Sunday, 24 July 2011

Blogging comes alive

Like many bloggers I often wonder who is reading my blog. Sure, I check my webstats from time to time and I can see where in the world readers are based. I can see what search engines they use. I can often tell if my efforts to promote my blog are successful.

It can get a bit lonely and empty; typing away and spending hours uploading photos and organising things but it seems to be important to me right now, to share my experiences and it will be a great gift to myself to be able to read my thoughts and hopes as they evolve. I forget so much of my life. You know how it is... looking back over old photos and thinking "Hey, yeah, I'd forgotten all that." Sometimes they are precious memories of our children. How is it we forget so many little personal details?

I recently received the hardbound version of my blog. It covers April 2010 until the end of June 2011. It's professionally printed with a table of contents and the photos are nicely presented. Organising the material takes a fair bit of time online but it's worth it to me to have a physical copy of my adventures trying to get to France. I'm going to continue my blog for a bit longer because I still don't know what will happen to me in terms of work, being able to stay here and also my relationship with my lovely Jean-Claude. So much is unknown but I don't think about that too much. I'm taking each day as it comes and appreciating the good people I interact with each day but it's rather special to be able to read about them and look at photos and re-experience the pleasure of those events.

I had a new experience on Saturday. I met one of my most consistent blog readers who had come all the way from New Zealand. Alison has a love of France and lived here on an exchange for a year. She was determined to holiday here this year and suggested we get together in Paris. Alison probably knows me pretty well from all my blogposts and I knew a little bit about her.

Jean-Claude kindly offered to come into Paris with me, providing transport and bravely battling the parking nightmare so Alison and I could meet. Alison and her friend Janet wandered around Montmartre with JC and me. The weather was again disappointing; cold and raining.

It's been a bad summer so far and we only had very infrequent really good days a month or so ago. We got slightly damp but sheltered for a bit in the Sacre Coeur on the top of the Montmartre hill. As churches go it's not that impressive and you're not allowed to take pictures inside. Despite the weather the place was full of visitors so we shuffled along, trying not to lose each other.

After the church we strolled around Place du terre which is the place where artists gather to draw the tourists for a ibt of income.It's very touristy but you have to expect that. Some of the artists were impressive, some had novel talents to capture the attention of anyone wanting a portrait. I hope Alison will enjoy a few days of better weather before she heads back to NZ. It was lovely to meet a reader and I hope that in future I might meet others.Blogging really comes alive when you're face to face with with those who take the time to be interested in your writing.

In less than a week Laura will arrive. That will be very special, meeting up again after such a long separation. We'll have lots of things to do together but it will be different. I left her behind in NZ still a child and barely independent. I'll be meeting a young woman at the airport. She's grown up while I've been away.

Photos of JC and I and Alison and Janet at Montmartre's Sacre Coeur and Place du Tertre.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Into the Channel- for nature lovers

Jean-Claude had organised for us to explore more of the Breton coast. In particular the Rose Granite coast from Trestraou to Ploumanc’h which is only 10 kms long but includes a “custom officer’s path” along the cliffs, offering great views. We weren’t planning to do that. JC had booked a boat trip to the Seven Isles (really five islands plus two big rocks) to see the gannet colony. We left Binic early so that we’d have a chance to find a place to park.

First we stopped off at the quaint coastal village of Ploumanac’h. There are two sea mills from the 14th century in the harbour and Gustave Eiffel built a granite house there around the same time he was building the Eiffel Tower.

Another item of note is the oratory of St Guirec, on the beach. The story goes that young women who were hoping to marry would come there with a hair pin and insert it into the nose of the statue of the saint. If it stayed in they’d marry, if it didn’t, well, they were out of luck. It’s thought the current statue was preceded by one in wood which was quickly worn out by ardent women with pins. The current statue is much the worse for wear too.

Time was short so I couldn’t explore further or look at Gustav Eiffel’s house. The rocks here are very interesting. They are massive, upthrust and eroded over the past 300m years into fantastic shapes, easily seen from the sea. It’s not the only place you can find rose granite but it’s probably the only place you’ll find it eroded in this chaotic way.

After steak and chips and lashings of anti-seasickness pills I felt fortified enough to take the boat out into the ‘English’ Channel. The sea was fairly calm and the boat comfortable but I kept the medication going as travel sickness is a ‘given’ with me. Our first stop was the gannet colony where between 14,000 and 20,000 couples nest (there’s a big discrepancy between what one piece of publicity says and another regarding the population.

One piece of literature says it’s the most southern colony of gannets there is. This annoyed me as we have gannet colonies in New Zealand and they are 20,000kms further south than the Ile Rouzic. In fact the gannet colonies in NZ tend to be on the mainland rather than on islands. At Cape Kidnappers on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ you can walk right up to the birds. They are separated from you only by a low chain fence. The French even call one of their sea birds penguins but they are not real penguins in my opinion because true penguins don’t fly and are limited to the southern hemisphere.

