Lying low in Entre-deux-Eaux, February – August 2020

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2020no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)

Clicking on the photographs in the text will usually lead to
a larger selection of photographs or a panorama;
there are links to more at the end

We have been reminded that there has been no newsletter since the end of January, but, as you can imagine, that is only because there has been no news apart from the universal Covid-19 and little of everyday interest to share. But for anyone with time on their hands, here are a few scenes from over the Channel.

The February fill-dyke, behaved to form with heavy rain, high winds and power cuts. Shortly before we left for February half-term in the UK, the rain water was dangerously close to overflowing the ditch on the opposite side of the road which had led, a couple of years ago, to our barn flooding with muddy water while we were away. Fortunately this time the mayor took our phone call seriously and after a wild, windy, wet night the two commune employees arrived with a huge digger and a truck for carting away the mud and dead leaves. Perhaps the forthcoming local elections had something to do with the speed of response! However since then Mayor Duhaut has obviously been alerted to the fact that as the Brits are no longer European citizens, we have lost our vote in local and regional elections. (In fact, having left the UK over fifteen years ago, we have no vote anywhere for anything now, which feels irresponsible). Storms were then forecast over northern France for the Channel crossing we had booked, so we loaded the car set out, stayed the night an hour from Calais, and caught an earlier boat. We were glad we’d made the early crossing when the staff started putting out piles of sick bags ready for the anticipated rough crossings later in the day!

Letchworth archives

Letchworth archives

We enjoyed our couple of weeks in Letchworth and catching up with the family. At the time it felt as if we did not do a lot, given the poor weather, but with hindsight after the cessation of activity, it was pretty busy! We went on a tour of the Letchworth Archives, which have interesting objects, furniture, documents and plans from the early twentieth century and the founding of the Garden City.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt – Old Man shading his Eyes with his Hand c 1639

And another day there was an interesting exhibition of, mostly new to us, Rembrandt prints in the neighbouring small market town (lent by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), which brought back happy memories of our holiday in Amsterdam in 2019. We also stocked up on books from the excellent Oxfam in Saffron Walden (appreciated in the quiet months ahead) and bought a Lutyens style garden bench in the market (which sadly we haven’t been back to enjoy). We were delighted to have Jessica and Mark staying for a few days, and grateful to spend precious time with Mark before his death in March, and it was good to stay with Ann and Derek on our way back to Dover.

We had very few border checks, although the outside of the car was checked for something, perhaps drugs, at Dover. Back in E2E a few roof tiles had blown off and we woke to snow next morning. Despite a lack of a personal introduction from another villager, we eventually managed to contact a roofer and assistant from Saulcy, with ladders longer than ours, to replace the tiles.

At the end of February John had an appointment in the ORL department of St Dié Hospital. Usually one can just rearrange the letters to the more familiar English ones, but ORL (Oto-Rhino-Laryngologie) does not reform handily to ENT. Many of the hospital consultants in this part of France now seem to be from Romania and other east European countries, and this was no exception. John explained to her that he had initially fared well with the hearing aids he had tried out in the UK before Christmas until one side seemed to keep cutting out. Her examination revealed that he had a perforated drum, which needed to heal before any further action was taken, but meanwhile he had a thorough hearing test.

John was meant to return after a couple of months, but of course that was delayed by Covid. How the hospital had changed by mid July when he finally returned. The registration hall which is normally thronging with patients checking in was almost deserted, apart from staff manning tables by the door to enforce hand gel, the corridors were quiet, and the waiting room had only one other person waiting. A few weeks earlier Madame Laine had reported long, spaced queues outside the main door. The verdict? The ear is healing well. Hearing test slightly better. Come back in six months when the scarring is complete.

February ended stormily on 29th, with rain lashing against the window and the power cutting out at 15h, mid-ironing. At 17h when, according to their web site, EDF had expected have to fixed it, it was still off in a large area around us, and 18.30 restoration was predicted for most places but by 21h for our end of E2E. We boiled up water on the gas for tea, and brought up wood for the stove together with the old church candles we used back in 1999 when the roof blew off and we had several days without electricity and heating. John prepared a stir fry to cook quickly, we pulled down the blinds (as the shutters are electrically operated), opened a good bottle of wine and played patience by candlelight. After just over six hours power returned (and we eventually received 12€ compensation on our next electricity bill).

March was launched with Roger and Dorinda’s surprise arrival to stay in one of the gîtes two doors from their old house on the hill above Anould. So we enjoyed tea and patisseries with them and planned a restaurant trip together. When we heard nothing from them later in the week, after more wind and power cuts, we joked that they must have gone home. And indeed they had got fed up with all the rain and were concerned about the virus in crowded places and had set out for home.

So we decided to brave the outside world and lunch in the book village at L’Imprimerie, just the two of us. We ate at the counter, so watched the second chef fastidiously decorating the amuse bouches while keeping an eye on the cabbage rolls and chicken being cooked over the open fire.

Amuse bouche: charcoal-coated spheres of liquid eel sauce
click to see more

We really enjoyed the unusual food combinations (who would believe that charcoal-coated spheres of liquid eel juice could be so delicious, or the cabbage rolls that included chestnut with sliced truffle and apple puree, not to mention the first dessert of liquorice, beetroot and cream, and the second of saffron mousse).

“Orange was the color of her dress”
click to see more

And the regional wines were quirky, including an interesting cloudy golden Arbois wine made with an ancient white Savignin grape, named Orange was the colour of her dress, after a Charles Mingus song. As a bonus, the sun shone, which always lifts the spirits. The following week, as the threat of Covid increased, we had what we suspected might be our last meal out on Thursday 12 March at another favourite restaurant, Chez Guth, in the Alsace hills.

That very evening, President Macron broadcast to the nation, announcing the closure of schools, crèches and nurseries after the weekend, though the first round of elections could continue on Sunday; people over seventy should stay at home as much as possible, and others should work from home where possible; any closure of international borders would be decided at European level. Two days later restaurants, cinemas, cafes, nightclubs were ordered to close and by day 4 of our self-isolation Macron announced that self-certification travel certificates had to be downloaded and filled in. They allowed only a few specific reasons for a local-only journey and time of leaving home had to be stated, or fines would be issued. Schengen borders would close. Plenty of decisive clarity here as opposed to the UK.

