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..

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..


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

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


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

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

Best viewed in 1080p HD full screen..

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

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

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

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

Friday, 31 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here's the match in its entirety:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 January 2014

211. Looking forward to 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Shea, a young Australian filmmaker, completed the walk in 2004. It took him 34 days to walk the 764km , he carried 18 kg of gear and he lost 8 kg in weight! Here's his film:

Listening to Mark's account of his trek, it strikes me that these lines from The Golden Journey To Samarkand are very appropriate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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