Thursday, July 31, 2014

Abbaye Fontfroide

Trip to Aude: Day2

The afternoon at Gruissan, after the oyster lunch at the salt works, we decided to take a trip to the Fontfroide Abbey. The abbey isn't far from Narbonne, and Narbonne isn't far from Gruisasn. In fact, any sensible person would have told us to take the highway to Narbonne, and continue on to the abbey. But who said we were sensible? Google maps suggested there was a shortcut, bypassing the city. It involved accessing the abbey from the rear. It was a scenic route, with ponds and canals and hills and whatnot. We plumped for it. We got lost. There was no road where Google Maps insisted there was a road. There was no back access to the abbey (or if there was, it was a private road). We ended up driving in a huge detour through narrow crisscrossing hill roads to get back to the front. We got lost dozens of times in the rugged hills, with no one around to ask for directions. It took us four hours to get there eventually, with the sun about to set and the abbey about to close for the day. Never mind. It was an exhilarating drive.

Abbey Fontfroide is an 11th century Cistercian monastery. It played a part in the Cathar history in that it was involved in the wars against the Cathars in the 13th Century by Pope Innocent III. The monks were driven out during the French revolution. In the 20th Century, it passed into private hands and is today used as a place for artistic events. The interiors are said to be amazing, architecturally. But since we arrived at closing time, we could only look at the exteriors. Still, the exteriors were pretty impressive too.

Here are some pics:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Salt Flats of Gruissan

Trip to Aude: Day 2

The afternoon of the second day at Gruissan we spent in an extraordinarily beautiful place. So beautiful, in fact, that I saved it up for a separate post of its own. It was the Salt Works at Gruissan.

Salt Works? you gurgle. Beautiful?

Judge for yourselves kids...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gruissan by the sea

Trip to Aude: Day 1(Evening)/Day 2/ Day 3 (Morning)

If you look at Gruissan in Google maps, which I did when I was researching the place, it seems more water than land. The evening of the first day of our grand trip to Aude. After checking out the city of Narbonne, my plan called for us to drive over to the fishing village of Gruissan to spend the night there. It's just 40 km from Narbonne, and I reckoned it would be a much nicer place to spend the night than the big bad city. In the event, we loved it so much we ended up staying two and a half days, and my plan went haywire.

Water plays a big role in the life and times of Gruissan. Water in all its forms. There's the sea, then there are open ports, in-land ports, canals, salt flats, marshes, small ponds, big ponds, lagoons... Oh yes, and rain. Lots of rain. But you don't mind the rain so much in a fishing village. It's part of the atmosphere.

The village itself is an almost perfectly circular peninsula jutting out into a lagoon, which itself borders the Mediterranean Sea, separated from the sea by a shallow strip of land scarred with ports and salt flats. This is what it looks like in Google maps.

Gruissan is that little blip you see in the middle. This is your first heart-stopping look at Gruissan, as you drive down D32 from Narbonne, circumnavigating the lagoon...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Narbonne Cathedral

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Trip to Aude: Day 1 Narbonne:

Continuing from the last post, the showpiece of the city of Narbonne is really its cathedral. It's real name is a bit of a mouthful: Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur de Narbonne. Luckily, most people just call it Narbonne Cathedral (Cathédrale de Narbonne). It truly is an impressive pile. I went camera crazy, to the extent that I had to have a separate post just for the cathedral. There is a small part of the old historical city (Vieux Narbonne) just behind the cathedral. It is worth checking out too. I did not take too many photos there, but you can see bits of Vieux Narbonne in some of the exterior shots below.

Pics of the view from the cloister or central courtyard:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Trip to Aude: Narbonne

The last three weeks of my stay in France. Blandine has taken off from work for all three of them, for the mother of all trips. Where do we go? Everything is on the table: Sensual Seville in Spain, A Grecian Odyssey in Athens, The London of Shakespeare and Wodehouse... The Moon? Nope, I plump for Cathar Country -- the département of Aude. Blandine votes for Seville. We check the météo. It'll be 40 degrees in the shade in Saville. As a suntanned son of the tropics that doesn't bother me, but Blandine goes into a tizzy. I win.

Aude and Languedoc-Roussillon have held a strange fascination for me, ever since I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and read of the mysterious Cathars. It is a region full of scraggy hills and menacing ruined châteaux with bloody histories going back to the dawn of time. Blandine leaves the planning to me. I come up with this ambitious plan, covering every mysterious place I could find in Aude...

