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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Sunset

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.

End of term in Entre-deux-Eaux: April – June 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)
The links in the text will take you to photographs of the locations

Photographs of Budapest 30 May-2 June
Photographs of Speyer and Cathedral 21/22 June 2017
Photographs of the Lalique Museum 21 June 2017
Photographs of some of our restaurant meals

As the children of E2E throw their school things into the cupboard and celebrate being free for the whole of July and August, their grandparents are winding up their social activities and gearing up to nurture and entertain their youngsters. Elsewhere the mad rush for the motorways south to the sun is starting. In fact, the whole of France had been enjoying (or suffering) a long period of swelteringly hot weather until a few days ago, when driving rain, wind and colder weather heralded the start of the summer holidays.

The oldies of Entre-deux-Eaux had their end-of-term coach outing on Thursday. John dropped Helen off at the village shop, where the coach was waiting, and then he went off to buy 3 kg of cheap apricots to make apricot and amaretto jam in peace while the oldies were swept off to a wood on the far side of Gérardmer.

It was the kind of dark pine forest in which you could imagine Little Red Riding Hood encountering the wolf. And in true fairy tale manner, our coach came to a halt at the end of the track by a wooden workshop and a house where a toymaker and his family and his goats live and work. When we first came to live in E2E, people were amazed that we had never heard of the film Les Grandes Gueules. But you have at least heard of the famous actor Lino Ventura? Such ignorance was shocking. Why, the film was made back in 1965 in the forests round Gérardmer at an old saw-mill not far from the toymaker’s workshop. In the workshop we watched clips from the film along with short films of the toymaker’s life through the decades, and then he showed us his tools, machinery, wood and stencils; the stencils hung silhouetted against the big window like Christmas decorations. After we visitors had stocked up with wooden trinkets and wooden toys for the grandchildren from the tiny toyshop, the coach raced through the forest and performed a tight five-point turn to the village of Liézey and the highlight of the expedition, the Ferme-Auberge de Liézey.

Everything was as it should be at the traditional inn, down to the long tables with their red-and-cream checked place mats, the red-and-cream patterned curtains and the lace-draped low lights. Aperitifs of sangria (possibly not typically Vosgian but “fashionable” back in the fifties and sixties) or kir were served, and then little glasses of delicious beetroot cream and garlic mousseline and a sweet bread with smoked ham chunks in it. These were followed by a starter – a large plate of salade vosgienne, a green salad garnished with warm fried potatoes and smoked bacon chunks. Next came even bigger plates of tofailles, not a word found in most French dictionaries, but a traditional Vosgian dish for which everyone has their own recipe, but which contains more potatoes, more smoked pork and more onions! Then cheese was brought three huge chunks of two different Munster and a Tomme des Vosges. Followed by enormous slices of tarte aux myrtilles, a tasty bilberry tart, which left the ladies anxiously examining their teeth in the privacy of the ladies’ loo to see how purple they looked. By the time we had drunk coffee it was nearly four o’clock, four hours after we had sat down at table, and no one was inclined to make a dash through the heavy rain back to the coach. But we had one more rendez-vous, down at the saboterie in Gérardmer, where we watched the traditional wooden clogs being made (one of the machines dated from 1913) and the oldies reminisced about going to school in wooden clogs which got further weighed down in winter by the snow that wedged under them. Helen’s neighbour on the coach bought a new pair for the garden, and others bought diminutive single clogs decorated with dried flowers as a souvenir of the old days.

For the previous month’s gathering of the E2E oldies John had confected a chocolate, hazelnut and meringue dacquoise for the spread of birthday cakes on which the candles were duly lit to the strains of joyeux anniversaire. Helen nearly missed the cake and champagne as the former mayor, M. Chaxel, was leading one of his “walks”, this time a car tour of the E2E monuments. First he drove his old car up a bumpy forest track from the church up to a farm and onto another track to the Behouille hilltop which led past a remote farmstead house; M. Chaxel spoke of the sisters who had lived there all of their lives and remembered wounded soldiers being brought into their house from the battle at the start of the first world war until they could be taken down to hospitals. In a clearing a few hundred yards up the track stand six memorials to the 520 Chasseurs and Chasseurs Alpins who died there on 3rd September 1914. When we looked at two further memorials outside the hamlet of Fouchifol, the ex-mayor told us the little known fact that one of them had originally been erected by Sergeant Pillet’s parents where he fell, a short walk above our house, but as it had got overgrown by forest it had been moved to this more prominent position by the roadside. As we stood by the stone at La Planchette commemorating two members of the second world war Maquis who were hanged by the Germans after gathering for an anticipated parachute drop, we were brought back to the present by a car that stopped. Out of it stepped an elegant lady flanked by two women in yellow T-shirts printed with President Macron’s name. President Macron had just been elected, despite the E2E election preference for Marine Le Pen (57.84% in the second round). There were mutterings of “Not more politics!” But the elegant lady was out campaigning as a candidate for the parliamentary elections which would follow. The only political comments to be heard from the oldies are moans about pension levels compared to state handouts for the undeserving who’ve never done a day’s work.

Sadly, our neighbour Danielle Laine, who many of you will remember from visits in the early days as a bustling active woman, had to miss the oldies’ end of term trip as she had had yet another fall and had broken her pelvis. “I keep falling now” she whimpered, but has insisted on leaving hospital to look after her husband Pierre; fortunately her health insurance covers some home-help, and her daughter is about 12 km away. Helen was entrusted with the task of inspecting the now inaccessible vegetable plot below her window and reporting on size and colour of tomatoes, beans, courgettes and cornichons (large gherkins for pickling).

In fact over the last three months our own vegetable plot and the grass in the field, orchard and pretentious-sounding arboretum have kept us busy between travels and sorties since April. At the moment we are enjoying broad beans, peas and dill with the first courgettes and blueberries to be picked today.

But before starting gardening at the end of winter (end of April here), we enjoyed seeing the family in Letchworth in early April. We stopped to see John’s sister Ann and Derek now happily settled in Kent and Leila was able to join us in Letchworth for a long weekend. Toby did a good BBQ in the April sunshine, Jacob and Farrah did treasure or egg hunts in our garden, the adults hunted for good bluebell woods in nearby counties (finally finding a lovely bluebell hill outside Hitchin), and we had a good day in London seeing “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, recent developments round Kings Cross, the Foundling Hospital in Coram fields and trying out the well-reviewed Luca restaurant in Clerkenwell (disappointing).

Imprimerie, Fontenoy la Joute

Imprimerie, Fontenoy la Joute

Soon after our return we consoled ourselves for the disappointing London restaurant with a trip into the countryside of the book village, Fontenay-la-Joute, for lunch at l’Imprimerie, the innovative restaurant with no printed menu (this whim of the chef is becoming more common). Snow had fallen in E2E the previous day, which was a surprise after sitting outside so recently for a BBQ, but as we left the hills behind we left the snow too. The chef’s partner had returned from her maternity leave and we were served by her and by their three-month old baby who was in a sling across her chest and watching everything with alert interest. We wonder what the Michelin inspectors would make of this unusual restaurant. Helen’s favourite dish was the starter of langoustine, foie gras, fennel, radish and grapefruit presented in two different ways, though an amuse bouche of asparagus in green tea and potato cream ran it a close second. There were some interesting wines too, apparently chosen from smaller producers through internet advice as there is no time to travel and sample. The label of the Flying Solo grenache syrah from Languedoc Roussillon recalled the flying postal service that Saint-Exupéry wrote about. Their use of ransoms in the soup and as a pretty garnish to a couple of other dishes, made us later go to the end of our vegetable patch and start picking and using the plant that a German friend, Margrit, had given us many years ago saying it was useful for salads; we’d never used it as it didn’t look promising for salad and it gets rather submerged later in the year by the horseradish and by nettles. So it was good to finally appreciate it; it really jazzes up a pasta!

Restaurant trips in May were varied. Helen’s birthday was celebrated in the shadow of the bottled-water factory outside the quaint Alsace village of Ribeauvillé and on the edge of the vineyards (some readers may recognise the Carola Parc from this description, where we went of the Friday of her 70th birthday celebrations). The little town with its storks’ nests was at its sunniest best as we strolled before lunch through the back streets and old gateway and past the people sipping coffee and eating chocolate cake outside the patisserie. After lunch there was the inevitable DIY emporium and a garden centre (John bought Helen some birthday geraniums, strawberries and lavender to plant out). Next day it poured with rain when we joined Helen’s Keep your Brain Active group for lunch at the Grand Spa Hotel in Gérardmer; they are a very sociable and welcoming group and the lunch was OK, in a Vosgian way too, but no post-prandial walk round the lake, which could hardly be seen through the rain. The following week, with temperatures up to thirty degrees, we drove over the hills to Steige and the Restaurant Guth’s wooden chalet on the hill above the village This time there was no goat to greet us, had it been eaten or just found a shadier spot?

