Archive for the ‘France’ Category

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.

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Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

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Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.

Scottish Colourists’ Exhibition and home grown new tatties

August 3, 2017

The exhibition of work by the Scottish Colourists at The Granary in Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos)  had been on our list for a while. On a very wet Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, we decided to go and it turned out to be a really pleasurable and enlightening visit. We had seen some of the work of the group who became to be known as the Scottish colourists – Peploe, Fergusson, Hunter and Cadell – in previous exhibitions at the National Gallery of Scotland. As often happens in art, the group members became most well- known after 3 of them were dead – in the 1940s, with only Fergusson living on until 1961. The exhibition’s paintings are shown in chronological order and this gives the viewer and idea of how the styles and ideas of the painters developed over the years. I was allowed to take photos and the following were works that stood out for me personally.

The first painting is “Peonies in a Chinese vase” by Leslie Hunter. The painting itself is more distinct than this photo but even here, you can see the range of colours used by Hunter. The painter wrote “The eye seeks refreshment in painting. Give it joy not mourning. Give everything a distinct outline. Avoid over finish – an impression is not so robust but that its first inspiration will be lost if we try to strengthen everything with detail.’’ In this painting, there is a mixture of realistic outlines of objects but also an impression of these objects. So I think that this makes us appreciate the form of the painting and asks us to use our imagination.

 

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“Peonies in a Chinese vase” by Leslie Hunter (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd painting is “A vase of pink roses” by S.J Peploe. While the roses are painted in greater detail than in the previous work shown, this is still not an attempt to portray the roses photographically. What attracts me to this painting are the range of shapes and lines, which give it an abstract quality. The mix of colour – ranging from the dark at the top left and bottom, to the delicate pinks and orange of the roses and the light background – provides a contrast and this makes you look at the work more closely. At first glance, this is a fairly simple picture, but when you start to look at the detail, it ends up being a very busy one.

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“A vase of pink roses by S.J. Peploe

The final painting is “Loch Creran, Argyll” by Francis Cadell. When you first see this work, it certainly is the colours that draw it to your eye. There is a superb range of colours here, with subtle changes of shade. You are almost tempted to take do a child-like exercise and spot how many shades of green and blue are here, but this is not about quantity. The loch and the surrounding mountains are depicted in what was for me a very gentle and calming flow of colours. The real Loch Creran (good photos) is a stunning location. Cadell is not aiming to replicate the real-life views. He is perhaps trying to give us an alternative view, which has a more dream-like quality.

Overall, this is an outstanding exhibition. It’s on until October, so get to see it if your are anywhere near it.

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“Loch Creran, Argyll” by Francis Cadell

From the artistic to the more practical and a different kind of taste. In an earlier blog post this year, I promised to include a picture of my emerging tattie (potato) shaws, but it slipped my mind. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been harvesting the early tattie crop and here is the result. In Scotland (as elsewhere) we have two crops of tatties each year – early and late. The early ones have much thinner skins than the late tatties and tend to be much more tasty. You would never peel early tatties. To do this would be the act of a philistine and make you susceptible to the wrath of the tattie gods. Now, there is a certain psychological element to planting, feeding, watering and then harvesting your own tatties. When you dig under the shaws and reveal the oval packets of flavour and nourishment, there is definitely an element of  achievement, of pleasure and a harking back to times when people grew their own food out of necessity. These tatties have a distinct flavour – you must be careful not to boil them too hard to ensure this. I could eat these on their own with just some butter.

One of my favourite poet Seamus Heaney’s most famous poems is “Digging” (Heaney reading the poem) and it contains the lines “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ Against the inside knee was levered firmly. / He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep/ To scatter new potatoes that we picked,/ Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. That last line is brilliant and you would need a whole paragraph to describe what the poet is saying here. Heaney has a very enviable facility with words.

