Sunday, 25 October 2015

225. The clock's ticking..

3rd January. By one of those uneasy coincidences, I've just heard that Michel Delpech, the singer in the video below, has died.. (26 January 1946 – 2 January 2016). RIP †.

28th December. I can't think why I've not posted this video before.. it's the ride by le Petit Train up to the summit of La Rhune -  the emblematic mountain that presides benignly over the Côte Basque. To many here it's the symbol of the Pays Basque. Make yourself a coffee before starting the trip! The ticket collector has a real local accent!

25th December. If you've ever driven south in France in summer and switched the radio on to alleviate the boredom of the autoroutes, it's a racing certainty that you'll have heard this "summer song" that burst upon the airwaves in 1971.. and has been a perennial favourite on French radio stations (like RFM) ever since. Once heard, never forgotten..(you've been warned!) 

And for those of you who can just remember that slightly risqué* release "Je t'aime... moi non plus" by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin waay back in 1969, this next video may amuse you.. It's Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield with their tongue-in-cheek version..
* it was thought to be slightly shocking at the time.. According to Wiki, it was banned from radio in Spain, Sweden, Brazil, the UK, Italy, Poland, Portugal and before 11 pm in France.

By the way, Happy Christmas to all of you out there! Don't let me disturb your post-lunch snore-fest.. 

23rd December. Stuck in Paris and in need of a quick Pays Basque fix?? Look no further..

I've mentioned before in these pages the fact that there is a distinct and separate Basque culture here. France it's not.. it's the Pays Basque. You won't have to spend too much time down here or have to travel far within its bounds before you'll hear this song.. sung beautifully here by Anne Etchegoyen and the Basque male voice choir Aizkoa. You can listen to more Basque songs by them here - you'll hear these and many other songs sung with vigour whenever Basques gather together - I particularly like their version of Oi Gu Hemen (the third in the above link). You can also listen to the street version here as it's sung during the Fêtes de Bayonne.
19th December. Don't know what to make of our current warm spell.. it was 24° (75°F) in Biarritz this afternoon.. We had a coffee sitting outside - watching all the shorts and t shirts strolling by.. Hard to believe that I'll be mano-à-mano with a live Christmas pudding in just a few days.. I'll manage though!☺

17th December. I was down in the cellar earlier looking at the wine situation with Christmas in mind. Just as forestry workers paint, chalk or spray a ring around trees that are destined for the chop, I was mentally eyeing up what we had, what we needed and which of the remaining good bottles were destined for the table.. Some kind soul had given us a bottle of 2008 Pomerol Chateau Monregard la Croix and I mentally sprayed a ring around it..  Looking forward to that one!

We also had a very welcome Red Cross* parcel arrive the other day - it contained a Christmas pudding and mince pies.. The taste of Christmas.. *Thanks Jon & Miki!

As it was 22°C (71°F) yesterday (yes, you heard - twenty two degrees..!) here's a glimpse of summertime in Biarritz in 1968.. Just looked at the forecast for the next few days and it's going to be 20+° until Saturday..

The things you learn on the internet.. I was just looking at the list of Christmas carols I linked to in the paragraph below and it appears that "Gabriel's Message" or "The angel Gabriel" is a Basque Christmas folk carol (in Basque: Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen). You can either drop this snippet into conversation the next time it goes quiet in the snug or, better still, save it for that late night game of "Pro-Celebrity No Rules" Scrabble!

We were out in the car this afternoon and we were watching the temperature read-out climbing forever upwards until it peaked at 23½°C.. I have to convert this into Ye Olde half-timbered wattle and daub Fahrenheit to get the full impact.. 74°F. There were people out and about in shorts and t-shirts.. I can't believe that this time next week we'll be sitting down to our Christmas meal and opening presents.. 

13th December. I was writing a few Christmas cards yesterday - and listening to Christmas carols at the same time on Madame's little internet radio (it works a treat - highly recommended) but despite that it was hard to get into the Christmas spirit when it was 17°C outside with blue skies. Complaineth I not though.. I remember going to buy a Christmas tree one year when we lived in England - it was a bitterly cold and raw Sunday afternoon and already turning dark.. Buying one here is a completely different experience!

8th December. Forgot to mention that I went down to the rowing club late on Saturday morning in time to meet all the boats as they returned. A problem with the joints at the base of my thumbs has kept me away for about three months. Not quite sure what the problem is but if it's no better in the New Year I'm going to try going out in a boat to see if there are any ill-effects. It was good to see everyone again - they're almost a second family to me. One of the small speedboats that the coaches use came back towing a empty pair oar. Apparently the two girls who'd been in it had contrived to turn it over. There's been a lot of wood in the river lately and I suspect they'd had a collision with a tree and there's usually only one winner when that happens. (ask me how I know!)

