lundi 19 juillet 2010

We all came down to Montreux, On the Lake Geneva

shoreline, all right . . . which as any fule kno, especially if he's an ageing headbanger like me, is the first line of Smoke on the Water. For Hols 2, I have decided, possibly in an orgy of pure self-indulgence, to go for a bit of unashamed anorakismo. The town in the pic is indeed Montreux and the pinky building on the left is the present day casino, built to replace the gambling house that burned down in the song.

The pic was actually taken from the top floor of Château Chillon, which is a very nice proper castle with a roof and furnishings, some epic prisoner tales and graffiti by Lord Byron. Yer actual mad, bad and dangerous-to-know George thought the place really rocked, even to the extent of penning a walloping great epic about it that I can't pretend to have read.

It's well worth visiting, especially if your partner is humming that Durh, Durh, Durhhh! riff and has just subsided into his second childhood. Anything to take your mind off all that bluesrock-assisted dementia.

But it has to be said that Deep Purple's Machine Head album remains a very classy piece of work to this day and it was all made in Montreux. It was totally essential vinyl (that sort of round, black, warpable, scratchable, nickable, extremely expensive, plastic stuff) for any self-respecting 13-year-old in 1974.

This meant that you had grown out of teenybopperdom and when you consider that this included bands like The Wombles it all brings a whole new meaning to words like exorcism, deliverance and lucky escape. Shaving, spots, fags, booze and possibly sex were only just around the corner.

Of course, this was only boys' stuff. The girls all listened to soul and later on disco. Remember all that dancing in a circle with all the handbags in the middle? In terms of asking for a bop, it would have been slightly easier to torpedo the Graf Spee . . .

Later on, in the decades that music forgot, plenished with the horrors of the New Romantics, Boy Bands and other nameless serial drivel, I too came deeply to love classic soul music. I just don't know whether that many of the girls ever really came round to the idea of The Purps.

Imagine though, our distress back in 1976 when Deep Purple broke up. Wot? No more Purple? You have to remember that this was a musically dire year; slightly less interesting than a vow of silence. On reflection, I'd have gone for the silence. Then punk broke out. It had no choice.

But it all has a happy ending. Thirty-four years later The Purps are still in business. They've played in SW France every year for at least the last four and I even finally got to see them in Carcassonne. They're still pretty damn good.

And what of Claude Nobs, the somewhat eccentrically-named hero of Montreux, whose lone mugshot lurks among the plethora of pix of our five beloved hairy English musos inside the original Machine Head gatefold sleeve?

Funky Claude, of course, is the guy in the song who rescued various kids from the burning casino and then spent the next two weeks trying to find other places for the band to record, amid a hale of complaints from conservative Swiss persons who weren't quite ready to enter the wonderful world of very loud rock music.

Perhaps for Claude, the water still smokes . . .

It had to happen - Death by Push-bikers - Hols 1

You may have gathered from the headline that girlfriend Claire and I have departed Fa for a day or two in pastures new beyond the bumpish and grindette abnormality of Languid Oc Roussillon.

Having lightly lampooned our velo-istic colleagues of Le Tour de France in my last missive, I suppose it is only rough or poetic justice that I should have been plagued by cyclists ever since; much as one might be lightly hassled by a rogue school of kamikaze killer whales.

This has caused me to consider what might be the collective noun for cyclists and concluded that it ought to be a deathwishness.

Skipping the first day of our adventure because motorways are boring, I take up the tale in the Vaucluse, western Provence, somewhere the other side of Avignon.

The day started benignly enough in the agreeable chambre d'hote we'd found sleeping quietly at the end of a tree-tunnelled chemin outside the village of Bedoin.

I had been driving but a few minutes when it struck me that there seemed to be an awful lot of push-bikers about. Have you ever noticed while driving that you always meet a P-biker at some divinely-ordained moment of maximum danger and inconvenience?

Even if you're driving on one of those infinitely long, straight vanishing point-type roads, you will always pass the cyclist at the unexpected chicane with bonus demon potholes, exactly as the apocalyptic posse of 38-tonne wagons comes winging its way to hell in the opposite direction.

This will always happen even if the lorries have been in sight for the last two miles, and whether you speed up, slow down or even stop to lurk knowingly beneath your Harry Potter-type Invisibility Cloak.

