Friday, 27 January 2012

175. Is this the end for the Basque beret?

27th January 2011. For countless generations, the humble beret has symbolised France. Worn by young and old, town and country, it defined a country in a way that no other item of clothing had ever done before. Count the berets being worn at this Basque wedding at St Jean de Luz in 1942..It appears though that its days might be numbered. Béatex, the last French manufacturer of the beret, has gone into receivership (English translation here). Béatex, based in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, has been making berets since 1840 but it's believed that low cost competition from abroad, coupled with some internal issues, is to blame for its demise. Berets are still a familiar sight here in Bayonne and elsewhere in the Pays Basque. Practical and convenient, they protect the wearer from the sun in summer and the rain in winter, plus they can be worn in any number of different ways according to the owner's taste. It has to be said though that most beret wearers are likely to be of the older generation. Modern youth in France (and the rest of the world) is abandoning the ubiquitous beret and is taking to the 'cool' baseball cap in droves - but do baseball caps bring the wearer as much luck as a beret..?
I've mentioned the Basque beret before here.. with a video that explains how they are made - the process is far more involved than you may have thought.

Saturday, 28th January 2012. A chilly morning down at the river today.. ~4-5°C. The club took delivery of an almost new carbon fibre VIII a few weeks ago and this morning we put a crew of mecs together to give it a blast up the river. It was cold in the shadows as we headed off upstream but soon after the first bend, we emerged into the sunshine. The welcome warmth of the low morning sun felt good, and it turned the mist rising off the cold waters of the Nive into golden steam. The new boat was a pleasure to row - extremely rigid and well-balanced as well as being light. It responded well and we gradually warmed up as we surged up-river. This morning it was no hardship to continue to the footbridge near Villefranque which is normally the furthest we row (9km from the clubhouse) and we reached it in fine style doing intervals of hard and light rowing. When we stopped to turn around, I felt fully warmed up apart from my fingertips. Coming back, I noticed an ominously heavy bank of dark cloud approaching from the west (over the Bay of Biscay) and it was a race to see if we could manage to escape yet another soaking.. Alas, with 5 minutes to go, the rain started and steadily increased in pressure until by the time we returned to the pontoon, we were thoroughly soaked.. A good sortie though.. 18km.

1st February 2012. I had a quick dash over the border yesterday for some much-needed supplies - diesel and other sundries. The price of diesel has been bouncing around lately but yesterday in Spain it was 1.29€/litre (=£1.07/litre or US$6.35/US gallon). They also had an offer I couldn't refuse on litre bottles of 12 year old Glenlivet. Today looks like being the start of a very cold few days down here in the Pays Basque. The forecast is for +5 this morning dropping to -6 (21°F) this afternoon - which puts us colder than Saskatoon (-2) in mid-Canada! And there's the possibility of some snow on the ground tomorrow. We've hardly seen any snow here since we moved here in September 2007. I think one year we had an inch or two but it had gone for the most part by lunchtime. Went into town to buy a baguette and I got one straight from the oven.. kept my hands warm all the way home!

4th February 2012. Another cold morning here (minus something - I think about -3) but decided to go down to the river all the same. The usual suspects all turned up but le responsable decreed that it was too cold to row (my hard nosed rowing master at school would have thrown a major wobbly at this!☺) and so a few of us hit the rowing machines to try and warm up. We did an hour of varied pace rowing which finally did involve an element of sweatification.. but I've never been able to approach rowing on these Concept 2 machines with the same sense of enjoyment as jumping in a boat. Tonight we're all meeting up in a bar in town for an apéro or several. Took the dog out for a walk and even he was glad to return home.

5th February 2012. Enjoyable evening out for an apéro with the rowing club last night.. once we'd found the place! The venue was called 'Tipitapa' (this will blow the rust off the cogs!) and I knew within 50m where exactly it was.. The problem was that it didn't have a sign and I was looking for a bar. So after exploring all the likely locations in Bayonne - on a bitterly cold night - and across the Nive in Petit Bayonne, we returned to the starting point at the end of the Rue d'Espagne when there was a familiar cry from on high.. One of the responsables was standing up on the ramparts shouting to us.. The location was in a group of old casemates set into the ramparts. My glasses immediately steamed up the moment we stepped inside - there was a crush of people but I managed to catch the eye of one of our mecs behind the bar and a couple of glasses of wine were passed over the heads of a packed room to us. All the old faces were in there and as I said to one of the nénettes I didn't recognise her with her clothes on! And once I'd heard the final score from Murrayfield, there was all the more reason to celebrate! There's a nature reserve that's just a 5-10 minute walk from the centre of Bayonne that we've been meaning to visit for a while.. Yet another item on our list of things to do! All it involves is a short walk* out of town along the banks of the Nive and then cross via the footbridge to the northern bank and voilà! You've just arrived at La Plaine d'Ansot..

