You still need an introduction: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, June-July 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no3.pdf (three A4 pages)

Back in 2000 T. E. Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier shot to brief fame. It described how, when the author and his family were living in Paris, he went into a piano repair shop on his street to enquire if they ever came across reasonably priced second-hand pianos. The politely negative but evasive response was the same each time he returned. Eventually the younger partner in the shop hinted that maybe, if he were recommended by an existing customer… And only after an introduction was he ushered into a rear workshop/showroom which was full of pianos for sale.

When we first bought the farmhouse in 1990 and knew no-one locally, our neighbours were most helpful. M. and Mme Laine recommended a builder, de Freitas who, when the link was mentioned, came immediately and worked willingly on various projects over the years. We also found that the electrical appliances shop they mentioned was most helpful with purchases and repairs over the years. Another neighbour, Mme Munch, worked at an insurance agent and we have insured our house, cars and health ever since and had immediate help when our roof blew off in the hurricane. In fact we went in to see them recently about travel insurance, and they were kind enough to explain that theirs would be more expensive than the online policies we previously had, but did we realise that our car insurance (!) would cover us in most cases, even if we were not travelling by car at the time, while our house insurance would cover many possessions. What sympathetic and personal services from those early introductions.

But surely that is not how things are still done in 2018? Oh yes it is. An introduction still works wonders. Recently the iron pipe connecting our boiler to the chimney finally rusted through after some 25 years. For several weeks we tried to find someone to do the repair. The premises of M. Duvoid, the plumbing and heating engineer who had installed the boiler and the under-floor heating, were closed down and his house had another name on the letterbox. We stopped by the van of a plumber and asked him whether he could help. He took all our details and promised to come in the next day or so, but we never heard from him again. And a plumber with the delightful name of M. Fafin who Roger and Dorinda had often used did not reply to phone messages. So Helen consulted the group with whom she plays Scrabble or Rummikub at the village Oldies club as to who they used for similar small jobs. One immediately suggested her brother-in-law, who was currently playing boules over the road. There are quite a number of retired Italians who have joined the club recently, two of whom were builders. Nicola, brother of the more successful Giovanni, was introduced at the end of his game and immediately offered to come round after the Oldies’ birthday cakes and champagne. “He’s the one who used to do all the hard work. He can do anything”, his wife Maria loyally confided as John showed him the problem pipe. Next day we heard thumping on the door. Outside stood Nicola, looking relieved. He had telephone several times but we had not heard, so he had come anyway and had rung the front door bell but it did not seem to be working, but he could hear the radio inside so was sure we were here. And he had brought a new shiny replacement stainless pipe and his tools and set to work efficiently and rapidly. A man who knew what he was doing, John pronounced after paying him a very reasonable amount. He made it all seem simple. But were it not for fellow scrabble players would we still be waiting for someone?

Earlier in the year we were troubled by rain water flooding in. Now we are experiencing the same spell of hot weather as the UK. There have been canicule, or heatwave, alerts and these are taken very seriously since the dreadful summer of 2003 when between 15,000 and 19,000 people (mainly elderly) died in France of heat related problems. Add to the heat the occasional thunder rumbling around in the nearby hills, especially during France’s triumphant world cup matches. Those July 14th fireworks, or what remained of them, came in handy the following day when France won the final, but they had to fight the thunder. So it has been a pleasure to spend the past two months staying cool with fans blowing indoors, watching the feast of football and tennis from Roland Garros in Paris and then from Wimbledon, punctuated by the occasional sortie to favourite restaurants and local flea markets.

Most of the flea markets seemed to have been cancelled on World Cup Final day, as people prepared to watch their country. But at Anould’s market in June we found a lovely dish made by a potter who used to work in Le Bonhomme, and we later had a successful hunt in Taintrux and in Saulcy, – once we had found their new sites. The Taintrux flea market was held on the hill top in a brand new sports area behind the church (lets hope the players don’t loose too many balls up on the hilltop), while the Saulcy one had moved from their sports ground to a recently flattened and landscaped area by the river where a linen factory once stood. As we walked back from the Saulcy market, we paused to walk round a large, newly-built house by the river, commenting that it was odd that it had minimal garden. Yesterday John had a routine doctor’s appointment. When he arrived at the surgery there was a note on the door saying the cabinet médical had moved to a new address with a rough indication of its whereabouts (towards Ste Marguerite, over the bridge and on the left). You would have thought the receptionist would have mentioned it when the appointment was made the previous day! There were several puzzled looking people trying to find its new location. It turned out to be that new house by the river; the doctors had only moved in at the weekend and were waiting for the house number and name-plates to arrive. Perhaps it was fortunate that John went then as our routine appointments are usually every six months and the address change will probably disappear once the old premises become residences.

As for the restaurants. Who could forget the odd sounding but delicious amuse-bouche of radish soup with coffee vinegar (“to sharpen the taste buds”) topped with vegetable crisps at Chez Guth or the equally delicate pea soup topped with caviar and lime cream at l’Imprimerie in the book village? On the way back from Guth’s we stopped at the jam producers in Climont, a big tourist attraction, to see their small exhibition about jam production during the first world war. But our shelves are already well stocked with John’s home-made jams. John is also brushing up on walnut recipes, as, for the first time for several years, there were no frosts at inopportune times in late spring and it looks like being a bumper walnut crop in the orchard this autumn.

