Tuesday, 10 March 2015

219. Bye bye winter blues..

Tuesday 10th March.. I think I may have been out in the sun too long!☺

Here's yet another reminder (as if you needed it) of just why the Pays Basque is such a special place..

Thursday, 19th March. Yes, I know the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament has been rumbling on over the past few weeks and this weekend will see the title being decided. (I've been busy!) All I'll say is this: so far England beat Wales; Ireland beat England; Wales beat Ireland.. This weekend England play France, Italy play Wales and Scotland play Ireland. Who's going to take the top spot - your guess is as good as mine. Here's how the bookies see it.

Here are some highlights from last weekend's matches:

Sunday 22nd March. The rugby world is still buzzing after one of the most thrilling rugby weekends ever. It started with Wales and then Ireland racking up big scores against Italy (20-61) and Scotland (10-40) respectively before the final match of the tournament - England vs France. This long-awaited finale to the 2015 6 Nations tournament had just about everything (except 6 more points for England!) to stir even the most jaded of armchair viewers and, right from the start, it was a treat for lovers of attacking rugby. England needed a 26 point victory against France to seal the championship but it wasn't to be. How many visiting teams score 35 points at Twickenham and still find themselves on the losing side? How many times have England scored 55 points against les Bleus? This was a game of fine margins.. 


Well done to Joe Schmidt and his Ireland side - worthy winners of the tournament..!

Never been to Paris? Got 3 minutes to spare..? Watch this:

Thursday 16th April. In common with many other regions of Europe we've enjoyed some stunning weather during the last few days with temperatures up in the high twenties. It's officially the start of the shorts and t shirt season.. and we've been eating outside again. What a difference the sun makes to a day. While the first 3 months of the year were unremittingly wet there is one happy outcome - the green bit in the garden is looking like a lawn..! Wonder how long I can keep it looking like that? 

Long term readers of this blog (yes, you at the back, madam!) will be aware of my interest in the Comet Line / réseau Comète - the network set up in WWII to enable shot down aircrew to return to Britain to continue the fight. After housing and feeding them, nursing the wounded back to health, kitting them out with clothes and equipping them with false papers, Comète brought the evading aircrew from Holland and Belgium down through Paris and on to the south west of France before pausing in the Pays Basque. From there, they would cross the Pyrenees by night into Spain, where they would be picked up by a British diplomatic car and whisked off to Madrid and Gibraltar - and then home. 

Comète's operations here were run by the indefatigable Mme Elvire De Greef (aka "Tante Go") and her family who lived at the "Villa Voisin" in Anglet - midway between Bayonne and Biarritz.. The De Greef family were Belgian refugees who'd fled their homeland following the invasion of their country in May 1940 and had taken up residence in Anglet. The mayor of Anglet offered them an empty property to them and this was the "Villa Voisin".  

Every September, the Comète faithful assemble in the Pays Basque to pay tribute to those brave souls who gave so much in the cause of freedom at great personal risk. We visit sites of interest and re-trace the old footpaths over the Pyrenees into Spain during the course of a long weekend. One of the sites we traditionally visit is the "Villa Voisin". 

When I first saw it some 5 years ago, it sent a shiver through me as it appeared completely unchanged from the very few wartime photos of it that exist. It appeared abandoned and access was impossible. All the photographs of it taken in the last few decades have the same viewpoint - from the garden gate. 

We learnt recently that the property has been bought by a developer and it is scheduled for demolition in October of this year. A lady living nearby has been authorised to sell off the contents - some of which date back to the De Greefs - and a few days ago, we (the committee of "Les amis du réseau Comète") were given access to the property to photograph it inside and out. 

It's something of a time capsule and it's not too hard to picture it as it was. here are a number of photographs that show, for the first time, this property that knew so many secrets.


Monday, 20th April. Sad to hear on the lunchtime news that Richard Anthony has died.. He was one of the very few French pop singers in the sixties who made an impact in the UK. We had a number of his EPs (that dates me!) at home - we had the very one below - but I think he'll be best remembered for his great cover version of this nostalgic Peter Paul and Mary song:   

More here.

Wednesday, 29th April. This story on the BBC website made me laugh this morning.. the history of how the British Establishment feared the sun.

