Romania: Painted Monasteries

The photographs and full account of some of our Great Train Journey in 2009 from Entre-deux-Eaux to the Turkish-Armenian border were never added here after we returned. All that was ever added were these brief mails summaries:
The Great Train Journey – First week’s travels (which included Romania)
The Great Train Journey – Week 2 Istanbul
and this conclusion
The Great Train Journey – the last week (Erzurum – Istanbul – Vienna – Entre-deux-Eaux) and an answer to all your questions
together with a few photographs, posted each week on Google Photos. However, the Google photos no longer exist. I’ve now finally started to sort out the missing photographs.

Moldovita Monastery

The Voronet, Humor, Moldovita, Sucevita, Suceava, Putna, Arbore, Patrauti, and Dragomirna Romanian painted monastery photographs and panoramas are now at
Romania: Painted Monasteries

I have included nearly all of the painted interior photographs; it was very dark in most of the buildings so some of the photographs are not completely sharp. But altogether they do give a more complete impression.


Voronet Monastery interior

Voronet Monastery interior

There are interactive 360° panoramas of the interiors of three monasteries on the individual monastery pages and at Humor, Putna, and Voronet





The Great Train Journey – the last week (Erzurum – Istanbul – Vienna – Entre-deux-Eaux) and an answer to all your questions

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week4.pdf (four A4 pages)

Clicking on any of the small photographs will open a larger version in another window

Did we get back safely from our 10,000km Great Train Journey, you ask? Yes, thank-you. Our Inter-rail pass lasted 30 days, and on the evening of the 30th day our taxi from Saint Dié station was duly approaching our shuttered-up house. The grass had grown lush and tall since our departure, and the house and garden looked like they used to in their early days as a holiday-only retreat. And oddly there were no cows.

Were our dreams fulfilled? In terms of a rail journey across Europe and east to Lake Van, as follow-up to our long-ago rail journeys round India, it was every bit as much fun, though perhaps less elegant than I’d hoped. 1903_building railway lineWe were in Erzurum when we last wrote. And as we waited at Erzurum railway station for the delayed train back to Istanbul, there was an exhibition of large sepia photos of the building of the railway line from Istanbul to Medina (never quite reaching the goal of Mecca), which gave an impression of earlier Ottoman and German dreams of grandeur and empire. T E Lawrence (of Arabia) was also there looking heroic and menacing, as was a film-still of a wrecked train. Sadly, the glamour of rail travel is in danger of vanishing along with the steam engines. Most of the Romanian and Turkish rolling stock was shabby and grubby and dining cars were only occasionally present. However, the new high-speed trains should restore some of the glamour and excitement. We travelled alongside the completed section of the Ankara to Istanbul high-speed track. And later during the return journey, some of the new Austrian and German trains restored the excitement and comfort of rail travel.

Vienna Wiesel double-decker train

Vienna Wiesel double-decker train

The buffet car of the Railjet between Vienna and Munich, with its curving blue seats and pink walls was almost as seductive as those long-ago glimpses of the Golden Arrow dining cars. And in Vienna itself, where we spent a whole morning riding the trams (with the excuse of a 24 hour ticket and John’s injured ankles), we spotted a double decker “weasel” train, so changed onto that and I fulfilled another dream of travelling upstairs on a train. (It was from there that we had a view every bit as dramatic as that in The Third Man, of the famous Ferris wheel).

Another dream had been to sense the fabulous Byzantium/ Constantinople lurking beneath modern Istanbul. We’d been fired up by the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition back in January. But it was hard to piece together a picture of the old city. The archaeological museum is magnificent, but even that did not provide an overall picture. It feels as if over a thousand years of Byzantine history have little relevance to Turkey. The city walls, first spotted from the train, were striking reminders of the size of Constantinople. But unfortunately the building of the same railway line had destroyed some of the ruins of the old Bucoleon Palace by the sea (and former harbour). Bucoleon palaceWhen we were first in Istanbul, we enjoyed the restored Byzantine churches we’d seen. On our return from eastern Turkey it was good to have more time in Istanbul, to look for further remains of the old Byzantium. Our guide book warned that ruins of the Bucoleon Palace are now the haunt of tramps, and indeed, as we approached, one gentleman was spreading out his washing to dry on the old stone palace walls.

As we were finding our way round the modern city, three obelisks and columns kept looming up in unexpected places, making us realise that we weren’t quite where we thought we were, but were back on the site of the old hippodrome. It got quite comical in the end. But somehow, with all the big white tourist coaches waiting outside the nearby Blue Mosque, and the throngs being guided round the obelisks, it was hard to get a sense of the old hippodrome (though it would have been equally packed). But as we walked back from the remains of the old palace walls, our eyes sharpened, we Hagia Sophiacame across a huge curved wall above a street market, which must have been the semi-circular turn of the old race course. Another fragment of former grandeur. And of course the uncovered mosaics in the remaining Byzantine churches were glorious, especially with the glowing golds. Maybe one day the depressingly unloved Hagia Sophia will also be restored to glory.

And there were unexpected pleasures in Istanbul. It took a while to work out the ferry boats with all their different quays, but they were a picturesque and cool way of getting around. Returning from the east in the very late evening, it was great to come out of the railway station, step onto a ferry, and realise that the skyline was this time a familiar one in which we could almost pick out our hotel in the streets below Hagia Sophia. We later spent a day going up the Bosphorus and back. Wandering the narrow streets between our hotel and the sea front Bucoleon Palace was another pleasure, with the old wooden (former merchants’) houses jutting out over the streets. CaravanseraiAnd the scale of the old caravanserais between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar was stunning. Most of them are very ramshackle now. Dark crumbling staircases lead up to rooms off the cool, arcaded corridors. Through open doorways men can faintly be seen in the gloom, machining trousers and raincoats or hammering away at silver dinner services or trophies. It was easy to imagine all kinds of dramatic film chases through these arcades, or sinister murder stories.

And did I get my special birthday meal on the train from Erzurum to Istanbul? The sleeping car promised well as we got on the train, for it was the most modern so far, a soothing pale grey colour, and even equipped with a small fridge. And for the first time the attendant presented us with some sustenance, – sour cherry juice, biscuits and chocolate. The scenery that evening was spectacular as we left behind the snow capped mountains, following the Euphrates through gorges, plunging into tunnels (there must have been over 150), and even having the sky briefly radiant with a double rainbow arching behind us above the gorge tunnels. The journey of a couple of our travelling companions made ours seem quite tame, as they were en route from Japan to Austria. But sadly the omelette and chips or kebap and rice, washed down with Nescafe in the dining car did not feel over-festive. So after spending our first day back in Istanbul at the Topkapi Palace and its harem, we dined in style on a roof-top restaurant overlooking Traditional starters and Sultans Tastethe Sea of Marmara on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other. The tray of traditional starters were all delicious, the Sultan’s taste (lamb cooked in five different ways) arrive in an elaborate lidded copper dish, along with a salad. The desert was a succulent selection but the crowning glory was the home-made cherry liqueur which was so delicious that we commented on it, so more was immediately brought. That definitely beat omelette, chips and Nescafe!

In general, Apple teawe found it surprisingly hard to find good restaurant food, especially at reasonable prices, and in the Sultanahmet area where we stayed. However occasional dishes like vine leaves stuffed with cherries or lamb and sour plum casserole were a wonderful exception to the ubiquitous kebaps and pideci (pizzas). And we did relish stopping for an apple tea and baklava in the afternoon heat. Not to mention the large rooftop breakfasts which provided a great start to the day.