We have also made some holiday plans, via a circuitous process. We had thought of a trip to Sweden (but the timing wasn’t right when we decided we wanted to see the football), then got diverted by a book on Helsinki architecture to Finland (but we couldn’t really find enough in the rest of Finland of interest to us for a long holiday), so have eventually decided on Ireland with its wealth of Romanesque, Celtic and prehistoric remains. Neither of us has been there before, so this will be an introductory central regions driving tour, starting in Dublin, then staying in Kilkenny, Cashel, Birr, Athlone, Cong, Ballina and Kells. We will stay a few nights in Letchworth on either side of the Irish trip, and bring Leila back here for a short break. After we had booked the Ireland crossing and accommodation, Toby realised that he would be free at the last moment to take a break while Jacob and Farrah are on holiday, so the whole family including Rachel’s two elder daughters and their boyfriends and not forgetting Teddy the dog will drive over and stay here while we are away. We’ll definitely feel like ships that cross in the night (even if they will use the tunnel), though we’ll see them in Letchworth before and after. The hairdresser in St Dié was low on customers today as if most of St Dié is away on holiday too.

We hope you enjoy your summer wherever you may be!

A Week in the West: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux and beyond, April – May 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no2.pdf (three A4 pages)

There are comprehensive sets of photographs:
Going west – Val de Gartempe and the Loire
and Villa Majorelle, Nancy
as well as some other links in the text

The good thing about visiting the UK is the pleasure of catching up with friends and family there and the bad thing is catching up with the garden here afterwards. So you won’t be surprised to read that most of our E2E time since our Easter UK visit has, apart from our Week in the West, been spent on horticultural tasks including wood-chipping, rotavating and mowing for John and composting, marking out paths and beds, weeding, sowing and planting for Helen.

lemon surprise

Light relief has included lunch at L’Imprimerie in our Book Village (Fontenoy-la-Joute) where the chef’s surprise menu culminated in a lemon on a plate. Yes, a lemon on a plate. On being cut into it turned out to be a delicious lemon and cream concoction in a clever mould.

Majorelle House, Nancy

Villa Majorelle, Nancy

Our only Sunday flea market was a stop in a village in the faïence producing area near Nancy where we were heading to visit the Majorelle house. Some of you may have visited the famous Majorelle garden in Marrakesh belonging to the artist Jaques Majorelle, and the Nancy house is the art nouveau Villa Majorelle of his father Louis Majorelle, one of the School of Nancy craftsmen. Much of his beautiful wood and metal work survives inside, though not his furniture. It has been sadly neglected over the years, but the town has bought it and so far renovated the exterior, with the interior to follow, so we need to go back in 2020 to see the interior in its full glory. And there was also a fascinating historical conference in St Dié one weekend on the theme of Transport in the Grand Est (the posh name of our new grouping of communes of communes, departments and regions, which sounds like a Victorian Railway Company). But we somehow failed to notice the visit of President Macron to St Dié, so missed any excitement. Interestingly everyone we meets mentions “our” royal baby and Royal Wedding (and usually asks if we are going) but no one seems very interested in the proximity of their President. No doubt it will be assumed that we are going over for the wedding in a few days, rather than for Helen’s cousin’s funeral.

But for us the excitement has been in planning a short trip west as a diversion for Helen’s 75th birthday, to the Val de Gartempe whose prehistoric sites and church frescoes our friend Val had enthused about. It’s easy to forget how long it takes to cross France from east to west, so it was an after thought to set out a day early and break the journey in Troyes, and the only accommodation was in a chain ACE hotel. We were later to realise how accustomed we’d got to the standard facilities of chain hotels and how quirky and fascinating French chambre d’hôtes (like British B+Bs) can be.

Château Les Vallées

We spent our next night in the Val de Gartempe as the only guests in a small 19th century chateau whose corridor walls were lined with the owner’s exotic photos from all round the world, which was like walking through the pages of a dated National Geographic. We then stayed a couple of nights in a “manoir” chambre d’hôte run by a plump and slimy Mr Nosey and his blonde wife he would slip out of his office or kitchen every time we came in or out to check what we were doing. But I also saw him slink out with a bottle of wine clutched against his portly belly during breakfast, and heard his wife going out, calling, to look for him shortly after. Is there a story there? It was only after we left that John realised he hadn’t restored the dangling bits of the chandelier in our bedroom that he’d tied up with twisted loo paper after he kept walking into them during the night in our over-furnished darkened bedroom. I wonder what Mr Nosey made of that? We stayed in a family-run hotel near the Loire for a night, which was intended as a birthday treat. But we got off to a bad start with Madame as we felt our rather expensive bedroom ought to have a blind in the bathroom (which had a large window overlooking the car park) and also a bath mat. There was a fitting for the blind but “it was our choice when renovating not to replace the blind”. John pinched a swimming pool towel and hung it from the fittings (and pointedly left it there in the morning). It would also be nice in an expensively refurbished room not to have to crawl under the bedside table to find a socket to charge the mobile phone (and to be unable to use the bedside light at the same time). And of course the television and phone were out of order. So after that Madame was a bit tight-lipped when she served us dinner, and for our tastes their menu gourmand was disappointingly bland. They did however do a very good breakfast the next morning and didn’t charge for it after all our various complaints! Our last night was spent in Troyes again on our way home, but this time we had a room in an elegant but untidy town house where our hostess was effervescent and obliging such a change from the previous day and she even provided a pretty little jug of milk for les anglais to have with their afternoon tea (it was the only room during our trip with tea-making equipment). And our French windows overlooked her front garden.