Potager6 July 2020

click to see Potager panorama
6 July 2020

As if to compensate for home confinement, a lovely period of sunshine followed Macron’s announcement, so it was a pleasure to risk an early start to the year’s gardening. John constructed a cold frame from old bricks and windows in which we sowed lettuce, rocket and radishes. We ate the last of the curly kale, rotavated the potager and raked and marked out beds, and remembered to pick the young ramson or wild garlic leaves from a neglected corner when we wanted a garlic flavouring. Rhubarb was planted, herb beds trimmed and weeded, and fruit bushes pruned and fed with fertiliser. The vegetable plot borders our quiet dead-end road. On sunny days it felt as if half the village had decided to stroll or bike along the quiet road (probably without a downloaded certificate) to the cowsheds at the end and to stop for an animated chat as they passed each other at a safe distance. It was a good thing we had stocked up on cheap seeds during our February break in Letchworth, and could sow cheerful marigolds, candytuft and cornflowers in the tubs at the front of the house, cress indoors on windowsills, and broad beans and onions in the small, sunny potting area at the back of one of the barns. But the cold nights and the sight of fluffy snow flakes drifting past the windows like the white damson blossom behind delayed any outside vegetable sowing.

By 1 April Covid deaths in France had risen to 4,000. Paris was, of course, the worst affected, but our region of Grand Est was the next worst, largely due to infections at a very large evangelical conference in Mulhouse in Alsace (close to the airport and the German and Swiss borders) held before the dangers were realised. The Mulhouse hospital was soon full and patients were moved up to Colmar hospital and later to other hospitals across France, and the army constructed the first field hospital.

There had been TV scenes of police patrols issuing fines to walkers in mountain areas and of night time curfews in different areas. Not surprisingly we did not see any police cars out this way! We were impressed that the Mayor’s deputy rang to check that we were all right, could get out to shop and had the necessary documents to do so. The advantage of a small community! The dustbin men were uncomplaining about the twelve bags of recycling after we started weeding our filing cabinets. Expecting a possible lockdown we’d laid by enough food for a month without the need to visit a shop. Although we had been well stocked with food throughout March we really wanted some fresh fruit and vegetables. John experimented with Cora’s click-and-collect site which served us well throughout the confinement not only with food but with items like an ironing board cover, salad spinner and more broad bean seeds. Initially there seemed to be no collection times shown; in fact they’d all been taken very quickly. And it was only by constant monitoring John discovered when the rolling schedule for the three days was released.

Fritillaries 4 April 2020

Various Fritillaries
April 2020
click to see more

We are fortunate in being surrounded by fields to walk in as well as the garden and orchard. By April the daffodils and cowslips were coming to an end and there were fritillaries in one field. On Easter Sunday when Helen looked out of the window the mother of the two children in the chalet beyond us was scuttling round their garden presumably hiding their Easter eggs.

When the confinement was extended into May, the Mayor came round delivering more yellow recycling bags. We were horrified to hear that Claudine from the big house at the far end of our road had been very ill with the Coronavirus (especially as she had, shortly before lockdown, given Helen the traditional French greeting of a kiss on each cheek). The Mayor obviously anticipated us being out and about a bit more after May 11th, as towards the end of April we found four face-masks in our letterbox from the Mairie and a note thanking the volunteers who had made them. Two had pink rosebuds on the fabric and two were a sober blue and the packing said 2H, 2F, so rather sexist!

Marsh orchids and insects 5 May 2020

Marsh orchids and insects
May 2020
click to see more

In May the lilies of the valley and honeysuckle were heady with scent, the blowsy crimson peonies, clematis and marguerites added colour to the garden, while the orchids were pretty in the fields and marsh marigolds gleamed in the marshier areas. Then after the glorious weather, when we gardened most days, occasionally sitting down to actually enjoy the garden, we had strong winds and torrential rain which flattened the grass crop in the field on the other side of the road. The temperature obediently dropped on 11, 12 and 13 May, traditionally the days and nights of the French ice saints. So it was too cold to have our coffee and cake on the balcony or outside on Helen’s birthday, but the coffee cake was delicious, and fortunately John did not decorate it with the silly brown bears from a past Christmas cake that he was so pleased to have found in a drawer. As we could not go out to dinner, the chef, by special request, cooked a new (to us) Ottolenghi chicken recipe. There had indeed been the forecast easing of restrictions on 11th May in much of France, but as we were in a red area (still pressure on hospitals) as were Paris, Ile de France and … wait for it … the department of Mayotte (north of Madagascar; any newspaper Coronavirus figures for France includes cases for the S American, Caribbean, and Indian Ocean overseas departments as well as for the hexagon or France in Europe).

However we could now drive up to 100 km as the crow flies within the Département without filling in a form, the wearing of masks was obligatory on public transport and in shops that specified it. Bookshops, libraries, small museums and hairdressers could also re-open, though not restaurants. Our MoT equivalent testing centre promptly re-opened and reminded us that our re-test was overdue. After the test, we celebrated the new freedom with a drive through the very empty streets of St Dié, admiring the large wall paintings. In the last week of May schools also reopened and the gardens round us sounded strangely quiet.

Orchard - 10 July 2020

click to see Orchard panorama
10 July 2020

The weather seemed to suit the strawberries, both cultivated and wild which were plentiful this year, though sadly May’s ice saints, including St Pancras, must have attacked the plum blossom, but the other fruit blossoms escaped as we have plentiful apples and pears weighing down the orchard trees at present. The cherries seem to have been plentiful too in more sheltered areas than our ice-pocket valley, as in June the ex-mayor’s companion brought round large trays of cherries from La Soyotte, the traditional farm in Sainte Marguerite which has been preserved as a museum of everyday life. John made four jars of cherry compôte from the ones we bought, and Madame Laine made cherry clafoutis from the ones she bought (which Helen sampled it on one of her visits and was surprised by the potent rum flavour, as Danielle always used to say she did not drink, though seemed to knock back her share at village feasts).

surprised deer

Surprised deer

The wildlife has flourished with Helen watching a baby deer careering across our field as she took the washing in, then hearing a loud thump as it bounded across the road and was hit by a car that wouldn’t have seen it emerge from behind the trees. But it seemed unaffected as it bounded up the bank on the other side of the road. Maybe it was the same one John startled two or three months later as he was taking photos very near it (he was equally surprised as it leapt out).

