Saturday, 21 November 2015

Molenbeek Blues

Last night (last Saturday) I get a text message from my flat sitter about the ‘Paris bombers’.  Who? I’d been off line for 36 hours so I hadn’t heard anything about this. I ask in the local café and am told that there were seven suicide bombers, 129 dead and many more injured.  I’m mortified.  

Only two days ago (on Thursday 11/11) the French authorities imposed month-long border controls, ostensibly to prevent trouble-makers from disrupting COP21 - but that’s still two weeks away! The residents of Hendaye and Irun, who are used to doing regular commutes across the river border for work, school, love or (for the French) cheap fuel, fags and liquor, were not happy.  I thought to myself that something doesn't add up here. I thought maybe it is as a disguised attempt to keep the Syrian refugees at bay (Sweden, the most tolerant of EU nations,  also 'closed' its land borders the same day).  But it was something deeper: much deeper. The French authorities clearly knew something was afoot.  They just didn’t know what. 

As the details unravelled I became increasingly personally engaged in the horror. One of the suicide bombers and - it turns out later - possibly two of his accomplices - lives/lived in my neighbourhood - almost opposite my apartment.  It takes several days for the weight of this to sink in. 

For a couple of years I have felt a distinct sense of mal á l‘aise in my neighbourhood.  I’d put it down to me suffering from the ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome, the Mathelet plan – which had made my flat virtually uninhabitable in summer months with flights going over my apartment from 0600 to 2300 every five minutes; the vous m'avez entendu? boys on their quad bikes (supposedly illegal in Belgium) circulating the neighbourhood every five minutes; Brussels’ seemingly interminable grey skies and the lack of swimming pools that are actually open. 

Teun Voetenn's eloquent article sums up most of my experiences of living in Molenbeek; the lack of opportunities to socialise, the inability to buy a newspaper (or alcohol) in my locale.  The very reasons I moved to Brussels, to lead a civilised , French lifestyle   

After several days reflection I realised that my discomfort with Molenbeek might have deeper causes,  of having – for several years - been in the immediate proximity of angry young Muslim men planning acts of terrorism, of indiscriminate mass murder. The lesson learnt is that I should listen to my heart a bit more and not try to rationalise away my feelings about the ‘vibe’ of a place.  

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Journey over

My trip across the Pyrenees is over!  Now time to sit down fo six weeks and write up and organise my extensive travel notes and put roots down in one place after weeks in and out of camp sites, hotels, friends houses and chambres d'hotes.  A welcome change

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Say it in Broken English

A sign seen at a bird 'sanctuary' in Urdax yesterday.  Check out how the English translation mutated!

But it has to be said that it's not such a spectacular faux-pas as this one (also from Spain) reported in the Guardian today

Monday, 2 November 2015

A transcendental walk

 Had a transcendental walk yesterday along a 15 km ridge at between 750 and 1100m, following the French / Spanish border north - south.    There was a sheer drop of 300 m cliffs on one side for the last 4 km!  The light was fantastic: I saw vultures, kites and a golden eagle - plus an egret and kingfisher in the streams at the start of the day.  I'm starting to get the birding thing, keeping my field glasses close to hand all the time.  Looking back I could see a line of mountain peaks stretching to the east, and to the west the Atlantic for the first time - reminding me that my journey's nearly over.  The descent - of 750 m in less than 4 km - was brutal and i was glad to be back in the valley after 7 hours on the tops.  

Friday, 30 October 2015

A week in Pamplona

After a month in tiny secluded mountain villages with one shop and two bars (I exaggerate but only slightly) I decide I need a change of energy.  Pamplona - some say the cultural and culinary capital of the Basque Country. It worked for Ernest Hemingway why can't it work for me?

I've certainly eaten well here, got a lot of writing done too, inspired by a lovely view. Back to the mountains tomorrow. At least the weather forecast is good.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Two weeks in the Seule valley

Some of these photos were already posted on Facebook - it was a lovely lazy two weeks!

wo weeks

Monday, 19 October 2015

Val de Seule: 'The Tibet of the Basque Country'

I planned to stay in Val de Seule for three to four days, explore it a bit and wait for my mail from Brussels to catch up with me. That was a week ago. I’ve just extended my chalet booking for another week, at as my hosts say ‘hunter’s rate’.  I’m not sure if being an honorary hunter is something I’ve ever aspired to, but I sure do like being here.  In the first week here I did all the tourist things, two of the three magnificent limestone gorges in the valley and the Cave de Verna, the largest cave in the world open to the public – it could swallow up nine Notre Dames de Paris with space left over.  It was awe inspiring. 

I’ve also visited Pau - colonized by the English since the 1830s for its favourable climate and with stunning views of the Pyrenees,  Navarentz –voted France’s most beautiful village in 2014, L’hôpital Saint Blaise – an 11th Century church and UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and the magnificent Salle de Belatous, a local village museum that blew me away with its stories of traditional farming knowledge,  the valley’s unique role in caving history (more about that later, perhaps) and the earthquake that destroyed 80% of the houses in the village in 1967 ( I also met an old farmer who lived through that episode).

