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

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

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

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

mangy fox

mangy fox

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

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

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

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

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

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

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

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

Dougal

a.k.a. Dougal

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

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

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

Wilfred Owen’s grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Haras statue, Strasbourg

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

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

Stone Wall textile - Misun CHANG

Stone Wall textile – Misun CHANG

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

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

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

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

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

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

1920s buildings, Bethune

1920s buildings, Bethune

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

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

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!

Bog bodies, Beans and Bojagi: a wet summer in Entre-deux-Eaux with a Danish diversion, July – September 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no3.pdf (seven A4 pages)
 A link to all the photographs of our Denmark August 2017 trip
A link to the photographs of Carrefour Européen du Patchwork 2017

It all began in July on top of one of the Anglo Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo as we listened to the account of the 1939 excavation of the perfect imprint of the ship and then looked at the site photos taken by a curious holidaymaker and her friend. We have long harboured the idea of revisiting Sweden in quest of runestones, Viking burials and ships. At Sutton Hoo on the mounds above the river, and next morning seeing the huge container ships at Felixstowe and exploring Ipswich, the Viking as well as Anglo Saxon past seemed within our grasp. This year we would set out, – and at least get as far as Denmark.

After that July trip to Letchworth to see the family and tidy the garden and lawn there, we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux to tame the vegetable patch and grass expanses here, pausing en route for lunch with Sue, Ann and Derek in another place redolent of a past age – the Isle of Oxney, once cut off from the mainland of Kent. Alas we no longer needed the services of a ferryman to get us to the Ferry Inn and its car park. Pub grub like lobster and crab linguine and profiteroles may have changed a bit over the centuries, but the Romney Marsh sheep continued to graze, as unmoved by our presence as by that of smugglers in the past.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux we had five days to hack our way into the potager to gather the first courgettes (which during our absence had turned into eight large marrows worthy of any produce show) and the young broad beans (which are so delicious eaten in their pods) and to pick and freeze the dill, parsley, basil and coriander; and five days in which to clean the farmhouse thoroughly (over winter it tends to turn into an extension of John’s workshop, a greenhouse substitute, and an overflow food store), replace the empty gas canister, eliminate a wasp nest on the inside of a shutter, and make up the beds before Toby, Rachel, Jacob, Farrah and Olivia came to stay for a few days on their way south. John also made a concrete base with embedded tie loops for the swing seat as it had tipped over last time the children played vigorously on it and he suspended the swing from piggy’s apple tree (so called as it’s apples were the favourites of Madame Laine’s pig). But, alas, it seemed pointless to reinflate the swimming pool for them as rain and cool weather were forecast for their stay.

The carload (which included their dog, Teddy) arrived in Toby’s new Discovery Sport around 2.30 in the night and they crept in to their usual beds. The older visitors endeavoured to sleep in next morning after their long drive.

Jacob and Grumpy

Jacob and Grumpy

Given the unpleasant change of weather, it was a day for indoor games for Jacob, Farrah and the grandparents and for buying some Wellington boots for Jacob so he could play outside. Jacob soon remembered the blackcurrants and the jelly that can be made with them, so we had a wet foray into the fruit cage (the bushes are taller than Jacob) then he and Grumpy made a blackcurrant jelly. He also admired the height of the broad beans which he and Helen had sown in loo rolls (to protect them when transplanting to the garden) back in Letchworth in April, and we picked more of those and the dwarf beans which had flourished in our absence. A popular indoor visit is always the Confiserie des Hautes Vosges, which gives demonstrations of their sweet making and then leads visitors, overcome by aromatic sugary fumes, up to the sales room with its bags of colourful goodies. An energetic walk along the ridge above Mandray was a good prelude to the sweets. The other must-do local activity is the luge track down to the Col de la Schlucht. This year, given the uncertain weather, we decided to try a metal track for wheeled luges near La Bresse, which was a great success, especially as it had a good play area next to the café which suited adults and children alike. Refreshed we drove along the Route des Cretes to Lac Blanc and scrambled up the steep hills around the lake, led by one enthusiastic small dog and two grubby children. The views were magnificent. The next morning they left at 5 am to drive south to their rented villa near Avignon. Despite all the blocked motorways predicted for this busiest day of the year, by using Waze and following back road detours they reached their villa only a few hours late but in time to collect the key. They had a very hot week there, with plenty of swimming in their villa’s pool, which compensated for the deficiencies of the Entre-deux-Eaux climate, and then they returned to us for a few days. We were able to go to a couple of flea markets on the Sunday and dinner featured John’s new sous-vide machine (for delicious duck fillet), the garden’s marrows, beans (spiced up) then blackberries (in a clafoutis). Toby and Rachel capped this the following night with a meal at the Auberge Frankenbourg, which has remained Toby’s favourite restaurant over the years.

