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Diary 2014

Stacked

6 January 2014

Do you remember those four big trees that were felled at the end of 2013? Our New Year's job was to buck, split and stack them. Today was a lovely warm, sunny afternoon, so it was sweaty work in a T-shirt to get the last of the logs split and transported to Chief Stacker Christine - see what a happy team can do, despite advancing years!

PS this is from 3 of the 4 trees - the other stack is in the barn…

Old and New

10 January 2014

My irrigation pump for the citerne has inlet and outlets in the well-known French Metric standard known as 1" British Standard Pipe thread. I had one of the plastic fittings blow out under pressure so I decided to change all the fittings to good old solid brass connections, with hose spigots and jubilee clips. Aye, lad, where there's muck there's brass!

However I had a weep of water from the pressure side, and even re-doing the connection with ten wraps of PTFE tape didn't fix it.

In the old days such joints used tapered threads which were wrapped with hemp and plumbers' mait and were tightened until the taper blocked. My joint didn't have a tapered thread, so obviously there was more clearance than the PTFE could handle.

Time for a bit of regressive technology.

I found a pot of Wickes Plumbers' Mait in the barn - still in good condition after over ten years. I had some hemp (non-smoking!), but figured that a combination of PTFE tape and mait should fix the problem - the tape "strings" and offers less volume than the hemp.

It worked - a nice combination of new and old!


Prosaic Post Competition

15 January 2014

Whenever Brits get together, they always end up talking about fosses septique. Here's today's contribution:

Ours is 4 years old this year, the boue was at the 3/4 level - time for its first emptying. I ordered a vidange, with a small camion to handle the narrow roads and small turning area. A couple of pleasant guys, they chatted about the miserable weather as they sucked and sprayed and cleaned out the buried whale. It took them about 25 minutes and they left it partially full of water so that it doesn't pop out of the wet ground. The feisty post lady turned up during the process and held her nose - there was a nasty niff from the camion!

The charge was €191,21, which I thought was quite reasonable for 3000 litres. I wonder what they do with 3000 litres of poo?


Plafonnement For Beginners

11 February 2014

Got caught out by another French banking quirk - the dreaded plafond (ceiling of card expenditure)!

I paid two large bills using my card, one seven days after the other. Then I went to fill the car up with fuel and the card was refused (fortunately I had a Brit card to use instead).

I must admit I didn't understand how the "plafond" worked - I thought it was a ceiling per debit. No - it's a rolling snowball which totals expenditure over a window of time - in my case 10 days - which encompassed the two large payments.

So I went into my bank and found that despite having a fair amount spare in my account, I had just €7 to spend with my card. However Christine's card still had the full amount available!

I can see the point of limiting the amount that can be drawn out per card in case of fraud - but sometimes it is most inconvenient, and embarrassing when a card is refused. And had I used a cheque there would have been no problem!

However, in typical French fashion I was charmed by the charming and efficient cashier, who gave me a month's increase in my plafond.


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Satellite Dish Sizes for Astra 2E & 2F

12 Feb 2014

I've consulted our local TV expert, Massou Frères in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. I've used them before and thoroughly recommend them.

Yesterday they wouldn't commit to a dish size, as they were waiting for reports from the installer – I was advised to submit a Déclaration de Travaux, particularly if a dish larger than 1m diameter might be needed. Since our mairie is only open on Tuesdays and Fridays I went straight there and got the forms. They come as a pack of 12 sheets of A4, but the good news is that only two sheets are applicable. There are two potentially difficult questions; the area of your terrain and the provision of a “Plan de Situation” showing your house and the surrounding area. This, however turns out to be easy, as the Cadastral site has tools for working out the area of your parcels of land and for printing out a Plan de Situation.

Today Massou had reports in from the field; Bordeaux and its latitude need a minimum 85cm dish, between that latitude and that of Agen needs a 1m dish, and further south than that needs 1.2m or larger.

So as I predicted a 1m dish should be OK for me, and the redoubtable Christophe will be round with his ladder next Tuesday.

A Déclaration is strictly not necessary for a 1m dish or smaller, but Massou advised me to submit it anyway – I'd prepared it anyway and the mairie know it's coming…

The Massou Frères devis was €90 for the dish, double LNB €38 but with labour and TVA it'll be about €220.

If you need them, the relevant sites are: Cadastral Plan – http://www.cadastre.gouv.fr/scpc/accueil.do

Déclaration préalable de travaux: https://www.formulaires.modernisation.gouv.fr/gf/cerfa_13703.do (this is a fillable pdf which saves handwriting and guarantees the latest version of the form).

Le cas échéant, pour les paraboles dont le diamètre est supérieur à 1 mètre, pour les mâts ou antennes dont l'une des dimensions à plus de 4 mètres, il appartient au demandeur d'effectuer les formalités administratives affairantes à l'installation des antennes de réception, notamment celles relatives au permis de construire, ou à la déclaration de travaux telles que prévues aux articles R 421-1, R 421-2 et R 422-3 du Code de l'Urbanisme.”


Manfrotto KLYP Case, LED Light and Lens Set for iPhone 5S - Review

19 February 2014

Manufacturer's website: http://www.manfrotto.com

I've been using the Manfrotto case system for a couple of months; here's what I think of it:

The Case:

http://www.manfrotto.com/product/8373.1073043.1073034.0.0/MCKLYP5S-B/_/Black_Bumper_for_iPhone_55S_%2B_kickstand_%2B_hand-wrist_strap

It is a plastic bumper in one of four colours, with a hard rubber edge. In one corner is a pair of holes to attach a supplied lanyard. The rubber edge is relieved at two corners and the centre of one long edge to allow the supplied kickstand and the light unit to be slid into place.

The surrounding rubber edge increases the thickness of the phone but makes it easy to grasp the phone securely. The lanyard is big enough to wrap around the wrist in case the phone is dropped and to allow the on-screen buttons to be pressed. The wrist strap of the lanyard is plastic and feels cheap and nasty, but could easily be changed for another similar lanyard. The kickstand enables the phone to be propped in landscape or portrait positions and has a thoughtful standard tripod screw mount, plus a hole so it can be carried on a key ring. The volume and sleep buttons are covered but operate easily through the bumper.

The Lens Set: http://www.manfrotto.com/product/8373.1073043.1073034.0.0/MOKLYP5S/_/Set_of_3_lenses_%28fisheye%2C_portrait_1.5X%2Cwideangle%29

It comprises three lenses, Portrait (x 1.5), Wide Angle/Landscape (x 0.68) and Fisheye (x 0.28). They screw into a tapped hole in the case which reveals the phone camera lens and the built-in flash.

