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?

Feasting, fèves, fortifications and frescoes – everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux – January-March 2016

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2016no1.pdf (six A4 pages)

Click here for the full set of Portugal photos

A week ago today we were in Strasbourg for the first time in six months, and not for routine medical appointments but for pleasure – lunch with friends. They had chosen one of their favourite venues, the Fink’Stuebel, a typical Alsace small restaurant alongside a canal, in the area of Marie Laure’s student days. Wherever we meet up, we seem to attract noisy diners at neighbouring tables – or is it just a sign of increasing age? After a congenial lunch with typically generous portions of choucroute for John and black sausage, apple and onions for Helen (Marie-Laure and Christian having chosen their favourite calf’s head in sauce), followed by an ice cream kougelhof, we were happy to walk off the excess and enjoy the relative silence in the streets of Petite France and the Grande Île. It was a lovely sunny day, despite the wind, and the atmosphere felt very relaxed, with people strolling by the river, browsing the second had bookstalls on Place Gutenberg, riding bikes and sitting with dogs in the sunshine of Place Kleber. We had forgotten how attractive the narrow, colourful pedestrian streets round the cathedral are, with their bakeries, restaurants and charcuteries. We lingered in a recently renovated boutique arcade, an excellent foreign language bookshop, and even an Oxfam shop. We saw only two armed soldiers during the whole afternoon. It was so good to feel that the security atmosphere was less tense than it had sounded over Christmas, and in February when Marie-Laure had written about a demonstration of 15,000 Kurds, the armed soldiers patrolling in groups of six, and of feeling dispossessed of their city. But now with the terrible news from Brussels and plots in Paris, that relaxed atmosphere we were lucky to experience will no doubt have evaporated again.

In our last newsletter, perhaps we underestimated the shock of villagers to the far-off events in Paris. After an enjoyable Christmas and New Year in Letchworth with family and friends, and having avoided catching nasty colds or ‘flu there this year, we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux on 7th January, in time to continue festivities here. The following evening Mayor Duhaut offered his voeux, or seasonal greetings, and those of the municipal council to the villagers in our spacious village hall. This is always well attended, with its tasty nibbles and crémant d’Alsace/kir (few people turn down good food and drink here, even if it means listening to the mayor’s speech first). We dutifully got round at least half the room kissing cheeks and shaking hands and muttering “Meilleurs voeux”, which is a record for us (especially as they only tell you after exchanging kisses that they’ve got a terrible cold). The mayor started his speech by remembering the events of Charlie Hebdo a year and a day ago, and the shootings in and around the Bataclan in November, and all who had died there. Usually it is only those who have died during the year in the village who are remembered, and in comparison the passing away of the oldest inhabitant, gentle Lena, in her nineties, seemed such a natural event. On a lighter note, the nibbles were so good and copious that afterwards we saved most of our planned dinner for another day.

Saturday was equally festive in Sainte Marguerite for the crémant d’Alsace and galette des rois. The dancing was in full swing by the time I got there, and there was much hilarity over a game involving a king, his queen, their coachman, their four-wheeled carriage and two horses participating in a story in which the nine “actors” have to get up and run round their chairs whenever their “character” (including each wheel) is mentioned.

And just in case the weekend felt quiet, there was a very convivial lunch the next day back in E2E for all the over 65 year-olds offered by the village council. There were about seventy eight participants at two long tables. The food was all cooked by a young man from the village and the music and entertainment was provided by two elderly villagers in tight jeans, joined occasionally by a man who’d annoyingly brought his castanets with him. The food was excellent, with the meal lasting from mid-day till nearly six when the coffee and chocolates were served. Each course was filling, but with all the wine and dancing between courses, everyone managed to eat their way through the menu without too much of a struggle. The highlight was a game involving a king, a queen, a coachman… it must be this year’s “in” French party entertainment. After so much wine we all had tears in our eyes as we watched the left rear wheel forgetting her part and the coachman falling off his chair. And then there was the stand up/sit down action song. Oh, such hours of innocent fun.