How about a birthday present with a difference? Well, a large rug would have been tempting. But we must be loosing our stamina for the hassle of bargaining and the patter of men trying to lure you into their unique emporium. You could fritter away a lifetime with carpet salesmen and cups of tea. And we never spotted the perfect rug (and never saw any being sold). The other temptation was a tile. Topkapi tileYes, just a single tile. We’d seen such wonderful tiles in the mosques and fountains and the Topkapi Palace, that it would have been fun to incorporate one of the Iznik tiles into our bathroom back in Entre-deux-Eaux. But with such ridiculous starting prices as 100 euro, it was hardly worthwhile to open the bargaining. So I shall content myself with ordering some more Orhan Pamuk novels, and try out Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul crime stories.

So had we enjoyed Istanbul despite the bazaar hustlers and the partial neglect of the Byzantine heritage? We really had. It was a great time (especially on our return when it was quieter than our stay a few weeks earlier when much of Europe seemed to be visiting during the public holidays) and we were sad to leave on the night train. Appropriately our parting views from the train were of the old city walls, and the illuminated Byzantine harbour excavations (discovered when tunnelling for the new metro).

We’d chosen the return route via Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna, rather that the more usual Belgrade and Sofia (Orient Express) route, as we’d heard there were often long delays in Bulgaria that way (and indeed we later heard that the Austrian couple we’d met earlier ran into delays and missed their connections on that line). Vienna would have been sacrificed had we too gone that way.

Meanwhile, had John bought new shoes in Istanbul? And what about the Sultan’s Revenge? Well, our medicine chests of diarrhoea remedies remained untouched, which was good. But the lack of footwear was (literally) John’s downfall. He’d already slipped on a wet ramp in Romania and rain-soaked cobbles in Istanbul despite the grip of his walking boots (so his wrist had been bandaged ever since). The temperature had shot up since we left Erzurum, so John was now wearing the battered sandals he’d packed at the last minute (after reading travellers tales of filthy showers and toilets). Having arrived safely at Vienna Westbahnhof, John realised he’d left his glasses on the train, so ran back to retrieve them. Maybe it was the sandals, maybe it was the forty hours of inactivity on the trains from Istanbul, maybe the lack of salt after the heat of Istanbul, but both his Achilles tendons gave way. And his glasses had gone.

We stayed in a curiously old fashioned pension in Vienna, with a huge brass bed, huge wardrobes, huge dining room table (and correspondingly huge breakfast) and a landlady with a walking stick and a resigned dog. She seemed most perturbed that John did not leave our room that first day, apart from hobbling to the restaurant over the road in the evening, which was a Hong Kong Cookhouse. (I’d in the meantime got over-baroqued by all the city’s white and gold buildings). There were no other customers at the Cookhouse, but the young woman was harassed, and frenzied shouts came from the kitchen as delivery men appeared and disappeared with freezer boxes. The next day we embarked on our tram trip from the end of our road, culminating at St Stephen’s cathedral in the centre, with an open air café, a large coffee and cake (traditional Sachertorte for John). More trams and we got out at the Upper Belvedere, to see the Klimts. But even better was the temporary exhibition in the Lower Belvedere of Alphonse Mucha. And that evening John limped down to the nearest pub/stub where we had a more typically Austrian meal – and beer. Despite John’s injury, I’m glad we didn’t miss out on Vienna.

Day 30 and our last day on the trains. Eleven hours of trains, starting with the elegant Austrian Railjet (with its buffet-car) from Vienna to Salzburg and Munich, then an inter-city from Munich to Karlsruhe. The regional express from Karlsruhe was more packed than we could have imagined at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, even allowing for schoolchildren. But the next day was Ascension Day and, given the hot weather, everyone seemed to be taking their bicycles into the Black Forest for the weekend. Our carriage somehow fitted at least 8 bicycles and panniers in between other people’s knees and luggage – and several had to be taken off and put back on at each halt so other passengers could alight. On our penultimate train (a regional all-stations) from Appenweier to Strasbourg, the German commuters got off at Kehl at the border and the French got on, and it was surprisingly exhilarating to hear French again. Safely over the Rhine, we caught the last of our trains, from Strasbourg to St Dié. Alas, taxis no longer bother to meet the trains at Saint Dié on the off-chance of trade, so we stood forlornly, before ringing for a taxi.

And the cows, which mysteriously weren’t grazing in the Entre-deux-Eaux fields? The shock news when we collected our post from Mme Laine, is that Dominique Duhaut has sold them all! He and Olivier have not managed to work harmoniously together (perhaps no surprise) and are dissolving the partnership at the end of the year. For now the cows have been sold and the fields lie uncut. It sounds as if two brothers from Taintrux and other farmers from Corcieux may between them take over the land.

And since then, our doctor has said that Achilles tendon injuries take a long time to mend, so John, like Farmer Duhaut, is taking life easily. Perhaps a different form of the sultan’s revenge so near the end of a wonderful journey?

The Great Train Journey – Week 3 From Istanbul to the eastern border

copy of an e-mail sent 10 May 2009

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week3.pdf (two A4 pages)

As we set out on the next stage of our great train journey, the section from Istanbul to the eastern borders of Turkey with Iran and then Armenia, I was still hoping to experience the glamour of the Orient Express. But the day started inauspiciously with pouring rain. Both John and I slipped on the wet cobbles near the quay, John hurting his wrist again and me my knee. As for our last morning of tourism, the Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie used to stay, is closed during renovations, and an art nouveau patisserie has turned into a fast food joint. Alas for former glories. The rain was cascading through the awning of the ferry boat which took us over to the landing stage (1) at Haydarpasa, the railway terminal on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. And to add insult to injury, the sleeping car conductor announced that the restaurant car on our train, the twice-a-week Vangolu Express, was not part of the train. Another dream (of elegant train dining) shattered! So as the train pulled slowly out of the station, we watched the sun set over the water, and then retired to our shabby bunk beds, as the “express” rattled slowly through the countryside all night, loosing time.

The following afternoon, we got off the train at Kayseri, in the beautiful central region of Cappadocia, and headed for the small village of Uchisar. We had reserved a room at the charming pension of Sisik (a burly man, much like Farmer Duhaut) and his father (who did some of the cooking). It was a traditional house, with a sitting area with low floor cushions, but the nine rooms all had modern bathrooms to suit today’s (discerning French) traveller. From the rooftop there were great views across the strange rock formations. A popular way of seeing the amazing volcanic rocks which have been eroded into strange mushroom shapes is from hot air balloons. But we miserable penny-pinchers put on our walking boots and set off down Pigeon Valley (2). The narrow footpath wound down between escarpments pitted with special holes to attract pigeons and their prized droppings. It was a pretty walk down, through the wild flowers. At the bottom of the valley lay Goreme, with all its old orthodox churches which had been cut into the rocks and covered in beautiful paintings of Bible stories and the lives of Orthodox saints. The tiny churches got pretty crowded with visitors (3), especially as the rain had started again, but over lunch time it was much easier to to spend time gazing at the details of the scenes and taking photographs (4).

As the Vangolu Express from Istanbul to Van only runs twice a week, we had timed our visit to the rock churches so that we could get on the next train, two days later. Again it was a sleeper with no restaurant car. Somehow it was 90 minutes late arriving at Kayseri, and got later and later as it followed one of the tributaries of the Euphrates (5), and reached the high fields with their scarlet tulips and deep blue grape hyacinths. It should have arrived at the rail terminus on the edge of Lake Van the following day at 13.41, leaving ample time for the 4 hour ferry trip across the lake to the town of Van. As it was, we got on the rusting old railway ferry (for container trucks and stray passengers) just as the sun was setting, and crossed the huge lake in the dark (6). It was nearly midnight before we reached the deserted docks at Van, and we were glad of a (paying) lift into town from some passing musicians..

However, the next day we saw the lake in its full glory when we took a small boat out to an island to see an old Armenian monastery church (8). As well as frescoes on the inside of New Testament stories, it had attractive friezes on the outside telling Old Testament stories like David (with his sling) confronting Goliath (8).