I've taken some test pictures of the same scene without the supplementary lenses and with each lens, all taken under the same conditions from the same position, together with a picture using the built-in panoramic feature of the iPhone 5S. These pictures can be found at http://min.us/mW1KIjW1K7EF

The lenses came with a scrotal pouch and each lens has two lens caps; care is needed not to lose them. The resolution and absence of aberration for the lenses appears adequate. I'm not sure I'd use the fisheye lens often, but the portrait lens would be useful to avoid perspective distortion - big noses, etc. NB with the lenses in position the built-in flash is covered by the lens surround and can't be used.

The light unit: (http://www.manfrotto.com/product/8373.1073043.1073034.0.0/MLKLYP5S/_/SMT_LED_light_with_tripod_mount)

It uses three high-brightness surface-mount LEDS to produce 225 lumens of light. It is powered by a rechargeable battery which can be charged via a supplied USB adaptor. It can switched on and off and set to three light levels using just one end-button. It has a detachable ¼" tripod connector which could be used to mount the light separately from the iPhone, or can be detached and used to mount the iPhone on a tripod.

The test pictures at http://min.us/mW1KIjW1K7EF include a dark corner of my rumpus room, taken without any artificial lighting, with the built-in flash, and with the Manfrotto LED light, which is demonstrably brighter then the built-in LED. The batteries retain their charge for a long time. The unit is NOT a flash and not synchronised, but is a bright torch; some subjects might be dazzled by the continuous light.

Conclusions: The bumper with its kickstand and lanyard are well-designed and well-made and worth the €29.90 I paid for it. The set of three lenses is expensive at €69.90, but they do what it says on the tin and if you have an application for such modifications to the basic iPhone lens, go for it. Personally I'd buy just the Portrait lens.

The LED torch is also beautifully thought-out and well-designed both mechanically and electrically. It would best be used for photographing inanimate objects, or as a video light. It gives lots of light from a tiny package - but is also expensive at €69.90. On the whole I'm glad I've got the bumper & lanyard fitted to protect the iPhone, and the supplementary lenses and torch are a welcome addition to the gadget bag.

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Mènage à Deux Tronçonneuses

20 February 2014

I've long wanted a small chainsaw for small work such as limbing felled trees. My 47cc Stihl is a marvellous tool for felling cuts, but wielding it to cut off the branches and small stuff is very tiring.

Our local Mr Bricolage were selling a small 30cc 35cm Stihl chainsaw for €199, which is a good price for a quality product, and I got tempted. It's so much lighter than the big one.

So now we're a 2-chainsaw family!

UKTV

19 February 2014

If one of us expatriates fires up BBC iPlayer, Demand Five, ITV Home or whatever, the servers belonging to these TV ON Demand services look at our IPs and recognise that we are either filthy foreigners or chicken-hearted deserters from flood-hit Britain and don't deserve to see re-timed programmes - unless we perjure ourselves by subscribing to a virtual private network that enables us to pretend that we are after all in good old Blighty, munching on cow heel pie as we slosh through the sewage-saturated floodwaters in our designer wellies.

Now if we are content to watch TV in more-or-less real time, albeit an hour later so we are likely to fall asleep well before the end of it, we can fire up services such as FilmOn which will display fuzzy, jerky pictures on our computers provided that the bits of wet string joining us to the telephone exchange haven't dried out too much.

But television sets come in three sorts: MoronicTV, StupidTV and SmartTV. If you have the latter, then you can connect to your router (that's router with a "roo" as in "kangaroo", not "row" as in dispute, which is a woodworking machine, unless you're a Murrican). Your connection might be via a fat LAN cable draped over the picture rail, a wi-fi dongle or even built-in wi-fi, which is good as who wants their dongle to dangle when the neighbours call round?

On the other hand, if you have a StupidTV with an HDMI connection then you can get a box which connects to your router via LAN or wi-fi and connects to your TV via HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) and displays TV programmes which are streamed over the wet string. The stream, of course contributes to keeping the string damp and conductive. Boxes of this kind include Apple TV for the cognoscenti, or things like Roku for the proles. That's roku not raku as in Japanese ceramics…

And if you're me, then you have MoronicTV. This is usually equipped with a cathode-ray tube; mine is a Sony Wide-Screen luxury item which was the bees knees in 1996 and has given sterling service during the subsequent 18 years. It still has a luvly tone and a great picture! This is fitted with SCART connectors only - as you know this stands for Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Télévisions, was invented by the French and is also known as Peritel, Euroscart, Euroconnector, EuroAV or, in the US, as EIA Multiport. As you may have deduced, this is not compatible with boxes such as Apple TV (sob!).

So at Tessel Bas I'm stuck with a big unsightly dish thing; but this has the advantage that I can play with a computer and an ADSL line which are not contaminated or overloaded with Eastenders, Radio 4 or Downton Abbey - and write ridiculous garbage like this instead of flopping, dropping, slumping and gaping open-mouthed at the marvels of the Big Brother Company (BBC)…

Dish Drought Hits Aquitaine

20 February 2014

Our Lot-et-Garonne correspondent reports that following the second failure to deliver a large parabolic antenna to a resident of Ste Colombe, angry mobs of EastEnders-deprived housewives have been marching through Villeneuve-sur-Lot demanding their televisual rights. Seething mobs of furious women have been looting the local quincailleries in search of large saucepan lids as replacements, amid chants of "Down with Downton Destroyers" and "Gimme Strickly Quickly".

A breakaway group of activists describing themselves as the Corrie Liberation Front are known to have raided the Musée de l"Espace in Toulouse, seized an Ariane V and are asking Sandra Bullock to pilot it to Astra 2E, where they plan to direct the satellite at an epicentre just south of Villeneuve sur Lot. Here a small fermette called Tessel Bas will be converted into the "Hullo Kitty Chick-Media Universe" where flood refugees from the UK with underwater dish problems can receive "Call The Midwife", "The Voice" and listen to "Womans Hour".

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Ian's 75th Birthday - in Lanzarote

3 April 2014

If you have a Facebook log-in identity there's a version with in-text pictures at https://www.facebook.com/notes/ian-gillis/ians-75th-birthday-in-lanzarote/10152085994783920

If not, you can see a collection of pictures on Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ooqzzdrno2nmdd1/sLMiyTqHGg - AFAIK you don't need a Dropbox identity.

No-one uses travel agents any more, do they? It's just not cool. Why sit in a shop trying to explain to a French "Sharon" or "Tracey" that we're retired and we don't have fixed dates for our holidays?