Blandine smiles. On verra..., she says. Despite her skepticism, we do eventually manage to do a major part of the above plan, and a lot of other things besides, although we don't quite do it in the above order.

Trip to Aude. Day 1: Narbonne

The trip kicked off with a long drive down Highways A7/A9 to Narbonne. I hadn't planned much for the first day, since Blandine would be fatigued after the long drive. Just a couple of places in the city of Narbonne. Narbonne isn't terribly mysterious, but it is the logical starting point for a tour of Cathar country. The big attraction of Narbonne is its cathedral. More on that in the next post. The other attraction is the canal that runs through the city: the Canal de la Robine, which connects Narbonne to the sea. I am absolutely charmed by the canal. Flowers and boats and stuff. Here are some pics of the canal, and a couple of other minor attraction in the town center...

A number of stone bridges cross the canal, each one a little different from the other. This one has houses built right on it, à la Venice. The second pic is a narrow lane, which is actually the bridge (there are a row of buildings on both sides of the bridge, so it looks like a side lane than a bridge).

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Trip to Ardèche- Day 2

There was a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of the canyon of Ardèche. The beau village of Aiguèze, glistening in the Mediterranean sun. Sorry for going all lyrical, but Aiguèze had that effect on me. Even if you're a moronic stone-hearted clod, one look at this place and you'll find yourself dragging out a scrap of paper to scribble out a verse rhyming Moon with June. Or possibly May with Day.

This beauest of beau villages is right at the end of route D290 snaking along the rim of the canyon of Ardèche. You get your first look at it across the river, poised on the other wall of the canyon. Unfortunately, Blandine couldn't stop the car for me to take a photo. But here is another long-shot of the village, taken from a low hill atop the village. Just remember it looks a lot better from across the river...

The first thing you see on entering the village square is the bust of this nice old gent (no idea who he is), and behind him, a nice old church...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Grotte de St Marcel

Trip to Ardèche: Day 2

On the way down the canyon of Gorges de Ardèche, we kept coming across billboards for Grotte de This and Grotte de That. Having had our fill of grotty caves the previous day at Grottes de Savons, Blandine and I studiously ignored them. Big Mistake. The canyon of Ardèche is littered with limestone caves, many with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, but more importantly, with truly amazing prehistoric art by cavemen who used them as cooperative housing. Later, I learnt of this on good old Wikipedia. Check out the artwork in this cave called Grottes de Chauvet. (Image from Wiki Commons):-

It beats anything done by Picasso, and they did not make half the money that he did. But... most of the caves with paintings are closed to tourists. What the tourist gets to see are modern reproductions in previously unmarked caves. The Chauvet, in particular, is completely closed to tourists, and they are building a full-scale reproduction somewhere which will open in 2015. So maybe we did not miss much after all.

But one billboard finally got us to stop: Grotte de St. Marcel. The picture in that billboard was so intriguing, we decided it was worth checking out. We shelled out the entry fee. Big Mistake. Blandine remembered, too late, what the nice cash lady at Grotte de Soyons had told us the day before: that we could get a free entry to any of the other caves in Ardèche if we displayed the Soyons ticket. Blandine displayed the tik, but nothing doing. This cash lady was not so nice. She said we'd already paid, and she couldn't do anything about it. Moral of the story: always pay attention when nice cash ladies are telling you something.

Anyhow, we went down an enormous flight of steps, and beheld this wondrous sight, the same one we'd seen on the billboard:-

Yes, it really is like that, exactly as shown on billboards. One disappointment: all those colors are created by hidden lighting. I had been kind of hoping it was natural. But those folds in the rock are natural formation all right, and the water in them has gotten there naturally. Or at least, that is what I remember the guide saying. I wouldn't be surprised if those perishers don't top up the water surreptitiously, from time to time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Gorges de l'Ardèche

Trip to Ardèche - Day2:

The second day, we headed straight out to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, the starting point of the Gorges de l'Ardèche. Gorges de l'Ardèche is a magnificent 30 km long canyon sculpted into the limestone by the river Ardèche. Yes, rivers can be sculptors too, although they work a lot slower than Rodin. Vallon-Pont-d'Arc is a natural limestone bridge that spans the river. Here are some pics I took of the arch. The red flecks at the bottom are tourists in canoes. You can hire a canoe here and paddle down the river to the end of the gorge. Lots of fun, no doubt, for the canoeists. But they spoil it for chaps like me who want to take photos of 'Nature in all her pristine glory'.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Balazuc, Ruoms and Labeaume in a hurry

Trip to Ardèche, Day 1 (Evening):

It was 5:30 PM. We decided we'd seen about as much of Vogüé as we wanted to see. Blandine suggested we look around for a B&B and turn in for the day. After 6 PM, she warned, it's nearly impossible to find a B&B that's still open. We came across a decent-ish tavern in the village. Yes, they had places. Blandine raised an eyebrow. But I wasn't ready to call it a day. I thought we could squeeze in another beau village before the sun set. Bad mistake.

