Tuesday, 2 September 2014

'Betty Blue Ville'- the Gruissan diaries

Day one

I am sure many readers will remember the opening scene of Betty Blue (en francais: 37.2 C le matin)– the sex scene that goes on for almost twenty minutes - so long that it’s embarrassing to watch with your mother (though I never did). And, perhaps, you will remember the next scene, where Betty goes into a fit of rage and throws everything not fixed to the floor out of the window and the proprietor strolls over to see what’s wrong and tells her that her (his) beach house is now ‘very Zen’: well that was shot here in Gruissan – my home for the coming month. Unfortunately I’ve not got one of the stilt houses (or perhaps fortunately if one has issues with noisy neighbours) but a pied á terre in the centre of the village – in a pedestrianized street. The only sounds for most of the day are those of the church clock which - bizarrely - chimes the hour twice, once three minutes after the hour, children playing, bicycles going past and people licking ice-creams (if you listen very closely). Many people who come here are apparently ‘movie tourists’, perhaps in search of their muse. My greeter assumed I was one of them - after all Betty Blue is one of the most iconic, and globally successful, French films from the past fifty years.

But most are attracted by the sun, sea, sand and the windsurfing and sailing opportunities. In the words of Rough Guide this coastline is ‘buffeted by wind that could flay the shell off of a tortoise’ (I didn’t research that bit very thoroughly before booking). Serendipity plays a big role in my life: I am not (consciously) a movie tourist and certainly not a windsurfer or yachter. I just came here because (to paraphrase Colour Blind James Experience singing about Memphis): ‘I just like the way that it sits there on the map’. And it certainly sits well on the map: surrounded by lagoons (used to produce eels but which occasionally attract flamingos migrating to or from the Carmague), salt pans and with distant views of the Pyrenées Occidentales , you couldn’t imagine a more idyllic spot. But did I mention the wind? It could flay the hind off of a rhinoceros. And unlike anywhere else I have ever been, it doesn’t blow off the sea onto the land but in the reverse direction, from the Pyrenées onto the Mediterranean and the shapes of the trees and shrubs bear witness to this being a long term phenomenon, not a seasonal aberration.

Day 2
Forty eight hours after arriving in Gruissan I finally get away from my work, get back to my van, put the wheels back on my bike (yeah I packed the van full of kit - even a printer for my work) and head to the real ‘Betty Blue-ville’, some 2-3 k east of my new lodgings. It’s an enormous disappointment. Instead of a few isolated bungalows on stilts, it feels more like a well-heeled banlieu, lacking manicured lawns (because of the wind and salt) but otherwise packed with state of the art cars, bo-bo wind chimes and ‘smiling happy people’ everywhere. Alas, there seems to be an absence of highly-vocal multi-orgasmic French women throwing their worldly possessions out of the window. Borth is actually far cooler (if you can live with listening to Brummie accents most of the day) although probably doesn’t rank as high on the ‘hours of sunshine per year’ index. I wrote yesterday about the strange reality inversion here . Nearly every beach resort I have been too (and I am no expert on these matters) has wind blowing in off the sea. Here, it blows off the mountains (the Pyrenees) towards the sea. The 3 k cycle ride back from the beach felt like a one-in-three hill, although it was perfectly flat.

Days 3 and 4
My legs were barely strong enough to carry me up the stairs the past two days, I wondered if it was the effects of the wind from yesterday but it lasted all day and the next so must have been something viral (though jokingly I told myself it was just internet access withdrawal symptoms) . So I just stayed at home with my books (and heated up a tin of cassoulet when I got hungry): the new Murakami (which sold a million in Japan in its first week of release) and Patrick Leigh Fermour’s Caribbean travel odyssey ‘The traveller’s tree’. PLF certainly had a knack for good timing. He walked across Europe in 1934, just before it ignited into a cauldron of hatred and later war. He visited the Caribbean in the 1950s just after the war and just before most of the islands got their independence. He is certainly sympathetic to the history of the islands and plight of the slaves on whose sweat and suffering the island’s wealth was built, but didn’t see the independence movement that would soon after arise – although if I am not mistaken with my history it was considerably more peaceful than the first Caribbean state independence (Haiti in the 1850s, which was an absolute bloodbath) or the inter-communal holocaust that accompanied India’s independence.

