Wednesday, 21 November 2012

198. Post card from the Pays Basque

21st November 2012. Another wodge of work has arrived in my intray - 27,000 words-worth of technical French-to-English translation - ouch! With a bit of luck I should finish it by Christmas. (this year!)

In the meantime, as winter approaches, I'm starting to get fixated on Stone's Original Green Ginger Wine which, so far, appears to be completely unobtainium down here in deepest south west France. It's an absolutely essential ingredient for one of our all-time favourite drinks. Mixed 50/50 with whisky it makes a Whisky Mac - the perfect winter's drink on a dark night. 

What kind of whisky I hear you ask? A quick google search reveals that some people advocate using a Single Malt.. <sharp intake of breath!> I'm afraid that here at Piperade Towers that would be classed as Class 1 heresy. Also some people are recommending ginger wine to whisky ratios of 5:1.. More heresy! The right way (ie, my way!☺) to mix a Whisky Mac is to pour a finger or two of your blended Scotch whisky of choice, along with an equal measure of Stone's Ginger Wine, into your favourite whisky glass. Note: no ice, repeat, no ice. And that's all there is to it. No slice of lemon, maraschino cherry, salt or sugar around the rim, & definitely no cracked/shaved ice or ice cubes. The only drink better than a Whisky Mac is a second one.☺ If anyone knows of a supplier of Stone's Ginger Wine in the Pays Basque, I'd love to hear from you. 

On one of our recent shopping trips to Spain I spotted a bottle of Drambuie. Substituting this for Ginger Wine and mixed with blended whisky in the same proportions as described above, it becomes a Rusty Nail.. One of these should be enough to convince you that you're enjoying life too much. Here's the 'official' recipe from the International Bartenders Association for a Rusty Nail that, to me, makes the mistake of over-cooling the drink to the point where most of the taste is lost. Here it is:
First fill a 16oz glass with crushed ice until it is overflowing. Pour in 5 parts Drambuie and 9 parts Scotch. Stir gently, as to not bruise the ice. Keep stirring until a thick frost develops on the side of the glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. Serve.
This must make for a teeth-crackingly cold drink. Why? Take my advice and junk the ice. It's up to you though. I'm still trying to figure out what "bruising the ice" means?

Right - pin back your ears - here's a programme about the Pays Basque that was broadcast a few weeks ago. If your French isn't up to following it, just tune him out and enjoy the images:
The programme lasts for 1½hours so pour yourself a Whisky Mac and relax! Again, best in full screen. Watch out for the giant Belharra wave at 0.31:10..

24th November 2012. Went down to the river this morning and had an outing in a mixed IV. We'd been going for about 3-4km and we'd stopped to take off our warm-up tops when someone in the boat drew our attention to a deer that was calmly swimming across the river (that was around 30m wide at this point) about 10m in front of us. It disappeared into a small tributary and about a minute later a once-golden cocker spaniel - now very muddy - appeared on the bank, clearly hot on the trail of the deer. Barking for all his worth - all teeth and trousers - he sniffed his way down to the waterline before deciding not to follow the deer across the river. I didn't know that deer could swim. 10 out of 10 to the deer!  

25th November 2012. I took Chibby, our 11 year old English cocker spaniel, down to the beach at Anglet this morning and I was stopped by a family who had a lively 6 year cocker spaniel bitch with them. They wanted to know if I'd be interested in the two of them breeding.

Why is it only the dog that gets these offers?!☺

I've mentioned previously that my father was a pianist - and so we all grew up in a house full of music. Every now and again I come across a piece that he used to play. This is one of those:
And this is another:
On ARTE (a Franco-German TV channel) at lunchtime today there was a well made documentary about the Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay (west coast of Scotland). The film captured the essence of life on a remote island and the whisky making process.. to the extent that we both felt like making an immediate visit there (well, I did at any rate!). Sit back and enjoy the programme with its wonderful images of Scotland:  
Here's a look at breathtakingly beautiful Islay as seen through the lens of a French film crew..
28th November 2012. It's been hosing down with rain here for the last couple of days and so the dog has been confined to the garden. Tonight, however, there was a break in the rain so I took him out for a proper walk and I noticed that the Christmas lights have been put up. (that means that Tesco in the UK will have Easter Eggs on display!)

1st December 2012. Last night it was the rowing club's bash at Tipi-Tapa, a bar in an old casemate (former cannon emplacement) set into the historic ramparts that surround Bayonne. As it was only a ten minute walk we decided to go on foot - taking a short cut through a large parking area where a circus has been running for the last few days. We picked our way in the dark around the Big Top and through a parking area for some of the circus vehicles. As we were walking past a long articulated trailer, I felt as if someone/something was looking at us in the gloom. Looking left, the trailer housed 4 large cages and I saw 4 pairs of black eyes watching us intently. There were 4 lions, each in its own cage.. only 4-5 yards away. There didn't seem to any evidence of security and I couldn't help but wonder how easy/difficult it would have been to have slipped the bolts on the cage doors.. 

This morning it was around -3°C but despite that I wended my way down to the clubhouse for a bracing sortie in the cold. The river was flowing swiftly seawards accompanied by what looked like steam that was rising off the surface. In the sea, this is known as sea smoke. The bridge down to the pontoon was sloping steeply on an outgoing tide and it was extremely slippy with ice. About ten stalwarts appeared but it soon became obvious that a sortie was not going to happen. 

