Sunday, 21 February 2010

rugby in St Jean de Luz

Rugby is the most popular sport in St Jean de Luz. Rather than kicking a football, youngsters on the beach play touch rugby. I can name several famous rugby teams from the Basque region (Biarritz, Bayonne, Pau, Dax) but I can't think of one football team. I guess the nearest big team is Bordeaux. Anyway, it is refreshing that the oval rather than round ball dominates.

St Jean de Luz Olympique are mid-table of Pool 5 in the Federale 1 (a number of pools comprise the third division of French rugby). I have been to watch them a few times and given the sun was shining opted to take some fresh air. Today the match was against Mauleon who lie two places below SJLO. Although the sun was shining the wind was howling which made for interesting conditions.

The first half was uneventful, ending 6-6. There were a couple of heated exchanges and SJLO admirably weathered ten minutes down a man after their scrum-half was sin-binned. The second half started more dramatically and SJLO ran in two unanswered tries which they duly converted. Both tries came from quick thinking back play and the visitors quickly became frustrated. Together with a scrum that destroyed the opposition SJLO were never troubled by a lacklustre Mauleon. Mauleon may have edged the punch-ups but it only gave SJLO penalties which they duly scored. SJLO won convincingly 26-6.

What was interesting was the crowd. Given this is Pool 5 of the 3rd division I am always pleasantly surprised that so many people come along and support their team. I am guessing there were over a thousand today. That's more than most of the Premier Division teams in Scotland could dream off, and the tickets are cheaper and beer more readily available. If you find yourself at a loose end on a Sunday in the Basque Country do try and take in a match. It's no suprise the national team is so strong.

Basque of the day:- rugby :: rugby

Saturday, 20 February 2010

frustated in St Jean de Luz

After an active week in St Jean de Luz (skiing, flamenco, running) I aimed to continue my diet regime with a day of raquettes. Heading inland I drove towards the Foret d'Iraty some 70 kilometres away. Passing behind La Rhune the landscape changes quickly. High mountains and steep valleys engulf you. Picturesque Basque villages nestle amongst the forests. As I headed beyond the lovely town of St Jean Pied de Port (Saint John at the foot of the mountains) the road became smaller and the ascent steeper. St Jean Pied de Port was razed to the ground by Richard the Lionheart in 1177 and was once part of the Navarre region of Spain. It is still a Basque bastion with the language spoken widely here.

Rising above the valley the road started to challenge my vertigo. The views were enormous but I was intent on focusing on the road. I soon reached the snow line and the drive became slower. With 15km to go snow started to appear on the road and fall from above. The going became ever slower. Cars could be seen deserted at the side of the road. I put on my snow chains and ventured on upwards, slowly. The trees were thickly coated in snow and the temperature plunged. With 2km to go I stopped. Ahead of me on the hill were a line of abandoned cars. Cutting my losses I reluctantly headed back to St Jean de Luz. The winter braderie is on this weekend so I cheered myself up with some retail therapy. I will try again next week.

Basque of the day:- danger :: arrisku

Friday, 19 February 2010

skiing near St Jean de Luz

There is a lot of skiing to be had near St Jean de Luz. Within a short car journey you can be at any one of 25 resorts in the Pyrenees. Given the snowfall we had this week skiing was top of the agenda. Setting off before breakfast we headed to Bareges La Mongie. It's about two hours away on the other side of Lourdes (which is handy if you break a bone on the piste).

Bareges is a good sized resort with more than enough skiing for everyone and more importantly, no queues! The sun shone brightly so after lathering on some factor 50 we took the chairlift up the mountain. It was my first outing this season so I was glad to have a couple of youngsters in tow which meant I could justify taking it a little more sedately. That said after eight hours of non-stop skiing my legs were killing me. Although the majorty of pistes are blue, many of these would definitely be red in other resorts. Similarly many of the reds are more akin to black - be warned! Given the temperature (it was hot by mid afternoon) there was a 70% avalanche warning in place which always adds a little spice to the days events. I had forgotten how good the Pyrenees are, far better than the Alps in my opinion. I am planning another trip next week. I hope my legs recover in time.

Basque of the day:- ski :: eski

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

bringing chocolate to St Jean de Luz

Over the last year I have had a few heated debates in St Jean de Luz. Often they are about chocolate. Parisians and Belgians insist that all British chocolate is rubbish and that only Continental European chocolate is real chocolate. Other than remind them that the European variety uses powdered milk (rather than real milk) and other chemicals (rather than natural products) I don't rise to the bait. Comparing chocolate from different countries is like comparing girlfriends and boyfriends. Beauty and taste are in the eye of the beholder.

I visited Cadbury's flagship centre of excellence in Bournville yesterday. Here chocolate is not about quick fixes and profit, it genuinely is a way of life. You only need to walk around the vast village to realise that John Cadbury tried and succeeded in creating a workplace that was ethical, effective, happy and still largely unparalleled: lovely houses for workers, village greens, football pitches, swimming pools (one for boys, one for girls), schools, colleges, etc etc. Head chocolate boffin Tony told us about the company's quaker roots, the chocolate making process and his passion for Cadbury. I have never met a more loyal and dedicated staff. Everything is beautifully manicured and everything has a hint of purple (including Bournville train station). It really is a marvel and makes the acquisition by the plastic cheese eaters even more depressing. I don't think the Cadbury culture will sit easily with American efficiency drives, I see a lot of 'streamlining' and 'synergising'.

