Sunday, 10 April 2016

230. The internet at the speed of heat

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..". 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.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

229. Up in the clouds

28th March. I came across this image (as you do) by happenstance.. I like to think of it as natural justice in action..

"Right, gentlemen, which one of you was clapping?"
I have little sympathy (as in absolutely zero) with anyone finding themselves in this position!

This afternoon we went to Salies-de-Béarn to see Art en Vrac - an art exhibition that was taking place in many different locations across the village.

Before talking about the art, it should be said that the village is undeniably picturesque and well worth a visit.. Totally different style of building compared to what we see in the Pays Basque.

To me, there was one stand-out artist -  NabARus (it's how she spells her name) - whose work was not only head and shoulders above any other work we saw today but also above anything we've seen for a very long time. The range of her work reflected an original eye, an astonishingly creative mind and a command of colour and technique. More here and here.

This (below) was a large portrait that caught my eye.. I found myself returning to it again and again.. Reduced to this size, it loses much impact but full size is a different story.

This is a painting I would have liked to own.

27th March. Europe's gypsies have an annual pilgrimage (in May) to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer in the Camargue in southern France to pay homage to their Saint - the Black Sara.. This video features that great gypsy guitarist Dorado Schmitt as he and his friends provide the musical accompaniment (I think I've posted this here before - but I make no apologies for doing so again):

Here's Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán with their interpretation of an old 60s hit:
This was Easter morning at the beach at Anglet.. By the way, these aren't Antony Gormley figures made of cast iron on the beach - they're the real thing!

26th March. I believe "Across the Street and into the Grill" won 1st prize in a competition to write the best Hemingway parody. See what you think..! Some more: "Big Too-Hardened Liver".. "Across the suburbs and into the express lane"..

20th March. When I see these images of the old tramway that ran the 6 km from Bayonne to Biarritz via Anglet, it's hard to imagine that these structures actually existed. There are very few traces of them left today.
Here's a video about Biarritz I've been meaning to put here for a while..
16th March. This is a report, featuring the Pays Basque, taken from a series called "100 Must See Places" on France 5 - it starts at 1:13.

15th March. I spent Sunday with a mixed group of walkers from both sides of the frontier in the Baztan valley* retracing a route used by evading Allied airmen during WWII as they made their way across the Pyrenees into Francoist Spain for onward passage to Gibraltar and then England. 
* we were fortunate to have Georgina Howard with us. In addition to running walking holidays in the area, she's a polyglot - speaking English, French, Spanish and Basque!  
Several of the Spanish walkers had family ties with the Comet Line's wartime guides and it was clear that there was much common ground between us. Basque speakers from both parties were soon swapping notes. 

I've walked other routes like this several times before but this was one of the hardest I've experienced. It wasn't helped by the rain-soaked ground that caught some of us out (not me) with slips into water-filled boggy areas - I needed a soggy foot like the proverbial hole in the head. 

We dropped our cars at Amaiur-Maya then took 2 minibuses to the vicinity of the former safe house at Jauriko borda from where we'd start the walk proper. Jauriko borda was a 'safe' farm that lay just inside Spain and it had been used many times by airmen. They'd rest up here after their gruelling night hike that had threaded them through the numerous border patrols, guided by mountain guides in the service of the Comet Line. 

After an hour or two, we came upon a clear area on a hilltop to find a Spanish 4x4 there with a small team preparing an alfresco Spanish-style breakfast for us.. spicy sausages, ham and fresh bread, with cider and/or red wine! (breaking the habits of a lifetime, I stuck to water) This was followed by brioche and coffee.. This surprise meal really hit the spot and gave us the time to talk more with our Spanish Basque hosts.    

Refreshed and replete, we set off again and, for some of us (viz your correspondent), the pain kicked in.. However, loins were girded, teeth were gritted and aches and pains ignored as we traversed some of the most stunning scenery in this part of the world. Wild cattle and horses were in evidence and mountain oak clung on to the hills as we climbed higher and higher until we reached the snow line. Soon it was time to descend again which unfortunately turned out to be just as painful as climbing.. 

This farm Kanttoreneko Borda, that now appears derelict, was used as a 'safe' hiding place in Spain by Comet: 
Finally, after 13km, we arrived back at Amaiur-Maya, the picture postcard Basque village where we'd left our cars 6 hours previously. After changing our mud-splattered walking shoes, we entered a restored mill where the promise of a cold beer awaited us. We were served thin corn flour pancakes filled with cheese and bacon.. and, later, others with dark chocolate.
The whole was a totally beguiling experience and I'll be returning there with Madame before too long.  