Giant Green grasshopper

Giant Green and
other grasshoppers
click to see more

John’s photos of flowers and insects this year have been a pleasure to see. We were amused to see a grasshopper on our front door bell in June, looking as if it wanted to ring it. Less amusing were the huge snails heading purposefully across the tarmac to the new seedlings in the potager.

Finally on June 1st our Grand Est region was declared a green area. This allowed restaurants to re-open, with suitable precautions, like customers wearing masks when walking round the restaurant and staff wearing gloves and charlottes. The charlottes rather puzzled us as we could not imagine the need to wear their desserts or the potatoes, but reference to the dictionary revealed that charlottes are also bonnets, sun hats or plastic or hygiene caps.

Siaskas (fromage de Munster frais), bitter cherries marinaded in cherry kirsch, kirsch cream, meringues
click to see more

When we celebrated at L’Imprimerie one chef was bare-headed and the other had his usual cap, but everyone including the reluctant waiter were in their masks. The owner likes practising his English; we always find his English a bit difficult to follow, but it seems rude to ask for repeats, and a mask didn’t help! But he is always so friendly and likes to know what we think of dishes, especially new ones like the dessert of bitter cherries. The countryside round the book village looked so lush since we were last there three months earlier.

Concombre au vinaigre, féta, croûtons, consomme de sapin, glace pistache
click to see more

And our second lunch out a week after, back at Chez Guth in mid-June was superb. His starter of cucumber and feta was so tasty and pretty and the trout with shrimp sauce main was different from anything we’ve had there before. The cherry dessert was also delicious. We were glad to hear they they had done well during lockdown, serving up to 100 reasonably priced take-away meals (plus instructions) per day at weekends and were continuing while custom built up. The closure period seemed to have given chefs time for all kinds of creative ideas; we had the most interestingly different meal there that we have had since our first visit.

With large gatherings not permitted, the pensioners activities did not start up again after lockdown was eased, apart from the walking group. The, newly-instituted-last-year Bastille Day village fireworks were cancelled.

But Helen had a slightly longer chat than usual with a couple of younger neighbours who walk past the vegetable patch with their small dog each afternoon at the same time. After all these months of daily greetings, the wife finally ventured, “Excuse me, if it’s not indiscreet, might I ask a personal question?” Permission graciously granted, she continued, “I can’t help noticing that you have an accent. Where are you from?” If only she’d asked her next-door neighbour, Madame Laine. who loves a good gossip, she would have learnt of 30 years of our life histories in no time! But Danielle had her own big news: at the beginning of July she looked round and signed up for a room in a brand new care home in Plainfaing from September. By the end of July, her cases were packed and ready for her new life. We hope she likes it once there, as she is clearly expecting to find lively company and conversation with other residents as well as constant care.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)
19 July 2020

In mid-July John was to be found wandering round in the middle of the night with his camera, trying to find the best spot from which to get a good view of the Neowise comet. One unsuccessful early morning at 4am he drove up the hill towards Fouchifol, where he found another man packing up his equipment, who hesitantly asked if he was the Englishman. John vaguely recognised though could but place him. The man said he should have come a bit earlier before it became too light, and showed him his pictures. As we chatted next morning, we worked out that he was a well-known local photographer of wildlife. Although we occasionally see them at village functions, our main conversations in the past have been outside a museum in Colmar and with his wife at a genealogy exhibition in St Dié – and now on the deserted dark road to Fouchifol.

International Space Station

Tracking ISS overhead
and the ISS itself
click to see more

Later in July and August as well as the fauna and flora, with clear night skies he got interested in trying to photograph the International Space Station (ISS), Jupiter and its moons, Perseids meteor showers and the Milky Way (although long exposure shots were marred by satellites and the inevitable planes).

We decided that we should try out a few unfamiliar restaurants in July. These included La Grange, which the older chef at the Ducs de Lorraine elegant restaurant in Epinal had set up with his new partner in a small village, after retiring from the Ducs and divorcing his annoying, bossy, wife. Apparently they are aiming at a warm and welcoming atmosphere and good reasonable food. That seems to involve not wearing masks or other protection and not bothering too much about hand sanitiser or social distancing. His food was nothing like as good as it used to be. The walls were adorned with pink and lime green plastic fly swats which a man at an adjacent table was using with relish (and success) on the flies on his table. A cat was sitting on another table. We were not convinced by “warm” and “welcoming”.

The big excitement when we tried out Quai 21 in Colmar was that John forgot his mask, so we had to stop on the way to buy one from a pharmacy. But of course you can’t go into a pharmacy if you are not wearing a mask, and he refused to wear Helen’s rosebud one. The white ones Helen bought were lighter and less stifling to wear, so it was not a disaster. With school holidays having started everywhere and travel permitted, the cars on the main road over the pass to Colmar were mainly German and Belgian, and Colmar was packed with tourists, so not as pleasant to walk by the picturesque canals as out of season. Lunch in the quayside restaurant was carefully cooked and presented, but no exciting flavours and combinations to tempt us back.

August has been quieter. Helen had got a lot of bites (despite being smothered in repellent) in July while gardening and fruit picking and they had become infected, so she was itchy, scabby and oozing. After consultations with the GP (and linguistic discussion of the words for scab) and a dermatologist (also Romanian), she emerged for the pharmacy with a large bag of antibiotic pills, sprays, gel and cream, and after two weeks is beginning to look slightly less blotchy. Meanwhile John pulled his back, and had to cancel his physiotherapy for Achilles tendinitis. So we have been a couple of old crocks and the neglected garden has become overgrown,

Hummingbird hawk moth

Hummingbird hawk moth+videos
click to see more

Butterflies and moths

Butterflies and moths
click to see more

Nevertheless, we are working our way through beans, courgettes and raspberries and John has taken some beautiful pictures of butterflies and moths (including the fascinating humming bird hawk moths).

But there was also some human interest to be spotted in the fields around us. Last Saturday afternoon a tractor and trailer turned off the main road across the valley into the village and came to a halt in the field, which had been cut and baled by the young farmer from Taintrux.