Our general intention was to wander through the Vaucluse into the French Alps eventually ending up in Switzerland. If you are not conversant with the word col, then I had better explain right now as it's geographically impossible to follow this route without going over a remarkably large number of them.

I seem to remember that there was some mythical Scots geezer called Col of The Cows, but in this case col means a mountain pass. There are a few twee things near Fa called cols . . . that go up to a thousand feet or so, but these are for drivers still in possession of a nappy.

The ones we're talking about here have multiple precipices, awesome hairpin bends and positive orgies of suicidal cyclists. While actually trying quite hard not to kill any of them, I missed our turning towards Briançon and ended up right on the top of Mont Ventoux (top pic). As you can see, it looks like a desert the wrong way up, and at an impressive 6,200 feet is way over my vertigo limit . . .

Having thus been reduced to a gibbering wreck, I gallantly let girlfriend Claire drive the even bigger cols, being a Pyrenean mountain girl and all that. Just as well, because ironically we ended up a day or so later on the very same Col du Galibier that features in the vintage Tour de France pic (see last post).

This gentle slope, ha-ha, weighs in at a mere 8,586 feet while Le Grand Galibier itself manages 10,491 feet, or a maximum 5 Sets of Ruined Underwear Rating. I was already, shall we say apprehensive, when I took pic 2 though Claire still seems cheerful enough.

Probably the most entertaining aspect of vertigo is approaching a hairpin bend where the only visible scenery on the outside edge is a large quantity of unaccompanied sky, unspoilt by crash barriers. It's then that the absolute certainty cuts in that the dear old Kangoo is going to take off into several thousand feet of not a lot.

The fact that the old girl's shockers and anti-roll bars are a bit shot at the mo adds most effectively to the feeling of Designer Sadism by Renault . . . You do this about a dozen times going up Col du Galibier and repeat the exercise, lest we should forget, on the way down.

There's about a one in two chance of extra fun meeting a cyclist at each of the really hairy bits. Thanks to the route's legendary status as a Tour de France stage, every wannabee TDF hero just has to give it a go. I have pictured an uphill nutcase; these are probably more of a nuisance when you're desperately trying to jockey your vehicle, slipping the clutch in first gear, though the really crazy ones zooming down are probably more alarming.

Mind you, looking back to the vintage pic, I see that the road was merely a flattish pile of rock in those days so I suppose we had it soft. If the last pic doesn't look especially exciting it's probably because I had the camera upside down or something . . .

mardi 13 juillet 2010

Wheels within wheels - Tour de France comes to Fa

Well there you have it; Le Tour de France, even as I write, is somewhere on its way to Fa. This, of course, is the way it should be.

The race will inevitably end on Les Champs Elysées à Paris, but this is a small and insignificant event compared to the honour of being allowed to cycle through the Centre of the Known Universe, AKA Fa.

On Sunday July 18, all will start bright and early in readiness for the Great Day. The attendants of La Reine Marie du Cafédefa each have their part to play; there will be feasting, music and much rejoicing.

We thought of inviting La Reine Margot, as played by the delectable Isabelle Adjani, but such vast quantities of blood and guts would be unseemly on so gracious an occasion.

Dave the Underdog is already polishing his wittiest and most apposite syllogisms, Mollie the Dog is practising sulking and an enthusiastic relay team is on hand to track down all the Neefy Eepees and insert them in the dish-washer.

So you can teach an old dog new tricks. Incidentally girlfriend Claire tells me that the French for the usual version of this idiom is Ce n'est pas à un vieux singe qu'on apprend à faire des grimaces. Or: You can't teach an old monkey to make faces, which all adds to the colour of the moment.

Fa, in fact, has a long and distinguished association with the Tour. I draw your attention to the picture of Fa's own Tour de France hero Vincente Jean-Baptiste Fauré, helping to tow one of the official cars, somewhere in the Alps in 1934. A deeply modest man, Fauré won the Tour several times, led an important Résistance group during the war and retired to Fa to chop wood and look after his dear old mum, expiring with elaborate civic honours in 1971.