For the past few weeks we've been entertained by the Autumn Internationals (Rugby!). Today, England were playing New Zealand - aka the All Blacks - the current World Champions. What a game..! I believe New Zealand were unbeaten in their last 20 Test matches - an astonishing record. This was the final game of the Autumn series and I imagine both teams were eager to end on a winning streak. For once, it all gelled for England and they ran out worthy 38-21 winners..

Here's this week's special offer - the whole of the England v New Zealand match with, for once, a totally unexpected - but very welcome -  win for the boys in white:

6th December 2012. I've been out of Greek coffee for some time now - the last consignment I bought tasted muddy and, while it filled a gap, it didn't have that special taste I enjoy. The other day I managed to find an online supplier in Marseille who stocked a brand I was unfamiliar with: Bravo. I ordered some and it's just arrived. I've made myself a cup and - slurp - now that is not bad at all. If I can't ever manage to find a stockist of my own favourite Greek-Cypriot coffee nirvana - Charalambous Golden Mocca (right) - well, then I guess Bravo will do v nicely.
7th December 2012. The last few days have seen heavy showers sweeping in from the Bay of Biscay - the shutters rattle a warning as the wind gusts and then the heavens open. Sometimes it's just a downpour, sometimes it's hail, occasionally there's thunder mixed up in it all. Tomorrow evening I'm off to watch the Bayonne - Wasps game. It's an evening kick-off - 9pm - fingers crossed the weather holds off.  

The Christmas market is now in full swing here.. lots of white painted chalets have suddenly appeared all over town. 

.. and where there's a Christmas market, you can guarantee that a flash mob won't be far behind!

8th December 2012. Down to the river this morning under threatening grey skies with the sky to the west looking particularly ominous. While we were all sorting ourselves out into crews, the rain started a steady downpour. A few minutes later it had stopped so we quickly put a IV out on the water and headed off upriver - each of us armed with a K-Way. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the rain started again so after a quick stop to don our waterproofs we carried on. It was very, very wet out there but I kept telling myself it's only water. It became just a question of ignoring it and getting on with the outing. Needless to say we were all glad to return to the pontoon and put the boat back on its rack. We were all wet through so an offer of a drink at a new wine bar - the stylish Au Bouchon Basque - across the road was a no-brainer! 
I'd not been in this place before and it was a new take on the old style zinc bar. I was really starting to feel the cold now so I ordered an armagnac. I've had a few armagnacs before and they can be quite fiery. This was the opposite - round on the tongue and with no sharp edges. I asked the chap behind the bar about it and he ended up by saying he'd let me have a bottle at cost price! He left shortly afterwards and as he went out he said no charge for the coffees that the other two had. It turned out that there was no charge for the armagnac either!! Definitely a place to return to! A review from the Sud Ouest here.☺        

Off to see the Bayonne-Wasps game tonight..! Let's hope the rain keeps off.

9th December 2012.  We went out for lunch in Ascain today and driving there was a real pleasure - it was cold outside but with a dazzlingly blue sky, bright sunshine and as we neared the mountains, most of the trees still had their leaves in all shades from green, yellow, russet and copper.. The whitewashed Basque houses reflected the sunlight and it was another of those moments when we couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Arriving at Ascain at midday, we stopped first at the Hotel du Parc to book a table for 12.30 while we walked the pooch around the village we know so well. We settled for the menu saveur de l'automne - which started with an omelette aux cepes, followed by the salmis de palombes sauce grand veneur. This was eased on its way with the aid of a bottle of Irouléguy Gorri d'Ansa. After coffee, we bumbled the few kilometres into St Jean de Luz for a walk and a sit in the sunshine. Aah, la vie est belle!    
19th December 2012. Been slaving away (more than 12 hrs a day) at this latest piece of translation work and I finished the first pass through it over the weekend. What a relief that was! I'm now going through it a second time to pick up stray typos etc.. 

I walked into town at lunchtime yesterday to post one or two cards and on the way back it was so warm we could have had lunch outside.. think it was ~17°C. With this weather it's hard to believe Christmas is less than a week away! 

Greetings to all from a snow-free Bayonne in the Pays Basque - I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas with family and friends.
20th December 2012. We're holding an impromptu regatta down at the club on Saturday.. The calling notice for it only came out at the start of the week and I found myself signing up for it. It's open to clubs from Aquitaine and it's for IVs and VIIIs over a 1000m course. The club is putting out three VIIIs - two octuples (VIII scullers) and one VIII set up for rowing (ie, one oar instead of two sculls). I found my name down to row in the "serious" VIII. Hopefully, 1000 metres isn't long enough to inflict any lasting damage! I haven't rowed for months.. it's all been sculling. Should be interesting! Apparently the temp is going to be up around 20°C at the weekend..☺

Here we are heading up river to the start:
And here are a couple of shots taken during the races (I'm in the leading VIII somewhere!):
23rd December 2012. It's hard to believe but it's 24° here as we speak.. Phew!
24th December 2012. While I prepare to do serious battle with Madame's cooking over the next few days, you could do a lot worse than watching these stunningly beautiful  images of the lush countryside of the Pays Basque (from Michel Neuwels' brilliant photo-reportage blog Voyage au Pays Basque). Best enjoyed in the highest definition your PC will support and full screen:

The Chambre d'Hôte that's featured above from 00:49 to 01:26 is here.  

25th December 2012. The motto for today is:
Liberté, Egalité, Poulet!
Happy Christmas to all, wherever you are..!

30th December 2012. Biarritz has been staging its annual light show - Biarritz s'habille de lumières - over the Christmas period. Unfortunately we both picked a flu-type bug just prior to Christmas so we haven't been able to get out much. What do you think?

Well, that's all for 2012 folks.. see you next year!