I like PLF’s work. He has a good pen for describing places, people and incidents along the route. I think every budding travel writer should read him. But sometimes I find him a bit too much of a historian and classicist, assuming the reader has an equally encyclopaedic knowledge (or indeed interest in) the fortunes of, sometimes quite minor, European dynasties and he does throw in some rather overwrought pages of description of buildings or landscapes. Perhaps his writing style is just a bit dated to my eyes. He did enjoy a rather privileged position: segments like (these are not quotes but could easily be) ‘we had a letter of introduction to the Governor-General’s son and spent a pleasant week at his plantation, delving into his library’: or ‘at the end of our hike a meal had been prepared in the shade of the trees by the bearers who had caught the fish just an hour before’ are all too common, suggesting access to a way of travelling that hardly exists these days.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Objects of desire (on not being a labelling victim but wanting quality produce in my life)

I’m not much of one for designer brands. In fact I generally try to avoid them (OK I have a Zippo and I occasionally lust after a SMEG but that’s the limit of my engagement with the world of branding). A wise man once said to me you should never skimp when buying shoes or a mattress – you spend most of your life supported by one or the other. To that list something else should be added – an office chair.

I’ve wanted a Scandinavian knee stool for several years. I had one for a while – actually a gift from a fellow SENSE member but it was already near the end of its natural lifespan and I used it until it was well past that stage (the foam had almost spilled out of the holes in the fabric I was almost kneeling on bare wood covered by a strip of fabric). Yesterday I saw an uber-trendy furniture shop close to the Beurs and just popped in, on the off chance, to ask if they had any. They didn’t but the guy was incredibly helpful and told me where I might find one. He couldn’t remember the name of the store or street but did a google map search s and showed me the where the store was located. Our conversation switched through from English (I don’t know the French or Dutch for Scandinavian kneeling stool) to Dutch to French- but hey that’s Brussels for you. It turned out the shop was almost in my back yard – down a street I might pass by at least every week and directly on the way home. I found it easily. It was still open (though the hour was late). And, they had not one but three different varieties of knee stool – including one on rollers. ‘I want that’ I thought but there was no price tag. So I had to ask (and there is an adage that says if you need to ask the price you can’t afford it). 400E: for an absolutely minimalist piece of furniture. Most of the cars I have owned in my lifetime cost less than that (but then I have always been a bottom feeder in the car market). The saleswoman said it was Norwegian. That explained things (a bit). I asked (somewhat jokingly) if they had any Estonian copycat versions. Sadly not.

I left the store – not because I couldn’t afford the stool – but because it seemed such an outrageous price for something so small (and one – or at least I don’t make purchases of that magnitude on the spur of the moment). Then, on the way home I started thinking. An office chair is a business expense, so to calculate the real cost I can subtract 21% (VAT) and then 40% (writing it off as a business expense). That knocks the price down to around 200 Euro. Suddenly that chair doesn’t look so expensive after all. Especially not if I consider I might use it for the next ten years. That’s say 2000 working days. That equates to 10 Euro cents per day cost. That stool has suddenly become an attainable object of desire. And I don’t even know the brand name!

Friday, 25 July 2014

A Time of gifts

My last (but one) blog was about Patrick Leigh Fermour, an English travel writer (and much more) from the 1930s. While researching the background for that article I found out that the third part of his trilogy of his epic journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1934-5 had been recently and posthumously published. I promptly went out and acquired a copy and have just finished reading it. It is perhaps the most compelling of the three books. Partly perhaps because he is travelling in more exotic lands (Romania and Bulgaria – turkey hardly gets a look-in – maybe he was suffering from travel fatigue by the end). During this part of the trip eh gets to stay with shepherds, charcoal burners, students, a British Consul and a ‘hotel de passe’. He visits the opera in Bucharest and nearly drowns when slipping off of a cliff path into a deep rocky pool on the Bulgarian coast. What a rich life he led. He culminates his diaries with a voyage to Greece (where he was to spend much of the rest of his life) and a ten day (or so) sojourn on Mount Athos. He only reclaimed the notebooks on which he based this book some thirty years after the event (he left them with a Romanian love, and they had no contact until the grip of the iron curtain was loosened). The book leaves me wanting to visit several of the villages he describes to see how much they have changed in the intervening eighty years.