Back in Van, we enjoyed a coffee and sticky baklava, the archaeological museum showing all the finds from the Urartian (Ararat area) kingdom, and wandering round the streets. The cafés and parks seemed full of men sipping glasses of tea and passing the time of day (9).

From Van, the railway line (and no doubt the unloaded container wagons) headed on eastwards to the Iranian border. But that’s another journey and we abandoned the train for a bus north-eastwards to Kars. The buses are in fact the more modern and efficient way to travel, despite the roads that are badly potholed after the severe winter. The railways seem neglected and dingy by comparison. All along the route, we were aware of large army bases and army checkpoints (though our bus was never stopped). We also talked to a couple visiting their son stationed on the border with Armenia, and to a young man doing his national service on the border (and finding his first month very tough).

In Kars there is a huge army base, much of the architecture is Russian (from their period in power here till after the first world war) and there are bitter memories of whole villages wiped out by the retreating Armenians in 1918 (but no mention of reverse atrocities). You no longer need to get military permission to visit the remote ruins of Ani, right on the Armenian border, but it is guarded by soldiers and parts of it are out of bounds. Massive walls (10) protect this old town on the Silk Route. Entering through the Lion Gate, a vast ruined site spreads out before your eyes, with isolated churches, piles of rubble from unexcavated buildings, a mosque, the bases of rows of shops, 4 columns possibly from a Zoroastrian fire temple, a church which was converted into a caravanserai… It’s an amazing site to explore (11), huge, desolate, rain clouds and mist threatening in a rather Scottish way. And dominating the scene, the snow capped mountains. It is situated immediately above the river which now divides Turkey and Armenia at this point. You can see the old Silk Route bridge below (12) which has long been in ruins, but you cannot approach it or the nearby church/monastery of the maidens.

And after this desolate grandeur we felt the need of coffee and baklava back in Kars. The patisserie we chose also seemed to do rather magnificent cakes (13). I suppose we could have bought one for my birthday, but I had already decided to celebrate it in Erzurum.

Erzurum represented the turning point from the border area of Kars, – a return from the turf-roofed homesteads on the high plain, with their cows and small black-soiled fields, towards the imperial splendours of Istanbul. From Kars we caught the Erzurum Express. My heart lifted, as here at last was a proper restaurant car, with white tablecloths and a fat chef in white jacket and chef’s tall hat. We strolled down for morning coffee, and surveyed the lunch-time menu. Outside we were climbing up a dramatic river valley, and fresh snow had fallen all around since we had made the bus journey down the valley two days earlier. It was the most dramatic scenery so far. But alas, lunch was not to be. We had noticed two armed uniformed railway officials conferring with the conductor. Then a loud Turkish announcement, led to us all dismounting from the train at a small station near (14) and piling into a small bus for the remainder of the journey to Erzurum. We never found out whether it was just a problem on the single-track line or something more sinister.

In Erzurum we joined the Sunday afternoon crowds strolling through the streets, shopping, buying ice creams, gazing at the old Seljuk seminaries (15) and the massive 5th century citadel. Noisy processions (possibly political) with much hooting of cars and drumming were being largely ignored. As the army and police weren’t in evidence, it couldn’t have been as incendiary as it sounded, or related to the mysterious train incident (which could have just been Sunday works on the line, after all). The highly recommended restaurant in the evening was a dismal one with a soviet-era feel lingering, so that didn’t feel like an early birthday celebration. It will have to be something pretty special (like egg and chips) in the restaurant car on tomorrow’s 2 day journey from Erzurum to Istanbul!

The Great Train Journey – Week 2 Istanbul

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To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week2.pdf (two A4 pages)

1. The Tintin in Istanbul T-shirt stared out cheerfully at us in the Grand Bazaar, one of the symbols of adventure, crime, (some good crime novels centred on Istanbul) and the exotic. The Grand Bazaar is great fun, with its carpets, fabrics, lamps, “antiques”, slippers etc. till it suddenly becomes overwhelmingly hot and claustrophobic, and you wonder which gate you are at..

2. We arrived at Sirkeci railway station on the European side, with all its Orient Express nostalgia, and we leave from the Asian side of the Bosphorus from Haydarpasa Station, the magnificent building “given” by the Kaiser, and standing right on the edge of the water. We take a ferry to there later today, and start our travels eastwards almost to the Iraq border. One of the most exciting things yesterday at the archaeological museum, surpassing even the Assyrian, Hittite, Greek and Roman monumental items amassed in the past, were the exhibits from the excavations which are slowing down the new underground and under water railway link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. For they were about to dig down through what turned out to be the old harbour of Constantinople, with old wrecked and sunken boats full of pots and other trade goods.

3. Before breakfast one morning we walked down to an old Byzantine church near our Alp Hotel, dedicated to two little known saints (Roman centurions martyred after converting), and known more affectionately as the Little Haghia Sofia. Like most of the churches, it became a mosque, and when we arrived the old man tending it was chanting his morning prayers serenely and beautifully in the doorway. It has recently been renovated and is a lovely peaceful place.

4. The real Haghia Sofia, is a dusty unkempt wreck of its former glory, with scaffolding up the centre of its allegedly light and airy space. I only hope they do a good job of restoration. In the meantime a bit of polish might help the ailing woodwork.

5. One afternoon we walked round the back of the university and traced the line of an old aqueduct, which turned form a ruined wall into a magnificent span over a four-lane carriageway.
5b) We sat with others in a park and admired its grandeur. The next day, when we went in search of the Byzantine Church of Chora, near the old walls, our bus from the harbour trundled under the aqueduct, which towered above us.

6. The mosaics and frescoes at the church at Chora were merely covered over when it became a mosque, so careful restoration has meant there are far more beautiful golden mosaics to be seen than the few traces at Haghia Sofia. It was interesting to see all these telling of Bible stories, many from Gospels from the Apocrypha like that of James which we are no longer familiar with in the west, especially after seeing the painted Bible stories in the Orthodox monasteries and churches of Romania. We spent the whole morning there.

7. After and elegant “Ottoman” style lunch near the church, we walked up to the wall, then down towards the sea and up hill again till we came (accidentally) upon another church we had wanted to see. The main part is still used as a mosque, but the remains of the Christian mosaics in the side chapel have been restored. By then we were footsore and glad to take the ferry back to the main harbour.

8. The tile work everywhere is so lovely. After the archaeology museum, we walked among the tulips below the Topkapi Palace, and looking up saw these.

9. It was a hot and sunny morning and the café on the headland overlooking the Bosphorus (and near the Sirkeci excavations, with trains rumbling below) was most welcome.

10. And some more beautiful tiles at a small mosque (Rustem Pasa) near the harbour and the spice market, perched on the first floor over the tiny shops. Although we’d waited till after prayer time, men were still popping in to perform their prayers. And then the threatened thunderstorm broke.

11 and 12 So we lingered in the Spice Market on the way back. Our current hotel (for the past 2 days) is standard international grotty – lime green walls and orange lampshades, a great come-down after our “Ottoman boutique” style Alp Hotel, but alas that was fully booked over the long weekend. However, after an overnight train journey we should arrive tomorrow afternoon at Kayseri, take the bus on to Uchisar and stay in Sisik’s tiny pension, before exploring the Goreme volcanic and eroded rock formations and houses. Sadly rain is forecast. Still we have our mac capes and walking boots. (And in answer to concerned enquiries, John is making do with his old sandals and his walking boots, having ditched the defective shoes). And then on ever eastwards, with nothing booked.