We won't be using our "Made in China" synthetic Christmas tree* this year.. We asked the tree man to lop the top 6-7 feet off from the tree he cut down and we've now got that waiting in the wings ready to be moved into the house.
* Add this to your ever-growing list of "Is there nothing they can't make" things.

The choir I sing with is busy rehearsing this piece by Mozart, ready for a concert sometime in the New Year. It's his "Coronation Mass" in C major K 317. I think it would be fair to say that we have quite some way to go before we're anywhere near the standard set by Laurence Equilbey and the Accentus Chamber Choir..!

7th December. Ker-ching! That's it.. Christmas shopping finished!☺

We've had a spell of bright sunny weather lately.. yesterday the temperature was up around 18°C (65°F) and so we took advantage of it by a morning trip to Biarritz. The sea was a sight to behold - it looked like someone had opened the doors of the wave factory! As each towering roller neared the beach, its crest was lifted off by the wind in silvery parabolas before it exploded in a melee of white foam. No surfers in evidence!

We parked ourselves at the Café Dodin on the Grande Plage to watch the spectacle.. One brave soul stripped off on the beach and walked down to the water's edge watched by all.. he didn't dally long before he was in. I think many envied him.. I know I did!

Today it's more of the same.. wall-to-wall blue skies. Problem for me is that it's difficult to associate the onset of Christmas with the weather.. I'm not complaining though!

A few days ago we had a tree feller to the house to take down a Christmas tree that someone had planted in the back garden before we arrived. It had grown to a good 50 feet high and it showed no signs of stopping.. We'd had one tree blown over a year or two ago in a storm and we didn't want to risk this one suffering the same fate - so down it had to come. The tree man wrapped himself up in something like a parachute harness and strapped on what looked like a pair of crampons and with his chain saw attached to his belt - plus other tools of his trade, he started shinning up the tree. Branches started tumbling down and every now and again there'd be an almighty dumph as a large section of trunk landed. He soon had all the major parts of the tree sawn up and I stacked those at the side of the house to dry out for a couple of years. He dragged all the branches outside where he had an industrial sized shredder that made short work of reducing everything into a mulch. He then returned to the garden with a leaf blower and blew off all the sawdust into the back border - job done! He'd started at 2pm and by 4pm he'd finished. I'd had thoughts of doing it all myself but without the tools I'd still be out there sawing everything up by hand with my bow saw..
22nd November. Two days ago it was 21° (70°F in real money) so we had lunch out in the garden. Yesterday, it was wild, windy and wet.. Today, we thought we'd nip across into Spain to do some shopping and as we approached the mountains, we could see that the summits of some (not too) distant peaks were covered in snow.. Explain me this.. (as they say here..)

I've been off rowing for a couple of months as I think I have tendonitis (possibly de Quervain's syndrome) around the base of both my thumbs. And before the suggestions come flooding in, I don't have a Blackberry or a mobile..! So I'm excused vacuuming.. (into each life a little rain must fall..!)
15th November.
Bleu Café, Grande Plage
9th November. According to the TV news last night, it was an unseasonal 27° in Biarritz and 28° at Saint-Jean-de-Luz yesterday.

8th November. We're enjoying an Indian summer here - yesterday we went to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and, as usual, pinched ourselves with our good fortune at being able to live here in this corner of France. The beach was crowded with late season sun-worshippers.. and there were quite a few in the water. The car indicated 25° - but it felt warmer than that in the sunshine. 

This morning we were in Biarritz (or Bayonne-Plage as wags in Bayonne refer to it!), once more enjoying the dazzling light, clear blue skies and 25°C (again!).. We stopped at the Bleu Café on the Grande Plage for a coffee. There must have been 100+ surfers out there - trying to catch the rollers as they marched in as if from a production line. 

There were more visitors in town than is usual.. I suspect many had combined a couple of holidays using a "bridge".. On the way to pick up a baguette from our favourite bakers we saw a bright red American 60s convertible (might have been an Impala?) coming towards us.. It looked to be the size of a cruise ship lifeboat. I can't think of a more unsuitable car for bumbling around the narrow winding streets of Biarritz. Parking (or mooring) a monster like this must be a nightmare.

I forgot to add that "The clock's ticking.." refers to the imminent arrival of Christmas.. We've been thinking about doing something then and so we've been looking around at places to go.. I'm not sure I want to be out on the roads then and also I'm not sure that I want to be in a commercial environment at that time of the year. We went out for New Year's Eve during our first year here and I don't want to repeat the experience. If we go anywhere it will be to here - our "ace in the hole" - Chez Pantxua (left and below) at Socoa.. We found this great family-run seafood restaurant 20+ years ago and in all that time the quality has never varied. For the freshest of seafood, cooked to perfection, in a friendly ambiance - there's nowhere better.

25th October. Here's a short video I made showing (part of) what happens during the Fêtes de Bayonne..