Monday, 12 November 2012

197. Days of wine and roses

8th November 2012. We decided to have lunch out in Bayonne yesterday and we had in mind a place on the banks of the Nive. It was so warm we found a table outside and sat out there in the dazzling sunshine - I had to take my jacket off. We'd had pizzas here before and they were comparable to ones we'd enjoyed in Italy - so we ordered and leaned back, savouring the November day with the help of a carafe of red wine. Looking down, fat grey mullet were holding station easily against the gentle current with lazy flicks of their tails as they waited for any stray offerings from above. After the pizzas, we had pain perdu with ice cream.. followed by coffee. Occasionally we contemplate living up in the mountains in the Jura but then we'd never have days like these. Ernest Dowson said it best:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Slowly, the approach of Christmas is felt. It does seem strange to be thinking of setting one's mind in seasonal mode amid sunny blue skies but we've already ordered Christmas cards from the UK. Sending Christmas cards in France - or indeed greetings cards of most kinds - is not as widespread a practice as it is across the Channel. Here, people are accustomed to send each other New Year cards instead  - usually in the first few weeks of January - so the few card shops there are here stock a limited choice of Christmas cards.  

Yesterday I noticed a small group of army officers in combat clothing from the Special Forces barracks across the river standing in front of the War Memorial in Bayonne finalising the detailed planning for the Armistice parade on Sunday. I always try and attend this if I'm able. There's something about the Marseillaise when it's played by trumpets accompanied by the dry rattle of sidedrums that stands my hair on end and raises goose bumps.

12th November 2012. Went down to the river this morning - apparently there's a Monday morning group who go out then. There were a whole lot of new faces there - ones who don't do Saturday mornings. Went out in a coxless IV - I was stroke - and we took it up the river in brilliant sunshine. Apart from the blazing yellows and reds of the trees, it was hard to believe that it was November. Coming back, our wake was gilded by the low sun - absolutely perfect. We did about 11km.

My Banjo for Dummies book arrived this morning - I've been struggling with the 5 string banjo for a while and I think this book might just hold the answer. Fingers crossed! (Hey - maybe that's what I've been doing wrong!)

Banjo players appear to be the butt of jokes - see here for details.

What have I started..??!!    

18th November 2012. Hard to believe that Christmas is next month. We've been incredibly fortunate with the weather in November - it was 24°C on Friday. One November a couple of years ago, we had rain every day for a month so Nature's largesse this time around is very welcome. Had a memorable outing on the river yesterday - with the mild autumn weather there was a large turnout and we were able to put 2 VIIIs and 3 IVs out on the water. In addition, I was paired with a very fit 'regular' (half my age!) in a double sculler and despite all the confusion of boats and people we managed to slip away without getting caught up and delayed in all the hurly-burly - which is not always easy. There was a strong seawards current running as we headed off up-river. I was 'stroke' and right from the start the boat was balanced and it felt good. It wasn't long before all the other boats disappeared from sight as we found a good rhythm. We had a quick stop to remove our warm-up tops and then we set to the task. The boat ran straight and it was soon singing with the stern buried in our bubbling wake. We reached the turn around point and had a drink of water with no sign of any of the other boats. Heading back downstream again, the boat really flew and it wasn't long before we passed the others who were still labouring up-river. We finished with a sprint and all too soon we were back at the 'garage' (clubhouse) after a non-stop row feeling very pleased with ourselves. A very enjoyable 14kms.

Here's an atmospheric shot of a sculler enjoying an evening out on the upper reaches of the Nive

At the end of the month, the Loisirs Section of the club is planning another apéro evening at Tipi-Tapa - a peña (bar) in a casemate set into Vauban's ramparts that encircle Bayonne. We had one here earlier in the year and it was v enjoyable.. once we'd found it! It wasn't just drinks - this being France, there were tables laden with charcuterie, cheeses, bread and other bits and pieces. 

I don't know if peñas are allowed elsewhere in France but here it seems that just about anyone can open up a temporary bar. This relaxed attitude towards the serving of alcohol is in stark contrast with the highly regulated apparatus of obtaining and keeping a drinks licence in the UK. I'm sure the UK Home Office would throw a major wobbly if they were to witness the number of bars that proliferate during the Fêtes de Bayonne for example. And yet, in 5 years here, I've yet to see anyone staggering and/or lurching through the streets here. It's not well-considered to be seen to be "off your head" here, unlike the UK where getting "completely relaxed" is a regular weekly occurrence for an increasing number. As I've said before, northern Europeans have a different attitude to alcohol compared to those in the south, where a natural joie de vivre lies close to the surface. Unlike us more buttoned up northerners, here in the south they need little in the way of artificial encouragement for it to emerge. As the sole representative of northern Europe at the club, I will be doing my best to consume avec modération!
Here's Joe Dassin with an old favourite:

Galerie Vivienne
Passage du
The clip above reminded me that I mentioned Paris a few posts ago - remember? (Post 188) Well, if you ever do decide to go there, after you've seen all the sights, here's a little-known suggestion for you to tuck away in your hip pocket. Paris has a number of covered shopping arcades that are home to an eclectic range of small shops. There's a guide to them here and they are a perfect way of spending a rainy afternoon. (quiet in the cheap seats!☺) These arcades are home to some genuinely interesting shops - and it's not often you'll hear me say that! Specialist bookshops, antique maps, prints, old clock shops, intimate cafés, musical instruments, restorers, curios, objets d'art, the list is endless. (NB: Best in full screen and 1080p HD!)