Wedding photographs

Wedding photograph

As figures in white and black descended and posed, we realised, with the help of binoculars, that the small wedding party having photos taken in front of the tractor and trailer were the young farmer, his bride, bridesmaid and several page boys. They must have been en route from the ceremony to the reception, as various cars passed, hooting. Were they about to celebrate in the E2E village hall now that gatherings of up to thirty people are permitted (though numbers in the Mairie are restricted and social distancing, masks and hand gel compulsory there and in church). At least the wedding party did not head up our road to the large cattle shed for more photos and festivities.

So every day life continues in Entre-deux-Eaux and, as travel restrictions threaten, we are likely to remain quietly here for much of the remainder of the year. Meanwhile we send you all our greetings and hope for a time when we can meet again.

Some other panoramas around the farmhouse taken in early July
(I should have cut the grass first!)

panorama overview locations

panorama locations

West end field 
Garden swing and west garden 
Farmhouse from septic tank filter cover 
E2E potager (veg patch)
Over the potager fence and two people walking along the road
The bottom field which has gone wild
Orchard 
Arboretum 

 

 

The International Space Station (ISS) July 2020

I posted an item on 7 June 2013 on photographing the ISS. As I now have a different camera and lenses and as we have clear skies I decided to do an update.

I now use the ISS Detector app on my phone to notify me of upcoming events. At 22:38 on Monday 27 July 2020 there was a possible nearly overhead ISS sighting (max. height 86°, appearing 27° above WNW disappearing 22° above ESE). The first quarter moon was not too bright and not likely to cause problems. So I set my tripod in the field below the farmhouse, in the best position to avoid the farmhouse and surrounding trees blocking the overflight path. I had a 7.5mm Samyang fisheye lens on my camera and set it at an angle to give me the likely full path across the diagonal of the image . With the lens set at f8, I opened the shutter just before the predicted appearance time. The ISS passed over and disappeared from sight just before the end of the path and I then shut the shutter. This is the resulting unedited image:

ISS 22:44 27 July 2020 ISO 400 f8 371s
Entre-deux-Eaux 48° 13′ 53″ 6° 58′ 48″

As I was satisfied with that photograph, the following day I was just out taking some photographs of the moon with a 75-300mm zoom lens (and also attempting some photographs of Jupiter). I’d forgotten about the ISS but suddenly saw it appear above the orchard trees. Rather than trying to take partial path picture, I wondered whether it was possible to just take a snapshot of the ISS itself. I had no idea of exposure settings and had little time so just took a guess at what to use. I loosened the ball and socket mount so I could swivel the camera to track the ISS and set the lens to 75mm in the hope of seeing the ISS through the viewfinder with the wider view. That wasn’t too difficult and I was then able to zoom to 300mm (= 35mm full-frame 600mm) and to track the ISS, pressing the release several times to take photographs. The results were rather mixed, poorly exposed, and showed camera shake but gave me an indication of what might be possible.

So I decided I might be able to do better the next night with some proper preparation. I set the camera exposure to a faster shutter speed and higher ISO and also set the camera to take an automatic succession of photographs to try to reduce the initial movement from pressing the shutter release (at that focal length the camera is very sensitive to the slightest movement). I had to use the release button on the camera as I needed both hands to help track the ISS smoothly so couldn’t easily use my phone as a remote control.

I took over 100 photographs. About 10% have an image that on close inspection is discernible as an object rather than just a white, slightly blurred, blob. I doubt I would be able to get a better photograph with that lens. I would need the camera attached to a telescope which had automated tracking.

This shows one of the full images with the ISS arrowed. I’ve pasted an enlarged version of that faint white dot in the RH corner. The ISS in the image is only 20×16 pixels overall. It was pleasing as I’d not really expected such a positive result.

ISS 22:48:04 29 July 2020 ISO 3200 f6.7 1/640s 300mm

According to http://www.isstracker.com/historical the ISS was at 45.874N 3.008W (over Volvic in Central France) at an altitude of 262.45 miles and travelling at 17,144.65 mph.

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

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

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

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

mangy fox

mangy fox

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

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

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

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

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

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

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

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

Dougal

a.k.a. Dougal

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

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

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

Wilfred Owen’s grave

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

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

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

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

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no4.pdf (three A4 pages)
and click here for Bethune photographs

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.

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

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

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

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

Election leaflets

Election leaflets

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

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

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

Louvre-Lens Museum

Louvre-Lens Museum

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

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

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam canal

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

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

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

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

Wayang puppet theatre

Wayang puppet theatre

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

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

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

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

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

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

Chocolate and walnut cake

Chocolate and walnut cake

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

Photographs and updated panoramas from our 2010 Hungary tour

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

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

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

Hungary 2010

Hungary 2010 photographs and panoramas

Romania: Painted Monasteries

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

Moldovita Monastery

The Romanian painted monastery photographs and panoramas are now at
Romania: Painted Monasteries

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

 

Voronet Monastery interior

Voronet Monastery interior

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tree decoration, Barr

Tree decoration, Barr

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

Christmas window, Barr

Christmas window, Barr

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

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

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

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

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

L’Oignon,  l’Imprimerie

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

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

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

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

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

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

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

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

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

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

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

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

amuse bouches, jellied eels and foie gras

amuse bouches: jellied eels; foie gras

'Core_apple'

‘Core_apple’

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

Isle of Oxney map

Isle of Oxney map

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

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine de Roubaix

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

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine, Roubaix

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

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

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Children's dining room, Villa Cavrois

Children’s dining room, Villa Cavrois

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

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

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

Catamarans, Cistercians, High Crosses and compost: August and September 2018 in Eire and Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no4.pdf (nine A4 pages)

There is a comprehensive set of photographs:
Ireland July-August 2018
together with links to place photographs in the text
which usually go to the first of a sequence of photographs

There is an overview map of our route
and a more detailed map for each day in the photographs

With grandchildren back at school, the pensioners of the Vosges resume their social activities in September, including the Sainte Marguerite group who tax their brains fortnightly with word and number puzzles. And, like children at school, they start with the round-the-table question, “What did you do in the holidays?” Ireland and the Irish are highly esteemed round here (unlike perfidious Albion), so Helen’s report of our holiday in Ireland was very well received; so much so that her success in finding the longest word and even the dreaded number total were immediately attributed to the sharpening of wits in Ireland.