Well we DO use an agency when appropriate - Fitour in Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

Why? Because we've had excellent individual and tailored service from that agency, in particular rescue from potential pre-holiday disasters. A cruise to South America was saved in the face of an Air France pilot's strike which could have prevented us reaching the cruise liner, and, for our recent trip to Lanzarote, we got a timely warning from the agent of the closure of the A621 feeder road to Toulouse-Blagnac - while a prefabricated tramway bridge was pushed across the autoroute during the weekend of our departure!

So we left in the small hours to catch the early-morning flight of a Teutonic Germanair A319 charter flight to Lanzarote, and a carefully pre-programmed diversion on the GPS got us there in good time with no hassle. After a short flight the aircraft actually landed at Fuerteventura, dropped off a few passengers and picked up a few more on their way home. Then a very short hop put us down at Arrecife airport in Lanzarote.

I was aware of the volcanic nature of the island and expected the usual black sand on the beach, like in Crete after Santorini blew its top. But I wasn't prepared for the vast areas of jet black volcanic tuff in mounds and shards, with no vegetation, looking as if they were deposited last week rather than during the last eruptions in the early 1700s. As an area to live it made Mars look attractive and the Moon a relative paradise. Nevertheless the island has a population of 140,000 souls, of which 75% are Spanish, living in little boxy houses painted an ubiquitous brilliant white, in stark contrast to the black lava.

The hôtel Rubicón Palace was large, with attractive architecture, several pools, rooms in small buildings over a wide area and the food was of a good standard. We'd opted for the "Privilege" option which was all-inclusive - including booze - and which gave us access to the best restaurant and a quiet and private lounge bar. The clientele appeared to be mainly British and German and were almost universally grossly overweight and burnt a deep brown from being deep-fried in Ambre Solaire around the pool, and French who were younger and more active and very much in to the organised "animations" organised by a resident FRAM team.

We didn't seem to fit in to either of these groups - but we found a pleasant coastal path between the hôtel and Playa Blanca - which unsurprisingly had a whitish beach and was about 4km long, which gave us some exercise to work off the three big meals per day and gave us something to do - inevitably a beer in a café was needed before our return. As a slight variation there was a walk to a lighthouse to the West of the hôtel which we did on a day where a little rain fell and it was largely cloudy. Ironically our week coincided with unseasonably warm weather at home in France; on Lanzarote the temperatures were generally mild but the ever-present wind could be chilly. Few people braved the swimming pools or the sea, and we managed to return home with our swimming costumes never getting wet!

Undoubtedly the highlight of the trip was a tour of the island with a "Volcano" theme - this took in the Timanfaya National Park with its mind-blowing landscapes, the Charco de Los Chocos crater which has been opened up to the sea on one side and features an emerald green lagoon, and the Jameos del Agua complex where the long, wide tunnel formed by a volcanic fumarole has been adapted as a concert theatre. The latter has an underground lake of outstanding clarity containing unique blind, albino crabs. So our stay was relaxing, not too fattening in view of all the walking we did, and the volcanic geology was interesting. I'm glad we went, but I don't think we'll go there again…

Black Magic

10 April 2014

For the past couple of days our pussycat Magic has had sessions of yowling in pain and her back legs collapsing under her - her breathing was shallow and rapid. Last night she spent the night on our bed and she slept peacefully apart from one yowling session.

We should have gone to a financial seminar this morning but I cancelled it and took Magic to the vet. He said that she was very dehydrated with very little muscle mass and she had renal failure and her organs were shutting down.

It was unlikely that he could do anything for her so we jointly decided that she should suffer no more. She had an injection to put her to sleep, followed by one to stop her little heart, and she was off to Rainbow Bridge.

I've never had to do that before - all my other cats were either lost or killed - and it isn't easy. I console myself that we had such a lovely and loving cat for most of her eighteen years.

I didn't like the idea of another sad little grave, so I've had her cremated.

Donkey Shot

23 June 2014

After eleven years in France I can usually get by in conversations with non-anglophone French people. But sometimes I get stumped.

I was discussing our tour of Spain with my doctor, and as I was leaving he asked me if I came across Donkey Shot out there.

Now I'm aware of the computer game Donkey Kong - but Donkey Shot?

Then it dawned on me - "Donkey Shot" is the French pronunciation of "Don Quixote"!

love,

Sancho Panza

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New Babies at Tessel Bas!

24 June 2014

Two little ginger babies have arrived at Tessel Bas, courtesy of Phoenix Rescue. Presenting (L) Roux, was Indy, male and ® Saffron, female. They've kept us in fits of laughter all afternoon – however Gaby is somewhat disapproving…

http://i1.minus.com/iFdrUkqcUzZzM.jpg

The Spanish Inquisition!

15 July 2014

(NB If you have a Facebook account there's a public formatted view of this with a few photos at https://www.facebook.com/notes/ian-gillis/our-tour-of-spain-and-andalucía/10152295736743920 - additionally there are more photos and video in a short (6minute) video at www.dailymotion.com/video/x21gxay).

We very nearly didn't go; what about all the horror stories about pickpockets, bag snatchers and the bandidos on the autopistas? What about the aggro of organising routes, hotels, meals, now we've got soft after several "Cook's Tours"? But we did go, and we had a super time, with no baddies, in fact at no time did we feel even slightly threatened. And the organising was fun! So here are the Impressions, The Places and The Details for those who might wish to do the same…

THE IMPRESSIONS

We've been to mainland Spain before; Northern Spain; Navarra, Aragon, Cataluña, once with a caravan in summer, once touring in March. Neither trip was exactly a roaring success; our lasting impression was of a cool, unfriendly populace. But we suspected that we had been unlucky; after all the Balearics and the Canaries aren't like that and we didn't want to write off a whole country and its magnificent history. So we thought we'd give southern Spain and Andalucía a chance.

Our first impression, once the peaks of the Pyrénées have receded, is the multitude of wonderful 360° panoramic vistas that you get in Spain. In our beloved Lot-et-Garonne the horizon is the French oak at the side of the road, or the hill just opposite. In Spain it's the sierra shimmering in a far-distant haze of blue and terracotta.

The driving is generally courteous; people don't usually tailgate and don't treat the speed limits as minima not maxima. Unlike France, cars stop at pedestrian crossings even if they could squeeze by without actually crushing the pedestrian.

Almost everyone in Andalucía, not just those in the tourist industry, was polite, friendly and helpful.

The food was interesting and varied.

And, to get down to fundamentals, the toilets were ubiquitously clean!

THE PLACES

Zaragoza

It's over 500km to Zaragoza from Tessel Bas, a route consisting mainly of autoroute and autovia, but with a picturesque section from Pau which winds its way through the Pyrénées before bursting through the Somport Tunnel into Spain. The black plastic bags taped across the tunnel signs on the A65 were disconcerting; it transpired that the tunnel was closed, but only to heavy lorries.