Chez Guth beef

Chez Guth beef

The young chef Yannick cooks from ingredients foraged in the forest behind which included nettles, ransoms, fir buds and sorrel and the beef was cooked over aromatic bark and wood. The casserole of beef with its tantalising aromas was brought to the table for inspection before reappearing barkless on a rectangular plate between bright green leaf shapes of broad bean purée, raspberries and a wild herb sauce. In a neighbouring village, there is a man who supplies interesting cheeses. We asked about a strongly-flavoured one we liked and took a while to realise that the tasty marbled “sshheedh” turned out to be, when the word Scottish was added, a cheddar. The wild saffron “spring walk” dessert was wonderful and like nothing else we’d ever tasted. On the basis of our descriptions, Leila chose to go there with us while she was over in June, and we opted to relive the same menu deliciousness, with its seasonal variations; the wild snails in a parsley, spinach and garlic sauce having been replaced by a beautifully presented foie gras from a local farm served with thyme-flavoured toast. This time we had our coffee out on the balcony in the sun and enjoyed the wonderful panoramic view. Leila loves the little shops and the cobbled streets of Kaysersberg so we went there one day with her and enjoyed a very good menu-of-the-day at the Alchemille which is another recent discovery; fortified by a good lunch, John nobly endured the tourist streets of Kaysersberg afterwards without even looking pointedly at his watch.

Have we gone on for too long about food again? The week before Leila’s visit, we’d taken a last-minute mid-week flight to Budapest (from Basel).

Museum of Applied Arts

Museum of Applied Arts

Despite the heat-wave there was still snow on the mountains we flew over. And despite the heat we enjoyed walking round the town looking mainly at art nouveau and art deco buildings – outside, and inside where possible. On the first afternoon we walked from our pleasant guest room to the big market by the river and the ornate Museum of Applied Arts (whose exterior for some reason reminded me of the railway station at Bombay).

The main exhibition was of collectors and their treasures, and hinted at the underfunding for state arts and museums (presumably under the communists) and the wave of collections acquired with the dispersal of the aristocratic owner/collectors, a reminder of the opulent stately homes where Patrick Leigh-Fermor stayed on his pre-war walk across Europe and their aristocratic libraries and treasures. The temporary exhibition on Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture and Farkas Molnar’s modernist and art deco buildings was very interesting, along with furniture from other Hungarian designers.

The following day we made the most of the varied forms of Budapest transport (all free for the over 70s) to escape from the city heat to the hills: a tram round the ring road from our accommodation in Pest to the Buda side of the Danube, a fascinating but almost solitary journey uphill on the cog railway (why had the driver got a folded step-ladder in his cab?) past wooded villas (including several which echoed the previous day’s exhibition), then a short walk to the children’s railway, built after the war and run by Pioneers, the Youth Section of the Communist Party.

Children's railway

Children’s railway

The ticket office had a young school girl earnestly explaining the tariffs but struggling with a Scottish accent in front of us, the train conductors seemed very small and inaudible, but the station master was an older po-faced boy who saluted gravely as our train drew into the station, packed with excited nursery-aged children. The children who staff it take a two-week assignment from school. Reassuringly the driver and signal people were grizzled adults. The light breeze in the open carriage was cooling as we passed signals and stopped at stations, one with a wonderful forest play area (the old Pioneer Youth Camp) and others with flourishing cafeterias; three trains passed in the opposite direction on the 12 km curving route, so it’s a popular line, and the small children all squealed as we plunged into a tunnel. What larks! We could have got off half-way, walked through the forest and taken a chair lift down, but we stayed on till the terminus and tamely caught a busy bus replacement (the tram track was being repaired). Back in Pest we sat in a cafe opposite the

Budapest Synagogue

Budapest Synagogue

Great Synagogue, an extraordinary domed and striped brick building (more reminiscent of a mosque); unfortunately the synagogue and most other Jewish buildings were closed during our stay (presumably for Shavuot). So we hopped on a passing old tram through the Jewish area to the ring road, where we ventured into some of the lavishly restored buildings like the opulent New York Café and Hotel (built in the 1890s by a New York Insurance firm) and the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel of 1910 (now a Novotel).

Palace Hotel Budapest

Palace Hotel Budapest

But sadly the splendid Paris Department Store on Andrassy had a removal van outside; the entrance was barred by two men who explained that the bookstore which had been inside for a few years was bankrupt and so empty and the famous Lotz cafe could not be visited. Instead we sneaked into the foyers of the florid Operetta, Thalia Theatre, Photographic Museum and Opera, before retreating hot and sticky to our guest room to cool down. The owner recommended a typical Hungarian restaurant by the big market where we ate that evening; the plates of crispy duck, cabbage and fatty potatoes and of steak and onion rings were piled high; the dulcimer player was bored and kept stopping mid ripple to retune, and for some obscure reason it was “not possible” to serve the shared dessert sponge and chocolate sauce without the lashings of cream, which we removed without problem. Afterwards we strolled across the Liberty (Szabadsag) Bridge with splendid views of the illuminated monuments on the hill tops and of illuminated passing river boats below. We peered into the decadent fin-de-siecle Gellert Hotel and Spa before returning on our splendidly modern line 4 of the Metro.

Gresham Palace interior

Gresham Palace interior

Next morning, having explored a smaller local indoor market, we took the same Metro 4 line back to the central market, which was less packed than before, where we bought paprika downstairs and examined the embroidered cloths and table runners upstairs. We took a tram along the Danube to the Szecheny Chain Bridge and detoured to the beautifully restored Gresham Palace (built by the British Gresham Insurance Company in 1907 as luxury flats, expropriated and divided into smaller flats by the Communists in 1948 and now the Four Seasons Hotel). We admired and John photographed the peacock wrought-iron gate, the Zsolnay tiles, the stained glass and the mosaics then sipped lattes and bottled water in the café as the waiters cleared away the late breakfast things.

Outside the traffic was at a standstill on the bridge and there were huge tourist queues for the funicular on the Buda side, so we slowly walked up the hill to the Fishermen’s Bastion where the mid-day sun beat down mercilessly on the large square.

Mattius Church

Mattius Church

The dark cool of the Matthias Church glittered with gold frescoes and deliciously over-the-top Neo-Gothic decoration, and in the dark cool gloom of the vast Neo-Romanesque Archives there was an exhibition, “Their Traces”, of signatures from the thousands of documents (Royal, German and Communist) which survived the 1945 Siege of Budapest and the 1956 Revolution despite bomb explosions and the destruction of stack rooms. That evening as we walked back from a restaurant we came across the ornate entrance to the 1912 Trade School on the next street from our room; John dashed out to photograph it after breakfast next morning before we had to leave for the airport. The Easyjet “departure gates” at the airport were in a stuffy corrugated iron structure on the tarmac with the sun beating down on it, and staffed by officious officials who did their best to puncture our happy impressions of Budapest.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux the heat continued. At the village flea market up on the football pitch we bought some mint plants to replenish our submerged pots, and we drove to the Strasbourg IKEA to buy some lightweight summer duvets. We took a new route home from Strasbourg via the village of Wolxheim, to buy some pinot gris we’d enjoyed at the Epinal restaurant “In Extremis”. Visiting a wine producer is a serious affair, as you have to taste other wines too, and a young woman was summoned from one of the vineyards to discuss their various merits. It turned out that she and her sister had visited the young Epinal chef’s restaurant when he was near Lyons; she loved his food and was anxious to know what he had cooked for us to accompany their wine. So out came John’s phone and photos of our recent meal. An hour later we left with our two boxes and she threw in a complimentary bottle of their muscat which we had not tasted.

Two days later more complimentary drinks arrived, this time two bottles of still water delivered by our neighbour Claudine, who is a local councillor. She explained that for the first time ever the independent three-monthly inspections had identified that the water from one of the local sources was contaminated by E. coli and should not be used for drinking or food preparation, and produced a letter from Mayor Duhaut to that effect. Leila was impressed that we were regularly supplied with free bottles of water assuming English councils would not do so, but she has never experienced standpipes on street corners.

A few days after the water purity was re-tested and pronounced acceptable and Leila had flown home, John suggested driving up to see the Romanesque cathedral of Speyer which Helmut Kohl was so fond of (he took Margaret Thatcher and many other leaders there). We booked an overnight hotel, and decided to stop on the way at the Lalique museum in Wengen-sur-Moder deep in the Alsace forest bordering Germany (and quite close to some of the Maginot Line fortresses). It was a pleasant drive north from here via Baccarat into the northern Vosges.

Lalique Museum

Lalique Museum

The museum was modern, spacious and cool, and we enjoyed the rich displays of Lalique’s jewellery, perfume bottles, car radiator mascots, drawings, chandeliers, church glass and beautiful crystal and glass tableware and vases. We also liked the town of Speyer and our comfortable hotel, but found the cathedral rather soulless, perhaps because of its famously huge size and because the old Romanesque building had been rebuilt in Baroque style after a fire in the seventeenth century and had then been stripped of all that gilding and the frescoes and returned to a plain building at the end of the last century.