Fauré, one should note in passing, is a common surname in these parts; celebrated French composer, Gabriel Fauré, came from Pamiers only a couple of hours away in the neighbouring Ariège. It's mildly disconcerting to see businesses over there with names like Kevin Fauré Fruit Mart (Get yor luvly requiems 'ere . . .) or Barry Fauré Voitures d'Occasion (secondhand motors).

I must admit that I'm having to bluff this piece, as my sole technical knowledge of cycling is the chapter of Paddington Bear where he wins a fastest downhill prize in the TDF owing to his tricycle having no brakes.

Sadly I don't suppose that you could imagine such a story today, even for children, with it all being so professional. I did look up a bit of early TDF history; the second tour in 1904 or thereabouts seems to have been the best one. They tried having night stages and everyone cheated like mad in the dark when the judges couldn't see them. One guy even put his bike on the train. Great fun.

That of course was in the era when the Tour actually went all the way round France. At some stage the organisers realised that this was physically impossible even by using unfeasibly large quantities of dangerous drugs. So they toned the whole thing down a bit; which is a pity. As a profoundly unsporty person, I nonetheless do love the magnificence of the world's great sporting spectacles; especially the fundamentally barmy ones.

Fa, of course, is not without its sense of occasion. In the second picture, you will see what may seem to you like a perfectly ordinary gutter. It is, of course the Fa 2010 Tour de France Memorial Gutter, laid with the utmost care and despatch, only in the last few days.

Said gutter used to be one of those traditional French death traps, much too deep and carefully covered with amorphous fragments of cast-iron grating, so that you could trip and break certainly a leg and possibly your neck without even trying. The prospect of hundreds of the world's top cyclists all going arse over tip in the middle of Fa was presumably too much for Monsieur le Maire to bear . . .

It's a pleasant spin-off of the Tour that we always get a nice piece of new road out of it. The Tour always has to come out of the bottom end of the Pyrenees somewhere so it usually passes quite close by. This year they've resurfaced a goodly chunk of tarmac down by Intermarché.

I suppose this is the moment to own up to a certain quantity of lies and deception. It is with the utmost embarrassment that your faithful correspondent has to admit that, due to a truly gross cock-up on the forward planning front, he can't actually be here on Sunday thus dipping out on the biggest story of the year . . .

PS: I also invented Vincente Jean-Baptiste Fauré in the interests of local colour. The real cyclist is Spain's Federico Ezquerra pictured between Le Télégraphe et Le Galibier in the Alps and it actually was 1934. Of course, he ought to have come from Fa and it's not my fault that he didn't.

dimanche 11 juillet 2010

Heard 'em through the grapevine, sultry snores of Fa

Ah! A timeless scene that is forever rural France. A 2CV van lurks beneath the spreading limes and vines; geriatric masonry crumbles gently to itself, and not a soul stirs of a Sunday afternoon in sleepy Fa.

This is not entirely surprising as the summer heat finally hit us this last week with all the refinement and elegance of a well-aimed sledge hammer.

Summer has been a remarkably long time coming this year and even now it tends to sulk; sultry and stormy as a stroppy teenager.

It's odd really, we don't usually get this super (not) overcast and slimy heat, so redolent of a moderately crap August in Ongle-terry. What has happened to our lovely blue skies, we ask ourselves.

It has not been a weekend for action; it's the most we can do to struggle over to the Cafédefa, sink a few beers or cokes or coffees, read the paper, and swap a few lines of languid gossip, before wandering gently back home to collapse under the ventilator fans, like extras pegged out to die in a Sam Peckinpah gore-fest.

At least the bloody Guardian turned up for a change. Lately I've taken to reading Le Monde as my official weekend Grauniad stunt double. It's very good for my French and saves me the need to prod the newsagent with pointed sticks and other instruments of violence and destruction.

I don't suppose he understands any better than I do, how or why the less-than-mercurial conduit of information from Farringdon Road suffers such acute periodic bouts of constipation, especially here in deepest Languedoc.

But probably it's a small matter in the general scheme of things. Les grandes vacances sont enfin arrivées: The schools are out. Days to sleep and nights to party (in between thunderstorms and unaccustomed bouts of belting rain).

Unfamiliar faces arrive in our village, French, English and any number of other nationalities; 'Tis the grockel season, moi deare . . . Very pleasant but all a bit strange: We'll get over it.