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Ups and downs [Oct. 3rd, 2015|08:05 pm]
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There's more to say about today in due course, but right this moment the thing I would like to get off my chest is that halfway round a splendid walk in the wine growing area of Irouléguy my camera decided that it had had enough. If you're reading this, you probably know just how catastrophic this is, but as a reminder, here's a scene from earlier along the route:

The vines of Irouleguy

For whatever reason,the lens has jammed: it's semi-zoomed, and won't retract or function. If provoked, it beeps and says "Lens error, restart camera." Switching it off then on again counts as provocation, and removing the battery doesn't help. The internet suggests that the lens may have been knocked off-centre (which could be the case, although not a recent injury) and that it can be pushed firmly but gently back into alignment (which it can't, or at any rate not by me or durham_rambler ).

Things could be worse. durham_rambler has been very long-suffering about allowing me the use of his camera. And of course my phone is a camera too, because even the most basic model - which this is - has a camera. So this afternoon I took photographs with my phone, until it declared itself full (at 15 photos). This isn't quite the first time I've used the camera function, I tried it out when I first bought the phone, but I never worked out how to get the photos out of the phone and onto a computer. Still, it shouldn't be difficult, should it? I have a cable with a mini-USB connection at one end and a standard USB at the other (it's my Kindle charger, if you're picky) which is what it takes to connect phone and computer; we even, I discover, have Bluetooth. Yet the phone refuses to talk. So all the embarrassment of discovering myself to be, after all, one of those terrible people who photographs her lunch with her phone was in vain.

And it could be worse. I've just realised that in tablet mode, my new toy notebook is a camera...
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Greetings from Pau [Sep. 28th, 2015|08:20 pm]

We continue to enjoy ourselves visiting and revisiting south-west France. I haven't posted for a day or so for a series of reasons: inconvenience of internet, being caught up in a long post which is still a work in progress, or just doing other things. But I couldn't resist sharing this view from our hotel window:

From my hotel window

We put in some serious motorway driving today, and relocated to Pau, within sight of the Pyrenees. I cannot believe how central our hotel is, overlooking the place Clemenceau with all the fountains (and the underground car park, where we have stashed our car).

And that's all I have to say right now.
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Transhumance in Saint-Justin [Sep. 22nd, 2015|06:48 pm]

What could have been an agreeable but very bitty day, a day in transit, given focus by serendipity:

We made a leisurely departure from Bordeaux, breakfasting in our little nest at the Victoria Garden, dithering about how to spend the time before we were due at our next destination. Should we explore Bordeaux a little further, maybe the wine merchants' quartier? No, maybe next time. Well, should we detour to Arcachon, and see the seabirds that gather there? But after two glorious days it was raining; besides, time was passing, so maybe not a detour of that length! Eventually we settled on a visit to a supermarket on the ring road to buy fuel and a road atlas, then down the motorway up to a point to be decided, then on the minor roads to our destination, stopping to explore a small town or so.

We would have stopped in Roquefort (as far as I can discover, this isn't that Roquefort, but another town of the same name), but couldn't find anywhere to park. Villeneuve de Marsan seemed promising, and the nice lady at the tourist office (the oldest building in town, and probably the most interesting) gave us a leaflet with a suggested walk. But she was also able to explain a sign we had seen, announcing that the transhumance would pass through the neighbouring village of Saint-Justin this afternoon.

Transhumance we knew: it's the practice of taking the livestock up to the high pastures for the summer months. It seems that there are a pair of shepherds, father and son, who have turned this into an event - La Route de la transhumance: une aventure humaine - visiting a sequence of villages throughout the region where their arrival would be celebrated, mostly in the traditional French way, with a communal meal. We have other plans for this evening, but at least we could watch the arrival of the sheep. So we took the winding country road to Saint-Justin, a drive which would have been worthwhile for its own sake, and then we waited - and waited. This was exactly the kind of bastide town I'd been hoping to visit, so I was happy wandering around with my camera, snooping down alleyways and trying to get entire buildings into shot, watching the group of men who had decided that if the square was standing empty in expectation, then they'd have a game of boules...

