Sunday, 19 October 2014

Mooching south of the border

Being just 2 hours drive from the Spanish border means that day trips, overnighters and mini trips are all possible. So, as the weather in southern France got a little cooler, we headed south. Our last Spanish trip  in the spring, had been to Figueras, all of 20 minutes south of the border. This time, we went mad….and went to Girona, a further 15 -20 minutes drive from the Figueras turn off on the motor way. ( We, by the way, consisted of Mark and I, and Jane and Steve, who also came to Figueras with us).

So…. Girona. I knew there was an airport there…..part of Ryanair’s collection of destinations….but not much else.  Jane, had been before, many years ago, and knew the cathedral was interesting. Our French teacher in Caunes told us about the walls, some great little places to eat, and where to park the car. ( It was in a large free car park on the edge of the city….unfortunately she didn’t tell us how to find our car again 2 days after we had parked it…… it took us some time to locate exactly where it had been left ! )
The cathedral, from the walls which surround one side of the city

We arrived in time for a quick check in at our very centrally located hotel and a tapas lunch, before heading off to walk the walls around the medieval part of the city, giving amazing views across the city and north to the Pyrenees.

us, looking over the walls towards the mountains
Apart from the obviously fabulous architecture, we were immediately aware of the Catalan desire for independence. Just a couple of weeks after the Scottish referendum it was interesting to see the demands for a similar vote here. The unofficial vote, promised to be ignored by the Spanish 
government is set for 9th November.

in English......for the tourists ????
Our 3 day/2 night trip was spent wandering, sitting drinking coffee, wine, green tea, nattering, discovering the Jewish quarter, the Arab baths, fabulous churches and museums….and one or two shops, as well as eating some great meals and stopping regularly for ice creams ( for Steve...although to be honest, Mark usually joined him ).

alleyways, incredible stone floors, around every corner

Cathedral cloisters

gardens by the was very warm and humid here.... mosquitoes abounded.

wall walking, photo taking, phone checking......

one of the many ice cream shops

tourists at the Cathedral, with evidence of shopping

They studied the maps so carefully

There was also a considerable amount of map reading undertaken, in an attempt to introduce a system to our wanderings. Please note that I refrained from this activity, preferring to document my fellow adventurers attempts to work out where we were and where we might go next.

Wall art, seen in the "modern" town, following an abortive attempt to find a department store, but provided a walk through the less touristy part of the city as dusk fell.

Steve, choosing his ice cream

Musicians entertaining us whilst stopping for yet another coffee.

The archeological museum was a treat.

During our last evening meal, we wondered about a young man who sat in an attic window, reading and smoking. We decided he was clearly a radical Catalonian, probably reading the Spanish equivalent of “Germinal”……the other theory was that he posed as a moody student for tourists like us , every night.
Our angry young man

Finally, on our last morning, we discovered  a very unexpected Girona delight. 

We found the Museum of Film just around the corner from our hotel. It held an amazing collection of early methods of projecting still and moving images and as we were the only people in the place for at least an hour, we took our time and studied….and played with the exhibits.

magic lantern slides

The more recent moving image displays were equally fascinating.

Boots worn by James Dean

The lamp from Sam's piano in "Casablanca"... You must remember this.......

We confirmed our view that Spanish coffee is excellent, that south of the Pyrenees the temperature is a tad higher than north of the Pyrenees, that we feel completely useless at conversing in Spanish and felt ridiculously fluent in French as soon as we re-crossed the border and that we are incredibly lucky to live so close to this part of Spain.

Mark and I are off back to Yorkshire next week, but we are already planning our next Spanish trip with Steve and Jane. It is so good to mooch around places like this, enjoying seeing new things with people whose company you enjoy.

Jane and Steve
Janice and Mark
 ( The intrepid adventurers, as we might have looked undertaking The Grand Tour, 150 years ago.....not sure what the Victorian photographer would have made of our travelling costumes).

 I think it will be Barcelona next !

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Will drinking wine improve our French ?

Hand picking still takes place
Last year I became fascinated in la vendange in Caunes and the surrounding area. I experienced sticky alcoholic smelling tyres , and sticky alcoholic smelling shoes as I drove and walked around the roads of the Minervois. This year, I was ready for it, and savoured the delicious smell as I walked through the streets of Caunes.

Grapes and lots of juice, dropped on the roads between the vineyards and the co-op.

This year I have also made it my business to check out the huge vendange machines, watch les bennes delivering their precious cargo to the local co-op, see where hand picking is still taking place, and try to understand some of the processes involved in getting les raisins from the vines into the bottles that we all seem to enjoy drinking so much.

Une vendangeuse automatique......a ladder is needed to get into the cab.
It was a brilliant opportunity to learn about the vendange from our new French friends who have started to join us at our café des langues, which meets every Thursday in our local café/bar.  So, Jean Claude et Henri were bombarded with all sorts of questions about the grape harvest which was dominating our area.

My breakfast on the terrace was disturbed one morning, by the harvesting of grapes taking place at our nearest vineyard....on the other side of the little valley opposite our house.

We learned some new words…. The verb enjamber is sort of self- explanatory….the vendange machine ( La vendangeuse automatique) works astride the vines…..enjamber is to stride over…..not to be confused with getting ones leg over…..which might seem a more literal translation.

I was pleased that one cuts the grapes…couper rather than picking them….cueillir…..couper is so much easier for us Brits to say than cueillir with all those vowels and a sneaky double L. 

The vendange machines actually shake and suck the grapes from the vines, and wandering around following the process, you can see that grapes on the lowest part of the vines are actually often missed by the machines.