Factories are wonderful magical places at the best of times. A factory that makes chocolate is simply amazing. The Cadbury factory at Bournville forbids photography which is why they made the documentary film 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' starring Gene Wilder (and later Johnny Depp) - fact; the film is based on this factory. Bournville is named after the little river Bourn that runs through it and a desire to be fashionably French. Man and robot dance forever in enormous rooms that smell of the finest chocolate. Conveyor belts carry millions and millions of chocolates miles and miles around innumerable bulidings. It is an awesome place (in the true sense, not as in 'this is an awesome hotdog').
Victorian architecture houses cutting edge technology and the staff, very few of whom were three feet tall and yellow, are all happy. Who couldn't be happy working in a wonderful place like this. They also have the staff shop (I bought 30 Creme Eggs, 4 Easter Eggs, 20 Buttons, 2kg Dairy Milk, 20 Fingers (for 2 regular readers!) all for under a tenner - marvellous!). As we were leaving I noted a particular favourite, the Cadbury Club complete with its own beer festival. Words can't do Bournville justice, it is unique. It won't disappear because of the sale but I fear some of the magic will be lost forever.
Basque of the day:- badger :: azkonar

Friday, 5 February 2010

taking time in St Jean de Luz

The main street in St Jean de Luz is called Rue Gambetta. It runs parallel to the beach for about a kilometre; from the commercial Boulevard Thiers to the picturesque Place Louis XIV. It is a pedestrianised street filled with quaint Basque home above a myriad of shops (butchers, bakers, Basque linen makers etc.). It is one of the key destinations for the many visitors the town receives each day.

In November 2008 they began to dig up the road to install cabling of various sorts. Workers would dig up vast tracks of street from Monday to Thursday and then fill them in again on Friday before the weekend. The noise and mess has been totally disruptive. Rather than focus on getting a bit done at a time whoever was boss was adamant that they do the whole street at the same time. For a crew of twenty this was no small undertaking. As such progress was achingly slow. It has been truly painful to watch. Each morning shopkeepers stand horror-struck that yet another month has passed with no advancement. It really didn't look like a difficult job but they were doing their very best to make it so.

Before summer came last year they downed tools, patching the holes as best they could. Summer obviously lasts longer wherever the workers are from, they didn't start back until mid December, just in time to ruin Christmas trade for the shopkeepers. However, the magical construction pixie has clearly been up to his old tricks recently. The street is finally being completed. It is beginning to look like it did fourteen months ago. Rumour is that it will be finished by Easter. I wouldn't wager any chocolate eggs on this. I've seen bigger jobs completed in a fortnight but fair play to these guys for milking out a project for so long, what are the bets they're paid by the hour?

Basque of the day:- time :: denbora

Monday, 1 February 2010

Sunday lunch in St Jean de Luz

A friend from St Jean de Luz invited me for Sunday lunch yesterday. When I accepted I hadn't appreciated lunch would last almost ten hours. They never seem to do things as you'd expect in these parts.

We gathered for an aperitif or two in a wee bar in Ciboure, across the port from St Jean de Luz. We were twelve strong and readily became friends, once again the Basque stereotype for frostiness was shattered. Heading towards lunch I had no idea what to expect. More and more people began walking in the same direction. By the time we arrived at the town square there were several hundred people, four bands (ranging from traditional Basque pipes to funky-brass), a twenty strong male choir and most importantly a huge bar. Sunday lunch was clearly going to be a lot more than the roast beef I had imagined.

To celebrate the end of its week-long annual festival Ciboure held a lunch for the town. A huge tent was erected in the square with everyone seated at four immensely long trestle tables. At one end the bar area, at the other a dance-floor and stage for music. No sign of any Yorkshire pudding. Our group sat in the middle of the throng, who had clearly been enjoying a glass or two more than was customary for this hour but being Scottish I felt the least I could do was throw myself into things wholeheartedly, I succeeded.

By the time the first course arrived we had sung loudly whilst swaying rhythmically. There was a Bavarian beer-cellar feel to the place and I wasn't complaining. I also prefer sangria and red wine over warm, flat beer. We ate for several hours breaking only to pour another glass of wine or break into song. I was grateful for having joined a Basque choir and proudly demonstrated to my new friends that I knew the words to their songs. At the time I felt I sang well but this morning I fear not.

Before long it was seven in the evening and the Patxaran was pouring plentifully. We had been dancing and drinking, singing and eating for over six hours and there was little sign of it stopping. There was also no sign of sticky toffee pudding and custard, this was no normal Sunday lunch. I'm not quite sure when I got home but I'm finding today more of a struggle than normal for Monday. The next time a friend asks me for lunch, rather than asking what time we're to meet, I should really ask what time it's likely to end.

Basque of the day:- time :: denbora