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Early tattie crop in my garden

 

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

Bartlett Rainbow (thumb)

Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Bordeaux visit (2) – architecture, statues and concert at Le Grand Theatre

May 30, 2017

As with all the cities we visit, I took photos of the main tourist attractions, such as La Place de la Bourse (photo 1), with its magnificent frontage, large open square and the intriguing  Three Graces Fountain (photo 2) which features the daughters of Zeus.

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Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux (Click to enlarge)

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La Fontaine de Trois Graces in Bordeaux

Opposite La Bourse is a modern feature – Le Mirroir D’Eau (The Water Mirror). which is the world’s largest reflecting pool. This is a fascinating concept. Firstly, there are wonderful reflections of parts of the city e.g. in the photo below. Secondly, this is somewhere open to all and children and adults splash in the water. Thirdly, at intervals, a mist arises from the water and this is also enjoyed by the public, who walk through it, and by photographers. Le Mirroir is an excellent of a piece of public sculpture and landscaping which is both aesthetic and utilitarian, giving joy to many people.

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Le Mirroir D’eau in Bordeaux

It’s a very photogenic city, with some very interesting architectural features e.g. Le Grosse Cloche (good photos) and impressive statues e.g. La Fontaine des Girondins (good photos).

On the penultimate day of our holiday, we planned to do a tour of Le Grand Theatre (more below), visit Le Palais Rohan (short video) and the Basilique San Michel (good photos). We had a walk around the magnificent church but we didn’t have time to climb the tower, which is recommended for the views across the city (see website). As with cathedrals across Europe and beyond, the stonework is stunning and you have to admire the craftsmanship of the workers who built it, with medieval equipment i.e. no health and safety and not stone cutting machines. We had been to the tourist information office where the staff are friendly and generally excellent. However, they told us that we could get tickets to tour Le Palais Rohan at the palace itself. We went along and a sign said it was open at 2.30pm. We went back at the appointed time, only to be told that we needed to get tickets at the tourist information office! So, we walked back to Le Grand Theatre(short video), the home of Opera Bordeaux. When we went to book the tour, there was more frustration as the very helpful young lady told us that all the tours were full that day and the next day. Then our luck changed, as she told us that on that evening, there was a concert – and it only cost 10 euros. This was a great opportunity not only to see the interior of the theatre but to attend a performance. Going to Le Grand Theatre is normally a very expensive business.

The concert we attended featured a choir of men and women, a pianist, a conductor and three soloists. Here is the cover of the programme.

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Concert programme at Le Grand Theatre in Bordeaux

Le Choeur de L’Opera National de Bordeaux (video of choir performing around Bordeaux) are led by the enthusiastic Salvatore Caputo and highly talented pianist Martine Marcuz. For this event, the choir, in 2 sections of males and females, were in superb form and performed the songs with great feeling and obvious enjoyment, and the two female and one male soloists were outstanding. The evening consisted of 18 songs related to wine and beer drinking and cafes. Examples are Verdi’s Fuoco di Gioia (video) and although the the choir were accompanied only on piano and not with an orchestra (as in the link above), they were just as effective and in some ways, the lack of an orchestra made the choir more accessible to the audience. They also performed Vaughn Williams’ Wassail Song (video) which was described in the programme as a Chanson a boire (drinking song) and they gave a lively version of it. This was a real piece of luck on our part and a very memorable evening in a grand setting. The two photos below were taken on a mobile phone, so are not the best but they do show the stage as we saw it and some of the balconies.

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Stage at Le Grand Theatre I Bordeaux

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Balconies of Le Grand Theatre in Bordeaux

Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

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Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

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Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

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Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

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Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

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The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

