some French friends who'd bought an mid-18th century farmhouse down a single track country lane near Cauneille (about an hour or so inland from here). They've been restoring it for two years and the results were impressive to say the least. They'd opened up the downstairs to form a wonderfully spacious living room, complete with the original open fireplace. There were some heavy beams but they'd painted those pale grey so they weren't as oppressive as they might otherwise have been. The lady of the house had been an interior designer and it showed.. There were many instances of her infallible eye for combining old objects with new. There were some beautiful old pieces of antique French country furniture that she'd brought from her family home. Sitting down at her dining table, it felt to me as if we were in a living tableau of a homage to country living in France.. A really memorable lunch and afternoon. 

12th April. I should also add that we can now receive a vast number of programmes on our TV - but there aren't enough hours in the day to step through them all. Previously, we'd had great difficulty in accessing Sky News and BBC World - the picture would pixillate as though under the influence of mind-bending drugs as the ADSL connection froze, momentarily unblocked & froze again to a chorus of electronic chirrups and squawks.. thus rendering it useless. Now that both are available in HD quality, I can see that we haven't missed much in the preceding 8-9 years! They're both still unwatchable - but for different reasons!

10th April. I had one of those "How did that happen" moments the other day.. when I realised with a jolt that next year, in September 2017, we'll have been here for ten years.. Yes, ten years..! Cue a stream of questions along the following lines: D'you miss England? What do you miss most? Ready to go back? etc etc.. The funny thing is I feel completely at home here and I'm not pining for England at all. In fact, whenever we're in the car driving north up the autoroute towards Bordeaux, I can guarantee that inside the first ½ hour, one of us will say: "Why are we leaving home? Let's go back..". Once we get past Dax, I feel that we're in the north.. This really is a blessèd corner of France. I don't feel the need to go on holiday either as everything I like is right here. We do have the odd short break away - true - but I don't feel deprived in any way by not having a major 2-3 week holiday away to some far away long haul destination.

4th April. We've just had our internet connection upgraded from copper wire to fibre optic and the difference in speed is staggering. We can now watch TV and films on my PC in real time without the picture jerking and freezing momentarily. This is more like it.. Prior to this, we'd only been achieving download speeds in the region of 2Mbps via our ADSL broadband connection - so the new figure (right) is more than a 100-fold improvement.