We drove down to the next beau village on our list. Balazuc. It was, if anything, even more spectacular than Vogüé. Another medieval gray-stone village, this one was perched at the top of a limestone cliff, rather than at the bottom, peering over a yawning gorge at the frothing river Ardèche. No time, however, to take pics. Here's a pic I've borrowed from Wikipedia (it doesn't show the cliff):-

Friday, July 18, 2014


Trip to Ardèche - Day 1: 

Having digested the plastic Neanderthals on our detour through Soyons, we set sight once more on our original destination: the la plus beau village of Vogüé. Don't ask how it is pronounced. Even Blandine wasn't sure, and she is a bona fide Frenchwoman. But it is officially listed in the very official list of "The most beautiful villages in France". Since I have made it my life-mission to visit all the villages in the list, and since the district of Ardèche has no less than four of these villages, there was no way I could skip this one, no matter how difficult it is to pronounce.

The first time I caught a glimpse of it, it took my breath away. Here it is, viewed from the highway, nestling at the base of a limestone cliff, perched on the banks of the river Ardèche, its medieval stones merging into the escarpment like so many boulders.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grottes de Soyons

Trip to Ardèche - Day 1: 

After Château de Crussol and a picnic lunch on a grassy bluff overlooking a goat farm, we clambered back into Blandine's dinky Mini Cooper for the next stage: the beau village of  Vogüé. Driving down D86, we came across a signboard pointing to Grottes de Soyons, the prehistoric caves of Soyons. The signboard said this was where Neanderthal bones had been discovered in ... in... some year or the other. I started jumping up and down in frenzy. Blandine sighed. She knows I have this thing about Neanderthals. She says I sometimes behave like one. I admit it. I am a Neanderthal freak. I have had a soft spot for these prehistoric chappies ever since I wrote a novel about them... sort of... (Perl and the Last of the Neanderthals: More info here ).

Blandine dutifully turned off the road and parked. After a steep climb up a cliff, we got to the hell hole. Nope, we did not grimp up the cliff. The gents at the Soyons tourism office have cut a nice scenic staircase into the rock face, only there are lots and lots of steps to climb.

I wasn't expecting much. I didn't get it. It was -- how shall I put it? -- a cave. A cave-ish cave. A Plain Jane cave. With one exception: It was barred with a steel grill and an attractive young woman at a cash counter. Good Grief ! Seven euros to see a dusty old cave? Actually, the boys at the tourism office thought so too, so they had put up some life-sized plastic models of a Neanderthal family and a saber-toothed tiger in the cave, to sort of jazz it up and justify the entry fee. To me, it made matters worse. I would've been content to have seen a cave where Neanderthals had once lived, and try and imagine what it must have been like then (only I wouldn't have been terribly happy shelling out seven euros for the pleasure). But one with kitsch plastic dummies? Ugh! I wanted to turn back. But Blandine wasn't about to. Not after having climbed endless flights of stairs in the summer heat. She shelled out and we shuffled in.

We kicked around the plastic Neanderthal family, who looked a bit depressed. I was depressed too. Too depressed to take photos. Anyhow, here is a pic of the place, "borrowed" from the Soyons Tourism website. Nope, I haven't taken their permission. What, you mean I can't borrow a stupid pic from their stupid website, when Blandine and I shelled out a grand total of fourteen euros and climbed up and down endless stupid stairs to see the stupid place?

Then the attractive lady at the cash counter, who apparently also doubles up as tour guide, showed us some skulls. A Neanderthal skull, she informed. Holy Hanna! A real Neanderthal skull? Nope. No such luck. A plastic replica. She compared that to the other skull, a modern human skull. Yep, also plastic. Then she showed us some Neanderthal hip bones and saber-toothed tiger tooth bones and various other animal part bones that had been discovered in this cave. Yep. Still plastic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Château de Crussol

Trip to Ardèche: Day 1 - a month ago, Blandine and I took a three-day trip to the département of Ardèche. This is a beautiful district chock-full of spectacular scenery, just a couple of hours drive from her pad in Lyon. It's further down south in the Rhône-Alps région, to which Lyon too belongs. The first stop on the trip was the castle of Crussol (Château de Crussol). This is a 13th Century castle which was attacked in the religious wars of 16th Century and finally destroyed in the 17th Century. But the ruins are still pretty spectacular...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Video of my interview on LyonTV !!