Surgeons as writers and Americana by Ray Davies

May 9, 2017

The Saturday edition of The Guardian comes through the letter box and thumps on the floor, as it contains a variety of sections – the main paper, sport, review, travel, family and food. I keep the Review section  for Sunday mornings and I enjoy reading the main article, as well as the non-fiction, fiction and poetry book reviews. On Saturday, the main article was by William Boyd and entitled “A matter of life and death: The rise of the surgeon memoir”.  In the article, Boyd looks at the works of surgeons such as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Gabriel Weston. Gawande’s Complications describe what Boyd calls “significant” procedures e.g. “We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen”. Boyd quotes Gabriel (in Direct Red) “We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.” Boyd then goes on to wonder “.. how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being”. The author is obviously enthralled by surgeons and notes that he happens to know four surgeons with international reputations and he elicits from one of them, Brendan Moran, what is need to become a top surgeon – a lack of squeamishness, strength, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an interesting article, with some detailed outlines of procedures that some people e.g. the squeamish, may wish to avoid, and it gives an insight into the working lives of top surgeons. I also found it a rather obsequious article in that Boyd seems to think that because these top surgeons are making life and death decisions (and they admit to making good and bad decisions), they must be on a higher plane than other professions and he finishes by referring to “the extraordinary profession they [surgeons] share and the phenomenal life they lead”. This raises the question of whether Boyd should be so amazed by the surgeon/writers. Would Boyd be so in awe of top researchers who have made major discoveries in science, medicine, history, psychology or chemistry i.e. people who have no physical contact with others? I think not and perhaps society as a whole has tended to treat people in the  medical profession (mainly doctors) as being cleverer than the rest of us. A surgeon has great responsibility but so has a bus driver or train driver or airline pilot. Read the article and see what you think.

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Direct Red by Gabriel Weston

I don’t buy much music these days but, having heard Ray Davies’ new album on Spotify, I bought it today.

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Americana by Ray Davies

Ray Davies has always been more than just a writer of pop songs. In his days with The Kinks, Davies wrote songs with a socially cutting edge e.g. Dead End Street (YouTube link) – “Out of work and got no money/ Sunday joint of bread and honey” or Lola  (YouTube link) about a young boy meeting a transvestite in a club. The new album also has a cutting edge and is based on Davies’ time in America – with The Kinks in the 1960s and 1970s, but also on more recent visits. The recurrent theme in the album is The Great Highway, both in the physical sense of travelling on the roads in the USA, but also life as a journey. There are many intriguing tracks on the album and almost all demonstrate Davies’ critical look at modern society, particularly in the USA, but also globally. In Poetry, he sings ” .. the great corporations providing our every need/And those big neon signs telling us what to eat” but he asks “Where is the poetry?” in the blandness of shopping malls and other aspects of today’s society. In A Long Drive Home To Tarzana, he finds that “.. there’s nothing there except/that space/ Beautiful space” and this seems to be the dream, to be away from the crowded cities. Davies is accompanied by the fabulous Jayhawks band, including Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies to great effect. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear echoes of the Beatles in some tracks and Neil Young in others. In the first track, which you can listen to here (YouTube), the first lines are “I wanna make my home/Where the buffalo roam”. In Neil Young’s Far From Home (YouTube), the chorus starts “Bury me out on the prairie/Where the buffalo used to roam”. So, a superb album of country/rock with Davies’ ironic lyrics adding to some wonderful tunes.

No blog next week, as we are off to Bordeaux for a week’s holiday.

 

Auld Year’s Night and A Walk on New Year’s Day

January 7, 2017

We had Australian friends staying over New Year. They arrived on 31st December which is known locally as Auld Year’s Day. This expression is, I think, restricted to the south eastern part of Scotland, while other parts use the term Hogmanay, the meaning of which is disputed, but it may be Scandinavian or Flemish. The term New Year’s Eve is used in other parts of Britain. Until the 1950s, New Year was the major festive event in Scotland, with people still working on Xmas Day. Bringing in the New Year in Scotland is seen as attractive by people across the world, as the cosmopolitan crowd in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on Auld Year’s Night will testify. Dunbar Running Club organise a short run on Auld Year’s Night at 7pm and my wife Val and our visitors took part, while I helped with timing. The race is known as the Black Bun Run after the tradition of giving people whisky and black bun to bring in the New Year, to ensure that people would have enough to drink and eat for the following year. I was the (non-running) President of  Dunbar Running Club for 14 years and the local paper, the East Lothian Courier would print my reports of the race – known then as The Auld Year’s Night Race, until one year the paper’s reporter used the headline Black Bun Run a Success. Thereafter, we used this title for the race. After the race, we joined the other runners (23 in total) in the nearby Masons Arms pub, for a pint of Belhaven Best ale, which is brewed just around the corner at Belhaven Brewery. Back home, we had a meal – a tasty Beef’n Beer (photo below) and brought the New Year in with rather less traditional champagne and red wine.