The tunnel is 8.6 km long, clean, well lit and, when we passed through, virtually empty.

The foothills of the Pyrénées through Jaca to Huesca make scenic motoring: much of the road has now been upgraded to autovia standards, in contrast to the continuingly primitive state of the road on the French side from Pau to the Tunnel.

After Huesca there is a flat but elevated plain as far as Zaragoza. Just north of the city we stopped overnight at the Hotel Norte, a modern hotel, near the autovia but quiet. There is a lively bar/cafeteria which served us dinner and a well-deserved glass or so of vino tinto. The food was copious but somewhat stodgy.

We've been to Zaragoza before (and know to pronounce it "Tharagotha" with a Catalan lisp); it has an impressive cathedral, but this time we gave it a miss and pressed on to Madrid.

Madrid

From Zaragoza to Madrid was a relaxed 315 km on the A2; largely flat but with some scenic sierras and the road was often at an altitude of more than 1000 m, with the temperature dropping to +5°C on occasions. We had a somewhat desultory look at Guadalajara. I turned off the autovia, drove through it but couldn't find anywhere to park, maybe next trip!

I was somewhat nervous about entering Madrid, but it was straightforward and Sharon, the voice on the iPhone GPS, got us safely to our hotel, the Ibis Madrid Valentin Beato. Ibis are the "Ryanair" of hotel chains, but this one was well-located and had a particularly comfortable bed but in a small room. It also had a large, secure underground car park, which was reassuring.

At the end of the road was a very convenient Metro station, "Suanzes", on Metro Line 5, which leads to the city centre.

We had an excellent dinner in, of all things, an Italian restaurant which happened to be near our hotel.

Next day, encouraged by our newly-acquired knowledge of Madrid's Transport System, we aimed ourselves at the Museo Nacional del Prado; a day's worth of wonderful art, masterpieces by El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Titian, Tiepolo, Hieronymous Bosch, Rubens, Rembrandt; absolute bliss!

Footsore from such a massive exposition, we came across an open-topped tourist bus which gave us a good perspective on the rest of Madrid without any further use of the aching feet. That evening we tried in vain to find another restaurant near the hotel, so ended up in the Italian again!

Granada

Madrid to Granada is 426 km, mostly on autovias. The road is mainly on the plain, along with the rain; there might have been the odd spot or two and the weather was fairly cool when we set out, but as we breasted the sierras around Jaén the sun shone brightly, the sky turned blue, and so it was to stay for the rest of the holiday.

Our hotel was the Juan Miguel. I'd been sent instructions by the hotel on how to get their garage which was accessed from a narrow cobbled street at the rear of the hotel. We found it with no problem, but some of the turns in the ramp down to the park were designed for little Séats, not Audi A6s, but after a lot of shuffling and wheel-turning and beeping of the parking radar I managed to install the car in its secure spot.

It's essential to buy Alhambra tickets on line. Our tickets were for the following day, so in the meantime we joined a free walking tour of Granada led by an Anglophone guide, who gave us a good introduction to the city and its culture for the price of the tips he collected at the end. Granada is a pleasant and compact city overlooked by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, most places are within walking distance; apart from the Alhambra the only"must-see" is the Cathedral, inside it is a bright and airy structure of white stone and gold leaf. The Alhambra is situated on a hill of the same name; it's not far from the city centre but up a long and stiff slope; we took a taxi from the hotel to give us a fresh start for our visit. There are essentially three areas; the Generalife, the Alahambra (with the Nasrid Palaces) and the Alcazaba.

The Generalife (from the Arabic jennat al-arif = "garden of the architect" and pronounced "henner a leaf-ay") is a summer palace blessed with beautiful gardens and beautiful views and is a good start to the visit.

The Alhambra is the epitome of Islamic art; the delicate tracery of carved wood, the lace-like plaster reliefs and the complex geometric patterns defy my powers of description. I bought a fascinating book of Islamic patterns produced by the British Museum in the tourist shop, it shows the complex way in which they are developed.

The Alcazaba is a ninth-century military fortress at one end of the complex, incorporating a large watchtower with wonderful views of Granada.

Córdoba

Granada to Córdoba on the N-432 through Alcala la Real is an easy 163 km; I managed to extricate the A6 from its garage and prepared for the next hotel which I knew also had difficult access via narrow streets in the Jewish quarter of Córdoba. As these streets got narrower I noticed that I was being tailed by another French car; I finally had to stop outside the closed gates of the hotel garage and it transpired that my tail was also going to the same hotel! Unfortunately we also had a local delivery van behind the other car who was not pleased while we found someone to open the gates and start backing and shuffling to squeeze the cars into yet another tight spot. However the Hospedaria del Atlanta was well worth it; a charming, flower-bedecked boutique hotel with a warm and friendly atmosphere and an excellent waiter-served breakfast. That night we dined in El Churrasco; a little pricy, but wonderful food!

We spent most of the next day on the Mosque/Cathedral. The mosque is an enormous construction which took two centuries to complete; it has 850 columns supporting double candy-striped arches which add light and space. Built in the centre is a massive Christian cathedral which adds an incongruous counterpoint to the Moslem building. Definitely a "must see"!

Seville

Only 136 km of autovia from Córdoba to Seville; our Hotel San Pablo was in a business district some distance out of the centre, but was easy to find and it had a large, easily-accessed underground car park. Our room was a suite of two rooms plus bathroom and had lots of storage space; however the hotel had a run-down feel to it and it was badly-maintained at the detail level.

To get to central Seville we caught a #27 bus at the end of the road, which linked up with the T1 tramway to take us to the centre of Seville, taking some 40 minutes for the sum of €2.80 pp.

There was about a half-hour queue to get into the Cathedral, which really is impressive in size; it also has Christopher Columbus's tomb. The 93-metre Giralda tower is climbed via a series of ramps spiralling around the inside of the tower, there are 34 of them, but the view of Seville from the top is worth it.

After lunch we visited the Alcázar, a Mudéjar fantasy in filigree (Mudéjar refers here to the Islamic style of architecture which carried on after the Christian reconquest of Spain.

Arcos de la Frontera

By now we were suffering from Cathedral Fatigue and longed for a small place with countryside around it. Arcos de la Frontera was only 90 km down the autopista (see The Details: Driving in Spain for the difference between autopista and autovia). The town featured in an article I had read about the best white hilltop villages in Andalucia; it sits like cream on half a Christmas pudding, with a steep cliff on one side that must have made it a marvellous defensive position. The "de la Frontera" in the name is a relic of the time when the town was perched precariously not only on the cliff but also on the border between Christianity and Islam.