By the way, if you would like to add a comment about how reading this blog has been a life-changing experience for you (dream on!☺) then  click here, scroll down and give vent to your views (all in a good cause!)  Phrases such as "Laugh? I almost did.." and "Be still my aching sides" won't get used I'm afraid..☺ 

Friday, 2 November 2012

196. Spanish slippers of Spanish leather *

* with apologies to Bob Dylan for the song he almost wrote! 
Avenida de la Libertad, San Sebastian
1st November 2012. A few days ago we staged a lightning raid on a shoe shop at San Sebastian. I've been wearing a pair of Lands End slippers for the last few years and I've comprehensively worn them out. Although Lands End offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee on all their products I decided to call the vet in to have them humanely put down. The problem is my feet are generously dimensioned and here in the Pays Basque - as elsewhere in France - shoe sizes generally top out at 44-45 - which isn't much use to your correspondent. Without going into embarrassing detail, I need slightly more than that. Luckily, we'd previously found a shop in San Sebastian that caters for amply configured feet such as mine and so off we scooted. We told the lady what I wanted and she disappeared for a minute or two before returning with a pair of leather slippers (made in Bilbao - not, for once, in China) that fitted like a - I almost wrote like a glove - but they fitted as though made to measure. Perfick!

Last week we discovered that Miremont, the legendary patisserie in Biarritz, had another outlet at the back of its building tucked away in the corner of the Place Bellevue facing the sea. What's more, it had tables outside. The significance of this for us is we've seldom been able to use the Miremont as we invariably have the dog with us and, unusually for France, he's not allowed in the café. Having discovered this new terrace by accident the day before, it seemed a good idea to give it a test drive while the weather was still suitable for sitting outside. All I can say is that cakes in the Miremont are pretty special. Highly recommended.    

Richard Anthony enjoyed some success in the UK in the sixties. Here's one of his I haven't heard in years..

Here's another great French singer from the 60s..

Aah.. nostalgia ain't what it used to be..!

Last weekend we were up in Nantes. More to come on this.

5th November 2012. The last time we drove up to Nantes we had the old car without GPS and finding our way around the busy ring road and maze of avenues wasn't easy. Last weekend, we could relax and just follow the instructions - and this took the stress out of arriving in the dense, fast flowing rush hour traffic. I remembered the Pont de Cheviré from our last visit - there's something about crossing this immense high level bridge over the Loire with no visible means of support that makes me glad to get off it. Looking sideways while at its highest point always induces vertigo in me..

One thing we noticed immediately was the change in temperature. Two days earlier, we'd experienced temperatures of 26° at St Jean de Luz and people were still sunbathing and swimming. At Nantes, the skies were grey and a cold wind cut through us softies from the south west! Brrr-rrr!

Our thoughtful friends had put together a fascinating programme for the whole weekend and so it was that on Friday evening we started out at O Deck, a restaurant boat moored on the Loire - and, coincidentally, just across the river was the floodlit "Belem" - the 3 masted barque that had visited Bayonne in June.

My enduring memory of that evening however will be the chilly blast that greeted us as we emerged from the boat into the wide open spaces of the now disused shipyards - the Chantiers Navales - that sent us hurrying back to the car.

We were to return to the former shipyards during the course of the weekend as the city has brought life back into this heartland area in the most imaginative fashion.

Saturday morning saw us exploring the Marché aux Puces (Flea market) where 1001 artefacts, objets d'art, useless curios, posters, musical instruments and other assorted detritus of the previous century were being picked over by some hardy souls. I was dismayed to find that Beatles LPs now qualify as antiques - I can't tell you how aging that made me feel!

We were invited in the evening to a large function where we danced for the first time in a loong time.. Danced? Well, I did my patented shuffle around the dance floor. We wound it all up sometime after 2am. A great night! I'd spent part of the evening behind the bar serving drinks - never a good move as Sunday saw me paying heavily for it - ouch!

Sunday morning we were back at the former shipyard to experience Les Machines.. These are a collection of wildly phantasmagorical creations that are made up from some extremely clever hydraulics, electronics and articulations. A whole group of us went for a trip on the Elephant.. this video explains it far better than I can:
It wheezed and groaned and trumpeted its way slowly around the old shipyard, giving us time to appreciate all the real quirkiness of its construction - its huge flapping leather ears, the steam and water squirted out of its trunk, the curlicued metal interior of the beast that owed much to Jules Verne (who happened to be born in Nantes).

After this amazing ride, we walked through town - which I have to say was far more extensive than I'd remembered from a previous visit - to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany (NB. not Britney!) where we had a splendid private lunch of galettes eased down with some local cider in an awe-inspiring massively beamed chamber with 9ft thick walls. I could get used to that! However, back to Nantes - I was surprised to find that the inhabitants of metropolitan Nantes number some 800,000..! This makes it the 6th largest city in  France. Time magazine has described it as "the most liveable city in Europe". Personally, I think that's stretching the point a little but nonetheless it is a very pleasant city indeed. Here's another writer who's equally complimentary about Nantes. We walked through the Passage Pommeraye - an elegant 19th century arcade - that, unfortunately, was full of Saturday afternoon shoppers so it became a flying visit. (sigh of relief heard from my back pocket!)
Here's a panoramic image of the former shipyards in Nantes (if you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll spot the "Belem" moored on the left):
We walked by La Cigale in the centre - a grand old brasserie that was established in 1895 and which has been on my "must visit" list for some time - but that will have to wait for another day. I'm not a paid-up member of the Jane Birkin fan club by any means but she does do a good job here of describing La Cigale - her favourite restaurant. 