(* or better still, a short ride on a free bike!)
By the way, our unscheduled dip in the river the other day was just a few yards downstream from the footbridge at 03:32. And in case you were wondering, it was too deep to touch the bottom.

9th February 2012. According to the news yesterday, we're experiencing the lowest February temperatures on the Côte Basque since 1956. It was -8 overnight here - and it feels much colder, perhaps due to the humidity.

12th February 2012. The Big Freeze continues. I took El Poocho into town this morning to the bakers and while it was dazzlingly bright with blue skies all around, it was also very cold - as in -1C. ("You call that cold?") I'll ignore that! There were very few people out and about.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

174. River frolics

15th January 2012. I had a novel experience yesterday morning down at the river and it was one that I have absolutely no wish to repeat! It was bracingly cold - it couldn't have been much more than 5°C (I can hear howls of derisive laughter from mid Canada!) but we're spoilt here as far as weather is concerned so when it's down to 5°C it does feel cold. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, after the usual milling about, handshakes all round for the mecs and bises for the nanas, four of us mecs decided we'd take a coxless IV out.

The outing started fairly well with the occasional promise that we were getting somewhere. At one point we heard the sound of a boat ahead of us getting louder and louder and, as we started to overtake it, we saw it was a women's VIII. No words needed to be spoken but a sudden turbo-like surge of testosterone-fuelled power saw us shoot past them.. If you have any competitive instincts at all, this challenge was irresistible and the response was entirely understandable! (Yes!) After that, we stretched it out a bit and continued on up the river. Turning around, things started to gel a bit more and as we really settled to the task the rowing became crisper and more punchy.. As we entered the last few km, we worked up the rhythm to a hot sprint and we shot at full pelt underneath a footbridge that's only about 1½ km from home.

Suddenly, there was an almighty crash and the boat stopped dead in the water as we tangled with a part-submerged tree that we hadn't seen.. (payback for overtaking the girls!☺) The current then took charge and the boat started tipping over to the right (in ever-so-slow motion) before it turned completely over.. I always use Velcro straps to secure my feet tightly to the stretcher and as the boat went over my feet stayed firmly strapped in (which was a bit unnerving). I went under but managed to kick myself free. By now the boat was floating upside down and we were all starting to feel the cold of the water. As luck would have it, a few minutes later a club VIII came storming around the nearest bend with a coach following in a small speedboat and, on seeing us, he shot across to heave us out of the water (which was getting colder by the minute). Once aboard, we managed to retrieve our trainers which were bobbing about. Another speedboat arrived to take the upturned IV in tow back to the clubhouse while we returned to the pontoon. I had a cold and squelchy trip home!

Once there, I had a long hot shower followed by a hot chocolate with a splash of whisky in it.. That really hit the spot and I felt much better! (Note to self: must fall in more often!) We did 16km before going for an early bath. That river water was cold though.. Thinking about it afterwards, I can't remember ever falling out of a boat before - and I started rowing in 195... well, a long time ago.☺

Later. Every picture tells a story:No prizes for guessing! Mmmmm.. I've mentioned Château Bouscassé before here - a stunning Madiran that deserves wider acclaim - and I'd managed to find a bottle before Christmas. We had some friends around for dinner and I was still feeling the effects of that morning dip in the Nive (honestly!) so I thought a morale-booster was called for. It didn't disappoint.. If you like your reds on the meaty side, then see if you can find one wherever you are. (Available in the US, UK, Ireland and elsewhere). Make sure it's at room temperature when you drink it - if you have an airing cupboard leave it there for a few hours. And if you do manage to find one, let me know your thoughts on it - either via the comments or via email (link in LH margin).

17th January 2012. We've noticed that nightfall is finally starting to get a little later each evening. About time. Living here has altered my perception of the march of the seasons through the year. I used to tell myself (in England) that I enjoyed all the seasons equally, which was just as well as I had no choice! Sometimes, just to reinforce the point, we'd experience all four seasons during the same day..! But, I have to say, having now experienced the pleasures of wearing shorts for 6 months of the year (if not longer) and living outside just about every day, the return of those long days and warmer weather can't come soon enough for us both. At 8am though, as I write, it's still dark - and cold; but things are on the move.

