And Now For Something Completely Different

No. This is not a reference to Monty Python. Be advised, clicking on the above link may be injurious to your mental health.
The eighteenth arrondissement in Paris is quite a paradox. On the one hand, Arab restaurants offer free Ramadan food after sunset – it’s late here, 9:10 last night – to those who can produce a valid social security card, hundreds of backsides pointing more or less away from the direction of Mecca ( yes, think about it…) line the pavements at prayer time because the mosques are too small and too full. The image isn’t mine – my camera battery died, but this from near the Omar Mosque in  1991 captures the essence of the scene. These days, there’s a high police profile and they clear the roads so the faithful are all squashed on to the pavements. Photographed by Jalai Abbas (Children of Abraham).
On the other hand , there are secret hideaways for the very very chic and at 240 euros a night, few of the faithful on the pavements will be able to afford to get through the door of le Kube Hotel, four stars. There’s one here and one in St Tropez. It’s unique in Paris since it’s the only one with an ice bar – called – what else – le Ice Kube. 

On arrival, you pay your 38 euros and are provided with arctic clothing. Inside, the bar and walls are made of ice and the temperature is -10 Celsius. Unless you’re Canadian, in which case you might think it quite mellow, your stay is limited to half an hour. In that time, you get to taste four or five different vodkas. In my serious drinking days, I couldn’t imagine myself here. Its frequented by rock stars, I am told, plus other well-known faces. Mine will not be photographed along with the frostbitten famous, I’m afraid, but I couldn’t resist a few arty-farty shots.

The exterior. White blob on left is a polar bear. Quelle surprise…
The Ice Kube. From without.


A Mystery Worshipper in Paris

Just by way of refreshment of memory, I thought it might be nice to go to Church yesterday. There are zillions to choose from. All Catholic. My views on papist heresies are worthy of a Camisard and will doubtless earn me several thousand years more in Purgatory, probably shovelling incense droppings or some such. It was something of a relief to discover that there were other establishments more in tune with what passes for theological reflection in my fevered brain, and I selected the American Church in Paris as a suitable venue, not least because it advertised a service at 1:30 in the afternoon and I didn’t get up till noon. This from their web page.
“Our contemporary services are an exciting and fulfilling way to worship God in a different, less traditional setting. With a relaxed and dressed-down atmosphere, the one-hour contemporary service is led by our pastoral staff and includes modern praise singing, led by a song director. The sermon, which is the same sermon given in the traditional services, is presented by one of our pastors.”
I relaxed. I dressed down (principally because I don’t remember how to dress up) and presented myself at the appointed hour on the quai d’Orsay. I wasn’t altogether encouraged to be greeted by endless rows of creaking Victorian pews, but haemorrhoids notwithstanding, I parked myself and adopted a suitably churchlike expression, amusing myself with the current copy of the church magazine. The worship band wasn’t bad, actually, but regrettably, nobody seemed to have quite got the hang of the notion that in a worship service, the idea is to, well, join in and worship a bit. They were using great material, the projection was clearly visible from the back, but the congregation, of variegated age and nationality, had a spectator mentality, hardly sang at all and actually applauded at the end of one of the songs. I know someone whose patience would have worn a bit thin after the second song (Here I Am To Worship) and almost certainly would have, let’s say, been a bit forceful with the assembled multitude. The youth pastor was a middle aged woman called Ginger who preached convincingly on the parable of the wedding banquet from Luke 14, which I thought entirely appropriate. ‘Coffee Hour’ was advertised but I didn’t go, simply because nobody actually pointed out where it was. I went to the museum on quai Branly instead.

Of Horns and Men

The Auvergne is the bit – the rather big bit, as it happens –  in the middle of France. It’s huge, volcanic – the best mineral waters trickle through the rock here – and there are a number of spa towns where the French government actually sends people on the equivalent of the NHS for treatment.

This is the gateway to the Auvergne. It’s the Millau Viaduct – a masterpiece of both engineering and traffic control, being the longest, highest and tallest in the world. This area is home to the Bras culinary family – they even provide special recipes for the autoroute cafes –  and of Roquefort cheese – there are tastings of local produce in the villages. The idea with cheeses is that the mildest is tasted first, then the stronger – usually older –  one by one. I bought a small amount of the local prizewinning stuff, which is as far removed from the rancid, prepackaged and overpriced sawdust that you buy in the Sultan Centre as is possible.
Small towns with little churches are everywhere since it’s on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The town and region of Aubrac looks almost Swiss. It’s on a high plateau so people come here in the winter to Nordic ski and even the beer pump handles are made from Aubrac cow horn.