We climbed aboard a sightseeing boat for a trip up the river Erdre - a tributary of the Loire with which I must admit I was completely unfamiliar.
The river turned out to be quite broad and I counted three rowing clubs as we headed upstream escorted by twenty or so cormorants who seemed curiously attracted by our boat. The banks were dotted with châteaux of varying shapes and sizes - any of which I would have been happy to hang my hat in.  
Château de la Gascherie
It was a most enjoyable trip that lasted near enough 2 hours. We all decided to walk to the Tour de Bretagne - an office tower in the centre of Nantes almost 500ft high - for a farewell drink at the top while watching the sunset.
And finally..

We set off for home on Monday mid-morning and, to save cooking when we arrived home, we thought we'd stop off somewhere for lunch. We settled on Fontenay-le-Comte as it wouldn't involve too much of a diversion. 

There we found a Logis hotel with three "spoilt for choice" menus - we opted for the 23.90€ menu. Luckily we arrived there just after 12 and as we sat down, the restaurant quickly filled up with a more or less constant stream of new arrivals behind us. All this on a Monday lunchtime too! 

For starters, Madame had Crème de Céleri aux Noix de Saint Jacques et sa pointe de muscade (a sturdy cream of celery soup garnished with scallops while I went for the Vendée côté Mer (huîtres, crevettes et mini brochette de St-Jacques) (oyster, prawns and a mini-brochette of scallops). As we'd been eating fish all weekend we both had the Pavé de cœur de rumsteak poélé, réduction de Marie du Fou et galette comtoise. This turned out to be a tender rump steak served with a reduced wine sauce. We both gave it top marks. A glass of a velvety Côte de Blaye each rounded everything off. The only downside was the décor - a bit too cold and modern for us (lime green, belovèd of French interior decorators, was everywhere) Still, you can't eat the wallpaper! Definitely worth a detour for if you ever find yourself in the Vendée.

In looking for video clips about the Passage Pommeraye, I came across this one of Prague and Bohemia - which is where we're off to next spring. Looking forward to that!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

195. September blues

15th September 2012. This morning we were reminded to be back from our outing on the river by 11am as the club's very own Olympic medal winner, Perle Bouge, was going to be present at the clubhouse. Longtime readers (aka sufferers) of this blog will remember that Perle had been training hard for the London Paralympics where she and Stéphane Tardieu would be representing France in the Mixed Sculls. In the event, they performed brilliantly, being bested only by a strong Chinese entry and they returned home with a Silver medal each for their efforts.

Sure enough, at 11am this morning, her car pulled up and there she was. This was the first time I've ever seen an Olympic medal of any kind, let alone held one. It was surprisingly hefty and it did make me wonder what it was made of. Checking with Google, it appears that the silver medals are made up of 92.5% silver with the remainder copper. Here she is - medal in hand! Well done Perle!

17th September 2012. Speaking of Perle, she was on national TV news today as she and all the other Olympic medal winners were invited to the Elysée Palace to meet the current incumbent - about whom someone memorably said that he has the posture of a president - but not the stature.

At the start of each rowing season we need a medical certificate to show that we are healthy enough to continue for another year so this afternoon I shuffled down to the doc's. After being poked and prodded for a few minutes, I was adjudged to be fit enough  - BP 130/80 and a 64 bpm heart rate which, if I've understood the doc correctly, should allow me to extend my toehold in the land of the living - if only for another year! I didn't tell the doc that sometimes I need assistance in getting out of the boat! If you want to have a sleepless night, have a look at the Blood Pressure Chart to see what yours should be. George Duffee's* quote on the subject is that at his age he no longer buys green bananas!☺
* see previous post

While you're digesting that, here's John Williams at his very best:
Here he is again with his stunning interpretation of Rodrigo's very well known Aranjuez Concerto:
After a confused summer - meteorologically speaking - here in the Pays Basque we seem to be heading straight for autumn. In summer, we had temps nudging 40°C, often with stifling humidity, interspersed with days when the temp would drop to 20.. Now there's a definite coolness in the air in the mornings and yesterday saw me pull out a sweater for the first time in months. We're going up to Nantes in late October and they're already experiencing single digit morning temps. Think we're in for a cooold winter. Strange thing is that today we're forecast to be the warmest place in France with 27°C.. We replaced all the radiators in the house this summer and some of them are very high tech - I'll need to decode the instruction books soon to work out how to set them up.

Here's a Mark Knopfler classic played on his National steel guitar:

22nd September 2012. Had a blokes-only outing in an octuple (VIII sculler) this morning - and right from the 'off' it went well.. (I'm not suggesting that there's a link there - I wouldn't dare!) Beautiful hot morning too under blue skies. It wasn't long before a few rivulets of sweat were dripping off my earlobes and the end of my nose but the boat was running well and all minor discomforts were forgotten. When we turned the boat around about 8km out, I noticed that there were more than a few large chestnut leaves floating around. Even with days like these, there's no denying that autumn is on its way. Returning to the "garage" (clubhouse in English) instead of stopping we continued on under the bridges and through the centre of Bayonne (below) until we stopped out on the mighty Adour before turning around and retracing ours steps back to the pontoon. This link shows you the Nive as it winds its way down from Ustaritz to Bayonne.    

I found this atmospheric shot of Biarritz at dusk - try clicking on it to get the full impression:
© Jérôme Cousin
24th September 2012. We lolloped into Biarritz yesterday morning as the sun was shining and after finding a space for the car somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto's orbit, we walked into the centre to find the reason for all the cars in town was that there was a Braderie in progress. This is one of those words that you don't learn at school but it means a clearance sale.. most of the shops had moved out into the street and there were lots of 50% off signs in evidence. All the centre was closed off to traffic and a seething crowd of people (ie, women!) were riffling through all the racks of 'bargains'.. Slideshow here!
Best with the quality set to 1080p and full screen..