Our Hotel Los Olivos is the realisation of my personal dream of what the ideal Spanish hotel should be. Friendly staff, a beautiful building, comfortable rooms, flower-bedecked courtyard and sun terraces, perched on the edge of the cliff top; I could find no fault with it. The Audi was tucked up securely in an adjacent locked private car park and the hotel was on the edge of the village so it wasn't necessary to brave the tiny cobbled streets.

We spent three nights here to unwind: one day we went down to the El Palmar beach; I took my cossie but didn't have a towel, so I just had a paddle. It was a pleasant day out but it made me think how boring a beach holiday would be… The nicest restaurant was the Taberna Jovenes Flamenco; it was friendly, with good food and a pretty waitress.

Baeza

Thinking of the optimum route home, our next stop was Baeza, pronounced Bi-etha, some 360 km to the East via the A384, A92 to Granada and the A44 and A316 to Baeza. The A316 was being extended from before Baeza to Ubeda for no immediately-apparent reason; it would appear that this is the start of an upgrade of the road from Jaén to Albacete and hence Valencia on the Eastern coast.

Our stay at the Hotel-Restaurante La Loma was intended to be just an overnight stop, but it proved to be delightful. The hotel is just outside the town, surrounded by olive fields, and is the local pub, filled with locals at breakfast and lunchtime. We sat in the bar, had a beer and were served with free tapas so substantial that we didn't eat that evening! The hotel is run by an elderly lady who speaks not a jot of English, but she smiled a lot and we got by on my primitive Spanish.

We walked into Baeza, climbed up the cathedral tower and walked around the older plazas in the town that had some lovely 16th Century and Renaissance architecture in honey-coloured stone. Our breakfast was toast, beautiful extra-virgin olive oil made in Baeza and puréed tomato; delicious and totally appropriate. And the bill for our stay was just €44…

Toledo

Toledo is an easy 270 km drive from Baeza via the A4 and A42. Our hotel the Hospederia de los Reyes was easily-accessed and just outside the city walls in a quiet area with resident's paid-for parking. It was a friendly little boutique hotel with very helpful staff and the smallest shower I have ever encountered; if you managed to get into it you daren't drop the soap as bending to retrieve it would have been impossible.

The town is a natural fortress with high ground surrounded by an oxbow of the river Tajo which protects all but its northern flank. Since I knew it was famous for Toledo steel I thought there may be satanic mills; no, just a wonderful complex of Muslim, Christian and Jewish architecture linked by narrow, cobbled streets. I did press my nose to the window of some shops selling Toledo steel swords, and even went into one only to get a lecture on the superior quality of Damascene forged blades.

It's a tiring town, we had a steep climb to get to the Puerta de Bisagra, from which there is a further climb to the Cathedral and the highest point, the Alcázar. You can reduce the climb somewhat by using the escalators (escaleras mechanicas) near the Puerto de Alfonso VI. There was little in the way of restaurants near our hotel, so we had that climb at least twice a day or we didn't eat!

We managed to see the Catedral Primada, a Gothic structure with Mudéjar, Baroque and neoclassical overtones, and the Sinagoga, after which we found ourselves hot, footsore and decidedly churched-out!

Villanúa

It's a 550 km drive to the Somport Tunnel from Toledo, so we booked a last stop just short of the tunnel at the Hotel Lacasa. It's a winter sports hotel which accepts passing trade during the rest of the year. Somewhat faded, this two-star hotel is run by a friendly old couple. We had the fixed menu dinner which was acceptable and the bed, breakfast and dinner was 90-odd euro, so not a bad deal.

Tessel Bas

Our last leg was 300km to Tessel Bas via the A65, turning off the autoroute at Mont de Marsan and hence to Villeneuve via routes nationales, again quite a tiring drive.

THE CONCLUSIONS

One of my motivations for visiting Spain was that I wanted to see the Alhambra, as a fine piece of Moorish architecture. What I found was that there are countless other examples of Christian, Muslim and Jewish architecture and artefacts and that the confluence of these religions has moulded Spain in a way that has a relevant resonance today; in many cases the religions coexisted peacefully for long periods and the skills of one were adopted by the other so that this melting pot has produced a fascinating country with its culture echoing with the strains of its rich and glorious past.

If asked to name my favourite city, I would find it hard to decide between Córdoba and Toledo; both are beautiful cities with strong multicultural themes. And Arcos de la Frontera deserves special mention as the best picture-postcard village, with Baeza a runner-up for its unspoiled rurality.

We had no problems with car-jackers, muggers, pickpockets, petty thieves and the like. This doesn't mean that they don't exist, but we took steps to avoid trouble which appeared to be successful. And finally, as mentioned before, the country really is big and beautiful, the driving is courteous, the people are friendly, and the toilets are clean! We only scratched the surface; so we'll be back!

THE DETAILS

Driving in Spain

One of the first steps in my learning curve was autopista vs. autovia; I knew that Italian for motorway was autostrada and thought that the Spanish was autopista, so what were all these autovias I was using? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highways_in_Spain explains the difference in somewhat convoluted Spanish logic. It seems that toll roads are always autopistas but not all autopistas are toll roads, and autovia traffic may include bicycles and maybe even donkeys with their ears poking out of sombreros. I only used one autopista in over 3000 km, the Ap-4 (note the "p" for "pista"!) between Seville and Cadiz; the toll was €7.50. My journeys would have cost me a fortune in France.

The "via de servicio", parallel roads with service stations, cafés, restaurants and shops, seemed to me a good idea as they gave the community through which the road passed a source of income to compensate for the noise and pollution. A "zona de servicio" is usually a service station, café, etc., in one spot.  But I did like calling in a proper "aire de service" on the A65 on our return to France, instead of the dusty, ramshackle collection of outlets you get in Spain.

We covered about 3,300 km at an average diesel consumption rate of 7.2 litres/100 km (40 mpg); not bad for a three-litre V6 engine and Quattro drive!

Navigation

I decided to supplement the Audi in-car GPS with the iPhone running the CoPilot app. since I haven't updated the (very expensive) map DVD and the car doesn't know about the A65 Langon/Pau, which isn't a good start. This was an inspired decision; there are so many new autovias/autopistas that the Audi GPS spent most of its time flying across apparently empty fields with "off road" on the road name. I would regard an up-to-date GPS as a prerequisite for touring in Spain, supplemented by an up-to-date paper map. Those who know me will not be surprised to hear that I also had an updated Tom-Tom in the boot, just in case!

The old Audi GPS is voiced by a mature lady we call "Doris", and the chosen voice on the iPhone is a younger lady with an acquired Sloane Ranger accent but with estuarial intonations that we call "Sharon". Usually I entered the destination to both Doris and Sharon but muted Doris, so there was only one set of voice instructions. I anticipated that the external GPS antenna on the car would enable Doris to perform better, but Sharon proved to quite competent in the tiny streets of the Jewish quarter in Córdoba.