This photograph in the story caught my eye.. Apparently they are dogs receiving sunlamp treatment for rickets and a leg injury, in 1949. They look as though they're enjoying the experience!

Then there's this photograph from 1935:

It caused a wry smile to range briefly across your correspondent's wizened features.. the dutiful husband applying what could only have been "Calamine lotion" to his wife's back while she takes her mind off things by seizing the opportunity to drink a cup of tea.. (you never know when the opportunity might arise again!) 

Cue nostalgic music.. When I was a boy, there was no such thing as sun tan lotion / cream / protection / sprays in all the various guises and factors that we see today.. No, we played out in what passed for sun in the UK until we reddened like so many lobsters - at which point Calamine lotion was applied to our sizzling skins.. It was pink and with a very distinctive smell that I haven't encountered for years. Am I the only one to remember this? Surely not!

Friday, 2 January 2015

218. 2015 - off and running!

The Arcachon basin
Friday, 2nd January 2015. A lot of something or other (most of it around 13.5° BV) has flowed under the bridge since I was last here.

We've just returned from a very enjoyable few days away over the New Year visiting family at Andernos-les-Bains on the north-eastern shore of the Arcachon basin (right). We've been there before but I don't think we've ever seen it looking so beautiful and as it was out of season, the traffic was still 'fluid' and driving through the coastal pines was still a pleasure - with very few camper vans (or 'camping cars' as they're known here) or caravans out and about. The basin is famous for its oyster beds and its shores are well-supplied with oyster shacks.

On New Year's day, we had lunch at La Parqueuse at Andernos-les-Bains. This was a simply furnished restaurant in the Port Ostréicole (above) that cut out all the middlemen.. it specialised in fish and seafood direct from the boat to the table. We all decided on the turbot (right) as a main course after oysters or fish soup. I'd only once eaten turbot before - and in any case, never a whole one - and, due to its price elsewhere, I doubt that I ever will again. We were all reduced to companionable silence as we enjoyed it with a white Graves.. A wonderful fish. (for the curious, it was 21€)

Afterwards, we drove around and down to Cap Ferret (below) for some fresh air and also to move the blood around.. It's one of those 'go-to' locations that exerts a strange kind of pull on people. Property here is wince-makingly expensive and there were several highly desirable properties as we neared the tip of Cap Ferret (below). The five or so dark objects along the water's edge in the middle of the photo are the remnants of Hitler's much-vaunted Atlantic Wall. Yesterday saw the Cape pleasantly crowded with strollers like us walking off their lunches.. 

There were some spectacular views across the Arcachon basin in the slanting afternoon sunshine. It was classic Kodak weather.. with warm long-shadowed light that was perfect for picture taking. We enjoyed a bright and crisp afternoon under cloudless blue skies, but it rapidly turned cooler once the sun neared the horizon towards 6pm. On the return we stopped off at the small oyster farming community of L'Herbe.. which was almost too photogenic to be true. (video here) Access and parking in the height of summer must be a nightmare.

A tightly-knit grouping of wooden cabins - the majority of which were connected with the oyster farming culture - lay in serried ranks above the waterline. At its centre, the ornate "gingerbread" wooden facade (left) of Chez Magne - Hotel de la Plage - looked intriguing and worth a visit on another day.

I took some photos looking across the basin towards distant Arcachon:

The oyster beds for which the basin is rightly famous for and, if I say so myself, this image is worth clicking on!☺The "dune de Pyla" can be seen in the background (below). Its claim to fame is that, at 107m, it's the highest sand dune in Europe.

Before I forget, I was at our local fishmongers at ~4pm on Christmas Eve picking up our order. There were a couple of people ahead of me. The lady at the head of the queue was there to pick up her order.. She'd ordered 3 "plateaux de fruits de mer" - an assortment of langoustines, crabs, oysters, whelks, mussels and prawns on a bed of ice and presented in 3 polystyrene boats, each about 2 feet long as here (left).. I set my ears to max sensitivity to hear what her bill amounted to.. "260-odd euros.." ("Whaaaat??") The next customer picked up his order - a similar boat but this time full of oysters instead.. ("80-something euros!!") Crisis? What crisis!