Monday, 7 September 2015

224. Calm before the storm

18th October. Had lunch in the garden today.. and the way this year is shaping up so far it could well be for the last time - the temp was around 18°C. I also oiled and greased the plancha and put it away in the garage for winter.

I've not mentioned the Rugby World Cup (I think) lately.. With rugby, it's either famine or feast.. Once a year, in February-March, we get the Six Nations tournament - where the six participating countries are roughly of equal ability. To me, it's the highlight of the sporting year (from an armchair perspective) and I rate it higher than the Olympics.. However, come the Rugby World Cup and we get drowned in a deluge of matches - sometimes three in a day. Maybe it's me but I'm afraid I can't get too excited over England - Uruguay or New Zealand - Tonga or Canada - Romania..

Occasionally however, there's a titanic clash between 2 countries where I genuinely don't care either way who wins the match - yet it's totally enthralling. Such a game was played yesterday between South Africa and Wales. I've never been a fan of Welsh rugby (and not just because they booted us out of the RWC!☺) but yesterday I think they shaded the match and <through gritted teeth> were unlucky to lose. Perhaps the South Africans were slightly fitter as they seemed to take charge in the final minutes. But, well done Wales.. I don't begin to understand how the players can take - and dish out - those monster hits.. I can't leave the Welsh without mentioning Dan Biggar (above). He's a great player and seldom misses his penalties - but (you know what's coming don't you!) he's adopted the bizarrest and most laughable of pre-kick routines.. Give the image below a few seconds to load.. OK, it obviously works for him but I think they should put screens around him while he does it. It's verging on an OCD..

As for the New Zealand - France game last night, I switched off after about 30 minutes. We in the northern hemisphere thought we had caught up with the superior fitness levels and play of the southern hemisphere sides - but clearly New Zealand (and to a slightly lesser extent the other two big sides Australia and South Africa) has raised the bar. The way the All Blacks started off during the opening 30 minutes was unwatchable. They played with a ferocity, an intensity and their customary disregard for the opponent's well-being that is uncomfortable to watch. I'm sorry - I'm probably wrong - but that's how I see it.

Sad to see Ireland exit the stage.. beaten by an Argentinian side with a 43-20 scoreline that flattered the Pumas. There aren't too many sides in the world game that could afford to lose through injury the likes of Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton and that great flanker Peter O'Mahony.

Who would have thought that at this stage (before the Australia-Scotland match has been played) that it's odds-on that there won't be a single northern hemisphere country in the semi-finals..? Out (in alphabetical order) are: England, France, Ireland, Italy and Wales. The semi-finalists are New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and (at the risk of annoying anyone north of Hadrian's Wall) most likely Australia. I'd put money on the final being between New Zealand and Australia. Now you're going to ask me who I'd like to see win it compared to who I think will win it? You'll have to email me for the answer to that question. I wouldn't want to upset either of my readers in New Zealand and Australia..

The question that will be exercising the governing bodies of Rugby Union across Europe tomorrow morning must surely be "Where do we go from here..?" It's time for those hard decisions to be taken.. In my view, both the England manager and the captain must be questioned. I think Stuart Lancaster is an honourable man and he's done a great job of rebuilding the side but unfortunately his selections have come up short - both in the 6N and the RWC. "More of the same" isn't an option.. As Martin Johnson once observed, "There are no points for style.." Chris Robshaw may be many things but a leader of men he isn't. Yes, he may do lots of unseen work but I'm afraid I can't remember a single memorable passage of play in which he was involved. No, if I was the CEO of the English RFU, I'd be tempted to call Sir Clive Woodward in for a chat and make him an offer he couldn't refuse. Not just cash either - but back the guy up with everything he needs. No back-stabbing - no quibbling over his methods - give him the job and support him 100%. He's a winner. Remember this Test match against New Zealand in Wellington in 2003? At one point England were playing with 13 men - and still they won. Winning in NZ is one thing - winning there when down to 13 men is another. He'd instilled belief in the players. It also helped that he knew his best XV...

I took the dog for a long walk along the beach at Anglet this morning.. and, unusually, the sea was flat calm. Miniscule waves, like those seen at a lakeside, lapped on the shore. (had to remind myself that this was the Atlantic) Looking out to sea somewhere between ½ mile and a mile, someone appeared to be walking on water  - just like this image, except his paddle and his board were invisible. A couple of thousand years ago, this would have been enough to trigger a new religion at the very least!

While I was down there, a café sign caught my eye.. it read "Le Coconuts".. Perhaps it's me being picky on a Sunday morning - but shouldn't this be "Le Coconut" or "Les Coconuts"? On this same theme, there's a shop in St-Jean-de-Luz called "Sweater's".. known as the Greengrocers' apostophe in England.