The iPhone fits quite neatly on the Audi windscreen in a sucker mount, powered by a cheap phone charger plugged in to the cigar lighter socket; the display is readable even in bright sunshine and the built-in speakers are adequate.

The Copilot app is also good in pedestrian mode for finding where you are in cities like Toledo that are a maze of tiny streets.

Smartphone/Tablet

I used my iPhone for practically everything but as a phone, I made just one call to pick up an answerphone message left at home. Data roaming was very expensive, so I used hotel wi-fi, which was often a fast cable service, rather than trying to find a nano-SIM locally. Spanish hotel TV rarely has any English language service, so I watched the Monaco F1 Grand Prix by using the FilmOn app.

Booking

All of our booking was done using Booking.com which proved to be a model of efficiency (Declaration: our son Peter works for them, but he played no part in our trip). The smartphone app is excellent: I searched for hotels using "must have" filter criteria such as wi-fi, parking, three or more stars. After booking I saved the booking confirmation into photos as a JPG which could stream to other devices via the cloud, and to the Passbook app. As it happens, I never had to produce the confirmation on booking in at any hotel reception. I use Google Maps to find the hotel and Street View to look at the hotel so I'd recognise it in the flesh, and also to look for the parking garage/area.

Hotel Links

Zaragoza: Hotel Norte

www.booking.com/hotel/es/norte-villanueva-de-gallego.en-gb.html Madrid: Ibis Madrid Valentin Beato

www.booking.com/hotel/es/ibis-madrid-valentin-beato.en-gb.html Granada: Juan Miguel

www.booking.com/hotel/es/juanmiguel.en-gb.html

Córdoba: Hospederia del Atalia www.booking.com/hotel/es/hospederia-del-atalia.en-gb.html

Seville: San Pablo

www.booking.com/hotel/es/san-pablo.en-gb.html

Arcos de la Frontera: Los Olivos

www.booking.com/hotel/es/los-olivos-arcos-de-la-frontera.en-gb.html Baeza: La Loma

www.booking.com/hotel/es/restaurante-la-loma.en-gb.html

Toledo: Hospederia de los Reyes www.booking.com/hotel/es/hospederia-de-los-reyes.en-gb.html

Villanua: Lacasa

www.booking.com/hotel/es/lacasa.en-gb.html

Book Links

The Story of Spain by Mark Williams: http://www.amazon.fr/The-Story-Spain-Dramatic-Fascinating/dp/0970696930

Islamic Designs by Eva Wilson: www.amazon.fr/Islamic-Designs-Eva-Wilson/dp/0714180661

Other Links

Madrid Metro: http://www.metromadrid.es/en/viaja_en_metro/index.html Madrid Italian Restaurant: http://www.latagliatella.es/

Restaurant in Córdoba: www.elchurrasco.com

Tickets for the Alhambra: http://www.ticketmaster.es/nav/landings/en/mucho_mas/entradas_alhambra/index.html

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Coustille Adobado

10 August 2014

A "coustille" is a wicked-looking mediaeval short-sword-cum-dagger. Convenient to carry like a dagger but with the cutting power of a short sword, it is long enough to use for defence but can still be thrust under the belt when riding. A coustille is a term also applied to a cut of pork ribs, specifically the dagger-shaped rack of baby back ribs. "Adobado" is the culinary term for a spicy chilli marinade.

I discovered a pack of Coustille Adobado in my local grande surface - ready marinaded.

But how to cook it? Ribs, of course, are sacred food to Murricans; internet searches produced loads of lil'ole, red-neck, country-fried, contradictory codswallop from pompous and patronising, self-proclaimed protagonists. Cooking times of five hours or more were bandied around and 'er indoors was hungry!

The Weber website was the best guide - http://www.weber.com/weber-nation/grill-skills/mastering-ribs - but I still had to tune the recipe to fit the time available. I didn't want to dry the meat, so I wrapped the coustille in foil and grilled it over indirect heat for an hour. At the end of this time, the meat thermometer indicated that the pork was cooked, so I removed the foil and quickly coloured the meat over the hot coals. Served with a freshly-made salade Piedmontaise it was delicious - look out for it chez vous!



Trials & Tribulations of a Pussycats' Staff Member

22 August 2014

Last night the awful yowling of a pussycat being murdered rent the night air at Tessel Bas. I grabbed a torch and went to investigate. I couldn't find anything, other than a hedgehog trundling leisurely across my parkland.

So I walked along the old disused road that marks the edge of the escarpment – a plaintive mew revealed Gaby high in an old French oak. So I got the ladder and propped it against the tree – the drop to the valley floor was thankfully invisible in the darkness.

At the top of the ladder I grabbed Her Majesty like a kitten – by the scruff of the neck – but she had all of her four-paw drive well anchored into the tree and remained there doing her limpet impression. So I waited until she decided to shift her position – this time I managed to detach her and bring her safely to ground level, breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn't attempted a triple-pike dive and somersault to the dry valley floor.

What had spooked her, I don't know – dog, sanglier, another cat? I was just glad that the kittens were tucked up with mummy, watching television.

When we had Henri IV and Magic as well as Gaby, I used to take all three pussycats round the patch for an evening walk. Just recently, since Henri was tragically killed by the awful dog and Magic was PTS it was just Gaby and me. Tonight I couldn't find Gaby, but Roux seemed keen so I started off with him. He was a bit nervous about the scary bits, but tagged along nicely. At the end of the park, as we turned round by the barn, Gaby found us. She wasn't keen on sharing her quality time with daddy, but didn't complain. Then along came Safran, determined not to be left out.

Gaby ran up and down a small tree, just to show that she was the boss. Roux ran up and down the same tree, quicker and higher, just to show that he was not only male but younger than Gaby. Then Safran did her bit for female emancipation by emulating Roux.

After that we four carried on our walk together – who says you can't herd cats?

And it made me feel so happy to have such lovely furry feline friends.


The Kittens Go To The Vet

18 September 2014

Roux jumped in and out of his cat-carrier, Safran sat on top of hers, excitedly.

Little did they know - they were off to the Vétérinaire for the "unkindest cut" that day. They weren't at all keen on the "à jeun" business - no food since 19:30 the day before and no water since bedtime.

At breakfast time, that bossy-boots Gaby got fed and they could only watch through the glass door as she wolfed down her kibble and topping.

Soon they were ensconced in their cat-carriers and had a grizzling ride down to the vets, where they were left for the day.

Back at Tessel Bas it was suddenly terribly quiet without "les petits monstres", just Grumbleguts Gaby hoping that "they" had gone for ever. After lunch a phone call to the vétérinaire found that the babies had survived the scalpel and were recovering well.

