Friday, 17 September 2010

San Sebastian and The Basque/British Connection...

The picture below was taken from the old fishing port area of Parte Vieja, tucked under the green slopes of Monte Urgull at the eastern end of the stunning – ‘La Bahia a la Conche’. A magnificent, golden, sandy beach, which forms the main sweep to the elegant, sun soaked promenade of Donastia-San Sebastian. The urbane jewel in the crown of Spain’s northeastern 'Basque' coastline and the capital of the province of Gipuzkoa.
For me, this is a very special city and more than deserving of its worldwide kudos and esteem. Sophisticated, vibrant and visually captivating, with some exceptionally beautiful sundown views from 'La Conche' beach to the Atlantic swells that beckon beyond the protection of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo - while the little ‘Isla de Santa Klara sometimes appears to link the two promontories together and enclose the bay completely. Every fine weather day, about an hour before sundown, people appear en masse to stroll the promenade and circuit the Monte Urgull, either as couples or large family groups, just chatting and exchanging news, while ambling peacefully under the suns warm and final favours.

In north east Spain and south west France, about 650,000 of the 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Autonomous Community speak the Basques language. The Basque language is quite unique and seemingly unrelated to any other language surrounding its core geographic region, including Castilian Spanish. Around the world there are an estimated 18 million Basques. A tough, proud and resolute society with an extensive history and cultures that are as fascinating as they are varied and ancient - pre dating Roman and Indo-European times.

According to the extensive studies of Stephen Oppenheimer, a British paediatrician and geneticist - British ancestry mainly traces back to the Palaeolithic Iberian people, now represented best by Basques, when they migrated northwards to Britain as hunter gatherers, once the ice shelf had receded in Britain after the end of the last ice age. It is therefore said that if you want to better understand the true ancestry of the British - ask a Spaniard, or more specifically.... a Basque.
During the 17th and 18th centuries it has been estimated that some 45% of the population of Chile were Basque immigrants, with their descendants becoming the major influence in Chile's subsequent economic and cultural development. Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, physician and intellectual, may well have been of Basque as well as Irish descendancy. 'Guevara' is apparently the Castilianized form of the Basque: 'Gebara' which is the name of a village in the Basque province of Alava.

I had a great few days here meeting other travelers from Norway, France the US and Spain, deep inside the softly lit maze of streets within the old town fishing quarter of Parte Vieja, that make up 'Tapas Shangri-La'. Roaming freely with my appetite and my nose out on point, from one tempting Tapas bar to another, liberating my taste senses to whole new levels of discovery and culinary delight. It's a bit like a theme park for grown up foodies and at the same time, a proud and determined showcase that underlines why Spanish food culture and their varied dining/eatery experiences, have become so revered around the world. Deserved of the title: 'Foody Nirvana'. I miss it a lot.

Cautionary Note 1 !! - Pointing Etiquette & Conduct ! -- When sitting on a high stool at a crowded tapas bar, often hemmed in by other tourists and locals alike, the accepted method of communication - if you don't speak the language - is to 'point' at your chosen beverage or the plate of delicious looking food that has just appeared in front of a nearby diner. However - as the evening progresses and you become more loose with your pointing gesticulations’ - just make sure you remember to keep your eye on the finger at the end of your outstretched 'pointing arm', as it sweeps back and forth like the boom of a runaway crane, while your other hand is frantically trying to secure the attention of the harassed looking waitress down the other end of the bar.

One evening, I didn't - and managed to clear three full wine glasses, two beers, a steaming bowl of very yummy looking fisherman's stew and an open handbag....all into the laps of the cool and beautifully dressed Italian couple sitting right next to me. Oh dear. Instant commotion & chaos. It became immeasurably worse when some kind soul pointed out that the bowl of missing stew was now hiding in her handbag. God... didn't she scream!

Oh – and that box of perfectly chilled white Catalonian Corbieres (French!) wine with the plain labels, that our fantastic barman snuck out back for, around 3.00am that morning, after his boss had expired behind the sofa. Wow! Your still the man. And your secrets still safe with me. Providing you keep up the payments…..ho ho.

Click the 'PLAY' button to see Celina Zambon in concert performing Flamenco, while you read this post. You'll have to forgive me for the clash of south western 'Andalusian Flamenco' culture with this predominantly northern Spanish 'Basque' blog-ette....

Here are a couple of You Tube links to 'Basque Region' videos and so on: Great helicopter 'fly by' video short of San Sebastian and the nearby region.

If while visiting the region, you take the trouble to write down and try using a few basic Basque words and phrases - In Basque, Basques call themselves 'Euskaldunak' by the way - you will be received like a blood brother!