I managed to catch the second half of the Scotland - France 6 Nations rugby (well done Scotland!) and then after a bowl of soup, I hit the hay at 8pm.. Instant oblivion.. zzzzz-zzz-zzz-zzzzzzz

Thursday, 3 March 2016

228. The rider who came in from the cold

3rd March. Apologies in advance for this post which is entirely free of any references to the Pays Basque (apart from this). Walter Kaaden, claimed by some to be the father of the modern two stroke engine, died twenty years ago today. I suspect though that his name won't ring as many bells as perhaps it should.

The story of his life reads like a screenplay for a spy film - except that the truth was stranger than fiction. In brief, he'd worked at the Nazi rocket development centre at Peenemunde during WWII and in the early fifties he managed to find a job as head of the racing department at what became MZ motorcycles in the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany). After Germany's defeat in 1945, the factory at Zschopau had been systematically stripped by the Soviets and the machine tools and everything else that moved, including the windows, were shipped back to the USSR. A more inauspicious start you couldn't ask for.

Roadgoing two stroke motorcycles were usually simple, cheap-to-manufacture and run and were predominantly used as ride-to-work machines. Many motorcyclists (of a certain age) around the world would have cut their teeth on BSA Bantams in Europe or on Harley Davidson Hummers in the US without realising that they were straight copies of the ubiquitous DKW RT125 that was mass-produced for the German military. Post-war, it was widely copied and re-manufactured by the Allies as war reparations.

Walter Kaaden was fascinated by the 2 stroke engine as it had the potential, if developed, to achieve prodigiously high power outputs - as it fired once every revolution - compared to once every 2 revolutions for a 4 stroke engine. Up until then, the efficiency of a normally aspirated 2 stroke engine was low compared to that of a 4 stroke. All this was about to change.

Kaaden had extremely limited resources and he had to work on the proverbial shoestring. His work at Peenemunde had exposed him to the science of pressure waves that were used so effectively in the pulse jet engine of the V-1. Post-war, he painstakingly investigated exhaust expansion chambers to utilise the reverse pressure wave in order to improve the breathing of the 2 stroke engine. At most rpm settings, the position of the reverse pressure wave didn't match the position of the piston. However, at certain critical rpm settings the pressure wave reflected back from the expansion chamber met the excess charge emerging from the exhaust port and returned it to the cylinder under pressure thus ensuring that it was burnt. Outside the optimum rev range, the performance of the engine would have been unremarkable. However, once the engine hit that crucial and narrow rev band, the power would suddenly chime in and the rider had better hang on tight. The more power that Kaaden extracted from these engines, the narrower the optimum rpm band became (in some cases it was only a band of 400rpm). Accordingly, the number of gears available to the rider grew to 6, 9 and finally 14 speeds in the attempt to keep the engine operating within that critical rpm range.

A standard measure of efficiency of an internal combustion engine was, and still is, a power output of 100bhp per litre. Within just a few short years Walter Kaaden (right) had raised that figure for the MZ 2 stroke engine to over 200bhp per litre with the aid of carefully designed expansion chambers, a rotary disc inlet valve and a booster port. He managed to squeeze out 25bhp from a 125cc machine.. thus being the first motorcycle to get into the 200bhp per litre bracket. It was a water-cooled 125cc, with an 8 speed box and a 131mph top speed. All this in 1965!

A race-bred 2 stroke engine will never win any prizes for its sound.. Listen to an early MZ 125 race bike.. and then compare it to Agostini's MV in the Isle of Man.. especially when it fades into the distance..

Unfortunately for Walter Kaaden, his star rider, Ernst Degner (left), defected to the west in 1961 to hand over MZ's hard-won secrets to the Suzuki motorcycle company. Suzuki had been struggling - and failing - to get to grips with 2 stroke technology until Ernst Degner came along (whose palm had been greased with the equivalent of £10,000). At the time, MZ were within touching distance of a first World title but Degner's defection put paid to that as Honda took the title.

Here's Kaaden with the MZ team, probably taken in 1961, from l to r: Kaaden, Mike Hailwood, Alan Shepherd, Ernst Degner, unknown. Much more of this intriguing story here and here (scroll down to Post 37).

Why my interest in this story? Well firstly, the Kaaden story is one of a man's obsession to prove a principle, made more compelling by the fact he achieved great things without the help of a research department backed by millions of the manufacturer's money. I think there's a parallel to be drawn with Frank Whittle, one of the early pioneers of the jet engine.

Secondly, I've owned some interesting 2 stroke motorcycles in the past. When I was 18, I had a 1948 Scott Squirrel - a 600cc watercooled 2 stroke twin with total loss lubrication. I reluctantly sold it after it seized on me once too often. Here's a model from the late twenties - my 1948 model differed from it only in detail:

Much later in life, I read that the Scott concept had been resurrected and updated by George Silk. He redesigned the engine while keeping the basic concept (watercooled 2 stroke twin) - but he fitted an oil pump (similar to the Yamaha autolube system) that, in theory at least, should have eradicated seizures. I managed to find a Silk 700S (more here) and buy it. It was an astonishingly light machine with race-bred handling that weighed in at only 305lbs (138kg) - less than a Honda 250 but with a 650cc engine. The 2 stroke principle is attractive: very few moving parts compared to a 4 stroke, a power stroke with every revolution of the crankshaft and finally, lightness.