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LyonTV has finally gotten around to posting the video of my interview online, on the occasion of the launching of the works of the three Cartoonists in Residence at Alliance Française de Lyon (See my post 'Warning, there's a cartoonist in the house!').

The video starts with an interview of my French counterpart, the local Lyon cartoonist Ben Lebègue. My interview starts at 1:46

Voilà enfin le vidéo de mon interview sur Lyon TV (voir le poste "Attention : Y'a un bédéiste dans la maison !") avec le bédéisteFrançais, Ben Lebègue. Mon interview commence à 1:46)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cherry Picking

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'Cherry Picking' is one of those mysterious phrases that smooth-faced corporate types like to throw about at meetings, along with 'Low Hanging Fruit', 'Moving-Forward' and 'Win-Win'. In those ghastly dark days before I became a free-living, if undernourished, novelist, I used to be a corporate slave too, and got to hear these odoriferous obiter dicta often. Now, my chin always had too much stubble, even in those bad old days, to fully comprehend these incantations. I usually asked those clean-shaven management types to repeat their statement, slowly, in plain English. This got me widely disliked in management circles. Management types, having just unleashed an exceptionally well-crafted buzzword, do not like having to repeat themselves in plain English. It spoils the whole effect. Much hog has washed down the river since then, and I need no longer trouble my feeble mind with these intricacies. But trouble me they do. Especially that phrase Cherry-Picking. Were those smooth-faced beings telling me something deeper and more significant than appeared on the face of it? Was it some particular brand of cherry they were talking about? Did it have a lien with those other mystical terms, Bottom-Line and Synergy? Was Picking a code for a something beyond its standard dictionary definition? Was it even a verb?

I got a chance to find out for myself, several weeks ago. It was Cherry Season in the South of France (it's over now), and Blandine dragged me off to her cherry orchard for a spot of cherry picking.

Yup, Blandine has a cherry orchard.

 She also has a goat...

Nope, not me. It's a real goat with no name. ass ...

Nope, it's not me either. It's a real ass called Edourad.
And he is not a donkey. He is an ass of exceptionally high IQ 

...five cats...

Dodo the sleepy cat
Rah-Rah- Despite her wicked appearance,
she is a cat with a heart of gold
Pankin, the angry young cat.

 The other two cats did not 
wish to be photographed. 
They are old-fashioned cats 
and do not trust the internet.
 Their wishes have to be respected.

 ...two dogs...

Lulu the angelic three-legged pom
Bambi the devil in chiwawa's clothing 

Yup, that's me

... and a boyfriend, whom she frequently chases up the cherry tree. Nope, not a gum tree. That's Aunt Fanny.  Boyfriends get chased up the cherry tree.

Here I was, finally picking cherries - in real life.

Blandine explained the rudiments of the operation to me. It was simple enough. You stick a step ladder against a cherry tree, climb up, and grab the ripest cherries you can find: four at a time. Three you pop into your mouth, the fourth you pop into a little wicker basket you happen to be holding in your free hand. Then you change your mind and pop that one into your mouth too. At the end of a couple of hours, you have a full stomach and a wicker basket thinly lined with cherries. Then you climb down, trip, lose grip of the little wicker basket, tossing all the cherries on the grass. At which point the goat smartly steps in and gobbles them up.

In short, a nice, clean wholesome form of entertainment.

But what did it have to do with Synergy? With Bottom-Line? With Win-Win? What were those godlike clean-shaved creatures trying to tell me? What? What? What?

Despite now having picked cherries in real life, I am still in the dark on that point.


By the way, if you aren't a P.G. Wodehouse addict, you wouldn't have got that "Aunt Fanny" joke. In Wodehouse novels, rural folk are prone to such colorful expostulations as 'Cor, chase my Aunt Fanny up a gum tree!', and other similarly bizarre expressions. Possibly they spoke like that in rural England, in Wodehouse's time. Or possibly not. He might have made that up. In any case, I doubt they speak like that any more.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Cowbell Concerto !

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Now for a bit of cow music. On our trek on the hills of La Clusaz, we came across this bunch of cows making music in a meadow. Nope, not synchronized farting sounds - actual music, using cowbells. We stopped there for a picnic lunch of fresh baked baguette we'd picked up at the village of Clusaz, and roast ham. Pig meat to the tune of cow music. Heaven. Here's the cow concerto...