These contented-looking fawn coloured beasts graze on verdant pastures, often wearing huge, tonkling bells. The Aubrac dairy cow is mated with the Charolais bull to bulk them up a bit, and the resultant beef is quite simply outstanding. The calves feed from their mothers for the first six months, then have five thousand square metres each of free grazing in flowery pasture. Each. Per cow.

I have eaten the marbled Kobe beef from Japan, Argentine steaks and USDA prime, but this stuff beggars description. Unless you want to leave the restaurant in a body bag, don’t ask for it to be ‘well-done’. It came with a potato dish first made by three bishops in the Middle Ages. They each brought some local produce to a kind of Diocesan Synod – one brought bread, the other cheese and the last cream. Mixed together, (the bread is now replaced by potatoes) you get ‘aligot’ which looks like very thick wallpaper paste and tastes divine.  I almost heard my arteries hardening. Like the food, the people here are bulky and solid, the men having vast bellies and the women wide, strong peasant hips. With matching forearms.


An overnight in picturesque Laguiole, where some of the finest cutlery in the world is still hand-forged, the cheese wins prizes and  Michel Bras (of whom Parisians speak in hushed tones) has a restaurant at 175 euros a plate,  then en route for home. The radio said there were 130 km of tailbacks in total on the autoroutes into Paris. I went on the RN roads and was back before nightfall.

Harry Potter and the Gargoyles of Stone

Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have to confess I cared rather less for Barcelona than I thought I might. My hotel was chic and basic – indeed it was called exactly that. White minimalist, tiny and a nice view of a concrete wall from a third floor window. The upside was that it was in a remarkably vibrant part of town near the University. The TV didn’t work and nobody seemed to know how to fix it. The AC might have cooled a small cupboard without effort, but not a hotel bedroom where daytime temperatures scraped thirty-seven Celsius with eighty per cent humidity. The actual accomodation was in a block shared by other businesses hence had a communal doorkey, which didn’t work. The thought of myself, some years ago, returning home at three in the morning in a regrettable condition and fiddling fruitlessly with a key that didn’t actually open the door fills me, even now, with a certain loosening of the bowels. All was well – in the end – someone was found whose key worked from the inside and a replacement provided the following day.
My impression of the city was not favoured by the sight of almost every square inch of shuttered shops being graffiti-raddled. I wouldn’t normally care, but they just weren’t awfully good. The more juvenile members of the population seemed quite passionate about self-mutilation – tattooing was less of an art form, more a rite of passage, it seemed.
The metro was clean and punctual and had I not caught someone attempting to pick my pocket, I might have quite enjoyed the short and efficient journey. An elbow in the ribs of the departing thief might discourage him from further attempts, but I somehow doubt it.

Barcelona is the city of the iconic architect Gaudí whose work one either thinks is absolutely masterful, or basically loathsome. I’m afraid I fall into the latter category. His buildings seem to be half-alive, stonework giving way to trees, flowers, bunches of grapes, whatever… Looking at them for any length of time made me feel quite queasy.

 Were Harry Potter ever to turn his wizarding intentions towards the consolations of Rome, this, surely is where he would hang his broomstick. La Sagrada Familia was Gaudí‘s magnum opus containing vast, allegorical  symbols on the mysteries of the faith – extraordinary facades representing the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. The eighteen towers evoke the twelve apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Christ. When it’s finished, La Sagrada is expected to accommodate over 13,000 people with a choir of 1500. The whole building, I am informed, is an allegory of the Christian religion. Is it, indeed. I still think that 12 euros was a lot to visit a House of God, especially such a monstrous one as this

The work was started in 1882. Interrupted in 1936 when the crypt and Gaudí’s workshop were burned, Construction resumed in 1952 using the original plans and existing models and it’s still unfinished eighty-five years after his death. Am I bovvered?

