Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Please Sir, can I have some Mullaghmore?

When our good friends invited us to come stay at their holiday spot in beautiful Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, we didn't have to be asked twice. Good company and a great location, not to mention the fact that I'd never been before, added up to a resounding "yes."

As we sat chatting the first day of the trip over the first of many cuppas, I mentioned that I might want to do a blog post on the trip and would that be okay.

"No bothers," they said.

When I told them that I didn't have to use their real names and that they could think up a pseudo-name, their nest-leaving-age son piped up, "Basil and Sybil!"

Yep, I saw it right away - and with a hearty laugh so did they! (Phew - might have been a tense weekend otherwise!)  So that's what we agreed on.

Basil and Sybil suggested we start with a wee walk around the coast road. It was a beautiful evening, all the more appreciated when we saw that the weather in the rest of the country was brutal (that's quite a technical Irish meteorological term that would take too long to explain in this blog post!) Luckily, I'd promised Sybil I'd bring the sunshine and I did.

Off in the distance, we could see the silhouette of a castle on the horizon. With notes of Wuthering Heights, it looked foreboding and unwelcoming. My instincts proved right when we met a couple of tourists who asked in broken English if it was possible to "Go into the castle?"

"No," Basil said. "It's private."

So it wasn't exactly Faulty Towers then and as the tourists moved on, Basil explained that it was Classiebawn Castle and used to belong to the Mountbattens, relatives of the British Royal family. Like most of Ireland, the area was steeped in violent history from both the distant and recent past. On our walk, we passed memorials to the people whose lands had been taken from them by the British and to Mountbatten, who'd been killed when the IRA blew up his yacht off the coast of Mullaghmore. The irony of the two memorials in such close proximity was not lost on us and served to remind me that in order to move forward, we must exercise diplomacy and respect while remembering that all the episodes of the past have led to making the kaleidoscope of where we have arrived to as a nation today.

With rainbows arching from the heavens, it felt like God's own country. Why had we ever left, I wondered. It's so beautiful. Sure, Ireland gets more than its fair share of rain, but that's what keeps it green and lush. After living through years of drought in California, I've learned not to complain about the rain.

Glencar Waterfall, mentioned by WB Yeats in his poem ‘The Stolen

We were in Yeats country, and you could see what had inspired the great poet so much.  There was Benbulben forming the back drop to most views, the ocean clear and sparkling, and best of all the craic, as only the Irish can deliver.

Since Armagh was playing in the Ulster finals that day, Basil, Sybil and I decided it was a good day to introduce My Husband to the glorious torture of becoming an Armagh supported. The game was indeed painful - least said, the better. But Basil made a great choice with the bar where we watched it, not least because it had no Tyrone supporters - no-one to rub salt in our wounds.

At the front of Langs bar, there's an old-time shop - I wasn't sure if I could really have bought a box of Ariel or if they were for show. I couldn't help but go take a few photos while everyone was in the back lounge roaring at the match on the telly.

The bar was empty but for one man sitting enjoying his pint in peace - at least until I came along. He told me he was 75 years old and pointed to a snug at the end of the bar.

When he was sixteen years old he'd bring deliveries to this shop, he told me with pride. The door to the snug would be closed and the money would be counted out and paid over for the goods. The wee desk was still there after sixty years.

"Nothing has changed much in this bar," he said pointing at the counter. "Still the same wooden counter all these years."  He took a swig of his Guinness, rolled it around his mouth and swallowed, sucking his lips open in a satisfying smack.

Maybe it's true, the more things change, the more things stay the same. I just hope we've figured out what to change and what to keep.

One thing is for sure, I've learned what's worth keeping.

Many thanks to Basil and Sybil (every time I write those names it makes me chuckle) but seriously (hard to be serious when the thought of you guys makes me grin from ear to ear) thanks for sharing your holiday home, the company of your wonderful sons' and their friends, the weekend and your long, long time friendship which, like a beam of light in a lighthouse beacon, joins with others to guide us home time and time again.

"And say my glory was I had such friends."
William Butler Yeats

Byddi Lee

Friday, August 25, 2017

Tour Saint-Jacques and a Mischief of Rats!

Since the moment we moved in, I've been itching to go up the Tour Saint-Jacques, a Gothic tower near our apartment.

I knew back in October that I would have to wait at least until the spring since you can only go into it on a guided tour and there were none scheduled during the winter. I always liked walking through its little park, or if the park was closed like it is at night, alongside the fence so I could see the plants and the greenery within.

One evening in November, walking home after a writing group meeting, I took the route along the railings on the eastern side of the park. Ahead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I thought to be a flock of pigeons scavenging a bag of French fries (well, of course, they're French fries - I am in Paris!) As I drew closer, I realized they were not pigeons at all but lovely plump, happily feeding rats! About a dozen, maybe more, some sat up on their hind legs and chowed on their grub, like baldy-tailed squirrels!