After their departure, our thoughts returned to Denmark, so we drafted a zig-zag car route up Jutland and across to Funen (having realised that Copenhagen and the rest of Zealand and also other islands would have to wait for another journey -perhaps by air) and booked a few hotels. Five days later we discovered how thorough an overhaul the north German motorways are undergoing as we dawdled and queued through road works. But our pleasant overnight stop hotel on the edge of Hamburg made up for all the delays. In the days that followed we were to wish that hotels in Jutland were as tasteful and comfortable with equally magnificent breakfast spreads.

As we edged up the next stretch of German motorway under repair through Holstein towards Schleswig, trying to remember what the Schleswig-Holstein question had been in long ago history lessons, John suggested that once over the border we should detour west to Dybbøl Bank. He had remembered details of the excellent BBC4 Danish drama 1864 (which Helen had completely forgotten) about the Second Schleswig War between Denmark and Prussia which ended in defeat for Denmark at Dybbøl Bank and the loss of a quarter of its territory to Prussia.

Dybbøl Banke

Dybbøl Banke

It was a glorious day as the sun unexpectedly came out and we found ourselves at the top of a hill with an old windmill and new museum. We walked up to some stones which from a distance could have been runestones, but in fact were the remains of gun emplacements, from which we had an unexpected view over the battle ground to the brilliant blue fjord beyond, which seems less blue in the photos than in memory. The short film at the museum restored Helen’s memory of key events and the political situation.

Our hotel that evening in Tønder was the first of a series of disappointments. In the fifties and sixties Danish design and furniture was so admired, that the garish black and gold bedspread, carpet and chairs in a room opening off a balcony walkway (a bit like a motel) was rather a shock. And the food on offer in town was mainly kebabs or a Chinese buffet (where we ended up).

Møgeltønder church font

Møgeltønder church font

But next morning the old church in nearby Møgeltønder, approached along a street of lime trees and quaint houses, made up for Tønder’s deficiencies, with its painted walls, ceilings, pews, balconies and even a painted font above which painted mermaids disported provocatively.

Then on to Ribe for its cathedral begun in 1060 and for our first encounter with the Vikings. The Ribe Vikings did not fit the British image of warriors raiding, pillaging and burning monasteries like Lindisfarne. According to the archaeology and reconstructions in the museum they seem to have come up the river to Ribe (from where we never discovered), settled and traded peacefully.

Which chairs infringe Triptrap copyright?

Which chairs infringe Tripp Trapp copyright?

After a wet night in our Kolding hotel under the fourth floor eaves of a once glorious hotel opposite the railway station, we set out to repair our image of Danish design at the Trapholt Museum, where we enjoyed the chair designs, and an exhibition raising the question of whether designs such as the iconic Tripp Trapp high chairs for young children and “ant” chairs of Arne Jacobsen could be copied or imitated by others or whether a T-shirt design showing an emaciated African child carrying a chihuahua and Louis Vuitton bag was permitted to use the bag image. Our original, not imitation, Triptrap chairs have had a useful life well beyond the babyhood of Toby and Leila, who insisted on using them throughout their teenage years (they must be sturdy designs) and visiting children have used them ever since in both Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth. Then we drove up the motorway and branched off through gently rolling fields of grain and stubble to the tiny village of Jelling with its little white church dating from 1100, its runestones and its imposing burial mounds.

Jelling runestone

Jelling runestone

The two famous runestones stand by the church doorway, one commemorating King Gorm, and the other celebrating Harald Bluetooth’s unification of Denmark and introduction of Christianity. There were some attractive twelfth century frescoes at the east end of the simple church and an organist playing a jumpy little tune and trills at the west end. Outside, the church and mounds were enclosed by traces of the enormous ship shape once marked out by stones and surrounded by an even bigger palisade whose course is now indicated by white pillars. The museum had a very imaginative display to entice children to learn about the small objects found, the life and death of Vikings and the growth of Christianity after Harald Bluetooth’s adoption of it.

