mercredi 23 novembre 2011

Woodn't it be luvverly? Mais non, Monsieur . . .

It's nearly the end of November and weird world continues. Even the most venerable denizens of l'haute vallée de l'Aude, people in their 80s, can't remember anything like it.

Tonnes of driftwood litter the windswept beaches

These pix show the beach at Canet, près de chez Claire. We get whole weeks of beautiful, warm sunshine, then Pow! Stonking great storms, complete with cataclysm and full quad sound.

Any excuse to use an arty shot while we're about it

Normally Canet's vista of virgin sand continues uninterrupted as far as the eye can see; ideal for a traditional little seaside resort.

But over the last few weeks, masses of timber have been storm-swept down the Rhone and the valleys of the Gard in to the sea.

It's been blown along the coast and fetched up at Canet; whole fallen trees strewn along several kilometres of beach.

Only a few hours after I took these shots, torrential rain was hammering down on the roof of chez Claire. Today it's all sunny again. Very strange.

* Having made the main point with a couple of pure news shots, I couldn't resist having a twiddle with my picture editor, so I knocked up this arty black and white to finish with.

vendredi 11 novembre 2011

Lest we forget, a village moment of remembrance

Here we have a rare Maire sighting. I should make it clear right away that I mean no disrespect: Monsieur Serge Jammy, le Maire de Fa, is, by repute, an able and diligent administrator.

However he does tend to be a rather more shy and retiring bird than you might expect from the village's leading citizen.

Which may explain why this is his first appearance in our well-belovéd chronicle of sundry and obscure doings here in extreme Sticksville, SW France.

The occasion is, of course, le jour férié d'Armistice which always takes place on November 11 in France, rather than on the nearest Sunday.

It's a bank holiday and principally commemorates the fallen of the First World War. The end of the Second World War is marked separately on May 8.

As in Angleterre, the French are reflecting on whether the nature of the remembrance should evolve, now that the last veterans of The Great War have died.

Personally, I don't see the need for any profound change. Whilst it was always important to honour the survivors, the primary purpose has always been to remember those who died in a carnage that remains almost without parallel, in its waste of human lives.

I think many English people are quite unaware of the scale of the French losses. But all over France, you can go into villages that seem to consist of two houses, a church and no pub, and find a list of 40 or 50 names on the war memorial.

Our little ceremony here in Fa was also notable as a serious suit sighting. Full marks to Monsieur le Maire for his neat, dark two-piece with tie. We are distinctly informal in Languedoc-Rousillon. Maires of even quite large towns are wont to officiate in T-shirt, jeans and sash, especially in summer.

Ties are almost unheard of. The only person I know who wears one is our local chief Jehovah's Witness; a very neat dresser, and exceedingly formal. The only time I met him, I thought he'd come to read my will . . .

samedi 5 novembre 2011

All these Kings and Queens . . . mais pas très anglais

When I first came to France, my new French friends and acquaintances frequently asked my opinion of the Royal Family. To which, I was wont to reply: Why do you think I decided to live in a republic?

Despite having spurned their own monarchy some hundreds of years ago, the French often seem strangely fascinated by ours.

They're particularly fond of someone called Leddeedee and not at all impressed by Preentz Sharl, thanks to his somewhat ungentlemanly behaviour with regard to her.

The fact that the late Lady Di, Princess of Wales met her untimely demise on French soil seems to count for a lot, and many French people are enthusiastic supporters of the various conspiracy theories.

The whole business of Henry VIII, the monarchy and the Catholic church baffles them completely. And the fact that the English had two perfectly good revolutions, purely on religious grounds long before the French had theirs, also comes as a surprise.

However it crossed my mind the other day: When were the kings of England actually English?

The official list seems to start with King Offa of Mercia (see myths and legends-style pic) in the 8th century but it's debatable whether he ruled the whole of England.

Pre-1066 and all that, there's a motley collection of Saxons and Vikings with unappetising names like Ethelfilth and Dogbreth. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Alfred the Great seems a good solid English choice but while Sweyn Forkbeard is a damn good name for a king, he was definitely Danish.

William the Conqueror and the Normans walked in, deeply uninvited, from France, followed by the Plantagenets - French again. Then we had the Wars of the Roses crowd, Lancastrians and Yorkists, who were really quite English, even if they were mostly either wet and crap like Henry VI or rabid psychopaths e.g. Richard III.

They were chucked out by the Tudors - Welsh. Being slightly less fertile than the average Panda, the Tudor dynasty soon expired, landing us with the Stuarts - at first Scottish and ultimately - Dutch.

I suppose you shouldn't quit while you're on a roll, so the Hanoverians - German - came next, followed by that Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lot. They changed their name to Windsor at the height of World War One on account of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha sounding just a teeny bit Teutonic.

I suppose the whole thing came to its thoroughly English and thus illogical conclusion when QE2 married Philip of Greece. I can't help concluding that our most English head of state was Oliver Cromwell and I'm not sure that's any great recommendation . . . Thank heavens for St George and the rather agreeable Kate.

mardi 1 novembre 2011

OTT Sevilla - Over the top and off down the other side

Being well overdue for a spotta kulcher, girlfriend Claire and I whizzed off to sunny Sevilla down in deepest Spain.

This was thanks to my old mate and former garage band confederate Glenn, who has established a gaff there, a casa even, with his partner Tracey. They were kind enough to invite us and we had a great time.

We came, we saw and were duly thrilled, charmed, interested, entertained and even genuinely gobsmacked: So a very sound plan.