The late Colin Chapman, the ever-inventive Lotus race-car designer had two maxims that best expressed his philosophy:

"Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere" and
"Simplify, then add lightness..".

Apologies for including this post but it's a fascinating story (to me!). And now back to the Pays Basque!

Friday, 5 February 2016

227. End of an era

21st February. You've not come here to read about Brexit have you? Good - that's just as well because I won't mention it again. We all have our views on the subject and if anyone is really interested in it, there's plenty of column inches out there in the print media - plus countless talking heads on TV and radio.. 

20th February. I inherited Madame's old phone recently and I finally remembered to take it with me this morning when I took the dog down to the beach at Anglet.. There were very few people about. Looking at the picture, I can see I'm going to have to work on my technique, ie, keeping it level! That's Spain in the distance and the outcrop to the left of centre is known as the "Trois Couronnes" (the Three Crowns). The mountain scenery there is magnificent.
Best in full screen!
Here's one of a sunny Biarritz taken an hour ago.. Again, click on it to see it best:

19th February. 

I read somewhere once that the overwhelming majority of visitors (something like 95% of them) to the Pays Basque in summer don't venture further inland than 5km from the coast. It's true that in summer, whenever I've been up on the hills and mountains, that you could be excused for thinking that it was not the prime tourist season as you seldom see a soul. Blissful solitude.. However, I would recommend to all visitors here that they take at least one day out of their holiday on the beautiful Côte Basque to visit the interior, and especially to climb the hills.. It's incredibly rewarding.. and the views of the Pyrenees marching away to the south east in their blue serried ranks will stay with you forever.

The following clip shows a gentle introduction to the pleasures of hill-walking here:

Spectacular aerial views of the mountains on the "other side" (Spanish Basque country) - plus Mark Knopfler's "Going Home".. 
7th February. After the first weekend of the "6 Nations", some dreams are already lying in tatters. Firstly, Italy, Scotland, Wales and Ireland can't now win the Grand Slam.. and secondly, none of the last three can win the Triple Crown either. And judging by their rambunctious performance against the lack-lustre French XV, my money's on Italy to cause an upset or two. Stars to watch over the next few weeks? For Italy, the evergreeen Sergio Parisse and the Italian winger Sarto. For France, it can only be the former 7s player Virimi Vakatawa - who made a hugely impressive debut.

Jack Clifford came on for England with about 10 minutes left on the clock. I hope we see more of him as the tournament unfolds. He's a future England captain if ever I saw one. As for Scotland, Greig Laidlaw would grace any team. Hope he has a good tournament.

Pleased to see that they played the Black Bear and Scotland the Brave at Murrayfield yesterday.. If only they'd kick that maudling dirge Flower of Scotland into the long grass.

The Ireland - Wales match was a hard-fought encounter with no obvious man of the match..

5th February. I've finally had to come to the conclusion that my rowing days are over.. This has been forced on me by circumstances, aka my creaky knees. Once I'm in the boat, no problem.. but the killer for me is that, after a sortie, I'm unable to get out of the boat without assistance.. and I don't want to be the lame duck in the crew. I've rowed for around 55 years with one or two breaks and I know I'm going to miss everything about being out on the water early in the morning with a good crew when all is working as it should. The whirring sound of 8 seats sliding to and fro in unison, the blades being squared and feathered together, the surge of power when the cox calls for it, the way the boat sings when it's running well, the total concentration on making the current stroke better than the last one, being "in the zone" when it all comes together.. all these things I'll miss. I know it. But - there we are.. I've enjoyed the sport more than I can explain. I had been hoping that I'd be able to row for a few more years yet.. but sadly it's not to be.

Sylvie et Philippe
2nd February. Just back from a very tasty (and very reasonably priced) lunch at the Café du Musée, Bayonne. It's situated at the confluence of the Adour and the Nive and it's one of those places that you hear about from friends. We've been there three or four times now - and the menu has been different each time. No walk-ins though.. Must reserve a table by phone (05 59 59 16 39). It's run by Sylvie (front of house) and Philippe (galley slave). Friendly & welcoming, it appears on a list of good restaurants in Bayonne. Highly recommended. 

While we're talking about restaurants, I must mention Les 3 Soeurs (Ahizpak in Basque) at Bidart. If you do make a visit, the Crêpe soufflée à l’orange (below) is a 'must'.. (more pictures here
Here's a short list of good addresses at Biarritz. The only one I can vouch for is the first - Miremont - the fabled pâtisserie in the centre of town. You owe it to yourself to try at least one of their cakes.. or ices.