Speyer Cathedral crypt

Speyer Cathedral crypt (opens panorama)

The crypt had retained the feel of the Romanesque original. We saw an interesting film of the restoration work in the nearby historical museum. But all the time I could imagine Margaret Thatcher saying, “Next time you are in England, Helmut, I must take you to see Ely cathedral. Biggest isn’t always best.”

To round off the end-of-term activities, Helen returned on Friday from her last Scrabble game, a special one with a joker in every round and a seven letter word to be found on most moves. Suddenly we were free of commitments. So why not get Snowy’s MOT-equivalent done and set off to Letchworth again before the English summer holidays and Toby and family’s visit here?

Pagans, Christians and Moors: meandering in the Vosges, the Fens and Andalusia, January – March 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no1.pdf (eight A4 pages)
The links in the text will take you to photographs of the location
There is a link at the end to all photographs

At the beginning of January we folded up our pagan Letchworth Christmas tree, wrapped the baubles in tissue, and regretfully discarded the holly, ivy and yellow jasmine (why didn’t that jasmine didn’t get into the carol?) in the conservatory and set sail for Entre-deux-Eaux. With snow forecast we stopped for a night en route in Reims; it was bitterly cold as we walked towards the dimly-lit cathedral. A few nights later temperatures were down to -18°C at night and continued to be very cold for a couple of weeks.

During January we usually relish the epiphany feasting in and around Entre-deux-Eaux. Sadly this year Helen had her gall bladder extracted on 13th, which restricted her eating over Christmas and New Year. John nobly went alone to Mayor Duhaut’s Voeux (inaudible speech, champagne and nibbles) after visiting hours, and we did both go down to the oldies’ gathering on 17th after they had finished eating a very fatty (and satisfying, we gather) protracted lunch of pork, sausages, cheese and plentiful booze, and we were plied with galette des rois and champagne. In fact we did more short walks than feasts, as the snow which started during the night of Helen’s operation, was enticing in the sunny afternoons.

So, at the beginning of February we felt it was high time we ventured out to a restaurant (and no newsletter would be complete without a restaurant trip!) It is a long time since we have been to our nearby Book Village in Fontenay-la-Joute, so when John read about a restaurant, L’Imprimerie, in the former printer’s we decided to go there. Only one table was occupied when we arrived, which didn’t augur well, but we chose a table close to the blazing fire and settled down to await the menu. The waiter seemed half asleep, but produced two torn up children’s books (shock, horror for Helen) with inserts giving the prices of three menus, but no details of the food on each. We managed to extract information about the menu of the day, but he kept insisting that the other menus were a surprise, as were the accompanying wines. Eventually he checked with the chef, and on hearing that chef was proposing to include coquilles St Jacques and then pigeon and pork, Helen hastily settled for the safer menu of the day, but John chose a more adventurous one. To our surprise, John’s surprises all turned out to be beautifully and imaginatively presented, with lots of little pre, inter and post delicacies. We’d happily return with anyone who doesn’t mind gambling on what they eat!

By mid February we were back in Letchworth for half-term. We returned to the Higgins Museum in Bedford, taking Jacob as it is such a child friendly museum, and spent quite a bit of time talking about fossils with him. Another day we discovered that Stevenage is not all new town, but has an attractive old town with a wide high street similar to many old market towns. On a gloomy day we had an unsatisfactory attempt to reach Ely through the grey fens; the obstacle was nothing to do with resistance from Hereward the Wake, but due to a serious road accident which caused jams blocking all roads in.

Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall treasure

The fenland theme continued when we were in London and went to see the Mildenhall Trove at the British Museum (we had previously driven through Mildenhall, but not explored); the Roman silver tableware was stunning, and we were interested to see on their map of finds how well the fens had preserved many other treasures. After that we couldn’t resist mingling with the eager school children and their clip boards to see the Sutton Hoo burial display. In the afternoon we saw the revival of Stoppard’s Travesties (we’d seen the 1974 original), which was good, and ate at Moro in Exmouth Market, which was disappointing. Another trip to London saw us at an unexpected venue, the London Corinthian Sailing Club, to celebrate in style John’s school-friend Alan’s 70th birthday. John’s sister Ann and brother-in-law Derek had just moved from Essex across the Thames to Tenterden in Kent and we spent our last two days with them, enjoying lunch in a good country restaurant (The Curlew outside Bodiam) and a walled garden centre in Hawkhurst (the hellebore which we bought there is flourishing back in E2E, a reminder of the time that Helen’s mother spent as Headmistress of Lillesden School in Hawkhurst, which is now apparently converted into smart apartments after closing and featuring in Doctor Who episodes). The channel crossing was rolling next day and we crossed northern France through lashing rain, blinding spray and high winds.

Back in E2E the dull wet weather of early March soon felt oppressive, with few diversions other than the free audition tests offered by the hospital (expected results: Helen OK for her age, John not). This time last year we had been happily meandering round south-east Portugal, intending to cross into Spain and explore Andalusia, but found so much to see we did not cross the border. Almost as soon as we thought of our uncompleted trip, John had booked flights from Basel to Seville and back and a hired car. We don’t usually plan our hotels far ahead, but in the miserable weather we enjoyed reading guidebooks and hotel reviews, and ended up booking hotels for every night, some of which were to add greatly to our appreciation of the region. As we drove to Basel on Saturday 11th, we realised that the permitted season for certain Vosgian river fish must have opened, as there were damp fishermen on every bridge.

Seville airport was hot when we arrived, and we were glad not to be heading towards the narrow streets of the city in our hired car whose air-conditioning didn’t seem to be working efficiently. Instead we sped along the A4 in the opposite direction across the plain towards Cordoba until we could see on our right that night’s destination, the small fortified hill town of Carmona. Turning off towards it, the small road got steeper, goats scattered in front of us, we passed a ruined chapel and suddenly a huge old gateway, the Puerta de Cordoba, engulfed us and our sat nav was directing us through narrow streets past joyous family meals in a street bar, emerging onto the escarpment with breathtaking views and our hotel, the Alcazar de la Reina. Helen is easily impressed and the two sinks in the spacious cool cream bathroom, added to the friendly welcome, the carpeted entrance, traditional heavy furniture and shady courtyard and pool appealed to her. Given how every street space in Spain seemed to be taken up with parked cars, we were glad we’d opted to book hotels with their own parking.

On the main San Fernando square with its huge palm trees with tiny thatched tops, children were playing, the little girls all in beautiful frocks, with big bows in their hair and satin pumps on their feet. Were they dressed up for a special Saint’s day? The bar and café tables round the edge of the square were full of families and friends drinking and eating, but a space was found outside the Bar Goya and we ordered cold drinks, a squid salad and pigs kidneys in sherry and enjoyed the feeling of having arrived. Revived, we wandered downhill through the narrow streets and spectacular double-entranced Puerta de Sevilla into the “new” (or later) town, ending up at the Roman necropolis. Only part of it was open (half an hour before closing time), but it was interesting to peer into the large holes and linked cave system with its statue of an elephant. In the bar/restaurant where we ate later, braided boys with drums joined their friends (what had we missed?), and outside a soutaned cleric fretted over his loose wing mirror.

Ecija mosaic

Ecija: Bacchus Gift of Wine

Next day, further along the A4 to Cordoba, we stopped in Ecija and followed our noses and the glimpses of elaborate church towers into the old town. The highlight was coming across the Palacio Benameji and sticking our noses through the gateway. In an inner courtyard children, in silent concentration, were learning to make Roman amphora and oil lamps which were put to dry in the sun, and up the sweeping staircase we found a surprising array of fine Roman mosaics is displayed on the walls. Downstairs were interestingly carved prehistoric stones. An unsung provincial museum! And we’d nearly ignored it in favour of coffee (which we subsequently enjoyed just outside the palace walls).

Mezquita, Cordoba

Mezquita, Cordoba

Cordoba’s Archaeological Museum’s mosaics were disappointing in comparison, as they are still in the unsafe older part where they can’t be seen; but the excavated Roman amphitheatre in the basement of the new building was fascinating and well explained. It was probably the return of rain and the bog-standard 4* but quite pricey hotel (which couldn’t change a dead light bulb for 18 hours) which coloured our impressions of Cordoba. All the pictures of the Mezquita which you see emphasize the rows and rows of columns and the light, spacious feel of the huge old place of worship. They don’t prepare you for the fact that your view as you walk in is blocked by the elaborate cathedral which was later constructed in the centre of the mosque to reclaim the space, while the Mezquita walls have ornate chapels on three sides which prevent light from entering.