There was then a slight lull in January festivities, during which we were able to enjoy some snowy, but slippery walks, a local history talk on the military postcards of Adolphe Weick of Saint Dié during the first world war, and, with Scrabble in Sainte Marguerite starting to meet fortnightly rather than weekly, I bravely joined the Remue Meninges group which meets on alternate weeks. John translates it as Helen’s gaga group but it is usually translated as brainstorming, though it’s really word and number exercises like Countdown, word-search, crosswords etc. to keep the brain active. The group turned out to be very lively and welcoming and most solicitous that I should understand everything – I struggle more with the numbers than the words, oddly enough! At the end of that first session there was more galette des rois and cider or crémant!

galette des rois fève

galette des rois fève

Then on 20th we reached the final seasonal lunch, prepared by the ex-fireman’s wife and her helpers for the E2E Oldies club. John nobly agreed to join in, and by the time the wine had flowed freely, thanks to the presence on our table of both present and former mayors, John even wore the cardboard crown presented to those who found the fève (once a bean but now a ceramic figure) in their galette, and agreed to submit to the challenge of three-sided dominoes. At the same time we heard animated discussions from the mayors former and present of current village plans, like that to build a smaller meeting room for groups like ours and some single-storey pavillons or detached houses, providing disabled access for elderly villagers. This sounds a very progressive scheme for the village, but with Mayor Duhaut’s mother Giselle (the elder sister of Madame Laine) having suffered many falls in her draughty old farmhouse, he is fully aware of the problems of the elderly (a polite translation of John’s comment, “guess who’ll get the first house”).

Nearly home after a snowy walk

Nearly home after a snowy walk

With the feasting over, it was back to snowy walks and the occasional cultural highlight, like a talk by author Philippe Claudel, organised by the Saint Dié bookshop and held in a room at the top of the interestingly sculptural Tour de Liberté. I hadn’t realised that one was expected to reserve a place, but was graciously allowed to join other improvident people perched on tables round the edge of the room. It was perfectly comfortable, but I must have looked decrepit as I was singled out just before the start for a vacant chair in the front row alongside the dignitaries. But from there the view through the long glass windows (which curl round in a huge semi-circle) to the high snow-covered hills round Saint Dié was lovely, and especially apt when the author described writing about mountains. His main theme, however, was death and who one writes for after the people for whom one has been writing die. It wasn’t a book which I felt the urge to buy, but the talk was stimulating, so when we found the Oxfam shop in Strasbourg (there are two in Lille and Paris and one in Strasbourg), I bought an earlier novel of Claudel’s. The following weekend, however, at the Philomatique’s AGM, I invested in a fascinating and surprisingly weighty book about civilian life in the Vosges during World War 1. As a result of the tables in it I can now tell you how many rabbits and chickens there were in E2E, and the level of war damage, but it will need some close scrutiny (the print is too small for comfortable reading) to tell you the effect locally of wartime textile strikes. Unsurprisingly, it started life as a thesis and is very thoroughly researched.

No newsletter is complete without a detailed food description. Once into February, and feeling the effects of the end of the feasting, we decided to cross the Vosges to try out a new restaurant in Ammerschwihr which had been opened by chef Julian Binz (who had one Michelin star at a Colmar restaurant). His décor of voluptuous Rubens-like ladies and the head waiter simpering “you’re welcome” at the end of every sentence were negatives, but the nibbles were good, the crab amuse-bouche exquisite, and the sea bream tartare in parsnip soup with lemon grass beautifully and delicately flavoured. After that the veal in a rather strongly-smoked bacon wrapping and artichoke was good though not as exciting and the pineapple dessert was pleasant but not memorable. Afterwards we wandered round the small walled town of Kientzheim before driving back. There were illuminated warning signs as the road started the climb to the Col de Bonhomme, and we passed a snow plough spreading salt or grit on the Alsace side, but our side had not been done and the van in front was going extremely slowly as the compacted new snow was slippery near the top.