And some more cow music... (better sound on this one, but less visuals)

Trip to La Clusaz, Lac du Bourget and Lac-d'Annecy

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Here are photos of our trip to the mountain village of La Clusaz, and the nearby lakes: Lac du Bourget and Lac-d'Annecy. La Clusaz is like a little bit of Switzerland within the French borders. It is just 60 KM from the Swiss border. It serves the purpose of going to Switzerland without taking the trouble of driving those last 60 km, for the particularly lazy. Now Blandine isn't particularly lazy (quite the contrary, in fact -- I get tired just watching her buzzing about the house). But she has a horror of a particularly steep gorge one has to cross while going from Lyon to Geneva. So I had to satisfy myself with La Clusaz. On the way back, we took in the lakes of Lac du Bourget and Lac d'Annecy. Lac d'Annecy was a little too touristy for my liking, but Lac du Bourget was a very satisfying lake. A very lake-y lake. Once you have been there, you know you've been to a lake. A lake, in other words, in every sense of the term.

Here are pics from our hike on the hills beyond La Clusaz. Didn't take any pics of La Clusaz itself. It's a pretty village, but a bit too touristy. But the hills beyond are very satisfying.... as hilly as Aix-les-bains is lakey. Hills, in other words, in every sense of the term. We bought a big round of Reblochon cheese from a sheep farm on our trek. The farmer was also kind enough to show us how the cheese was manufactured and matured. Sorry, no pics. The French farm folk are very touchy about people taking pics of interiors. And I couldn't take a pic of the exteriors as it was raining. Reblochon is a rather bland, pasty kind of cheese. It's mostly used for baking. We're still using the round we got that day.

On the way back down La Clusaz, I suggested we might take a detour past Lac d'Annecy, which nestles at its foot. Lac d' Annecy isn't any old lake, you know. Paul Cézanne has painted it, in a celebrated painting: Le Lac Bleu. Blandine said I would be disappointed. I was.

Here's the one sole pic I took of Lac d'Annecy. We didn't spend much time there.

As you can see, it's surrounded by houses and hotels and palm-fringed promenades and whatnot. Not my cup of tea. Possibly it was more pristine in Paul Cézanne's days. Or not. You can't make out in his painting. It's modern art. You aren't supposed to be able to make out what it is.

But just beyond the lake, there are a couple of nice things: A castle called château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard,  that looks like something right out of a fairy tale. Was it just a fairy vision? Nope. My iPad saw it too. Here's the proof:

And a mysteriously shaped hill, which Wikipedia leads me to believe is Dents de Lanfon (Lanfon's teeth), although I could be wrong. It does look a bit like my upper molars after my dentist had a go at at them, so even if it isn't Dents de Lanfon, it's definitely somebody's dents.

And here are some pix of Lac du Bourget. You get to it by going to the town of Aix-les-bains, which borders it on one side. So the lake is frequently referred to as Aix-les-bains in casual conversation. To the extent that I'd actually typed the name as Aix-les-bains in this post, before I referred Wikipedia and corrected myself. It's actually a pretty famous lake, although it doesn't look like it. Alphonse de La Martine, the subject of my previous post, wrote his celebrated poem Le Lac (the Lake) about this very lake. About some dame he'd loved and lost on the banks of this lake. Yup, that's us. Men. Always loving and losing women on the banks of diverse water bodies and writing poems about it. You don't catch women doing that sort of stuff. They're much too smart for it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The House of Lamartine

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On the way to Cluny Abby, we ran across a signboard pointing to the home and birthplace of the famous French writer and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine. Now I have to shamefacedly admit that I'd never heard of this gent before. Victor Hugo, yes. Alexander Dumas, naturally. But not this chap. But Blandine said she'd had to read yards of his stuff in school, so I guess he must've been a pretty big pot. They don't make schoolchildren read yards of your stuff if you aren't a big pot. So we decided to take a dekko. Blandine wanted to see the grave of the chap who's prose and poetry was engraved in her childhood brain, and as a small-fry writer, I felt it behooved me to visit the home of a celebrated one. Unfortunately, his house was closed to the public at that time, so I took an outside shot from the walls. But the chapel of the house was open to the public, and a very charming chapel it was too. Here are some photos of the chapel, followed by a photo of the grave of Alphonse de Lamartine, a memorial plaque installed by the former French President Francois Mitterand on the occasion of Lamartine's Bicentenary, and an outside shot of the home where he  wrote most of his best known work, including the romantic poem 'Le Lac' (The Lake).