Meanwhile here's another of those songs that will embed itself in your head for a few days!

29th September 2012. It's just been announced Mike Phillips, the Welsh international scrum half who's been playing for Bayonne, has been dropped indefinitely by the club president and major sponsor. More here (French) and here (English).. Reason? Conduct involving alcohol and wives. How stupid do you have to be not to have noticed that the game has moved on from the boozy excesses of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Us Brits have always had an uneasy relationship with alcohol but I would have thought that an athlete in the prime of his career like him could ill-afford - in every sense - to involve himself in the kind of mindless activities that were commonplace not so long ago. Here's one drinking game (below) - drinking a shot of burning rum without putting the flames out first - going very wrong.. You might have to run your cursor over the image to trigger the action.

I thought he was more intelligent than that. Other, far more talented and better paid, players like Jonny Wilkinson have come to France and have managed not to disgrace themselves, their club or their country. Phillips should take a long hard look at himself.

30th September 2012. We went to Zugarramurdi (spell it correctly and win a prize!) and nearby Urdax in Spain this afternoon. Here's a taster..

There's a restaurant at Urdax that caught our eye.. It's been filed away for a visit one day. The dining room was resplendent in dark wood and white table cloths.. I like the formality of Spain. We sat outside a café and had some gateau Basque made with almonds (instead of cherries) with a coffee while the dog made friends with all and sundry..  

I've just discovered - courtesy of Wikipedia - that my all-time favourite single malt whisky - Glenmorangie - was sold to the Auld Enemy - ie, France* - who else! - in the shape of LVMH in 2004. The tragic news is all here - and if, it may please the Court, the link will now be referred to as "Exhibit A".. I had wondered if something was amiss because when I bought a bottle a few years ago, instead of the traditional upright bottle (left) that I've known all my adult life, the amber nectar was now enclosed in a curvaceous bottle (right) of the type that you normally find under the kitchen sink - like those that fabric conditioner is usually sold in. I guess some sharp-suited marketing type in a black shirt (who clearly has never tasted a drop of Glenmorangie) thought this might attract the ladies.. Ye Gods.. what's wrong with these people..? To me it is akin to some edgy design clown straightening up the label on a bottle of Johnny Walker.. or putting Dimple Haig in a squeezy plastic bottle. I always liked the traditional look of the Glenmorangie bottle. To me, the soulless shape of the new one is totally at odds with its contents - it implies that its contents are bland, smooth and non-threatening - which is way off the mark. If, by some random coincidence, anyone from Glenmorangie reads this, try surveying your customers via the web site to see what we think. I'd be extremely surprised if the new shape bottle achieved more than 10% support. Now breathe deeply, think happy thoughts and r e l a x..!
If you've not tried Glenmorangie before, I suggest you volunteer to do the shopping this week and treat yourself to a bottle. You'll thank me for this. If this ploy is rumbled by 'higher authority', when you're asked what you'd like for Christmas, instead of mumbling a few pairs of socks or a sweater - just come on right out with it - "I'd like a litre (go for it!) of Glenmorangie Original 10 year old." Works for me! I have to say that the Speyside single malt Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old runs Glenmorangie extremely close..

Finally, here's a very clever Heath Robinsonesque animation that shows how Glenmorangie is made..

11th October 2012. Last Saturday I had a rewarding outing in a mixed VIII - we did 18km and last night I went out in a IV and did a quick 12km before It got dark. I'm snowed under with work at the moment - 17,000 words of technical aviation French (ouch!)  to put into la langue de Shakespeare as they call it here..

On Sunday we went to Biarritz to have a look at the exhibition of local artists - known as the Brouillarta - that was being held just above the Grande Plage. Photos here.

We're still enjoying a prolonged summer down here in the Pays Basque.. We've just had lunch outside on the terrace in a comfortable 21°..

I came across a quote the other day that made me smile: When I was young, I wanted to be somebody when I grew up. I now realise I should have been more specific. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

194. The best of company in the Pays Basque

Bar Basque
11th September 2012. Down to earth again this morning after a memorable Comète Commemorative weekend in the Pays Basque. Every year at this time there is a gathering here - to celebrate and commemorate in equal measure those who were involved with Comète, the famous WW2 escape line. Many of us met up on Thursday evening at the Bar Basque at St Jean de Luz.. To my mind this is by far the most pleasant and stylish bar in St Jean, ideally situated in Boulevard Thiers for watching the evening to-ing and fro-ing. To all our delight, the Duffee family appeared and tables were dragged together and the evening had all the makings.. I could have stayed there much longer and followed the few quiet sangrias with a few noisy ones!

We had all been expecting another veteran (in name only) to make an appearance but Andrée Dumont - better known as "Nadine" - had taken a tumble in the week leading up to the weekend and so with great regret she had to cancel. Needless to say, all our best wishes go to her for a speedy recovery. Et joyeux anniversaire!!
We were honoured to have George and Janet Duffee with us again - a truly remarkable and devoted couple who'd travelled with their family all the way from West Wales down to the Pays Basque. George is described in many places as a veteran but he and Janet are anything but! He was shot down while returning from his first bombing raid in his Halifax bomber (left) in June '43 and after an eventful saga he finally found his way down to the Pays Basque, courtesy of "Franco" and Comète. He and a small party of other evaders were led over the Pyrenees via the St Jean de Luz route (below right) by the legendary Basque guide Florentino Goicoechea on a night march in the rain that lasted 14 hours. He can laugh about it now! (I think) Here's George's file from the Comète Line site. On his return to Britain, he went back to operational flying and went on to fly 39 more operational sorties. He was honoured with the award of a well-deserved DFC. After the war, he flew some 236 sorties during the Berlin Airlift after which he became a civil airline pilot for British Airways where he had a distinguished career. A charismatic gentleman with a permanent twinkle in his eye, he exudes the indefatigable spirit that saw him through all that life could throw at him. George and Janet inspire respect and great affection from all who meet them and may I be allowed to add here on this special day for them - happy wedding anniversary.. 66 years!

