Sunday, 22 December 2013

210. Countdown to Christmas..

11th December 2013. Driving back from Saint-Jean-de-Luz this morning I saw a sign for this café as we flashed by.. For some odd reason, this name is a tad lacking in "curb appeal"!

On the northern side of the Adour there's a similarly unfortunately-named shop that I spotted a few weeks ago.. Wouldn't you think that, given that we're in the era of "Frankenstein foods" as the UK tabloids insist on calling GM food products, someone somewhere might have roused himself from his post-lunch torpor with a start - and suddenly realised that, "Hey, perhaps Le Mutant isn't the greatest name we could have picked for our supermarket..."

Classic moment of marital bliss this morning.. I can laugh about it now.. (almost) We were walking around Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Madame drew my attention to a shop that had been one of her favourites - but is now empty.. As I looked to my right, I felt an indescribably sharp pain across the front of my legs and I went down as if poleaxed, heading straight for the pavement - as though someone had cracked me across the knees and shins with a solid steel baseball bat. Some bright spark in the council had the bright idea of positioning a great knee-high stone block squarely across the pavement to deny cars access to the pedestrian-only area. This block of pavement-coloured stone – the original immoveable object - was about 6 feet long and almost 2ft by 2ft..

After I’d gone a**e over breakfast, Madame uttered those immortal words – words to which no answer is possible.. (while I still felt as though I’d been knee-capped).. she said, “Didn’t you see it?”  


In the interests of domestic harmony I thought it best to say nothing.. (but my knuckles got a good clenching!☺)

17th December 2013. A quick raid across the border to Irun this morning for some retail therapy.. A loudspeakers outside one shop there was pumping out "Jingle bells" in Spanish.. which had me doing a double take..

I'm in two minds whether or not to mention what follows but - what the heck! Coming back from Spain we did a dogleg to Ascain intending to drop in at the racily-named Hotel du Parc Trinquet Larralde for a dose of their fixed price lunch (highly recommended by the way) - but we'd forgotten that many restaurants are closed on Tuesdays, including this one.

Xoko Ona
Undaunted, we looked around the village until we came across Xoko Ona, a small bar/restaurant in the Rue Zerbitzari-Ren Karrika (must remember this for the next time we play Scrabble!). We just made it there before the boom came down.. home made vegetable soup complete with chunks of duck in it, then chicken cordon bleu (ie, stuffed with ham and cheese) served with (shock horror!) chips (frites) fried in duck fat... eased down with a half litre carafe of an excellent red, then a slice of apple tart and coffee.. 24€ for two! Try it - that's all I'm saying! Very friendly place.. read the story of it here and here. I wish them well with their venture - we'll be back!

21st December. Very crisp morning (code for freezing!) down at the riverside this morning - at most 1 or 2°C - with a layer of what looked like steam rising off the water.. There were enough of us to put out 2 VIIIs - and so we set off. I was in an VIII set up for ramer-en-pointe while the other boat was set up for ramer-en-couple. (explanation here) The other major difference was that my boat was largely mecs and the other boat was, with one exception, all nanas! You can guess the rest can't you..! Sure enough, it wasn't long before we were racing side-by-side (briefly!) with the inevitable result.. Still, it kept us warm and it enabled the customary banter to be exchanged between the boats!☺

Madame has worked her customary magic with the house - it really looks like Christmas.. and an intriguing collection of beautifully wrapped presents lies beneath the twinkling tree - the end result of many mysterious solo trips into town - there's even one for the dog! I've been warned not to go "'investigating" - as if!☺

Best wishes to you all for a Happy Christmas with friends and family!

I found this pic earlier that for some reason made me smile..!
I don't subscribe to this philosophy here though otherwise I would end up talking to myself (just like now in fact!☺)  

This story made me laugh! It was the night of the golf club Christmas dinner and one of the older members (he was 70) turned up with a mid-twenties blonde who was definitely bimbo material.

His playing partner took him to one side during the evening and said, "Bill, you old devil..! How did you ever manage to get her! Did you tell her that you were 50..?"

Bill raised one eyebrow and replied with a cunning smile, "No - I told her I was 90!" ☺ 

Monday 23rd. This was the scene off the coast just to the south of Saint-Jean-de-Luz yesterday when the conditions were just right (don't ask me what they are!) for the wave known as "Belharra" to form.. 
It doesn't matter how many times I see this wave, I still take my hat off to anyone who dares to surf it.. 

Saturday, 28th December. Sad news today.. First of all, no rowing for me because it's a wild, wet and windy start to the day down here. Surprising - because it was a very welcome 20°C yesterday! The other piece of sad news is the report in this morning's Independent of the imminent demise of the much-loved VW Campervan..   
After a lifetime spanning over half a century, Volkswagen plans to stop the production of perhaps its best-loved vehicle, the Campervan. 
The end of the line comes after Brazil, the last remaining producer of the iconic campervan, introduced tougher safety regulations on production. Talking to Autocar, the head of product development for VW in Brazil said that to comply with the new legislation, the van would have to become “a new car”. With deviation from the classic design not being a viable option, the Brazilian factory will cease its campervan operations on the 31 December this year.
Introduced in 1950, the Volkswagen Type 2 has enjoyed pretty much continuous production, and has endeared itself to owners across the generations. Jason Jones, a campervan dealer, said that the car “has been ingrained into British people’s hearts” and that the end of the year will mark “the end of an iconic era”.   

