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A curious throwback

Posted on October 30th, 2016

The rue du Chevalier Saint-George in Paris forms the border between the 1st and 8th arrondissements. It was once called the rue Richepance after a slaver in Guadeloupe but was renamed in 2001 to recognise an Afro-French composer and to honour L’Association d’entraide de la Noblesse Francaise who occupy offices at number 9. The Association for Mutual Aid for the French Nobility is a curious throwback to former times. In revolutionary days the aristocracy numbered 140,000 from 9,000 families, yet this 0.5% of the population owned one fifth of all land. They enjoyed privileges including hunting, tax exemptions, feudal land rights and reserved senior ecclesiastic, civic and military positions. Nobles owned seigneurial rights over free peasants who worked on their lands, which entitled them to demand a…

It was different in 1944

Posted on October 28th, 2016

The Chapelle Sainte-Anne de Goiron, dating from the 11th century, stands on a high hill behind the village of La Roque d’Anthéron south of the Durance River. The hilltop enjoys commanding views in all directions, the Alps to the east, the Mediterranean to the south, Mont Ventoux to the north and the Alpilles to the west. It is a haven of peace, where the only sounds are goat bells jangling on the hillsides below. It was different in 1944.  “Méfiez vous du toreador!” (Beware of the toreador) was among the coded messages broadcast from London on 5th June, calling for the mobilisation of 400 members of l’Armée Secrète from surrounding villages. Their meeting point was well chosen. Weapons had been parachuted into the area…

Catholic Madrid

Posted on October 23rd, 2016

Our recent visit to Madrid recalled the country’s devotion to Catholicism. The churches are fabulous and the museums replete with religious art. Both cost a great deal, which prompted me to explore how the Spanish church could acquire such wealth. From very early days, Spanish priests enjoyed great power over their uneducated flocks, representing the only pathway to heaven. Opposing the church could lead to denunciation as a heretic and being burned at the stake. It was vital to keep the priest happy. A tithe of 10%, the diezmo, was paid to the church on all agricultural production, supplemented by additional tolls on harvest primicias (first fruits). The tithe was not abolished until 1841. Moreover you were expected to work on church land for free several days…

An autumn morning walk

Posted on October 20th, 2016

This morning Saffy and I go walking, a beautiful autumn morning walk. We do this together every day, choosing different paths direct from the house, never repeating the same walk more than twice in a week. Today we head east along the colline, through the woods to Lacoste, down through the village into the valley below, then back up the hill for a total of 8km. It is a typical Provencal autumn day, clear blue skies cleaned by the early signs of a mistral. First we meet a hunter in the forest. Both he and his dog are concealed, motionless and we would have passed them by except Saffy scented their presence. He shows me a wood pigeon he had shot and I learned the prized bécasse, or…

A deadly legacy

Posted on October 19th, 2016

The Massacre of Atocha took place on 24th January 1977 at 55 Atocha Street, in central Madrid. General Francisco Franco had died fourteen months before, ending 35 years of fascist dictatorship. Spain thus entered a struggle for democracy known as La Transición. Franco had nominated King Juan Carlos I as his successor to continue his legacy, but Carlos, a quiet follower of El Caudillo during his final six years of power, soon began the transition to a constitutional monarchy. If La Transición to democracy was to be successful it required extremists from both sides to abstain from violence. Some did not. Haunted by the spectre of the Civil War (1936-39), Spain remained split between right-wing Francoists championed by the military and the Republican left, ever suspicious of a…

The Museo de Sorolla, Madrid

Posted on October 9th, 2016

The Museo de Sorolla is a delightful small museum in the former house of the artist in Madrid. Joaquin Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1873 but only two years later his parents both died, probably from cholera. He was adopted by his mother’s sister and her husband, a locksmith. Sorolla began art studies at the age of fourteen while serving as an apprentice locksmith in his uncle’s workshop. Between 1885 and 1889 he lived in Rome and Assisi, but then married and settled in Madrid in 1890. Considered the leading Spanish “near-impressionist” of his day, he was renowned for his extraordinary ability to capture the effects of light. In the United States he achieved fame through fourteen monumental canvases, Visions of Spain, on display…

Running in Porto

Posted on October 9th, 2016

On our first day in Porto we walked down to the riverfront in Vila Nova de Gaia to watch the Porto half-marathon. It’s a major event in the running calendar, attracting elite athletes from all over the world. The course winds along the river on the Porto side, crosses the Dom Luis bridge, continues along the Gaia riverfront, then turns back on itself. The distance is 21km, or 13 miles. East Africans have won every mens and womens race since the competition began in 2007 and this year’s winner was Daniel Rotich of Uganda in 61 minutes. Nao Isaka of Japan won the women’s section in 72 minutes, finally breaking the East African stranglehold.  The leaders came past us at a staggering speed, averaging 21…

Down memory lane

Posted on October 8th, 2016

Last month I returned to Porto for the first time in forty years, having worked in the port wine trade in the 1970s. The journey from the airport revealed a city much changed, unrecognisable. But as I entered the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia all the memories came flooding back. The musty smell of wine ageing in old barrels; the taste of white, ruby, tawny and vintage ports; the haunting sound of portuguese guitars and fado. “We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we…

A late vintage

Posted on October 8th, 2016

The vendange, or wine vintage has been very late in some parts of the Luberon this year. This morning an automatic grape-picker was working in the valley below our house, at the vineyards of Chateau Edem. The machine only takes a couple of minutes to vacuum grapes from two hundred metres of vines, leaving only the stalks. At the end of each row the grapes are tipped into a waiting hopper to be towed to the nearby winery by tractor. In most of the Southern Rhone the vintage for white grapes began around 10th September, with red grapes grenache and syrah following a few days later. The growing season has been very dry, producing small grapes, so winemakers were expecting volume to fall by around 20%. Fortunately this…