And I have discovered that I have only just scratched the surface. There are other views and attractions that don’t even make the guide books (more about that later too perhaps). But the reason I’ve decided to stay another week is because the people here (from locals to tourists) are so cool.  Every day I have lovely, meaningful and life enhancing conversations.   On the tourist front I seem to have fallen into some kind of ‘active pensioners’ with camping vans’ sub-culture, which I feel actually feel very comfortable with.  Most of them, it must be said, are Brits. One couple I met have been coming here for eighteen years and after one conversation about bird migrations they knocked on my chalet door to let me know that there was a group of 1500 or so migrating cranes flying overhead. Last night I met a politically tuned in Scottish musician who (claimed he) has played with Altan, Sharon Shannon and so many of the Gaelic folkies I listen to. We talked about Munroes, refendera, political ignorance and later swapped our limited knowledge about constellations in the crystal starry night that gave birth to the second frosty morning here.   

But I’m also having rewarding contacts with locals.  It feels that my limited pre-trip research is paying off dividends, my scant knowledge of the area is paying off dividends, every little bit of local knowledge I share with a villager is rewarded by five times more information. The owner of my camp site keeps plying me with ancient tomes – with black and white photos - about the history and geography of this valley.  I am slow to assimilate so much text in French.  I did picked up a 1950s text about the Basque country before leaving Brussels – replete with black and white photos and she was so delighted to look at – it came back the next  day -  replete with 20 bookmarks of the local sights, and she and her partner sat down over coffee with me and discussed with each other the traditions and chronology of the photos:

‘This was when farmers used bulls to drag the carts, before the days of horses’;
‘This must have been the 1950s when they were putting in the first metal pylons. Were there wooden pylons then or was that the first time we had electricity?’ 

I feel so honoured to be party to these conversations, so much more meaningful than the standard youth hostel chat of ‘where you from, where you been, where you going?’  I feel I just might have tapped into what Alain de Botton calls ‘The Art of Travelling’ and I’ve done so by sitting still for a few days. 

The photos I posted earlier on Facebook but  don't know how to link back to them 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Kitting out

Fifty days on the road

When one starts to travel one acquires new priorities and needs new ‘kit’. Here’s what I have acquired in that time (from top to bottom, left to right).

BUCKET (almost out of view): excellent for soaking laundry and as an emergency ‘fridge’ for keeping drinks cool. Cost > 2 Euro. Source: Spanish family ironmonger. Good Value

THERMOS FLASK: I dropped my old one on  a tiled floor, cracked the lid and it became leaky L. Excellent for keeping a supply of cold water to hand while travelling (or hot coffee should the need arise). Cost almost 20 Euro, source Spanish family ironmonger. Rather more than I would like to have paid.

AIR MATTRESS AND PUMP. I didn’t have time to buy an air mattress before leaving Brussels.  Found one on the ‘swap table’ at the Permaculture International Convergence, to my inordinate gratitude,  I had a comfortable weeks’ camping.  My neighbour had an air pump that plugs into a cigarette lighter socket in car.  I thought I want one of those.  Cost 12 Euro: Sources, Permaculture swap table and Leclerc. 

WATER BOILER: for those days when you are in a hotel and just want a cup of tea before getting dressed to go downstairs for breakfast. Cost almost 20 Euro, source a French ironmonger. Shame they only had the pink packaging!

MINIRIG!  A true indulgence, a powerful speaker that plugs into your laptop/tablet. It doesn’t need an external power supply and is so powerful that it can keep a barn full of people dancing night long (damn where’s that volume down switch!). I‘d got tired of hotel rooms with just one power point, and/or the task of untangling wires of conventional 20 Euro plug-in speakers. Ollie, who catered for the first few days at the Keveral PDC had one of these, that he uses regularly at his catering events to keep his kitchen crew and diners in a good mood.  My first and only thought was ‘I WANT ONE’.  I’m not a guy who is into techno gadgets but this speaker is amazing.   Bought online from cost £139.99. Not cheap but I’ve used it almost every day so a good investment.

ALCOOLPROOF: A mandatory requirement when driving in France.  A breathalyzer test kit: mine were out of date. Bought on the ferry, about 7 Euro.

COMPASS: sometimes the fog comes in and you don’t know your left from your right. My old one had long given up the ghost. Can’t remember when I last used one. Pleasingly only 8 Euro from LeClerc.

MOBILE CHARGER:  Have you ever been travelling and wanted to call your friend/ accommodation and found that your mobile’s out of charge?  Never again!  Recharge your mobile / tablet while on the road (why can’t I find one for laptops??).  I bought this from a Belgian chain (forget which one) on my way out of Brussels. Sadly it was overpriced at about 15 Euro.

BASQUE KNIFE – I have an Opinel but I don’t like them: they rust too easily and lose their edge too quickly. I had a superb Corsican knife with a stainless steel blade from 2003 – that I sadly lost going through airport security in - I forget where.  Here’s a replacement, shiny steel one, the quality is as good as the Corsican one. Now I just must remember to not to pack this into my cabin luggage the next time I fly. Source: French ironmonger. Cost 10 Euro. YEA

I’m kitted out for the next few weeks!

Monday, 12 October 2015

The biggest cave in the world

I was in the biggest(accessible to the public) cave in the world  today, 250 metres in diameter and almost 200 metres high.  It covers a floor space of 5 hectares and you could fit nine Notre Dames into its space (sorry it's a French cave, so the comparisons are French).  I didn't even try taking any photos. A tablet phone is just not up to the magnificence of this place.   But to give an impression of just how huge it is  here's a photo of a full size hot air balloon being flown within it!  (There is also a video here but the first ten minutes of it are about the logistics of getting the stuff up the mountain (before there was a road to the entrance) and into the cave.

The system was discovered in 1950 and the large cavern in 1953.  The whole system has still not been completely explored and has its own ecosystem, half a dozen blind insect species, several of whom are endemic to this cave system. Big wow factor!