More anon


The Great Train Journey – First week’s travels

copy of an e-mail sent 27 April 2009

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week1.pdf (two A4 pages)

There are now photographs of the Romanian Painted Monasteries we visited

Our travels have been good so far. Dorinda and Roger started us off in style with a lift to St Die, where we took trains to Stasbourg then Offenburg. The German trains were all very punctual, so all our first day’s 10 minute connections worked smoothly, via Munich and Vienna. The Hungarian express was very new and swish, and felt the right way to travel internationally. From Budapest to Romania was not so stylish, and our sleep in the station waiting room just over the Romanian border was fitful. The second morning our 1st class upgrade on the Romanian train northwards was the shabbiest we’d been on, with smelly loos with only occasional water. It was a dreary start through the drab, uncultivated plains north of Arad with seedy concrete blocks of flats even in the middle of the countryside, rusting old gas pipes and derelict industries. Later the landscape in Transylvania was pretty, with its mountains and small plots of land still being ploughed with the aid of horses. It seemed to be the day for sowing potatoes, just before St George’s Day (maybe he protects potatoes as well as beautiful princesses).

We spent 3 mainly sunny spring-like days in the north of Romania, based in Suceava, within travelling distance of the painted monasteries of Bucovina. The  paintings are all over the outside as well as the inside walls – all the Bible stories and lives of gruesomely martyred saints, many we’ve never heard of, were there in wonderful colour and we had a very enthusiastic guide, who loved the monasteries and their paintings (though I think she was a bit disappointed that we weren’t in the league of Michael Palin who she also showed round for his New European programme). And St.George’s day was being celebrated at the first, Voronet (no dragon, though, just a special service with the Archbishop of Suceava). We had Romanian food one night and another day we had lunch at one of the monasteries (excellent blueberry aperitif!).

Then, it was up for the 5 a.m. train to Bucharest, and the last leg of the journey on to Istanbul. Alas the fake Orient Express was way beyond our means, but the serviceable old Romanian sleeper we were on, which kept getting hooked onto other trains in Bulgaria, was a great night’s sleep, apart from the obligatory stop and descent at the Turkish border around 3 a.m. to obtain visas and police stamps.

We arrived in Istanbul reasonably on time, the train running between the sea and the old city walls for much of the time – very picturesque. The stylish old Orient Express restaurant on the platform alas didn’t stoop to morning coffee, with its tables all set with damask cloths and wine glasses beneath the portrait of Agatha Christie and film stars. But we found a great patisserie cum Turkish Delight shop a short distance from the station and treated ourselves to coffee and pastries in its blue tiled splendour to build up our strength before cramming into a tram (almost as bad as Indian transport – but no one on the roof) and then lugging our cases along cobbled streets to the Hotel Alp, (in the Sultanahmet area below the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Topkapi palace), perched on the edge of a rock face overlooking the port in the distance. Then the rain started.

We had various practical things to check in the afternoon, but after doing those, our footsteps almost inevitably led to the huge covered grand bazaar, with its carpets, lamps, antiques, fabrics, leather goods, ceramics etc. Great fun. And there’s still the spice bazaar to try another day. We hadn’t meant to buy anything, but we were forced to linger over the men’s shoes as John’s feet were feeling very wet and he realised the sole of one of his only pair of shoes had split right across, and the rain was getting harder. What timing! However the slim pointy turquoise or silver patent contemporary styles didn’t appeal to him! We saw one or two more sensible shoes on the way back here, but had had enough by then. Off shortly to look for food.

More later.

Venice, Champagne and the Weathervane: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 7, Weeks 30 – 46

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYear7Weeks30-46.pdf (four A4 pages)

Clicking on one of the small photographs in the newsletter will open another window

Spring, according to our postman’s calendar, officially arrived a few days ago. And in brief recognition of this, the sun shone brightly, the cowslips and daffodils in the orchard came into bud, and the Venetian carnival came to Remiremont.

Remirement is a pleasant old abbey town on the Moselle, on the far side of the ski resort of Gérardmer. When we arrived, the main arcaded street was closed to traffic, for the elaborately costumed masked lords and ladies of yesteryear to saunter and pose for photographs. Click here for more photographsPlumes, chiffon, lace, sequins, satins, brocades, paste jewellery flaunted in a riot of scarlet, snow white, lime green, gold, silver, velvety black, Chelsea blue, dove grey and flaming orange. Behind the elaborate, bejewelled masks, dark, mysterious eyes gazed soulfully as ladies inclined their heads gracefully to the cameras and gentlemen bowed and kissed the spectators’ hands. There were a few cats with long claws and a sinister beaked bird, but it was the elegant Venetian aristocracy who were the main attraction, and the crowds pressed in on them so that they could hardly pass.

But it was no more than a colourful interlude. The day after the Venetians came to Remiremont, the gales returned and now the driving snow, hail and rain have obscured the hills. This was the kind of weather we had back in February, when I joined the Ste Marguerite pensioners’ outing to the appropriate sounding production of “Venise sous neige”. An amateur theatre group over the hills in Alsace have a cunning way of raking in an audience. They provide a three-course lunch in the village hall beforehand, complete with aperitif, wine and coffee, then their audience sit back in a receptive frame of mind, ready to laugh at the silliest of farces. John had assumed it would be a mainly ladies’ outing, but of course, with Sunday lunch provided, the men were all there too. But, alas, there were no masked Venetian ladies to be seen. The plot involved a young French couple, who have just had an argument, dining with a couple of lovey-dovey friends of the man. As the visiting woman refuses to talk after the argument, the hosts assume she is foreign and she maliciously builds on this misunderstanding till they end up giving her all their favourite possessions for the poor deprived country she is assumed to have fled from, including one of those glass domes you shake to produce a snow scene – Venice under snow. Not exactly great art, but much appreciated by the audience!

We seem to have had snow for much of the last three months, but it hasn’t been deep, and certainly doesn’t bring the country to a standstill here. Most roads are cleared on a regular basis, the only exception being the forest roads with no houses. So when John noticed that, according again to the postman’s calendar, it was St Alexis’ day, we thought we’d ring up the remote St Alexis auberge to see if they were open for a hearty celebratory late lunch. We were glad we’d telephoned at midday, as they replied that yes, indeed they were open, but they weren’t sure how accessible the winding hilly roads were as no-one had arrived yet! So we decided to wait for better weather. That was the afternoon we went for a walk instead and John skidded on some ice on a narrow country lane, then nearly got run over by a car speeding round the bend as he lay spread-eagled at the side of the road.

Other snowy walks have been less dramatic, though we have come across interesting scenes and monuments as we’ve tried new paths and tracks. The young deer with their white bottoms looked as if they were enjoying the snowy woods behind the church. But the cattle have looked very mournful in the trampled icy fields. Perhaps they’d read the sign on a nearby track which mysteriously imitated a no entry sign bearing the words “Mort aux vaches”. Morte-aux-vachesSome local feud? Another day, the school inspector’s two goats came bounding up to the fence anticipating a change of diet from snow and frozen grass, while Vozelle’s dog seemed to be trying to marshal his geese into noisily honking military formations. One walk brought us out by a small riding school with an unexpected life-sized figure of a horse beautifully fashioned out of horseshoes.
Horseshoe sculpture
A bit further afield we came across a newly cleaned tombstone on the edge of the woods to a villager who’d died up there in 1869, and then followed a small arrow pointing downhill to an old copper mine which had been recently re-excavated. It wasn’t on our map, so must have been forgotten since its initial excavation in the seventeenth century. And on another day we headed up a valley to a hillside with a gravestone that was marked on the map – that of the splendidly named Claude Theophile Funck-Brentano who died there in February 1916.