Don't get me started on greengrocers' spelling (right).. I've actually seen these spellings in markets in England.. (in case you're wondering, OBO-jeans are aubergines and Monge-Two are mangetout..) OK, I promise I'll get out more..!  
6th October. I've mentioned Ramiro Arrue before here.. his work encapsulated the Pays Basque to such an extent that it remains the graphic reference to this day. He painted in a deliberately naïf style that showed the simple dignity of the Basques in their daily activities. While I believe his work shows occasional signs of being influenced by Cézanne and Lautrec, he had a unique and enduring style.

If you'd like to explore the unspoilt Basque country on foot, I'd suggest you head for the Baztan valley in Spain (purists would argue this is still the Basque country - and they'd be right!). I mentioned it in Post 207 (scroll down the link about halfway). If you think you'd like to have a walking holiday (guided or unguided) there - then why not contact Georgina Howard who runs Pyrenean Experience..? Her holidays sound like a lot of fun. Here's a reminder of the area:

3rd October. I've always liked these old travel posters (& art works) of the Côte Basque - so much so that I finally put together a short video of some of them. Some are influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, while others tip their hat to the Cubists or to Art Deco.. Ramiro Arrue's work is in there too. All are interesting in their own way. (PS I know the music isn't Basque but to me it's a summer sound.. and it just seems right. Look here and here)
26th September. We were invited to an afternoon repas with the Goraki Choir in Ciboure today.. the night before they'd given a concert at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, St-Jean-de-Luz.

This is a mixed Basque choir and we know a few people who sing with them. The venue for the meal
was the parish hall, hidden in a narrow winding street in Ciboure.. The massively beamed hall was up on the first floor with stunning views across the river into the harbour of St-Jean-de-Luz - views that would have had estate agents salivating.. More photos of the concert here.

The organisation was impressive.. rows of tables had been set out - enough to cope with the 170+ guests who were expected. To go with a welcome glass of local cider, teams of helpers were circulating with all kinds of appetisers - delicious small sausages known as "loukankas", a variety of quiches, cold soups in small cups, a mix of potato salad and cod - again in a small cup - and other delights. After much to-ing and fro-ing and general shuffling about, we all eventually sat down - only to jump smartly to our feet as the room resounded with a Chant d'Honneur that was sung with an impressive vigour.. Each place setting came with its own Basque song sheet.

A number of planchas had been set up outside and a small team were hard at work cooking over well over 1,000 gambas (left). Clouds of blue smoke rose up from the planchas as the gambas sizzled. They were delicious.. and, as they had to be eaten with the fingers, each table had been well-stocked with finger wipes.. While all this was going on, a few musicians kept stoking the fires by singing some Basque favourites.. Corks were being popped like at an Irish wedding as we all settled to the task.
Meanwhile, the plancha team weren't slackening off - we could see them slaving outside over their planchas - loading them with enough ribs of beef (côtes de bœuf) to feed the assembled masses.. Teams of ladies came round with platters piled high with substantial slices of rare beef (right).. This was neither the time nor the place to be a vegetarian.. this was red beef - red in tooth and claw.. It had clearly been hung as it was as tender as you like. A long time since either of us had had meat as good as this. Nouvelle cuisine..? Fuhgeddaboutit..!

More outbursts of singing punctuated the chomping of beef.. as seconds were brought around. (in case you're wondering - yes, I did!)

The choir formed up and sang for us - Basque voices have a unique timbre to them that's very distinctive. Unfortunately for non-basque speakers, the language is completely impenetrable and gives no clue at all as to the meaning of the song. On the positive side, they have some great tunes that are instantly memorable.

Cheese and dessert followed and soon the coffee came out. We had to make an early exit as our poor pooch was at home alone. Luckily he likes his sleep these days.

A great day and one in which it was plain to see the pleasure and the pride that everyone present took in their culture.               

25th September. A new expression caught my ear the other day: bourré de pognon*.. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded rather like one of those flowery menu descriptions in a trendy restaurant.. like Ecrasée de pommes de terre - which is how mashed potatoes are currently described in über-trendy restaurants here (Ecrasée = crushed). 

"Yes, I'd like the bourré de pognon to start with, followed by .." etc etc.

* For anyone desperate to know the answer, it means "stuffed with money"..

We finished up at La Plancha, Bidart this afternoon. It's situated overlooking the beach at Ilbarritz (just to the south of Biarritz). Well worth a visit..

11th September. There was a piece on Télématin (France 2) this morning that featured the Musée de l'Annonciade at Saint-Tropez. Made a mental note to go there one day. Some wonderful paintings there.. Scroll down this link and see what you think..

I gave Madame one of those internet radios the other day.. Without wishing to sound as though I'm on commission, the performance is - no other word for it - simply staggering.. Not only does it have the capability to access over 10,000 internet radios - but it can also work as a FM radio, or DAB radio.. It can also receive podcasts.. and input from other devices.. Simplicity itself to use as well.  I found myself exploring Cuban radios - and stations around the Caribbean.. before returning to European stations. Needless to say, Madame is totally delighted with it. She says it's right up there with her Mac laptop. Praise indeed..!  