I picked them up late afternoon - they were a little dopey but hungry - but they *still* weren't allowed to eat - and were kept strictly indoors!

This morning they tucked into breakfast but walked around rather gingerly (well, they would, wouldn't they!). Poor Safran has a cold, bare tummy with an exotic silver dressing over her wound; Roux is particularly proud of his newly-decorated bits.

So they left some bits of themselves with the vet, I was glad only to leave €170…

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Vin d'Honneur

20 September 2014

At Auchan the wine I wanted in their Foire des Vins was on the top shelf - and some awful people had taken those at the front, so I had to jump up and down trying to reach those at the back. In vain I looked around for assistance.

Finally I clambered *into* my trolley, which gave me those few extra centimetres required to reach my prizes.

Thankfully the trolley didn't move – had there been a slope I would have careered across the “grand surface” as a trolley-surfer, finally wiping out in the rayon épicière.

Tonight I tried a bottle – it was wonderful – go and get it in your local branch of Auchan. It's a 2010 Moulin à Vent Gamay, Domaine de la Tour du Bief and only €9.90 – it's well worth at least twice that! http://www.ventealapropriete.com/seo_fiche.asp?ref=VGI0037

Just tell them that you know someone who risked life and limb to get a bottle – and was then surrounded by copycat ivrognes - “I'll have some of whatever he's having!”


Our Mediterranean Cruise 2014

25 October 2014

Having cruised with Costa to Brazil and to the Caribbean, we thought we were "cruised out" - but a leaflet from Fitour/Triangle/Croisières de France dropped through the letterbox and tempted us with three goodies:

a) All inclusive (I'd had enough of paying €25 for a bottle of €3 plonk on Costa).

b) Pick up by coach - relax as soon as you're on the coach in your local town - and no parking worries or costs at the cruise terminal.

c) A small ship with relatively few passengers and which doesn't take a week to explore.

The coach link worked well; the pick-up was rather early in the morning in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, so we drove in, parked and got some noble friends to collect our car later. It was a comfortable coach and it was pleasant to climb in and relax instead of a long drive and the worry of finding a park at the port. The coach stopped regularly for "arrêts techniques" and breakfast - so much better than the nightmare journey on the occasion when we joined a Costa cruise in Savona via flights from Toulouse to Nice via Orly in the middle of yet another Air France pilots' strike…

At the port we had a pleasant surprise when we found that our booking for a cabin with a balcony brought with it a "privileged" service that included fast-track check-in and boarding - the grins spread across our faces before we'd even touched any "free" booze!

On board we found that the service was superb. The "francophone" service for the 1,400 - odd passengers was provided by well over 600 staff, comprising just 1 French person and supported by 2 Albanians, 1 German, 1 Argentinian, 2 Austrians, 102 Brazilians, 1 Bulgarian, 1 Canadian, 7 Chileans, 11 Columbians, 1 Ivorian (Ivory Coast), 5 Croatians, 1 Cuban, 10 Dominican Republicans, 2 El Salvadorians, 5 Greeks, 15 Guatemalans, 1 Haitian, 33 Hondurans, 66 Indians, 83 Indonesians, 2 Israelis, 2 Italians, 71 Mauritians, 1 Mexican, 3 Montenegrins, 8 Moroccans, 1 New-Zealander, 1 Nicaraguan, 4 Panamanians, 6 Peruvians, 100 Philippinos, 7 Portuguese, 18 Rumanians, 8 Spanish, 1 Swede, 1 Swiss, 32 Tunisians, 6 Ukrainians and 1 Venezuelan. Their French was variable - but all we encountered spoke English!

The food was top class - buffet service available for all meals and the option of the restaurant for breakfast or dinner. The breakfast included eggs, sausages, bacon, as well as the makings of a continental breakfast for the French. The dinner menus included at least two Gault-Millau-designed dishes, superbly prepared and served.

After each dinner there was a live show of a creditable standard in the theatre.

We thought our cruise included Tunis, but there was a last-minute change which, for "security reasons", substituted Naples - which, once aboard, magically became Ajaccio instead…

So, embarking at Marseilles, we were destined for Ajaccio, Valletta (Malta), Palermo (Sicily), Civitavecchia (Rome) and La Spezia, before returning to Marseilles.

Rather than being shepherded on organised tours we resolved to visit the ports of call on foot - a policy which proved very successful. Here are our impressions of our forays ashore:

Day 2: Ajaccio

We were familiar with this port from our motor tour of Corsica in 2010, so we browsed around the market stalls selling lonzu and coppa in the Place Foch, and visited the nicely-kept museum at the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Day 3: At Sea

A long run to Malta enabled us to get to know the ship and its layout - restaurants, pools and especially the bars…

Day 4: Valletta, Malta

Valletta's deepwater port was magnificent in the early-morning sunrise. We walked down Merchants' Street, toured St John's Co-Cathedral and continued as far as the fort, then returned via Strait Street.

St. John's was the conventual (in the sense of "convent") church of the Hospitallers (the Knights of Saint John). Over time it grew to equal prominence with the archbishop's cathedral at Mdina. The description "Co-Cathedral", refers to a later, dual role; in the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta, whose seat was at Mdina, was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see, hence the name "Co-Cathedral".

We were taken by the incongruity of the red, British-style pillar boxes and telephone kiosks. I had visited Malta before, some 55 years ago, flying with my University Air Squadron in an old RAF Anson via Orange in France. In those days Strait Street was known as "The Gut" and was full of girls and American sailors…

Day 5: Palermo, Sicily

We took an open tourist bus for a general view of Palermo, then walked to the Teatro Massimo opera house for a guided tour. We were not impressed with Palermo; I'm sure that the rest of Sicily may well be charming, but Palermo was grubby and neglected with many abandoned shops and an aura of neglect - no doubt as a result of the economic crisis.

Day 6: Civitaveccia, "The Port of Rome"

We weren't looking forward to Civitaveccia - it's 77km from Rome and all the excursions make a hurried drive and dash around Rome; we know Rome from a previous holiday so we elected to stay at the port. I expected an industrial town built around shipbuilding and transport; in fact it turned out to be quite a charming town with neat and tidy buildings and a new and refurbished Piazzale degli Eventi around the mediaeval Forte Michelangelo. We had a good walk round, and a beer - on the way back to the ship we found that the free bus wasn't running while the gardens around the fort were opened by civic dignitaries, so we had a bracing 3km walk along the jetty.

