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
There is a link at the end to all photographs

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

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

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

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

Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall treasure

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

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

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

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

Ecija mosaic

Ecija: Bacchus Gift of Wine

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

Mezquita, Cordoba

Mezquita, Cordoba

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

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

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

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

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

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

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

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

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

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

Corral de Carbon Grenada

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

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

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

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

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

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

Arcos de la Frontera

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

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

Market mural Cadiz

Market mural Cadiz

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

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Cigar Makers Cadiz

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

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

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

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

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

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

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

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

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

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Adding geotag (GPS) location data to photographs

 Just about all mobile phones (and some cameras) have a GPS-related function which adds location information to photographs. But my Pentax and Olympus DSLR cameras do not have the ability to tags photographs with that geotag location data.

In the last year or so when we were travelling in both Portugal and Sicily, I have I regretted not having that capability. I would take the occasional photo somewhere on a rural road, etc. with no real indication as to where we were (possibly I should have also taken a photograph using my phone or kept a diary)!

Until late last year, I had not noticed some photo editors allow you to merge GPS location data into the JPG photo data, based on the time a photograph was taken.

When out walking I often use Sports Tracker (Android/iPhone) on my mobile phone to log the route we’ve taken, time, distance, etc and I started extracting the geotags and adding them to some photographs. Sports Tracker logs points very frequently (approximately every seven seconds when walking) and so it can use a lot of battery resource if running all day. 

I’ve recently come across the free Android GPSLogger which has settings so it can log positions at much longer intervals, not repeatedly log when stationary, and with different accuracy settings, so is more battery efficient, and will happily run for a whole day in background.

GPSLogger creates *.gpx files on the mobile phone which contain both position and time information (*.kml files only contain position). There is an associated Android program GPS Mapper & Report Generator which will display the *.gpx file on a normal or satellite Google Map on the phone. For Sports Tracker, you have to upload the data to your account on their web site and then extract the *.gpx file from it. GPXLogger has various options for sharing the *.gpx files; I just add them to my DropBox account so I can access them on any of our computers.

There are various programs which will add the geotags to digital *.jpg images (search for geotagging software). The GPSLogger web site also has some suggestions, e.g. the free Geosetter (for Windows). Of the Windows desktop image editors I have, I’ve found Zoner Photo Studio to be the easiest to use (the full version of the Zoner software is sometimes offered as a free download), especially as the program allows you to geotag images in bulk.

It is unlikely your camera clock is adding an accurate time to the JPG images so the merging software allows you to apply a time synchronisation for more accurate position tagging. It is just a matter of taking a photo of the clock on the phone/computer (displaying hh:mm:ss) to calculate the appropriate timing synchronisation adjustment based on the clock time and the JPG image time (surprisingly, I’ve found my camera clock time differences can vary by up to ten seconds over a few weeks – could this be battery charge or temperature effects?)

And finally, if you add location data to photographs, there may be times when you want to remove the information for privacy reasons. The desktop photo editors and other simple programs will allow you to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg

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

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

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

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

Mennonite quilt

Mennonite quilt

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

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

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

Piazza_Armerina_Roman mosaics

Piazza Armerina Roman mosaics (link to more photographs)

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

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

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

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

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

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

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

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

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

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

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

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

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

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

On the way up Cat Bells

On the way up Cat Bells

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

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

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

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

Guns, hay bales and sticks: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, July – August 2016

To download a printable PDF version click on this link E2E2016no3.pdf (two A4 pages)

It was the policeman with the huge gun who impressed Jacob and Farrah outside the castle of Haut Koenigsbourg. And he wasn’t on ceremonial duty. The massacre in Nice and the murder of the French priest have reinforced the need for tight security even in the most picturesque tourist spots.

Kaiser Wilhelm, who had been presented with the ruined mediaeval Alsace castle after their victory in the Franco-Prussian war, would presumably not have been surprised by the heightened security in troubled times. After all he had spent a fortune on a lavish restoration of the castle, complete with towers and pinnacles and a pseudo-mediaeval banqueting hall with banners and weaponry. Alas, having completed his prestige project in 1908, he did not have many years in which to show it off. But he would have been gratified by the coachloads and carloads of tourists in August 2016.

After the policeman, Jacob and Farrah were impressed by the castle’s well which presumably had survived all the sieges, robber barons and the looting and burning of the castle several hundred years earlier (1633 on checking) by the Swedes. They also enjoyed firing imaginary arrows from the restored battlements and imagining the canon fire.