John was sadly disappointed with the restaurants in the area, with their carefully cooked food with no interesting flavours. We are perhaps spoilt by the more adventurous chefs in Alsace. However, that last night in Troyes was perfect at Valentino’s in the old town with its narrow streets and timbered houses. And no, it wasn’t a spaghetti house. We had the menu de la mer which was delicately and tastily spiced and beautifully presented. A lovely conclusion.

Jouhet Chapelle Sainte Catherine

And of course it wasn’t all eating and sleeping. Visiting churches can always be a bit hit-and-miss as to whether they are open, but we were keen to see the frescoes in the Val de Gartempe. In the first village we stopped at we had to find the cafe and ask for the key to the little chapel. It was amazing when we opened the door, with the upper walls and ceiling covered in vibrant fifteenth century paintings of Bible scenes and a big hunting scene in which three skeletons rose from graves to remind the three carefree horsemen of their mortality. It was handy to pause for a coffee while returning the key. Further north on the other side of the river the door of a larger church was ajar, so the nesting birds could fly noisily in and out with worms, and the frescoes, especially in the side chapel, were equally vivid. The monks at the nearby St Savin Abbey clearly had greater funds available, and the lofty vaulting of their church nave had more sophisticated scenes from the Old Testament for the monks to contemplate if they craned their necks. We also headed that day towards a huge nuclear power station very close to a village with a tiny twelfth century church with amazing polychrome capitals, an informative small museum of prehistoric and mediaeval finds (some found during the construction of the power station), and a huge necropolis (with a legend that the bodies in the sarcophogi were the bodies of the army of King Clovis which were lifted up and rained down on this site after a battle); but we avoided the nearby planete des crocodiles.

12C capital in Eglise Saint-Pierre Chauvigny

We had however, forgotten about all the public holidays in France during May. The reconstruction (sadly disappointing) of a prehistoric overhanging sculpted rock site was open on the Tuesday which was VE day. But the book shops in the book town of Montmorillon were all closed on the Thursday morning which was Ascension Day, though we did enjoy the small typewriter and calculator museum there before retreating to the mediaeval sights of Chauvigny which were open for the holiday crowds.

And we finally got to visit friends in Loches. The buildings of Loches seemed familiar as we walked around, as Anne had painted evocative watercolours over the years, many of which they had sent as Christmas cards. Sadly Anne is not well now, but we enjoyed sitting in their garden chatting to Martin.

Ruddy shelduck

We were lucky with mainly hot weather while we were away, but have returned to a wet week of gardening. Our last newsletter mentioned our loo with a view. Our first view on our return was of the black plastic bales, as the north field’s straggling winter crop had been cut while we were away. There was also a steaming aromatic muck heap very close to the window as well as one further up the slope. As if that wasn’t enough, once the bales had been moved, the farmer began to spray liquid manure. The usual large black crows descended on the feast, then from our window yesterday we spotted two exotic birds; they are not in our bird books but Roger has kindly identified them as ruddy shelducks which are rather rare in France. Who knows what we will come back to!

From mud to Madrid: escaping from everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, January – March 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no1.pdf (seven A4 pages)

There is a comprehensive set of photographs:
Spain Feb-Mar 2018 Madrid, Toledo and Malaga
as well as links in the text

Ours is a loo with a view. Most houses have textured glass obscuring the view from their bathroom windows, but not ours. When we began converting the hayloft here, the layout allowed for a spacious bathroom which was at the time lit by a small square hole under the eaves. As the hole was surrounded by traditional pink sandstone slabs, Helen was initially reluctant to change the facade. But as the project took shape, the bathroom felt cell-like, so a window to match the others was added. It is one of only two which look north across the road to a field that climbs up to the woods. Pedestrians and motorists pass too low to see into the bathroom, so it is clear-glazed. In the early days the occasional cow grazing on the field would lift its head and gaze blankly across, and we would pull down the blind during the annual grass cutting, turning and baling. But this January we gazed with growing horror from our bathroom window.

On the very morning we were leaving for Christmas in the UK, we woke early to complete darkness. High winds throughout the night had caused a power cut. It is surprising how much light our metal shutters keep out and how much the various electrical equipment LED lights usually provide. We went back to bed until daylight. Power returned at 8.30. But downstairs we found that the first barn was flooded with muddy water. John cleared as much as he could while I left messages at the Mairie and with our neighbour. We eventually set out for family and friends around 10.00. Teaming rain caught up with us at St Quentin, and the ferries were delayed by at least two hours.

