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

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

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

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

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

Letchworth archives

Letchworth archives

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

Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potager6 July 2020

click to see Potager panorama
6 July 2020

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

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

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

Fritillaries 4 April 2020

Various Fritillaries
April 2020
click to see more

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

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

Marsh orchids and insects 5 May 2020

Marsh orchids and insects
May 2020
click to see more

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

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

Orchard - 10 July 2020

click to see Orchard panorama
10 July 2020

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

surprised deer

Surprised deer

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

Giant Green grasshopper

Giant Green and
other grasshoppers
click to see more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)
19 July 2020

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

International Space Station

Tracking ISS overhead
and the ISS itself
click to see more

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird hawk moth

Hummingbird hawk moth+videos
click to see more

Butterflies and moths

Butterflies and moths
click to see more

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

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

Wedding photographs

Wedding photograph

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

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

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

panorama overview locations

panorama locations

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

 

 

Photographs and updated panoramas from our 2010 Hungary tour

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

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

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

Hungary 2010

Hungary 2010 photographs and panoramas

Romania: Painted Monasteries

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

Moldavita Monastery

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

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

 

Voronet Monastery interior

Voronet Monastery interior

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Carrasqueira

Carrasqueira

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