I've wanted one of these ever since I saw my first one (in the 60s I think) but somehow I never got around to buying one.

If you're a rugby fan and you're trapped indoors by bad weather, visiting relatives, domestic duties - or all three! - then find yourself a quiet corner and watch this next video (it lasts about 1¼ hr).. It's a very personal insiders view of tackling and "big hits" by my favourite practitioner of the art - former England flanker Mickey "The Munch" Skinner - and it's just about the most enjoyable rugby video I've seen. Why we don't see and hear more of the very entertaining "The Munch" I'll never know. One of the game's true characters.

Mickey Skinner and Eric Champ embark
on a Hegelian dialectic during the 1991 World Cup
quarter final in Paris, Skinner proposing thesis,
Champ stating antithesis, the pair hoping the tension
will be resolved by means of a synthesis
(according to the Guardian!☺)
The video starts with what is perhaps the greatest try-saving and game-changing hit of all time.. It happened during the infamous France-Angleterre clash that took place in Paris during the quarter finals of the 1991 Rugby World Cup. This was an ill-tempered affair that was, as far as both teams were concerned, a "must win" match. The traditional pre-match rendition of the "Marseillaise" seemed to unnerve many of the French, especially as President Mitterand was in the stands. Emotions were already running high and the clattering of Serge Blanco by the English pack served only to add fuel to the flames. Brian Moore in particular had a magnificent match and he caused havoc in the front row battle. Never one to back down, here's "The Munch" going eyeball-to-eyeball with Eric Champ (right) in that same match in his typically uncompromising fashion..

In a match-defining moment, Marc Cecillon (no slouch he) came bursting around the base of the scrum 5 metres out from the English line only to meet "The Munch" - who stopped him dead in his tracks with a colossal hit.. before driving him back 5 metres.. Mickey talks us through the match and that tackle at 20:40 for which he will be long remembered by English fans. Watch and enjoy..

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

209. Rinse cycle in the Pays Basque

20th November 2013. It's been a wet month so far in the Pays Basque.. and the Nive has had more than its fair share of assorted lumber of all sizes floating down it during the past few weeks. Last Saturday I was out in the club's beautiful Filippi wooden shell VIII and we had to be pretty nimble in avoiding some of the larger pieces floating out there as it would have been all too easy to have irreparably damaged its fragile honey-coloured wooden skin. Higher up the river there was a whole tree lodged against the river bank that will present someone with a problem before too long (it's too big to pass under the bridges in town) as it slowly drifts its way downstream. I remember an outing in a coxless IV about 2 years ago (grisly details here) when we had an unscheduled coming together with a floating tree that launched us all - in slow motion - into a very cold river (in January!)..

It's difficult in words (for me) to capture the appeal of rowing on the river on a calm summer's evening. This image explains it waay better than I ever could: 

And for those of us who've often wondered what it must be like to soar like an eagle (and who can honestly say they haven't?☺), well, here's the answer. Someone has fitted an eagle with a lightweight camera.. The scene is the Mer de Glace outside Chamonix..
When I was there in the 60s, the glacier looked like this (below) - not the dirt track that it now appears to have become (above).
Mer de Glace
Something reminded me the other day of this haunting song by Enya (to be honest I was clearing the garage out of a few centuries-worth of muck and bullets and it came up on the radio).
I found myself humming it all day as I cleared the countless cobwebs that festooned the garage walls and swept up plaster dust, old rusty bolts and other delights. There was an assortment of ancient brackets and other ironmongery bolted to the walls - connected to the tale our neighbour told us that one previous owner of the house had been a butcher (who used the garage for slaughtering pigs). These fittings were attached with massively over-engineered fixings that hadn't been touched for years and which were mostly rusted up. Fortunately I have a set of sockets and a ratchet that made removing all the fittings easier than it might otherwise have been.

But - remembering the 1st Rule of Home DIY: if you have to remove 12 rusty nuts that have been untouched since the Spanish Civil War, 11 of them will unscrew more or less easily. That's all I'm sayin'.. (I did manage later to pop that vein back in my forehead!)

And 10 litres of white paint later, the garage walls are looking presentable again.. (the things you do when it's raining!☺)

Sunday, 24th November. I've mentioned the name of Andrée Dumon (aka "Nadine") several times here before - she was a guide for the Comète network during WWII. Here she is in Perth, Australia recounting parts of her extraordinary story.

When reading and listening to these accounts of wartime courage, I suspect I'm not alone in asking myself the unanswerable question: "What would I have done?". People like "Nadine" stepped forward and chose the path of greatest resistance.