10th September. If you like jazz, try TSF Jazz..

It was a visit to a Thai restaurant in Biarritz the other day that made me think of this.. If you like Thai food - and you live in Seattle - then this is for you.. I was once fortunate that for a few years my work took me to Seattle on a regular basis. I was taken out one day for lunch at Saya Restaurant, a Japanese-Thai restaurant at 8455 S 212th St, Kent, WA 98031. Yes, it does look anonymous and you could be excused for driving on by, thinking it doesn't look special. Whatever you do, don't.

Gai Yang
Someone once said to me what I'm about to say to you - "Just trust me and order the Gai Yang.." (Thai BBQ chicken). It was by far the best BBQ'd chicken I've ever had - and it was astonishingly good value. It's chicken thighs marinated in yellow curry powder and coconut milk. What wouldn't I give for one now..! Menu here. When I used to go there in the mid-1990s, it was $7.00. Twenty years on it's still only $8.50.. How many marks out of 10? 17..! 

I remember once going there after an interval of at least a year.. The waitress took one look at me and said, "Gai Yang, right?" (How did she remember me? I'm not that windswept and interesting!) Over a period of a few years, I went through the menu there - tried every dish - I didn't have one I didn't enjoy - but their Gai Yang was by far the best. The service is also right up there! You'll thank me for this.

10th September. If you somehow managed to miss the final of the Mens' VIII from the world rowing championships at the beautiful lake of Aiguebelette in the Savoie last weekend, you're in luck - click here.. The race ended up as a "toe to toe" slugfest between Germany and Britain. Keep an eye on the stylish Kiwi crew.. A pity they ran out of gas in the last 500m. A future race-winning boat if ever I saw one.

9th September. Spare a thought for your poor correspondent - he's frantically trying to finish translating a number of speeches (fortunately from French => English) that have arrived late from various people so that they'll be ready in time for the weekend.. Desperate measures have been called for!   

7th September. I'll probably get howled down for being a complete philistine (again!) but I think this next piece would have received J S Bach's imprimatur.. It's his Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major played on a synthesiser.. (cries of "Hanging's too good for them!")
Compare it with the more traditional version:

What do you think? I'm not saying one is better than the other - I think the modern version can stand comparison with the original. 

Anyway, moving on, loins are being girded in anticipation of the forthcoming weekend's exertions.. Yes, it's the annual Comète commemorative weekend - where around 100 or so people from all parts of the world gather together at St-Jean-de-Luz to pay homage to those of the Comète Line who gave so much during WWII. On the Saturday and Sunday, we'll be tracing one of the wartime escape routes taken by the Comète guides and the evading airmen from Ciboure over the Pyrenees and into Spain. 

At times like this, I wish I'd spent at least a few days up in the hills this year but for one reason or another that didn't happen. However, I know I won't be the only one! Here's the forecast for Saturday and Sunday.. looks like it could be damp. Warm but damp..

223. Memorial for 2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF

I've mentioned my interest in and involvement with a local association "Les amis du réseau Comète" ("The Friends of the Comet Line") in earlier posts here. The Comet Line was a network set up during WWII by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of enabling Allied aircrew who had been shot down in northern Europe to be repatriated back to Britain from Gibraltar. This laudable aim was achieved via a thread of volunteer helpers that stretched from Brussels, Paris, the Pays Basque and on into Francoist Spain.

The history of Comète contains many individual stories of heroism, courage and adventure by innumerable brave souls - both civil and military. These shining examples of 'grace under pressure' were counterbalanced by many unspeakably brutal acts by an enemy whose savage deeds were a barbaric throwback to medieval times. Several books have been written on the subject and there are also many personal accounts available online.

During the course of the annual commemorative weekend, "Les amis" retrace the old routes over the Pyrenees. Before other inland routes were pioneered, the original route taken by the Comète guides and the evaders led from Ciboure (close to St-Jean-de-Luz) up into the mountains before descending to cross the Bidassoa, the river that marks the frontier between France and Spain. After crossing the river, the evaders would make their way to a safe farm where they would be fed before taking a well-deserved rest.

During the course of reading the accounts of these crossings (one of which is Peter Eisner's excellent "The Freedom Line"), I became aware that two men were tragically drowned  during their attempt to cross the wintry Bidassoa on the night of 23-24th December 1943

One was Count Antoine d'Ursel, a Belgian civilian who had formerly been the head of Comète in Belgium. The other was 2nd Lt James Frederick Burch, USAAF, a 27 year old native of Terrell, Texas, who had been shot down in his B-17F over Holland on 10th October 1943.
2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF
(taken 4 days before being shot down)
Trying to ascertain the facts of this tragedy with any degree of reasonable certainty at this remove (70 years after the event), at a time when little or nothing was committed to paper (for obvious reasons), is made more than usually difficult by the circumstances of that night. 'After action' reports were written - but given the darkness, the language difficulties, that the river was in flood, the fact that the evaders came under fire from the Spanish side, the fear and the fatigue, it is not surprising that the accounts differ in the detail.