Next morning we drove from Ry through Jutland’s Lake District, failing to spot their famous Himmelbjerget, which, at 147 metres, is considerably lower than Entre-deux-Eaux (about 420m above sea level), to Silkeborg.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

Silkeborg Museum’s iron age display is fairly basic, and it was sad to discover that when the famous Tollund Man was discovered in a bog in 1950, they did not know how to preserve whole bodies, so after investigations only the head was preserved and what we could see was reconstructed from fragments which had survived the lack of treatment. The bottom part of their other bog body, Elling Woman, had not been kept either as she had been assumed to be an animal before her belt was discovered. However, at the magnificent modern Moesgaard Museum outside Aarhus the next day we gazed with awe at the body of Grauballe Man and watched a fascinating film about its discovery, publicity and exhibition before its conservation by a method which no one else had tried.

Gundestrup bowl in Moesgaard Museum

Gundestrup bowl in Moesgaard Museum

In fact we spent a whole day in the museum, enjoying a special exhibition on the Life of the Dead and the sections on barrows, bog offerings and the beautiful silver Gundestrup bowl with its mythological figures (how did it get from Thrace into a Danish bog?) The Viking section was very popular with children and young adults with lots of dramatic reconstructions, sound effects, buttons to push and headphones to don, but less interesting for those who like traditional printed information.

 Aarhus Cathedral

Aarhus Cathedral

Another good discovery was Aarhus Street Food in a converted bus station garage, where we ate at the Thai Tuk Tuk stall two nights running. When we explored the town (between the two Tuk Tuk meals) we particularly enjoyed the Cathedral; we slipped in between Saturday’s wedding ceremonies, and to the soaring sounds of a singer testing the acoustics before the next wedding and the scampering of excited bridesmaids we gazed at the varied and beautiful uncovered frescoes. We walked around the AroS art museum with its much heralded rainbow glass circular skywalk, but were too footsore after our city wanderings and enjoyment of the street sculptures (especially the pigs suckling outside Arne Jacobsen’s Town Hall and the wind-blown “Snake” in a park) to contemplate the contemporary art works within the museum.

Lindholm Høje

Lindholm Høje

We spent our next day in the rain at the delightful Lindholm Høje Museum and Viking burial ground north of Aalborg. The modern concrete building (donated by the Aalborg Portland cement factory) had an intimate feel, as we sipped warming coffees and watched people coming in from the rain to its little restaurant for a celebratory family Sunday lunch. There was an excellent display of Viking finds in the upper part of the museum and of iron age finds and bogs in the lower part. By the time we had seen it all and found the gift shop irresistible, the rolling rain clouds were clearing and in bursts of sunshine we headed outside and up through the trees to the crest of the south facing burial site. Below us spread the graves, at the top mainly triangles and ovals of stones with a larger stone in the centre and lower down stones forming the ship shapes around cremations. Apart from us and the sheep, the site was almost deserted and very atmospheric as we wandered freely between the throng of almost 700 stone shapes, which had been preserved from subsequent clearing and ploughing by a cover of shifting sand.

Rubjerg Knude lighthouse

Rubjerg Knude lighthouse

It must have been the mention of sand, but the next day we decided to include the west coast sands and sea in our itinerary and made for the once hippy resort of Løkken. We got distracted en route by a cloister and a black wooden windmill from which we spotted a distant lighthouse. Was this the Rubjerg Knude lighthouse we’d read about that was disappearing into the drifting sand and would probably be claimed by the sea coastal erosion in a decade or so? A track led for a kilometre from a busy car park towards the lighthouse, above which colourful paragliders were looping and soaring. Children were sliding down the dunes while adults built cairns and formed words with the rectangular yellowish bricks from the demolished coastguard cottages around the lighthouse. How typical of the Lego-creating Danes! (Anywhere else the bricks would have been cleared away from such a popular tourist place on health and safety grounds). All thoughts of going down to the sea vanished as we saw the jagged cliff face and sheer drops and heard the waves crashing below. Instead we went on to Løkken, where, after coffee, Helen paddled on the sandy beach while John examined the fishing boats and jetty. From there it seemed a long drive south and east across the bridge to the island of Funen and the outskirts of Odense.