The pattern for the long weekend has been set for some years now - Friday is reserved for honouring the memory of those who fell or did not return from deportation. Wreaths are laid at war memorials and cemeteries at St Jean de Luz, Ciboure, Bayonne and Anglet, followed by civic receptions at St Jean de Luz and Anglet.

The group then splits into two parties - one composed of walkers who, over the weekend, retrace the actual paths taken by the wartime guides and the escaping airmen over the mountains and into Spain and a second group of those who wish to follow by coach over the Saturday and Sunday. The "traditional" route used by the walkers is shown on the right here. (click to enlarge). 

The Comète organisation was shaken to its foundations by a wave of arrests in Brussels as a result of the Abwehr's successful penetration in late 1942 and this was followed by arrests at a Comète safe house - Bidegain Berri farm (left) - at Urrugne in the Pays Basque in January 1943 where Andrée de Jongh  - the founder of Comète - was among those arrested. This was a major blow to the organisation and one which might have proved to be fatal.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us .." 
"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

However, as the saying has it, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man.."

"Larressore" route
Comète's new leader Jean-François Nothomb (aka "Franco") pioneered a number of new inland routes to avoid the increased surveillance on the coast and it was one of these - known as the "Larressore" route - that we were to walk over as a group this year for the first time. In brief, it starts from Marthe Mendiara's Auberge Larre, a Comète safe house at Anglet quartier Sutar, where she offered a safe haven to over 150 airmen before they continued on their way on bicycles. The route is marked in purple on the map (right). Again, click to enlarge. A major debt of thanks is owed to Dominique Aguerre for all the work he and his relatives did in re-tracing what was essentially a completely undocumented route - made all the more difficult by the passage of almost 70 years. 

So it was that on Friday morning we gathered by the War Memorial at St Jean de Luz where George Duffee laid a wreath on behalf of ELMS (right) - a UK-based society. Marie-Christine (left), the grand daughter of Kattalin Aguirre, also laid flowers as did Brigitte d'Oultremont, president of Comète Kinship in Belgium. Afterwards we were warmly received at the nearby Town Hall of St Jean de Luz with a welcoming speech to which Mr Jean Dassié replied, as President of "Les Amis du Réseau Comète". This was followed by vin d'honneur kindly offered by the Town Hall. After lunch, we reconvened up at the St Léon cemetery at Bayonne to honour the memory of Mr Dassié's parents, both of whom were active in Comète and who were both deported to Germany (to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck respectively) along with their 16 year old daughter Lucienne ("Lulu") in the wake of the earlier arrests at Bidegain Berri farm. Mr Dassié's father died in May 1945, the day he was returned to Paris while his mother died in 1948 as a result of her treatment in the camps. Thankfully, Lulu survived and was able to be present for this weekend.

George & Janet Duffee outside the "Villa Voisin"
No visit to the Pays Basque for a Comète weekend would be complete without visiting the legendary "Villa Voisin" - the headquarters and nerve centre of Comète South in the Pays Basque. Situated in a narrow lane in Anglet, this small villa that now looks so innocent was home to the de Greefs, a Belgian family who fled the German blitzkreig in the Low Countries in 1940. Fernand and especially Elvire de Greef ("Tante Go") were to prove to be more than a match for the hardened professionals of the Abwehr, the Feldgendarmerie and all the grisly apparatus of the Gestapo using no more than their wits and quick thinking. Andrée de Jongh would warn prospective helpers of Comète that, if they joined, they could expect no more than 6 months of operating before being arrested. The de Greefs ran Comète South from start to finish and remained free throughout - apart from once when Tante Go was briefly arrested along with "B" Johnson..

We now moved to the War Memorial at Anglet where wreathes were laid in a colourful and poignant ceremony attended by many French veterans complete with their standards. In addition, our own Comète standard was carried this year by John Clinch, and the British Legion standard for the south west France branch was represented by their standard bearer (ex Royal Marines!). Representatives of the local civil and military authorities were also present. A most moving ceremony especially when a Basque choir sang the Partisans Song.
We then moved across to the Town hall where Mr Espilondo, the mayor of Anglet, warmly welcomed us. One of our committee members spoke movingly of Jules Mendiburu who was present and who, as a very young man, had helped Comète during the war. Mr Dassié spoke for all of us with his warm words of thanks and again, this was followed by a vin d'honneur.    

All too soon the official part of the day was over and we left to return to St Jean de Luz. For those of you who are unfamiliar with St Jean de Luz, here's a short video that lets you know what you've missed (turn the volume up!):

We were headed for the Sardinerie, situated no more than 5 metres from the waters edge, where the sardines come straight off the boats and into the kitchen. Fortunately, tables had been reserved for us. By now, my Cold Beer low level warning light was showing steady red and the first one hit every spot on the way down.. The place was full and bustling with the sound of people enjoying themselves. A great evening among friends and it's a pity that we must wait for another year to renew our friendship. 