We should have been prepared for trouble on our return nearly four weeks later, as the day had started at the Dover Premier Inn with the fire alarm forcing us outside into the bitter wind during breakfast. Although only a grill fire, it was a warning. The petrol pumps in Calais were not working, the fields of northern France were water-logged or flooded, and we later discovered that high winds had brought trees in the forests round Entre-deux-Eaux over New Year, but Helen’s diary records tersely, “First barn very wet and muddy. Nothing done.” The car tyres had a high-water mud mark at 8cm.

What did we hope would have been done? In our early days here, farmer Duhaut grazed his cows on the field opposite for part of the year, and the thick grass roots knotted the soil and held it securely. There was a firm bank down to the road and a ditch that was regularly cleared by the commune employee and digger and a drainage pipe under the road into the lower field. In recent years, the new farmer has ploughed the field right up to the edge of the bank and sown maize as a summer crop and different winter crops. At the beginning of this winter the field had been freshly ploughed and sown with what might be winter wheat, but it has struggled so much in the heavy rains and with black crows pecking busily that it is difficult to be certain what crop is poking tentatively and patchily through. And this was the fine earth that was being washed down by heavy rains, silting up the ditch, continuing across the road, filling up our own small drainage channel along the front of the house and coming to a halt in our barn. The least that now-mayor Duhaut could do was to order ditch and drain clearing to be re-instated.

Mayor Duhaut would be busy, we knew, preparing his New Year Voeux to his community and the council’s festive lunch for its elderly. Nevertheless Helen went and harangued him. His wife was sympathetic when Helen mentioned the washing machine standing in mud, while he regretted the wine store, but… Well, it needed higher Road Authorities who he would contact for a permanent solution… and the commune employee had been on holiday over Christmas… Well, it was too wet at present… But of course Something Would Be Done.

On Friday evening we all trooped down to the Salle Polyvalente for the Voeux (champagne, speeches and not such good nibbles as previous years). Our neighbour had also complained that day. The commune employee (the mayor’s cousin) promised to bring his tractor and trailer when the snow and rains were over.

On Sunday we sat down promptly at 12.00 for the Mayor and council’s lunch, which started with a plum or peach aperitif, proceeded to a plate of delicious fish and meat nibbles and considerably later to a large plate of Terre et Mer, tasty and well presented. It was all prepared by Stephane, a young man in the village, and the band which struck up between courses is also local. With serious dancing between courses, there was plenty of time for Helen to slip home (between the filet de biche en croute and the large plate of cheese and salad) and bring in our washing. After the cheese, the music and dancing become more frivolous, recalling Spanish coach holidays of yesteryear, and Castanet Man unfortunately could not resist getting out his castanets and showing off annoyingly close to us just as a neighbour was trying to educate us in champagne appreciation. Castanet Man is small and unsmiling and danced with a cold precision; his wife slipped out frequently – presumably for a smoke, but possibly just for a few moments peace; alone, he danced the Madison (no cowboy hat, but fists clenched) with the focussed intensity of a heartless killer. The trou a la poire, a sorbet with locally distilled firewater poured over it, was a worthy dessert and we could later relax over coffee.

By Tuesday it was time for the next feasting – the AGM cunningly followed by lunch of the Vie du Bon Cote, as the club of the anciens is officially called. This came after a windy night and a forecast of heavier rain, and just before we left, the barn started to flood again, despite John having cleared our drainage channel and laid a barricade of bricks in front of the barn door. As the mayor and the commune employee were both on the doorstep of the Polyvalente, John showed photos from a few minutes earlier, and while we sat down to eat, two men and a digger finally set to work to clear the ditch and drain. It has to be said that they made a very good job of scooping lorry-loads of mud from both ditch and pipe, and even hosing down our house walls after.

All these days, we had been watching from the bathroom window as the water pools on the field began to make channels and tunnels through the loose soil towards the bank, and now it began to pour into the ditch like mini-waterfalls. Our neighbours commented on the sound of the cascades when they walked up to see us one wet evening. They also commented on walking the plank like pirates across our barn where the mud hadn’t dried out!. But at least the water was flowing rapidly along the cleared ditch and through the drainage pipe. So the question is… will the commune keep the ditch clear? It is filling up rapidly as dreary weather continues to wash down soil.

We probably lost your sympathy some time ago, as the UK has been undergoing its own harsh weather and transport chaos. But if you have read so far, you may understand our mid-February desire to escape from the rain and mud for a few days, and our decision to fly to Madrid for a bit of mid-winter culture.

Successful holidays depend considerably on good weather, good accommodation and good food and we were fortunate with two out of three. Although temperatures were cold, the Madrid sun shone on us. And our room at 60 Balconies was spacious, tasteful and well equipped, and enjoyed two of the sixty balconies (too small to use but the French windows had a view of the traffic racing round Emperador Carlos V and of the old railway station). With a coffee maker, cooker and fridge we could retreat “home” and put our feet up for an hour or two whenever they got too tired. We could also enjoy breakfast in bed while planning our days.