Limp Clocks

Spain is different. To begin with, in the North, they don’t speak Spanish. Instead, it’s a kind of glottal coughing, similar to Spanish – the Catalan. If the ferociously revolutionary graffiti are to be believed the Cataluňas would banish the pagan French and their bastard cousins the Spanish to the nether regions of Hell and allow them to conduct their affairs in peace. A gentle meander around the northeastern corner of the Pyrenees found me in Figueras. I had wanted to go to Figueras for some time, since it houses the Dali Museum. Salvador Dali was unquestionably the most hideously precocious and talented painter of his generation –  he embraced surrealism as a metaphor for his life and his life drawing rivals Raphael. The jewellery exhibition – so produced because Dali believed that the artistic value of a piece was of greater value than its constituent materials – is reminiscent of the quality of  Fabergé eggs. Much has been written about his obsessive/compulsive habits, anguished Catholic guilt, shameless self-aggrandisement and dollar-chasing,  his promiscuous Russian-born wife and his therapy sessions with Freud, who saw through the empty clowning and unmasked the painter’s pathological, paranoid fear of sex. Up close, the works reveal a master craftsman, tortured, shocking and outrageous. His limp clocks – or is it Soft Watches, are symbolic of an era.
His wife and muse features in almost every piece, one way or another. Sweet.

Due South

There are still a few little jewels the French keep for themselves. in the small town of Sète, which looks remarkably like a rather raffish Venice, it was the Feast of Saint Louis the Something, the French King who got a passport to Paradise by going to the Crusades. These days his Feast Day is celebrated by the locals having too much to drink and engaging in what can only be described as jousting with gondolas. A team of galley slaves rows two boats towards each other, and in the stern of each boat is a solidly built gentleman carrying a shield and a kind of extended billiard cue. As the boats pass, they attempt to poke each other’s shields and push the other guy into the water. Points are awarded for either a fair topple into the water, and deducted by unsportsmanlike behaviour with one’s cue, or baton, perhaps aiming it at the other guy’s crotch – a favourite gambit which sometimes seemed to escape the referees on the bank. The Victor Ludorum wins prizes, it seems, of women and beer.

A quiet dinner in Collioure. Castles, churches and, yes, windmills. You can just see one on the hill in the foreground.

In the Hills

Driving on mountain roads, much like the 30, ‘can be hazardous’. People come here to enjoy the scenery, swim in the rivers and generally get lost in a National Park the size of Wales, frequently with insouciant disregard for the rules of the road, like driving on the right side of it. There’s a refreshing absence of public misbehaviour, probably because there aren’t very many Brits, a British accent speaking bad French causes a curious uplifting of the eyes in some of the smaller, more out-of-the-way places. An upside is that even with large numbers, population density is often quite thin, so a river swimming hole can be relatively tourist-free. The French keep the best secrets for themselves, however. I have seen more narrow streets, twelfth century churches and Crusader staging posts than most people get to see in a lifetime, I imagine.

In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson undertook a kind of vagabond walkabout in these hills. Apart from a few motor vehicles, not a lot seems to have changed. The granite rock formations are now as they were then, the cavernous gorges cut deep by flowing rivers. He stood on the same plateaux and smelled the heather reminding him of his Scottish homeland. Perhaps the quality of the coffee has improved. 
On the Stevenson Trail with a donkey in the CevennesBut the spirit has not left, even without Stevenson to document it, it would still be here. 
This, from ‘Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes’.

In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days.  Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension.  There are adherents of each of the four French parties—Legitimists, Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans—in this little mountain-town; and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. 

No change there, then. French table-thumping is legendary.

Except for business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl, they have laid aside even the civility of speech.  ’Tis a mere mountain Poland.  In the midst of this Babylon I found myself a rallying-point; every one was anxious to be kind and helpful to the stranger.  This was not merely from the natural hospitality of mountain people, nor even from the surprise with which I was regarded as a man living of his own free will in Le Monastier, when he might just as well have lived anywhere else in this big world; it arose a good deal from my projected excursion southward through the Cevennes.  A traveller of my sort was a thing hitherto unheard of in that district.  I was looked upon with contempt, like a man who should project a journey to the moon, but yet with a respectful interest, like one setting forth for the inclement Pole.  All were ready to help in my preparations; a crowd of sympathisers supported me at the critical moment of a bargain; not a step was taken but was heralded by glasses round and celebrated by a dinner or a breakfast.

If you need a donkey, one can be found for you. Tavern brawls do, however, seem to be a thing of the past, not least for myself.