Saturday morning saw us waiting in the car park of the school at Sutar where Pierre Elhorga had lived. A retired customs official, his knowledge of clandestine cross border activities (we'd call it smuggling!) was put to good use in signing up passeurs to help the cause. An influx of walkers from across the border swelled our numbers to somewhere in the region of the mid forties.   

Here are Miren and Iurre (outside the former auberge "Larre"), a couple of irrepressible and talented Basque girls from "the other side" who are two of the leading lights behind Moztu Films. They recently made the film "The Last Passage" that documents the events that led up to the fateful arrests at Bidegain Berri farm. It's well worth seeing.

The new route winds its way along the banks of the Nive before taking to a maze of unmarked tracks and little-used lanes and, it has to be said,  some unavoidable stretches of tarmac that eventually led us to the Pont du Diable, just outside the very Basque village of Larressore.
Rest stop at Pont du Diable

Sauveur Aguirre
Here we were met by Sauveur Aguirre, (right) the son of Baptiste, the wartime passeur. I was pleased to see that he didn't have his axe with him this time! (See Post # 192) The evaders would abandon their bicycles here to be recovered by Mattin Garat, a baker from nearby Larressore. From here on in, they would continue on foot all the way to Spain and freedom.

We had a short break at the Pont du Diable - just long enough to force an energy bar and some dried fruit down - before we continued on up a trail previously known only to the contrebandiers (smugglers) up to a disused farm building known as Mandochineko Borda (below).

Far from prying eyes, Mandochineko Borda lies deep in the verdant Basque countryside, and it is exceptionally well hidden. It was still covered in brambles and creepers as it always has been and it remains just as it was all those years ago - with its floor of beaten earth with no heating, electricity or water. Here, the airmen would lie up and try to rest for as long as it took for the Comète planners to decide on a suitable night for the mountain crossing.
Mandochineko Borda

The business end of a makhila!
Sauveur showed us his ancient but still very effective makhila which had been handed down to him by his father (and his father before him).

The sun had climbed high in the sky by now and the temperature must have been more than 30C - with humidity to match. The midday heat lay very heavily on us here and the air was thick with dust raised by our feet. People sought out any shade they could find and shirts were wet with sweat. As we continued our way, Sauveur led us past his fields of piment d'Espelette which flourish here.   
One of several vultures that were keeping their beady eyes on some of us!

Soon we entered the piment-festooned picture postcard village of Espelette where a méchoui and a cold beer (or 2) awaited us.. (click on the image below)

We all found our way to the Accoceberry building where we were to eat. After a quick splash of cold water and a clean T-shirt I was ready!
The tiredness was quickly forgotten as we sat down among friends.. while wine appeared and disappeared as if by magic and quantities of lamb in all its forms arrived..! Guitars, harmonicas and tin whistles were brought out and the singing began.. Basques love to sing and they all seem to have been born with the ability to sing in harmony:   

After the méchoui we left to go to the War Memorial near the church at Espelette to lay a wreath honouring those of Espelette who did not return. We then walked the short distance to a function room where Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire of Espelette (below), spoke very poignantly and movingly of Espelette's involvement in the Comète story. Merci Madame. This was followed by a vin d'honneur that the village had very kindly offered us.
Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire d'Espelette
The next day saw us taking the bus with the non-walkers - partly for logistical reasons and partly due to your correspondent's knees. Having walked over the mountain route a couple of times in practice in the last few weeks, I didn't feel too bad about it!

Watching the walkers arrive at the finish:

Protection Civile volunteers
All weekend, we'd been accompanied by volunteers from Protection Civile who were there to provide medical and other security. A big thank you to you both! Here they are at the end of the trail having a well-deserved cold beer.

One by one the walkers arrived and took their seats in the dining room that had been made available for us at "Esteben Borda" (below), which lies either 10 metres over the border in Spain or 10 metres inside the border and still in France (depending if you're buying or selling!☺). Waitresses brought out steaming tureens full of beans and platters of lamb.. Wine disappeared yet again and was just as quickly replenished.

The safe house on the Spanish side was called Jauriko Borda and here it is seen through a mid-afternoon heat haze:
Jauriko Borda

Our lunch stop - Esteben Borda
John from Dublin was coaxed to his feet to give his word-perfect rendition of the Peña Baiona to a very appreciative and impressed audience - apart from a lone supporter of Biarritz Olympique! (There's always one isn't there!)

Each year, an honorary boïna or Txapela* is awarded to the person who has made a significant contribution to Comète and this year it was awarded - to his great surprise - to none other than the very deserving John Clinch! (the Duffees are seated under the Comète standard) I wish I could have caught on film the expression of total surprise as I said his name! Well done John!
  * a boïna is an outsize Basque beret.

Suddenly, the weekend was all over and goodbyes for another year were said in the car park. We drove home feeling the warmth from all the people we'd met. The warmth lingers on as I write this and look at the photographs. Thank you to all those who came and who made it so memorable.

I had several people come up to me and tell me that they thought this new route was tougher than the more traditional route - especially the second day. If you missed it this year for whatever reason, the pattern for future annual Comète commemorations in the Pays Basque will be that the routes will alternate between the new "Larressore" route and the usual St Jean de Luz one - so the next time we do the "Larressore" route will be in 2014, with perhaps with one or two tweaks. Thanks to all of you again for making this last weekend so special.

A couple of very aptly-named Mark Knopfler tracks here for you - and coincidentally, both were filmed in the Basque country too. The first is called "The long road":
The second is called "Going home":
Finally, remind yourself of the charm of St Jean de Luz here:

Haste ye back!