Count d'Ursel's widow later caused a memorial (right) to her husband to be erected on the banks of the Bidassoa and, as an example of how we can sometimes be blind to the obvious, I unthinkingly accepted the fact that there was no memorial to Jim Burch. It was only after reading more into the events of that night that caused me to ask myself "Why no memorial to Jim?".

I put this short video together to shed some light on what happened that night - best viewed in full screen:

We, in "Les Amis..", decided that even 70 years on, that Jim's sacrifice and his passing merited a memorial so that future generations may be prompted to ask who, what and why. Accordingly, we have started a project to provide a memorial on the river bank to Jim Burch, the only aviator to lose his life while in Comète's hands.

We have found a stonemason who will furnish us with a granite memorial stone, engrave a suitable inscription and set it up at the riverside. We have therefore launched an appeal for donations to finance this project. At the time of writing (25th September) we are within touching distance of the target figure. 

On behalf of the committee of the "The Friends of the Comet network" - our heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated so generously for this worthy cause.. I will post news of the project here as and when it happens.

31st May 3016. Edited to add: thanks to many generous donations we hit our target inside 2 months. We inaugurated the 2 memorials at a new location during a moving ceremony held on the banks of the Bidassoa on 16th April 2016..

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

222. Farewell to a great lady

1st September. I've just been out with the dog and even though the temperature has dropped from the mid thirties to ~20°, the humidity is still right up there. According to an online site it is 86% right now. It feels like it too!

30th August. Another baking hot day - it was still 35° in the shade at 7.30pm.

Gracy Florence
It was the funeral of Gracy Florence, the former mayor of Espelette on Saturday, 22nd August. We met her 3 years ago when the annual Comète weekend saw us gather in Espelette. This small village that's Basque to its fingertips played a key part in the story of the Comète Line - as it was the focus of several inland routes that had to be developed after the arrests of Andrée De Jongh, the founder of the entire network, and others at Bidegain Berri farm (near Urrugne).

After a ceremony of remembrance in front of the War Memorial, Mme Florence had spoken without notes, simply and movingly, of the spirit that motivated those of the network. I remember that we were left afterwards with the impression that we'd been in the presence of a very remarkable woman.

The funeral was equally remarkable and that the church of St Etienne was packed to the rafters was in itself a testament to the power of her personality and the deep love and affection in which she was held by her family and her many friends. We'd arrived early at 8.50am and were lucky to find a pew at the back of the church. By 10am, it was standing room only with all three galleries packed. The service was in Basque and there was a Basque choir in place - and the power of their singing made for a deep and moving ceremony. I think many large lumps were swallowed by those present. What a way to leave this world - surrounded by friends and with singing like this that raised goose pimples on me. I'm sure the family would have been comforted by the strength of the feeling of the community around them.  

The chief mourners were led to their seats by the former rugby international Pierre Dospital (Peyo). A mighty Basque and legendary prop forward from the early 80s, he still possesses a formidable physical presence. He welcomed me into the church with a handshake that was akin to shaking hands with a jambon de Bayonne..! Yes, I may well be taller than him but he's built like a solid oak wardrobe! Would I have liked to have faced him in a rugby match as the two front rows locked horns? This picture (right) might provide the answer..

It struck me that Florentino Goikoetxea - Comète's own Basque mountain man who led so many aviators to safety across the Pyrenees must have been cast from the same mould. They make them tough around here. As I've often said here - the Basques love to sing.. and here's Peyo with his choir's version of that old folk song "The water is wide".. While I think James Taylor recorded the definitive version (here), Peyo's would do for me! 

29th August.. Oops! Welcome to the "Egg on Face" Dept.. Looking on the bright side (I've never seen the point of pessimism), over the two matches England outscored France by 5 tries to 2. However, credit where it's due - France outplayed England for long periods and it was only after some substitutions that England came alive.. It would have been a travesty if they'd managed to win the game in extra time (as they threatened to do). In 2003, England went into the World Cup ranked No 1.. Being diplomatic, I'd say that Stuart Lancaster has a few selection problems. The team he sent out looked like headless chickens for so long.. and straight from the kick off, France looked like they meant business. This is painful to watch if you're an England supporter. Fortunately it was a "friendly"..
I had an outing this morning in an octuple (an VIII sculler). With the humidity, it took only minutes before rivulets of sweat were dripping off my ear lobes, my nose and my eyebrows.. It made for an uncomfortable morning.. We did 17km and I was happy to see the clubhouse again.   

It's a baking 37° as I write.. the dog is flat out on the tiles and I'll be joining him shortly..

