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Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sandcastles and Sea Dogs





It only took weeks of persuasion, but I finally wore him down. My holiday-averse husband, Jack, agreed to us having a short break. Just for three nights, but enough for a change of scene. Our destination would be Capbreton. If you’ve read our Fat Dogs adventures, you'll know how much we love it. Yes, even Jack.


Aby and Max, our two Australian Shepherds, would be coming with us. Extra bouncy, super affectionate, and devoted swimmers, our mutts have led a sheltered life in the countryside. I chose not to share my apprehensions with Jack about their first visit to the seaside.

The sight of all that sand could easily cause Aby, a dedicated digger, to transform pristine surfaces into pitted mantraps, and Max to launch enthusiastically into the Atlantic waves never to return. And then there were all those people to greet in that uniquely canine way.

Time would tell.

We loaded our small suitcase and four bags of dog goodies into the car and left early.



“Oh my God, are they going to do that all the way there?” yelled Jack above the chorusing howls.

The dogs, thinking they were off for a walk with their chums had begun their usual joyous song. It’s loud. It’s continuous. They sound just like a pack of wolves.

“Not to worry, they won’t be able to keep it up for three hours,” I chirped after the umpteenth correction. Fortunately, they gave up after a couple of kilometres, and we reached our destination mostly unscathed by lunchtime.


Capbreton is a small harbour town filled with quirky houses and, of course, a magnificent Mairie (town hall). It lies on the west coast, just north of Bayonne and Biarritz at the point where the River Adour flows into the sea. And it’s not just any old stretch of sea.

The Gulf of Capbreton is a 300 kilometre meandering submarine valley. It plunges to mind-boggling depths of three kilometres. This underwater canyon brings Atlantic wave power to the near shore, creating world-class breakers. It’s the stuff of dreams for surfers, the reason they pronounce it awesome, rad and far out. They even hold championships here. But that’s not the only attraction.

On windy days it’s a place where seagulls fly sideways, and halyards beat a tattoo against yacht masts. The Atlantic turns grey, and crests of waves become white horses with flailing manes as they race towards the beach. For imagineers, their pounding hooves are clearly audible as the surf crashes onto the sand.

In conditions like this, berets are lost to thieving gale force winds, and people scurry for cover. But nobody minds. The wild theatre is incredibly spectacular, and everyone knows it won’t last long. This time there was none of the harsh weather for us.

We reached our seafront apartment in benign conditions and hot temperatures. Baby waves played with the sand, frustratingly small for pro surfers, but ideal for novices like our dogs.

I unpacked while Aby and Max ogled the beach from our apartment balcony. New smells, new sounds, and new scenes – this was going to be exciting! Luckily they decided not to take a running jump over the rail. Instead, they waited impatiently while I attached their collars and leads for our stroll to eat.



Lunch began as a  sporty affair because the dogs mistook our amble for the start of an epic walk on the yellow stuff. After slaloming us around several holidaymakers, they were disappointed to find we were going to sit down. Boring, but not for long!

Despite being firmly attached to Jack’s chair, Aby decided to make new best friends with the diners next to us and, well, most anyone who came within a lead’s length. With that dragging power, she should have been a husky. The lead rapidly shortened as did Jack’s temper as I was reminded about “my” dog’s lack of manners. Luckily Capbreton is full of dog lovers, and her exuberance was rewarded by many pats on the head, cries of “Belle chien!” and far too many French fries.


For seafood lovers, eating here is excellent. With guaranteed fresher than fresh produce we reviewed the mouth-wateringly enticing menu and did what we always do, order oysters followed by moules frites. A Parisian couple dining next to us decided to choose our wine (it’s a useful French-help thing), which turned out to be an inspired choice. Our mini-holiday had got off to a great start.

Now it was the dogs' turn.



With mercifully few sun seekers on the beaches, we headed off for a trek. Our mutts didn’t know what had hit them. Leaping around, making trial holes, testing shells for crunch value, they dashed randomly across the sand and towards the surf. At this point, I started getting nervous thoughts. Should I have packed canine lifebelts? What if Aby decides to say hello to that surfer – waaay out at sea? And Max, once he starts swimming…will he stop?  How far away is America anyway? Luckily help was at hand.

Despite being relatively calm, the sea was still pretty frisky. Both dogs gambolled over to examine a line of rocks. It was a safe area so we watched, interested to see how they would react to the inevitable.



