Monday, 29 September 2014

Stags and Snails

Just before we leave France for Spain, I decided to share this with you.

French snails can climb this high.

But French stags reckon they can jump much, much higher.

A picnic ambush

In the Languedoc-Roussillon area, as we crossed the Montagnes Noires we stopped for a picnic at one of those loops of old road which had been left after the road had been straightened. In that desolate curve we were ambushed by history. 

 First of all there was the road itself. The surface was the ancient pavé. Treacherously slippery in the wet, it must have made negotiating the hairpin bends quite exciting.

And in amongst the bushes I found a stone commemorating a 1944 battle where a group of 150 of the Franc Corps de la Montagne Noire ambushed a 1,000 strong column of the retreating German Army and inflicted losses on them with only one soldier wounded on their side.

Just when I thought I had exhausted the interests of this abandoned corner I came across this modern monument.  Apparently we were crossing the Green Meridian. This was an imaginary line drawn from the Paris Meridian (which is like the Greenwich Meridian but nowhere near as important despite what the French might tell you) northwards to Dunkirk and southwards to Barcelona in Spain.

La Meridienne Verte was inaugurated in 2000 and along it, trees are being planted to make a green line across France from top to bottom. This was the French way of celebrating the millennium.

We built The Dome.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Cru La Livinière

Being teetotal you would think that I might feel myself unqualified to write about wines but, let's face it, nobody with any sense of self esteem ever reads what the wine pundits say and even fewer believe them. So, if you want to know about Cru La Livinière then look it up on the internet.

What I can tell you is that they are doing the vendanges. 

When I was at school I tried to get a job grape-picking in the south of France but they said I was too young.

Now they would dismiss my application automatically. There are no grape pickers. It's all done by one man operating this clever tractor-type grape harvester.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Deported from Borgo San Dalmazzo

Further down the valley from St Dalmas de Tende is the bustling town of Borgo San Dalmazzo. During the Second World War a concentration camp was established here and the Jews who had fled occupied France were incarcerated in it.

In 1943, on 21st November, 329 Jews were taken from the camp to the railway station and pushed into cattle trucks and transported to the transit camp at Drancy, near Paris. From there they were sent to Auschwitz. Only eighteen survived.

Go to the railway station today and you will see, set into the platform in front of three goods trucks, the names of those deportees in the positions in which they stood before being carted away.

The names of the survivors have been set upright in steel.

Part of the text on the board reads:

"Each name is a ray of hope that has been extinguished forever. Come closer. The sound of silence and the absence of people will help you to understand how much damage man is capable of causing when he puts himself and his rights above those of others."

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Railway Station One-Upmanship

In 1928 the railway was opened between Nice in France and Cuneo in Italy and suddenly two insignificant villages found themselves to be the centre of attention. St. Dalmas de Tende was the last Italian station before the border and Fontan Saorge the equivalent French. Mussolini was never one to hide his light under a bushel and built this enormous Palladian style edifice (he didn't do it himself, he employed people) to show off to the French just how great Italy was.

The enormous building running across the centre of the photograph is the railway station of St Dalmas de Tende. It is utterly out of proportion to the size of village that it serves.

The view from the station yard.

The view from the platforms.

Not to be outdone, the French erected this orange barrack-like monument at their frontier station: Fontan Saorge.

During the Second World War the 143 km of railway line with its 105 tunnels and 96 bridges suffered severe damage and was unusable. Under the Treaty of Paris 1947, the frontier was redrawn and France gained the communes of Tende and Brigue, so both the stations were now French. Another provision of the treaty was that Italy was to restore the line to operational status as part of its war reparations. It was apparently in no hurry because the line was only opened in 1979!
Ironically, the Mussolini station at St Dalmas de Tende is now bricked up and derelict - used as an unmanned halt and the 'French' station at Fontan Saorge serves as a holiday camp for the SNCF as well as a halt for trains.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Trucks in Demonte

We came over the Col de Larche from France into Italy this morning. It was a very pleasant journey with very few cars and only three trucks in the thirty kilometres from the frontier. This was just as well because it is not a wide road. Then everything changed at a place called Ruviera. Down in the valley we could see some sort of distribution depot stuffed with about two hundred articulated trucks. I could not understand the rationale of siting such a depot at the extremity of Italy on a road which only led to France. I had little time to ponder this conundrum because I was suddenly dodging trucks on their way up to the depot and being chased by those on their way back down.