Tuesday, 26th November. Cold day today - a bracing 2° this morning.. We went over to Spain to do some shopping and ended up staying for lunch. Found a place that was offering a 3 course lunch (that included magret de canard) including 2 glasses of the red infuriator each and coffee.. (If you must know - it came to a wallet-busting 27.60€ for two!☺)

Most of the trees still had their leaves.. What normally happens next is that a storm will blow through and all the leaves will disappear overnight.

I guarantee you'll be unable to watch this next clip without your mouth watering! I like it all - except for the presentation at the end.. the artfully arranged plate.. the few drops of sauce.. Down here in the south west, a magret de canard would never be served like this..

Is it me - or does anyone else uncomfortable with this modern practice of using fingers to arrange and prod into position the ingredients on a plate as it's "assembled" (as he calls it)..?? 

This next clip is a very familiar piece that the choir is rehearsing for a concert next year. Yes, it's familiar - but it's none the worse for that. We'll be singing it in the original German - and I must admit to finding it reassuring that some of the choir struggle with the pronunciation of a foreign language. So it's not just us then!

Amazon's tasting notes on Talisker 10 year old Single Malt whisky have this to say:

Tasting Notes:
Nose: Powerful peat-smoke with seawater saltiness, the liquor of fresh oysters and a citrus sweetness.
Palate: Rich dried-fruit sweetness with clouds of smoke and strong barley-malt flavours: warming and intense. At the back of the mouth.
Finish: Sweet malty flavours that blend into a smoky climax.

Sounds as though I'll have to close the shutters for this one! The 18 year old Talisker is apparently the one that wins all the awards.

Thursday 28th November. Went to Errenteria (just outside San Sebastian) yesterday morning for a committee meeting of the local Comète association with the Spanish representatives. Afterwards we were led around a few bars as it was too early for lunch (1pm!). Very reasonable.. for 4 glasses of  Rioja, I handed over a 10€ note and received a 5€ note back and a handful of shrapnel..! We had an excellent lunch – starting at 3pm – at Zuketza stylish bar/restaurant. I had marmitako to start with - almost a meal in itself. It's a rich and very satisfying tuna soup/stew.. For 3 courses, including 2 bottles of wine (I'd better add that there were 6 of us), coffee and a brandy, it worked out at just 17€ each..! Definitely somewhere to revisit.☺

I may be off-line for a while as another piece of translation work landed in my in-tray with an ominously heavy thud this afternoon.

The rowing club is having another "apéro" evening at TipiTapa (right) again in a few days time. If the present weather is anything to go by it will only be the hardened smokers among us who will be standing outside. We've had some really cold weather down here over the last few days with clear night-time skies and temperatures hovering just above 0°C. TipiTapa is a peña that has been set up in an old casemate in the fortifications and ramparts that encircle Bayonne (designed by Vauban in the 17th century) that were intended to keep the Brits (& others) at arm's length!  
A quiet night in at TipiTapa!
This was Bayonne in former times..

The eternal Maria Callas would have been 90 today. I'm ashamed to say it took me too long to appreciate her voice. Here she is singing two of perhaps her greatest recordings:   

Tuesday, 3rd December. After some bitingly cold days here (stop sniggering in Nebraska!☺) it was a pleasure to be out and about this afternoon in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (below) under a burning blue sky in the dazzlingly bright sunshine.. 
The bay was virtually flat calm, the distant Pyrenees were shrouded in a silvery haze and there was this 2 masted ketch swinging lazily at anchor (that set me thinking - always dangerous!)..  
The car indicated 16.5°C (62°F) on the way down to St-J-de-L but sitting over a coffee outside the Bar de la Marine (below) in the Place Louis XIV in the sun, I'm sure the temp was 20°+.. Is there a better place anywhere to enjoy a day like that..?

After my recent 3 week stint in the garage, I started making a list of the "10 Commandments for the Home DIY enthusiast":

1.There’s no such thing as a simple job.
2. If it isn’t broken, fix it until it is.☺
3. If the screw isn’t going in, use a bigger hammer.☺
4. The drill bit you want is the one that’s missing from the box.
5. Never be tempted to change the drill bit with the power on. (I'll tell you the story one day!)
6. Measure twice. Cut once. (Never the other way around!☺)
7. The best tool is a mug of coffee. Look at the job often - thinking time is never wasted.
8. One from Lesley: Things thrown away will be required within the week. (So true!)
9. If you are in desperate need of one item to finish a job, the shops will be closed.
Two more from Lesley:
10. A dropped Allen tool, nut, bolt or screw will always travel to the most inaccessible place.
11. As soon as you get your hands greasy you will develop an itchy nose or want to use the lavatory.
12. When the shop is finally open, the single item you want comes in a pack of six.
13. If it's your lucky day, and the shop sells the item you need in a single pack, they will have it in two sizes: too large and too small.
14. You've been saving something for 20 years knowing that one day you'll need it. When that day finally arrives, you can't remember where you left it. (happened to me yesterday!)

 Let me know yours and I'll include them!