Wageningen's arboretum

I recently had my own Time of Gifts (the title of the second book in this series) a long overdue trip back to Wageningen to visit friends and business associates. I came bearing gifts but embarrassingly returned with far more: vegetables and soft fruit from two different allotments, cherries from a local fruit grower, (nine different varieties of) beer from a friend who spends winter evenings brewing (bringing beer back to Belgium always feels like bringing coals to Newcastle) and an unwanted home brewing kit (alas too late for this year’s elderflower crop but good for next year’s). I even had to turn down a bread making machine as I feared cluttering up my kitchen with paraphernalia that would remain unused – although the offer did inspire me to bake bread after returning – for perhaps the first time in more than ten years. I had lunch and beers with several other entrepreneurs I used to hang out with several years ago – telling each other stories about our business plans and pain in the ass clients (those that don’t pay for three months or make unreasonable demands). All in all it was a wonderful few days- enhanced by being surrounded by tall stand of waving grasses and occasionally spotting a herd of laughing Amazonian blond Dutch women cycling through town or the wood, doubtless to some rendez-vous thy they had arranged several weeks ago . All in all a wonderful few days marred only by a falling out with someone I regard as one of my best friends whose hospitality and company I regularly enjoy on these trips. One hopes that that can be healed with the passage of time . It must have taken me an hour to unload all the gifts from my car when I got home – a week later I still haven’t fully unloaded the burden of the argument that we had.

My friend's 'prize-winning' allotment

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Balcony gardening

I was very late getting my balcony boxes going this year. Normally I manage to grow all the herbs I use in my kitchen over the summer from a third of a square meter of balcony boxes and have flowers in there to mix it up a bit. Two boxes are doing well this year. One I allowed to get waterlogged and everything except the thyme is showing signs of stress. The other two are doing very well. I have found a new cascading plant Calibrachoa Noa™ Sunset. I am amazed how many flowers it carries, how long it keeps them and how far it cascades. It’s half an arm’s length already and was only planted two months ago: which makes is ideal for baskets or hanging pots. That makes up for the marigolds, which have been an unmitigated failure this year (I must have planted FI hybrids seeds last year).


I also planted some Greek Basil this year, for the first time. The leaves are much smaller than the traditional varieties, but it copes with heat stress or not being watered (on weekends away) much better, is just as aromatic and attracts pollinators. I found this bee humming away today – god knows how far it came from – I think the closest bee hives are about 1.5 km away. If you multiple bee size into distance travelled that is an incredible expenditure of energy.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

On writing and writers

Sorting through some old internet bookmarks today I came across this obituary of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor who died three years ago tomorrow. I knew nothing about him at the time but he sounded fascinating and the article was a tribute from Jan Morris another writer, one of west Wales’ literary icons, whose work I have often admired.

Anyway some time passed and I forgot all about him until a friend lent me copies of his two books (A Time of Gifts, 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water,1987) describing his journey on foot across Europe in the 1930s. I was greatly impressed by his writing (and his character) and that he actually wrote the books more than forty years after the event. As chance would have it a few weeks after reading the second volume I went on holiday to the place where the second book ends. In a stretch of the Danube that forms the border between Romania and Serbia. He stayed on an island with some shepherds smoking hookahs, drinking arak and trying to understand their local dialects (which, together with their clothing style, he assumed suggested that they were of Turkish origin). We saw no sign of them on our travels, but the photos below show how majestic the gorge we travelled along was (I think it is the deepest and/or widest in Europe, but don't hold me to that).