When it was my turn, while my order was being wrapped up, I asked the friendly lady who was working like a dervish what time she started work that morning.. She said 2am... In France, the Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. I asked her what she was planning on doing that evening. She was going to her sister's and eating - yes, you've guessed it - seafood!

On Christmas morning, I walked past the shop and there she was again after another 2am start.. Contrary to what you might read, they don't all work 35 hour weeks in France.

Sunday, 4th January. Yesterday afternoon we went to Biarritz to walk the dog along the sea front of la grande plage (the main beach). It was a sunny 14°C.. (with the sea temperature a decidedly bracing 12°) As always, we were struck by the brightness of the light compared to that of Bayonne (which is all of about 5 miles away as the crow flies). It was approaching high tide and the sea was a foam-flecked hypnotic turmoil of conflicting waves crashing into each other. As we watched with several others, a lone swimmer (with no wet suit!) ran down the beach into the boiling surf and with a few strokes was soon heading out into the towering rollers. Brave man!

Changing the subject: here's a web site that could be a boon to any Anglo expats who aren't as fluent in French as they'd like and who are looking for English-speaking services/businesses. Give InEnglish a try...

24th January. We're experiencing a very liquid winter here..  it's not cold enough for snow - at least, not down here close to sea level. We were up in the hills yesterday in Spain on a shopping raid and the near peaks of the Pyrenees were all snow-covered. But for us, it's rain and lots of it. As we were in Spain, I took the opportunity of topping up with diesel and for the first time in a long time, at 0.999€, it was less than a euro for a litre.

The other bright spot on the horizon is that Ye Olde British Pound Sterling is doing exceptionally well against the euro.. the last time I looked it was trading at £1 = 1.34€. As most of our pensions are paid in pounds, this is very good news for us indeed! Happy days! Just to put things into perspective though, when we came over here in September 2007, a pound was worth 1.47€ just before it plummeted to just shy of parity.  The fact that the UK was not in the euro zone meant that we were exposed to fluctuations in the exchange rate and this had been the one risk, the one unknown when we were making the decision whether or not to move to France. I'd anticipated that the pound/euro rate would move around a little but neither of us were prepared for the pound's seemingly unstoppable plunge against the euro shortly after we moved here. They were worrying times but, despite the massive reduction in our income, we decided we'd sit it out.

Saturday, 31st January.  I received an email from the rowing club yesterday to the effect that all rowing on the Nive this weekend has been cancelled. This decision has no doubt been made due to the heavy rain of the last few days. It only takes a day or two for the rainwater to run off the steep sided slopes of the Pyrenees and suddenly the water levels rise rapidly and the river fills up with all kinds of detritus such as whole trees that become uprooted and barely visible tree trunks that bob along at speed. Three years ago - in January - I was out in a IV when we hit one of these trees. It was almost completely submerged and yes, the tree won. Story here. So having once experienced contact with a tree, I have absolutely no wish to repeat the experience! Here's one rower who's happy to stay at home this morning..

Monday, 9th March.. The warmer drier weather (at last!) has brought with it the first sighting of returning cranes after their winter break further south. You can see them here taking advantage of a thermal before adopting their usual vee-shaped formation.

Saturday saw me down on the river after many weeks of absence due to the heavy rain that we've been plagued with - which caused the river to be full of semi-submerged debris. The warm weather had brought many of us out and we were able to put out 2 VIIIs and a number of IVs and pairs. I went out in a coxless IV. There was a strong current running and it made the outward leg upstream a real flog. However, once we'd turned around, the boat really took off and we had to take care with all the other boats out on the river. It was hard work yesterday after the lay-off.. that's all I'm saying!

Monday, 8 December 2014

217. Seasons greetings to all!

8th December 2014. Or, as they say here, "Zorionak!" I can't believe that Christmas is once again upon us and almost within touching distance.. From us here in a dripping Pays Basque (at least it's still not freezing) I wish all of you "out there" our best wishes for a very Happy Christmas..