It's been a while since we've heard from Gordon Lightfoot - so to put that right, here's a topical song from him:
Friday, 6th December. By now, most of you will have figured out how I work..

And finally: I'd not intended to add any more to this post but I've just read something that resonated with me - something that I hope you will nod your head to as well.

I'd been reading about Brad Pitt* who reportedly has just bought himself a Spitfire for ~US$3m..(as you do) and it turns out that you can learn to fly one at the only flying school in the world that will let you grip the control column of a Spitfire with your hot sticky hands.
* He's not the first Hollywood celeb to fly warbirds. 
A Singaporean pilot, Paul Jansen, describes his experience here and I was reading through his well-written account of his close encounter with a Spitfire when I came across the few words in question. 

He writes: "A few days ago, Nora Ephron, a brilliant screenwriter and director who first came to my attention with her romantic comedies "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless In Seattle", died of leukemia aged 71."

In an interview with Reuters, she said: "At some point, your luck is going to run out... You are very aware with friends getting sick that it can end in a second."

"You should eat delicious things while you can still eat them, go to wonderful places while you still can... and not have evenings where you say to yourself, "What am I doing here? Why am I here? I am bored witless!"

Exactamundo! As someone once said, "Life is not a practice.. You don't go around again.."

I had a thorough medical examination a couple of months ago (a standard annual requirement at the rowing club). My heart was thumping away like a single cylinder marine diesel at 54bpm, my blood pressure at 120/80 was that of a 20 year old (a 20 year old what though!) and I was booked in for an effort test on an exercise bike. This came up a week or two ago - following which I was declared to be in excellent shape. But - as Nora Ephron rightly observed - all that can change in a second. So while I am eternally grateful for the present, one of these days my luck will run out. Until then though, I'm going to try and enjoy life. And where better to enjoy it than the Pays Basque. Tuesday afternoon's trip was a timely reminder of just how lucky we are.

Final, final word: If you're ever in the area, and you feel a pressing need to severely lighten your wallet one lunchtime, I can be made available for appointments here at very short notice!☺

(It's the Hotel du Palais, Biarritz..) If you'd like to slaver over more of the best restaurants in the Basque country, look no further than here..

11th December. News just in: “Yesterday, hundreds of dyslexic mourners laid flowers outside Nissan main dealers across the UK..”

Friday, 1 November 2013

208. Pays Basque autumn

1st November 2013. Today is Toussaint.. a day to keep off French roads. It's a public holiday here and it's a time when families make their traditional annual pilgrimage to visit family graves - something that can involve elderly people who are unused to driving long distances driving hundreds of kilometres to the cemetery in the family village in their region of origin. 

Once there, magnificent displays of chrysanthemums will be left by the thousand at the graves of loved ones. Following the observance of this annual ritual, the local restaurants will be packed with white haired clients for a good lunch, following which they may or may not take to the highways again. It's widely recognised as being one of the most dangerous times to be at large on French roads. 

I walked by the flower shop this morning at the bottom of our road which has, for the last few days, sported a beautiful display of potted chrysanthemums like the ones here. At lunchtime today, only a handful of bedraggled specimens were left - looking akin to the last chicken in the supermarket at closing time on Saturday evening! 

Walking into town this morning to the one baker that is always open come what may, it was odd to see how quiet things were.. Very few people out and about apart from a strong contingent of Spanish tourists who, fed up with closed shops in Spain, had come here to see what closed shops look like in France. Even the cafés were closed.

Question for someone: I was out walking the dog yesterday in a nearby park when I saw a butterfly.. Knowing zilch about such things, surely this is an unseasonable appearance? Are butterflies usually out and about on 31st October? It was a white one - I'd be tempted to call it a cabbage white.

I don't usually watch rugby league but as the two codes have become almost indistinguishable these days I'm tempted to see if I can find coverage of the France - New Zealand match tonight in the Rugby League World Cup.    

I doubt if the inside of the garage has been cleaned and painted for 20 years – there’s flaking paint, cobwebs and dust everywhere.. So a few days ago I started clearing assorted junk from two walls and sweeping the floor and walls and then filling holes and cracks.. Then when that’s dried, I’m going to paint with some heavy duty paint – then it’ll the turn of the other two walls.. After that, the ceiling – except it’s very high.. Not sure yet how I’m going to get up there. Then I’m going to paint the concrete floor with special paint for concrete. While I’m at it, I’m going to be having a clear out to get rid of some of the junk.. It’s a job I’ve been meaning to do for a while. (Did someone mention retirement?!) 

Another job that needs doing is sorting out some trees.. The palm tree (must be 50 ft high) in front hasn’t had its dead branches pruned for years; then there’s a yew tree at the side that’s grown out of control.. that needs cutting back to a size I can manage each year and finally the big tree down the garden – think it’s a cypress – is too big. It's dropping needles all over the grass and it’s killed the lawn there – so it’s going to come down.. It’s no loss as it cuts the evening sun.. plus pigeons nest in it and they've been pecking holes in the lawn.. We had a firm around to give us an estimate for the work.. 1150€! This included 400€ just to take all the wood away..