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

It is only when you close your eyes to the obstacles and walk round the cathedral towards the austerely decorated mihrab that you get more of a feel of the constantly extended forest of columns. Another jarring image of Cordoba was the rain-swept Roman bridge with coach loads of Chinese and Japanese tourists leaning into the wind, some with sinister-looking scarlet face masks like modern invaders.

Granada was such a contrast to wet Cordoba. The sun was shining to welcome us as we drove towards the top of the hill facing the Alhambra, following complicated instructions to the hotel avoiding the narrowest and steepest one-way streets of the old Moorish quarter. Our hotel (Santa Isabel la Real) was a delightful restoration of an old building, and we were graciously seated in the beautifully traditionally furnished sitting room with coffee and fresh lemonade while the paperwork was done (always surprisingly time-consuming) and our room was prepared (we were early), then the easiest way of accessing the Alhambra and the useful local buses were explained, and the housekeeper took us up to our room on the first floor, following the balcony round the inner courtyard. It was cool and shady with old beams, and a cool white bathroom.

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

A couple of hours later, we had walked round some of the grounds of the Alhambra, admired the views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, detoured into an exhibition of Mariano Fortuny’s 19C Andalusian sketches and paintings which felt just right for the occasion, and also the archaeological museum, both in the palace of Carlos V, and were waiting for our 16.30 timed entry slot (pre-booked, as recommended) to the Nasrid Palaces. Despite all forebodings that we would be herded round, with milling and squealing crowds continuously posing for selfies just in front of us, it was all so much more beautiful than I had imagined; just as you think you have seen all the most delicate tracery in the Mexnar Palace, then the Comares Palace drips with more and the Palace of Lions stuns. And there were interesting notes on the restoration techniques.

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

As we lingered, the crowds surged ahead, so that by the time we reached the smaller, now bare, rooms of Carlos I (1520s), later occupied by Washington Irving there were very few other people. As the palaces closed it was getting cold in the gardens, but we hugged good memories of the exquisite rooms with their white/cream perforated detail, glassy tiled surrounds, Moorish arches, fountains, pools and shady colonnades. Sneering accounts of the over extensive restoration work have not subsequently dimmed the memories. In the evening we threaded down steps and along narrow streets to a lovely (but cold) contemporary restaurant for flavour-filled peppers stuffed with squid and crunchy celery (starter) and main courses of sea bass with fruit and cod, beetroot purée, broad beans and dried bacon.

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

The next day, having “done” the highlight, we wandered around the narrow winding hillside streets of the medieval Moorish Albaicin area of our hotel. Of course, the sunshine helped, but it was another memorable day. Just along our road was the house of the 20C Belgian painter Max Moreau; it felt satisfying seeing inside the courtyard with its unusual pots and plates, the building with his portraits, the sitting room with its Java shadow puppets and other exotic treasures and the small garden with two black cats stalking and squabbling. Next we, rather on the spur of the moment, joined a small tour of a water museum; it was all in Spanish but from the information panels and enthusiasm of the guide we picked up a bit about the building, the recreated garden, the city’s water supply in Moorish times and the deep cistern in its basement which supplied fresh water (kept pure by turtles, it seemed) to the old palace of Dar-al-Horra.

Corral de Carbon Grenada

After that we went in search of the palace. What pleasanter occupation after artists, water and palaces than to relax in a small square with a coffee or beer and survey the world. We also found a bakery with good savoury pastries which we munched as we walked on downhill in search of visitable Moorish houses and courtyards, then the Arab baths and finally the huge balconied fourteenth century hostel and warehouse for Moorish merchants and traders (later used by charcoal merchants and currently by the City Orchestra). After the day’s walking, in the evening we went to Maria’s small bar in the nearby small square for Maria’s delicious freshly cooked “specials”, chicken and raisin pastry, veal in a prune and spicy sauce, and moist pistachio cake.

We’d stopped for a night at Dona Mencia (cold and windy) in the hills between Cordoba and Granada, and had promised ourselves another night in a hilltop village, this time further west in Olvera, half way to Cadiz. But on our way there from Granada we turned off to Antequera. After very uninspiring outskirts and a broad street lined with old churches and shops, we zig-zagged up between the picturesque white houses of the old town till we arrived right in front of the Gateway of Hercules of the Alcazaba. We hadn’t really planned on spending much time there, but having accepted headphones, we both got engrossed in the drama of Fernando I laying siege to the massive Moorish fort, gaining victory and sleeping in the comfort of the keep/white tower (occasional pieces of furniture brought the rooms to life, especially the one Fernando described as lavishly, almost decadently furnished). As a result it became much more interesting than the bare Alcazaba at Granada’s Alhambra.

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Refreshed by beers and tapas just outside the walls, we drove back through the outskirts to find the dolmens mentioned by our guidebook, as we had enjoyed seeing dolmens last year in south-east Portugal. Antequerra’s three sites were breath-taking in their state of preservation, especially the five thousand year old Menga dolmen with its corridor of huge slabs leading to an oval chamber, columns and five huge roof stones, the whole protected by a tumulus. The entrance apparently did not face sunrise, as usual, but the mountain (Lover’s Rock) which had neolithic cave with wall paintings and probably a religious significance. The tholos of El Romeral, by contrast, had corridor walls of thin stones like bricks and a beehive chamber roof of decreasing circles of stones. Stunning.

In Olvera in our B&B town house on the steep hill, we got a warm welcome from our Canadian hosts and were soon discussing the problems of renovating old rural houses and appreciating our spacious bedroom with its comfortable IKEA chairs, shuttered long windows and narrow balconies, and interesting posters of art exhibitions. Later we walked round the small town, which came to life in the evening, and ate tapas in a packed and noisy bar. On our way back in the dark we saw men rehearsing for a procession, carrying a heavy platform on poles (which would presumably have a heavy silver or gold image on it) and rhythmically edging it back into its store. Is it for a Saint’s day or Holy Week procession we wondered.

Next day on our drive to Cadiz, we detoured to see the cave houses of Setenil de las Bodegas and the dramatic gorge of Ronda and passed further spectacular rock faces on our cross country drive to Arcos de la Frontera, our last hilltop town. There we wound through siesta-abandoned lower streets and emerged, thanks to our sat nav, on an elegant old street of Mudejar (Christian Islamic fusion) houses. A street café with scarlet tables and chairs revived us after the hot drive and we enjoyed walking round the top of the hill, saddened only that the church with the beautiful but eroded Gothic doorway was closed.

Arcos de la Frontera

But what really grabbed our attention was the young men near our parked car who were lowering their trousers and wrapping long lengths of tightly pulled material round their waists to form corsets, usually with the help of a friend holding one end taut. Near them were two structures, one a heavy wooden platform and the other a lighter metal frame. Despite the lack of carrying poles this was obviously going to be another procession rehearsal. After a lot of standing around, the men suddenly divided into two groups old hands and novices. The younger men threw their rucksacks onto the metal framed “float”, put on neck protectors like sleeping airline passengers, and crouched under their structure; their different heights were compensated for by slats of wood tied to the bars above their shoulders. The front bar was banged three times, the crouching figures raised the platform slowly on their shoulders and moved in a swaying rhythm towards the centre of the road then slowly headed uphill towards the church. After a while the brawnier old hands crawled under their heavier, larger wooden structure and adjusted their wooden slats. At the front right was the beefy, confident giant who had helped wind corsets and check fixings. After quiet encouragement they all murmured a prayer, and at three taps on the front bar they shouldered their very heavy burden, swayed into action and were off.

We drove on through a rolling but much barer landscape till we could see signs of docks, then soared across the water on a new motorway bridge to the thin strip of land Cadiz is built on. We reached our large hotel in the ugly new sprawl of hotels and offices outside the old walls in time to walk down to the sea as the sun was setting. Sunday in Cadiz was leisurely and enjoyable, with the café tables in squares packed with people enjoying the sunshine. In one café an elderly red-haired lady at the next table was dressed for the occasion in a leopard patterned wrap with a fur collar, dark glasses and a silver and black patterned cane, while her friend wore a tweed suit, and another elderly lady, this time blonde, with a pouched face and wearing a scarlet coat, waddled past on her husband’s arm. Behind them the bells of the white St Francis church tolled and a black and purple clad procession appeared from a doorway, bearing aloft silver candlesticks and the cross, and entered the church amid obscuring incense or dust.

Market mural Cadiz

Market mural Cadiz

Wandering on, we were sorry that the fish market wasn’t active then or after breakfast on Monday morning, but a restaurant owner facing the market collared us to show us photographs of his parents at their market stall and to assure us that he is constantly popping across to obtain fresh fish for his diners. There were some good murals of market scenes on one of the market’s outside walls and a flea market beyond which included a large pile of boots and shoes. In the shady Plaza de Mina, where children were playing and adults chatting on benches, we enjoyed seeing the museum’s Phoenician sarcophagi and other finds (neolithic, Phoenician and Roman), some early twentieth century paintings and an exhibition of fish preservation, ancient and modern.