Other February diversions included an antiques fair then the big Amnesty book sale in Saint Dié and the annual trip to the “theatre” in Saulxures. This year’s farce had just 3 local actors (including the baker) in a ménage à trois, and before performing they also waited at table, carved the giant smoked ham, poured the drinks and chatted to guests at the long tables, all of which get the audience in a very receptive mood for the comedy. They do a Saturday and a Sunday performance and meal right through winter from October. Such a hard slog on top of a working week!

Almendres cromlech near Evora

Almendres cromlech near Evora – click on image for a full 360º panorama

After that February began to seem a bit drab, and John searched the internet for a good combination of cheap flights and maximum winter sunshine and on 24th we flew from Basel to Lisbon, hired a car and meandered south and east. Many years ago (probably over thirty-five) we’d taken the train from Lisbon to Lagos in the south west for a few days at the end of a conference John was attending. The small fishing town had charmed us, as had our ride across the Tagus on the ferry and the train through the cork estates. This time, not wanting to see all the high rise hotels and flats that have since blighted that coastline, we decided to head south east, the car enabling us to visit more remote places and see ancient rural megaliths, as well as the rich layers of Iron age, Palaeo-Christian, Roman, Moorish and Christian sites in fortified hill towns. Evora was our first stop. We stayed just outside the town walls, but from the top floor bar we could see the town spread out above us, dominated by the stolid Romanesque/Gothic cathedral. Beyond, in the countryside we walked up earth tracks between cork and olive trees and grazing cattle to find early history’s atmospheric menhirs and dolmens. On a wet day we dashed with dripping umbrellas between the museum’s Iron age and Roman finds, the Roman temple and baths, and churches with blue and white tiled interiors, and then were intrigued by a small metallic notice on Vasco da Gama street about the ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques with remains of a sixteenth century cloister with “frescos where the bizarre, the grotesque, the profane and the religious thematic enters in symbiosis in a marvellous allegorical set, enhancing an artistic manifestation unique in the country”.

Fresco in ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques

Fresco in ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques

There was nothing in the various guide books about this unique allegorical symbiosis. Who could resist the challenge? But there were no likely-looking palace doors. We walked uphill and into a square and enquired tentatively in the gallery of modern art. They said they could access the “garden”, but were more interested in showing us the current artists’ exhibitions. Eventually, escorted by a guard with keys and a silent custodian, we were ushered along a corridor, down stairs, through a crypt, up some more stairs and the gate into a small garden was unlocked for us. And there along one recessed wall of the garden were the most delicately painted enchanting creatures from a mediaeval bestiary, including a many headed dragon or hydra, a mermaid and a musician. We felt as excited as if we had discovered them ourselves, and on the way out smiled politely at the torn splattered bed-sheet modern artworks we were shown, whilst feeling, like old fogies, that art isn’t what used to be.

São Cucufate

São Cucufate

None of the frescoes we saw afterwards, amid the fortifications, would match the delicacy of what the hotel barman called “the painted garden”. On our way to the lakeside walled hill town of Mertola close to the Spanish border, we made a detour to a Roman villa marked on our map. São Cucufate (a Spanish saint said to have survived being roasted alive, covered with vinegar and pepper) in fact exhibits the remains of three very large Roman villas (the massive walls of the latest dating from the fourth century) and a ninth century convent. Sadly the Augustine canons, or the Benedictine monks or the solitary hermit who later occupied it were not as skilled at chapel wall-paintings as the “garden” painter.