Day 7: La Spezia

We'd booked our only excursion at this port; a trip around the Cinque Terre - five picture-postcard villages which tumble higgledy-piggledy down the cliffs near La Spezia, named Monterosso, Vernazza, Coniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.. Normally the excursion links the villages by boat; unfortunately there was an on-shore wind and a bit of a swell, so the trip was transferred to coach and train. With other cruise ships in harbour, the train that makes a spectacular journey through multiple tunnels to link the five villages was packed to the gills; each stop meant another fight to get aboard which made a commute to London seem like a walk in the park…

What's more the villages, aside from being also overcrowded, were somewhat tatty on close inspection, partly from some devastating floods and mud slides in 2011: http://goo.gl/EMlvEc

Day 8: Return to Tessel Bas

There were thunderstorms in the hills over Marseilles as we docked, but the weather was sunny and warm for our return to Villeneuve, where our friends returned our little car and we were soon tucked up at Tessel Bas.

The Conclusion

The local pick-up by coach was comfortable and prompt, but took a fair time to get there. The external balcony gave us a good view of the surroundings and a quiet retreat for reading away from the madd(en)ing crowd. Croisières de France couldn't be faulted for service and for food. The "tout inclus" for booze was nice, but we didn't go mad and ruin our livers - but the latest communiqué from CDF says that they'll be offering the "tout inclus" service as a paid option. I can see that this may enable them to offer lower brochure prices and it avoids the teetotallers subsidising the boozers - but whether it is a good buy depends on the prices. But, in general, yes, for a different route, we'd cruise with them again!

On a personal note, I was amazed to find that I'd put on less than a kilo in weight - no doubt due to the extensive walking we did!

Oh, and our favourite stop? Malta, without a doubt!

There are more of my photos at http://goo.gl/Ryzpx3, and my video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/mWF2R4QGlWI or the French site DailyMotion at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x28kkro .

For anyone interested, there's a CdF video describing life aboard the Horizon, sister ship to the Zenith, at http://goo.gl/aOZOay and the restaurants and food feature in http://goo.gl/orFc6q .

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Poitiers LGV Weekend

(NB: Photographs and video sequences can be found at http://goo.gl/Nvk3Nj)

A civil engineering disaster? Not quite – but I wonder if the architect of the Novotel Futuroscope ever used the toilet in one of his rooms? A tiny, trapezium floor-plan combined with an inward-opening door and a large, bulbous, wall-mounted loo-roll holder made ingress highly difficult, shutting the door almost impossible and egress a real challenge. I wondered whether to stand on the seat, but finally developed a straddle-loo posture that achieved a reasonable degree of freedom. The separate bathroom even had both a shower AND a bath – all the walls were moulded fibreglass which must have been an exciting glimpse of the brave new world in 1987 when Futuroscope first opened.

When does an architect become an engineer or vice-versa? We electricals have Systems Engineers (I was one!) and the softies have System Architects – but at what stage does Norman Foster the architect drop his bridge drawings into the lap of Michel Virlogeux the engineer? And I wonder if the wonderful Millau Bridge has some secret, inaccessible toilets designed for double-jointed humans hidden away somewhere?

But I was glad that I managed to escape from the toilet, otherwise I would have missed Friday's presentation of some very impressive civil engineering…

The LGV SEA (Ligne de Grande Vitesse Sud Europe Atlantique) from Tours to Bordeaux is being built to take Trains de Grande Vitesse (TGV) at speeds of some 320 km/h – leading to a Paris–Bordeaux journey time of an incredible two hours and ten minutes. The new line will be continuous from Paris to Bordeaux with fewer and optional stops via branch lines only at Tours, Poitiers and Angoulême. The project will relieve the existing lines of traffic and allow increased use of the freight and TER (Transport Express Régional) trains.

The civil engineering is of a massive scale to ensure the safety of passengers as the trains speed past floating on a raft of sleepers and a sea of ballast. The viaducts that we saw had a certain minimalist appeal – but I couldn't help but pity the locals subjected to the sudden noise and pressure wave as each TGV flashes past. Fortunately we discovered that, in comparison to the UK, the enhanced executive powers of the State in France are tempered by discretionary compensatory measures.

For some reason I couldn't help but think of the contrast between the Staffordshire/Worcestershire canal – built some 240 years ago – and the TGV lines. Both are immense transport-orientated undertakings, but the former was built by labourers with pick, shovel and wicker basket, and the latter is being built by diesel-powered leviathans with house-sized shovels.

As a change from trains, we also saw the newly-constructed "Léon Blum" road viaduct in central Poitiers. The bridge was completed in February this year after a five-year gestation period. It replaces a footbridge on the same spot and provides a crossing, over the "Léon Blum" LGV station and the river, for the Poitiers Rapid Transit bus. My school history lessons didn't tell me that Léon Blum (1972 – 1950), after whom the bridge was named, was a centre-left Jewish politician and was France's prime minister for three periods between 1936 and 1938.

I liked the bridge – its asymmetrical welded-tube construction appeared almost organic and was particularly appealing from below, an aspect that is rarely pleasant if a box-girder construction is used.

Saturday morning was devoted to competitive presentations from four young and keen graduates – it was won by Nicholas, a clever young man who had single-handedly translated an architect's flight of fancy for a sinuous building access ramp, into building drawings and methods by cobbling together the output from three, separate CAD programs. And he was naively and charmingly surprised that his direction not only would not tell him how to do it, but could not tell him how to do it!

At last we were let out to play at Futuroscope! For those who haven't been, it's a theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic and audio-visual techniques. It has several 3D cinemas and a few 4D cinemas along with other attractions and shows, some of which are the only examples in the world. The "4D" refers to the extra dimensions of puffs of air, sprays of water, spiders' pseudo-webs and the like. All the audiovisual presentations were good – but I felt that the park – indeed the whole area – had the somewhat "passé" atmosphere of an idea conceived some thirty years ago when the future seemed bright. Now some areas needed a good clean-up and a lick of paint!

For me the best part was the laser/pyrotechnic show that we watched after an excellent dinner in the Le Cristal restaurant – lasers, fireworks and water jets were gracefully choreographed to music from a powerful sound system, with super-lifesize cartoon characters and dancers projected in 3D over the lake.

Sunday morning featured a tour of the old centre of Poitiers and its cathedrals, followed by lunch. We saw the intrepid Charles and Ruth off on their tandem, then, after sessions of Egyptian PT in the afternoon, a residual few gathered in the Novotel for a pleasant and relaxed dinner.

I can only end with our thanks to William and Jocelyn and also Derek of the ICE for their effort and dedication in yet another impeccably-organised event. The retiring ICE President, Geoff French told us in his address that ICE also stood for "Integrity, Communication and Engagement" - there were lashings of each at Poitiers that weekend!

Reminder: Further photographs and video sequences can be found at http://goo.gl/Nvk3Nj

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