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Unusually, we ate at the same restaurant both nights as it was so tasty and well-prepared. The first night we dined at a table in the restaurant at the back on salad followed by grilled tuna fish or pork stuffed with dry fruit in a cream and onion sauce followed (are you reading this, Dorinda?) by a good three-chocolate tart; the second night we perched on bar stools near the busy preparation counter for tapas of prawns, potato salad, artichokes stuffed with black sausage on apple sauce, meatballs in tomato sauce and barbecued pork and chips; we couldn’t resist finishing off with more three-chocolate tart. We walked back past the tall frontage of the Cadiz tobacco factory and the statue of two women cigar makers and along the peaceful sea front.

In Seville the next afternoon we were hot and panting when we reached the Alcazar after we took the wrong bus and had a 40-minute walk to meet the entry deadline; our dishevelled state, the noisy crowds and the indifferent garden refreshments may have accounted for our finding it less captivating than Granada’s Alhambra, despite the headphone commentary. But when we headed northwards to the Mudejar Interpretation Museum in the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba, we found an almost deserted but recently restored building with interesting displays. Back in our boutique hotel (so boutique that the rooms have names not numbers, the courtyard fountain falls soothingly, a slight smell of sewage pervades and the dim bathroom is a dark crimson with beaten silver washbasins), we could hear a band across the road playing the same funereal phrase over and over. It was still playing later in the evening as we crossed the busy main road to the Bar Plata for tapas. It paused when the church bells of the Basilica de la Macarena rang, then resumed its slow funeral march, while inside the bar we had skating music. As we crossed back to the hotel a large number of people emerged from the Basilica. According to the receptionist the band was practising for Holy Week when the image will process from the Basilica to the distant Cathedral, a twelve-hour epic for bearers, band and followers. At 10.45pm the band sounded particularly loud and we wondered if it would practice throughout the night, but when we opened the shutters, the end of the procession was in the street immediately below and disappearing into the Basilica. The dirge then ceased for the night.

Our last day was varied and cooler. We started with a fascinating tour of the Royal Tobacco Factory which is now part of the University buildings. Our guide was scholarly, fluent and enthusiastic, showing us first the portraits of recent rectors in the Rectors’ Rooms, the stable area of the Tobacco Factory and the courtyard clock which chimed twice an hour, once for the male workers and then for the female workers (who were the first female factory workers in Spain and initially resented by the men) so they could emerge at different times. We next saw the long, dark room, lit by a single window and oil lamps, where the women rolled the cigars on their bared legs, often while feeding babies, a romantic scene to nineteenth century observers, which inspired paintings, novels and the opera “Carmen”. On to the small prison where tobacco theft workers were punished, and finally the tobacco workers’ church where the theme of the Holy Week processions was picked up: the university had decided to form its own religious brotherhood (one of the 62 or 64 Seville brotherhoods which would hold their own procession during Holy Week) and they would process behind their old huge Christ on the cross and more recent Virgin in glory.

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

After all this interesting information, we relaxed over coffee in the neo-Mudejar Hotel Alfonso XIII with its decadent banks of white orchids, then headed for the vast Cathedral which exuded a sense of immense wealth from its silver and gold encrusted altars, chapels and treasury enough to feed the poor for quite some time.

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

In front of the intricate golden cedar altarpiece an American mother picked out carved Bible scenes for her nine-year-old daughter and, starting with Palm Sunday and the donkey, discussed with great lucidity the events of Holy week. Outside it had got colder and was looking overcast as we followed the tramlines back to the sixteenth century Archivo de Indias, where the short video told us how, before its construction, the merchants used to annoy the Cathedral authorities by gathering below the Cathedral gate to discuss the price of goods from the Indies; trade declined when the river silted up and the merchants moved to Cadiz, the building fell into disuse, declined into tenements and was finally restored in the late eighteenth century for the Archives of the Indies’ documents on the discovery and colonization of America and the Philippines. Currently it had an interesting exhibition of illustrations from Poma’s account of the conquest and conversion of Peru. Half way back to our hotel we warmed up with coffee/beer and a shared chocolate brownie. In the evening our holiday finished perfectly when we met up on the Alameda de Hercules with John and Wendy, who had just returned to Seville from Cordoba, and we enjoyed exchanging travel impressions and family news over congenial tapas at the Arte y Sabor restaurant. The band was not rehearsing outside our hotel that night.

We returned next day to Entre-deux-Eaux to the sad news that Madame Laine’s sister Giselle had died after another nasty fall while we were away. On a happier note the cowslips were pretty in the orchard, and wood anemones starry under the hazel. Since then it has been warm and sunny for gardening, and the lady’s smock are also out in the meadows and the damson trees are white in the orchard. And now we need to pack for our next Letchworth visit.

We visited more than is mentioned above
If you wish to see more photographs, click on the image below for the full set

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Mince pies, parsley cakes and cream gateaux: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, September – December 2016

To download a printable PDF version click on this link E2E2016no4.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are links to fuller sets of photographs in the text and on some photographs
together with a full set of the Sicily visit photographs

The swimming pool was on the E2E patio and the damsons dropping from the orchard trees in the last episode. Now, at the start of December, the pool has long been deflated and the pot plants, swing seat, garden benches, garden ornaments and trickle watering pipes are stowed away in a barn, protected from the heavy frosts sparkling on the fields. The winter tyres are on the cars, the summer mud and autumn leaves cleared out of the drainage channels, the oil storage tank re-filled and the underfloor heating comforting indoors. So we could withstand being snowed in. But as yet there is no snow.

On the radio up in the attic there is discussion of pantomimes – Aladdin, Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Mother Goose – and the mince pies have been opened (though not the sherry, which is rarely sold in France). Tonight Saint Nicholas, resplendent in his purple bishop’s robes, will follow a long and colourful procession of floats and dancers through the streets of Saint Dié, before disappearing with a flourish, door bang and fireworks into the Cathedral till next year. We shall probably give the procession a miss, as there’s a lot of standing around waiting and evening temperatures have been sub-zero. However next weekend, having been unaccountably delayed for a week, a less dignified Saint Nicholas will manifest in Entre-deux-Eaux, together with the sinister Père Fouettard, to check if the village children have been good all year, before distributing sweets and being serenaded by the children. This is a warmer, homely event in the village hall, so there may well be English observers.

As for the mince pies: this year Helen, sad that the Sainte Marguerite pensioners’ Friday Scrabble has diminished to a fortnightly event, has joined the group which meets on the alternate Fridays to do number and word puzzles to keep the ageing brains active. Their sessions are more sociable, starting with funny anecdotes round the table, moving on to exercises and finishing up with cakes and drinks. Helen volunteered cakes for the first December meeting and the group gamely agreed to try out something foreign. But what? After some thought when we were recently in the UK, we stocked up on mince pies and Bakewell tarts. Most people started, gingerly, with a mince pie, with one of the more elegant, sophisticated ladies voicing everyone’s uncertainty about the filling. “Dried fruits” puzzled them until someone pronounced it more like marmalade than anything else they knew. The icing on top of the Bakewell tarts was a mistake though, as it was far too sweet for French tastes and overwhelmed the almond flavour which would have been familiar to them from galette des rois. Helen’s opening anecdote was probably better received than the tarts: the one most of you will already have heard about incomprehensible English accents and our neighbour being horrified when asked if he’d killed a sanglier (boar), but hearing it as anglais (English man). The ensuing discussion of accents produced another story involving a Breton in a Saint Dié bakery trying to order a bougelov having earlier tasted the Alsace kougelhof cake delicacy.

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg is a calendar-picturesque Alsace walled village and even in the damp mist a couple of weeks ago the hills above were golden with autumn leaves. John dislikes going there as he considers it is always crowded with visitors and its quaintness is artificial (having chosen, after the war, to rebuild houses to look just as they used to, with fake beams, timber and carvings concealing the concrete). However after a very good meal in l’Alchemille, a recently opened restaurant on the outskirts, he agreed to a short stroll around the old town. For once the streets were almost deserted and the structurally unnecessary timbered facades and overhanging eves were being decked with green branches and red berries in readiness for the forthcoming Christmas Market and its crowded car parks, mulled wine, traffic wardens, spice bread, wooden stalls, shuffling throngs and, maybe, armed police this year, like Strasbourg. Even the shops were looking sleepy, though the bakery window was full of anticipatory kougelhof and berawecka. Berawecka is a very expensive Alsace Christmas treat made of dried fruit, spice and a dash of kirsch cherry liqueur. It is sold in small slices and, as you would guess, tastes very like the filling of mince pies.

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

We were glad, however, that the restaurant menu at l’Alchemille had still been very autumnal. Autumn being the time when the pigs are killed, the menu-of-the-day had pièce de cochon gras d’Alsace as its main course. However, another menu with its equally autumnal ingredients caught our eyes with mushrooms “from our mountains”, chestnut and celery in the starter. The surprise pre-starters were served first and looked so artistic. On a bed of straw nestled two green conkers, edged with beige mushrooms and dark brown rounds on a fir twig. We were formally introduced to this creativity as parsley crunchy cakes, terrine on a stick and cinder biscuits with pate filling. Wow! And delicious! The creamy mushroom soup starter tasted wonderful and the chicken main course a worthy successor. And then an autumnal dessert of caramelised apple. With the coffee came colourful discs of beetroot, carrot and apple and little blackberry tarts. No wonder John could affably face even the quaintness of the main shopping street afterwards. Perhaps the wine also helped.

Having have been in the UK more frequently this year, we have missed quite a few of the regular autumn events here, like the International Festival of Geography and some of our favourite flea markets. However we were here in September for the Patchwork Festival in Sainte-Marie-aux Mines and surrounding villages. Each year’s competition quilts are artistic creations, but the quilts hanging in the church in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines were very basic designs and looked more hastily stitched. But they had a fascinating story.

Mennonite quilt

Mennonite quilt

During the war a Dutch woman, An, and her pastor husband were in the Resistance and sheltered many refugees. At the end of the war all the bedding was burned as it was vermin infested. But then, in 1945, came Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian persecution. The American and Canadian Mennonites had been canning food and sewing quilts to aid the people of Holland post-war and immediately supplied quilts, which were unfamiliar to the Dutch (but part of the Ukrainians’ heritage so they piled them up happily for warmth). When the Ukrainians departed on a ship to Patagonia, where farmers were required, An folded up the quilts and kept them. Years later in 1980 a young American, Lynn, living with her Palestinian husband and child in Holland, spent a weekend in An’s farmhouse and was amazed and nostalgic seeing the Mennonite quilts on all the beds. An said they weren’t hers to sell but offered to give her one. Lyn, knowing their value, felt she couldn’t accept such an expensive gift from a stranger. However, 10 years later, when patchwork and its history were becoming popular in Holland, she asked An if she could exhibit them in their American bookshops in Amsterdam and The Hague at Thanksgiving and their story started to emerge. Eventually Lynn wrote an interesting book called “Passing on the Comfort: The War, the Quilts and the Women Who Made a Difference”. Helen is happy to lend her copy to anyone interested.

Around the same time, the oldies of E2E had their September cake and champagne social get-together. Helen took her walking boots as the former mayor often leads a walk for the more active members, usually about six or seven. This time he led us up the track near our house, which we know rather well, then on and ever on. It was a longer walk than many people wanted; one had to turn back, a lift had to be flagged down for another, and the rest of us got back an hour after the cake and champagne were served. There was considerable grumbling. The ex-Mayor was not present at the November meeting and everyone seemed relieved to relax and to play Scrabble and Rummikub instead – and be at the front of the cream cake queue.

We seem to watch a lot of crime series on TV these days, especially during the long winter nights. But the one with the best scenery is definitely Montalbano, which has for a long time been enticing us to visit Sicily, as has the lavishly illustrated book we picked up in an Amnesty Book sale in Saint Dié. And there are flights from Basel to Catania. So we flew to Catania at the end of September and picked up a hire car at the airport. But instead of heading down the coast to Montalbano-land we drove inland. We spent the first night in a B&B outside Piazza Amerina which did a wonderful breakfast spread at which all the guests sat sociably round the laden table exchanging information and tips.

Piazza_Armerina_Roman mosaics

Piazza Armerina Roman mosaics (link to more photographs)

We were well placed to arrive at the nearby palatial Roman villa before all the coach tours, so could gaze for as long as we liked on the amazing mosaic floors from the walkways at first floor level. Each room was decorated very differently, our favourite being a woodland hunting scene to which we returned. There was a more spectacular long floor showing exotic mosaic animals being captured and loaded onto ships, and the one shown on all the posters of “dancing girls”, but the rural scene was so delicate and flowing.

By mid-day it was hot, so we drove to Aidone and looked round the cool little museum in a former Capuchin monastery which displayed objects from the excavations of the Greek city of Morgantina. Montalbano was not forgotten, however, as we revived ourselves afterwards with cold drinks and our first (and best) taste of the detective’s favourite arancini risotto balls, before exploring the almost deserted Morgantina excavations. This hilltop site was less spectacular than temple sites we were to see later, but its ruins so extensive, with its houses, roads, agora, workshops, amphitheatre, bath-house, granary and sanctuaries, that the sun was going down when we left.

The next day we took a country route towards the south coast and the temples of Agrigento. We did wonder about the meaning of a temporary road sign but were many kilometres further on when its meaning became apparent: boulders deliberately blocked the junction with the road we wanted to be on next. It was a weary return and diversion (un-signposted after the first turn off, then blocked by goats). We were so grateful for our satnav but at least we saw plenty of the wild flowers and changing land use before reaching the more arid coastal landscape where our B&B, the Garden Cactus, rejoiced in an enthusiast’s collection of thousands of cacti. That evening it rained, so our next day exploring the famous and popular Greek temples of Agrigento was unpleasantly humid on the exposed temple ridge.

Odd memories of the next day’s drive westwards along the coast, with John’s hacking cough and cold troubling him, are of a disappointingly scraggy beach, a lonely old man accosting us verbosely in good English in front of one of the gateways to Sciacca old town, and an elegant country hotel where a dish of grapes and a peach was offered as Helen reclined on a chaise longue reading.

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

In the late afternoon light the following day the Doric temple at Segesta looked magnificent and we caught the last shuttle bus up to the amphitheatre at the top of the hill with its spectacular view.

We spent our most memorable two days, despite John’s painful chest and fatigue, in Monreale with its Norman cathedral and pleasant town.

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

The cathedral glittered with mosaic Bible stories running in strip cartoon bands on a gold background right round the inside walls of the cathedral, with the magnificent golden Christ Pantocrator of the apse dominating all. More Bible stories as well as intricate plants, mythological beasts, acrobats and archers embellished the capitals of the marble columns supporting the Arab arches of the cloisters. Outside, seen from the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter, the flamboyant Arabic external decoration of the apse was striking.

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

After Cefalu on the coast, whose even earlier cathedral mosaics, apart from the Christ Pantocrator, were disappointing after Monreale, we headed inland again to the hilltop villages and towns. In Castelbuono we enjoyed the museum in the castle and the rather crude frescoes in the damp church crypt, and a cheap cafe in Nicosia. The wooded scenery was attractive but then the narrow road began to disintegrate and John had to navigate craters for many kilometres. To add to the atmosphere, Etna smoked dark but subdued ahead of us; and as we got nearer, the fertile orchards were blackened by lava flow, the winding country lanes were edged with black walls and the houses looked sinister with their black stones. Back in Catania the buildings and shabby streets were also a depressing black, but the vibrant street fish market and vegetable market added plenty of colour.

Despite not doing everything we’d planned in Sicily, we had a memorable twelve days there. We then had three days back in E2E, before setting out for the UK, which gave time to get the washing done and the car loaded with extra chairs, cooking equipment and crockery, as we planned to celebrate John’s 70th birthday in our considerably smaller (and relatively less well-equipped) house in Letchworth.

It was Jacob’s half term, and he helped us prepare the house and garden and food for the party, in between playing some of his favourite games. It was a shame he wasn’t with us on the Saturday as he would have enjoyed helping Alistair put up his two gazebos in the garden to form a spacious food tent. But he was back on the Sunday with Farrah, Rachel and Toby to join all the guests sampling the spread (thank-you Ann and Jessica for all the delicious extras!) laid out in the gazebos. And the day was even warm enough (just about) for some people to sit outside and others to undertake the Letchworth quiz. It was a good celebration and catch up with family and old friends. Ann and Derek came back for dinner on Wednesday, John’s actual birthday. And on the Friday we met up with Jessica and Mark for an amazing nine course lunch at The Clove Club in Shoreditch. So it was a lovely week.

The following week we had an enjoyable day in Cambridge (some good book purchases!) and on the Thursday drove up to Nottingham (another convivial meal, this time Indian, with Leila, John and Wendy). From there we drove up to the Lake District to meet up with the Train Gang. We all gathered at Sue and Hugh’s Old Schoolhouse for honey-chicken on the Friday evening, and it was good to include most of the husbands for the first time; even the neurotic and fearful (abused) dog coped with the gang by dint of watching the clock timer ticking loudly. The autumn colours were glorious as the gang drove to Patterdale church to see the plaque to the fifth member who died a couple of years ago. And in the evening we went back to a pub the gang had enjoyed a few years back.

On the way up Cat Bells

On the way up Cat Bells

The weather was not so good the next day when Jessica, John and Helen climbed up Cat Bells and Shelagh and Melvyn returned to Patterdale, but the hills were purple with heather and, when the rain clouds lifted, snow could be seen on the top of Skiddaw and Helvelyn.

On the way back from seeing the Traingang, we stopped to have lunch with Ann and Michael at the Old Hall in Sandbach (wonderful building but standard pub food). They had rented our farmhouse in the early days, and returned several times to dog-sit for our American friend Nicola. So it was good to catch up with them. And there was another link to that era when we returned to E2E a few days later; an e-mail from Nicola announced the death of Godiva, the last of the cats that Nicola had adopted in 1997 after other farmhouse tenants had told her about the four kittens abandoned by a wild cat in a woodpile below our vegetable patch. Two of those peasant kittens had later moved to a Paris flat and two had gone to the south coast with Nicola and her dogs, far from their humble origins.

Since those busy weeks in Sicily and in the UK, everyday life has seemed calmer back in E2E. The most frequent vehicles on our road are tractors bringing bales of hay down to the cowshed. So it was a surprise the other day to hear a gaggle of girls running after a car, waving something in their hands. They turned out to be some of the Saulcy baton-twirlers selling their calendar – probably more colourful than that of the firemen or rubbish collectors, and a definite indication of the fast-approaching end of the year. No doubt the postman will knock soon with his calendars. He will have to hurry, as only next week we hope to be re-packing the car and setting off for Christmas in Letchworth.

In the meantime, we hope you are enjoying all your December activities and preparations. Joyeuses fetes de fin d’année!

Facelift: February–June 2012 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version click on this link
E2E2012_issue_2-A.pdf (six A4 pages)
And some links giving more photos than are in the text:
A lot of crépi – day-by-day progress
Restaurant meal photos

A siege mentality sets in as the horizons shrink, with the hills blotted out by low rain clouds like a Japanese painting, and doorways and windows sealed off with sticky tape and polythene. No, we are not being immured due to a bubonic plague outbreak; at the moment we can still get out down the ramp and into the wet field, or out of the back barn door if we are prepared to squeeze round grubby scaffolding poles. The crépi men have arrived! So a good time to retreat to the attic and send an update on the past months here. 

Over the years we have been trying to turn parts of our fields into a peaceful garden and (more ambitiously) an arboretum, whilst the farmers continued to carve deep ruts across the middle of it all with increasingly heavy farm machinery rather than using the little tractors of twenty years ago. With the help of the area conciliator (a gentle legal functionary), a sensible solution has now been reached: to create a new track at each end of our fields to give access to their lower fields and to replace the one close to the house. We phoned de Freitas, who did all the earlier building work here. He was rumoured to be living sullenly in retirement, having argued with his sons, and even (gestures of hand to mouth) drinking heavily. His wife was a little guarded on the phone, but when he came round to see us, he was all smiles and affability and perfectly prepared to use his mechanical digger on a morning’s work for old clients. So his son ordered two 6 metre long pipes to create bridges over the ditch at the bottom of our fields and onto the bottom fields and he duly shifted earth to make a good slope and track to the “bridges”. At one point the digger fell silent and we could see de Freitas standing by the ditch looking gingerly at an object he’d unearthed.

Was this a WWI grenade?

Was this a WWI grenade?

Was the elongated rusty object a grenade from the first world war (after all, soldiers had died in these fields) or was it a bottle-shaped container or bit of agricultural machinery? We did the correct thing for suspect grenades and consulted the mayor, who, unruffled, took it away and wasn’t seen for a few days. No more was said, so we assume it just went in his dustbin!

Anyway (and this is increasingly a shaggy dog story to while away a damp day), we took the opportunity to consult de Freitas about two projects that had been on our mind for a while. Not surprisingly, he has a colleague who would happily tarmac our car parking areas and the narrow strip between the road and house (which got very muddy this winter), and another who renders the outsides of houses, old or new. It would seem that business cannot be discussed without the correct introductions. So one morning he brought over his friend and neighbour, M. Meltz, who could do the re-rendering (crépi) and introduced him. But it would have been impolite to get down to the nitty gritty so soon after introductions. So M. Meltz promised to ring and arrange an appointment to survey the house and discuss the project. That done, an estimate prepared and accepted, M. Meltz was prepared to start work in September, when the weather would be cooler, and expected work to take up to four weeks, depending on the weather.

After this rather leisurely start to the project, we were peacefully showering one morning at the end of May (admittedly at the rather late hour of 10 a.m.) when the doorbell rang. Expecting it to be a delivery (John is always ordering bits and pieces off the internet), I wrapped a towel round me and went down, to be greeted by a rather embarrassed M. Meltz wondering if they could do the crépi work in June rather than September. Had another contract been postponed, we wondered, or was it that the wet, cool forecast favoured June working? Five days later the scaffolding arrived, followed by two days of noisy pneumatic hammers as the old rendering was chipped off and the old stones revealed. 

John has always suspected that the old farmhouse, like most of the other old local buildings, would have originally had a front door onto the road, next to the big barn entrance.

Bricked up farmhouse door

Bricked up farmhouse door

And sure enough, a bricked up doorway was uncovered, next to the present downstairs bathroom window (where the shower now is). Interestingly the stones in that section are pinker, and it looks as if they formed the original building comprising barn and probably a front and back room with the traditional large Vosgian chimney in the middle (above and behind the farmhouse fridge). The stones on the upper storey are larger and more regular than the lower courses, so it may originally only have been a single storey building. Later a grander entrance and rooms were added to the east and a extra barn for animals and a hayloft to the west. We’d been told that our predecessor, M. Fresse had added the third barn for vehicles (and presumably the workshop for his electrical repair business). We of course have extended above his third barn and created a garage between that and his workshop. It has been fascinating to see the sequence in the stones, bricks and breeze blocks. I only wish we could keep the attractive stonework, despite all its blemishes, but the “mortar” holding the stones together is more like dried, crumbling mud at the barn end and definitely needs strengthening and weatherproofing with enduit, a mix of cement and chalk.

They have now applied the undercoat of enduit on the north wall along the road and the east wall by the later front door and are currently working on the south wall, with the west section (third barn, garage and workshop) still to be done. It is a three- (and sometimes four-) man job. The apprentice (who managed to injure his finger with the drill on the first day and needed a large white bandage) stands by the mixer feeding in the bags of powder and water, the foreman wields the nozzle of the long flexible tube, spraying the mix between and over the old stones to a rough finish, which clings remarkably well, and his number one smooths it expertly to a good finish. Everything not being sprayed is being covered in polythene sheeting and orange tape. It’s fascinating to watch, – we stood for ages on the first day, dripping in the rain, to gawk, before clambering back indoors for a coffee. Later (in fine weather) a colour coat will be applied. Over in Alsace you can see lurid raspberry, mauve, turquoise and lemon shades, but we’ve gone for a traditional peasant ochre with a mud grey strip at the bottom to deal with the mud of passing cars, tractors and milk lorries.

Speaking of milk lorries, during the conciliation process (above) we met a delightful old man who used to collect the milk from our little farm in the old days, along with that from the neighbouring farms. He would sell it on to thirty-seven small shops in St Dié, he said, and later to the laiterie until it closed. Now it is collected by a tanker, which has to slow down to get past our scaffolding at present.

But ours aren’t the only major works in the village. New houses continue to be built despite the recession (and lack of reliable water sources). The latest is Farmer Duhaut’s. Since his retirement from active farming (partly due to an accident or two with a bull) he no longer needs his barns and hangers, so most have been pulled down this winter and two new single buildings are spreading out. His mother, Giselle, still lives on the ground floor of the old farmhouse while he and his wife live above, but it sounds as if the stairs were getting a bit much. Work is still not complete on Ludo’s car-repair garage between his house and Granny and Grandpa Laine’s house, but there is no shortage of cars outside awaiting ordered spare parts. Apparently in spring he also had about fifty motor mowers awaiting parts. The Vozelles (the farm where the dogs, hens, geese, chicks and cats spread out over the road as their farmyard) have had the front of their house painted cream and grey. And the house on the road into the village which used to be a small metal factory and which Duhaut’s former farming partner, Olivier, turned into a family house, is now surrounded by a new wall and occupied by a man with a fish delivery business. According to the Vozelles that house was burgled in broad daylight one morning. I wonder if the thieves made off with the usual items or if it was a fish heist.

Mention of fish leads my thoughts to restaurants. Some of you have hinted that we spend most of our days in restaurants, but really, dining out remains an occasional treat for us (it’s just that we tend to harp on about it). We enjoyed seeing Raymond Blanc’s progress through France on TV, especially in Alsace, where he cooked in a restaurant in Riquewihr that we knew. We were rather sad when our favourite chef moved from the Blanche Neige (which is still empty up on its hillside) to a restaurant close to the Rhine, and even sadder when he later moved even further east across the Rhine into Germany. He and his wife now run the Heckenrose Hotel and its restaurant, close to Europa-Park (so rather a different family-based clientèle much of the time). However we made the long trek across the Rhine one Sunday lunchtime in April and had a wonderful five-course meal (no mid-week lunchtime opening as the Germans don’t have the two-hour lunch break so sacred to the French). We made a day of it, stopping at what we thought was just a wine fair en route, but which was an interesting (and unique?) combination of graphic illustrators/publishers and wine producers. And on the way back we took the car ferry across the Rhine. We had asked if their sous-chef was still with them; but, being a Ukrainian his temporary work permit meant he had to stay in France unless he wanted to restart the whole procedure again, so he was now at a restaurant in Ribeauvillé. So, of course, we had to try that too. I was expecting the Restaurant Parc Carola to be very elegant, but it turned out to look like an Edwardian tea house in the small park next to the Carola bottled water factory. But the food was quite enjoyable. The chef had previously had a Michelin star for many years at a restaurant in Colmar but was now starting out on her own. For elegant we had to wait for a trip to a somewhat larger park, the Jardin de l’Orangerie, in Strasbourg (close to the European Parliament) and the Michelin-starred le Buerehiesel restaurant. The son has simplified the restaurant (and reduced prices) since his father’s day, but if you want classic cooking and silent flunkeys attending to your every whim, this is still the place. There were busy tables outside, but we were ushered to an attractive first-floor room with huge glass windows reflecting the trees of the park.

A street of storks in Strasbourg

A street of storks in Strasbourg

We’d been dive-bombed by a stork on our way across the park, but it wasn’t till we were returning to the avenue where Bluto was parked that we noticed that every pollarded tree along the avenue had a stork family in comically detached splendour similar to the detached villas behind.

But the highlight was my birthday meal in a little restaurant on the Rue des Juifs just inside the old walls of Riquewihr. I had been thinking of going back to the Table du Gourmet where Raymond Blanc had cooked until John found the reviews for au Trotthus. This sounded like somewhere that would appeal to all six of us (Leila and a friend, Emma, were over with us for the week and Roger and Dorinda were staying in their Anould house). The Breton chef had worked for twenty years in Japan, Australia and the Caribbean, before deciding to poser ses marmites in Alsace, bringing with him the flavours of the world. Ignoring the chalked plateau gourmand menu of the day we tried different dishes from the more elaborate menus and were all full of praise. The perfect birthday meal! In fact it must be time for a return trip.

Leila planned a busy programme to show Emma the best of both sides of the Vosges, and for once the weather was good for most of her stay. We drove north on their first day to Lunéville for an upmarket vide grenier which included antiques stalls. We had a great time browsing, with everyone finding something of interest. Leila was the first to spot a low table with blue tiles which would look good in her little garden. Despite bargaining, it was a bit pricey. Later she found a slab of more attractive blue tiles (which would once have formed a base for a wood-burning stove) and she got both that and some attractive Moroccan-tiled shelves (for trailing pot plants) for a lower price. Meanwhile Emma rummaged and we haggled for an attractive tablecloth, John noticed an “Alice” (Wonderland and Looking Glass) in French, beautifully illustrated by Dušan Kállay from Bratislava, and I bought a paperback version of Ogden Nash poems produced for the American soldiers in the last war (and presumably left behind during the Liberation). We wandered down to the Lunéville château which is still partially shrouded in scaffolding, though it the fire-damaged section has been rebuilt, and back through the formal gardens, finishing our visit with sausage and chips at the flea market. We had equally enjoyable days in the Alsace villages of Kaysersberg and Riquewihr looking at all the local crafts like earthenware casseroles and embroidered linen and more exotic ones like “vegetable ivory” jewellery; we ate hearty Alsace food at the Auberge Saint Alexis up in the forest as well as more delicate food of au Trotthus. The girls spent a day at the concentration camp at le Struthof, and we had a local tour (the only damp, grey day of their stay) of the tiny Plainfaing antique shop (where Emma bought an enamel jug) and the Confiserie des hautes Vosges where pine, menthol and herbal flavoured boiled sweets are made; Lac de Longemer looked cold and uninviting so we moved on to one of the many linen shops around Gérardmer, lingering over pretty heart-embroidered window panels. After English Sunday lunch (French style) we drove them back to the airport, stopping at a last vide grenier. This was definitely less picturesque than Lunéville’s, but John found an old Photax bakelite camera at a sensible price, I got a new grey sun-hat, and the master stroke was spotting some wrought iron legs for the Leila’s tiled table-top. (We won’t have as much room in the car for wine on our next trip back to the UK!) As we were leaving, John fished an attractive ceramic plate out of a rubbish bin and it now hangs on a previously bare bit of garden wall.

By now you must be asking what about the usual DIY sagas without which no newsletter would be complete. John finally got round to converting a sofa he’d made in the early seventies into an armchair to match the one that he’d made at the same time. We’d bought some foam cushion pads back in Nottingham on our last visit and I made some covers for them. The first set were off-white covers, similar to the original ones. But, after Toby had pointed out a patterned fabric in the Conran exhibition at the Design Museum, which he remembered us having in his youth, I fished out the faded remains of the fabric from one of our many boxes, and had just enough good material to cover the foam for both chairs. So now they’re more practical, but still attractive, russet shades that match our current sofas. The day after Leila and Emma left, I boxed up some of our books and ornaments so we could move their shelves from the wall for the next projects, which were to be accomplished with the help of Alistair, whose annual working visit has become absolutely invaluable. Number one task was to put up the new roller shutters outside above the windows (we didn’t then know how soon M. Meltz’s gang would be taking them down again). Their second task was to create channels behind the plasterboard walls for the electrical wiring to the shutters and then drill through the walls to attach the wires. White plasterboard dust everywhere and much frustration, but eventually it was all done and the roller blinds (when not dismantled) glide smoothly up and down, operated by remote control from inside. Alistair and John also laid more drainage channels across the front of the house, so, when the sloping strip from the road to the house is tarmaced, the surface water will flow to the drains. Across the back of the house and under the drive they sunk another pipe for a trickle-watering system (to be finished later) for the vegetable garden and finished the concrete tiling on the slope and water tank next to the terrace. An instantly attractive effect was gained when Alistair laid a new stretch of curving brick path from the end of the terrace (which they paved last summer) to the previous path through the small flower garden. (Will next year’s projects include a link from the other end of the path to the foot of the ramp? Having got one incorrect batch, we must remember that the correct bricks are apparently called “zebras”) We were sad to wave Alistair off at the end of ten days of hard labour as we missed his cheerful presence, ingenious ideas, flamboyant fungi-related flea market purchases and hard work (not to mention those early mornings and evenings of model helicopter flying).

Treecreepers and trumpets

Treecreepers and trumpets

The local wild life will also miss Alistair. He was fascinated to observe treecreepers scuttling up and down the wall above the flowerbed and new path to a tiny hole and he would break off work at intervals to allow the treecreepers to approach their nest. Other birds will also miss the house walls for nesting as all the crevices are filled with enduit. The redstarts have been perching, puzzled on the scaffolding. We shan’t regret the wasps moving out of the crumbling mortar, and hope the new coating will defeat the tunnelling rodents. The very top of the walls under the eaves have not yet been completely sealed to prevent any further stone martens, though John’s initial chicken wire has so far done the trick. The local roe deer are picturesque, though one gave Leila quite a fright as it leapt across the road right in front of Snowy (car) as she was driving. Sadly we haven’t been able to prevent them from damaging the succulent young trees in the arboretum.

And while all this everyday trivia has been going on, there have also been the far more important elections here. Before the first round of presidential voting, the only election propaganda we received was from Marine Le Pen and its lucid, reasonable employment and welfare proposals might well have convinced many locals that this was no racist, far right agenda (though it did lack any indication of how it would all be funded). At the pensioners’ barbecue we went to last week, the main concern seemed to be the unmarried status of their new President’s first lady who wouldn’t be allowed to stay with the Queen, though François Hollande was otherwise seen as a Good Thing. In fact our fellow diners seemed far more interested in our Queen’s Jubilee celebrations than the republic’s elections. An impassioned appeal then arrived in our letter box to support our current UMP Deputé, Gérard Cherpion, in the elections for the National Assembly (in which we can’t vote, either); we were urged not to be seduced by an outsider, – a champagne socialist with no Vosgian heritage, Vosgian experience or concern for the Vosges (though the name of Jack Lang was not specifically mentioned, or his Ministerial experience – or the fact that he was in fact born in the department of the Vosges). The leaflet obviously worked as Jack Lang won only 49.1% of the vote.

So with France in the hands of Hollande, the Vosges continuing to be represented by Cherpion, and the outside of our house in the hands of the crépi men, we’ll sign off with the latest photo of a far more significant young man. (It seems a long time since we were over for his first birthday in March).  

Stella, Toby and Jacob 17 June 2012

Stella, Toby and Jacob 17 June 2012

A bientot!