La benne is the dumper truck that takes the grapes to the co-op. Some are really modern, but some look as if they’ve been doing the same job for decades. Traffic jams ( les bouchons...also, conveniently the word for corks) are frequent as tractors and les bennes take to the roads.

following deux bennes

This man and I exchanged waves and smiles as he unloaded his grapes to be weighed
Le fouloir is the wine press, le rendement is the yield, le pessage is the all important weighing of the grapes… the payment can be assessed.

the stalks, piled high, all around the co-op

I suppose we already knew that some grape producers are just that….they grow grapes and then sell them on….they are not the wine growers, who grow the grapes on their domaines and then continue the process by producing the wines themselves.

A session of our cafe des langues

What was most interesting was that, after an excellent café des langues session, Jean Claude and Henri  confessed that they were not experts on la vendange at all…. but very expert in consuming the final product.

Jean Claude in the foreground, helping us improve our French

Henri and Mark exchanging thoughts and new French and in English

It has been suggested that our ability to converse in French would be improved if we drank wine instead of coffee...... perhaps we should give it a go.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Tigers in Carcassonne

As I passed our local Tridome store ( a French DIY/ garden centre chain) I glimpsed the red and yellow candy striped tents of the circus that has come to town. The glamorous looking big top, and several matching colourful tents were pitched at the end of the car-park, next to a busy roundabout.

I visited the Milwaukee Circus parade many years ago, and loved the beautiful old circus wagons with their gaudy colours, so, drawn to the vibrant colours and painted wagons around the big top, I stopped to have a closer look.

 From the roundabout I could see posters advertising jugglers, acrobats, clowns, trapeze artists….then I saw something a little surprising. One of the wagons seemed to be advertising a hippopotamus. Surely I was mistaken. How could this be ?

Last year in Caunes, I had stumbled upon a camel and a llama seeming to graze on a roadside green verge . They had been part of the small circus visiting the town. I was surprised that there were still travelling circuses, with animals, but was told by locals that this was still common in France.

However….. a hippo…… Further investigation made everything clear.

The travelling circus would be in Carcassonne for a few days, and whilst not advertising itself as such, on its posters, involved many, many wild animals.

I passed close to the tiger’s wagon. ( I would estimate it measured 12 x 2 metres) As I approached, a man appeared and through a range of cages, positioned next to the wagon, opened a door, and 4 stunningly beautiful tigers emerged.

I told the man they were magnificent. He replied, “Merci.”……as if he thought I was congratulating him of having such fine beasts. J’etais epousteflant !  ( I was flabbergasted ! )

He was happy to let me stay and watch the tigers. He did not object when I took photos.

I really don’t know what to say, apart from wondering how this can be allowed, and wondering where the hell were all the protesters.

I became very self righteous and fell into “ How can the French allow this to continue” mode.

I fell into the trap of stereotyping a nation that still allow bull fights at their Spanish ferias, and found myself thinking “ This could never happen in Britain “

Returning home, I did some very quick and superficial google research and  discovered that although some countries have banned the use of wild animals in travelling circuses ( The Netherlands, and the UK ….but not until January 2015 in the UK ), most EU countries permit the use of wild animals in travelling circuses as long as they been registered, pronounced fit by a vet, and have an animal passport.

I wrongly assumed that in the UK, we don’t have performing animals anymore, but until the end of this year we do….. no lions, tigers and elephants, but there are still llamas, horses, camels, reindeer and zebras and apparently, snakes, performing in circuses in the UK. Performing horses will still be permitted, even when the new legislation comes into force in January 2015.

The only EU legislation covering the welfare of  circus animals  goes back to 2005, and requires the registration I mentioned.

So…the hippo….and those amazingly beautiful tigers , along with lions, and elephants, can be moved throughout Europe in 12x2 metre trucks, all beautifully painted, and then made to perform tricks, jumping through rings of fire and perching on boxes, rearing up at the command of a man holding a whip.

I remain epousteflanted and very very angry and very very sad.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Change is on its way

Somehow, our 6 months in Caunes is nearly over. Apart from a quick trip back to Yorkshire for hospital visits and Le Tour, we have been here since the middle of May.

It has been different this year. Last year was strange for me as I had only finished all my cancer treatment a couple of weeks before arriving in France. So, last summer was mostly about resting and building up strength again.
Last summer was good.....I was certainly smiling, as my hair started to grow back !

This summer has been “ normal”……. Walking, swimming, gardening, entertaining, visiting friends, visiting new places,visiting old places, meals out, meals in…… and lots of laughs.

Clark, providing lots of the laughs this year 

Jane, consulting one of the panels telling us where we should be walking....just before we got lost....again.
This is the pattern I hope will be repeated in the coming few years.
6 months in the UK, encompassing winter and early spring in Yorkshire, with Christmas and grandchildren, seeing old friends, lots of family time, spending time with Jess as she progresses through the early stages of her teaching career, and working with Treena and the tremendous bunch of volunteers at the Hebden Bridge Overgate Hospice shop.

Hebden Bridge, welcoming Le Tour de France 

Then back here, to France for late spring, summer and autumn, to our beautiful garden, to our new friends, who are quickly feeling like old friends , to being a base for our friends and family to enjoy if they want to visit us, and to wallowing in the beautiful warmth of the Minervois sunshine.

with new friends who feel like old friends

with visiting grandchildren

Always enjoying spending time with Caunes, in Liverpool, In Hebden Bridge.... anywhere.

Mark, in full flow, at the cafe des langes he has been instrumental in setting up, in Caunes, with French friends Jean Claude et Henri

I don’t need reminding that life is good……I feel very lucky. It has been a lovely, lovely year

(This wont be my last Caunes post this year, as we have a few weeks to go yet, and a couple more adventures planned before we head north.)