A few posts ago (here) I listed some of the Eternal Laws of DIY that I've discovered during a long career of exercising what I laughingly call my craft skills. This is not an exhaustive list..! Carrying on from where I left off last time, here we go:

15. Never start a job on a Sunday afternoon.
16. You can never find the thing you need until you don't need it.
17. Someone will have used the last bandage/band aid the day before you do involuntary finger surgery.
18. The only known supplier of the part you need closed down last weekend.
19. The most useless tool in your tool box is the wrong size Allen Key!
20. Superglue is a must for many DIY tasks - it is guaranteed to rapidly and permanently stick objects to anything other than that intended.
21. Despite clearing up after a job and putting everything back on the right hook, in the right box, in the right place on the right shelf - things disappear.

This is an image of the Pays Basque that captures something of the brooding quality of the landscape here.

© Jean Cazaux

23rd December 2014.  I knew I'd forgotten to mention something.. About a week ago we finally made it to Chez Mattin, a highly recommended little restaurant buried deep in the heart of Ciboure. We'd known about it for a while and it had long been on our "to do" list.. but it had been another of those places that for some reason or another we'd never quite got around to visiting. I think it was because if we ever find ourselves in this neighbourhood at lunchtime, with the food "Low Level" light showing steady red and we want something fishy, we are normally drawn irresistibly to Chez Pantxua at nearby Socoa.     

However, not this time, Moriarty! We took the precaution of booking because a few weeks earlier, we'd (meaning me) had a rush of blood to the head and we'd swung by Chez Mattin one lunchtime looking to ease our way in, only to find that it was fully booked. (which says it all) 

It's simply furnished, almost in a "bar" style, but when listening to the owner reciting the specialities of the day, you quickly realise that this is a serious establishment.. A friend had recommended that we try the "Ttorro" - a rich fish soup with monkfish, hake, langoustines and mussels. 

I think this is an instance where a picture is worth a thousand words.. Served in a heavy copper pan, we ladled it out and savoured the rich steamy aroma that rose up.. The soup hid numerous great chunks of fish.. This was a dish that will live long in the memory. 
The wine list had caused me to pause - because there were some serious bottles there. In the end, we settled on a half bottle of the local Jurançon, a 2013 Domaine Cauhapé (Geyser). This was really a great white wine.. one to stop you dead in your tracks. I'll try and remember to keep an eye out for Domaine Cauhapé the next time I'm standing hypnotised in front of a few hundred metres of shelving in the wine department!

So - Chez Mattin - one to remember then.

30th December 2014. If there's anybody out still reading this, have a great night tomorrow evening and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015!


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 shuffling off this mortal coil I'd still be dithering between the following two pieces when the man with the scythe came a-knocking..

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. Had a few days away at Argèles-Gazost up in the high Pyrenees during the Fêtes de Bayonne.. This is something to try next time we're there:
This is a favourite location of ours - it's the Col du Tourmalet that's often used in the Tour de France.. (click to enlarge it)

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) the other day in time to watch the semis between England and Canada. I've not been able to watch much womens' rugby in the past and it was always a case of after a few minutes the "off" button on the remote seemed an increasingly attractive option. In the past, the womens game was played with seemingly little in the way of commitment, intensity and basic skills - but I'm happy to say that this is no longer the case. Tidying my sock drawer isn't my preferred option any more! Take a look at this:
20th October 2014. Whooo-ooosh - that's the summer gone! Well, almost. For the last few days we've been enjoying an Indian summer here - it was 30°+ yesterday with more of the same forecast for today. I'm still in t shirt and shorts - but don't worry, I've warned the neighbours!☺

Yesterday we met up with Perry & Caroline (Taylor), a lively and charming Anglo-Dutch couple who I've mentioned before here. They live in the heart of Gascony a couple of hours to the east.

Perry is a talented graphic artist and recently he's been producing a series of cartoons that take a wry and affectionate look at the people of Gascony. I think he's found a seam of life in la France profonde that's rich in comic potential and his latest offering - Petites Gasconneries - could well be his breakthrough book.

Publishing is a notoriously difficult field for a new author to gain a foothold in but I think he's well on the way to getting there.