Calle Buenavista

Calle Buenavista

Sadly the restaurants were all very geared up to tourists, as we were almost in the shadow of the Reina Sofia museum and close to the Prado. But how can you complain about tourists when you are one yourself? The first afternoon we allowed our street wanderings to be guided by the Lonely Planet initially, so saw the Opera, Palace, Arab Wall fragment, picturesque plazas and buildings and a trendy market before launching off down more quirky back streets.

Taberna Meson los Chanquetes

The first morning was freezing as we stepped out on our balconies to wind up the slatted shutters, but by the time we were walking up to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum it was pleasantly sunny. We spent most of the day there enjoying the Dutch interiors and landscapes, American painters we knew nothing about, less-frequently reproduced Impressionists, coffee, sandwiches post Impressionists, beer, crisps, Canaletto and Cubists. In the evening it was red check table cloths, posters of bull fighters and an eleven euro menu (asparagus, swordfish, garlic, chips, rice pudding) off the tourist trail.

The second day’s tourism started at the Prado, where oiks like us can rapidly become glazed by fleshy Rubens, full-skirted Velasquez, agonised El-Grecos and black Goyas. But we did enjoy the Bosch Earthly Delights, the Durers and some unexpected reconstructed Romanesque chapels and frescoes and a small room of golden 14th century church art.

Napier's calculator

Napier’s calculator

And later when we eventually located the unsignposted Archaeological Museum (clue: behind, but inaccessible from, the National Library) we enjoyed its bringing together of things we had learned at different times in Spain and Portugal.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

By the time our concentration (and John’s knees) were failing, we still managed to walk back across the huge Retiro Park and admire its fountains, lake, Velasquez Palace and Crystal Palace.

The Cubists at the Reina Sofia kept us occupied the next morning – all those Juan Gris and lots of artists who were new to us. Helen was reading C. J. Sansome’s Winter in Madrid, part of which is set during the Civil War, so found the Civil War section of the gallery leading to Picasso’s Guernica of particular interest.

Eduardo Viana – Three Pumpkins

The modern section on the top floor was less to our taste, so we rounded off our visit in the Dalis, bought some sandwiches, and rested our feet and sipped coffee in our pleasant room. We started our afternoon wanderings from the Puerto del Sol (I wonder if all those FC Copenhagen supporters watchfully corralled in one corner of the Plaza Mayor had a good result that evening), and headed south and east, just following our noses down interesting looking streets, which was how we came across a ruined church building which looked as if it had been renovated inside and lined with books, so of course Helen had to go in and find out more. It turned out to be a “Pious School” of UNED (National University of Distance Learning) Madrid, founded in 1729, looted and burnt down in the Civil War and rehabilitated in 1999. Such a shame that we couldn’t see inside the library as it was closed “for a long time” whatever that meant.

You might have noticed that another of our enthusiasms is trains. So the next day we added a short Spanish train journey and two special stations to our experiences. We walked through the old arched Atocha railway station opposite our room. No trace of rails or platforms. But dense with dusty palms and falling branches (they were being pruned though not dusted) and a green pond crawling with black turtles. Our modern train took us to the less modern Toledo station. Imagine Pugin let loose on a provincial station, with clock tower, turreted gables, Gothic windows, stained glass, coloured tiles, polished dark woodwork ticket office and Moorish archways in brick and stone.

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

And it was the intricate Moorish brickwork of an old mosque dating from 999 that took our breath away (having re-gained it after lugging our cases up the extremely long but broken escalator to the hill-top town centre).Even the Arabic inscription was in brickwork. Inside,the mosque was small and delicate(nothing like Cordoba’s grand forest of columns). The Christians who later reconquered the city used it as the nave of a small church, adding an apse with matching Moorish arches. It still has fragments of paintings, – the usual Christ in Majesty on the dome, the four evangelists and some saints; but have you ever seen painted angels bearing a soul to heaven in a hammock? Although it was at the bottom of a street leading down to one of the old gateways, the view from the gardens was panoramic.

Our room on the top floor of Antidoto, an old converted corner house with modern art decor, seemed very compact after our spacious Madrid room, but once we had borrowed some larger cups it had everything we needed for relaxing, and was close to the main Zocodover Square and for exploring the old town.

Iglesia san Roman

After a rest, we walked down narrow cobbled streets with overhanging balconies, old churches, intricate Moorish arches and windows and studded wooden doors with interesting knockers to San Roman Church, which now houses the Visigoth Museum. It contains artefacts from the 6th to 8th centuries and is covered in beautiful Romanesque frescoes from the 13th century. There seemed to have been a Visigoth 7th century church originally, which was subsequently used as a mosque, and there were still both Arabic and Latin inscriptions. The frescoes included a splendid dragon, wonderful angels and the dead tentatively lifting their tomb lids at the end of time.

The next day we spent longer than expected in the Cathedral, partly due to the good commentary on the headphones. The nave was blocked off for an exhibition and the chapter house was closed.

