April 2020’s Super “Pink” Moon

Click on the images to see them in full screen view

I took some photographs of the Total Lunar Eclipse 28 September 2015 using a Pentax K-x + DA L 50-200mm at 200mm (300mm 35mm equiv).

We’d had several very sunny days this week so it was possible the nights would be clear and it seemed a good opportunity to try taking some moon photographs again. But I now had a different camera and lens combination (Olympus OM-D E-M1II + M.Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 = 150-600mm 35m equiv), and needed to work out the best settings. 

On 7 April I set up the tripod on the balcony and took a series of photographs at various speed settings. The images weren’t as clear as I’d expected, despite using a 2 second delayed exposure function on the camera (some residual vibration after pushing the release?) 

So on 8 April I set the camera on the tripod again, but this time I connected the camera to my phone using WiFi so I could vary the exposure timing and trigger the shots remotely without camera shake. I was very happy with the results this time

Collage of moon 8 April 2020 images

Of the various exposure timings, this was about the best in giving good detail, including the craters visible on the right-hand side and the overall surface. This is a crop of about 0.38 linear from the original image. 

"Pink" moon
8 April 2020 22:41 (CET)
ISO 200 1/500sec f10.0 300mm (=600mm)

As a 600mm (35mm equivalent) lens has a magnification of 12x (a 50mm lens is usually regarded as having the same magnification, but not field of view, as the human eye, so is considered as 1x) this image is equivalent to a magnification of 31.6x (12/0.38).

Teddies, reindeer and Dougal: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, November – December 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no5.pdf (four A4 pages)
there are various links in the text

A festive first for Entre-deux-Eaux: the commune will be awarding a prize this Christmas for the best decorated property. As we drove through the village today (7th December) there were few signs of anyone having accepted the challenge, apart from the Salle Polyvalente and the village shop. It is possible that people are waiting until after the traditional visit of St Nicholas this evening in Saint Dié or tomorrow afternoon in E2E before turning to the more recent and tackier idea of Father Christmas, reindeer, tinsel and lights.

We were setting out for Barr Christmas market, one of Helen’s favourites, over the hills in Alsace. The week has been sunny, cold and frosty until today when it changed to damp and low cloud. So, as we crossed the Col d’Urbeis, which we had once explored looking for traces of the old German First World War supply railways, there was no snow remaining. The forests below were still an attractive mix of dark conifers with the bare reddish branches of the deciduous trees and the ground cover of copper leaves. Further on we braked on a sharp, blind, bend to avoid the parked cars of people buying their Christmas trees from a popular plantation. And as we descended further to the Rhine plain the slopes were covered with the black pruned stumps of the vineyards. In Barr, the Saturday morning street market with its vegetable, cheese and charcuterie stalls was doing a brisker trade than the indoor Christmas markets.

mangy fox

mangy fox

And when we fancied a coffee and pushed our way through the red velvet curtains warding off draughts from the door of a crowded bar, the two older ladies serving wine, beer and coffee sounded harassed. The ambiance was traditional Alsatian with red-and-white tablecloths and dark beams. Close to our big table which we shared with some card players, stood a mangy stuffed fox holding a tray; but it had been pushed against the wall. and was not serving food to the noisy room beyond. Alas, the food and mulled wine stalls outside the Christmas market were not doing a similarly brisk trade; inside were craft stalls – ceramics, glass, fabric, wood tree decorations – and one had a not-very-festive placard announcing Liberté, Fraternité et choucroute (the local pickled cabbage served with with smoked pork).

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

As we drove back, the roadside outside Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines was adorned with teddy bears constructed from huge rolls of hay bales and all its shop windows were decorated with furry teddies of all sizes. Perhaps E2E should announce a bear theme for its decorations?

We had hoped to have lunch at the Frankenbourg restaurant after the market, but like several other restaurants this week, it was fully booked. Is this because of the festive pre-Christmas menus or because a lot of public service employees like civil servants, teachers and train drivers have had time for leisurely restaurant meals while on strike against Macron’s proposed pension reforms (I mean, who would actually choose to retire later than they used to because of well-meaning rationalisation attempts?)

During the gloom of November, we have been treating ourselves to lunch out once a week, thanks to a significant refund of our Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG) and Remboursement de la Dette Sociale (CRDS) payments. In 2015 the European Court had decided that those pensioners whose health service charges were paid for by another country did not have to pay the CSG and CRDS. France changed the law in 2016 to try to re-impose the charges by moving them to a different fund where the benefits were non-contributory. But a French court overturned that in 2018, so John put in a pre-emptive retrospective claim for the three years. The government appealed again but that was finally overturned in July 2019. But the system grinds slowly so it was November by the time we received the refunds, with their not inconsiderable interest.

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

The weekly treats started a few days after our return from Letchworth on October 31st (no longer Brexit-at-all-costs day), with a dash to our favourite Restaurant l’Imprimerie in the book village before they closed for their major remodelling and installation of an open wood-fired grill. Chef’s inventiveness that day included the unforgettable combinations of tuna, beetroot and hibiscus in the shape of a crimson rose and of creamy scallops, sliced pig trotter and Jerusalem artichoke. The week after, we went back to In Extremis at the foot of the cathedral in Epinal.

The following week, after most of that week’s snow had melted, we drove over the hills to Kaysersberg, where the Restaurant l’Alchemille had really gone to town on their Christmas decorations, with a herd of life-sized reindeer, a boar, a grizzly bear, some unconvincing foxes and assorted owls and squirrels crowded round the Christmas trees in the small herb garden in front of the entrance. Entre-deux-Eaux take note!

Dougal

a.k.a. Dougal

One of the desserts we immediately christened “Dougal” as the chocolate strands on the creamy roll looked remarkably like the Magic Roundabout character (although perhaps we should have called it “Pollux”, which was Dougal’s name in the original French Le Manège enchanté). And last week we finally returned to the Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal, for the first time since 2013, now that the rude, brusque Madame, who had separated from the older of the two chefs, and that chef had left. But alas, with aforesaid chef having set up elsewhere, the food was no longer as tasty or well-presented, the amazing dessert trolley much reduced, and the staff equally abrupt (it is hardly the customer’s fault if the waiter brings tea instead of coffee and if he fails to press the right buttons on their credit card machine). We look forward to the re-opening of the friendly l‘Imprimerie!

Cultural events have not loomed as large as gastronomic ones. In fact our last dose of culture was probably during our return journey from the UK. As we now often do, when driving back in winter, we stopped overnight in northern France before it got dark. We went into Cambrai for the first time and walked round the streets near the main square and its dominating Hotel de Ville, including the Tourist Office where we picked up some excellent leaflets. It was so cold, we didn’t linger too long, but drove a few miles further south to the accommodation John had booked. Our usual overnight stops are at a convenient Première Classe or Ibis hotel in an out-of-town commercial area, but John had found a farmhouse chambre d’hôte which had a spacious studio room with cooking facilities. It turned out to be a remote, imposing farmhouse with substantial outbuildings round a courtyard. It looked old, and our hostess told us it had once been a coaching stop as well as farm, but suffered significantly during the First World War and was rebuilt after. She showed us photos of her grandfather there as a child, and her grandmother working as a young woman in the fields, and she also pressed a bulging folder into our hands to read. It turned out that her English guests were usually there to see the war graves of their ancestors in one of the many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. She and her husband have helped them and also collected their stories in the folder. So that provided interesting reading that evening in our studio in the outbuildings, along with the Tourist Office leaflets. The thought of a cold, 10km drive in a damp and pitch dark night back to Cambrai for a meal didn’t appeal once we were in our well-heated room so John reheated the vegetables-in-cheese sauce he’d made the night before as a possible standby.

After perusing the leaflets, we decided not to go back into Cambrai the next morning either. Fortified by Madame’s filling breakfast (which was much better than that provided by our usual cheap hotels), we drove cross-country to the departmental Matisse museum, which is based on a collection that Matisse had donated to his home town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. We suspected that we might not see all his paintings as a special exhibition was opening in a couple of days and the paintings were indeed still being moved or on the wall but shrouded; however it was still worthwhile.

