Monday, 21 September 2009

relaxed St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz was a hive of activity yesterday. The lads walking the streets mulitplied into a full band, Friday's Breton piper piped happily, a baroque choir sang in the street, antique cars drove through town and the church hummed with classical music. Unlike St Jean de Luz I took it easy, other than buying myself a large cake as a Sunday treat.

Today has seen a return of the fine weather. The beach is nice and quiet after the summer so on days like today the Luziens take full advantage, congregating on the sand to catch up on local gossip and enjoy a glass or two of wine.

I went for a lovely stroll this evening ending up at the far end of the beach. Here the Nivelle river flows out to the Atlantic. On one side is St Jean de Luz, on the other the town of Ciboure. It is a lovely wee place that has less of the pomp of its neighbour but is equally charming and resolutely Basque. It is also where Maurice Ravel was born (in the large stone house pictured that looks less Basque than the others).

Basque of the day:- quiet :: isil

Saturday, 19 September 2009

St Jean de Luz floods

It has been raining hard in St Jean de Luz. Just like everything else, when it rains here it rains to excess. Bayonne and Biarritz have reported widespread flooding and the Nivelle is looking dangerously high near the port. All this in twenty four hours. Early this morning, not at all put off by the clement weather, groups of local lads walked around town playing music to rouse better spirits (see below).

Another unique experience last night. Our choir was giving a concert at a hotel in the nearby town of Ascain. The purpose was to entertain a group from Britanny. The group responded to almost every song by playing their version of bagpipes and dancing to traditional Breton music. The entertainment took place during the course of a lengthy dinner for around 100 people. My singing was probably under par due to excess red wine but it was good fun and I felt rather privileged to be sharing this experience as an outsider.

I am not somebody who is a fan of such things but the world's longest running soap opera, Guiding Light, has come to an end. What high brow entertainment is replacing it? An extra edition of some random quiz show called Let's Make a Deal. American television is so cultured...

Basque of the day:- culture :: kultura

Friday, 18 September 2009

dancing in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz once again held its breath as my Flamenco course recommenced. I am in the equivalent of big school now, being the hardcore flamenco man that I am, but went to the beginners class today to remind myself how to move. The ever wonderful and omnipresent Fabiana sasheyed around the floor showing newcomers how to move their hips to the rythym.

A couple of friends were doing as I was and we agreed to stick together for our first day in big school. It was a blast. After an hour of full-on flamenco practice (on top of the beginners hour) Fabiana decided to shake things up and had us busting salsa grooves and latin moves.

Once again I am the only chap, why beggers belief. If the single men of St Jean de Luz could get over themselves they would find a myriad of delightful girls and ladies (of all ages). Being a happily married man I am deemed 'safe' so find myself very much in demand as a dance partner, you've got to love it!

From the sublime to the ridiculous. This evening I, and ten other chaps, are giving a concert of Basque song up in the mountains. None of this ever happened when I was working with numbers.

Basque of the day:- flirt :: pertxenta

Thursday, 17 September 2009

singing in St Jean de Luz

Clubs and associations in St Jean de Luz have started coming back to life after the summer. My choir started up again this evening. I had been ardently practicing Basque and French over the summer but was completely thrown after trying to keep up with the guys as they chatted speedily after three months apart. I know I am far from perfect on the French front but I am usually able to understand what people are saying, tonight I had no idea. The guys have all grown up knowing each other which while it gives our choir a brotherly feel also means they have their own secret language. I gave up and sat silently, utterly bemused, as tales of drunkness and beautiful girls were recounted (I think?).

Tomorrow is a busy day. I have coffee with a friend in the morning, lunch with another, Flamenco starts after lunch, coffee with another friend in the afternoon and we (the choir) are singing at a festival in the mountains tomorrow evening. People working in offices may moan about how busy their schedules are but they haven't a clue how jammed the social scene is in St Jean de Luz, they have it easy...

Basque of the day:- busy :: lanpetu

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

St Jean de Luz coffee break

St Jean de Luz has the type of cafe culture you read about in books. In the small squares at either end of Rue Gambetta there are a variety of establishments to choose from, not to mention the myriad of others in adjacent streets. All thrive with a mix of local and visiting trade. Beret wearing gentlemen sip coffee amidst heated debate over the latest sporting results. Younger business-people take a quick caffeine boost or bite to eat between rendezvous. Couples linger over lunch and gossipers gossip. Weaving between them all the uniformed waiters ply their dark arts. The cafe is not a place to rush; sit in the corner, order your preferred choice, relax, observe. I sometimes lose a day there.

Basque of the day:- cafe :: kafetegi

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

the music plays on in St Jean de Luz

The music never stops in St Jean de Luz. Just as the summer season came to an end the music festival began. Town is filled with musicians carrying their instruments to and fro with music pouring out of the various venues night and day.