It was rather nice one sunny day to have a change of walking landscape from pine forests and snow to vineyards. Roger and Dorinda had asked if we’d like to join them in trying out Virginie’s winstub in Colmar. (Virginie was the waitress who’d left the Blanche Neige before Christmas to take on a traditional winstub in the Petite Venise canal area of Colmar.) It was a tiny downstairs room with about 9 tables, a bar, a couple of old stoves to keep food hot, and sepia photographs on the walls. She showed us the upstairs room that she and her partner had converted from the old proprietors’ sitting room to an additional dining area. She remembered us as soon as we walked in and made quite a fuss of us. We got funny looks from the other diners when we got extra delicacies at the beginning and end. sigolsheim_vineyardsAnd all the portions were generous – a single course would be quite sufficient another time! Anyway after our two courses and extra bits, we definitely needed a walk, and stopped by a track through the vineyards above Sigolsheim. Below us lay the winemakers where we had bought Christmas wine, and above us lay the Vogelgarten where the grapes for that particular pinot gris were grown. In all the small plots, men were busy pruning and weeding in the sunshine as we ambled up the hill.

And the champagne? That has come out on quite a few occasions. First there was Epiphany, celebrated here by the whirling pensioners of Ste Marguerite with much dancing, champagne, brioche and finally galette des rois. Most of the dancing was elegantly accomplished, but a couple from my table cleared the floor with their extraordinary jive which involved wild leg and arm movements and stiff, angry crouching. The rest of my table were murmuring in horror at this very unchic demonstration. “He looks like a bear” whispered one lady. “Did I dance well?” asked the lady, heavily perspiring, makeup running, as she returned to our table and leaned over me. I hesitated for words. Thinking she hadn’t made herself understood, she repeated her question insistently. “Quite extraordinary!” was the best I could manage.

Following the lotto (bingo), and Mme Laine’s triumphant win, I didn’t make it back to the monthly gathering of the anciens of Entre-deux-Eaux until February. I settled down to try and follow the intricacies of the game of tarot, with all its extra cards. Then one of our neighbours bore me off to indulge me in a game of Scrabble, and we were soon joined by others. It was surprisingly successful and sociable, interrupted only by coffee and brioche, then some beignets for Lent, and later still, ignoring Lent, by gateaux and champagne. A man with a clarinet who seems to know two basic tunes, “Michael row the boat ashore” and “Happy birthday” struck up the latter three times as the three cream-rich cakes were cut for three birthdays. It was such fun that I went back yesterday. Two birthdays this month, so more cake and champagne. But the Scrabble got serious, arguments ensued, a dictionary was demanded and the mayor’s office raided for one. Mme Laine looked bewildered by the passion for mere words and I felt quite exhausted by the scoring!

Roger and Dorinda continue to come and go between the Vosges and Surrey, and John often cooks a meal to welcome them back. On the last such occasion, he emerged from inspecting the wine racks down in one of the barns to announce that he’d noticed some bottles of champagne that we must have forgotten about, – some from his sixtieth birthday and some that could only have come from my fiftieth birthday all those years ago. Since Roger was about to celebrate his 65th birthday a couple of days later, we opened the 15-year old bottle, hoping it was a good keeper, and toasted all these landmarks, past and present. It was lovely still. Ageing obviously suited it!

We celebrated Roger’s actual birthday at the purple restaurant in Epinal. Then a week later, on a misty dull morning, Dorinda rang to say they’d decided to drive up to a restaurant near Sarrebourg for lunch and would we like to join them there? John consulted the internet and discovered that it had, that very day, been awarded a Michelin star. So he was easily convinced. We drove north to Baccarat, then branched off on a rolling cross-country road. On either side, strange white poles emerged from the ground only to be enveloped by mist. When the mist lifter later we realised that we were surrounded by wind turbines. Then the scenery changed and we were in a flat wet landscape of scrubby forests, lakes, streams and canals with all kinds of water fowl. In summer, with a few cafés opening up by the waterside it must be very picturesque.

Chez Michele was on the main street of the very small village of Languimberg, opposite the church, and apart from its fresh coat of paint looked much like any other village house. But as we walked in through the bar to join Roger and Dorinda, we were ushered into a large conservatory at the rear. Surrounded by green bamboo outside and decorated entirely in white – tablecloth, napkins, flowers,- it looked unexpectedly bridal and lush. mirabelle and champagne aperitifDorinda’s glass provided the only hint of golden colour. It looked tempting, so I ordered one too – champagne and mirabelle (the yellow plum of Lorraine). We all enjoyed the change of scene, though the food was nothing special and the Blanche Neige and the Frankenbourg still remain firm favourites (and sadly the Blanche Neige still hasn’t received a Michelin star). At the end of our leisurely lunch John and I set out to see the fabulous sounding Chagall Tree of Life window in Sarrebourg. But of course, being March the chapel was firmly closed for renovation works. Shame.

Meanwhile, back in Entre-deux-Eaux, winter life continues as usual. Farmer Duhaut and Olivier have been spraying the fields liberally with liquid cow manure each time rain or snow is expected. In the same period, all the human sewage arrangements have been officially inspected by a charming young lady in wellington boots. Apparently she got a hostile reception from many villagers, as not only did certificates of emptying have to be provided, but to add insult to injury, around £60 would be charged for an inspection no-one wanted. And at least we knew where ours was. We were fortunate that we had good plans of the more recent parts of our system, and were able to clear and lift most of the lids from the inspection points before the heavy frosts. Only one was too frozen to inspect. Our official report wasn’t too bad.

On the pest and blight front, outside John was anxious to get the sawn off branches from fireblighted apple trees burnt, but the wood was still too damp. And indoors we had processions of small white caterpillars wiggling across the ceiling. It took over a week to track them back to a bowl of walnuts and decide that they would soon be turning into codling moths. But fear not, if we gave you walnuts at Christmas – they were a more recent vintage!

And finally, at some stage between snow, rain, damaged weather vaneand attempted bonfires, when gales were particularly strong, our golden (well, bronze-ish) weather vane cock keeled over at a drunken angle, and John feared it would snap off and crash down on some passing car or tractor. But the workshop roof was too slippery with either snow or frost for John to rescue it. It was a couple of weeks before it was safe enough for him to climb up and restore the fowl to a proud upright. Its arrow is, at this very moment, pointing to the south.

So cocorico (sounds more convincing than cock-a-doodle-do) and au revoir as winter continues (unofficially) here.

Mulled Wine Sorbet and Candle-lit Stables: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 7, Weeks 24 – 29

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYear7Weeks24-29.pdf (two A4 pages)
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Everyone’s far too busy in December to read a long newsletter, so just a few Vosgian vignettes to wish you all a peaceful and happy Christmas.

Fruity white wine Friday, dusk, snow on the hills, a deserted village wine co-operative, the name Vogelgarten on a list. We are questing for Christmas wine for friends and family. A lady emerges from the colder cellar regions, pulling off her anorak, and launches into her introduction to the wines of Alsace, assuming we are new visitors to the region. We pin her down to Vogelgarten, and as we sip the pinot gris, she explains that the grand crus come from the upper slopes which get the sun all day, and the Vogelgarten vines lie just below. We have often driven through the upper slopes to the hilltop area set aside at the end of the war for a military cemetery for all those who fell in the protracted battle to liberate Colmar; the moving last scene of Indigenes (a.k.a. Days of Glory) was shot there. At the foot of that road is the house and courtyard of Clarisse, where in May she sells the white, mauve and green asparagus she grows on the plain beyond the vineyards. And now, at the Sigolsheim cave, as an afterthought, purely for our own pleasure, we also try the gewürztraminer Vieilles Vignes. Irresistible. The 18 bottles clink gently as we drive home over the snowy Bonhomme pass.