Wilfred Owen’s grave

It is now housed in the former bishop’s palace, along with relevant donations by his publisher (Teriade) and the paintings of another local artist, Auguste Herbin (who we’d never heard of). After a coffee over the road (inevitably the Restaurant du musée Matisse), we drove on to the small village of Ors nearby, where Wilfred Owen is buried in a small military section of the communal cemetery. The revamped forester’s house from which he wrote his last letter home was not open till later in the afternoon, so we went directly to his grave. Apparently the French had not known until quite recently that he was famous as a poet back in the UK.

Helen resumed her various club activities, though they hardly count as cultural. The E2E oldies had their November games, cake and champagne session. Now that the original older members have become housebound or died there is less uninterrupted gossip, and the club is also popular with younger retired people from surrounding villages who enjoy playing cards and have started a craft table as well. It was then Helen’s turn to lead and provide refreshments for the brain exercise group, which she rather dreaded. But the unfamiliar Battleship grids and some Eysenk (remember him?) IQ questions (diagrammatic ones – missing numbers, next-in-sequence etc.) kept everyone fully occupied and John had kindly baked some parkin to revive everyone at the end. The following session, that week’s leader started with a dictation, using a poem with each line containing a second person singular imperative – not something John and I practice all these years since our school French lessons, but it was interesting that most of the group also struggled with the correct written French endings! Scrabble was positively relaxing by comparison.

It is just as well that we had not planned to drive to Letchworth this weekend, with long delays at Calais on this side due to customs staff being on strike as part of the pension protests and with the M25 on that side blocked by the crane accident. John is keeping the car topped up with petrol as there are shortages due to blockades by protesters of some western fuel depots and those might spread across the country. But we hope to travel over next weekend (14/15 December) without encountering too many obstacles and delays for Christmas and New Year. Who will be in charge of the UK by then?

Mourning and memories: Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth, August-September 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no4.pdf (three A4 pages)

Two days ago was a day of National Mourning in France, following the death of former president Chirac. But life outside Paris seemed unaffected. Unlike some previous days of mourning, everyone was at work. We had been warned that a routine hospital check-up in Strasbourg might well be cancelled, as on previous such occasions, but it was not. And by the time of the minute of silence at 3 o’clock, we were probably in busy IKEA, where nothing came to a respectful halt at any stage.

Far more significant in Entre-deux-Eaux was the funeral the previous Monday of our neighbour, Pierre Laine. The village church, which only has about three services a year now, was full with family and neighbours, and there were two military (veterans) flag bearers. His death was not a shock, as he had been ill for a couple of years following heart attacks, and he had dozed most of the morning Helen spent with Danielle a few days before his death. He was a man of few words, and his increasing deafness had cut him off further in recent years, so it was good to hear in the tributes a little of his earlier life, having to leave home with his family during the war and seek refuge on the Col du Plafond, and later doing his military service which included Algeria. And of course there was mention of his enjoyment of hunting. Our memories of him go back almost thirty years, as Danielle and Pierre welcomed us when we bought her aunt and uncle’s house, and they were always available to recommend reliable workmen and traders. And during the early years when we let out the house for holidays when we were not there, they would sort out any problems for our guests, and advise them on activities and practical details like fishing permits, sometimes without any language in common. One of our favourite stories about Pierre (which we’ve probably recounted before) was my mother enquiring whether he had killed any wild boar (sangliers), which M. Laine denied with surprising vehemence, having thought she asked about killing Englishmen (anglais)!

Helen was once given a very personal introduction to some of the former villagers when she walked with three of the Oldies Club up to the church cemetery and was taken round some of the graves. On Heritage Day this September she joined a far more academic visit to the imposing family chapels erected by wealthy nineteenth century industrialists in the second Saint Dié cemetery. This graveyard lies in the outskirts of Saint Dié, on a rise overlooking their factories, and with the industries long closed seems very peaceful. Later that afternoon there was an interesting talk at the library about its innovative post-war librarian, museum curator and historian Albert Ronsin, who took it from a gentlemen’s reading room to a modern public access building for everyone. It was a timely lecture as in a few days the library closes its doors and prepares for a move in 2021 to a spacious intercommunal mediatheque (a converted former police and high court building).

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Over in Strasbourg this Monday, after the hospital appointment on the day of national mourning, we treated ourselves to lunch in another converted building, the former eighteenth century Les Haras riding academy and stud farm. We had looked at it both when it was all shuttered and when the conversion was nearing completion, but since then the courtyard has acquired a magnificent statue of a horse. It was a grand feeling to sweep up the circular central staircase and sit beneath the magnificently beamed roof. The starter of leeks and smoked trout was delicate and tasty, and the sweet chestnut dessert was interesting (and reminded us of gathering sweet chestnuts on the way to other restaurant meals), but the main course was less adventurous basically pork and beans. Still, a great improvement on a restaurant which has re-opened in Saint Dié as Logan Laug and which we tried out with Roger and Dorinda during their September return trip. But what do we know about food? – We are only English, as the French would retort dismissively.

But lets not focus too long on food. There is also heating. The French climate change plan includes the proposal to phase out of oil heating boilers in ten years. There is no natural gas here in the village, even though the pipeline is only a kilometre away. Our oil boiler is twenty years old so this autumn John investigated replacing it with a heat pump. Unfortunately, even with government grants, based on current fuel and electricity costs, the payback period for the 16,000€ cost would have been over twenty years. And that is just for an air-water heat pump which would not provide enough warmth during our coldest (night-time down to -18°C) weeks. So we would have to keep the oil boiler or install an additional automatic heating system. A ground source heat pump or a wood pellet stove which could meet our requirements would have been even more expensive. In Paris-centric France, this is very much a rural problem, to add to lack of public transport, scarcity of public services, and slow broadband.

Stone Wall textile - Misun CHANG

Stone Wall textile – Misun CHANG

Meanwhile there have been all the familiar September activities, like the Patchwork festival in the small towns around Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, the big street market or braderie in Saint Dié, and the various clubs and lectures have resumed. Outside the leaves are beginning to change to autumn shades, and we have emptied and folded up the small swimming pool, coiled up and stored the potager trickle-watering tubes, and brought the benches, outdoor seats and some delicate plants into a barn. After all, we could be into heavy frosts by the time we return to Entre-deux-Eaux at the end of October.

When we drove over to England in August, it felt as if the port of Calais had given up on security checks in exasperation. There were no armed soldiers/police doing vehicle checks and passport control was cursory. As ever, we enjoyed spending a bit more time with Jacob and catching up with friends. And this trip we had a bit more time for history and nostalgia. The newly re-opened museum in Hitchin set us looking for the sites of neolithic henges in fields close to our Letchworth house and we enjoyed the sense of history and continuity in trips to Ely, Cambridge, Hertford and Old Stevenage. We found a pleasant walk over the fields from Letchworth to Ickleford along the Icknield Way, taking in a lavender farm and one of the three pubs, the Old George. And for a more recent bit of history, we had an unusual evening with Julia and Graham who were enjoying dancing in the ballroom of the former Spirella Corset Factory in Letchworth.

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

On the way home, we visited Fishbourne and its early Roman mosaics, Chichester cathedral with its tapestries and Chagal window, and briefly stopped in picturesque Arundel to check a stone lion in front of the castle. Why the latter, you might ask? There is a black and white photo of a proud nine-year old sitting on a stone lion, which Helen has always thought was taken at Arundel; we decided against the £19.50 entrance fee just to see the lion (which a guard confirmed was indeed there, along with a horse) and instead bought two pairs of much needed replacement Moroccan slippers for John from a craft fair.

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Back on the French side of the Channel after equally brief checks and a calm crossing in which and we could see the white cliffs of France beckoning from the start of the crossing, we stopped for the night near Bethune in a cheap Ibis on one of those out of town commercial centres. Adjacent was a cinema and some chain restaurants, so we had a late dinner in one of the “Crocodile” chain restaurants (named after a style of  European train with a long “nose” at each end) where we have discovered that the set price cold buffet provides a varied meal (including free wine, beer, etc.) without need of a main course or desserts and, for a bit of atmosphere, there is a train compartment for some of the diners and an overhead model train.

1920s buildings, Bethune

1920s buildings, Bethune

In the morning we went into Bethune, finding a quiet parking spot under the church on the hill, right by the huge war memorial commemorating the town’s soldiers and civilians; the peace was shattered by the sounds of the cars in the main square revving up as they set out at spaced intervals on a stage of an annual car race. The outdoor cafe tables were full of fans and families watching and drinking in the sunshine, so, having wandered round as John took photos of many of the elaborately reconstructed buildings of the mid 1920s, we joined the coffee drinkers at one of those bars whose interior looked as if it hadn’t changed since the 1950s.

We just hope that journeys between the two countries are as straightforward after 31st October.

Bastille, Bicycles and Ballons: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, June-July 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no3.pdf (two A4 pages)

E2E fireworks

E2E fireworks

It is rare to see villagers of all ages en masse in Entre-deux-Eaux. But at 22 hours on July 13th, the evening before Bastille Day, we headed towards the village shop. It was just getting dark. Trestles and stalls had been set up in the car park.. Animated chatter rose from the replete diners, who had been feasting on ham, toffailles (a Vosgian dish of potatoes, bacon strips, onions, smoked pork, butter and white wine), salad, cheese and dessert and no doubt indulging at the beer stall. Children dodged around playing games, and music was pounded from a small stage. Suddenly everyone surged to the edge of the car park. On the field beyond, torches could be seen moving around, held by shadowy figures. And then the fireworks began. It was a magnificent display for a small village, with barrages of light erupting simultaneously into the night sky and cascading down. It was the second summer that one of the village social clubs had organised the event, and it was very well done and enjoyed by all ages.

For quite a while there have been yellow-painted bicycles adorning the roundabouts along roads in and out of St Dié and yellow banner reminders that C’est notre Tour. Later cardboard yellow, green and spotted jerseys appeared on lamposts along the route by which all the Tour de France cyclists would depart in a leisurely fashion from St Dié on 10th July. The racing proper started as they reached the small aerodrome at Remomeix, just over the hill from here. The cameras showed an aerial view from the runway, as if the bikes would take off into the skies, but the reality was tamer than that. We enjoyed watching the recording that evening as they pedalled roads that many of you will have driven along in the past towards Strasbourg, until they turned onto the dramatic mountain sections. The TV adverts seemed to occur at the most scenic moments, but you would have recognised the towers and turrets of Kaiser Bill’s restored Chateau du HautKoenigsbourg and the glimpses of walled towns and villages along the Wine Route like Ribeauville, Kaysersberg, Ammerschwihr, Turkheim and Eguisheim before they finished the day in Colmar. Helen had only returned the day before from a brief return to the UK for the funeral of Ann Hart, who many of you will remember from gatherings here. As John drove to Basel/Mulhouse airport to collect Helen, he was delayed by a scrupulous sweeping of the road and preparation of barriers where the cyclists, after threading their way through the slopes of the vineyards, would round the corner out of Kayersberg and head for Ammerschwihr. (He was also delayed by a suspect package security alert in the short-stay car-park at the airport, with armed soldiers and barriers redirecting everyone).

The route of the Tour de France on 11th was even more spectacular as they set out from Mulhouse and climbed the ballons (rounded summits) along the crest of the Vosges mountains. It seemed a long time since we had driven that way from the airport, stopping at cafés along the narrow road (which was created for French troops dug in along the mountainous Franco German border during the first world war). So we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the ridge views and hairpin bends of the descent.

Toby and Rachel drove over to us with Jacob and Farrah on the evening of 26th July. Toby enjoys cycling himself and had watched the short evening reports on all the stages of the Tour, so was a mine of information about techniques and strategy as we watched the last stages including the grand Paris finale. Leila (who had flown over on 22nd) particularly appreciated his comments.

Much of June and July has been uncomfortably hot during the well-publicised French canicule, with temperatures here rising to 38°C or more and government health and social care warnings. We had expected water restrictions to be announced earlier than they were, so John had cleared the terrace of the obstinate chives which had sown themselves between the cracks, re-cemented all the joints between the paving slabs, and then erected and filled the small swimming pool and bought new filters. It was was well worth the effort as Farrah and Jacob are in and out of it and sounds of shrieks and joyous splashing shoot up to the quietly reading or sunbathing adults.

Do machines sense that a period of heavy use is about to follow? Our 1998 dishwasher had been giving hints of its age, but chose the day that Toby and family arrived for its final refusal to start. But at least John had some stalwart helpers (and the use of a Toby’s Landrover boot) to transport the dead machine, and to collect a new one, after clearing the access ramp of old roof tiles, breeze blocks and overhanging branches.

And as no Blackmore newsletter is complete without mention of food, here’s another plug for l’Imprimerie in the book village of Fontenoy-la-Joute, whose young chef willingly cooked a surprise 4 course menu for the seven of us, which took into account all our foibles and allergies. We had two quite fussy children who would be happy with a children’s menu provided it contained a chicken main course, a recent vegetarian who would be happy with fish instead of meat, an adult with a severe allergy to pistachios and cashews, and another who does not like mushrooms, apples or courgettes. (John and Helen decided not to add the fact that they are currently avoiding carbohydrates). And the meal was a great success. We saw plenty of the chef who previously stayed in the kitchen. He and his wife have decided to lose a member of the serving staff and added a trainee in the kitchen, allowing all three chefs to help the wife with bringing the food to the table. In September they are planning to open the kitchen into the restaurant and include cooking on an open fire in front of guests. And, after delicious raspberry sorbets and then coffees and sweet nibbles, the next door premises had even laid on a small Tintin exhibition to round off our meal.

An expedition to Colmar and Riquewihr was less of a gourmet experience, but the Alsace speciality of tarte flambée or flammekueche (with either an onion, bacon and cream, or gratinée or salmon, onion and cream topping) from a restaurant by the canal in the Little Venice area of Colmar, was just right before a stroll round the old town. And in the walled village of Riquewihr the cobbled streets, Alsace ceramics and the Christmas shop were appreciated, with Farrah finding a blue bowl with a stork on to replace an identical broken one, Rachel getting a Christmas bell and looking at fabrics, and everyone enjoying a different flavoured cornetto at the end.

Elections and etchings: Entre-deux-Eaux and Amsterdam April – May 2019

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2019no2.pdf (four A4 pages)

These are links to photographs of our visit to Amsterdam
(photography was forbidden in the Van Gogh Museum) and
our restaurant meals

Last week the postman delivered two identical heavy envelopes. They contained French EU election literature from fifteen of the thirty-four alliances of political groupings who could afford to print their manifestos and lists of candidates. The overwhelming impression was of anti-Macron sentiments, not to mention anti-European sentiments.

Election leaflets

Election leaflets

For example the UPR’s (Union Populaire Republicain) slogan is Ensemble pour le Frexit, while the list of the Patriotes, Gilet Jaunes and Citoyens included a picture of their main man with their ally and supporter Nigel Farage under the injunction Quiter l’UE: nos allies le font! There is a new voting system this year in France, voting for national rather than regional representatives. There are currently 74 seats to fill (79 after redistribution following Brexit, so 5 virtual seats till then). Some lists indicate the region the candidates are from, with our region, Grand Est, providing a distressing number of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National list (slogan Prenez le pouvoir); she also has a candidate from French Polynesia, as does Debout la France (slogan Le courage de defendre les Francais). Interesting times ahead. Voting here takes place as we travel back to the UK for half-term. We won’t be in E2E to vote and there is no postal vote option, only voting by a proxy.

When we travelled back to the UK at the beginning of April, the Brexit extension was still to be agreed. We broke the journey at Arras, and enjoyed strolling round the town on one of those sunny April evenings, with the beautiful big squares filled with people sitting outside at bar and cafe tables. At Calais next day, officials seemed to be shrugging their shoulders at the port: no armed soldiers checking cars and no passport check queues.

As political discussions unfolded, we enjoyed seeing family and friends. John helped Leila buy a secondhand Aygo and sorted out additional window locks, and internet-connected internal movement detectors and outside CCTV cameras to improve security following our attempted break-in. Unfortunately the already-installed alarm decided to have a late evening tantrum and set off the external alarm which could not be stopped until the bell-box battery was disconnected. We took Jacob to the Science Centre in Cambridge and visited Bletchley Park again with Ann and Derek (although we nearly didn’t get in as we’d managed to leave our tickets behind!)

Louvre-Lens Museum

Louvre-Lens Museum

On the way back from England, after passing through equally casual Dover port security, we stayed the night outside Lens and finally visited the Louvre-Lens Museum. The north of France has changed so much since those drives through slag heaps in the sixties and seventies and feels so impoverished after the closing of the mines and industries. As a regeneration project, the museum is built over a filled-in mine and is a stunning glass building with loads of wasted space, but with some very fine exhibits from the main Louvre collection in its time-line section.

Another reason for our overnight stops was to give John’s occasional dodgy back a rest on the long journey. The corset-like support belt also helps, but has the disadvantage of pressing on the bladder. This can be a problem when strolling round unfamiliar streets, as we found on our very enjoyable trip to Amsterdam the following week. We had researched the Rembrandt and Hockney-Van Gogh exhibitions and other sights we wanted to see, and also restaurants. What we had not read up on were loos and coffee shops.

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam canal

On our last day, which was the finest we had planned to stroll in a leisurely fashion round the canals, the book markets and food markets. After a couple of hours we fancied a coffee and a loo. We were walking alongside a broad, picturesque canal, and went into the first coffee shop. It was packed and smoky. Not a seat in sight. And an overwhelming hash aroma. In the coffee shop next door, the indolent young man with a far away expression took pity on the two elderly tourists, focussed his attention, and explained that people bought mainly hash, not coffee, in coffee shops and we might be more comfortable looking elsewhere. We headed for a shopping street and a bakery.

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

There were other times when we were to feel like grumpy elderly tourists. One was at the Rijksmuseum’s brilliant exhibition of all their Rembrandts, 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 prints. It too was packed (though not smoky!), and it was infuriating how many people would just come and stand right in front of you, blocking your view of a painting or (mainly postcard-sized or smaller) etching you were looking at and take a photo with their phone about six inches from it before moving on without really looking, as if their photo was more real than the original and other viewers an inconvenient background. After a reinvigorating coffee, we returned during lunchtime, when the museum was much emptier (the tour groups having been herded off to lunch) and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the details of the pictures unhampered. And John’s birthday present to Helen was the informative book of the etchings exhibition to appreciate at leisure.

Another grumpy episode was at MOS, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the waterfront. It was a pleasure to watch the busy barges and ferries passing the window, but we began to think that, like ailing sight and hearing, our taste buds had packed up. In the pretentiously presented dishes, we couldn’t taste the described ingredients – how could the distinctive flavours of crab, asparagus and lobster be cooked away? It was a shame, as we had spent a great morning at the Van Gogh Museum starting with the Hockney-Van Gogh special exhibition, which was spacious and not at all crowded with interesting comparisons between their joy in nature.

Wayang puppet theatre

Wayang puppet theatre

And in the afternoon we had paid a second visit to the ethnographic Tropenmuseum, with its highly critical presentation of Dutch colonial attitudes and influences and superb artefacts from Indonesia and New Guinea. Fortunately we discovered next evening at Graham’s Kitchen that our taste buds were unimpaired, and his crab, lobster and lamb were full of flavour. If that name doesn’t sound very Dutch, its because its affable chef is from Liverpool.

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

It was many years since either of us had visited the Rembrandt House Museum, and we thoroughly enjoyed this visit, especially the demonstration of etching techniques and variable effects in printing. As we were queuing the conversation between a belligerent young man and his friend ran:
Why are we here?
Because I wanted to see Rembrandt’s house.
But we’ve already been here.
No we haven’t. That was the museum. This is different.
Later they had a discussion in Rembrandt’s studio with a very diplomatic attendant who admitted he had a ticket for that night’s big semi-final football match between his local team Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur. So our fellow visitors were Spurs fans doing culture. That evening, the sun came out and we walked through one of Amsterdam’s many parks (out of the town centre, fairly near our quiet hotel) to the glasshouses where there is now a good restaurant, de Kas, serving mainly home-grown food. There was a lovely atmosphere in the airy glasshouse, informative waiters, and interesting flavours. Replete we strolled back through the park and reached our hotel as the downstairs bar was exploding at half time as Ajax had scored two goals to add to their one from the first leg. 3-0. We retired to watch the second half in our room. Just as well as there must have been fury and chaos downstairs as Spurs scored an amazing three goals and reached the finals on away goals scored.

We had spent a wonderful four whole days (five nights) in Amsterdam, and could happily have spent longer. Back home the grass was long in the meadows and orchard and our enclosed vegetable patch full of weeds. We had only two weeks to create order before leaving for half-term in Letchworth. But after a week of fine weather, the grass is now cut, the potager is rotavated, and divided up into strips and paths again, seeds have been sown, broad bean and pea seedlings planted, and Helen’s birthday gift from Ann and Derek of three Lonicera caerulea (honeyberry) planted in the fruit cage. We look forward to their sweet blueberry-like flavour next year. Already, given warmth and this week’s rain, the rocket seedlings are poking through and let’s hope the rest of the seeds grow in our absence. It’s a hard life having two gardens! Maybe we need an army of robot lawnmowers snuffling permanently through our lawns/grass.

When we drove into St Dié, we discovered that during our brief trip to Amsterdam all the local roundabouts had been decorated with bicycles, many painted bright yellow, to celebrate the fifth stage of this year’s Tour de France. Riders will set out from St Dié on 10th July along a mountainous route to Colmar past sights many of you will recognise like Haut-Koenisbourg castle, Ribeauville, Kaysersberg, les Cinq Chateaux and Husseren-les-Chateaux (the castles being the give-away, since they all stand on high points). However, that day we were heading for the large annual Amnesty Book Sale. After some rummaging, John bought a French Joël Robuchon cookery book which had a good-looking recipe for chocolate-and-walnut cake.

Finding a recipe that the village traditionalists will enjoy at the Entre-deux-Eaux club’s May meeting, when Helen’s birthday falls, is always a problem as they greet foreign offerings with great suspicion. Fortunately, the brain-storming group of Sainte Marguerite pensioners are more open-minded. Last Friday it was Helen’s turn to provide the mental challenges and the refreshments afterwards. She resorted to visual rather than linguistic problems and copied a couple of battleships games from the Letchworth newspaper and some logic challenges from an old Eysenck IQ book. These were all a novelty to the group, so took a lot of concentration. The sheet of London monuments to name was less successful, so we did them out loud, along with facts about the United Kingdom, its saints and flags. By then everyone was most grateful for refreshments. John had made two dozen scones (plain and fruit) and Helen took proper plates, knives, serviettes, butter in a glass dish and a pot of home-made blackberry, apple, cinnamon and clove jam. They were an immediate success with warm congratulations being sent to the absent chef.

Chocolate and walnut cake

Chocolate and walnut cake

Today the E2E oldies afternoon was a more lugubrious affair, with much discussion of aches, urinary problems, broken bones, pharmacies and deluded villagers now in care, although Helen enjoyed games of Rummikub, Scrabble and Triominoes before the cakes and champagne were brought out and birthdays toasted. Oddly enough some of John’s chocolate-and-walnut cake, cooked according to the French recipe, remained at the end, while his cheesecake, based on English recipe, had all vanished. How does one ever know what our oldies will like?

Storks, lump fish and elephants: Entre-deux-Eaux and Copenhagen, January-March 2019

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2019no1.pdf (six A4 pages)

These are links to our photographs of places visited in Copenhagen and Roskilde and Copenhagen restaurants;
there are others in the text


On Saturday morning, eyes still sleep-blurred, we rolled up the shutters at the front of the house. The north field had large white blobs moving around it. Glasses clarified that there were twenty-one white storks with black tails scavenging across the bare earth and stubble, all moving in the same direction, then turning and moving the other way. We watched in fascination. Then we went and had our croissants and coffee (our weekend treat). When we looked again, the storks had moved closer to the house, still in a loose formation. After a while they gathered as if in consultation, whilst exercising their wings. Then one took off, with the others following after thirty seconds. They circled, at one point right above our balcony, then headed off eastwards in the direction of Alsace. We presumed they were on their spring migration from their winter quarters in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps they brought an optimistic travel message with them. For we have been fretting less about continuing Brexit intransigence, the currently limited ferry services, and the likely delays at the border, than about whether John’s back will recover from its latest set-back in time for the Easter holiday journey to Letchworth. The house in Letchworth must have been looking neglected and unloved, as someone broke the downstairs back bedroom window one night last month. Our back neighbours phoned our side neighbour who phoned Toby, who phoned us and then the police, while John phoned the insurers. Toby said everything seemed OK except for the window. The Hive movement detector in the hall hadn’t sent any messages until Toby went in to the house so, if anyone had climbed through the opened window they had not got far. Nothing seemed to be missing. Perhaps the alarm movement detector in the bedroom had set the alarm off? By evening, thanks to Toby, forensics had pronounced there were no prints inside and the window had been boarded up by the insurance service. And on Brexit Day Mark 1, 29th March, it was re-glazed. So we’ll spend our first week making the house and garden feel loved again, put in some extra video and other security, then enjoy time with Jacob and Leila, followed on Easter Monday by Ann and Derek. And we hope to catch up in between with friends.

When we travelled back here from Letchworth on January 6th, nearly all the cars on the Pride of Burgundy were labelled F, D, B, NL or L. Were the mainland Europeans having a last fling in London while they still knew what regulations and documents applied? As we left the motorways and drove eastwards from Vitry-le-Francois, we noticed bonfire ash, damaged radars and burnt speed restriction signs where the gilets jaunes protestors had previously been encamped, but by our favourite service station stop at Pagny-sur-Meuse, the protestors had erected a super new wooden club house opposite their former site. Back here the protestors have lost the support of the pensioners Helen meets regularly; since Macron suspended his hated overhaul of the pensions and tax system, and launched the Great National Debate, the pensioners no longer feel unheard, and deplore the continuing violence of the hard-line gilets jaunes in Paris and towns like Epinal and Bar-le-Duc. In comparison, the cross-channel chaos of Brexit no longer seems of great significance to the villagers.

Our Mayor’s written annual report was full of gloom at the prospect of small communes like ours being swallowed up and ignored by the large administrative agglomerations of communes. Would this be the last year the Mayor could direct finance towards his evening of New Year Voeux, speeches, champagne and nibbles or the eagerly anticipated lunch for all the over 65s in his commune? As usual his speech at the former was inaudible. But the meal at the latter was as good as ever, with music and dancing; it was just unfortunate that castanet man seated himself at our table, just a few places away, and could not resist loudly accompanying the accordionist. His wife was not with him to restrain his ardour. He said she had fallen and broken her leg. But the most striking New Year festivity his year was Sainte Marguerite’s galette and champagne where, on the dance floor, there were not only the familiar participants in walks, gym, scrabble and games sessions but amazingly costumed, be-jewelled and masked dancers, from the group who parade annually in Venetian Carnival costumes round Remiremont. Very colourful. We were also glad to celebrate Roger and Dorinda’s return to the Vosges (for a week); although John’s fish pie might not sound festive it was delicious, and cake shop specialist Dorinda brought along a lemon sponge to round off our re-union dinner and catch-up.

But, alas, after the festivities and a few snowy walks it was the time for all those exchanged New-Year kisses to extract their revenge with sneezes, sore, throats, colds and inertia (or la gripe – all the French had flu rather than bad colds). John was laid so low that Helen offered to do the shopping one Thursday, but an hour after clearing the snow from the garage and driving off, she found herself sitting in the car park in the next village of Saulcy, shopping list beside her, and no idea of what had happened in the last hour. Rather frightening. Had she been careering madly around in the car knocking down pedestrians? It seemed safest to return home. However, our GP was reassuring, even showing her the textbook description of ictus amnesique. Apparently she could have gone and done all the shopping perfectly efficiently while laying down no memories. And a head scan confirmed there was no damage from a mini stroke. What some people will do to avoid going shopping! After that we spent the time quietly indoors, reading, watching football and organizing and labelling photos of past travels.

Labelling and writing up our Turkey travels in 2009, reminded us of a good collection of Islamic art in Copenhagen, so with our energy finally restored, we planned a short mid-March trip to Copenhagen. We had not got as far as Zealand and Copenhagen on our journey to Jutland and Funen in the summer of 2017, and although four cold March days were not a good time to enjoy the coastline of Zealand, the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde would be open, and all the museums in Copenhagen, and John had been looking forward to a more exciting taste of New Nordic cuisine than we’d previously found.

So on Monday 18th, we drove over the snowy Bonhomme pass, and took a flight from Basel to Copenhagen. Mastering the airport ticket machines, we caught the modern metro to Kongens Nytorv, and walked up to our Hotel Christian IV, which was a bit shabbier than envisaged, but very pleasant, with the bonus of free coffee, tea, pastries and biscuits in the lounge/ breakfast area at all hours. We’d booked a restaurant on the other side of the town centre, Cofoco, thinking we’d appreciate a good walk after the journey.

Faraos Cigarer

Faraos Cigarer

And we did indeed enjoy our cold, windy evening stroll along the side of the King’s Garden, past interesting boutiques and shops like the Faraos Cigarer with all its Tintin books and models, restaurants with deserted outdoor tables, the Radhus, Tivoli Gardens and an impressive railway station. Somewhere along our zig-zag route we passed a cake shop display including one with charmingly modelled pigs snuffling across the icing. We wondered what occasion it was suitable for. But however often we later criss-crossed those streets in daylight, camera at the ready, we never found that elusive cake shop again. We particularly enjoyed Cofoco’s salmon/gravlax and the mussel soup and the friendly atmosphere.

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

As Tuesday was the only sunny day forecast, we changed our plans, and decided to catch a train out to Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum. Helen, who is easily pleased by such things, was delighted that the train was a double decker; from its top deck it was interesting to see the housing developments including single-storey closely packed small houses, possibly social housing; while John was much taken with the train’s plastic bags to take away with you and dispose of your rubbish. The museum’s five ships, a mix of fishing, trading and longships, had been sunk across one of the channels and piled with stone to prevent an invasion from the sea and the surviving fragments had been painstakingly pieced together on metal frameworks. There was a useful short film and displays about the finds, restoration, and the replicas which had been built over the years. And there was a dramatic room where children could experience the life on board part of a Viking ship in rough seas. The workshop sessions and boat trips on a replica were summer events, but the café was open for refreshments before we walked back towards town to see the cathedral where many of the Danish monarchs have their tombs. We particularly enjoyed the frescoes, the choir stall carvings and the clock whose action on the hour starts with the dragon’s shrieks.

Roskilde Cathedral

Roskilde Cathedral

The royal tombs were impressive, but the design for the present Queen Margrethe’s tomb was intriguing – a transparent rounded capsule in cast glass holding two supine figures mounted on pillars topped with silver elephant heads. Why the elephants’ heads? Apparently the Danish Order of the Elephant is Denmark’s highest honour, with the monarch as head of the order, and members are from the Royal Family with some foreign heads of state; current Knights of the Elephant include Prince Charles and Emmanuel Macron. After that bit of trivia, we started noticing elephants everywhere, including the Islamic collection and manhole covers.

Main Railway Station

Main Railway Station

Back in Copenhagen, we got off the train at the central station (built in 1911) to look at its architecture, especially the chunky columns, heads and folk-art figures, then journeyed on to the Forum metro for our early evening meal at Radio; the restaurant is, not surprisingly, located in the old Radiohus building, and served the best five course meal of our holiday, washed down with Fanefjord Pilsner. This was where we encountered the unappetising-sounding lump fish roe. “It is in season now and every Dane is eating until we are sick of it” the waiter explained as he brought an amuse-bouche of lump fish roe in an onion case, cream, buckwheat and apple. It was tasty, as was the starter of steamed mussels, mussel foam, dill, salsify and parsley. The next delicate course was leeks, Vesterhavs cheese, ransoms and sunflower seeds, followed by a fish course of monkfish wrapped in a thin film of fat from the back of a pig (lardo), mushrooms, cream and a cress garnish. Onto the main of pork cheeks, curly kale, apple, mustard seed, mustard cream and pistachio nuts in halved baby onions. Dessert was unexpected and delicious. Take a deep breath at this point, for their desserts are usually vegetable based, the previous day’s having been beetroot based; today’s was composed from Jerusalem artichoke, French toast, pear, and vanilla ice with a chocolate dust, topped with a sprig of thyme. This was more how we had imagined Nordic cuisine!

amber animal

amber animal

On Wednesday we spent most of the day in the Nationalmuseet. We had expected to go fairly quickly through the stone age and bronze age exhibits, having seen other collections, but lingered, amazed by the quality of the finds, – huge polished flints, an aurochs skeleton, beautifully carved amber objects, a decorated funnel beaker bowl from 3200 B.C., bog bodies including Egtved girl in her short cord skirt, a sun chariot, bronze lurs or trumpets, remarkably preserved wagon fragments from Dejbjerg and then a beautiful silver bowl which puzzled us. It was identical to the Gundestrup Cauldron which we’d seen at Aarhus’ Moesgaard Museum two years ago. An attendant was knowledgeable and assured us that theirs was the original but it was sometimes loaned to other museums. He also treated us to a long discourse on Danes in Roman armies (the section where we found him) and misguided stereotypes of Viking warriors. We did visit the other sections of the museum, covering all the later historical periods, Ethnography, and toys (lots of dolls’ houses), but this, for us, had been the most interesting.

silk Kashmiri shawl c1850

silk Kashmir shawl c1850

Similarly we spent most of the next day in the Davids Samling, just round the corner from our hotel, enjoying the Islamic art. We retreated to the hotel for some coffee and a pastry, before returning to the splendours of calligraphy, ceramics, fabrics (including crimson elephants on a fabulous Kashmir shawl) and tiles, and looking at the special exhibition of Indian photographs from the nineteenth century, and the furnished town house rooms on the first floor.

Stork fountain

Stork fountain

After that we were ready for a walk outside, taking in the Round Tower, St Nicholas Church, stork fountain, and some expensive shops and cafes (but no cakes with pigs on). That evening we went to Llama, for strong flavours, with its South American food with a Nordic twist. Having waxed lyrical over the food at Radio, perhaps it is sufficient to merely mention Llama’s halibut ceviche, the lime cake and the striking randomly arranged colourful floor tiles.

All too soon it was Friday, and our last day. We had not seen the famous Bridge, the famous Little Mermaid, or the famous art collections. But we felt like wandering round different areas, heading in the general direction of the famous Black Diamond. So we strolled east towards the Yderhavnen waterfront, diverting to see the golden domes of the otherwise seedy-looking and closed Alexander Newsky Kirke and Frederick V’s hideous Marble Church, overlooked by his equestrian statue. Suddenly the street opened up into an open circular area ringed by stately but plain stone buildings guarded by soldiers in busbies. Helen approached one to ask who or what he was guarding. He raised a forbidding hand and shifted his weapon, but, when she she persisted, he conceded through gritted teeth that he was guarding the Crown Prince. Oh dear. Perhaps we should have brought the guide book with us. For this was the Amalienborg Slot, the home of Queen Margrethe. We disappeared rapidly towards the waterfront, with the modern opera house across the water, the renovated warehouses on either side and the bright yellow ferry bus service. Lining Nyhavn, we admired the painted houses and old boats. Further on a raft containing five men in high-vis jackets and a mound of barnacle-encrusted bicycles passed slowly by, preceded by the bubbles of a diver. One somehow doesn’t imagine Danes throwing their bicycles into the waterways.

Black Diamond - National Library

Black Diamond – National Library

Ahead of us lay the unprepossessing Black Diamond of the National and University Library, a modern extension of the old Royal Library. John paused to photograph the altogether more quirky Borsen or stock exchange with its Dutch Renaissance gables and spire of entwined tails of four dragons – a fairy-tale building for the men-of-money – and also the alternative small mermaid statue. Then we entered the library and took the escalator up to the fourth floor to look down at the glassed off collections and study tables. The older part of the library is noisy with chattering students and their laptops, and the old card catalogue still had its hand written cards for works by Boethius and later typed cards. We read later that one of the largest book thefts in history happened here between 1968 and 1978, with some 1,600 historical books worth more than fifty million dollars stolen, undetected until 1975, many sold at auction. But when one surfaced at Christie’s in 2003, it was discovered that the thief was a director of the library’s oriental department who had died in January 2003 and whose family had become careless about selling the books. 1,500 books were recovered. Never trust a librarian! After a couple of very expensive lattes in the ground floor cafe, we walked round to the Parliament building, which was closed to the public, hearing sounds of protests over the New Zealand mosque shootings; one of the attendants told us with regret that he thought Denmark is becoming much less tolerant with growing anti-Muslim feelings.

Court Theatre Museum

Court Theatre Museum

In another courtyard we went into the former Royal Stables, where the Court Theatre was established (for court audiences only) in 1767. Despite having closed in 1881 (as many theatres did after a major fire in a Vienna theatre), it still had a great atmosphere with its red and gold decor, and we could wander freely through the royal box, across the stage, main dressing room and auditorium and try out the wind and thunder machines. After that Helen went to the nearby Danish Jewish Museum (designed by Daniel Libeskind within the old Royal Boat House) and John visited the old castle walls under the Christiansborg Palace.

starter: lump fish roe, smoked cheese, lemon & cress

Afterwards, we walked round the Parliament and Palace buildings, but did not recognize any of the Borgen TV series settings. We crossed back from the island, paused in the elegant Georg Jensen shop (alas they no longer seem to sell the Prism cutlery set from which John had bought a single place setting back in the sixties – what an unusual student purchase!), and explored the Sankt Petri area. It was good to recharge our batteries back at the hotel over tea and coffee (and Helen caught up on all Will, Kate, Harry and Meghan’s recent engagements in the lounge’s Hello magazines), before we went for our last meal at Koefoed. Guess what the starter there was? Yes, lump fish roe.

Manhole cover

Manhole cover

And what was John’s last Copenhagen photo on the way to the metro and airport next morning? A manhole cover with elephants.

Photographs and updated panoramas from our 2010 Hungary tour

We toured Hungary by car in 2010. In the planning of our trip we wanted to see some of the Romanesque churches and Art Nouveau architecture in Hungary. See Time out from Entre-deux-Eaux: Hungarian Interlude  together with the map of our route around Hungary.

As well as ordinary photographs I took several to make 360° panoramas. However, those original panoramas (and many other old panoramas on the web site) used Flash, which was once the norm but is no longer recommended, for display. I have now rebuilt the Hungary panoramas using HTML5 for display so they should work in all browsers on all devices.

Below is the link to the complete 2010 Hungary tour  photograph album with the folders containing  selected photographs of the places we visited and the 360° panoramas. The panoramas are in both the specific place pages and at the bottom of the main page. Click on this image:

Hungary 2010

Hungary 2010 photographs and panoramas

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.

Moldavita Monastery

The 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

 

 

 

 

Red berries, white hedgehog and yellow vests: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux and beyond, October-December 2018

 

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no5.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are links to our photographs of places and restaurants in the text

December opened in a festive mood for us on December 1st when we decided to drive over the hills to one of our favourite Christmas Markets at Barr in Alsace. This involved studying real-time maps to see where the gilets jaunes protesters in their high visibility yellow safety jackets were blockading roads and roundabouts in protest against increased fuel taxes (and later against other policies as well). But with coaches taking some of the protesters to Paris that day, the usual local trouble spots were quiet, and we had a lovely drive through tastefully decorated villages, past hillside plantations where people were stopping to purchase and load their Christmas tree, to slopes of vineyards, their leaves golden in rare rays of sunshine. And somewhere there must have been rain, as there was a rainbow arch.

In Barr we parked near the Saturday food market which was guarded by two police who seemed to have a cushy job that morning as they joked with stall holders and shoppers. We were mystified by a box of bulbs labelled lampagoni which turned out to be misspelt lampascioni, gastronomic Italian onions from Puglia, which the stallholder had ordered specially for a customer who never collected them.

Tree decoration, Barr

Tree decoration, Barr

More festively, the Christmas market had some tempting craft stalls with wood-turned gifts, candles, chocolates, tree decorations, wreaths of holly and pine cones, embroidered fabrics and food and mulled wine stalls. Outside the previously distant rain arrived and pounded on the roof.

Christmas window, Barr

Christmas window, Barr

When it eased, we strolled down one of the cobbled streets; it had a stream flowing down the side, beautifully decorated trees, and plaques about the tannery-related trades which had once occupied the picturesque timbered houses; in one window with pretty lace curtains someone had hung cream fabric heart decorations with red and green embroidery and cross stitch. Just after John had taken a photo of them a hand emerged from behind the lace and added a less picturesque price list.

Having got into the mood, but not having any red holly berries, on December 2nd we picked colourful crimson spindle flowers from our small orchard to decorate a windowsill. With the rain temporarily at bay, Helen also cleared dead leaves from the drainage channels at the front and John inserted some white hedgehogs to catch the leaves; no, this was not cruelty to hibernating animals, but a roll of spiky, wiry brush gutter leaf guard to trap the leaves, allowing the water to flow into the drain. Of the two jobs, the colourful spindle is the prettier result, along with some yellow jasmine and white everlasting pea flowers.

We have been intrigued by the French veneration of the truffle ever since we processed with other guests at an Alsace restaurant past a large truffle under a glass dome which was lifted for each person to reverentially inhale the truffle aroma. So when the Imprimerie restaurant in the nearby book village of Fontenoy-la-Joute (where we have often enjoyed the chef’s ‘surprise’ menus) announced that they would be doing a five-course truffle menu (with its courses described, for once) over the second weekend in December, we decided to book. Again it was a Saturday of protests in Paris, but the remaining gilets jaunes had blocked one of the usual Saint Dié roundabouts and lit a fire from which black smoke rose; they had also put a tyre chicane on the northbound carriageway of the N59 (a change from the manure dumped on other local roads) and had stopped lorries in the fast lane, but our car with its yellow jacket of support on the dashboard was filtered into the nearside lane and allowed to pass slowly through. As we turned off the N59 at Baccarat, the roundabout there, where there had been delays indicated, was free of protesters, so we got to our lunch in good time.

L'Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l'Imprimerie

L’Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l’Imprimerie

L’Oignon,  l’Imprimerie

We were rather disappointed by the aroma-less black truffle here, which appeared as thin slices on top of each course including dessert, and continue to consider it overrated (or poorly stored). It was the two oddest-sounding courses which were unexpectedly tasty. The first course was a raw onion on a plate, with its top sliced through. Lifting this lid, we discovered a creamy onion mix surrounding a sous-vide egg yolk with sliced truffle on top. Helen has always steered clear of mussels, having seen John ill after bad ones, but ate with gusto the second course of shredded celeriac spaghetti in a creamy truffle and mussel sauce. The fish course was rather bland, and the lamb, parsnip and potato course lacked the wow factor, but the pear and meringue dessert was pleasant. The accompanying wines were interesting, the Spanish red rejoicing in the name ‘Old Hands’. At the adjacent long table three quite young boys ate their way happily through the elaborate menu, without any of the “Yuk, what’s this? I don’t like it!” type comments of comparable young British children. We left clutching a little parcel tied with string which contained pain d’epices which brought back happy childhood memories of gingerbread when we ate it later (and not a truffle slice in sight). There were flashing blue lights at the Saint Dié junction, two police motor cyclists and no gilets jaunes or old tyres, though we could see a tyre burning and yellow jackets still at the roundabout beyond.

The following day, Helen took back routes to the small town of Bruyères, passing only three gilets jaunes standing disconsolately outside a shack at a Bruyères roundabout. Many years ago Madame Colnat, our village shopkeeper’s wife, had told us that her father, a former Cossack soldier, had helped escaping Indian POWs during the last war. Helen had used this when writing Footprints, so was keen to see the exhibition in Bruyères on Russian soldiers and forced labourers in the Vosges in the First World War. And sure enough, amid all the interesting details about how the Russian soldiers/ labourers came to be in the area after the overthrow of the Tsar and disbanding of the Imperial Russian Army, there was a whole panel devoted to Alexandre Tarentzeff. It told about his wartime heroism, his Russian St George Cross (for undaunted courage by lower ranks), his work for a farmer in a hamlet near Bruyères after he was demobilised, and his subsequent marriage to the boss’s daughter. He built his own house, and became a woodcutter and sabot maker (with two machines he could produce 120 pairs a day). And during the Second World War he helped Hawaiian soldiers wounded in the grim battles to liberate the area, and took food to escaped Indian POWs hiding in the woods (for which he was denounced and caught).

On the following evening, December 10th, President Macron finally addressed his nation with apparent sincerity, and made some financial concessions, with no indication of how they would be paid for. Gilets jaunes listening on mobile phones at their roundabouts across the nation were unconvinced when interviewed for TV. “He should have spoken four weeks ago.” Interestingly, this was also the day when Theresa May was forced to announce a delay to the Commons vote on her unpopular Brexit deal and prepared to wheedle EU leaders to change their minds on 11th. And over here on 11th came the sad news of the shooting at large Strasbourg Christmas Markets, which we used to enjoy in more peaceful times before the armed police patrols and checks became necessary.

Let’s double back a couple of months to more innocent days (were they really?) with Morris dancers thronging the streets of Tenterden at the start of our October trip to the UK. From Ann and Derek’s in Tenterden we drove on to Putney, then Helen and Jessica joined the rest of the Traingang in Chester for a few days, while John headed to Letchworth to do useful things.

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

The Traingang had a good time catching up on events over the past year, ranting about Brexit, and discovering Chester, Liverpool’s regenerated dockland area and temporary Terracotta Army exhibition, and a National Trust property, Erddig Hall. In fact it was such an interesting area that the Traingang has decided to return in October 2019. Of course it was helped by good weather.

It was a shame that, as Helen joined John at a biker café outside Shrewsbury, the good weather ended and the rain began. It was pelting down by the time we reached the Talyllyn railway in the Snowdonia National Park. It is the world’s first preserved railway, and John had visited it whilst at a Brecon Beacons scout camp back in the early sixties. This time we got soaked hurrying from the car park to the station. Deciding we would see nothing from the train windows in the driving rain, we contented ourselves with waving off the steam train, looking round the excellent railway museum, having a hot drink and driving on to our lovely hotel room at Ynyshir where we wallowed in a hot bath. Dinner that night in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant (chef Gareth Ward) was intended to be the highlight of our trip and a pre-birthday treat for John. We enjoyed neither the nineteen-course dinner nor the pretentious breakfast. But, if you like beef dripping and soy and Hoisin sauces in most courses and your few vegetables pickled, it’s just right.

It was still raining when we set out for Hay-on-Wye next morning for Helen’s treat of second-hand bookshops. We should not have followed our satnav. It took us uphill along increasingly narrow lanes, then over moorland with gates across the narrow road and only sheep for company, until we finally clipped a front tyre on a protruding stone and tore a hole in the side of it. At any other time the location would have been pretty, high up, miles from anywhere, with reservoirs and streams to picnic by. But not with strong winds and torrential rain, no mobile phone signal and no spare tyre (Snowy only has a canister to inflate the tyre with foam). We studied a real (ie paper) map and decided to risk lurching slowly downhill to a village and main road about 5 km ahead, hoping the deflated tyre would stay on the rim and the rim would survive. There was still no mobile signal down in the village, but there was a BP service station on the main road. And the staff there were so, so kind. The boss brought us a phone, and would accept no payment after we rang our insurers in France, and he insisted on giving us a hot coffee as we waited for France to arrange a local breakdown truck. Gratefully, we purchased a Welsh cherry cake (more about that later) and some sandwiches and settled in for a long wait. The breakdown truck was gleaming new, but the driver taciturn. The out-of- town (Aberystwyth) tyre place could not get any tyres of the right size until Monday; Snowy’s tyres are not that common a size. The front tyres had done about 30,000 miles and John had intended to replace them when we got back; the French MoT also requires same tyres with similar wear on the same axle. Eventually they agreed to fit a tyre with slightly different (about 0.7 cm wider and 1% less circumference) dimensions and swapped the back tyres to the front. We finally got to Hay after 6.15, so no bookshops for Helen. We drove on to our pub hotel. We decided to stay another night, and spent a wet day scurrying between the bookshops which have not closed down or become internet-only traders and Helen was content with her haul. We had commented in the morning that some of the fields close to the river Wye looked like paddy fields, and alas, during the day the waters continued to rise. By late afternoon the road to the small toll bridge was flooded, so we retreated to the main bridge. Further on we found that the road to that night’s hotel was impassable too. At that point we decided to just pay the hotel bill over the phone and to drive on in the dark to drier terrain in Letchworth.

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Back in Letchworth we saw quite a bit of Jacob over his half term at Toby’s as Toby had just started a new job at Reed Group in Covent Garden and was back to commuting daily to London. We enjoyed treasure hunts (Jacob can read the clues himself now, so dashed around enthusiastically), making a plywood dinosaur skeleton (with no instructions in the kit), playing a lot of games of Rummikub, scooping up dead leaves and netting the garden pond. But would you believe it? John had booked a service for Snowy, and when he came to drive it to the Toyota garage one of the new tyres had a nail through it. So two more matching new tyres (this time of the correct size as the garage refused to fit the incorrect size).

At the end of half-term Helen drove Jacob back to Rearsby as Stella and Ellen were away on their honeymoon. Leila took a couple of days off from the Coroner’s office and she and Helen enjoyed seeing Jacob’s school and then exploring Leicestershire villages until pick-up time.

Helen was also able to see some old Nottingham friends before she returned to Letchworth for John’s birthday, which we celebrated over lunch at Core in Notting Hill along with Jessica and Mark. We were lucky to get in there, as shortly after we booked, it was awarded two Michelin stars having not had any before –but the chef Clare Smyth had had previously had three at the Gordon Ramsey restaurant she ran.

amuse bouches, jellied eels and foie gras

amuse bouches: jellied eels; foie gras

'Core_apple'

‘Core_apple’

Unlike our Ynyshir disaster, this ten-course meal was very good, from the spectacularly presented four amuse-bouches (jellied eels, crispy smoked duck wing, foie gras parfait and cheese and onion goujons) through the perfection of ‘Core apple’ (with its glazed outside and melt-in-the-mouth creamy filling) to a surprise candle in a lemon parfait for John. Highly recommended if you can get in!

Isle of Oxney map

Isle of Oxney map

You might think we’d done enough eating by then, but on our way back to France we met Sue, Ann and Derek at the Ferry Inn on the Isle of Oxney, which does a good choice of pub grub with friendly staff and dog and a roaring fire. We’ve come to think of the large table next to the fire as our table as we’ve had it three times. And someone always asks if they can keep one of the paper table mats with its attractive map of the area before the 14th century when the island was part of the coastline.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine de Roubaix

After a rougher than usual crossing next morning, we took a more northerly route back and stopped in Roubaix, a former industrial town near Ypres and close to the Belgian border, as John had read about the reopening of the Piscine Museum of Art and Industry after renovation. As the name implies, the museum is housed in the former swimming pool and adjoining industrial buildings. It is an amazing setting, with the reflected colours from the huge art deco window rippling across the water of the pool which is casually flanked by seated and standing statues from various epochs, some bewigged, some legless and armless.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine, Roubaix

Behind the statues, and the blue, gold and cream mosaic-covered surround, some of the changing cubicles have been left intact while others contain displays of ceramics, costumes, jewellery and paintings. In the recesses there are fin-de-siècle glazed tile panels and stained glass windows. The websites rather undersell the exciting and imaginative juxtaposition of objects from their extensive collection. And at the end of October, their special exhibitions were around works by Di Rosa (very colourful!), Picasso and Giacometti. It was well worth our half hour of queuing in the heavy rain.

Next morning we woke in our 3rd floor fin-de-siècle guest house in the wealthy industrialists’ quarter, to find the rain gone and the sun streaming through the window.

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Children's dining room, Villa Cavrois

Children’s dining room, Villa Cavrois

Our hostess (a ceramicist who had also been a nurse) suggested that we shouldn’t leave Roubaix without also seeing the Villa Cavrois designed in 1929 by Robert Mallet-Stevens. It was a stunning modern yellow brick building. There has been another amazing programme to rescue it from dereliction (initially caused by German and then French army occupants and after 1988 by a property developer who wanted to pull it down and build more houses so left it to rot and be looted and squatted in for years). A good film in the basement garage showed the research that went into re-creating the gardens and mirror pool and restoring the spirit of De Stijl within the gutted shell, including repurchasing some of the furniture (seen in photos from the thirties) which had been sold at auction. Perhaps the most amazing room was the enormous bathroom off the master bedroom, with all its complicated shower nozzles and curved screen door, bidet, scales, sinks.

After our adventures in Wales and northern France, life back in Entre-deux-Eaux settled back into uneventful normality, punctuated by Armistice Day celebrations and Brexit and gilets jaunes frustrations. But what about that cherry cake, purchased from the helpful BP station in Wales? Helen’s brain-keep-fit group is a more sociable gathering than it might sound. It’s now all female, and starts with at least half an hour of noisy gossip, followed by a round of humorous stories (nearly all full of sexual innuendo), and then an hour and a half of exhausting, silent concentration of word, logic and number puzzles. At the end of that, everyone stretches and breaks into more gossip, and that week’s hostess hands out the cake and hot or cold drinks. Helen had previously found that her contribution of mince pies and Bakewell tarts were not over-enthusiastically received. However this time the cherry cake had a good reception, and a walnut and cream cake a slightly less warm one. Phew! And then they asked about the famous English Christmas cake (pronounced “kek” here). Amazed after rum, spices and brandy were mentioned they began checking recipes on the internet and discussing loudly. They were impressed that a perishable thing like a cake could be cooked so well in advance of festivities, Which reminds me, we must remember to pack the Christmas cake that John started to make a few days later, when we load the car up and set out for Christmas and New Year the UK in a few days time.

With that thought in mind, we send you all our very best wishes for Christmas and the year ahead. As ever, if you find yourselves near Letchworth, it would be good to see you again.