You can smell them before you can see them. There they were, white blobs stuck to the almost vertical rocks or wheeling in the air. There too were black shags. I would have liked to see some of the rather rare puffins but this day there was no sign of them, only a lone gannet on the lowest rocks. He was there because he was sick and it was unlikely that he’d survive much longer, away from the colony and his mate.

Gannets are the largest seabird of the Atlantic with a wingspan of 1.80m. They each eat 500g of fish per day and sometimes fly as far as the south coast of England if they’re hungry. They keep their mate for life, often living until the age of 20 years. Other birds to be found in this area include the Fulmar Petrel, and the Oyster Catcher.

After admiring the colony and watching the younger birds skimming in curiosity over our boat, we went further to see some seals. Attention: when the person doing the commentary talks about ‘phoques’(seals), yes, he is not using a rude word, but it certainly sounds like it when the French say it. It was hard for me to keep a straight face. The boat disgorged it’s passengers onto the only island where visitors are permitted as these islands are a nature reserve.

Monks Island used to have monks living on it in the 15th century. They were monks who wanted a hard life because they thought that the harder their lives were on earth the quicker they’d get to heaven. Life was so very hard that they obtained permission from the pop to return to the mainland on the condition they destroy all evidence of their habitation there. After the monks had left it was popular with smugglers and pirates so Louis XV established a fort there to fight smuggling and piracy.

The lighthouse was built in 1834 but destroyed in 1944. It was rebuilt and on a good day you can see close to 40kms from it. It is still habited by two lighthouse keepers. We walked up to the fort and watched the birds. There was a good view of the little islands and rocks dotted about. JC managed to surprise a rabbit and I surprised a herring gull. It started to rain as we set off in the boat for the return journey.

Photos- rose granite, lighthouse of Mean Ruz, port and sea mill of Ploumanarc’h, oratory to St Guirec, Fort at Monks Island, the gannet colony, two seals on the rocks, the Seven Isles environment.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Fête Nationale at Binic

It was my first 14th July, Fête Nationale in France and I was going back to Binic in Brittany with Jean-Claude to watch the fireworks over the water at the little port. Incredibly, the long weekend traffic was flowing smoothly with no problems as we made our way there, taking the toll routes which are generally safer roads to use.

The trip was uneventful and the countryside a little less interesting because many of the cereal crops have been harvested and the fields with their decapitated plants are now drying to a pale beige colour. Once in Brittany though, the field sizes were noticeably smaller and there were a lot more clumps of trees and bushes. There’s a lot more green there despite the drought scourging parts of the country.

The fireworks weren’t due to start until 11pm so we spent part of the afternoon and evening taking more photos of the port, visiting a little art gallery and scouting for a vantage spot for the evening’s brief entertainment. There was the sea-wall, lighthouse and entrance to the little Port which had been ordered by Colbert (Remember him? Dastardly minister who plotted with Louis XIV to get rid of the shining Fouquet). Colbert ordered a number of major public works and coastal fortifications in his time because France was incessantly at war in that era and Binic has profited from that.

It wasn’t very evident in the countryside that it was France’s National Day; it seemed to be business as usual with nothing special happening. It would be a different story if I had been in Paris, of course. The military services had been practising during the week to get the parade just right down the Champs Elysée.
After a late dinner, JC and I found a spot to stand overlooking the entrance to the port and waited until 11pm.

It seemed as if the whole of Binic and more besides was there. The town switched off the street lights and the crowd gave an “Ahhhhhhh!!!” Canned music began but I wondered why Cold Play was chosen to accompany the feux d’artifice as they whizzed and popped and banged and boomed. As fireworks shows go it wasn’t impressive or creative or particularly interesting and not choreographed to the music at all but I imagine it’s expensive for a town to have to provide this and the crowd clapped appreciatively at the end. I hope the silly youths on the beach didn’t suffer any lasting damage as they shot fireworks at each other. Stupidity knows no geographical bounds.

The crowd wound its way around the path up the cliffs, heading home. I stopped several times to look out over the Bay of St Brieuc at the other little towns twinkling away in the dark distance. Two of them clearly had fireworks displays going long after ours was finished. The atmosphere around France must have been rather thick for a short time that night with thousands of public events revolving around burning gunpowder. How odd that politics in England and its former colonies and politics in France have created such scenes of air pollution now.