Here's one of his takes on local life that makes me laugh each time I look at it:

If you'd like to know more, take a few minutes to look through his website - his work deserves a much wider audience! This book will keep you going through those long northern winters until your next visit to the south west of France - a region that has preserved its strongly flavoured country traditions largely intact. If you love this blessèd region of France this would be an ideal stocking filler! (and no, before you ask - I'm not receiving any commission for this!☺)

21st October. "Where Did The Time Go" Dept.. We realised with a jolt last month that we've been here for 7 years already! (how did that happen?) There are always the same old questions that everyone seems to want to ask - and they all run along the same lines: do you miss England / do you have any regrets / do you think you'll go back one day? The answer is below*. We miss seeing our friends but as with so many of us these days, our friendships tend to be widely dispersed and so even in England we didn't see our friends that regularly.

I think for every one of us who takes the plunge and moves to France there must be ten (at least) who would like to but who can't for various reasons - reasons that usually involve parents or children and especially grandchildren. This is understandable but nowadays the world has become a smaller place. Once upon a time, if friends moved abroad, it was as though they'd moved to another planet. Today, with the extensive network of low cost flights around Europe travel has never been more affordable. And to fill in the gaps between visits, there's Skype.. one of the minor miracles of the age.

To those of you who are free to consider a move to France, the hardest part of the move is making the decision to go. Once you've done that, everything falls into place. If you are thinking about a move here, don't skimp on the decision-making process. (repeat ten times before going to bed!) When in England, I watched many of those French property shows that consider  the house finding process in isolation. It's so easy to be seduced by low prices, sunshine, a glass of wine on the terrace and the French lifestyle that's perceived to be "laid-back" - whatever that means. Before you even start looking at houses here, you should be asking yourself what kind of life you want to lead. (We moved here on retirement and so we only had a limited number of questions to ask ourselves.) What are your plans for the long term? Is it to be a permanent move? Could you see yourself one day in a French nursing home? Or would you be looking to return to the UK for the final "hurrah"?

Only you will know what questions to ask yourself. Be honest and clear with yourself about what you really want. It might be that renting a gîte here every summer would get rid of the "itch"..

For us, the move here closed one chapter and opened another. I think that far too much is made of the so-called French bureaucratic nightmare when newcomers engage with the institutions that govern life here. I was astonished at just how helpful people were to us. I think the key is to do your homework - research what is required and make sure that before starting on the bureaucratic paper trail that you are in possession of all the various forms and original documents required.

* For us, the answer to the exam question is, to a greater or lesser extent, no to the questions posed above - the move has been a very positive experience.
We were in Biarritz yesterday afternoon and while people were on the beach, I noticed that the chap who sells hot chestnuts was already in business outside Galeries Lafayette.. (bottom right hand corner above)

1st November. A long outing this morning on the river - I went out in a yolette (a beamy IV) and we went up-river as far as the weir at Ustaritz. This made for a round trip of some 25km.. but because we gelled well together as a crew, it was not as tiring as it can be sometimes when the boat is all over the place ("a technical term, your honour") ie, when the timing is approximate and there's no balance.. The weather was an unbelievably unseasonal 25° and the river has never looked better. The trees had just started to turn a russet green/brown and a few leaves were spiralling down in slow motion. If only it was like this every week! We beached the boat just under the weir and someone produced coffee and croissants.. (my old rowing master at school never did this!)

4th November. Well, that's it.. I think we've seen the end of our extended summer. I was out yesterday evening at choir practice and when we all left the building afterwards there was the mother of all monsoons raging outside - with the kind of rain normally reserved for Hollywood films.. This (left) definitely wasn't me last night!

My shorts and t-shirts are about to be put away back in the 'summer' chest.. Only last week, there were plenty of people sunbathing and swimming at Biarritz. Can't believe Christmas (there, I've said it) is next month.

We had the roof re-tiled (ouch!) a few weeks ago and so far all appears dry! Fingers crossed. The next job (there's always one isn't there?) is the west-facing back wall of the house which has some small cracks in it. As it's west-facing, it bears the brunt of the storms that blow in from the Bay of Biscay and so these cracks can't be ignored any longer. We've had several companies out to look at the wall and we'll have to decide which estimate to accept because I'd like to have this work finished before winter sets in. At this rate, we'll be having sausages for Christmas! (one each!) (maybe☺)    

Here's a video that shows off our corner of the world - in 25 years of first visiting and now living here, we've yet to tire of this beautiful region..  

(Wish I could say the same about the soundtrack to the above video though...!)