Pointy shoes If you have ever dreamt of being a young head-waiter, the essential kit these days involves shoes (shiny patent leather optional) with much longer points than winkle-pickers ever had – more like those mediaeval ones whose long tips you could almost tie up round your calves. Thomas at the Blanche Neige has the kit, and regrettably, as the Blanche Neige has still not achieved Michelin stars, he is now taking his shoes and skills to a more prestigious two star restaurant in Obernai (whose prices, sadly, are beyond our everyday budget!). His assistant/somelier (who some of you may also remember from John’s birthday) has already moved to a prestigious Swiss restaurant and Virginie, the waitress and flower arranger, now runs a winstub in Colmar. Of course, accessibility may be another motive. The Blanche Neige is well named, as most of our winter trips there have involved snow and drama. Last Friday was no exception. Surprisingly the little road leading to it hadn’t even been gritted at their end. Less surprisingly, we were the only diners there that lunch time. Nevertheless, all the candles were lit and glittering in their glass containers and we were greeted like old friends. Thomas told us the previous weekend had been fully booked, especially for Sunday lunch. The first snow had fallen during Friday night, and the village council did not get the snow plough out at the weekend. The weekend diners had to walk from the main road and Thomas himself was unable to get back down the road in his own car that night, and had to get a friend with a 4×4 to pick him up. Incidentally, I wonder if you can drive (or walk easily in snow) in those pointy shoes?

Sorbet Fortunately the chef is not leaving the Blanche Neige. Though this time his Fragrance menu seemed to have a powerful dose of salt in every course. It might have been the assistant chefs going mad with the salt cellar on his day off. They’d have been better employed sprinkling it on the snowy road. The soup then guinea fowl were followed by a dessert with sweet chestnut mousse, quince, caramel, and the most delicious mulled wine sorbet. But maybe the secret was more salt in the sorbet. Nevertheless, Christmas may never be the same again in the Blackmore household if we can find the ice-cream maker. It might just be in the attic.

Dusty attic There are still a few cardboard boxes in the unconverted section of out hayloft attic. Boxes dating from our move here. I was last in there looking for the long neglected box of camping equipment for a floor mat for John to use when doing the floor exercises prescribed after his latest and worst back problem. (The local doctors can’t have seen many miners, as silver mining here has long since ceased and coal mining was much further north in Lorraine. Nevertheless our doctor, surveying the X-ray, said in surprise that John had the back of a man after a life of carrying sacks of coal). The Christmas decorations box is the next one to be opened. Last year it was covered with owl pellets, but no trace of owl this year. Perhaps the stone marten frightened him off. Which reminds me: the marten trap needs a fresh egg before we leave for England

Deer Alas, no deer grazing in our meadow since the hunting season started. But as the Christmas lights are put up, grazing deer are a popular illumination this year. Last night the pretty little village of Méménil opened its stables and barns for the annual Christmas market. Wine producers, water colourists, snail farmers, bee-keepers, chocolate makers, hat, cape and scarf makers, a knife smith, teddy-bear makers, basket weavers, bakers, cross-stitchers and olive vendors all crowd in for that one night with their wares. The prettiest barns are candle lit. And outside the gardens, doorways and even mail boxes are bright with lights, including fearless Christmas deer.

Happy Christmas everyone!

A Tale of Two Mayors: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 7 Weeks 13 – 23

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYear7Weeks13-23.pdf (four A4 pages)
Clicking on the small images will either open larger versions or open a web page with a selection of photographs

“Ah! Entre-deux-Eaux”. You have an excellent mayor!” a member of the Saint Dié walking group announced in the middle of the countryside. “Chaxel. He used to be a teacher, and he knows everyone.”

It was a surprise to hear that our commune of some 450 inhabitants was known in the big world of urban Saint Dié. There the mayor, Pierret, is known by everyone, having shaken hands with everyone (and promptly forgotten them) and having ensured his photograph is inserted at least once on every page of the town’s monthly newsletter, showing him standing prominently in front of each local group, road improvement, statue and municipal flowerbed. “How are you?” he once breathlessly asked me, pumping my hand, while pounding along the corridor of the high-speed train. The train was, at the time, stationary in Saint Dié station where he was publicising to the supposedly-awed citizens his role in enabling the TGV service to be extended to “his” town. He was at the far end of the carriage by the end of his three-word query as to my well-being.

We recently ran into our own mayor in the middle of the forest. He’d been surveying some of his (personal not commune) softwood trees and gloomily assessing how many it would be worth cutting for sale this year. We discussed the economic situation and its disastrous effect on the building trade and timber industry. He told us that the farm we had passed had changed hands recently and that the pretty grey donkeys which had come rushing up in their grey hoods (fly protectors for the eyes) belonged to the new owner. We checked that the forest track we were following still led to some lakes we had seen on the map (as tracks can change with logging requirements). “Ponds”, he corrected gently, and assured us that the track did indeed lead to them and beyond to the next village. He also warned us that the next day would be a bad day to stroll in the forest as it would be the first day of the hunting season, and we discussed the number of boar and game and the fact that there are now only eight (authorised) huntsmen in the village due to the expense involved. As we walked on, we were sorry to find that we couldn’t get near the ponds as they were enclosed by a fence, and the track veered away. And then we spotted some huge wrought iron gates through the trees, – the kind that would usually open onto the drive of an Edwardian mansion. But there was no drive on either side or fine house beyond. What a shame our mayor wasn’t still with us to provide information about the mystery gates in the forest.

I doubt if the Mayor of Saint Dié is ever to be seen in the forests around Saint Dié. Presumably he spends most of the week in Paris where he is a lawyer. And after all Saint Dié is rather a small pond for a former Secretary State for Industry. However he was back at the beginning of October with all his academic pals for the International Geography Festival which he has instituted to put Saint Dié (like America) on the map. This was the 19th festival, and its theme was (literally and wordily) “Between wars and conflicts: the planet under tension”. The invited country of honour was Japan. Any connection?

As well as all the worthy visiting academics, the cookery demonstrations predictably included rice (a whole session) and sushi, and the street events included a tea ceremony and a dragon. Japanese drumming in the cloisters was pretty impressive and John enjoyed the koto player in the old church. Meanwhile the local history group recreated a forest trench from World War One beneath the war memorial, and their lectures interpreted the theme broadly, including the conflict between a small village and an encroaching big town (Saint Dié, of course, but the mayor was not there to hear it – he was probably swanning around with the Japanese Consul General and the Japanese Ambassador).

I wonder if there will ever be a 20th International Festival of Geography. Mayor Pierret is no doubt a political cousin of Peter Mandelson, having surfaced from previous corruption scandals (the last being the Lyonnaise des Eaux contract bribery allegations). But two days after the Geography Festival closed, the Tribunal Administratif declared the Saint Dié election to have been what 1066 and all that would have called “dull and void”. This was due to “une irrégularité”. Several days before the first round of the elections, the municipality had sent a letter to 600 inhabitants of the social housing in the Kellerman area, promising a repayment of excess rental charges following a successful renegotiation of the heating maintenance contract (and before the company managing the area knew of the decision). In the second round of voting Pierret scraped through by 156 votes. It remains to be seen what happens after an appeal. Meanwhile one of the main items on the Mayor’s website (above even the Geography Festival, but below “My life as a Minister”) remains a video on how to live as both a Christian and a freemason.

Here in Entre-deux-Eaux life continues more quietly. Indeed it has been so peaceful that, for several days in the early evening, young deer were coming out of the forest to graze in the meadow by the stream. We haven’t seen them since the hunting season opened, but hope that’s due to prudence rather than extinction. The hot air balloon from Saulcy has been able to fly in the pleasant September evenings, and has made a colourful landing in the same meadow. With the better weather, the meadows have had their second cut and all is safely baled and wrapped in pale green plastic and the cows are back grazing the field above the farmhouse. The more distant maize fields have also been cut to provide winter fodder, bringing heavy tractor trailers lumbering up and down our lane to Farmer Duhaut’s big new maize store. Our own colourful harvest adorns the windowsills – pumpkins and squash, ready for seasonal soup-making. In the orchard the crows seem to have developed a liking for a walnuts, and deadly fireblight has struck the quince, pear, medlar and some apple trees.