And then there was the sound of bells, and the flock flooded in:

Transhumance in Saint-Justin

By the time we had taken all the pictures we could possibly want, it was beginning to rain again, and we dashed for the car and another scenic drive through Armagnac country to the Relais du Bastidou, where we have a date with our friend Helen Savage.
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Holiday reading [Sep. 22nd, 2015|09:17 am]
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For the last two days karinmollberg has been shepherding us around Bordeaux, showing us her list of things worth seeing, being patient with us when we dashed off down side streets or into shops or down holes in the ground - and when I lagged behind because I had stopped to take a photograph, which was often. I've had a wonderful time, culminating in a gourmet dinner with fireworks, and I look forward to writing all about it with many, many photos. But I think that will have to wait until I have more bandwidth, and better picture-editing software.

While we're waiting, have a book post. I have been reading Sisters of Fortune by FRances McNeil, which will be reissued next summer as Halfpenny Dreams by Frances Brody (the name under which Frances publishes her Kate Shackleton murder mysteries).

Frances is a friend and a client: here's the page I made about the forthcoming reissues for her website. We was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the original edition because I enjoy her writing, so this isn't going to be an unbiaised review. But I wanted to write about the book, because it was such a great read and because I think it deserves a signal boost.

If you followed those links, you'll see that it's being marketed as a saga, a genre which has its readers but probably meets even more snobbery than the crime and F&SF which are my genre staples. It is not a multigenerational family history, it is not sentimental and although it is set in the past (the 1930s) it treats the period with a sharp-eyed sense of history, of how things worked and how people felt about that.

It follows the lives of two girls, who are not in fact sisters. Each of them could be described as a 'daughter of the Bank' Lydia because her mother abandons a repertory theatre company to marry the owner of Thackrey's Bank, Sophie because she lives in the slums of Leeds's Bank district. Their lives too are overshadowed by Thackrey's Bank. Lydia and Rosa narrate alternate chapters, at first as children and then as spirited young women. If you are looking for books with strong female characters in a historical setting, this one is full of them: not only Lydia and Sophie, and her sister Rosa, but Lydia's actress mother Phoebe and her friend Ada, May who runs a second hand shop, even walk-on parts like Rosa's friend Fenella.

Terrible things happen to both Lydia and Sophie, and they are not brushed off lightly. But there's so much verve and so much life in the telling, that the result is not grim and dark. If anything, the sequence of events, one blow after another and the heroines' response to them, has the heightened colour of melodrama - ib a good way.

If we must classify books into genres, I can see why both publishers felt that the depiction of life at a certain place and time would appeal to saga readers. If you aren't one of those, consider it as a novel - or maybe a historical novel. But given the strength of characterisation of team Sophie and Lydia, I wonder whether Piatkus considered targeting the Young Adult market - I think it could have great appeal there, too.
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The road to Bordeaux [Sep. 19th, 2015|09:17 pm]
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I would have been happy to linger longer in the Marais Poitevin: we were very comfortable at the Hotel du Marais, and enjoyed an after breakfast stroll through Coulon and along the river Sèvre. But we had made other plans, so we set off, at first following the river, which allowed us this glimpse of everyday life and appliance removal in la Venise verte:

La Venise Verte

then onto the more major roads. Fans of French roundabouts will be pleased to hear that someone in the department of Charente Maritime has been commissioning sculptures depicting relevant things on a very large scale: a set of beach umbrellas, deckchairs and a beachball for a seaside (Gironde estuary, in fact, but let's not be picky) location, and three giant pinecones in the woods backing the beach; a pair of giant hands opening an oyster in the fenlands where ostreiculture is practised, and my favourite, a giant hand holding a quill pen. I think it was near the town of Surgères, but if Surgères produced any writer famous enough to justify this tribute, Wikipedia doesn't know about it.

We stopped for lunch at Talmont, a walled town founded by Edward I on a promontory in the estuary. durham_rambler and I first visited there long ago (though we disagree about how long) when it was just beginning to emerge from dereliction and decay. Now it is a pretty tourist resort, full of restaurants,and shops offering artisan soaps, shell jewellery and hand-made pottery. It's still full of charm, though, and reminded me of the nearby Ile de Ré:

A street in Talmont

We have a client whose website we have managed since 2008 without ever meeting, who has recently moved to this region,so that was our next stop: a lovely drive through gentle vine-covered hills to the back of beyond, and afternoon tea in the garden under the olive tree. Next stop, the Domaine des Graves d'Ardonneau, as recommended by Helen Savage, because now we are in the Bordelaise and must be serious about wine. Mentioning Helen's name saw us ushered upstairs to taste two white wines (with and without oak; unsurprisingly, we both preferred it without) and three reds. We had arrived towards the end of the day, and the lady who served us had family visiting, but when she started opening the more expensive reds, she called them to join us: "Come upstairs, have a glass of the Grand Vin!" They obeyed, though the men declined to drink red wine as an aperitif and insisted on returning to the white. Conversation became general, but we tried to focus on the wine: we had already tasted a bottle of the Cuvée Tradition which Helen had given us (and that's what we bought a case of, to take home); the Grand Vin was aged in new oak, and had a lovely edge and complexity; the Cuvée Prestige was in theory between the two, but I thought too assertively oaked.