19th August. After returning from a couple of weeks away in the UK (6100km in 2 weeks), it's impossible to describe the sense of anticipation I felt at the prospect  at the first of the two friendlies between England and France last Saturday evening.

It should be noted that winger Jonny May is the only player who keeps his place from the first match. The XV that coach Lancaster has selected looks extremely businesslike and I would not be at all surprised to see England run in a few tries. 

Some very familiar names appear: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); J Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens).

I don't see France continuing the forward domination they demonstrated last Saturday. It should be a cracking match..

Monday, 22 June 2015

221. Le massif de l'Esterel

11th July 2015. Here's a short guide to the beaches between St-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye on the Côte Basque:

9th July 2015. The annual madness that is the Feast of San Fermin is well underway just across the border in Pamplona. In the third video you can see that slippery stone sets combine dangerously with a solitary bull.. Feel like proving your manhood? (or perhaps losing it!☺) Step right this way..!

Hemingway in 
Spain 1923
I don't pretend to like bullfighting - far from it - but, like it or not, it must be admitted that, in an increasingly homogenised world, the whole spectacle of the Feast of San Fermin at Pamplona is one of the last authentic remaining folk festivals in Europe. It combines the fascination of Mediterranean man with the bull, religious mysticism, alcohol, bravado and death. That's an unusual combination by anyone's standards. San Fermin gained much renown and notoriety via its promotion by Hemingway with the publishing of his book "The Sun Also Rises". Hemingway - a man who could have kept a psychiatrists convention entertained for several months - found that the excesses of San Fermin provided the perfect antidote for his particular personality. I'll leave it there!

I was in Biriatou on Tuesday - a village that's said of it that anyone finding themselves there is either lost or a local who lives there. One of the most charming villages I've found in the Pays Basque, it's on a bluff overlooking the river Bidassoa that separates France from Spain. There's an auberge that I stopped at for a coffee - the Auberge Hiribarren.. Unchanged for decades inside, with a dining room that overlooks a stunning view and with a "spoilt for choice" menu, it looks like a prime candidate for a visit!   

26th June 2015. This is a lady whose voice has the power to hypnotise.. She's also extremely funny..
22nd June 2015. Even if you've never sat in a rowing boat, I'm sure you'll enjoy this short video.. It's the explosive final of the mens' VIIIs from Varese in Italy yesterday. For years, Germany has been the reference - the VIII to beat - and yesterday they were beaten. After a race like this, none of the oarsmen would have anything left in the tank.. and there's only one thing that makes the total exhaustion worthwhile - and that's winning.    

20th June 2015. I was saddened to hear on the lunchtime news today of the death of that great American writer James Salter. I discovered his work only a few years ago and I wish I'd found it sooner. I greatly envied his ability in his first book ("The Hunters") to nail all the disparate elements that combine to form military aviation. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I would suggest that "The Hunters" would make a good starting point. His later books repay slow reading as they're densely written. At the moment I'm re-reading "Burning the Days" and taking my time.. line by line.. I found I missed the richness of his prose the first time around by my usual speed-reading and I had to learn to pace myself. He had the knack of being able to paint pictures with the minimum of words, his imagery was memorable and, perhaps most importantly, he had the uncanny ability to articulate our unexpressed thoughts - well, mine anyway. No-one else wrote quite like him.    

"Once in a great while, a talented writer survives combat to produce a work of literature. Rarest of all is a literary novel written by a blooded fighter pilot. In the English language, perhaps two works truly qualify. One is Winged Victory by Victor Yeates, who flew Sopwith Camels and brought down five Germans in the First World War. The other is The Hunters by James Salter. Salter tells the story of Captain Cleve Connell who arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill—sometimes under dubious circumstances — Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war."

If military aviation isn't for you, try "Burning the Days".. He wrote beautifully about France as the NY Times explains: "And for the evocations of places, and especially of France, "the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it. I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings." And Paris: "Early morning. Its cool breath astonishingly fresh. Its elegance and ancient streets, its always staggering price. The sound of early traffic. The sky blemishless and wide." This the expatriate's France: Salter knows that the secret is never to pretend you belong there."

Here he is interviewed in the Guardian.. and some of his quotes.

10th June 2015. Busy catching up with life after a week away in the Massif de l'Esterel. This is another of those blessed and much-visited corners of France and it's situated between the Mediterranean and Provence. We stayed at a hilltop hotel (with views to die for) near Les-Adrets-de-l'Esterel to the north of Saint Raphaël. I'll get around to posting a few photographs one day.. Meanwhile, have a look here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

220. La Tantina de la Playa, Bidart

Thursday, 28th May. A few months back I was browsing YouTube looking for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 (2nd Movement) - a well-known piece that was one of my father's favourites - and I stumbled upon Yuja Wang's interpretation of this most lyrical of piano concertos. I'll never complain about China's exports again!