Words you'll never read here:
Movemberchillaxing, staycation, twerking & innit.

3rd November 2013. We had some friends around for lunch today and they had their 6 year old black English cocker spaniel with them. As the skies had cleared following some earlier rain showers, we drove down to the beach in the afternoon to give the dogs a good run.. It was nearly high tide and white foamy waves were surging up the beach (just as below) - and of course, this was just too much temptation for our friends' dog..! After rolling about in the foam he then started digging his way to Australia..
9th November 2013. Another rugby Autumn International about to kick off.. England - Argentina.. These autumn international matches are just an appetiser for the big event: ie, the 6 Nations Championship - arguably the best sporting competition in the world.. (IMHO!) Here's a link to the official RBS 6 Nations YouTube site where you can watch the best of the action from previous years.

Here are the highlights of England's match against Argentina.. Yes, it was a win against a powerful Pumas team but - was it convincing? I'm not so sure.. I thought England looked directionless in the second half and they allowed the Pumas to put points on the board. As others have said, the acid test will come next Saturday when the New Zealand All Blacks are in town. Anyway, let's just enjoy the win and maybe they will gain some much-needed confidence from the result:
Sign of the Times Department: Driving past our local Leclerc supermarket late on Friday evening (en route to watch Woody Allen's latest film "Blue Jasmine") I noticed that the store already had its Christmas illuminations lit.. This is the earliest I can remember seeing Christmas lights as the Pays Basque generally lights up far later than is the case in the UK. We saw the film (in VO - version originale- ie, English) at a packed late showing at Biarritz - there were seven of us in there!☺ Watching a film you know well that's been dubbed never works for me. A few months ago, one of the French channels showed "Out of Africa" dubbed in French. It made it a completely different film and for me it was unwatchable. Try this clip and see for yourself.

One illuminated sign that is often seen here during the Christmas season is this one - Zorionak - that I believe means (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!) Holiday Greetings in Basque.. Now you know what to say to the vicar when he comes round for his pre-Christmas sherry!

Meanwhile, I hear you ask "So, what did you think of Woody Allen's latest?" Without giving too much away, it's the story of a rich wife's fall from grace and her attempts to rebuild her life in straitened circumstances. One thing's for certain, I'm convinced that Cate Blanchett will pick up an Oscar for her outstanding performance in the film.. She was completely believable in the title role..

Here's Woody himself talking about the film:   

Sunday, 10th November 2013. Down to the beach this morning to give the dog a good run. Even before I could see the sea, as I got out of the car I could hear the continuous crash of waves. There was a strong onshore wind and spume* was flying up the beach after being whipped off the sea..   
* not a word I want to read while I'm having my breakfast!
I think we're in for another wet November - showers are blowing through every few minutes from the Bay of Biscay.

This (below) is how the sea usually looks at Anglet - I find this is quite restful to watch.. Just to orientate you, Biarritz lies on the other side of the headland to the left.

Today's Fascinating Factoid: Contrary to what you might think, Anglet is pronounced Anglette.. (you can save that one for the next time it all goes quiet in the snug!)

Monday. With the start of the rugby Autumn Internationals, I'm prompted to show you this clip (turn that volume up!). Start it at 3:22 and become a Scot for 2 minutes.. If this doesn't get the hairs on your arms standing up, check your pulse..!

Now - has that got the "tingle factor" or what? That would be worth a 7 point start to any Scotland team..In my humble opinion - and absolutely without any wish at all to offend any readers north of Hadrian's Wall - this is what the pipe bands should be playing at the start of every rugby match involving Scotland. The dreary, maudling & dirge-like "Flower of Scotland" wouldn't inspire me (a Sassenach) to crush a paper cup - whereas "Scotland the Brave" and especially "The Black Bear" (played first and last by the massed pipe band above) are both rip-roaring, rambunctious and rousing tunes guaranteed to induce the need for a good old fashioned rampage! This could do for Scottish rugby what the "Haka" does for the All Blacks. Come on Scotland fans - start a petition.. email the Scottish RFU
Hark when the night is falling
Hear! Hear the pipes are calling,
Loudly and proudly calling,
Down thro' the glen.
There where the hills are sleeping,
Now feel the blood a-leaping,
High as the spirits of the old Highland men.

Towering in gallant fame,
Scotland my mountain hame,
High may your proud standards gloriously wave,
Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart for ever,
Scotland the brave.

Tuesday. The tree problem seems to be solved - we've just had 2 more quotes in that are around the 450€ mark.. which is about what I originally expected to pay.