Toledo Cathedral choir carving

But we spent a long time looking at the misericords and carvings in the choir and the frescoes in the chapel of St Blaise. The Moor who is said to have stopped his fellows from attacking the Christians as they reclaimed the mosque is commemorated in a gold statue surprisingly close to the huge Gothic golden altarpiece. After the Christians had reclaimed the great mosque site, the building we visited next became the Great Mosque and later the Iglesia del Salvador. It is now a serene and attractive mixture of Islamic and Christian architecture (including a Visigoth pillar) and outside can be seen the floor of the 9th century mosque, an arcade of three columns with Roman and Visigoth capitals and some old Christian graves.

In a the window of a cafe opposite were dolls dressed as Dominican nuns demonstrating all the stages of marzipan making. It seemed a good place to sample the famous Toledo marzipan in tart form. In fact every convent we passed, whatever its denomination, seemed to offer marzipan for sale. Our tart was rich and delicious. Fortified we walked up to the Alcazar (a disappointing building), admired the view, and decided to go into the Santa Cruz Museum on the way back. It was housed in a beautiful building, with a permanent collection in the main part, a quirky exhibition of flea-market objects of yesteryear in a darkened room at the end of a lot of corridors on the first floor, a more classical room of Joaquim Sorolla landscapes, and a self-image-obsessed exhibition of the Mexican Alfredo Castaneda. That evening we ate in the basement of a busy bar near our room, and chose the menu of the mountains. The starters of Mantega cheese, pheasant pate and fish croquettes were followed by a partridge risotto and by venison in mushroom sauce. And the dessert was marzipan sponge. Could we really manage more rich marzipan? We could. As we emerged, a group of young men in black doublets and hose with yellow slashed jerkins or sashes were drinking in the bar and more were harmonizing and playing tunefully outside. One sash said Medicine. Were they medical students?

Toledo Synagoga El Transito

On Sunday, our last day in Toledo, we headed for the former Jewish quarter and the El Transito Synagogue, an austere and beautiful mid 14th century lofty rectangular hall with an intricate wooden ceiling, decorative moulded plaster friezes and screens and more Moorish arches. From the museum and headphones we slowly built up a picture of a respected, integrated community of Sephardic Jews who were abruptly expelled under Ferdinand and Isabella (a decree that was not revoked until the 1860s, when those who could prove their origins were granted citizenship once more). Interestingly, there was a sumptuously illustrated Bible there which a Christian had asked a Jew to write as the Jews had a less corrupt text.

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca

From there we walked down to the even more beautiful restored Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca with its five naves divided by horseshoe Moorish arches, its walls and columns a gleaming white and with intricate plaster decorations including huge pine cones. We also walked down to the river and old San Martin bridge.

We were sad to leave the rich mix of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures of old Toledo the next day. And even sorrier once we reached Malaga, where we had hoped to round off with a few days of sunshine and lazing around on a balcony close to the sea. It has to be said that the high speed train journey between Madrid and Malaga was agreeable, with a lunch box and drinks included in the ticket price. And there was a convenient bus from the station almost to the end of our road. But on the street outside the given number, we hesitated. It seemed to be an office block, with business plates for solicitors and no mention of accommodation. A phone call resulted in broken English instructions to number 3 on the seventh floor where her partner would be waiting. The unlabelled door was opened by a tall man of North African appearance who had a rucksack on the sofa, which all looked a bit casual. He spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish. In its favour the flat was spacious, with a large sitting room containing a sofa, wooden chair, TV and palm plant but no rug or carpet, and it had a dining room, three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and loo, but its furnishings and flimsy curtains did seem sparse. Then he mimed the question of whether we were paying cash or by machine. But we have already paid, we protested, producing printed proof. A long phone conversation with the woman-on-the-end-of-the-phone ensued, and although it was never conceded that we had paid, with promises of phoning back the next day, the young man gave up and went away. All a bit unsettling. We went for a stroll round and a drink until the rain started. Back at the flat, we watched the sky darken over the rooftops. We ate at the nearby small North African restaurant.

Stephan Balkenhol

By next morning, Helen’s cold has worsened, like the weather. Umbrellas were up as we set out for the Picasso Museum, whose permanent collection was disappointing, though a temporary exhibition about Fellini’s dreams of meeting Picasso was interesting. The weather was a bit wet for imagining performances in the Roman amphitheatre’s puddles, and the Alcazaba above looked windswept. But we did later enjoy the temporary exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Art of Malaga of carved figures of men and women by Stephan Balkenhol, Professor of Sculpture at Karlsruhe,.

The next day was also wet and we caught a bus to the renovated tobacco factory which houses the Collection of Saint Petersburg Russian Museum. Its huge white walls make for brilliant hanging spaces for the large propaganda paintings of the Radiant Future Socialist Realism in Art.

Malaga Russian Museum

Both Stalin and Lenin looked imposing alone in front of the sea, and there were powerful paintings of industries and collective agriculture. Then we moved back a century to the Traveller’s Gaze exhibition of Russian artists’ impressions of Egypt, Morocco, Italy, Spain, America, Tibet and China. Sitting in the museum’s cafe, Helen was intrigued by three cartoon-like men; two stereotype Russian heavies approached by what in Tintin would be the obvious Russian spy or scientist working on a top-secret project (small, thin, straight up and down, brown gaberdine, glasses and a wooden expression – but no rolled newspaper or umbrella).