And here are a few essential Basque (Euskara) greetings & phrases I prepared earlier:

* Hello = Kaixo - "Kay-so"
* How are you? = Zer moduz? - "Sere modoose"
* Very well thankyou, & you? = Ongi, eskerrik asko, eta zu? - "Ongee, esk-ellick ass-ko, eh-ta soo?"
* Yes = Bai - "Bi"
* Please = Mesedez - "Mess-eh-dess"
* Thankyou = Eskerrick asko - "Esk-ellick ass-ko"
* Goodnight = Gabon - "Ga-bon"

*** Bye = Agur - "Ah-gorrr"  Note: This is one of those testing pronunciations where they kind of 'gargle/rattle the tongue' as they say the word. Bon chance then!

***Cautionary Note 2: ... for the more determined local lingo practitioners, when attempting to use and correctly pronounce the word... 'Agur' in a public place - read this........

There is often an impulsive desire to make an impression - as wine & beer practice peaks - to appear to be the coolest and most admired new foreigner in town that evening to all your imagined new Basque & worldly comrades, by casually saying 'Agur' - (Basque for Bye) - in front of all your mullered & now happily delinquent friends, as you decamp to the pavement outside --

Know this first, 'pretty please'... If after say 20 minutes of growing confusion & disillusionment, you find yourself now alone but still struggling to get your 'arrrggths' and your 'gorrrthhs' in perfect sinc together for the 137th time on this one, and the bar staff & locals you were going to impress are now collectively arms a folded and frowning darkly... at you!  Your tonsils feel sore, your tongue's gone numb and your erstwhile friends have now faded away to another bar..., while those two swarthy looking Guardia policemen that have appeared off the street, are now stalking over in your specific direction --- take my advice, don't try and say another 'Agur' .... just smile...crinkle your nose...wave goodbye ....and withdraw gracefully. You've probably had way too much Cava, and by now, your ex Basque bar friends couldn't care less if you speak Urdu, Welsh or Native American Schaghticoke - - they just wanna go get a Big Mac and crash.

* I'm sorry, but I don't understand you =  Barkatu, baina ez zaitut ulertzen - Just point to your pre written text. Much-o quicker-o. You can always shake your head of course - but this can sometimes be misinterpreted with dire results.

* Do you speak English/Spanish/French? = Badakizu ingelesez/gasteleraz/frantzesez? - Just point to your pre written text. Moocho easier-o. If you illicit a resounding "Non!" from this one - either bow politely and move next door, or be prepared to spend the rest of the evening pointing to your wanton desires while pulling increasingly unnatural facial expressions, to the eternal joy and amusement of all your fellow patrons.

The uncoolest way to enter St Paul de Vence..

Last year we had the good fortune to stay in a wonderful villa on the south easterly hillside that rises up to the chic and arty St Paul De Vence near Nice. As the crow flies, the villa was only about 200 metres from where I took the shot of young Mr Cool here on his scooter - but a few hundred feet and a heart attack further down below the town walls. Our villa choice was based on its close proximity to the centre of St Paul and because the holiday brochure stated - " has its own private walking access, just 100ft to the village centre and all its wonderful amenities". Pleasant thoughts of short strolls to the boulangerie in the morning and slightly unsteadier strolls back from wine practice after sundown.

Well, on the first night we took some enthusiastic directions from the villa's elderly owner, and ambled off excitedly into the darkness along our own exclusive & private little trail, that very quickly morphed itself into a steep & treacherously narrow goat path and then fifteen minutes & a pair of grazed knees later, became a final assault for the summit of K2. After what seemed like an eternity of stubborn, pride driven, slipping, gasping, sweating and wheezing up the cliffside, we finally dragged ourselves through a gap in the fortress walls right next to the celebrated Colombe d'Or Hotel, and promptly collapsed in a delirious, oxygen starved, panting heap together.

Five heaving minutes later with the deafening sound of my heartbeat still pounding away in my ear drums, I managed to unplug my mouth from the boules court surface I'd been spread-eagled over and sit up straight. Hair awry, face and chest caked with a goodly marinade of sweat and sand, I glanced over to my wife nearby and was encouraged to see she appeared to have died a few minutes earlier. Not because I don’t cherish her dearly you understand, but because by somehow remaining alive I was 'after all' clearly fitter than she was - and - it would save me all the effort and unpleasantness of performing resuscitation while her mouth was full of all this gritty sandy Boules court surface stuff. But then she groaned from somewhere deep behind her new hairdo and muttered something unprintable about the elderly villa owner and his more likely parentage.

Clearly back from the dead, she too pulled herself up to a sitting position, spitting out pieces of grit. It was about then that we both sensed we were being watched. Slowly turning round, we realised we had the complete focus of about one hundred or so patrons of the popular Cafe de la Place that borders the famous boules court of St Paul, just a couple of feet away. And to make things was laughing.