I'm being asked what I'd like for Christmas.. After all the Highland influences from the above and having seen this hypnotic image, I'm unable to think of anything else.. so put me down for one of these - a bottomless bottle of Single Malt whisky..
Having read somewhere that Talisker 18 year old single malt had been voted the World's Best Single Malt in 2007, I had been thinking of putting one on my Christmas list - until I read these tasting notes:
Nose: Rich and fruity – Victoria plums, greengages, perhaps dried orange peel – with some butterscotch or rum toffee and a thread of smoke behind. The smoke soon advances into the foreground and the toffee note is joined by a light mintiness. With water maritime characteristics emerge – dry boat varnish, edible seaweed. Still sweet; now with notes of iodine and the smokiness of an un-struck match.
After reading that, I doubt if I'll ever be able to erase that powerful image of "dry boat varnish and edible seaweed" from my head..☺ It'll be a bottle of Glenmorangie or The Balvenie then..! Am I the only one whose favourite tipple is one or both of these? How did you discover your favourite? Any funny stories associated with it?! This quote is attributed to W C Fields:
"Always carry a large flagon of whisky in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake."
Do you always (try to) keep a drop o' the cratur in the house? Don't be shy - send in your best whisky stories via the Comment feature underneath..

To end with, here's a flash mob for you! Arriba arriba!

Friday, 25 October 2013

207. Recent happenings in the Pays Basque

14th October 2013Just give me a minute while I blow the dust off the blog.. That's better.. (cough cough!) It appears there's been a bit of a hiatus with my McBlog.. almost 2 months since the last post.. But, as always, there are a number of reasons for my indolence (none of which would stand up in court however!). While I'm preparing the case for the defence, this is a piece I heard on the radio the other day - by ABBA of all people - I don't know about you but to me it has a real Highland feel to it.. I think Benny and Bjorn must have been interviewing Doctor Glenmorangie when they wrote it (but it's none the worse for that though☺):

Let's see.. what's been going on in this blessèd corner of France since the end of August? The choir I sing with gave a concert in the cathedral here which was quite an experience.. Every seat was taken and even standing room was at a premium. Madame was sat somewhere in the crowd and she told me afterwards that there were people around her dabbing their eyes as we sang.. (was I to blame?) It was a moving experience for all of us and it was one of the most rewarding things I've done in a loong time. The change in the acoustics from the rehearsal room to the vast resonating spaces of the cathedral took me by surprise - and this was enhanced by the swelling reverberations of the organ. We have some more concerts coming up before Christmas. I've surprised myself by how much I enjoy it.

The second weekend of September saw the annual commemoration of the Comet Line - the legendary WWII evasion network designed to repatriate shot-down Allied aircrew. (I've described this event in previous posts - check out Comet Line under "Labels" in the left hand margin) This year's event retraced the classic coastal route from Ciboure, Urrugne and then over the mountains, across the Bidassoa river that marks the frontier between France and Spain and on to Sarobe farm - and it was as inspirational as in previous years.

This year we were privileged to have with us Andrée Dumon (aka "Nadine") - a wartime Comète guide - and George & Janet Duffee. "Nadine" and George are seen here (right) laying a wreath at the Monument aux Morts, Anglet.

"Nadine" is a wonderfully charismatic Belgian lady who leaves a lasting impression on all those she meets.. I heard only today that she's written a book (in French) and I'm hoping it won't be too long before it's translated into English.

George - an RAF pilot - had the great misfortune to be shot down in his Halifax heavy bomber over Holland on his very first operation and, after making contact with the Comet Line, he was guided down to the Pays Basque, where he managed to make a 14 hour crossing of the mountains at night in the rain. Unsurprisingly, this experience marked him for life - so much so that he and his family have returned to the Pays Basque countless times over the years to revisit those who'd helped him in those dark days. It was the 70th anniversary of George's epic crossing this year - and here's his account of it in his own words (from the excellent Conscript-Heroes web site).

Jenny Grimes, "Nadine" and John (grandson)
We also had the pleasure of the company of the family of the late Col Robert Grimes USAAF (right), who were present for the first time. The stirring stories of both the Comet Line and Bob's long & arduous path to freedom are well told by Peter Eisner in his book "The Freedom Line" and it's well worth a read. In a story within a story, Peter tells how Nadine's sister Michou (aka "Lily") had nursed the wounded 20 year old Bob back to health in Brussels over a period of weeks - she'd found a doctor to remove a bullet from his leg (without anaesthetic). The picture above (left) is a poignant reminder of the fragility of the threads that hold our lives together. Bob passed away in 2010 and his daughters Susan and Jenny, and their families, finally made the trip to the Pays Basque in honour of his memory. There's another excellent story - again by Peter Eisner - about Bob here.
Pierre and Michou Ugueux
Six members of the extended Grimes family arrived jet-lagged from the US but after only a minimal amount of downtime, they were soon scampering up and down the mountains like mountain goats..! (Poetic licence alert!☺ Only joking Jenny!) The first time any of us tackled the mountains most of us were in the same boat to be honest.. However, I've since found that one of the secrets of hill walking is not to look too far ahead or up.. Another is to make sure you have 2 good sticks. This may or may not work for you but it definitely works for me. Mine are both sturdy wooden jobbies and they enable me to use my arm strength - thus allowing me take some of the load off my poor old knees. When I first did this climb three years ago, I really struggled but with the sticks it was quite do-able.