I stood mesmerized - I'm not particularly phased by rats; wouldn't want them attacking me, but then wouldn't want even the cutest of cuddly animals attacking me either. I speak from a position of experience having suffered the trauma of a bunny rabbit attack in Australia. The short version of the story: Cute family-pet bunny on a leash in the backyard hopped over and sank its buck-teeth into my ankle as I innocently stood on its lawn minding my own beeswax! It actually drew blood, but I digress...

Back to the Parisian rats and their very French fries...

I toyed with the idea of taking some photos, but there was a man watching me from the doorway of a nearby restaurant and I figured I'd look like a right weirdo if I went all David Attenborough with the mischief of rats. (What a great collective noun!) I stood for a second more thinking about how a few months ago I had been watching "proper" wildlife in California, listening to the coyotes call at night, hearing the gurgle of the wild turkeys from the hills if the breeze was just right and even skipping out of the way at the hissing jangle of a disgruntled rattle snake after a grass fire in the nearby hills. And now here I was, watching a mischief of Parisian rats snack on French fries.

Before I left the scene, I gave the man watching me a nod and a shrug, which he returned. In Paris that's as good as a full-on conversation - "Did you see?" "Sure." "Wow!" "Well, what can you do?" "Nothing, I guess!"

But I guessed wrong.

A few days later, the gates to the park were locked, bamboo screening erected all the way along the fence and a sign posted. The words "Dératisation" jumped out at me. I didn't need google translate to figure out what that meant!

So that was back in November. The park and access to the Tour Saint-Jacques remained closed all through the winter, spring and into the summer.

It wasn't until July that we noticed the park had reopened and the tours of the Tour Saint-Jaques were back on - happily in time for My Sister and Nephew's visit.

The 50-minute tours leave every hour from 10 am to 5 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and sell out quickly. We had to go down in person to get the day we wanted. No problem there since it's practically on the doorstep. You can book a Friday visit in advance through this website.

Unfortunately, the tours are only in French, so there was a bit of waiting around inside the tower looking up at the ceiling - which was pretty amazing - with me grappling to understand the tour guide then whispering the key points to My Husband, Sister and Nephews - Facts such as the tower is all that is left of the Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, the rest of which was destroyed during the French revolution.

In all honesty, I got most of my information, not from the French tour guide, but from good ole Wikipedia

So that part of the tour was a bust for us English speakers, but we got to climb the 300 steps to the very top, and oh boy, was the view worth it.

If you only had one day in Paris, go here. You get to see everything from this central high-point! It's better than the Montparnasse Tower because you are closer to most of the major sights, like the Eiffel Tower...

 The Sacré-Cœur...

 The Pompidou Centre...

 Our apartment - okay so it's technically not a major sight, but we got excited. Hard to pick out, it's in the middle of the picture. However, you can easily see our favourite ice-cream shop, N2, where they make ice-cream right in front of you using liquid nitrogen! It's under the black awning at the end of the street with the red awnings in the foreground of the picture below.


There's a great view of the Conciergerie, nicknamed the Disney Prison by visiting friends because it used to be a prison - Maire Antoinette was held there before she was executed - and it looks like something from Disney.

We've speculated over many a glass of wine as to which Disney characters should be incarcerated there. When Cruella de Ville was suggested, my friends wondered did she own the Hotel de Ville?

There's a birdseye view of the rooftop bar, Le Perchoir, above the BHV Marais.

The Panthéon sits proudly in The Latin Quarter across the river from us.

In the distance, the golden roof of Les Invalides glints in the sunshine.

Montparnasse tower looms over everything including the spires of Saint Sulpice.

For €10, this was a tour worth doing even though it was in French, and especially on a nice sunny day. An added bonus - we didn't see a single rat!

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Lavender in Provence

Back in California, I grew five different varieties of lavender. I had lavender which "naturalized" in my back yard and spread. I even experimented with lavender in cooking and baking - with great success. Here are links to the posts with those recipes.

Orange and Lavender - A  Culinary Combo

Life's Peachy

So, when we decided to move to France, the number one trip on my list was to go see the lavender fields in Provence.

We took a Ouigo TGV Train from Gare de Marne la Vallée Chessy, the station one would take if one were (crazy enough) to go to Euro Disney. That station is hectic - a disaster waiting to happen!

The train has no frills but is clean and comfortable. You can't buy food on board so bring a picnic. It took 3 swift hours and cost in total  €100.00 between us- i.e €25 each way per person. At Aix-en-Provence, we picked up a car at the train station - the cutest little Fiat 500!

(Father Ted fans please note: The car is NOT very far away!)

The hotel, Garden and City, Puyrichard, was on the outskirts north of Aix-en-Provence. Knowing that we'd be arriving in late, we guessed correctly that the shops would be closed (we consistently guessed incorrectly when they'd be open for the whole trip) so we availed of the pre-order in-room breakfast offered by the hotel. We were so disappointed with the breakfast. I was expecting fresh coffee, huge flaky fresh croissants and perhaps freshly squeezed orange juice. That's all. I don't think I was asking for much. It was rural France the home of fresh baking and farm produce...