Fireworks displays are less numerous in NZ than they once were. When I was a child everyone celebrated Guy Fawkes attempts to blow up the British Parliament (strange) by buying fireworks and letting them off at home as a family event. There weren’t public displays. Times changed. People became more irresponsible and there were deaths, too many fires, maimings of idiots and cruelty to animals occurring so opportunities to celebrate at home became legally limited. Now many families just don’t bother because it’s like lighting a match to your wallet. It’s expensive to buy fireworks and they seem less magical now than they did in the 1960s when I was a child. These days there are limited public displays which you must often pay to see and queue for forever. Many people probably spend their fireworks night in front of their computer. Once Laura was too old to warrant spending hard-earned money in setting things on fire and risking danger I did the computer thing too but here I was, in France, with good, mild weather having a change and enjoying it. It was nice to share it with someone; that can be said for any public event.

After our late night we had to be up fairly promptly to head northwest for a boat trip around the Seven Islands. I started downing the seasick pills.

Photos of Binic sea wall fortifications and lighthouse by day and night. The Fireworks

Monday, 11 July 2011

Vaux le Vicomte-power and disaster

Last weekend Jean-Claude and I drove towards Paris and then out to visit one of the seventeenth century's greatest achievements - the Chateau Vaux le Vicomte, a truly amazing place with a chilling story behind it. It was never a fortified chateau or a royal residence. Instead it was an extravagant undertaking from a gifted and charming lawyer who aimed too high and fell so low.

Nicolas FOUQUET (1615-1680) who ordered the construction of Vaux-le-Vicomte was descended from a line of parliamentarians, rich and enterprising.

In 1648 the State treasury collapsed and so Cardinal Mazarin appointed Nicolas Fouquet as financial secretary in 1653, his mission to replenish the empty treasury. Fouquet had already risen rapidly, remaining true to his family emblem, the squirrel, and to his motto, "Quo non ascendet" ("What heights will he not scale?").

Fouquet owed his success to his great intelligence, his daring and to his loyalty to the throne.He was good looking, had a lively, winning manner, and an overwhelming ambition to live amid luxury and refinement. He loved the arts, letters, poets, flowers, pictures, tapestries, books and statues. He showered artists with gifts, commissions, and encouragement, and in this way, attracted a distinguished circle of men which included, among others, La Fontaine and Molière, Le Nôtre and Poussin, Puget and Le Brun.

Nicolas was successful, finding the ready money required each day to supply the needs of the administration and the war, to cover the cost of court entertainments, and to satisfy the colossal greed of Mazarin. Every loan he negotiated on the money markets, on behalf of the King, was guaranteed by his own personal fortune.

Fouquet brought together the artist Le Brun, the architect le Vau and the landscape gardener Le Notre to create a magnificent property which outshone all the rest, including that of the young King Louis XIV. The construction took five years with thousands of workers. The 'dream team' of three were later hired by the King to create the Palace of Versailles.

Yet, this brilliant man, always a loyal supporter of the King had too much faith in his own charmed destiny and did not stop to consider the envy and suspicion his high rank and wealth inspired in the minds of his more ambitious detractors, such as Colbert. Neither did he suspect the determination and diligence with which Louis XIV would pursue his aim to reign absolute, nor the insult his own intellectual independence and luxurious lifestyle represented to the proud young King.

He often worked in close association with Cardinal Mazarin's private secretary, Colbert,who had accumulated considerable profits of his own on the business undertakings of the crown.

On the death of Mazarin in 1661, Fouquet was certain that his own decisive contribution to the recovery of the kingdom's finances would earn him the position of First Minister, successor to the Cardinal. At the same time, Louis XIV, a young man of twenty-two, decided to abolish the post, and consequently to deprive Fouquet of it. At the same time, Colbert decided to overthrow the finance minister, Fouquet.

To achieve this end, and also perhaps to divert attention away from his own profiteering, Colbert laid the entire blame for France's "financial disorders" at Fouquet's door. Louis XIV welcomed this move. Each day Colbert sowed seeds of distrust in the young King's mind and in spite of the many warnings Fouquet received from his friends, he did nothing to reduce either the luxury of his life-style or the audacity of his financial scheming.

It was May 1661 and the King's mind was made up. The Financial Secretary was to be thrown into prison as soon as he had supplied the treasury with the money he had promised, and sold off his duties as Attorney General at the Parliament of Paris which removed him from all but the jurisdiction of his peers. To throw his future victim off the scent, Louis XIV expressed a desire to return to Vaux to admire the latest improvements of which the whole court spoke with praise.

It was at Vaux, against the background of France's most beautiful château, that Fouquet gave an incomparable "fête" in honor of his King on 17 August 1661. Guests were enchanted by the promenade, dinner, theatricals and fireworks. The extravagance of these entertainments wasn't lost on young King Louis. Voltaire himself wrote; "On 17 August at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody."

Three weeks later, on 1O September, at Nantes, d'Artagnan, captain of the King's musketeers, arrested his friend Fouquet on the orders of Louis XIV and brought him before a specially convened emergency court.