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Beef’n Beer done in Le Creuset pan (Click to enlarge)

On New Year’s Day, we took our friends on one of our favourite walks – to Seacliff Beach (good photos). We parked the car about a mile away from the beach. As you leave the car, just past the farm buildings, you get a magnificent view of Tantallon Castle (good photos)  and the Bass Rock and the view is enhanced (photo below) with the foreground of the emergent spring wheat’s subtle green.

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Tantallon Castle and the Bass Rock

You walk down a fairly muddy path to get to the beach but you are rewarded with a view of a long stretch of sandy beach to the right and left. We went left towards the tiny harbour – claimed to be the UK’s smallest – where there was quite a swell here with the white sea caressing the rocks.

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Swell at Seacliff Beach

On the harbourside, you can still see the remains of old iron winding gear, which, with the backdrop of Tantallon Castle (see below) makes for an intriguing view.

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Winding gear at Seacliff and Tantallon Castle

We walked back along the east side of the beach and up the sandy slope to the path/road where cars can exit. At the top of the hill, you pass under an archway and when you look back, the Bass Rock is framed by the archway. The photo below was taken on a frosty afternoon a few years ago.

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Arch at Seacliff Beach

As you walk back past the farm buildings at Seacliff Farm, you pass many horses as there’s a riding school there. I managed to catch one horse having a feed and another peering at me through the bare hawthorn hedge (see below). So, an excellent walk on a bright, sunny if cold day gave us an exhilarating start to 2017.

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Horse feeding at Seacliff

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Horse through a hawthorn hedge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two exhibitions – local and national

August 18, 2016

Last week, we went to two art exhibitions, one here in Dunbar and one at the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

The first exhibition was Inspiring Impressionism and featured the works of very well known artists Van Gogh and Monet. However, the main focus of the exhibition was on the man who inspired Van Gogh and Monet, with a new style of painting – Charles Daubigny. I’m sure that, like many others, I had never heard of Daubigny but he was a prolific artist and one who shifted the focus of art from strictly realistic, and often internal, painting to take in landscapes, which were often painted outside, at the scene of the painting. As Daubigny progressed as an artist, his depiction of the landscapes became more impressionistic and he was called “the father of impressionism”. There are many very impressive paintings in this exhibition – see highlights –  and among my favourites was Fields in the Month of June shown below, under the Creative Commons Licence. If you click on the painting to enlarge it, you will see what is perhaps an idyllic landscape with common elements seen in may paintings, such as the women working in the fields, the donkey nearby and the geese flying overhead. However, it was Daubigny’s use of paint to portray the poppies that was unusual at the time and he was criticised for this by the more traditional art establishment.

Fields in the Month of June by Charles Daubigny

Fields in the Month of June by Charles Daubigny

Another outstanding work is Sunset on the Sea Coast in which you can see how Daubigny influenced Monet and Van Gogh. The is one of Daubigny’s most impressionist painting and the mix of colours and the contrast between the darkening land, the vivid sunset and the evening sky are beautifully done. When you stand next to this painting and look close up, it appears to be a random succession of daubs of paint, but step back and this almost volcanic looking sunset strikes you. I felt it was real privilege to see all Daubigny’s works, as well as those of Monet and Van Gogh.