Now I love music as much as the next person but there is an accordian player who has played outside my office window from 0900 till 1800 for the past week (listen below). Much as I try to imagine I am sitting in some Parisian cafe on the left bank musing over some philosophical conundrum or other the overriding question that occupies my mind is where I stored my bow and arrow? Bless him, he is very talented.

Basque of the day:- annoying :: gogaikarri

Monday, 14 September 2009

executive stress in St Jean de Luz

Another particularly difficult day in St Jean de Luz. After being rudely awakened by the sunshine flooding through my bedroom window I looked out towards the mountains in search of clouds. There were none. Taking advantage of such a day I called my good friend Michelle who I assumed would be finding today equally difficult.

Driving up the coast some six kilometres we settled at a little table next to the beach in Ilbarritz at the wonderful La Plancha restaurant. A starter of crevettes and guacamole was followed by sea bream in garlic before a large chocolate brownie with ice cream arrived at our table. Between mouthfuls and conversation we watched as intrepid surfers braved the Atlantic's swell. By the time coffee arrived we had been there three hours, certainly too late to begin any real work.

Heading in land we travelled behind La Rhune passing through a host of delightful Basque villages. The sun warmed us as the wind swept away any remnants of weekend cobwebs. We ventured on through the Spanish village of Vera de Bidasoa before arriving at the port town of Hondarribia, some ten kilometres south of St Jean de Luz. In search of a digestif we had forgotten it was Monday and finding an establishment open was an almost impossible challenge. We settled for a seat on the promenade and imagined the many battles that had been fought here since the C14th. Fishing boats glided past, brave swimmers swam the currents and an elderly gent took a shower using a tap and plastic bottle. Home, exhausted, we parted company and agreed that Tuesday is a far better day to start the working week.

Basque of the day:- tomorrow :: bihar

Friday, 11 September 2009

Willy Wonka in St Jean de Luz

Today we move outside of St Jean de Luz. Cadbury, the UK chocolate company that inspired Willy Wonka, has been under fire this week from Kraft of America (they make processed cheese and stuff) who made a hostile bid for the company.

The British do love their chocolate. Locals in St Jean de Luz are often amazed at the plethora of confectionery on offer in UK shops. Basques are also chocolate experts. They claim they were importing cocoa, making and exporting chocolate before anyone else in Europe, even the Belgians.

Cadbury is one of those rare brands that people grow up loving and not just people in the UK. Even the French have a soft (centred) spot for the company and are aghast at the American overture (I can't imagine the French government allowing this to have even reached the table were it a French company). Despite centuries of war and verbal wrangling chocolate seems to be finally bringing people together on a united front. I am sure Willy Wonka and his oompa loompas would be impressed. I also suspect that if John Cadbury had a time machine in his shop back in 1824 he would have a wry smile on his face.

It is a robust, innovative company that makes my favourite treat (Dariy Milk), may the ghosts of Bournville and Wonka's chocolate factory rise up and safeguard its heritage.

Basque of the day:- defence :: defendatze

Thursday, 10 September 2009

fishy St Jean de Luz

The fishermen of St Jean de Luz do work hard. No matter what time of day (or night) you walk past the small Basque fishing port there is always something going on; boats coming and going, others unloading their catches, bickering bartering, preparations and so forth. The town has a rich history in the fishing trade. From the C13th there are reports of whaling from the port. These intrepid adventurers sailed as far as Greenland in search of whales and seals.

It is said that when Colombus first arrived in the Americas the natives spoke a form of Basque implying he was far from the first visitor to those shores. When the Dutch and English began to commercialise fishing (whaling in particular) it is to Basque fishermen they turned for expert guidance.

The port of St Jean de Luz is still thriving and very active. Freshly caught fish is on sale daily; from squid to lobster to bream. Unfortunately most of the whales were killed off at the beginning of the last century but there is said to be a growing population that visits the Bay of Biscay annually.

Basque of the day:- fish :: arrain

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

comparisons in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz basked in wonderful sunshine today. It really was the perfect late summer's day.

Apparently, in St Jean de Luz some 70% of bread bought in shops is made on site, in the UK it is reportedly nearer 3%. Everybody seems to eat a lot of white bread in these parts but they appear considerably slimmer than people in the UK. Everybody in these parts seems to drink continuously and more than half smoke yet the average person seems to live a lot longer than in the UK (for a small town there seems to be a lot of people living beyond 100). Any thoughts why? Aliens?

Basque of the day:- question :: galde

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sunday roast in St Jean de Luz

A sweltering Sunday in St Jean de Luz, it reached 30C. Up early I went to the early 0830 church service. It wasn't as busy as the later family service, only around 500 people compared to nearer 1,000. The congregation was different too; less pomp, more relaxed and more social. Afterwards I caught up with my friends Pascale and Bruno (and their delightful children). We spent a few hours on the beach before heading to their lovely home in the foothills of La Rhune for lunch. Upon returning to St Jean de Luz the remains of the day have been spent on my terrace catching up on sunshine and reading. A very bon dimanche.