Ten kilometres further on we stopped at the ancient village of Demonte. We drank a coffee in a bar under the mediaeval arcades. 

Here is one of the churches in the street.

The entire facade is a painted trompe l'oeil

And here are two trucks stuck outside it. One truck is on his way up and the other on his way down.

But they have no need to hurry to disentangle themselves because the end of the street is blocked by some of their mates. 

It's a funny old world, isn't it?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Potatoes in Piedmont

Here we are in Sauze d'Oulx, a ski resort in the Piedmontese region of Italy. Yes, I know, I don't ski but the Hotel Derby in the Via Monfol made me an offer I could not refuse.

The ski resort is part of the Via Lattia (the Milky Way) which was developed in the 1930s by Giovanni Agnelli, the owner of FIAT. Out of season, Sauze has a quaint, village-like atmosphere with everybody seemingly greeting everybody else by name in the street. 


There was no snow of course but we did have potatoes. The annual potato festival took place on the Saturday, right outside the Hotel Derby.

Potato Menu

Not only do I not ski, I am not particularly fond of potatoes, so I was completely nonplussed by the menu for the festival meal which featured potatoes at every course.

Would you queue to eat potatoes?

And dumbstruck by the sight of people paying money and queuing up to eat potatoes.

This is not a potato.

It is a cabbage.

I like cabbage.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

St Gingolph - half French, half Swiss.

River Morge - international frontier.

St. Gingolph is a large village on the southern shore of Lake Geneva (which the French call 'Lac Leman'). On 4th March 1659 The Duc Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy signed a treaty with the local regional rulers of St Gingolph and established a boundary to run down the middle of the River Morge which flows through the village into the lake. 

French & Swiss customs officers on the
border at St. Gingolph in the 1900s
This was fine until the Swiss republics confederated and then the Italian leader, Cavour, gave Savoy to Napoleon III in 1860 to pay for the French troops he provided to assist in unifying Italy. The village was now split by an important international frontier.

Today the village is still half in Switzerland and half in France. If you die in the Swiss half, you are buried in France. The Swiss residents of St. Gingolph benefit from a special concession whereby they can import from France up to 2kg of meat per family, per week as opposed to the normal 400gm. The economy of the village is heavily influenced by its trans-frontier position. The French half, despite having no train service and only two buses per day, is flourishing whilst the Swiss half, enjoying 12 trains per day, numerous bus routes and a summer steamer service across the lake, is declining.

The reason is not hard to find. The French residents work in Switzerland where the salaries are higher, but they live in the French half where the rents are cheaper and the Swiss come to shop in the French side where the retail prices are lower.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Watering cans gone mad

This is a florist shop I found in Rougemont le Chateau.

It is called, L'Arrosoir.

This translates as: The Watering Can.

Now who would have thought it?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Packaging gone mad.

And whilst I am still in the hotel bathroom...

This is the latest hotel trend. Instead of providing a glass in your bathroom; a glass which they fear you might break (have you ever tried to smash an Arcopal glass?) hotels now provide a sanitised, vacuum sealed, disposable plastic mug. 

It is presented in a hygienic polythene envelope which is shrink-wrapped to the beaker. 

In order to obtain purchase on the wrapper you are obliged to pull the seal up from the inside of the mug. 

But it is vacuum packed, so as you do this, atmospheric pressure of 14lbs per sq. in. pushes inwards on the thin walls of the mug and voilà, a cracked and perfectly useless disposable mug which you can immediately dispose of.

Sent from a bathroom in Belfort.

The Case of the Disappearing Bidet

When did you FIRST encounter a bidet? I was fourteen years old in a French house and staring at this appliance which I supposed was designed to provide a facility for washing feet. When I returned to England the bidet's proper use was explained to me in the following terms: 

"In a French bathroom there is no bath. You have a washbasin and a bidet. In the washbasin you wash down as far as possible and you wash up as far as possible and then you use the bidet to wash 'possible'."

When did you LAST encounter a bidet? That obscene sculpture of porcelain sanitaryware, sometimes bolted to the floor, more often not; always installed so that the bathroom door would not open fully but nevertheless positioned to stub your midnight toe? 

They have gone. Disappeared. Overnight they have been whisked off to that great bathroom in the sky. Where is the last hotel bidet in France?