Instead, we got a melange of pre-packed produce so pumped full of preservatives it would likely outlast the human race!  There was (per person) :
  • a sachet of instant Nescafe coffee ("Holy God - not instant!" I hear you cry." 
  • a can of minute maid orange flavoured chemicals
  • a 2-inch square hard toast (individually wrapped)
  • a tooth breakingly crusty roll that would pass as a rock
  • a pack of instant porridge
  • a sachet of hot chocolate mix (in 40 C heat??)
  • a litre of milk - now warm
  • an inch long pain au chocolate 
  • and a 2-inch long croissant  (This and the above item slightly stale)

(Father Ted fans please note: The croissant is NOT far away!)

The hotel room - a superior studio and not the smallest or cheapest one on offer - was smaller than we thought it would be.  The room next door was slightly bigger. I could see because housekeeping had propped the door open, and I had helped myself to a good old gander. So I went to reception and spoke to the girl there. She claimed that all the rooms in C block (our block) we're all the same.

"So," I said, "could we please move into the room next door?" The layout was better even if it were the same square footage.

"Oh, no," says she. "That room is taken."

But I saw it was empty. It was 11 am and check-in was specifically noted at 3 pm.

"But they haven't checked in yet, " I said.  "They could switch with us... seeing as all the rooms are the same."

"Oh but they have checked in," she said.

Hmmm, someone was telling barefaced lies but how does one counter that. I left silently seething and cursing the woman in my mind. After all, the room we were in was fine. We weren't going to suffer. I was madder at being lied to, than being denied. I had just wanted the other room with that extra little space for sitting by the window... After all the view was lovely.

After my seething session, (that My Husband bravely bore the brunt of) we decided to head north to Pertuis, a pretty little town where we managed to catch the only lunch of our entire trip. We kept missing when Siesta time was - it was different in each village! The whole thing seemed so complicated - it was easier to not eat.

Then we went to the tourist information office to find out where the best lavender fields were.

The lady in the tourist information office simply didn't get the concept. We wanted to see vast fields of lavender and she insisted on circling cute little towns on the maps. Thanks but we didn't want that I told her.

"But they are the most beautiful towns in France," she said.

Stuff that! I wanted to see lavender... I didn't say it like that. Maybe I should have because she began to circle castles....No! Been to the Loire Valley and all castled out. Lavender please... She assured us we could see some lavender here too...but some wasn't gonna cut it! I wanted to see loads of lavender.

But we followed her advice and saw a few cute (closed with a "Walking Dead" feel to it!) villages.

We weren't sure if anyone actually lived here. Even the towns that seemed to be inhabited were sleeping - their shutter-like eyes closing the world out.

It took "sleepy" villages to a whole new level, and I can't say I felt comfortable or even welcome here. This snooze level just wasn't for me.

In the distance, we saw a big white mountaintop and decided to drive to the top of it - because it was there - quite the accomplishment in a Fait 500!

The views from the top of Mount Ventoux were spectacular!

The top was bare white scree and I learned that it had once been forested but the trees cut down in the twelth century for lumber. The soil eroded and now it has a moonscape!

The lavender fields around were small, pretty...

...but not the one I'd seen in the photo that planted the idea of the trip.

I wanted lavender as far as the eye could see - Not enclosed by green fields.

I showed My Husband the photo in the article I'd read online. He was able to track down the location through the embedded data. We had a town name, Revest, which cross referenced a road number D950....

We were back on mission.

The lavender in this region was more abundant.

The fields stretched further.

We wound back and forth on smaller roads that criss-crossed the D950 and were able to get close to huge drifts of lavender.

Three senses delighted by lavender fields: Sight - Oh the hues of purple!

Smell - the air is laden with scent.

Sound - the buzzing of the bees. So good to hear the air thrumming with these happy bees!

After a couple of days of satisfying lavender viewing, we were ready for a change of scene. We headed south to the little town of Cassis on the Mediterranean to pick up the start of the coastal route D141 to Ciotat. I've never seen seaside towns so full to the brim of people. We vowed never to hoilday again in July. (It's the bonus prize for being childfree!)

The views along D141 were spectacular.

With some interesting rock formations like this natural arch - which made us think of Natural Bridges and Arches Nation Parks in Utah.

We found a disappointing cafe in a cove near La Ciotat - disappointing because despite finding parking and the cafe actually open, the lunch was served to us in a cardboard box! It was like something you'd buy for an office lunch out of Marks & Spencers. We were destined to not partake of a classic Provence lunch - unless this was the clasic Provence lunch?

The cove itself was beautiful and we watched people cliff diving from our lunch perch. Full marks for view.

We returned to our hotel with the last night to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Provence countryside before facing the crazy noise and rush of Paris.

Will we go back to Provence? Mmmmm - we-l-l we still have a lot to see in the rest of Europe...

Byddi Lee