Sadly those islands no longer exist. They were flooded as part of a hydroelectric dam project many decades ago. But it was eerie to be cycling along in Patrick Leigh’s footsteps (and meeting some people who - without knowing it were retracing his journey from London to Istanbul – although in this case on bicycle). A few weeks ago the friend who had sent me those books sent me a note comparing my travel writings in Cambodia to Patrick Leigh Fermour’s. It was a moment of extreme flattery: one of the greatest complements that has ever been paid to me. I think it was largely underserved as I neither spoke the language of any of the local people nor did I have any idea about how to interpret their architecture, customs or art. Nonetheless it did encourage me to keep writing. There are a few more instalments of my Portugese travels to follow on this blog soon. I had a particularly creative writing week while I was there (now the difficulty is in maintaining that creativity). Partly because I was seeing new things (and had insiders to explain the background), partly because there was no admin or deadlines to deal with (mercifully I was only called upon to work a day and a half of the eight I was away) and I didn’t have 24 hour access to Facebook and Wordscraper. All obstacles to creativity.

I do recommend readers to hunt out those two books of Patrick Leigh Fermour. I think I am going to look out for some more.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Picnic the streets

We picnicked the streets of Brussels today, or specifically we picnicked in front of the Bourse- as an attempt to up the ante about extending Brussels’ pedestrian zone into the Boulveard Anspach. I was one of the first to arrive and join the bike ride at 1130. Our group wasn’t that convincingly large.

But after a while a decent sized (maybe 1000?) and very laid group emerged (after clubbing the night away?) to enjoy a picnic in the centre of one Brussels’ busiest thoroughfares. In typical Belgian style even the mayor of Brussels turned up to register a presence and send out the message of ‘yes we’re listening to you’ (Yes, the Belgians do the ‘Polder model’ too!).

Coming home I realise I have a more immediate traffic problem. Boys on quads – who go round and round the neighbourhood showing off their nifty bit of machinery. Every quarter hour. Honestly the quad riders around here are the thing that most piss me off about this neighbourhood. You just don’t want to keep your windows open on a hot summer day with them bussing by every fifteen minutes. You would think that anyone with a nice motorbike would want to be an easy rider in the countryside. But not these boys. They just want to show off to their neighbours. I have tried on several occasions to talk with ‘community elders’ to address the problem. That’s the way that middle eastern communities (are supposed to) solve their problems. But they just shrug their shoulders and say that they are not local boys. So ‘military intervention’ is called for. I call ‘les flics’ and register a complaint abut the noise. Forty five minutes later I’ve only heard one noisy bike go past. Let’s hope I don’t have to do this every hot day this summer.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

From Mertola to Alcoutim

Please read the previous blog first as this continues on directly from it.

I decide to go with the taxi from Mertola. I really, really, don’t want to be standing by the side of the road in the middle of the matode with a suitcase in the 30 degrees plus afternoon sun. It’s not so expensive (35E) and I just don’t want to let poor logistics get in the way of my plans. Twenty five years ago I was money poor but time rich – no the calculus has changed somewhat and its important to adjust to changed circumstances. The only accommodation that’s open in Alcoutim is the Youth Hostel. It’s been more than ten years since I stayed in one, probably since my days of going to Biofach in Nurnberg on a tight budget. And while I did keep my membership of the Dutch YHA going for several years I found I wasn’t using it. I really wanted to stay in the hostel in the cube houses in Rotterdam but I never got around to it – possibly because they charging almost hotel prices for the privilege but also because I always had places to stay when I was in Rotterdam anyway. But this is not a youth hostel as I know them. This one has its own swimming pool and a tray full of condoms prominently displayed by the reception (youth hostels were never like that in my day!) together with posters encouraging their use. I take a couple for ‘good luck’.