All that is left of the bidet.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Bussang - an unfinished tunnel and a viaduct to nowhere

Bussang is the town in the Vosges region of France where the River Moselle springs from the ground.

We came to Bussang, in search of a tunnel -  the road tunnel at the top of the Col de Bussang which, from 1871 to 1918 served as the frontier between France and Germany. The frontier has now retreated once more to the Rhine and the road over the col, now entirely in France, has been widened and no trace of the tunnel exists.

The road tunnel at the top of the Col de Bussang -
one end in France and the other in Germany.
But Bussang has another tunnel. In 1932 France began a monumental project to drive an 8 km railway tunnel under the Col de Bussang to link Mulhouse to Paris. They had constructed just over 4km by 1935 when the work was stopped for lack of funds and in view of the worsening political situation - a tunnel pointing at Germany might be military suicide.

After the invasion in 1940, the Germans used the unfinished tunnel as a factory for armaments and fortified the former railway portico to look like this:

Bussang railway tunnel portico as altered by
the Germans during World War 2.
When the project was abandoned in 1935, no track had been laid an no trains had run but much of the infrastructure - bridges, cuttings etc. - had been built. From this tunnel entrance the trackbed ran on an embankment and a viaduct by the town of Urbes. When the town needed a bypass the commune sold for foundation rubble the embankment leading to the viaduct, leaving it stranded in the middle of nowhere.
The Viaduc d'Urbes. The embankment which served it
 was sold to make a bypass road.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tall Ships, Tall Bridge, Tall Story

Would you think that I was spinning a yarn if I told you that yesterday we sailed down the Thames to Woolwich in a procession of Thames sailing barges in order to look at the Tall Ships moored at Greenwich?
Well, it's true. 
Tower Bridge lifting for a Thames sailing barge.
As we boarded the Lady Daphne at St Katherine Pier, Tower Bridge was raised to allow a barge to pass through. We then took our place as number two in a line of four Thames barges and set off downstream.

Coal-fired steam tugboat Portwey, built in 1927.
We were shortly passed by this magnificent steam tugboat, the Portwey, here seen blowing her siren. The sound echoed around as it bounced from the riverside buildings - easily the loudest noise in that part of London.

Crowds at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
The crowds lining the embankment outside the Royal Naval College at Greenwich welcomed us as part of the pageant which is the Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2014.

Then it was onward towards Woolwich to meet the Tall Ships as they came up the River Thames from the sea.


      Tall Ships


Having waved and shouted ourselves silly at the other ships we then carried on downstream passing through the Thames Barrier and effected an interesting pirouette movement in midstream whilst the two Woolwich ferries performed a ballet around us as they tried to reach their respective landing stages.

Nearly home. Lady Daphne approaching Tower Bridge.
Margaret smiling with relief.
And back we went to St Katherine Pier. A big thank you to our friends Michael and Elisabeth Mainelli who invited us as guests on board their Thames sailing barge, Lady Daphne, to take part in this historic procession. It was great fun.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Raffles Hotel & Stinking Herne Bay

I went for a cycle ride with MyMateJohn the other day. He needed to visit the town of Herne Bay on the north Kent coast in order to establish a route for a ride that he would be leading in a few weeks time. 

He got lost before he had left the town. 

He had the map and he still got lost. 

I was loathe to help him from my point of ignorance so I just photographed the Victorian stench pipes. 

Aren't they charming? The Victorians always seemed to over-engineer their constructions. Think of the solidity of their houses and compare them with the cardboard rabbit hutches that are built today.  And when they designed something to perform a simple function they just could not resist adding some whimsical decoration.

So what is the function of a stench pipe? It is one big safety valve for the sewer beneath your feet. When the noxious gases build up they are automatically vented through these chimneys, high above your nostrils and the upper floors of the Victorian houses in the street.

Look around you. There will be one near you. It might not be so ornate but it will be there.

These splendid examples in Herne Bay were manufactured by Walter Macfarlane & Co of Glasgow in the late nineteenth century. Macfarlane's foundry was Scotland's largest supplier of ornamental ironwork, famous for its fountains and bandstands. The stench pipes in their catalogue were rather tweely called, 'ventilation pipes'. 

Next time you take afternoon tea at Raffles Hotel in Singapore, have a look at the verandas - they were made in the same foundry as these stench pipes.