Tough Guys on Horseback

The Rhone delta might as well be Bangladesh. It’s flat, salty, and mostly marshland and seems to go on for ever. If global warming is a reality, and there’s even a moderate rise in sea level, the place will disappear. This is bull-breeding country and the Gardiens – Camargue cowboys – are the ones who do the ‘Rawhide’ bit with lariat and pointed stick, supplying the arenas with both fighting bulls and those bred for entertainment, leather and meat. This is a real job – not just a divertimento for tourists. In every restaurant in the capital, Saintes Maries de la Mer, there’s ‘pavé de taureau’ on offer, or bull steak, along with the obligatory gypsy flamenco and guitar music. 
I rather think that this was for the tourists, however. I was reminded of the church fete…

There’s even a stuffed bull’s head in the supermarket butcher – see above. In case you’re wondering, bull meat tastes just like most other good steak varieties – dependent on the cut – but the impression is given that it’s wild and strongly flavoured. It’s usually offered rare-the meat conferring the strength of the bull on the consumer– psychologists might have a field day with this – perhaps it’s a bit like sheikhs and young deflowered virgins.
It seems that this is quite a religious community – the cross of the Camargue represents faith, hope and love, and is everywhere from the black-haired gypsy girls’ earrings, to the churches.

A Day in Provence

I had always wanted to visit Avignon. Quite a shame, really, since it turned out to be something of a disappointment. Not because it wasn’t beautiful in all its medieval splendour but because it seemed so much like other, smaller and prettier local towns, with the exception of the chic little boutiques with Paris prices on every ticketed trinket. The old town is walled throughout and the walls are remarkably well-preserved. Pius V built a large monument when the papal seat was here rather than Rome and the papal palace is grand indeed, but one seventeenth century castle seems much like another with the inevitable snail with audio link craning its collective neck to admire yet another mildewed ceiling and being disgorged into the gift shop at the end. Perhaps I’m just getting touristed out. The French occasionally juxtapose ancient and modern to mixed reviews and here was no exception. Which drink-sodden urban planner in their right mind places an eighteen foot carbuncle of a bronze elephant balanced on its trunk in the Papal square…The girl smiled winningly at me, so I left her in for scale. The famous bridge – it’s actually half a bridge – over the Rhone was a bit lame, I thought. There’s a tiny church perched like a wart at the end which I really didn’t see the point of getting out of the car to visit.
A little bit further on was Arles. Quite a different pickle of clams, this. Van Gogh painted here. I was encouraged by the fact that there was a parking space conveniently vacated a second before my arrival along a narrow street (they’re all narrow, in fact) in close proximity to the Arena. This one is smaller and more modest than the one in Nîmes, but there was shouting and clapping coming from within, so I bought a ticket. They had got to the second bull. Fifteen white-clad, fit-looking young chaps with their names emblazoned on the back were in the ring, together with a bull which pawed the sandy ground aggressively before charging the nearest young man to a four foot barrier, which he nimbly leapt over. Another young man attracted the bull’s attention. It charged him and at the last moment before leaping the barrier, the young man tweaked a ribbon from between the two foot long horns, waving it in triumph. The bull, it seemed, was wearing a number of these and the crowd erupted into thunderous applause every time the bull lost a ribbon. After a while, the bull was coaxed back into a pen under the arena and another took its place. The crowd apparently rate the performance on the ferocity of the bull and the nimbleness of the participants – one animal which partially demolished  some of the red wooden slats surrounding the arena was particularly warmly received.
It struck me that the locals here had been going to the Arena for centuries. Despite the presence of many young families, children waving hats and balloons, mothers with tissues mopping up their spillages, there was almost a miasma of dark, suppressed violence about the place. It was a short flight of fancy to imagine bloodsports of all descriptions happening here, martyrdom, gladiatorial duels to the death and slaves raking over the bloodstained sand. One imagined the thousands of ghosts of the slain in silent witness. Images from ‘Gladiator’ sprang, unbidden, to mind. H’m.

Dulce Domum

An hour’s drive away from the mountains is my temporary home, a converted pumphouse which once fed water to the long-gone steam train system, completely rebuilt with proper plumbing and IKEA showers. Villages with names like Le Vans, Joyeuse, and the unforgettable Mejeannes-le-Clap, which looks good on your passport,are all around. Initially, the quiet is unnerving. Cicadas scratch endlessly and the stream at the foot of the hill ripples over a tiny waterfall. But, that’s it. No cars, no music, the nearest human habitation is more than two kilometres away in any direction. Light pollution is minimal; the nearest significant centre of population is about fifteen kilometres south which lights up the sky a little, but the overall impression is ‘I’m an awfully long way from a Starbucks.’ In almost cloudless skies, the Perseids, the annual meteor shower produced by the Earth’s orbit passing through the tail of a comet, were spectacularly visible, long gashes of light from tiny particles travelling at over 70 kilometres a second skimming like stones on a pond and getting brighter and brighter across the sky before vaporising in the atmosphere. I sat outside for an hour and watched the light show.
Might be a nice spot to retire to…