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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hope you enjoy your summer wherever you may be!

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

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

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

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

lemon surprise

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

Majorelle House, Nancy

Villa Majorelle, Nancy

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

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

Château Les Vallées

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

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

Jouhet Chapelle Sainte Catherine

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

12C capital in Eglise Saint-Pierre Chauvigny

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

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

Ruddy shelduck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calle Buenavista

Calle Buenavista

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

Taberna Meson los Chanquetes

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

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

Napier's calculator

Napier’s calculator

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

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

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

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

Eduardo Viana – Three Pumpkins

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

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

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

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

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

Iglesia san Roman

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

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

Toledo Cathedral choir carving

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

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

Toledo Synagoga El Transito

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

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca

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

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

Stephan Balkenhol

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

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

Malaga Russian Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow over Wells Cathedral

Rainbow over Wells Cathedral

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

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

Crazy Golf

Crazy Golf

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

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

Sat Bains menu

Sat Bains menu

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

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

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

Sevington Church

Sevington Church

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

Sunset

November E2E sunset

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

Great Spotted woodpecker

Great Spotted woodpecker

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imprimerie, Fontenoy la Joute

Imprimerie, Fontenoy la Joute

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

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

Chez Guth beef

Chez Guth beef

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

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

Museum of Applied Arts

Museum of Applied Arts

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

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

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

Children's railway

Children’s railway

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

Budapest Synagogue

Budapest Synagogue

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

Palace Hotel Budapest

Palace Hotel Budapest

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

Gresham Palace interior

Gresham Palace interior

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

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

Mattius Church

Mattius Church

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

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

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

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

Lalique Museum

Lalique Museum

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

Speyer Cathedral crypt

Speyer Cathedral crypt (opens panorama)

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

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

Budapest Hungary 2017 photographs

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

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

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

We visited more than is mentioned in the text
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Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

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

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

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

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

Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall treasure

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

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

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

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

Ecija mosaic

Ecija: Bacchus Gift of Wine

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

Mezquita, Cordoba

Mezquita, Cordoba

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

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

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

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

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

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

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

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

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

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

Corral de Carbon Grenada

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

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

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

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

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

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

Arcos de la Frontera

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

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

Market mural Cadiz

Market mural Cadiz

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

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Cigar Makers Cadiz

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

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

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

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

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

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

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

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