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 you shuffled off this mortal coil it would be this version by Maria Callas:


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.

Col du Tourmalet


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) by accident the other day in time to watch the semis between England and Canada. I'd previously watched very little womens' rugby in the past and it was always a case of after a few minutes the off button on the remote seemed an attractive option. They played with seemingly little commitment, passion and skill - but I have to see that this is no longer the case. Tidying my sock drawer  

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.  
Carcassonne



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 a good splash of sugar cane syrup, the juice of a freshly squeezed lime, 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..  

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..! 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.. and "Desperate Housewives" is all the rage here 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.." 

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:  


The French TV station TF1 has just reported on a European-wide poll designed to reveal all the bad driving habits peculiar to each nation.. Full results here. Here's the news clip:


Just as well TF1 didn't come down here to the Pays Basque - that's all I'm saying..! ☺

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..

video

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!☺

Enjoy:


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.."