It is the friendliness, slower pace of life and the constant rain in Ireland that the French comment on, but Irish food (like English) does not get a French vote. We were to agree on most of that. But what we were also to realise was how woefully ignorant we were of Irish history, apart from words like Famine and Uprising. None of the 800 years of English political and military involvement in Ireland were mentioned in our history syllabus. And the only home discussions, which were more of diatribes, that Helen remembers from childhood were her Great Aunt Beatrice’s assertions that the Irish Catholics were trying to take over, witness their building of huge new schools in towns like Liverpool. How upset Great Aunt Trissie would have been if she knew that her great niece would work as school librarian for four years in a pleasant Catholic school in Nottingham, where the conversation at the beginning of term would be less about taking over than about the terrible Irish Sea crossings they just had endured on their way back from holidays with relatives.

Remembering their accounts all these years later, taking the fastest transport, the catamaran, sounded a good idea. But unfortunately catamarans are liable to cancellation when bad weather threatens. So instead of eating dinner in Dublin on Sunday evening, we arrived for a breakfast on Monday morning, having been reallocated to the 2.40am ferry boat. Our first encounter with Irish hospitality and good cheer was at our pleasant Georgian hotel, where all the cheerful and pleasant staff seemed to be east European girls with excellent English and local knowledge about bus services and restaurants. And, as with everyone else, their most frequent closing comment was, “You’re welcome”.

Bureaucracy never seemed to weigh too heavily with officials. And a pleasant young man whisked us in to the Book of Kells exhibition at a different day and time from our pre-booked ticket without batting an eyelid. “You’re welcome”.

Trinity College Library

Some years ago, Christopher de Hamel’s “Meetings with with remarkable manuscripts”, had perhaps raised expectations a bit too high. Whereas he had been escorted personally to a quiet room where the pages of the Book of Kells were turned for him to study for as long as he wished, we had to be content with a dimly lit room with a finger-print covered showcase surrounded by impatient tourists elbowing for the best view of two dull brown pages. The exhibition that preceded it was full of interesting details, however, as was a book we later purchased, and the dusty Trinity College Library brought back happy memories of academic libraries of yesteryear.

Thomas Davis Monument, College Green

Thomas Davis Monument, College Green

Outside, on College Green, four magnificent jagged angels distracted us, blowing their trumpets to awaken the four provinces of Ireland. Here our history failed us as it did as we looked at the harrowing scenes round the base of their fountain. Later we stared from under our dripping umbrellas at the more celebrated statues of O’Connell Street, but it was the Angel Fountain we found more thought-provoking. As the rain got heavier, we considered asking two people with bulging plastic bags labelled “Chapters”, where to find that second-hand book paradise; but as they disappeared over the Ha’penny Bridge, we realise that we were by the equally tempting-sounding Winding Stair Bookshop. Bagging our purchases, the friendly assistant directed us to her much larger rival, Chapters, a route incorporating market stalls and street art like the butcher’s mosaic animal heads. Clutching our own Chapters’ bulging bag (old children’s books for Helen’s collection), we subsided into Smokin’ Bones with its generous portions of deep south (American) BBQ food.

8C crucifixion plaque from Rinnegan

8C crucifixion plaque from Rinnegan

Memories of Victorian railway stations surfaced next morning as we gazed up at the great hall roof structure, but railway stations were not filled with gold torcs and gold ear boxes and did not have such magnificent marble fireplaces as Dublin’s National Museum of Archaeology. We lingered over Celtic and early Christian artefacts from sites we planned to visit and the bog bodies in the Kingship and Sacrifice section (rivals of the Danish ones we saw last year). An equally intriguing bog find was the 8th or 9th century Fadden More psalter, somewhat the worse for its long immersion. All too soon a voice boomed out a 5 o’clock closing time warning and a whole day had vanished. That evening the sun came out, so we strolled along the quiet park-lined street by our hotel, stopping at a Thai restaurant and take-away which dished up the best evening meal of the holiday!

Wicklow mountains

Wicklow mountains

The next morning the clammy clouds lifted above the old Military Road, revealing the scalloped dark Wicklow mountains. Thoughtful sheep, rather than British soldiers repelling Irish rebels and French invaders, now patrolled the narrow road, cyclists in Tour-de-France-like gear glided downhill, occasional foreign cars acknowledged each other with hoots as they edged past (it must be the locals who whizzed by) and a waterfall cascaded as waterfalls do.

Glendalough round tower

Glendalough round tower

Sadly, the famous sixth century monastic site of St Kevin at Glendalough seems to be run at present on the principle of revealing as little information as possible once the tourist has paid a hefty charge for the huge, packed car-park. No portable maps of the site were offered and few buildings were labelled. Apparently the present incumbent does not believe in defacing buildings with signs – apart, that is, from the ones telling you not to deface historic buildings.

Glendalough walkway in the rain

Glendalough walkway in the rain

The rain was heavy once again as we perused the nearest unlabelled ruins, which included a round tower (where the monks could watch for enemies, retreat and protect precious books and manuscripts) and a cathedral. Protected by dripping rain capes and umbrellas, we took the board walk across boggy ground to the Upper Lake. Fortunately the Wicklow Nature Park office at the end of the lake was more helpful to drenched walkers about the location of the more distant chapels. “You’re welcome”. We drove on to our large, impersonal hotel in Kilkenny via a ruined abbey (Baltinglass), the first of many dimly lit chocolate-coloured lounge bars (warming drinks including hot chocolate with marshmallows), and a large dolmen (Brownshill).