A twenty-four hour museum pass enabled us to see plenty of Odense besides Hans Christian Andersen. So we saw the Holy King Canute’s cathedral, the tiny childhood home of HCA, the Brandts Art Gallery with its exhibition of Wilhelm Lundstrøm’s cubist/expressionist works, and the HCA museum. At the latter it was interesting to learn about his great unreciprocated loves, his travels and friendships. It sounded as if he might have been a very tiresome friend and long-staying guest despite his stories and paper cuts (Charles Dickens clearly found him a burden and his “best” friend would never let him use the friendly “du” form of address, which hurt HCA). The Møntergården history museum had artefacts from the times of the Vikings and Canute and the monks right up to the German occupation in WW2.

HCA in Odense Train Museum

HCA in Odense Train Museum

But we had not escaped from Hans Christian Andersen, as outside a performance group capered round the statue of the Steadfast Tin Soldier and even the excellent Railway Museum started with a section on HCA and trains. HCA was an enthusiastic rail traveller, preferring second class where smoking was not allowed, unlike third class, but he lamented the fact that there were no toilets in the first trains; once in desperation he got out when the train was stationary only to have an express train hurtle past as he flattened himself against his carriage. We had our best meal of the trip in Odense at Kok & Vin (John having finally recovered his taste after a heavy cold).

Ladby ship burial

Ladby ship burial

Our last Vikings were at Ladby where (given the Sutton Hoo inspiration) the excavated Viking ship burial should have been the high point of our visit. But there was so little information about the excavation, finds and theories that we both found it disappointing compared with Lindholm Hoje. The volunteers who built the replica ship which was moored below the burial mound had probably had more fun than the archaeologists.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux more wet weather awaited our next visitors, Ann and Derek. The annual International Patchwork meeting in Sainte Marie-aux-Mines and surrounding villages in mid-September is always worth visiting. The four of us dashed under hoods and umbrellas between churches, mansions and community centres to see the flamboyant displays. This year there were Barbar elephants in one village church, interesting English patchworkers in a community room, Vietnamese fabrics and Egyptian Tentmakers’ quilts in an exhibition hall, delicate Swiss and Australian contemporary creations in the library/former tobacco manufacturer’s mansion, traditional American quilts in the theatre, Ian Berry’s denim pictures in another exhibition hall and Amish quilts in the Lutheran Eglise en Chaines. We shook our umbrellas outside the “Rest of the World” (which seemed to be just Georgia) exhibition in the Saint Nicolas Presbytery where we warmed up with the Presbytery ladies’ hot chocolate and sampled their home-made fruit tarts.

Korean quilts or Bojagis

Korean quilts or Bojagis

We each had our favourite display, and Helen’s was the traditional Korean quilts or Bojagis which shared a hall with Belgian and German patchworkers and Polynesian Tifaifai. The Bojagis’ crisp colours and clean lines were eye-catching, as were their exquisitely dressed guardians.

As well as rain there were strong winds to contend with when we drove through the hills for lunch at Chez Guth in Steig (Alsace) after a stormy night. The sky was clear enough to see the superb views on the way, but we had to wait for the last branches of a tree to be removed after it had blown down across the narrow road which snakes down to the village. The hills had vanished under rain clouds several hours later when we left, replete. Our journey to lunch at L’Imprimerie in the book village was less menaced, but we arrived at the restaurant bearing large piles of books. At the Lotus Bleu, a second-hand bookshop a few doors away from the restaurant, John had spotted a selection of English books, among them some of the Folio Society’s handsome bindings. At five euros for three books, we couldn’t resist scooping up a few well-illustrated Shakespeare plays including a 1953 As You Like It illustrated by Salvador Dali, as well as the Iliad and Odyssey illustrated by Elisabeth Frink and Ann and Derek were happy to find a Royal Horticultural Society gardening tome (which they fitted in their luggage despite its considerable weight).