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Sunset on the Sea Coast by Charles Daubigny

The  second exhibition is a set of reproductions of the paintings of artist James Howe. The exhibition was mounted by East Lothian Archaeology Service and it takes the form of digital reproductions of Howe’s paintings, which you see as actual size and with some paintings, at first, you think you might be seeing the actual painting. The exhibition and very well produced accompanying booklet are sponsored by Rathbone Investment Management Limited. James Howe was born in 1780 in the village of Skirling in the Scottish borders and he went on to become a prolific artist – like Daubigny – specialising in the painting of horses, which he loved doing. In order to make a living, he also did portraits of wealthy people in Scotland. The first painting below (permission given) shows the helter-skelter of the horse fair in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, which today is a major tourist attraction. The second painting focuses on the horses preparing to start a race at Musselburgh race course which is still going strong today. While the eye is drawn to the magnificent horses, there is action at the front and rear of the painting, with boys being chased by a soldier. This was a very interesting exhibition of the work of a Scottish painter of whom I had not heard.

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Horse Fair in the Grassmarket Edinburgh by James Howe

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Preparing for the Start by James Howe

 

The Creel Restaurant and Olhamstocks walk

April 18, 2016

We are lucky here in Dunbar (good photos) with a population of between 8ooo and 9ooo  to have a range of good local restaurants. While The Rocks has a fine reputation for excellent service and very good food, The Creel is the pick of the restaurants. The Creel is a small restaurant owned and run by award winning chef Logan Thorburn. We have visited The Creel many times with family and friends and have never had a bad meal. I contacted Logan who kindly answered my two questions and sent me the photos below. I firstly asked Logan ” What is your approach to cooking the meals you serve in the restaurant?”. His answer was “Great simple combinations using the very best of local produce that is available – season dependent – and all prepared in a true  modern-rustic artisan style”. The second question was “As a restaurant owner, what is your philosophy of service to your customers?”. The answer was ” We strive to offer relaxed, efficient and unobtrusive service that meets our customers needs and also matches our pricing bracket. We do try our very best although staffing a small restaurant in a small rural community can sometimes be a challenge”. If asked why I would recommend The Creel to locals and visitors alike, I would reply that the meals are of a  very high standard, cooked to order and with a depth of flavour often missing from other restaurants. For example, Logan’s fish and shellfish soup, served hot in a generous bowl with his own bread is as good as any bouillabaisse I’ve had in France. The two photos below show Logan’s extensive tapas dishes, including  Griddled Pork Loin with Green Peppers and Spanish Onions; Moroccan, Aubergine and Courgette Tagine,  Steamed Local Partan Crab Claws;  Classic Chic Pea Hummus; and Slow Rioja Braised Chorizo Sausage and Fennel Casserole. We haven’t tried this but it looks very enticing. The 2nd photos is  Steamed Clams with Garlic and Parsley Butter and served with Homemade Farmhouse Loaf. The Creel is a must visit restaurant if you are in the Dunbar area.

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The Creel’s tapas dishes

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The Creel’s clam dish

We stopped for a walk at the bonnie wee village of Oldhamstocks (good photos). This is a place with a long history. Olhamstocks (pr Old HAM stocks) is set in a valley between steep hills, one of which is a testing climb on the bike and the other is a steep, grassy slope where sheep graze. It is up the latter hill that runners strive when doing the annual hill run as part of the well-known Flower Show. There are many substantial stone buildings in the village and the one below had a grand display of daffodils on display.

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Impressive stone house in Oldhamstocks

We walked along to the local church where there is a very interesting historic graveyard.  The gravestone that caught my eye was that of Philip Orkney who died aged 86 – a very long time to live in the 19th century – in November 1875. Next to his name is the word feuer. When I looked this up, I had to search beyond the German word feuer meaning fire. In this context, a feuer is one who pays a feu or rent. So Mr Orkney had “a perpetual lease granted at full rent giving the feuer a continuing right of occupancy and the granter an ongoing rental”. This probably put him in a higher status than other people who paid rent but had no life-time guarantee of occupation. The graveyard is set in an idyllic spot with the countryside in full view.

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Gravestone in Oldhamstocks churchyard