It poured with rain all night. We debated between the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Pompidou as shelters, but the Thyssen was closer. It too was disappointing after Madrid’s. So we headed for the Museum of Malaga, stopping off to enjoy the Malaga portrait painter Revello de Toro in an attractive old house. Suddenly the sun came out, so we detoured up to the remains of the Alcazaba. The views from it across the port-marina were our first sight of blue sea and well worth the climb, though the rooms had none of the splendour of Granada’s heavily restored Alhambra. As the labels were all in Spanish, it was helpful to descend as the rain clouds gathered again to the archaeology floor of the Museum of Malaga, which was excellent and well labelled.

The next morning we left the apartment key on the table and caught an early bus to the airport. We had really enjoyed Madrid and Toledo, but not Malaga. We had read reports of snow closing airports in the south of France, but our flight was on time, and although we emerged at Basel airport into snowflakes and decided to take the tunnel under the Vosges, there was no snow on our side of the Vosges.

You will be relieved to know that there was also no further mud and water in our barns. The main interest as we look out of the bathroom window now is whether boars have been digging in the field each night this week, as each morning it looks more ravaged. Yesterday, after Helen had mentioned the possibility to the mayor’s secretary, a large pile of cow-shed dung was deposited at the top of the field while we were out at the Amnesty Book Sale. Is it the odour of that or the overnight snowfall which led to the field remaining undisturbed last night? (Perhaps boars do not like getting cold paws). And what will happen while we are away in the UK over Easter?

Gallivanting in the UK and lying low in Entre-deux Eaux: October – December 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no4.pdf (three A4 pages)

There must be a lot of restaurateurs in the south of England, who were wishing that we had vacated their tables more rapidly in October. Having good restaurants around us in France, we don’t usually eat out frequently in the UK. However this October was an exception and we visited quite a few towns and villages we didn’t know, experiencing them mainly through their pubs and restaurants as we caught up with friends and family.

West Hoathly in Sussex may well have an eleventh century church and a Priest House, but it was to the sixteenth century Cat Inn that we repaired on our first full day back in the UK at the beginning of October, for a good, protracted and noisy (other clients, not us!) lunch and exchange of news with Roger and Dorinda, before driving on to Jessica and Mark’s in Putney.

The following day, John set off for Letchworth for a spot of hard labour with Alistair, installing loft flooring and a new garden shed roof, while Helen and Jessica joined the rest of the train gang for a few days of annual reunion in a cottage outside Wells. The village has developed from the amazing Gothic revival Somerset and Bath Pauper Lunatic Asylum designed by Sir Gilbert Scott. Perhaps an appropriate place for four chattering seventy-plus-year-old school girls.

The train gang usually includes a National Trust property, a Cathedral, a good walk, a restaurant and a lot of chat. So the first day started at Lytes Carey Manor, with a warm up in the Tea Room after the Arts and Crafts garden, followed by a tour of the great hall and rooms, and then further refreshments and reminiscence in the crowded Tea Room.

Rainbow over Wells Cathedral

Rainbow over Wells Cathedral

The second day involved a walk up Glastonbury Tor or round Bath, and the third day took in the weekly food market in Wells, a lingering lunch overlooking the Cathedral then evensong in the Cathedral, during which the rain could be heard above the singing as it whipped against the cathedral windows; as the train gang left, reminiscing about those long-ago school commemoration services in Canterbury Cathedral, they were greeted by a rainbow arching over the cathedral.

Jacob has settled well into his new school in Leicestershire, and is getting good reports. Leicestershire has different school holidays from Hertfordshire, so Farrah was at school while Jacob was staying with Toby, and we saw plenty of him. Leila was also able to stay with us for part of that week. In fact she brought Jacob down with her and arrived for Sunday lunch just as John’s sister Ann and Derek (bearing food) arrived and we were joined by their sons, Steven and David, with their partners, Helen and Amy, and children, Theo and Sammy.

Crazy Golf

Crazy Golf

It was one of those delightful, noisy and hectic afternoons with loud chatter and quacking (yes, the duck game was back). Barbara and Bruce were much quieter mid-week lunch guests. And even Rye-Assic Adventure Park seemed very quiet, tucked away on the edge of an industrial estate with only toddlers visiting in term-time, so, after a quick scamper round and a hot chocolate, we ignored the dinosaurs and finished with a competitive Blackmore game of crazy golf.

The following week we resumed our table-hogging, meeting up over beer, wine and lunch in Harpenden with one of John’s school chemistry boys, Graham, and Julia. Fortunately the restaurant was not too busy and we lingered till our parking expired, catching up on those retirement pursuits of travel, grandchildren and children’s books. We had a nostalgic return to Nottingham, staying on the much changed university campus, walking round Wollaton Park with its rutting stags and golden oaks, having coffee with Ann and Michael in Staffordshire (with the added bonus of the scenery and bookshops of Derbyshire as we returned) and again with Sue and Alistair, and celebrating John’s birthday with Leila over a seven-course taster menu at the recently opened Alchemilla restaurant. On our second evening in Nottingham we drove down to the meadows by the River Trent where John used to play cricket with the UKCIS staff and where Sat Bains has since established a highly rated (two Michelin stars) restaurant.