This chapel lies between Ciboure and Urrugne and was the first stop we made:

The following day saw the group continuing the hike from the old station at San Miguel on the banks of the Bidassoa en route for Sarobe farm. I decided not to do the first part of this walk - instead I joined up with the walkers at around 11am for the leg to Sarobe farm and then on to Erenteria where we had a late lunch at a Basque dining society.
Saturday, 19th October 2013. We were away for a few days earlier this week - we had to go up to Chartres for a day and from there we continued on to Margency (to the north of Paris) to stay with friends for a few days. The journey north was long with more or less constant rain and poor visibility and we were glad to see the magnificent Gothic edifice of Chartres cathedral finally emerge from the mist and rain at the end of the afternoon. We found time to go inside the cathedral to marvel at what is one of the jewels in the crown of world, never mind European, architecture. How on earth was this building conceived, designed, calculated and constructed back in the twelfth century? Built at a time when many of the population would have been living in rude dwellings of wattle and daub, it's a monumental demonstration of the power, wealth and faith of the Church at that time. Here's a short film with some images that capture something of the mystical quality of Chartres - although I find the narration a shade too.. well, I leave that for you to decide:  
Where did the knowledge come from? It seems that a technical revelation must have occurred to the masons and architects at that time - a sudden fusion of all the various disciplines that allowed the construction of such a great structure to be contemplated.      

As an aside, on the way to Chartres, we skirted the forest of Fréteval - a name that should resonate with all students of the Comet Line. 

After a quick change we went into the historic centre to find a certain restaurant we'd visited previously.. but, since we'd last been in Chartres, the world had moved on - taking the restaurant with it! We stumbled upon La Casa Tropical - an Afro-Caraïbéens restaurant that specialises in food from "des Iles" - the islands in this case being the francophone islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion etc. A rum punch kick-started the system and we had an excellent meal there (worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Chartres). After sorting out some business in Chartres the following day we headed off to Margency. Finding our way there without the aid of the GPS would have been next to impossible. It was good to see our friends again - and the next day they took us to Pierrefonds which was about an hour away to the north (in the direction of Compiègne).

We drove through the forest of Compiègne and found the clearing where the two Armistices had been signed - arguably the two most significant events of the twentieth century in terms of the aftermaths in both cases. There was a definite sense that an event of some magnitude had taken place here. The first Armistice in 1918 marked the end of hostilities at the end of the Great War. The second in 1940 was signed at the moment when Hitler was at the absolute zenith of his power. There is a small museum that houses a replica of the original Wagon Lits carriage where the two armistices had been signed in addition to a multitude of other artefacts. Am I alone in finding the story of the carriage as seen by the French and the Germans to be more than a little bizarre? 

From Wikipedia:

The armistice was signed in a carriage of Foch's private train, CIWL #2419 ("Le Wagon de l'Armistice"). 

It was later put back into regular service with the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, but after a short period it was withdrawn to be attached to the French presidential train. 

From April 1921 to April 1927, it was on exhibition in the Cour des Invalides in Paris. In November 1927, it was ceremonially returned to the forest in the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. Marshal Foch, General Weygand and many others watched it being placed in a specially constructed building: the Clairière de l’Armistice. 

 There it remained, a monument to the defeat of the Kaiser's Germany, until 22 June 1940, when swastika-bedecked German staff cars bearing Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop and others swept into the Clairiere and, in that same carriage, demanded and received the surrender armistice from France. During the Occupation of France, the Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed and the carriage taken to Berlin, where it was exhibited in the Lustgarten. 

After the Allied advance into Germany in early 1945, the carriage was removed by the Germans for safe keeping to the town of Ohrdruf, but as an American armoured column entered the town, the detachment of the SS guarding it set it ablaze, and it was destroyed. Some pieces were however preserved by a private person; they are also exhibited at Compiègne. 

 After the war, the Compiègne site was restored, but not until Armistice Day 1950 was a replacement carriage, correct in every detail, re-dedicated: an identical Compagnie des Wagon-Lits carriage, no. 2439, built in 1913 in the same batch as the original and present in 1918, was renumbered no. 2419D. There's also a granite slab that bears the following uncompromising inscription in foot-high letters:

"Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German Reich. Vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave."

I think Churchill's maxim was nearer the mark - and far more statesmanlike:

In War: Resolution,
In Defeat, Defiance,
In Victory, Magnanimity,
In Peace, Good Will.

At Pierrefonds we had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake. Pierrefonds had the air of a village that had seen much trade from Paris in its heyday. - which was probably in the 1950s. Here's its château (don't overlook this link!):

We'd unfortunately picked the wrong day to return home because we got entangled with weekend half term holiday traffic - it took us 11½hrs to get home. Phew! We watched with interest as the outside temperature climbed as we headed south.. it was reading (according to the car) 24° when we arrived at Bayonne at 8.30pm. Apparently it had hit 31° at Saint-Jean-de -Luz that day! 