Sevilla: the sweet smell of excess. This is the city of Velasquez and Carmen, and never does by halves what it can do by el shedload.

Textbook example No1 is the cathedral, as illustrated by one of my better pix. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Apparently you measure godspace by volume: Sevilla comes top, beating both St Peter's Rome and St Paul's London, though the fastidious will be quick to point out that Wren's masterpiece isn't Gothic.

Sevilla, like several other Spanish cathedrals, was built on the foundations of a previous mosque after the Moors were gradually expelled from Spain. First flatten your mosque . . . the cathedral builders wanted to create an edifice "so magnificent that posterity would think us mad". I can't say that they failed.

One bit of mosque that survived is the gorgeous Giralda, formerly the minaret and now the bell tower. The Moors actually wanted to knock it down rather than leave it to the infidels. But that notable extreme conservationist King Alphonse X declared he would put the lot of them to the sword if they touched a single brick of it. Who said town planning was boring?

Walking up the Giralda is also a great way to look out over the rooftops. I have a notoriously bad head for heights, but my tough babe girlfriend would have called me a wuss if I'd copped out. Actually it wasn't the biggest of deals compared to the 10,500ft Col du Galibier (See Blog maximum ruined underpants ratings, previous). So I did it.

Don't look down, it's El Patio de Los Naranjos

And here we are, admiring the view from the Giralda, and taking in another bit of mosque that got away - El Patio de Los Naranjos.

Actually it sounds a bit prosaic in English, meaning as it does, Court of the Orange Trees. However it's a good moment to mention Los Naranjos, another hallmark of Sevilla.

There are orange trees planted everywhere for a bit of shade. The oranges are green at the moment. They will be ripe in December.

Obviously they're something of a shrine for marmalade nuts like me. Dear old Cooper's Oxford Bung Full Of Sevilla Orange Chunks Marmalade is one of the few choses anglais that I do rather pine for in deepest Fa.

The pic is the first of several by Claire in this sequence on Sevilla.

A wander through the gardens of Pedro the Cruel

Next stop from the cathedral is the Alcazar palace, where Sevilla's rulers have lived it up since Roman times.

The resulting complex of buildings and gardens is one of the best examples of Mudejar architecture, a style created by Moorish craftsmen working under Christian rule.

The place has been codged about on various occasions over the centuries, but it owes most of its present form to one King Pedro the Cruel (1350-69) and his hot babe mistress Maria de Padilla.

Pedro was also known as The Just, but apparently that depended on whether he (a) liked you or (b) also had your other foot nailed to the floor.

NB Maria was obviously smart as well as hot, managing to stay on the right side of Pedro, despite attracting an enormous army of admirers who drank her bath water . . .

It's an amazing building but I also found the gardens quite wonderful, hence Claire's pic.

The world according to carp - extreme feeshness

You may recall that The Last House has an abiding sense of feeshness.

Not quite a fish fetish, but certainly a deep appreciation, a profound awareness of matters piscatorial . . .

I was thus thrilled by the discovery of this amazing collection of gigantic mirror carp in the Alcazar gardens. So we shall halt, briefly, the conventional travelogue for a moment of intense feeshness.

All compleat anglers, of course, know that the wily carp is revered among fishermen as the most intelligent and challenging of fish. If you caught a carp the size of these monsters, you would probably quit while you're ahead.

But actually these feesh seemed a bit theek . . . or at the very least, lacking in subtlety. Obviously this magnificent shoal would not grow naturally in waters the size of a modest swimming pool.

They have to be fed, and expect to be fed. In fact they come right up to you and open their great fishy gobs in anticipation. It was never like that on the Trent and Mersey Canal . . .

The Mezquita - the Moors' finest hour in Spain

Deciding on a day out from Sevilla, we headed for Cordoba, to visit the Mezquita - the finest mosque the Moors ever built in Spain, and fortunately the one that's still standing.

It's intriguing as to why the advancing Catholics didn't go in for mosque-flattening here as elsewhere.

Possibly the extraordinary beauty of the building with its endless double arches and columns was acknowledged.

Probably Cordoba could not have afforded a replacement cathedral on anywhere near the same scale as at Sevilla.

Anyway for three centuries, the Catholics left the building well alone, converting it to a cathedral with the lightest of modifications. Even the most sacred part of the mosque, the prayer niche or mihrab remains intact to this day.

But inevitably they succumbed to temptation: They carved a chunk out of the middle of the Mezquita, and inserted a Renaissance cathedral choir with gigantic high altar. It has to be the most bizarre religious fusion ever. Somehow I (purposely, I think) omitted to photograph it.

Still, we're amazingly lucky that no-one ever smashed this astonishing building. We still have about 85% of the original. They could have flattened the lot.

How could we possibly finish without flamenco?

All good things come to an end. And our last night in Sevilla? It had to be flamenco.

You can find all sorts of flamenco in the city: Seriously good and seriously expensive; bloody awful tourist tat and seriously expensive . . . and probably lots of other options.

And then there's roots flamenco. Effectively it's folk club stuff, except that no-one sticks their finger in their ear . . .

Full marks to Glenn for spotting the gig and to Claire for getting a remarkably good pic under zero light conditions.

I loved the guitar work, amusingly imaginative and eclectic in its occasional blue notes and cunningly jazzy passing chords. I also loved the way the band encouraged young singers and dancers to join in from the audience, still in their jeans and T-shirts.

Perhaps not virtuoso performers, but great live music. My kind of music in my kind of city. Adios Sevilla . . .