Sat Bains menu

Sat Bains menu

John had long wanted to eat there, but had wondered whether to cancel after seeing recent reviews and photographs. But we were so glad he didn’t. We arrived at the isolated building at what seemed a very early hour of 18.30, but we needed the time to fully savour the ten-course taster menu and paired wines. The Burgundian sommelier was a mine of information about his unusual wines and the young waiter was interested in discussing the herbs we didn’t recognise and later proposed a tour round the greenhouses at the end of our meal. We were also invited into the busy kitchen where Sat Bains chatted and inscribed birthday greetings across John’s menu. By the time we reached the last course, the conclusion, an unusual candy floss with thai curry filling, served on a glass topped tray displaying the curry ingredients, it was refreshing to find that there was no second sitting waiting impatiently for our table, – but, when we looked at our watches, time had passed and it was far too late for a second sitting. It all felt very individual and special.

Unlike this focus on food and sharing of information in an atmosphere of unhurried appreciation and muted conversation (no raucous shouts and life histories from other tables), when we met up with Val in St Albans at Brasserie Blanc, it felt as if our waiter was more keen to get our food over and table cleared (despite empty tables round us) than to encourage our animated chat about food, mothers, houses (in France and in London) and frescoes. So, it was back to Letchworth to pack up our book and food purchases and clothes ready for our departure next day.

Not that we reached France the next day as there were more leisurely meals to enjoy en route. First we parked the loaded Snowy south of the Thames in Battersea and looked for the interestingly named Fish in a Tie where Ellen was hosting her seventieth birthday lunch. The tiny restaurant and bar was buzzing with diners, but two long tables on a mezzanine floor had been set aside for Ellen’s guests. She had left the USA many years ago (was it just to see the Beatles?), worked as a children’s librarian and married David, one of Helen’s friends from Library School. Over bottles of wine and Italian food, we met family and friends from across her subsequent years in the UK. A very congenial and protracted gathering, from which we drove in the dark to Ann and Derek’s in Tenterden. This attractive Kentish village was to provide us next morning with a goodly haul of second-hand books and bottles of the beer that John had enjoyed over lunch in Harpenden.

Sevington Church

Sevington Church

In the afternoon we set out for Sue’s in Dymchurch, pausing near Ashford to look round the 13th century Sevington church whose steeple we’d spotted earlier. The man who arrived on his bicycle to lock up was a prominent member of the small group who led their own worship there each Sunday, vicarless and “like the early church”, and also of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway, he told Helen as John wandered round taking photographs. On a side chapel wall there still hung a war time certificate awarded by the Royal Airforce Comforts Committee for the Sevington Womens Voluntary Service’s work and another presented to the Savings Group in 1943 by the Wings for Victory National Savings campaign. Not items you often see these days on church walls, but the church did feel a bit cut off in time and place by an Ashford bypass road. Our longer-than-usual (and very sociable) visit to the UK finished in style reminiscing with Sue over a tasty chicken tagine about the brief period in the sixties when Helen and Sue shared a flat in London.


November E2E sunset

However, the next day we found that few things had changed in and around Entre-deux-Eaux while we were away. The maize crop in the field to the north had been harvested, the field ploughed (and soon after a winter crop was sown and the birds descended); the kebaberie at the roundabout in Saulcy, which we had always meant to try, had shut; and the commune had installed a new fire hydrant by John’s workshop. Not big changes, though a tree had to be uprooted later to protect the hydrant from entwining roots. So we quickly settled in, picking the remaining autumn raspberries, pruning and tying in the fruit cage, clearing and tidying the potager and storing the reminders of summer (swing, swing seat, benches, bird cage) as well as taking in the last tubs of plants before the winter frost and snow and protecting the peonies and roses. Other activities resumed, like Scrabble, exercise group, the E2E oldies gossip, games and cake monthly meeting, and the annual visit by the community nurse for flu jabs. The nurse was somewhat concerned by John’s recent cold, but he shrugged it off; maybe that accounts for the recurring sore throat, coughs and colds that have dogged the days since his return.

Great Spotted woodpecker

Great Spotted woodpecker

The driving rain during much of November coupled with coughs and colds have meant that we have passed an uneventful time and have little news, unless you are interested to know we have passed the sewage inspection. Helen has been grateful for the pile of charity books she amassed in October, and John has been experimenting with complex-sounding settings on his birthday camera, while colourful birds like spotted woodpeckers with their flashes of red, nuthatches and tits have obliged by posing on the fat balls and bird seed on the balcony. And, like the UK, we have had December snow.

And now it is nearly time for our return to Letchworth for Christmas. We have enjoyed seeing so many of you during the year, and we wish you all a very happy Christmas and very best wishes for health and happiness in 2018.

Budapest Hungary 2017 photographs

An unedited set of the 450+ photographs I took 30 May-2 June
Click on this image to go to the photographs: