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.