The youth hostel is the last building in town, (though no more than a ten minute walk away from the centre). There’s a hotel next door but it appears to be closed and to not have a pool. The road literally stops after the youth hostel. The design has a strong Moorish influences (though its obviously a modern building) yet somehow it feels like a communist tourist camp (though I’ve never been to one)-superb infrastructure – yet absolutely no service and hardly any ‘campers’. I see two Dutch cyclists, a German hiker, and a Portuguese girl working on her tan. This, in a complex that seems (if the dining room is anything to go by), to have a capacity for 100 or so people.

It also overlooks the river which constitutes the border with Spain. Its not so much being on an international frontier that one could swim across (if reckless) that feels strange – more being on the edge of two different time zones. Spain operates on European time, Portugal on GMT. Every time the church bell rings in Spain (which it does every hour (and half hour) between 06000 and 0000 I have to remember to subtract one. It’s increadibly relaxing sitting on my balcony watching the ripples glisten in the sunlight and responding to the wind and the occasional fisherman or pleasure boat pass up and down



I take a swim at nine just before the sun goes down and before going to the members’ kitchen to heat up a can of beans and sausages that I bought from the supermarket for my supper (mindful of the need to make some economies on this trip) for my supper. I dive in the pool and - whoops - my ten dollar watch bought from an Indian street vendor in Bangkok is still on my wrist. Bang goes another (sub-standard quality) Asian souvenir, I think, but much to surprise it’s still keeping time after supper and again the next morning (admittedly with a little condensation under the cover).

Alcoutim is kind of nice, but in a very ‘sleepy town’ kind of way. If Mertola has 3000 people this town must be 1000, if that. There are a lot of sailing boats moored in the river, so I guess it attracts a kind of ‘yachty’ and up-market tourist crowd. I enquire about the possibility of travelling down the river to the coast tomorrow – the thing I really wanted to do and my main reason for coming here. The price makes it a no go for a single person – which is a real disappointment. I’d heard that it was possible to do it the other way from the coast to Alcoutim, but maybe there is a sufficient critical mass of tourists on the coast to make such excursions feasible. I could have hung around the bars in the hope of chatting up a yachtsman heading downstream the next day – but it somehow seemed a remote possibility.



The swifts are ubiquitous (actually they might be swallows or house martins, I lay no claim to ornithological expertise) Their nests built into any protected eave they can find – and the marks of previous years’ nests are even more evident. The nests are quite wonders of avian architecture: built with tiny ‘bricks’ of mud pellets, arranged in a spiral (perhaps swifts ‘do’ permaculture too!), each one probably representing one trip to the river and back. I wonder where they stay when they get back from their winter emigration and are building their summer home. Is there a youth hostel for swifts? Do they stay with their cousins?



I have a nest on my balcony and I notice when I am sitting out there that a couple of swifts keep buzzing by as if to visit then suddenly change course as if deterred by a human presence . So I withdraw into my room and wait behind curtains- and pretty soon they are coming to visit the nest – diving through an absurdly small hole in the top of the nest and then hopping away again. I even get a photo from behind the curtain of a swift diving its nest and get to hear the young chirping away in the nests. And I think ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to stay here and see the young emerge from their nests’. But it’s actually already almost time to leave. I have two more days in Portugal and one more place I want to visit. I manage a quick five laps in the pool (without my wristwatch this time – no point in tempting fate) and call a taxi – next stop Cacela Velha, supposedly an unspoilt village – but my copy of Lonely Planet Portugal is more than ten years old (it must be the prices are in pesos) so I’ll have to take a chance on that one!

Did you enjoy this (these) travelogue(s)? Please leave a comment. Feedback is much appreciated

Monday, 2 June 2014

Leaving Mertola?



I’m up and ready and packed (with all my extra jars of honey, liqueur and truffles) in good time for the bus to Alcoutim, a town about 25km downriver. In fact I’m a little early. I looked at the time on my mobile (which I left set to the time zone of my clients) rather than my watch. When I get to the dining room in time for a quick breakfast I find the blinds are still drawn, the breakfast trays are not yet laid out, and the coffee is only half percolated. Time for a slow breakfast. I take a cup of coffee outside – watch the black winged heron cruise up and down the river searching for his breakfast, the goats being driven across the road on the opposite side of the river to the fields that go down to the river where they have their morning drink, read a chapter of my book. Another coffee.


There are only two buses a day towards Alcoutim. They actually don’t go to Alcoutim, but down to the coast – but they do go past (and hopefully stop at) the Alcoutim turn off stop - about 5km from the town itself. I could go down to the coast, and then catch a bus back to Alcoutim – making a journey of around 100km. But with a frequency of two buses a day the chance of the connections working seems remote. I had tried to get the number of the taxi service in Alcoutin to arrange a pick up at the turn off but my hotel reception couldn’t find that. So I decided I would take my chances and try to hitch hike the last stretch. Country people are pretty good about giving lifts, especially when they know that there’s no public transport, although I’m carrying a (wheeled) suitcase - not a backpack – which isn’t the ideal way to hitchhike.



I’m just about to check out and embark on that adventure when the hotel receptionists tells me the bus is at 1530, not 0930 as I had been told the day before. This kind of changes the equation. I ‘check back’ into my room, check my emails to see if a promised commission has arrived (it hasn’t) and redo the equation. Standing by the side of the road waiting for a lift at ten in the morning is acceptable. Doing so at four in the afternoon, when anyone with any sense is in the coolest place they can find is considerably less attractive. Mm I could skip Alcoutin altogether, or enquire how much a taxi would cost.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

We are stardust, we are golden. West Wales redux

Ceredigion museum has a wonderful exhibition about the influx of hippies, dreamers and idealists who started moving into this area forty years or so ago, buying up or renting the more remote cottages that the locals were abandoning in droves. Several friends I saw this week were part of that influx (notably my friends in West Wales tend to be older than me, in stark contrast with my life in Brussels): a few even contributed to the exhibition, sharing memories or lending artefacts from that period. I came of age in the 1970s, so many of the artefacts on show were objects of desire for a ‘coming of age’ teen. It’s strange to see these things on show in a museum, makes me start humming ‘The way we were’. I do wonder who managed to keep the Afghan coat pictured below in such immaculate condition for so many years.

Between times I’ve been driving along blossoming country lanes that I know like the back of my hand – even the spots where you have to shift into second gear to get up a particularly steep incline – the blind bends where you have to slow down (particularly when driving in the UK in a left hand drive car). Many of the lanes are single track with passing places cut into the hedge every hundred yards or so. There’s a convention that the car going uphill always backs down to let the one going downhill pass (as it harder work to reverse uphill) and the local drivers seem pleased and surprised that a ’Belgian’ driver understands and respects this hidden piece of etiquette). Its wonderful to know the ‘narratives’ that underlay the landscape – the events and history that helped shaped this place and make it what we see today.

I’ve already extended my stay here three days longer than I anticipated. The price to pay is that tomorrow I am planning to drive from just outside Aberystwyth to Brussels in one sweep. It’s a big shout – but I get a two hour break on the ferry and driving the section the M25 to Dover and then to Brussels will be much easier on a Sunday when there are fewer trucks on the road.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Costa del Cymru

We walked along a short (4 mile) stretch of the coast line between Clarach and Borth last week.Nature was putting on its finest spring show



And, the tide was really low, allowing us to admire the natural (or man-made?) wonder of Wallog (pronounced Wacklog), a stone spit that extends 2Km into Cardigan Bay


The weather was lovely, but there were still some very steep bits


(That's the same hill from the bottom and top)
Mike was chuffed because he finally got to see (as opposed to hear) chuffs, with their red beaks and feet. I was chuffed because a red kite circled about 10m over my head. I didn't even try to reach for my camera, just wanted to stand still and enjoy a closer proximity than ever before. Afterwards we adjourned to a sea front hostelry in Borth ('The Victoria') where we soaked up the (unseasonably warm) sun and a couple of pints of local bitter.

The next day those steep bits kicked back could hardly walk up the stairs!!