A smartly attired po-faced waiter walked over and said "You're staying in the nice villa down the cliff there aren’t you". Clearly a rhetorical question - he continued - "Old Bernard does that to everybody who stays there. I suggest for the rest of your 'oliday ere', you take the car. Its only three miles around - takes about ten minutes which is probably half the time it took you to scale the cliff up ere, and you don’t have to go to ospital".

We thanked him kindly, took his advice but didn’t dine there. As we slithered off trying vainly to regain some British dignity and composure, we heard the cafe erupt into laughter.

The meal we eventually had in the only chic looking bistro that would permit us a table - was appalling.

But by then we were laughing so much we didn’t care!

Camera Fly Swatting in Albi...

Technically speaking - this is a 'Pillow Shot'. Taken in October 2008 from my third floor bedroom window cill at the Mercure Hotel, Albi - south west France - on the southern bank of the river Tarn - and the original home of 'Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the celebrated, bohemian poster artist of the Moulin Rouge'.

This was pre-'Raw' snappyshotty days for me. More like photographer pre-puberty in truth. A condition I've still yet to assail according to my kids. Standard plastic Canon lens on a 350D, no idea which 'programme mode' I'd selected, but I had probably determined quite earnestly, that maybe the flash should at least be 'on??!' - knowing the minute depth of my camera knowledge - as blissfully ignorant as I was, way back then - "In The Day"

Didn’t know about self timer algorithms, aperture enigmas, shutter priority etiquette, vibration sensoring tripods, remote cable detonation and all the other essential techno blah de blah de blar. Did have a bright red Canon 'EOS' (!!) camera strap though, which I found to be a most effective fly swat upgrade - ie, I could happily dance around my hotel room for hours, swinging my Canon camera round and round above my head, by my red 'EOS' (!!) camera strap - battering flies and mozzies all the way back to the stone age.

Cautionary Note: Best not to do this after beer & wine practice, especially whilst using your mobile phone with your other hand. I did, and without any warning at all that I can remember - it beat me on the back of the head and laid me out cold. Hmmm.

I even experimented with the concept of gluing down the Shutter-release button - setting it to continuous shooting mode - then trying to capture some 'last moment before death' action shots of various flies and bugs as they glanced back to take one eternally lasting, fairly concerned look, at the large unidentified flying camera object which was a mere nano moment away from kersplatting their sorry little derrieres into digital oblivion.

The above concept is mostly sound by the way. Problem is the autofocus react time just isn't up to the job on the '350D', and the synchronised flash just doesn't seem to synchronise with the continuous shooting speeds - which in turn results in much wasted time later, processing several hundred and fifty three blurred images of panicked flies and bugs either with their eyes clamped shut - or with their eyes wide open, but way too much 'red eye' for a more professional looking capture. Which can become very tedious when all you really want to produce is one or two decent eye popping "Arrggh!!" moments of a big juicy bug going catatonic - for all your imagined new friends over at National Geographic. Although I suppose on a decent pro camera this is probably never a problem.

Anyway....and seriously, once again - back to the 'Pillow Shot' explanation.....Some hours earlier, I'd taken a hike over the 'Tarn' and on upward into the center of Albi. Eventually, I managed to worm my way into a lively looking rugby club bar for some chilled and amber tinted nourishment - and then this startlingly large, be-stetsoned French geeza with a weary looking porcupine under his arm, straddled an adjacent bar stool, leaned right up to my ear - and said.......

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A "Shed Alert!" ... in France...

All across France you will see examples of small stone structures such as this - sitting solitary in the middle of fields and vineyards. They take on a myriad of different simple forms and are usually much smaller and squarer than this version. Never quite large enough to be classed as habitable dwellings, but perfect for storing tools and equipment used every day in the surrounding pastures.


I've become quite captivated by them and this one was a little bit special, being turret shaped and almost fierce in its posture. It seemed to be taking on the role of a massive sentry - watching resolutely and protectively over the vineyards across its domain. I almost felt at risk by its presence. An unwanted intruder who might well be the safer to leave by the route he had just entered. I keep meaning to try and discover if the French have a collective or generic term for these buildings. Other than - Sheds. If anyone reading this already knows - please lob me a line.

Here we go again - I found this little shelter lurking deep inside a maize field while following a road along the Dordogne River, after visiting the impressive Chateau de Fenelon up on the cliffs overlooking the Perigord Noir region.

Just couldn’t help myself. My peripheral vision sensors kicked in as I sped down the nearby lane. I only got about 100 metres past this one when my right foot automatically hit the brakes and brought the car to an abrupt halt.

That’s what I've come to know as a ‘Shed Alert’.

I promptly swept my gaze across the fields on my left - there it was - hiding about 400 metres away with just its roof showing above the maize. I continued on my journey around thirty minutes later, and then about ten minutes after that - I got another shed alert....
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