Here she is again with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 - a notoriously difficult piece:
For those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh for the Festival in summer, she'll be playing at the Queens Hall on 26th August. (Other concert dates here)

Monday, 25th May. Went to see Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" at the Theatre du Midi in Biarritz on Saturday.. The theatre is housed in the magnificent former Gare du Midi that served Biarritz during la Belle Epoque and it seemed to be sold out for the performance.

The former railway station has to be seen to be believed.. Built at a time when Biarritz was the preferred summer watering hole of many of Europe's crowned heads of state, the sheer style, power, originality and grandeur of its architecture is still able to induce involuntary jaw-dropping in all but the most jaded of onlookers. I've not seen another building quite like it anywhere. One hundred years on, we seem to have lost confidence in our ability to express the vitality and spirit of our age -  eg, look here and here - but that's another story.

There were over 400 musicians and choristes on the stage. I was familiar with the opening and closing movements of the piece known as "O Fortuna" but the other elements were all new to me.. I have to say that much of it was wasted on your correspondent.. in fact, I was enjoying a temporary out-of-body experience during it until Madame woke me up with a well-placed nudge..! Listen to the whole thing here and see what you think:

Tuesday, 19th May. Two things I've been meaning to do here.. The first is to post in date order - with the newest entries at the top.. Don't know why it's taken me so long!

The second is something I've also been meaning to mention here for a long time and that is the difference in the rules in France that govern the use of credit cards (like Visa) compared to how they are managed in the UK - and perhaps elsewhere. 

In the UK, the credit card companies would constantly dangle the benefits of gold and platinum cards in front of me. They were marketed there as indicating not only your financial but also your social status. (Question: why is it that this phrase - non modo... sed etiam- is the only fragment of Latin that remains lodged in some dusty recess of my skull some 55 years after it was embedded there?!)    

* not only..  but also..

Anyway, to continue, I also found that these glittering cards would arrive unasked for and that, unlike my salary, my credit limit was constantly evolving upwards - again, unasked for.. There was never any pressure to post a cheque to pay off the outstanding debt at the end of the month - and why should there have been? (as the credit card companies ratchet up their interest rates on outstanding credit balances and I suspect this is where they make their money.)

Here, as in so many other aspects of life, things are different. At the end of the month, my Visa Carte Bleue* automatically extracts the outstanding balance from my bank account - and running over the line into the red is Streng verboten    here. Simple. No more sleepless nights.. Works for me..

* It's a debit card but my bank account is only debited at the end of the month. I find this approach gives me more peace of mind as I'm not tempted (or allowed!) to let any spending carry over into future months.  

Sunday, 17th May. We had a recommendation from a friend a few weeks ago about La Tantina de la Playa - a fish restaurant that overlooks the sea at Bidart..(just to the south of Biarritz). We thought we'd try and find it yesterday and take a look at its menu. It looked promising so we booked a table for lunch today.

This is not somewhere that you'd find by accident, it being approached via a tangle of narrow roads before finishing up with a winding descent of the cliffs - with the sea within touching distance, front and centre.. (the address for your GPS is Rue de la Plage, 64210 Bidart) There was only limited parking space down below as we found today so after dropping off Madame and the dog, I squeezed through the tight press of manoeuvring cars and went back up the steep road and was lucky to find a vacant spot within the same time zone.. In the height of summer, parking must be a real problem.  

I think the restaurant has been repainted since the above photo was taken - but with the stunning views of the ocean outside, I doubt if many diners would be scrutinising the décor. The restaurant is on the upper floor of an admittedly unattractive concrete building (left) that looks out on the pounding surf below. 

I won't bore you with the details of what we had - suffice to say we'll definitely be returning. All I'd say is that if you are ever in the vicinity and are looking for a great seafood restaurant with a stunning west-facing sea view, La Tantina de la Playa will not disappoint. OK, I did say I wouldn't bore you with the details but this is what we had as a starter (minus the baked potato and tomato):
The only slight downside is that there's no set menu, it's all à la carte. Reviews here. As French diners traditionally vote with their feet, we were reassured by the fact that there wasn't an empty table to be seen.   

If you intend to visit with your current loved one (or soon-to-be loved one) for a 'special' dinner in the evening, the thing to do would be to look at the time of sunset at Bidart (try here - the things I do for you!) and try and book a window table for perhaps 45 minutes earlier.. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

219. Bye bye winter blues..

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

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

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

Here are some highlights from last weekend's matches:

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


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

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

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

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

Comète's operations here were run by the indefatigable Mme Elvire De Greef (aka "Tante Go") and her family who lived at the "Villa Voisin", Anglet (demolished in 2015/6) - midway between Bayonne and Biarritz. The De Greef family were Belgian refugees who'd fled their homeland following the invasion of their country in May 1940 and had taken up residence in Anglet. The mayor of Anglet offered them an empty property to them and this was the "Villa Voisin".  

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

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

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

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


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

More here.

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

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

Then there's this photograph from 1935:

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

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