Sunday, 27th October 2013. Last Sunday a group of 12 of us from the choir went over the border (in the vicinity of Erratzu) for what was optimistically billed as a 3 hour hike..!

Crossing the border south of Ainhoa, we picked up two more of our group at Dantcharia before heading into Spain proper. We drove through Erratzu before parking our convoy just outside the small hamlet of Gorostapolo. Setting off on stony old cart tracks we headed first for the sparkling falls at Xorroxin (above). So far so good. I think this more or less marked the end of the match-up between our knowledge of our position and the map. Still, we weren't lost - merely that the radius of the circle of uncertainty that described exactly where we were expanded to 2-3kms. No problem - the scenery was stunning and the company was good.

At midday, we stopped for vittles.. Forgetting this was a French group, I'd just brought a packet of dried apricots, a handful of energy bars, a pear and a bottle of water. However, it was a different story for the others! From the depths of various rucksacks and other hitherto unremarkable containers emerged the very welcome sight of a number of cakes - as only the French can make them - one of which was a complete Kugelhof just like this (right).. (& unsquashed to boot!) Someone else produced a bottle of red wine and flasks of coffee also appeared. Morale soared! After this lunch we continued to walk and walk until we finally returned to the realm of the known world. I think we did something like 15-20km. This clip shows the heavily wooded area (Baztan) through which we walked as it looks in autumn:
I'd left home at 8.30am and returned at 7pm! Madame was almost amused!☺

There's another hike planned in a few weeks time. This time I'll be prepared! This clip shows the quaint old Basque villages of Erratzu & Gorostapolo and the beautiful Baztan valley (in Navarre, Spain)..

Ramer en pointe or rowing
I went down to the river yesterday and before I knew it I'd been corralled into an outing in a sporty blokes VIII (en pointe) (Eng trans here). We took out a newly restored Filippi wooden shell eight.. and it was a real pleasure to row in it as we went steaming up the river at a rate of knots, ringing the changes with ratings, power and slide variations without any allowances being made for the presence of a pensioner in their midst - in spite of the occasional whimpering noises emanating from the vicinity of my position!☺

We went as far as we could up the Nive - to the rapids at Ustaritz - where we turned the boat around and committed ourselves to a hard row back to the garage (club house). We returned doing 'intervals' - 10 light strokes, followed by 10 normal then 30 "rapide".. Each time we started on a series of "rapides", the boat surged forward feeling rock steady as the power came on in the water.. Measuring it out afterwards it worked out at ~24kms (15 miles in real money). A great outing! 

I found this personality test the other day and I thought I'd try it - I came out as an ENFJ. (I was sure I'd be an RTFQ!). I tried it again a day later and answered the questions slightly differently (without bending the truth) and emerged as another personality type. I don't think the results have any great significance. 

This morning I went down to the beach at Anglet with the pooch for some fresh air. The problem is that poor old Chibby, our 12 year old golden cocker spaniel, is now almost totally blind. He has cataracts on both eyes that, according to the vet, are inoperable as he also has macular degeneration of the retina. So now, sadly, his days of madcap racing on the beach are officially over as he has to stay on his lead.. here he is down there on a windy day in early 2010:
A great pity because in all other respects he's as full of beans as he ever was and he was itching to be let loose. Here he is in happier days surveying his territory before we left England: 

It was one of those October days when it was difficult to imagine living anywhere else.. it was warm - around 24° - and the cloudless sky was that burning blue that often occurs at this time of the year.

Looking south towards Biarritz, a silver mist hung over the beach as successive rollers reared up and crashed in an explosion of white foam on the almost deserted sand.

We were invited to lunch today by two of the most generous people we've ever met - who else but the owners of the gîte where we stayed for 5 months back in 2007. We arrived at midday and a USMC-sized glass of Ricard was put in my hand.. (Check out the link to see what other brands are owned by Pernod-Ricard - think you'll be surprised!) One of the courses was Ris de Veau (which might well give me nightmares tonight!☺) - that I ate while thinking of England!

We had a welcome change of gear after this with roast quail.. which were delicious. I'll have to tell you about a frustrating incident that happened at this point.. A bottle of 1994 Pomerol appeared but the cork defied all attempts to extract it.. (I did briefly contemplate biting the neck off the bottle!) My frustration can be imagined if I were to remind you that the legendary Château Pétrus is a Pomerol!! By the way, I've added Ris de Veau to my list of dishes that I'll take steps to avoid in future. Already at the top of my "Not even at the point of a Gun" list are Andouillette and Tête de Veau.       

Tuesday, 29th October 2013. I forgot to mention that our hosts on Sunday had kindly given us a box of fresh farm eggs as we were leaving and yesterday Madame made an omelette from them. The yellowest, tastiest omelette we've had since we last had some eggs from the farm.

Wednesday. The local news has been reporting the reappearance of the monster wave known as Belharra just to the south of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. (this is not photo-shopped)

It's caused by the presence of an off shore reef and it apparently requires certain conditions (wind, tide, weather) to combine in order to make it form - but when it does.. this is the result: 

More videos of the Belharra wave here.