 Santa Clara de Louredo fresco

Santa Clara de Louredo fresco

But nothing as sad as the frescoes at the tiny sixteenth century village church of Santa Clara de Louredo, where we stopped on our way between the walled town of Beja and the fortified hill village of Mertola, having read a passing reference to a legendary princess repelling the Moors. It is possible that the paintings on the walls round the altar were very crude to start with, but their “restoration”, apparently in the nineteen eighties, looks balder than a comic strip with black outlines and crude daubs of colour depicting Saint Clare, holding up the sacrament and saving her convent and the walled city behind from the Moors. We were cheered only by the sight of a troupe of the famous Iberian black pigs a bit further along the road rushing eagerly through the olive trees in the hope that we would feed them titbits through the roadside fence.

By the time we reached Mertola it was the hottest day so far as we climbed up the steps to the old walled town and sank into café chairs and waited for everything to open after lunch. This was probably our richest day as with an old river trading port through the ages there were all the afore-mentioned layers of history, with Phoenician and Greek artefacts thrown in. Below the castle walls were some fascinating recent excavations of Moorish houses built on the Roman forum, with an episcopal palace alongside. The simple adjacent church had been a mosque, the castle of the Swabians and Visigiths and Moors was taken by the Spanish Knights of the Order of Santiago, and there were fascinating little Islamic, Roman and Palaeo-Christian museums to visit. The impressive Roman house remains were to be found under the town hall, approached through a typically boring municipal waiting room. Even our modern hotel had a viewing shaft in reception down to the walls of the fishermen’s houses excavated during its construction.

Silves castle

Silves castle

And when we reached the coast near Castro Marim and the Spanish border the next day, it was still hot enough to enjoy a paddle along the windy golden sands of the deserted beach. More energetic were the cyclists racing in over the Roman bridge in Tavira at the end of the Algarve bike race. Set back further from the coast we enjoyed the castle and cathedral at Silves, deciding that this was the Moorish fortification (formerly Roman and Visigothic) for us, with its ample water supply (a ten metre high vaulted and pillared cistern and sixty metre deep well) and its attractive modern sculpture garden.



Outside the castle gate there was live open-air music from a café and the cobbled streets leading up to the cathedral (built over the former mosque) were strewn with lavender for the pre-Easter procession later. When we reached the west coast we were enchanted by the small fishing hamlet of Carrasqueira in the evening sunlight with its simple spiky wooden jetties.

We stayed in a mix of rural guest-houses, modern urban hotels and posh historic Pousadas (including our last night in the old castle/convent at Alcacer do Sol, which of course had its own excellent subterranean museum of Iron age, Roman, and Moorish old walls and pottery fragments). And we ate a lot of good hearty pork (including those black pigs), cod, wild boar, and steak dishes (John had his best ever beef fillet in Evora, and on our last night near the west coast the riverside restaurant combined land and sea in a large plate of steak, prawns and chips). It was a great break.

Back in E2E, an agreeable spell of sunny weather has enable us to get on with weeding and pruning and fertilising the garden. Rejoicing in the improvement to his back, John has been heavily pruning trees, sawing and shredding all the orchard saplings branches he has cut down, only to discover he is very allergic to some – probably the flying golden pollen of the hazel catkins. The hellebore and snowdrops have been very pretty this year, and the cowslips, which I always associate with Easter, are stippling the orchard grass.

After Easter we shall be packing up again and heading for Letchworth, where we hope to see as many family and friends as possible before we return around 19th or 20th April. When we reached Calais on our last trip in December we saw a very large number of police in and around the makeshift migrants’ camp behind the grim wire fences shielding the approach road to the port. Then armed French police inspected our car boot as we checked in. Asked whether there had been an incident overnight, they shrugged and said it was routine now. All was quieter on the return journey, but police were still patrolling the gap between the two wire fences, which were uncomfortable reminders of prison camps. A report sixteen days later of fifty migrants breaking the barriers and boarding the P&O Ferry “Spirit of Britain” did not come as a surprise.

With that sombre thought, we wish you all a very happy Easter and hope to see you soon.

We visited many more towns, archaeological sites, castles, museums and galleries
in southern Portugal than are mentioned above
If you wish to see more photographs, click on the image below for the full set

Portugal photo index