We had a further update on E2E current affairs when the senior commune employee came round, as he always does in September, to read the water meter. We admired the way the one of the village crosses (the one which had allegedly been knocked down by a passing lorry) had been restored with a new bronze statue on its stonework. He also assured us that the cross that had been absent for a number of years from the end of our road would soon be restored again, but said that another one was in store awaiting a decision about what to do with that road junction. So some of our mayor’s pre-election promises are being fulfilled. But the commune employee gave us a very funny look when we asked when our part of the road would, as the mayor had promised, be resurfaced. That had obviously been a vain promise! We should have asked what was happening abut the great sewerage debate, as a questionnaire was issued soon after the almost unanimous re-election of our mayor and council.

September has been a fine month, sunny but not too hot, for finding new walks around the commune. First there was the annual village walk (and I still enjoy coming across the refreshment tables along the way. This time the first pit stop was along the track at the top of the field above our house!). Another still day, we came across a young man trying in vain to get his paraglider airborne among the hay bales on a small hill behind the football ground. Across a road and past a farm with a barking dog we came across Bluebeard’s mobile clothing and household linen shop parked outside another farm. What a name! It conjured up pictures of a plump farmer’s wife opening up the wardrobe within Barbe Bleue’s colourful van, never to be seen again.

This year I (but not John, as he is keen to point out) became eligible for the club of the Ancients of E2E. So on the third Thursday of September I went with Danielle Laine and her sister Giselle (the mother of Farmer Duhaut) and got scrutinised by all my fellow-ancients. Our mayor came round to chat with every one, as if he was really pleased to see them all enjoying the gossip and cards together again. The highlight of the afternoon was the birthday cake – or cakes, as there were 4 birthdays. But Danielle was definitely the winner of the best cake accolade. Normally everything in her household has been grown or reared on the premises. So everyone was amazed that this time she had made an exception. She tartly said it was because you only have a 70th birthday once. She had commissioned a cake from her favourite baker over in Anould – a glorious eclair and cream confection.

Madame la presidente also encouraged me to join the inter-communal bingo being hosted by the E2E Ancients in October, – only four cards, she decided, as I would struggle with the numbers in French. Alas, with my four cards I failed to stagger home with one of the big prizes – no tumble drier, panel radiator, vacuum cleaner, raclette, TV or hideous bouquet of flowers. And not even a more portable trophy like shopping vouchers, restaurant vouchers, chocolates or a lethal-looking bottle of home-made colourless fruit liqueur. But the prize which had been saved until the end sounded the best: two travel vouchers for 250 euros each for anywhere, anytime. The concentration was intense, punctuated only by a querulous “What did she say? Twenty six?” “No thirty six” “That’s what I said, twenty six!” and much irritated shushing. Suddenly there was a squeak right next to me, and Danielle’s hand shot up. Entre-deux-Eaux’s very own Mme Laine had won the two travel vouchers! She was stunned, and unable to say a word all the way home. I would have loved to have heard Pierre’s comments. Having been born in the next village and driven a lorry (probably locally) for the nearby builders’ merchants, he has seen quite enough of the world, – and he didn’t like Algeria and all its foreigners when he had to do his national service there. I can imagine him suggesting a swap with the tumble drier! Danielle, however, has travelled with Giselle to the Atlantic coast beyond Bordeaux – nearly Spain, in fact – to visit Giselle’s married daughter. So who knows?

Ever since our mayor organised the gros objets collection (last newsletter) and John had a major clear-out of his workshop, he has been busy building shelves and fixing storage units and drawers. Finally when John and Wendy were over at the end of August, the two Johns disappeared into the workshop, for John2 (whose own workshop is devoted largely to wood-turning projects) to practice joints with the impressive machinery and for John1 to start work on a bedside cabinet for Leila and a bathroom cabinet for us. Since then he has made another bedside table for the farmhouse, which was christened when Shelagh and Melvin stayed this week.

We did manage to drag the two Johns out for some wet walks and some good meals, a hearty one at the Saint Alexis (with a large party of huntsmen sitting under the awnings outside – wild boar are endemic there and hunting is allowed year-round) and a gourmet one at the Frankenbourg. And we also had some sunshine for the Sunday flea-markets, where the two Johns examined all the old wood-working tools in sight.

In fact the end-of-season flea-markets have been fun this year. Beneath rain-laden skies above the abbey cloisters at Senones, our next visitors, Viv and Paul scooped up various one euro bargains (fish casserole, apron, serviette holder) before we retired to the village bar for coffee. We also managed a picnic outside the abbey at Moyenmoutier and a short walk before it rained. Viv pointed out the disparity between the small plaque outside the mairie to the large number of deportees who never returned at the end of the war, and the considerably larger plaque to the American who set up a canteen for the troops. John and I passed another war-time tribute after we’d enjoyed a flea market at Bertrimoutier and taken a picturesque route back: a ruined farmhouse and memorial in the fields where 52 members of the local resistance were attacked and killed.

Etival-Clairfontaine’s first-ever flea market was held around the old abbey church and the surrounding picturesque houses. Above the stalls against the abbey wall we could see some interesting looking stained glass. So afterwards we looked in the church, with its romanesque columns, baroque frontage and modern glass, all reconstructed after the dynamiting of the old church in 1944. And at one of the last flea markets of the year, last Sunday, we made the most of the autumn sunshine, sitting outside one of the barns, eating our chips and surveying the bric-a-brac, antiques, pumpkin displays, and vivid autumn leaves.

Autumn has really arrived now. The trees are beautiful. Lunching this week with Shelagh and Melvin at Senones, the menu included pumpkin soup, venison and apple dessert. And back here, in the evenings, the log stove is lit and we watch the flames … And that reminds me. Perhaps, now we’ve brought in the logs from the ill-fated apple tree to dry off, we should ask Mayor Chaxel for a delivery of hardwood logs. Now you couldn’t expect the deposed Mayor Pierret to come round delivering from his log-trailer!

The Hanged Man, the Scrap-Metal “Man”, the Bengal Sappers and Miners, and the Muses: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 7 Weeks 6 – 12

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYear7Weeks6-12.pdf
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It was a perfect sunny afternoon after a week of muggy heat punctuated by thunderstorms. Under the trees next door, two immaculately groomed horses waited patiently with their calèche, as cars hurtled up the road and parked along the edge of our field. It was Cécile and Cédric’s wedding day. We scanned the guests from our attic window, as we were uncertain of French dress code, and promptly changed out of our colourful summery clothes into more formal black and white. As the calèche set out we dashed downstairs, John to take photos from the first floor window and me to wave. It was an idyllic picture: the calèche driver and his boy in black suits and slouch hats, the cart horses with their mauve and cream posies, Cécile in an elegant white sheath dress and their little daughter in a matching dress and sun hat, her sister Carole’s two children and papa Gerard (who’d changed out of his shorts and T-shirt into a suave dove-grey suit). The cars turned and followed slowly behind, hooting, as is the custom, and we joined the rear of the procession down our road to the village centre.

The first ceremony, the obligatory legal one, was held in the mayor’s parlour with family and close friends. Parked prominently outside was Cédric’s old white van, with a life size dummy suspended from gallows on the back. We were amused to see that it was dressed in a blue and yellow post office uniform, and held together with post office tape, Cédric being an employee of la Poste. The hanged man traditionally represents the end of the groom’s life of freedom.