Nothing for it but to trust our satnav to bring us through the complexities of Bordeaux to our hotel, which she did with only a few tantrums on either side. durham_rambler has fallen asleep over his book, and karinmollberg will be calling for us first thing in the morning: time for bed.
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From the Mont to the Marais [Sep. 18th, 2015|09:48 pm]

It's a long time since we visited the Mont Saint Michel, and there have been changes in the interim: not on the Mont itself, but in the way you approach it. I had heard about this, and assumed it was all about relieving the pressure of ridiculous numbers of visitors, but there is more to it than that: the old causeway had been creating a build-up of silt in the bay, which was supporting the spread of vegetation and stabilising the resulting terrain and. At this rate the Mont would soon cease to be an island.

So now you park well inland, and either take a free shuttle bus or walk or pay to ride the horse drawn shuttle (they have a name for this, but I've forgotten it). We walked the mile or so, along a track bordered with a forest of fennel, then detoured to admire the dam which regulates the flow of the river Couesnon to clear the sediment from the bay, and incidentally provides a new viewpoint of the Mont rising above the waters of the Couesnon. From here it's an agreeable walk along the causeway, with plenty of photo opportunities as the walkway curves round in the foreground, and the sun comes and goes on the face of the abbey.

The new road to the Mont St Michel

What you can't see in this photo is the young woman who rush past us, wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and waving her selfie stick, so that she could take a similar shot, but with herself and her friends in front of it.

We walked up the central street, as thronged with tourists and crammed with things for them to buy as it was when we first visited, and presumably for eight centuries before that. We didn't go into the abbey,but veered off at that level for a walk around the ramparts, lost ourselves in a quiet corner but found the way back down to the main drag through an alley that narrowed to such an extent that we took the last ten yards or so sideways. We picked one of the tourist-trap restaurants for lunch, and were impressed to find it skilled at delivering exactly what it promised, a classic 'formule brasserie' served by three tall thin waiters with speed, precision and charm. durham_rambler had moules marinières, and pronounced them acceptable; I had the omelette du Mont, as described by Elizabeth David, cooked firm and dry outside, but all soft foam of whipped egg within. This is more palatable than the conventional, runny omelette but sorry, desperance , I still prefer my omelettes cooked through.

Time to move on. We've spent all afternoon on the road, heading south. Memorable in a bad way: the Nantes ring road. Hitting it at five o' clock on Friday didn't help, but it was a slow and painful circuit, with only one highlight, the first sighting of a vineyard this trip. Memorable in a good way: after a shower, driving through the edges of the Vendé accompanied by rainbows: full arches, almost horizontal swathes high in the clouds, bright little stubs, hazy remnants, double bows, one stretch that seemed wide enough to work through the statutory seven colours and start again...

We are spending the night at the Hôtel au Marais in Coulon, near Niort, and very happy to be here.
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(Not much) progress report [Sep. 17th, 2015|08:29 pm]

We are here, arrived, in France: that's about all, really.

The storm in the channel failed to materialise. We had a nasty scare when my new notebook refused to talk to the wi-fi at the hotel last night, but it was fine on the ferry, and it seems fine now. It took us longer than we had intended to drive the length of the Cotentin peninsula, but it's partly our own fault for not taking the motorway - and we are unrepentant, because it was all lovely green scenery and trees and fields of maize, and lunch at the seaside...

And now we are in Pontorson, at the deeply historic Hotel Montgomery (home of the Comte de Montgomery who accidentally killed Henri II in a jousting accident, as described in La Princesse de Clèves). Tomorrow we will detour the 10k to the Mont Saint Michel, because we can.