Jerpoint Abbey tomb

Jerpoint Abbey tomb

Jerpoint Abbey cloisters

Jerpoint Abbey cloisters

By contrast, our Jerpoint Abbey day was to prove the most memorable and enchanting. Despite all preconceptions, the sun shone, the car park at the ruined Cistercian Abbey was tiny, the reception area contained useful booklets and a fascinating exhibition of other local archaeological sites (none of which were in our Dorling Kindersley guide book) and the friendly and informative staff even produced hand-drawn maps on how to find them. So after a pleasant couple of hours wandering round Jerpoint Abbey itself, with John photographing all the quirky capitals and carvings of the cloisters and our marvelling at the relapse from austerity of the Cistercians into what they usually condemned as superfluous ornamentation, we set out to find the other sites,

Ahenny - High Cross

Ahenny – High Cross

First the twelfth century Aghaviller Church and Round Tower, and then the tiny village of Ahenny with its brightly painted cottage doors and chugging tractors and haywains. A miaowing tabby guarded the kissing gate into a field of grazing cows (her message was probably “You’re welcome!”) in the middle of which was an enclosed graveyard containing two beautifully carved High Crosses with intricate Celtic patterns. Our first High Crosses were more far striking than pictures or imagination had suggested.

Knockroe Neolithic passage tomb

Knockroe Neolithic passage tomb

After this feast for the eyes, we had to interrupt two men leaning on a gate and putting the world to rights for directions to the Knockroe passage tombs; down a cart track, in an enclosure surrounded by cows noisily pulling up grass and lapping water, the old stones stood, silent testaments to long forgotten lives. On the other side of the hand-drawn map, on a lonely road in the shadow of the Blackstairs mountains, we found the ruins of Ullard church with its Romanesque doorway and worn High Cross. Inside the ruins stood more recent upright grave stones, which we were to see filling many more of the beautiful mediaeval buildings condemned to ruin after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Round it were more cows, this time lying disconsolately on the bare black earth of a recently ploughed field. Our day’s unexpected tour ended at the church in Gowran and we dined on fish and chips back in Kilkenny.

12C Athassel Priory

12C Athassel Priory

Swiss Cottage, Cahir

Swiss Cottage, Cahir

Different histories emerged next day in Cahir with its Anglo-Norman castle, and picturesque John Nash-designed Swiss Cottage which was the day-time play house or cottage orné for the local Butler family to which they brought their guests to frolic and be bucolic; unfortunately, after it was built in 1810, neighbouring cottagers had to be thrown off their properties which marred the view from the windows to the main Butler residence, Cahir Castle. We spotted the ruined Augustinian Priory of Athassel from a country lane near Golden, but missed the discreet stone stile giving access. This time we were helped by a schoolboy on a bike and turned back, parked where a farm track emerged and walked across the cowpat-dotted field and old stone bridge. Gravestones stood like a frozen congregation listening attentively in the nave. Like yesterday, the site was deserted, apart from us and the cows.

Rock of Cashel

Rock of Cashel

Cormac's Chapel

Cormac’s Chapel

The cathedral ruins on the Rock of Cashel which we visited in the early evening was much busier, and we returned to the Rock the following morning (after an excellent breakfast at our gracious Georgian hotel) for a guided tour of Cormac’s Chapel with its carved heads, elaborate arches and fresco fragments. We were not doing too well at finding good Irish food at dinner time; that night’s fare was Indian.

Tympanum of Clonfert Cathedral

Tympanum of Clonfert Cathedral

After Cormac’s Chapel, the rest of day six was disappointing, ending up in Banagher where our B&B hostess was absent at the local fair, our bedroom bare apart from the bed and a shower and the breakfast the next morning dismal. However, we escaped to the tiny Clonfert cathedral with its intricate tympanum and chancel arch with randomly placed angels and mermaid, and then to the tavern in Shannonbridge, with its three drunken men shouting and quaffing at the bar and four well-dressed tea-drinkers on their way home from the Galway races, pouring tea from a pretty flowered teapot into pretty flowered mugs from the local pottery. Apparently Barrack Obama was presented with one of the pottery’s teapots when he visited in 2011, and earlier we’d seen roadside signs commemorating his visit (recalling Obama’s comment when he heard the news of his Irish ancestry during his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for US president, “why didn’t anyone discover this when I was running for office in Chicago?” and his joke when he arrived in Ireland “And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”) And J.J. Kileen’s standard pub-grub (do fish and chips and chicken goujons and chips qualify as traditional Irish cuisine?) is well-cooked.

Shannonbridge fort

Shannonbridge fort

Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise

We returned to investigate the fort at Shannonbridge the following morning. It was built by the British to repel any invasion from the west coast by Napoleon attempting to take Dublin. But Napoleon never came, later claiming that if Ireland had sent him honest men he would have made an attempt on the country, but he had no confidence in the integrity or talents of the Irish leaders in Paris who could offer no plan, were divided in opinion and constantly quarrelled. After drinking coffee at the fort and buying some of the pottery we (and possibly Obama) had admired from two doddery gentlemen at J.J. Kileen’s shop, we explored Clonmacnoise with its three beautiful High Crosses and grave-slab inscriptions (now protected indoors with plenty of information panels), two round towers, cathedral and churches; we walked up a narrow, sunny lane, which was buzzing with sleepy flies, to the Nuns’ church with its Romanesque doorway.

St Machan's shrine

St Machan’s shrine

Before leaving, we studied their map of local places of interest, marked them roughly on one of our maps, then drove on to find the Clonfinlough Stone, a randomly carved glacial boulder on a hillside, followed by the church at Bohrer which now houses the beautiful twelfth century St Manchan’s shrine, a gilded yew box decorated with carved figures which look almost African. In case you too are ignorant about St Manchan, he was a monk from Clonmacnoise who founded a monastic site in Lemangham, whose ruins we visited later, after we’d walked round a modern wooden walkway across the Clara bog. His church would have originally been on a natural dry island surrounded by bogs, and could have been used by pilgrims on their way to Clonmacnoise.

Irish breakfast

Irish breakfast

That night we stayed in the lavishly furnished bungalow of a Mary Berry look-alike and her husband on the outskirts of Athlone. And, like Mary Berry, our hostess provided an exceptional breakfast the following morning, fresh fruit salad, muesli, thick yoghurt, a full Irish with black and spicy white puddings for John and scrambled egg and black pudding for Helen, Gubeen cheese from Cork, home-baked breads and drop scones, syrup and home-made jams. Her husband, who serves her breakfasts, said that after forty years they plan to retire from their guest house and bakery in 2019 and spend more time visiting Italy, which they love.