Basque of the day:- sunshine :: eguzki

Saturday, 5 September 2009

dawn in St Jean de Luz

Early morning in St Jean de Luz is a telling time. In any given town you can tell a lot about it if you get up early and see what's going on at the break of day. I try to get up and out around half seven for a run or walk each morning.
By this time the boulangerie ovens are up and baking, meats have been delivered to the butcher, fruits are being set up in the market, the flower lady is setting out her displays and the fishermen are returning to port. Other early birds are up and exercising while others set out tables at local cafes. The by now immaculate streets are empty in anticipation of commerce and visitors.
So what does this say about the Basque port? It is a town that has fresh food, exercise and sociability coarsing through its veins. It takes itself seriously as a centre of tourism and local business, but not too seriously.
Basque of the day:- dawn :: argitu

Friday, 4 September 2009

Friday lunchtime in St Jean de Luz

It being the fin de semaine I took myself out for lunch today in St Jean de Luz. I have read a lot in the international press in recent years about the decline of French cooking, that the country has lost it's culinary way, that Tokyo/New York/London are the new Paris. Possibly at the top-zillion-Michelin-star-end there are discrepencies but when it comes to straight, no-nonsense working lunch tucker there is no comparison. Well there is, but it is not favourable to the UK.
On a given Friday in London I may have taken my team for lunch, but where to eat? Three choices: top end pricey, pizza or gastropub. The top end is just silly for a quick bite to eat, pizza is rather staid and though tasty, gastropubs are hardly healthy and tended to be filled with inebriated office workers.
On this given Friday in St Jean de Luz I asked myself the same question. This time only two choices: top end pricey or straightforward. Being a Scot I am always going to opt for the latter option. I am then given 62 possibilities to choose from in terms of venue, bear in mind that St Jean de Luz is not a big town. I have six preferred eateries and selected my option 2: Txantxangorri (granted, you have to know where to eat). For the same price as two pints of beer and a vodka lemonade I had a delicious three course meal plus coffee: vegetarian couscous, roast pork with haricots verts and salad, skimmed rice pudding with ginger.
No comparison. Excellent food at an affordable price, the professional waiters are jolly and friendly so there is much banter once you get to know them and the restaurant is clean. Moreover, in France you get to eat all the best (more interesting) bits of animals that the PC Police have banned in the UK. Next week: tete de veau (check out photo!).
Basque of the day:- offal :: tripotxak

Thursday, 3 September 2009

rainy day in St Jean de Luz

Today the rains came back to St Jean de Luz. The town has been in much need of a good downpour and as I look out to the mountains we are certainly receiving one. After moving all my plants to maximum rain-catching positions I headed out for a walk.

Echoing the sky, the sea was whipping itself into a frenzy too. Some more hardy surfers were braving the weather to take advantage of the swell. The weather is set to change again by the weekend so I took advantage of the cooler, wetter weather - I am one of those few people who like the rain.

At the end of the long promenade is a small hill (hill is an exaggeration) called Sainte Barbe. It is a rocky outcrop that helps defend the beach of St Jean de Luz from the Atlantic Ocean. The 'hill' is well managed and holds many interesting plant species for those interested in that kind of thing.

There are also a myriad of sitting areas from where to enjoy vast views out to sea and up into the Pyrenees. On warmer days the benches are filled with more mature townsfolk taking a rest from their daily exercise regime. Not so today.

Basque of the day:- rain :: euri

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

school's back in St Jean de Luz

The streets of St Jean de Luz were filled with excited children this morning as they ran helter skelter on their way back to school. I never remember being that excited when the summer holidays were over. Perhaps they get cakes and treats on their first day. With the start of term town has resumed it's normal local buzz. The cafes are full of chattering chaps (who should probably be working) and the streets are filled by huddles of ladies exchanging holiday stories.

I could tell it was business as usual. Whilst out running this morning I came across many people I hadn't seen since the start of summer and greeted 'bonjour' fifteen times before I stopped counting. It was a little sad to watch the children's beach playgrounds being dismantled for another year but seeing so many familiar faces more than made up for it. Lovely. Reaching the top of Sainte Barbe I took some time to simply stare out at sea. The Basque coastline has to be one of the finest anywhere in the world.

Basque of the day:- return :: itzultze

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

musical St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz was eerily quiet today. I was also just about the only person on the beach. This is probably because it was raining, as it does every third day or so in the Basque country. It has remained warm, if humid. I had the sea to myself when I went swimming this morning, save for the fish who were also enjoying a bit of peace and quiet too.

Whilst the official season has ended there is a music festival in St Jean de Luz this week which brings in a large if somewhat more mature crowd. Every lunchtime and evening all available churches and halls echo to the sounds of classical and jazz music. A welcome chapter of more subdued entertainment after the madness that has been summer.

Basque of the day:- music :: musika