But first, bed (and book).
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All at sea [Sep. 17th, 2015|10:33 am]
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A year ago, I wrote up the last post of my previous trip to the US on the way to Edinburgh to fly the Atlantic again. A year on, I'm doing much the same: on the ferry (on the ferry and online, living in the future) sailing out of Poole towards Cherbourg, writing one final post about the last time we spent any time in France, returning home from Italy.

There's not much to say. From Champlitte, it was two days driving, north to the Channel ports. Other than lunch and overnight stops, the only interruption to our northbound progress was a pause to follow signs to the source of the Marne: a couple of years earlier we had holidayed along the course of the Meuse, and learned that it and the Marne rise quite close together, so to shun the source of the Marne would have felt like failing to visit a friend. It was, anyway, only a short diversion, a brief stroll in sun-dappled woodlands to observe a rock from which dampness emerged, a gated culvert and an information board which told us "La Marne est la plus longue rivière de la France." Wait, what? Surely the Loire is the longest river in France? The board explained, and I learned, what I had not previously known, the dirrerence between a 'fleuve' and a 'rivière': a 'fleuve' flows into the sea, a 'rivière' flows into another river.

We spent the night, according to my notes, "somewhere in the Aisne" actually, at Le Clos Chéret:

Le Clos Cheret

I forget how we found it: we were quite disgruntled to spot the sign proclaiming it an Alistair Sawday recommendation, but it was not, in fact, overflowing with English people (it wasn't overflowing with anyone, as far as I recall). The room with the double bed has a nautical theme.

Next day, we took our lunch break in Arras, in the place des Héros, which is a fine and striking space despite the cars parked on every inch of ground not actively being ripped out for and roadworks. La cuisine des ch'tis was much in evidence: my dessert was a layered confection of cake and cream called 'ch'tiramisu'.

One last night, in Loon Plage - presumably at the Campanile hotel there, as it's a handy just over the Channel standy. But why did we not eat at the hotel? There must have been a reason. Instead we did the best we could in the town, which meant the pizzeria: pizza here in the north comes in two varieties, à la tomate and creme fraiche (but if I can decipher this schema, both have olives and oregano. Did I eat, or merely marvel at, the antillaise, cream with chorizo and curry?

The following day's ferry crossing seems to have deposited us in London on the day of one of the Bears' summer singarounds - no notes, but photographic evidence. Ending a holiday with friends and music, what could be better?

Now it's time for the next adventure.
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Half a Heritage Open Weekend [Sep. 11th, 2015|10:55 pm]
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It's the time of year when heritage properties open their doors, and those whose doors were open anyway try to make it sound as if they were doing something extra, so that you will visit them. It falls this year at a time when we are busy enough with other things that I could wish it were not this weekend - but if not now, when? We've had a busy August, and if it were any later, we'd miss it. Hence this breathless, let me tell you what we've done so far, post.

With pictures, of courseCollapse )
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An evening in Champlitte [Sep. 7th, 2015|10:34 pm]
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A month ago, I wrote about the last time we were in France, expecting to return to the topic within days, and to tidy away the end of the story not long after. But that was a month ago (to the day). Ah, well.

My notes for the next stage of the joutney say only two things. Firstly, without explanation: Haute-Saône celebrates 20 years twinning with Mexico. This disconcerted me so much that I initially attributed it to the previous post, but on reflection it belongs here, with the record of a night in the department of Haute-Saône (and a quick search doesn't explain how this area came to be twinned with Mexico, but at least confirms that I hadn't imagined it).

We had come to Champlitte without knowing anything about the town, having picked up a list of Logis de France hotels at the tourist office after lunch, and decided that there was only one on our route north and within an afternoon's drive: I think it was this one, which seems to have the right location opposite the town's little château (now museum). This website explains (in French) how historic the place is, and how diminished from its days of glory: click on its postage stamp images to see photos of its most picturesque sites on a sunny day. Which is fortunate: I have the happiest memories of our explorations before dinner that evening, following whichever street looked most tempting, peering into courtyards and taking many, many photos. But when I look through those photos now, the ones I am happiest with show neither the castle nor the river, and the sun isn't shining in any of them. In fact, this is not atypical:


And there"s more where that came from.Collapse )

We didn't ask, but returned instead to our hotel, and dined there. With a bottle of organic rosé Pascal HENRIOT VdP Champlitte, although I don't remember anything about the wine, but it's the second thing in my notes. Presumably this winemaker, and we would have chosen it as being the most local option, and I must have liked it, or I wouldn't have made a note of it.
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