From this you will gather that we have been entertaining Toby, Rachel, Jacob and Farrah for the last ten days. The patio has been improved by the addition of a 3 x 2 m tubular-framed swimming pool and garden tables and chairs sprawl across the patio, balcony and orchard. As we lunched outside one day in the shade of the orchard trees, ripe damsons began to drop on us. As they were tasty, after stewing with some sugar, today we have collected a further eight kilos from the lower branches. Other fruit has not been as abundant, with sufficient for gooseberry crumbles, blackcurrant jellies and blueberries and loganberries in muesli breakfasts, leaving nothing for the freezer this year. A further home entertainment was provided by the farmer cutting, turning and baling the grass in the fields around us, which fascinated the children as they watched from the patio and arboretum.

As well as fighting off marauding Protestant Swedes, the children’s sketchy historical education continued with Asterix-like fights against the Romans as they scrambled up a hillside and fought their way with sticks along a ridge towards the gallo-Roman fort of La Bure on the far side of St Die. This fort was sadly lacking in cannons, but large round stones were stacked up as if in readiness for repelling invaders. Less bellicose walks involved inspecting village rabbits and picking the meadow flowers from the field to the north.

There was the usual trip to the sledge run at the Col de la Schlucht and a meal at Toby’s favourite restaurant, the Auberge Frankenbourg, where the adults indulged in the gourmet menu and the children behaved impeccably like seasoned diners.

Before their visit, John had also proposed trying a new restaurant which the Frankenbourg chef had recently praised. This was no elegant town setting. Our satnav directed us over the hills on the Strasbourg road, then turned off and headed uphill and looped downhill in zigzags, with the last kilometres behind a tractor with trailer heavily laden with hay bales. Finally we were in the long narrow village of Steige which is famous for its December advent windows and its large family run distillery. Near the church we turned left and uphill to a wooden chalet-style farmhouse. A goat came out of its hut and bleated a welcome. We were also welcomed verbally at the door by one of the young owners of the Auberge Chez Guth. 20160722_IMG125522_MotoG-JEBAs rain was forecast, she suggested aperitifs on the terrace, then lunch indoors. We opted to go straight in for lunch as too much alcohol was not a good idea with those bends to negotiate on the return journey. Inside the tables were elegantly laid in the big room that still had a farm feel despite the goldfish circling in a large glass bowl. From the rapidly served amuse bouche of nettle soup with acidulated celeriac at the bottom, we knew we were on to a good thing and thoroughly enjoyed our new find.

And now, having got the garden here in shape, it is time to return briefly to the overgrown lawns of Letchworth, mentally prepared for a courgette and coriander glut when we return to E2E..

Ice saints, ticks and black redstarts – everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux – May-June 2016

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2016no2-1.pdf (three A4 pages)

Click on the photographs for larger versions

The oldies of Entre-deux Eaux were all agreed that nothing should be planted until the three Ice Saints’ Days had passed. “In fact,” Pierette observed sagely, “I always wait until after May 24th.” At May’s monthly gathering of elderly villagers, the weather was not the first topic of conversation. First there were the recent deaths to discuss more thoroughly than any coroner. This was hardly surprising as Janine’s husband had died that very morning after a long illness, and another club member’s cremation was taking place that afternoon. Having dealt with the deaths, conversation then moved on to health assessments of absent friends, and finally a gloomy review of the recent sufferings of all present. After that the weather and then we were all ready to be cheered by cake and crémant to celebrate the birthdays of all those who had survived.

John had kindly baked a Caribbean fruit cake with an added marzipan layer in the middle for Helen’s birthday (which falls on the day of the second of the Ice Saints, St Pancras). The oldies gazed at this foreign offering suspiciously, and opted for the more familiar gateau Saint Honoré, a delicious cream éclair creation, or for fruit tart. Pierette gamely nibbled a small piece and tried to think of something polite to say, but it took Claudine, a younger oldie who had hobbled in late on her crutches, to take a larger slice and pronounce that it was like pain d’épices (a spice cake). With this endorsement, the rest of the cake disappeared rapidly, and a toast was drunk.

St Pancras’ day itself was wet and dismal, but we decided to celebrate Helen’s birthday with lunch at the Belle Vue in Saulxures. In the past we have had pleasant meals on its busy terrace and an excellent Easter Sunday lunch. But on this day we were the only guests in a dining room seating thirty or more and the gloomy waiter would obviously have preferred to have had the time off, as he rattled off the names of the dishes at high speed and with an air of profound boredom. After a while we began to wonder if the chef had taken the time off, and we were being served pre-prepared and reheated food. The stagiaire (trainee) not only failed to put the dishes in front of the correct person but also failed to describe the food presented without a lot of prompting from his mentor. It was not a festive experience, and Helen attributed her subsequent dodgy stomach to the crab starter.

On a village walk

On a village walk

The baleful influence of the ice saints seems to have continued with very wet weather, and very few seeds have been brave enough to poke through the sodden soil which John had rotovated soon after our return from England. Only the broad beans, peas, courgettes and squash grown indoors in loo roll tubes look healthy. Dare we put them outside in the ground yet? Today’s hail and thunder are discouraging.

However, gardening under way, it was time for a thorough clear up in the farmhouse. For, despite the threats of petrol and diesel shortages, of panic buying in France and of a French air traffic controllers’ strike, Toby was sticking to his plan of driving over for the half-term week with Jacob, his new partner Rachel and two of Rachel’s daughters (the eldest daughter was flying out). Preparations involved John building some deep shelves in his workshop and then shifting the oak planks stored in the farmhouse dining room onto them (the big wooden “sunbeam” style barn doors will get made one of these days!) During the course of cleaning up, Helen slipped on the attic stairs while carrying a clothes airer and a plate. You will be glad to know that the plate survived the bumping unscathed.

Leaving soon

Leaving soon

An interesting discovery during the clean-up came during a rummage in the first barn for the old mop and bucket to clean the barn floor. Behind an old door, above the mop and bucket, and behind the cobwebby bikes hanging on hooks, was a small alcove with a wispy nest containing tiny eggs. John has been tracking their progress and hatching with his camera. The tiny black redstarts emitted an amazing volume of noise when their mother left to find food, but didn’t think much of the shrieks of the two youngest humans when they arrived or appreciate the noise of the nearby washing machine.

Playing happily

Playing happily

The rain, of course continued, with bad floods across northern France, but the travellers arrived safely in the middle of the night. The two youngest, Jacob and Farrah, didn’t mind the rain at all and revelled in jumping in all the puddles and playing in the long wet grass. Other highlights included the expedition Toby led to the trenches at Le Linge (both the older girls having studied the first world war at school). The two youngest visitors entered into the historical spirit of the place, yelling “Kill the Germans!” as they hurtled along the stone-lined trenches between German tourists. On the wettest day, to reinforce the history lesson, we walked over to the Saulcy military cemetery, pointing out the graves of the Jewish German soldier and those of the French troops from north Africa and Indochina, and the two youngest behaved with impeccable decorum before finding more puddles in which to drench themselves and others. Sweet-making demonstrations at the Confiserie des Hautes Vosges were popular as was the chair lift up and wheeled luge run down at the Col de la Schlucht.

A game between courses

A game between courses

All too soon their six days were coming to an end. The visitors decided not to cram in the fairy tale Bavarian castle of Kaiser Bill at Haut Koenigsbourg before a farewell lunch at the Parc Carola Restaurant in Ribeauvillé, but to have a leisurely start and explore the quaint walled village of Riquewihr afterwards. Chef Michaela performed wonders for our table of eight, producing amuse bouches for all, six dishes from the menu gastronomique for three of us, four dishes from the menu découverte for one of us, two orders from the menu Carola and two children’s menus. It was a lovely meal, which we all enjoyed. I think the two youngest were most impressed by their ice cream mice.

During the course of the meal Toby was running his hands through Jacob’s hair when he discovered a strange lump, unlike anything any of us had seen before. Fortunately John had insisted that Helen should book a doctor’s appointment that evening to check that her ribs were merely cracked by the fall (they were), so Jacob was taken along too, and a bloated tick extracted from the back of his neck. He whimpered at the sight of it, and was consoled only by a sucker/lolly from the nice lady at the pharmacy. All they have to worry about now is Lyme disease, which seems to be the current French prevention campaign. To compound the day’s problems, our car (Bluto), which Rachel was driving back from Riquewihr up the Col de Bonhomme, started losing power and showing engine and VSC warning lights. After some discussion with John (in the doctor’s surgery) they decided to try to continue to the top and from there they hoped they would be able to coast down fairly easily. Bluto is now sitting outside Mme Laine’s waiting to be tested by her grandson who has a car repair workshop there. Did we mention that Toby had sliced his fingers deeply with John’s sharp bread knife? Nevertheless a good time was had by all and the day’s good news was that the air traffic controllers had called off their proposed strike for the next day, so Rachel’s eldest daughter would be able to get back in time for her first A-level!

In between all this, there were some exciting tennis matches at the French Open in Paris (during the breaks from rain) and some football friendlies (not to mention the riveting new board games chez Blackmore in the evenings) and now England’s footballers along with those of Wales and Northern Ireland are enjoying the delights of French food and culture (?) before their European Championship matches kick off.

The house has seemed very peaceful in the last four days and we have posted off our votes in the EU referendum, and hunted for treasures (alas none to be found) at the Entre-deux-Eaux flea market this Sunday before it rained in the afternoon. Only a couple of white and purple posies of Marguerites, clover and chives picked by Jacob and Farrah remain to remind us of the family’s lively presence, and they are starting to droop. And to emphasize the quietness, today the baby black redstarts left their nest in the barn for the first time.

However, we shall soon be back in Letchworth for a couple of weeks and hope to see some of you there.