Despite the pressure brought to bear upon the magistrates by the King - "the court performs arrests, not services!" was the retort of Fouquet's judge, d'Ormesson - the trial, falsified in part by Colbert, dragged on for more than three years, and turned gradually to the advantage of the accused. Despite having no access to any papers, fouquet's prodigius memory served him in his own defence. The King was counting on the death penalty, but the majority of the judges were for banishing Fouquet. This was tantamount to an acquittal, for Fouquet would have found freedom beyond the confines of the kingdom.

For the first and last time in French history, the head of state, who had the power to pardon an offender, overruled the court's decision, not to lighten the sentence, but to increase it. Louis XIV sentenced his former minister to life-imprisonment. By this denial of justice, he ensured order within France for half a century to come, and at the same time placed under lock and key certain sensitive state secrets to which he suspected Fouquet was privy.

Fouquet was sent to Pignerol, a small fortified position in the Alps of Savoie, where he was to be imprisoned under close surveillance until his death in 1680. He was denied any comfort or books. His wife had been sent away from the chateau while the King helped himself to tapestries and furniture and garden ornaments and paintings. It would be ten years before she was allowed back and she was not permitted to see her husband, far away in prison.

The chateau has gone through several families and was rescued from ruin. JC and I viewed Fouguet's stables which are now a carriage museum, the State Appartments, and Fouquet's appartments. We went up inside the great dome to come outside and look over the roofs and decorations to the outbuildings and marvellous gardens which employ false perspective so cleverly.

It's a sad story of a talented and honest man who was set up by a spiteful King and malicious colleague. A high price to pay for weath and good taste. It's definitely worth a visit and you can view it at night too when on Saturdays during summer, 2000 candles are laid out in memory of the great entertainment that signalled the end of Fouquet.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The colours of the countryside

During my time in France I've been fascinated to see how the countryside changes week by week. In New Zealand the seasonal changes are more muted, especially in the North Island. With so many evergreen plants and trees the seasons there are less marked and with so many farms devoted to sheep and cows the fields always look the same.

Here in France, in particular Ile de France near Paris, the countryside reflects the growing seasons more spectacularly. The crops seem to literally spring up before your eyes, desperately, it seems to me, to get all their growing done before the long, dark freeze returns.

My first delight was seeing a field of flowering colza for the first time. Colza is rapeseed or Canola. There are kilometres of it throughout France, interspersed with barley and wheat. Colza looks like a brassica flower, yellow and simple on a multi-floretted stem. After flowering, the fields become awfully sad looking as the yellow fades to a greenish blue, then mid-green and finally a dried-out beige before it is harvested. By that stage it's up to my waist and the flowers have turned into long bean-like seed pods on a stem. This crop flowers long before the barley produces its grain heads with its spikey fringes.

There are fields and fields of barley. They make a welcome patchwork with the colza. Right now they are very pale and scorched looking like the wheat fields and much of it is being harvested into bales.

From time to time I'd see pretty dots of red along the sides of the roads. These are coquelicots (Papaver rhoeas) poppies. They are becoming very rare from the use of herbicides on fields to intensify production of food crops. They are no longer welcome because they don't have a market value. I've only seen patches, never a field. JC found a tiny field of them in Gallardon but by the time the weekend came around and he could show me we discovered they had been harvested along with the other crops, heads chopped off.

Imagine if Monet had been alive today; he'd never have been able to paint his countrysides in all their natural spendour. Sadly, it's his paintings that will outlast these charming and cheerful plants.

As the poppies are flowering so do the lilacs in french gardens and beside the roads where properties have been abandoned. Oh, the joy of seeing this beautiful old-fashioned plant still being appreciated. Street sellers sell bunches of it and it smells heavenly-a reminder to me of my grandmother who always tried to have a jug of lilac branches in front of the fireplace in late Spring.

Daisies and gentians flower in wilder parts of the countryside. They may be simple flowers but on mass they certainly gladden the heart and feed the bees. I couldn't resist getting in amongst them.

There are plenty of garden foxgloves about but I enjoy seeking out the tiny wild ones that would pop up in fields and along the sides of the roads where the weedkiller hasn't destroyed things. Dainty and oldfashioned, it's a joy to see some biodiversity in the landscape. Sometimes there are tiny gentians scattered amongst them but you really have to get down on your stomach to discover and appreciate their tiny perfection.

Other larger plants which naturalise easily here are giant hollyhocks and centranthus. These are plants you'd pay a lot of money to buy in a plant nursery back in New Zealand, yet here you could collect them and their seed for free. I wonder if anyone bothers. Blackberries can easily be found in shrubby areas. Is there anything new left to discover before the cooler weather sets in and everything is frozen to death?

For so many months the plants must hide, hibernate or die here because the weather is quite harsh, especially when it snows. From April you can see signs of life in trees as buds start to emerge. Solar energy is snapped up by livings things here. I love getting out and seeing what new things I can discover with my camera.