The other annual event we went to with Ann and Derek was Saint Die’s Braderie which takes over many of the streets in the centre with stalls selling everything you can think of from fashion to hardware and food. Most popular was the fast talking vendor of chocolates: you pay 10 euros for a yellow plastic bag and he and his assistant dash round talking and stuffing it with what might seem at the time to be a bargain selection of confectionery. From there we went on to a village flea market in Biffontaine, where, a few minutes after Ann and Derek had invested a euro in a children’s game with English instructions, the heavens opened and everyone packed up their stalls. We retreated into the village hall and sat over portions of French fries and ketchup or mayonnaise till the rain cleared.

You will gather how wet their stay was from the fact that we completed a thousand piece jigsaw of London pubs while they were here, though one day was clear enough for them to walk round the lake at Gerardmer, and we rounded off in style on their last day, strolling through the quaint streets and shops of Kaysersberg and lunching at Aux Armes de France in the wine growing village of Ammerschwihr before driving down to Basel Airport.

Of course, the sun came out a few days after they left, marking the official start of Autumn after the wet summer. The local villagers embarked on autumn activities. In Entre-deux-Eaux the oldies held their beginning-of-term lunch which we both joined. Some local musicians with traditional plucked instruments entertained diners (though were largely ignored by our long table) and were rewarded with birthday cake. And in Sainte Marguerite the Active Brains group of pensioners met and argued their way through brain teasers (Helen did badly on words describing animal noises and sayings involving dogs – we didn’t learn those at school).

Yesterday, on the last day of International Geography Festival in Saint Die, the sun was disguised by an autumnal morning mist in Entre-deux-Eaux, from which the muffled cries of huntsmen could be heard. Perhaps it was appropriate, as this year the Geographers’ theme was the relationship between man and animals. With South Africa as the invited country, there were giraffes in sunglasses on the posters and statues of rhinos and a stuffed crocodile round the base of Tower of Liberty. But as the sun emerged, and the pavement cafes of Saint Die filled up, the Entre-deux-Eaux huntsmen probably didn’t catch anything quite as exotic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg

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

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

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

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

Mennonite quilt

Mennonite quilt

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

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

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

Piazza_Armerina_Roman mosaics

Piazza Armerina Roman mosaics (link to more photographs)

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

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

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

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

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

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

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

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

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

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

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

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

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

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

On the way up Cat Bells

On the way up Cat Bells

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

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

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

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

Saint-Dié: La Tour de la Liberté

La Tour de la Liberté was constructed in Golbey, Vosges and erected in the jardin des Tuileries, Paris in 1989 as part of the celebrations for the bicentenary of the French Revolution.

In 1990 Saint-Dié purchased the tower for a nominal one franc and it was re-erected the centre of the town in parc Mansuy.

Click on this link La Tour de la Liberté, Saint-Dié

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Saint-Dié: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Dié

The romanesque-style Cathedral, with parts dating back to the 12th century and a facade built in 1711, was dynamited by the fleeing Germans, despite promises it would be left intact, just before the town was liberated on 24 November 1944. Only the walls remained standing. The cathedral was reconstructed in an identical style and re-dedicated in 1974.

If you click on the image and hold down your left mouse button you can drag the image around in all directions. You can use the Shift and Ctrl keys to zoom in and out

Cathedral facade Click this link Facade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Dié in Saint-Dié 18 Jan 2010 to view.

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Cathedral interior Click this link Interior of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Dié in Saint-Dié 18 Jan 2010 to view.

Saint-Dié: The only factory designed and built to plans by Le Corbusier

In November 1944 the whole of the centre of Saint-Dié was dynamited and burnt to the ground by the retreating German troops; over 2000 buildings were destroyed. Any remaining walls and shells of building were demolished by the council. In 1945 Le Corbusier was appointed architect to redevelop both public and private buildings of the town. He put forward a radical plan which involved separation of roads and pedestrian areas; much of the accommodation for residents was to be in tower blocks (Machines à habiter). But the project was too revolutionary for both the town council and population (who would have had to give up their rights to the land they owned and individual properties) and was rejected in early 1946 in favour of a more traditional plan based on the old town centre layout. Le plan de reconstruction de Saint-Dié (1945)

Eventually the only industrial building ever completed by Le Corbusier, the Usine de Bonneterie Claude et Duval, was built in Saint-Dié during 1948-51. In July 2009 the factory was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Today it is still in use as a factory but the building is decaying probably due to poor post-war building materials and lack of maintenance.

If you click on Le Corbusier: Usine de Bonneterie Claude et Duval, Saint-Dié for the panorama

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