Aughnanure Castle

Aughnanure Castle

Lough Corrib

Lough Corrib

 

The exceptionally good breakfast was followed by a wet walk round Galway, and a pretty drive up the west side of Lough Corrib. On the spur of the moment we turned off to Aughnanure Castle, a tower house built around 1500 by the “wild” O’Flahertys, the masters of West Connaught from Lake Corrib to the sea. As we later rounded the northern end of the lough, the sun appeared from behind banked clouds, turning the lough bright blue. Against the bright blue, the high crimson fuchsia bushes which bordered the narrow road and the orange spiky-leaved plants looked flamboyant. Reaching Cong, we walked round the early twelfth century Cong Abbey (Augustinian), which seemed plain compared to the Cistercian monasteries we had admired, but the monks’ fishing house built out over the river struck a practical note with its fireplace for cold days.

A friendly man at reception welcomed us to Ryan’s hotel on Cong’s main street which we chose in preference to Ashford Castle which charges a mere 625 euros a night for its cheapest room. He carried a case up the narrow stairs to our airy room and suggested we started our enquiries about the alleged murder in 1852 of local land agent St George Cromie (an entry from 1900 in the Oxford DNB), in the little bookshop that was part of the hotel. The same busy man later also rushed round helping to serve the large number of people dining in the hotel bar that evening. But despite his zealousness, though obviously not the chef’s, something John ate there (possibly unwashed salad) upset his stomach, so our continued search next day, on behalf of our friend Sue, into Cromie’s mysterious, undocumented death, was punctuated by frequent dashes to a loo or bush. Alas, our quest in the abandoned graveyards of Cromie’s father’s parishes, at the Ballinrobe family history society and through the newspaper reports in Castlebar local history library was fruitless, and the former Church of Ireland in Ballinrobe, which has been turned into a library, did not open at the hours stated on the library board.

Céide Fields

Céide Fields

Probably no one cares these days what happened to some unwelcome Protestant gentry. So we changed focus and century and drove on to the coast to visit Céide Fields, the oldest known neolithic field system whose walls have been preserved under layers of peat along with remains of houses and tombs. There were plenty of well-illustrated information panels and a knowledgeable assistant in the distinctive glass pyramid centre at the entrance to the wind-swept peaty hillside and excavations above the sea (and warming drinks after).

A Carrowmore megalithic tomb

A Carrowmore megalithic tomb

Boyle Abbey

Boyle Abbey

The neolithic theme continued next morning after a night in Ballina, when we decided to visit the surprisingly extensive Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery outside Sligo. Forty passage tombs and dolmens and a cairn remain, despite quarrying in the area and local re-use of stones. The views all round, when not dark with storm clouds, were magnificent, and there was mention of more cairns and dolmens on surrounding hillsides. Our next site, the Cistercian Abbey (1161) of Boyle seemed quite recent after that.

Our last three nights were spent at a B&B outside Kells, where our host was a sprightly former jockey and trainer turned mental health worker. He was at a funeral when we arrived, so first appeared in a black suit, but later seemed more comfortable sporting a cowboy hat. After a cramped first night in a small room with no surfaces (even for a toothbrush mug), no hooks to hang towels, or space to open a suitcase, he agreed to move us down the corridor to a more spacious room and bathroom (but still only one bedside light). From his place we could explore the famous Newgrange stone age passage tomb site as well as the High Crosses of Monasterboice and the legendary Hill of Tara, and be close enough to Dublin (an hour’s drive) to catch our morning catamaran.

A Kells High Cross

A Kells High Cross

Kells itself was interesting for more than its past ownership of the Book of Kells, and during the three days we saw its round tower, the High Crosses, the eleventh century oratory known as St Columcille’s House, and another small graveyard, St John’s, with the mediaeval tomb of “the Abbess” and war graves from 1915. Of its various eateries, we sampled the Khyber Pass (admiring their steam railway poster showing the last stop before the Afghan border where the boss’s family still live), a small Italian (with no wine licence or bank card machine), and the more up-market Headfort Hotel. The latter also displayed a colourful and intricate page of the town’s facsimile Book of Kells, but naturally the town would love to house the original and cater for all the tourists who would subsequently flock to Kells.

Knowth passage tomb

Knowth passage tomb

Helen had been dreading coach-loads of fellow tourists at Newgrange and Knowth, with its visitor centre organising the obligatory pre-booked buses and guides. But in fact the timed guided visits and different coloured tickets ensured that the 6000 year old passage tombs were not overcrowded or damaged. The busy receptionists and bus drivers were cheerful and chatty and the guides were very informative and happy to discuss solstice theories and even question the archaeologist’s speculative vertical wall re-facing of Newgrange with white quartz stones.

Newgrange passage tomb entrance

Newgrange passage tomb entrance

The roof box which directs the sun’s rays was intriguing, and it is hard to describe the emotion of stepping over the carved entrance stone, and walking, crouched, through the stones of the passageway into the dark heart of the Newgrange mound. Although visitors cannot go inside the mound at Knowth, the outside was fascinating with its wealth of carved and incised kerbstones and smaller encircling mounds. A very special atmosphere. And the guides commented there as elsewhere on the absence of the famous Irish rain.

After this, the legendary Hill of Tara was disappointing (and it was raining there). Children were climbing and playing games all over graves and mounds and the youthful guide provided an ill-digested mixture of fact and fiction, with nothing about the archaeological digs featured in the National Museum of Archaeology, but plenty about the excavation for the Ark of the Covenant carried out by the British Israelites (a sect, oddly enough, supported by Great Aunt Beatrice). They had failed to find it. When we walked on (without the guide) to the more distant mounds, including the Fort of Grainne, it was amusing to see the rabbits busy with their own archaeological digs.

A Monasterboice high cross and tower

A Monasterboice high cross and tower

But Monasterboice was certainly not a disappointment. Founded in the fifth century by St Buite, an obscure disciple of St Patrick, it remained an important Christian settlement till the Cistercians built Mellifont Abbey. In the graveyard were two churches, a round tower to protect against Vikings attacks, a sundial, and the three most spectacular High Crosses of our trip, in particular Muiredach’s High Cross with its beautifully carved Bible scenes.