Through the open windows we could hear Farmer Duhaut (who is also one of our two deputy mayors) reciting the obligatory clauses of the constitution relating to marriage duties and obligations. The civil ceremony completed, it was only a short step up past the war memorial and into the village church for the (optional) mass.

The Entre-deux-Eaux church is now only used for four sparsely attended services a year, plus funerals and weddings. So it was good to see it well-maintained inside and packed. The older members looked a bit shocked as the three professional singers from Alsace launched into rhythmical gospel songs (in impeccable English), with everyone clapping and swaying in time, followed by applause. We were amused that the song after they’d exchanged their wedding vows was “Let my people go!” as it was a bit late for a bid for freedom. Sadly, few of the congregation could have been in a state of grace, including us, for only a handful of old ladies responded to the invitation to altar so the priest had a lot of wine to finish off before he could conclude the service. As the couple came out of the church, ephemeral rainbow bubbles were blown, rice was tossed (noisier than confetti), and a lot more photos were taken.

The vin d’honneur (with accompanying nibbles) was held on St Léonard, four and a half kilometres from here, so the horses set off with the bride, groom and small children in the calèche, and a long procession of cars followed slowly behind, more hooting. It was all very picturesque, thanks to the sunshine. And fortunately we didn’t meet any cars coming in the other direction along the narrowest stretch of the route. The tables were decorated with buttercup yellow cloths, and spread with delicacies and slim glasses of sweet wine. Large cottage loaves had been scooped out and filled with sandwiches, and more warm tasty canapés and patisseries were brought round as people chatted. Our drive home was faster than our drive there! But at some stage the family and friends would have returned, hooting, to the village hall at Entre-deux-Eaux for the wedding feast and dancing.

Traditionally the bride and bridegroom slip away from the festivities, but their friends go in search of them, bearing champagne or wine and hammer on the door and bang dustbin lids until the groom is forced to get up and invite them in. When Cécile’s sister Carole got married, some of the inebriated wedding guests stopped one house early and banged with great urgency on our farmhouse door. We weren’t there, and our visitors were very bewildered when they opened the door to these revellers who refused to go away. The fact that the “bride” had turned into a different woman, and was suddenly eight months pregnant seemed to make no difference to their clamour! However, this time, we slept soundly through it all the nocturnal comings and goings.

Our road hasn’t seen so many cars up and down it since the annual gros objets collection. Now our mayor’s aim is for no one in the commune to produce any rubbish which can’t be personally burned, composted, buried or recycled via the paper and glass bins outside the village shop. For if everyone was efficient, as in the old days, it would save the commune any rubbish collection fees. However most people manage to produce at least one full plastic bag each week, though Mme Laine would always win our road’s prize for the smallest bag. And there are always those categories of rubbish that the dustmen won’t take. So once a year there is the special collection.

We’d cleared a few things from the storage section of the attic when laying traps for and clearing up after Fluffy the fouine. So the day before the collection, John put out a cumbersome reclining long-unused TV aerial. Then as the collection coincided with his desire to re-organise his workshop atelier, he started clearing and putting out boxes of old nails and rusty files, tractor tyres, a tangle of ancient electrical switches and wires from our predecessor, the village electrician, and, after some debate, some of the small-holding’s historical items like the heavy chains for the oxen. Whilst doing so he noticed the steady drive-past of assorted vans and lorries, all appraising the scrap. Some asked permission to pick over what they saw, and others just took what they fancied.

One battered white lorry had already taken parts of the old cars that Ludo, the Laines’ grandson, had been gutting for his illicit car repair business (which I hasten to add has been recently registered and legitimised). So John took the two men (one small dark and plump in dungarees, and the other younger and presumably his son) round the back and showed them the heavy metal axle under the hazel tree. They agreed to come back the next day for it, as they hadn’t room at present. I was a little worried by the way the younger of the two kept eyeing up the old tractor. Not for disposal, I repeated firmly. All afternoon the cars and trailers cruised past. More people must have rummaged after dark, as by morning, we had only one small box remaining for the official collectors. The white lorry duly returned (loaded with more of Ludo’s car bodies), and the younger man looked wistfully at the tractor again, before doing most of the sawing up and loading of the axle. When I referred afterwards to the two men, John looked surprised. “The older one was a woman.”

From time to time we need to take either Bluto or Snowy over to Epinal to be serviced, and usually take advantage of the expedition to go to BricoDepot (the cheapest of the DIY warehouses), the Ducs de Lorraine restaurant, and an exhibition. This time we also inspected Nicola and John’s boat, which is temporarily moored there on its journey from Holland to the Aude where they now live, and, after a leisurely lunch, we went into the tourist office for a town plan (as we haven’t quite linked up different parts of the town). By chance a town tour was about to set out and the guide was able to answer a couple of points which had cropped up during my researches into Indian soldiers in the area in the last war. No, he didn’t know where the liberating Americans were quartered, but he did know the location of the old POW camp. I’d read that a large number of captured Indian soldiers had been held there by the Germans until the camp was accidentally bombed by the Americans on 11th May 1944, leaving 64 casualties. Others had escaped and roamed the countryside until reaching safety or being rounded up by the advancing allies a few months later. He showed me on our newly acquired map the site of the barracks where they’d been held, and then asked if I’d like to know where they were buried. John is becoming resigned to being dragged round and photographing graveyards, so, as there were no exhibitions of interest, we spent the next hour in the municipal cemetery on the outskirts of Epinal.

Epinal is the capital of our département, so you would think its cemetery would be large and well tended. It was certainly large, but on that hot dusty day it had a run-down and disorganised air. The guide had said that the war graves were at the back, so we walked right up to the end wall and along the top, finding only the normal monumental family graves and a disreputable area with rusting lids which looked like mass paupers’ graves. We walked back down and found a separated walled Jewish area at the bottom. Going through another wall there was an area of French war graves, with their cement crosses, which John deduced were support staff from the local garrisons. But the whole place seemed deserted, with no one to ask. Finally I found a discreet green gate in a hedge, with a path which wound through bushes and behind a gardeners’ building to an immaculately mown area with neat rows of crosses of French soldiers. Then right at the end under the shade of tall trees, was a line of elegantly sculpted Commonwealth War Graves headstones commemorating Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and a Christian; cooks, sweepers and a water carrier, as well as frontline fighters. And there were three from the regiment I was particularly interested in, King George V’s own Bengal Sappers and Miners. I had to shout over the high wall to guide John from the garrison graves to this very secret enclosure. We realised later, that if the tricoleur had not been drooping limply in the heat between the trees, we might have located the area sooner.

The Sunday flea markets continue as usual, with occasional ones on other festive days. One of our favourite ones was on Bastille Day, July 14th at Ban-de-Laveline. It always has a few special touches, like a local history stall, the fire station’s ancient fire-fighting equipment on display, and a brass band. Although we haven’t bought much this year (there’s a limit to the amount of bric-a-brac we can house), I was delighted to find a framed print of “The Muses” by Nabis painter Maurice Denis. It was an advertisement for the Musée d’Orsay, which we’d really enjoyed on our Paris trip a few years ago. So now if you come to stay, you will be greeted in the farmhouse hallway by no lesser personages than the muses. That evening, the weather was uncertain, so we didn’t go to any of the firework displays. But late on the sky was suddenly illuminated, and from the attic window we got a perfect view of St Leonard’s fireworks rising and cascading – the same window from which, at the beginning of this newsletter, we were watching Cécile’s wedding cortège organising itself.

And thinking of weddings reminded me that this weekend must have been our wedding anniversary, though as usual it had slipped our minds. At John’s 60th birthday party it was suggested that we ought to repeat the house party in a couple of years. We haven’t quite got round to organising that … but how about a house party at the beginning of August next year? We could start a trend for 35th anniversaries! Are you free then? Or does May or October appeal more? Let us know your thoughts.

Au revoir!