In looking for a picture of the spot where we had our 'shipwreck', I came across this atmospheric shot of a very high Nive running in front of the covered market:
Finally, if you ever feel that your life has become humdrum, and that you could do with a bit of excitement - then maybe this clip is what you've been looking for (but I doubt it!). Best in full screen:
Saturday, 22nd January. Our plan to celebrate Burns night (25th January) wi' a haggis have fallen apart.. The shop I'd found on the internet that sold haggis appears to be no more. Googling Haggis by mail order, I found a Scottish site that was charging ~£5 for a haggis and a whopping £31 to post the thing here..!! Don't let the gory details put you off - haggis is delicious - even Madame loves it!

Burns suppers are great occasions and it's customary for someone to propose a Toast to the Lassies.. Here's a Toast to the Lassies delivered by someone who's clearly enjoying himself (and feeling no pain!):
I should add that it's traditional to drink whisky throughout the meal.. well, strictly speaking, not traditional - but infinitely preferable.. Can't argue with that! Finally, here's a short clip that appeared on TF1 about a family-run hotel at Guéthary (between Biarritz & St Jean de Luz).
24th January 2012. Yesterday's lunchtime news on TF1 featured a short report on a sport I've not mentioned here much but it's one that's omnipresent throughout the Pays Basque - just about every self-respecting Basque village will have a fronton.. and it's far from unusual to see private houses with their own small fronton in the garden. What's it all about I hear you ask? The sport in question is Pelote Basque and it's a ball game that's played outdoors against a fronton (a high wall) or indoors in a Trinquet.. When played with a chistera, it becomes the fastest ball game in the world.

There was another feature on TF1 at lunchtime today about the Pays Basque - this time, a report about fishing at St Jean de Luz. I had to laugh at the fisherman at 01:40 who talks of his love for the sea and fish - as he casually rips a hook out of a fish's mouth:

Thursday, 5 January 2012

173. Biarritz glitz

3rd January 2012. I suspect I'm not alone in asking where 2011 went! Back last night from a most enjoyable but all-too-short few days away over the New Year with our friends up at Tours. As it was such a sunny and relatively mild day (~15°C/59°F), we drove into Biarritz towards late afternoon to take some air and look at the Christmas light show before it finished. The palm trees outside Galeries Lafayette (known by the locals as Biarritz-Bonheur) had been covered in thousands of small LEDs and the result was magical..
(For a link that shows Biarritz in its heyday, click here and here). Here's another video that explains the history of Biarritz:
And one in Spanish (just for Ines) that shows Biarritz as it is today:
Walking along the front, the warm light from the low slanting sun threw the pounding surf into sharp relief and where was the camera when I needed it? Yes, you've guessed it.. These images approximate to how it looked but they don't really do it justice:
Unfortunately the light show had finished but here are some videos that will give you a flavour of it all:
Here's a piece by J S Bach that I heard for the first time over the holidays - it was new to me and here it is played on both the piano and the organ. It's his Choral Prelude BWV 639:
5th January 2012. Think we might just be in for a blustery wet night tonight. The forecast is only for gusts of 55kmh but it feels a lot stronger than that. I'll be going down to the river on Saturday morning for the first time since I had the injections in my knees about a month ago. It will be the first return for one of the girls too, coming back after a shoulder injury, so we might take a double sculler out for a gentle sortie up the river. Once I'm in the boat I'm usually OK - it's the getting in and out that has caused me problems in the past.

7th January 2012. I was roped in for an outing in a coxed quad sculler on this sunny morning for my first outing since having the injections in my knees in early December. We worked our way upriver against a very strong current without stopping and I was happy when we finally did stop to turn around after 8-9kms. With the current, we shot downstream and it was with thoughts of the "1st Saturday of the month" apéro that we hauled the boat out of the water. Unfortunately, it was not to be - possibly because Bayonne are playing Union Bordeaux-Bègles at 2.15pm (I think) this afternoon. My knees were OK but I picked up several blisters on my hands due to the lay-off. Nice to be back in a boat again though. The unthinkable happened this afternoon - Aviron Bayonnais lost 20-27 to Bègles..