We prepared to leave Ireland, as charmed as the Vosgians. We had found the people welcoming and the historical sights fascinating. We had enjoyed the famous Irish breakfasts, though not sampled much traditional fare in the evenings. And although we had seen the renowned green landscape through rain and mist at the start, equally memorable landscape colours, thanks to the sunshine, were the rich black peat, blue loughs, and crimson and orange flowers. And the catamaran to Holyhead? Back in Kells John received a message that the departure of the 8.30am catamaran had been brought forward to 7.45am (due to adverse weather for the return crossing?), so we crept out at 5.15 to drive to Dublin, boarded the very crowded catamaran and queued for breakfast during the smooth crossing.

Meanwhile the house in Entre-deux-Eaux had not stood empty as Toby and family took a last-minute holiday there. While we had been enjoying Ireland’s cooler, though mainly sunny, weather, it was very hot in E2E. Perhaps it is just as well we didn’t ask them to check our post as an official letter arrived from the Mairie announcing water restrictions, including the filling of pools; so they constructed and filled our patio pool in ignorance and everyone spent quite a lot of time splashing around between expeditions to favourite sites (like the wheeled sledge runs). Despite the heat they had some good walks, including a climb above Lac Blanc. Their dog Teddy also seemed to enjoy all the open fields and walks, the only problem arising when they took him to the vet the day before their return for his statutory worming treatment and were told his rabies injection had expired; so poor Teddy ended his holiday with three weeks in kennels in Calais waiting for his rabies jab to take effect.

Back in Letchworth, we exchanged memories of E2E and Ireland with them and played plenty of games with Jacob and Farrah. Leila joined us for the last couple of days there and then the three of us set out for E2E, where the weather was still very hot, especially on the plains of Alsace, as we realised when we went on a hunt for Alsace red-and-white table linen or half curtains. In the opposite direction, the Imprimerie restaurant in the book village produced a lovely surprise lunch menu for us, which accommodated Leila’s dislike of mushrooms, courgettes, aubergines and fruit that’s not red or purple. As ever, Leila was successful in getting bargains at a flea market, this time in the small village of La Bourgonce where she bought (from different stalls) four brightly coloured Moroccan plates for five euros.

Soon after her visit our neighbours, the Georgeons, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with their family. The Deux Frères restaurant (very popular with lorry drivers) provided the evening meal in the village hall, and we provided accommodation for five of their guests in the farmhouse. We had warned them in advance that the old front door key turned the “wrong” way, the beds had English pillows (different shape from French) and that the stairs were dangerously steep. But the caveats got forgotten in their hectic preparations. We ended up greeting the guests as they couldn’t get in, and we had left out spare bed linen in case theirs didn’t fit. But what we didn’t see was the guests’ return from the celebrations around 1am, when an elderly husband had to have two people pushing him upstairs from behind and one hauling in front (or so our neighbours later reported, making drinking hand gestures implying over-indulgence). Unfortunately the bathroom is downstairs, so we’re not sure how he managed after that! We had meantime been entertaining Roger and Dorinda to dinner on their return for a week to the Vosges.

“tattered splendour” patchwork

“tattered splendour” patchwork

They did not need any such help returning to their old house, now a gîte, at the end of a pleasant evening. Later in the week Helen met up with them for coffee in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines during the international patchwork festival (having particularly enjoyed the small “tattered splendour” exhibition of elaborate dresses and jackets made from old pieces of patchwork, and the tasteful Japanese quilts). And also later in the week, the Georgeons rang our doorbell and presented us with a freshly laundered pile of bed-linen, a boxful of Alsace crémant and white wine and a box of chocolates from the small Chocolaterie Thil in the next village. Delicious! And we were relieved that their guests had just missed the annual invasion of cluster flies which, by the end of that week, were curtaining the farmhouse windows and door on the east side of the house, buzzing loudly, in a mass too dense to swat. A lot of fly spray and piles of corpses.

As well as the Patchwork there have been other annual September events, like the huge braderie in Saint Dié (but no interesting purchases this year), the re-union over games, cakes and champagne of the E2E oldies, and medical check-ups in Strasbourg. The Civil Hospital there does not seem to be favoured by people we know, who prefer Strasbourg’s private hospitals to the public one with its riff-raff clients and ever changing staff. But we riff-raff English are more accustomed than the French to seeing a different doctor each time, and have been happy with the dermatology department there. This time, however, the department (a shabby older building, surrounded by sparkling new blocks) seemed deserted apart from an intern holding the fort on the top floor. Was it a staff jolly (or training day) we wondered. As we were seen without delay, there was plenty of time before the afternoon appointment – in the “newer” part of town on the Avenue de la Paix, among the late nineteenth century villas, the leafy Parc du Contades and the post-war Grande Synagogue. We found a parking spot close to the soldiers with guns guarding the synagogue and crossed to our favourite Café de la Paix – Chez Sam for a coffee and tasty slice of vegetable pizza. Fortified, we looked round the exhibition in the nearby University Library building about the May ’68 student protests in which the Strasbourg students declared their university autonomous. Then Helen’s ophthalmology check-up was as rapid as the morning dermatology one, with no discernible deterioration. So we drove out of town to see Marie-Laure and Christian in Wolfisheim, who we had first met when Helen was researching “Footprints”. They had just returned from a relaxing short holiday among the storks of Munster, and the previous day Christian had been showing people round Fort Bismark (adjacent to their garden) on Heritage Day. We sat with them on their shady balcony overlooking the trees round the fort, and caught up on each others’ news and Brexit over cold drinks and chocolate gateau.

And then it was back to E2E for the remaining autumn tasks of collecting, shelling and freezing walnuts (a very good year), picking, puréeing and freezing Bramley apples, gathering and composting other windfalls with layers of silt (which has been blocking the front drainage channel) and Jerusalem artichoke stalks (which have blown down in recent high winds). And with the freezers nearly full, autumn raspberries consumed, and marrows, squash and small onions (a bad year for them) stored in the barns, our thoughts are turning to the UK and our return at the end of next week. Helen will be meeting up with the train gang in Chester, then joining John in Wales and Hay-on-Wye, and we hope to see plenty of Jacob during his half-term (which once again does not coincide with Farrah’s). We have quite a lot planned but will be delighted to see anyone passing near Letchworth.

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!