A small breaker briefly doused them as they were in mid snuffle. And that was it for mademoiselle Aby. If a dog could pout, she would. Trying not to giggle, we could tell what she was thinking: Pond water doesn’t usually move in and out like this anyway, and certainly has no business jumping up and throwing itself all over my coat. For her, it was strictly toe-depth only after that. Max was equally shocked but braver. He trotted in and out, tried to eat the milky surf – bad idea – and then settled for paddling, but not much more. On the whole, that was quite a relief.

We’d decided to check out the concrete war bunker, and gun emplacement remains. The Germans had built these to defend occupied France against the Allied Forces landing. Ever-meticulous, they’d virtually enclosed the French coastline with huge defence installations, extending to the south-western border with Spain. These were never actually used because the D-Day landings occurred some 650 kilometres to the north on the beaches of Normandy. Today, they look very different. Torn from their foundations by ravaging storms, they serve a happier purpose as a great adventure playground for dogs and overgrown kids alike.



Pottering around this beach reminded us of scenes from Mad Max movies. The bunkers were a real eye-opener. Graffiti had changed since we were last here and become extraordinary works of art.



The towering dunes sheltering the beach hadn’t altered much, but there was a series of strange structures made from driftwood now decorated their bases. It was surreal, it was fascinating, and especially for Max who decided to territory-mark every single piece of wood. We were there for ages.

The sun was still blazing, so we decided to have a refresher on the way back. Jack planted me in one of those low deckchairs, you know, the old-fashioned ones shaped like a sling. Ever so comfy but you can’t get out. He fetched us a beer each, and there we sat, planted, with our sandy dogs, chilling-out as we watched surfers bob up and down in search of the perfect breaker. This was the stuff of holidays.





The next morning, with the beach to ourselves I took Aby and Max for a tennis ball workout. There were lessons to be learned here. First, as someone who has a clinical problem with the simple technique of throwing, I should have pointed away from the waterline. I’ll admit there are now two or three castaways en route across the ocean. It had been a bad idea. Happily, I had back-up. Frisbees.

After a brilliant session (where no Frisbees were lost), the dogs realised how tiring pounding around the sand could be. We returned to the apartment relaxed and ready for a trip to the neighbouring town.

Hossegor is another world-class surfing magnet on La Côte d’Argent with the longest stretch of sandy beach in Europe. The town is cute, filled with Basque architecture, loaded with chic shops and lots of eateries. I love it.



Jack steered us to a sunny café where we munched on coffee and pâtisseries, watching the town wake up while the dogs snoozed by our sides. They’re late risers here. Intent on browsing their choices of stores, sleepy surfers mooched towards Billabong, Quiksilver, Roxy, and other similar stores. Most sell variously sized and shaped boards, wets suits, swim kit and loads of the après-surf gear that goes with that genre.

Our choice of lunch venue was back in Capbreton and another melange of seafood.

“You ‘ave dogs,” said our waiter pointing disparagingly at Aby and Max. We nodded.

“Then you must sit ‘ere,” he replied, pointing at a perfect corner oasis, sheltered from the breeze and hordes of other diners.

“See, Jack,” I smiled, “there are advantages in having the dogs with us after all.”

Humph!



When our dishes were served Jack eyed mine suspiciously.

“I didn’t think you’d ordered a burger; it looks a bit burnt to me.”

I looked at the sumptuous arrangement in front of me, and there it was, a jet black burger bun, filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon. I took a test nibble. Not only was it as fresh as the crustacean practically roaming around my bowl, but it was also utterly delicious. Another culinary triumph washed down by a scintillating glass of local rosé.


Later on, we decided to check out the pier and marina. The wooden jetty is almost 200 metres long and offers fantastic views over the sea. But it is very old, and the gaps between the slats are wide. Would the dogs cope? I wasn’t too sure.


Max plodded alongside me, happy to go wherever I suggested. Aby, not so brave, stuck to her dad like glue. If he could make it along that scary gangway, she could too – so long as we all took things nice and slow.
 
Not every dog can cope with the sight of water rushing below, or excitable children pounding by. To their credit, they didn’t blanch. The reward for us was those fantastic views, a chance to watch locals fish from the rocks and seafarers negotiate the tides. On rough days re-entry to the port can be perilous, that day it was easy-peasy.



Relaxing on our balcony at the end of the day was dreamy. A benign breeze from the ocean tempered the sun’s rays making conditions just right. The sunsets here are stunningly exquisite and so what did we do? We sipped a glass of fizz with our floppy dogs by our sides and watched the sun sink gently below the horizon, it was bliss. 



Our final day was dogful. Aby and Max, now pros at beach Frisbee, acquired a new friend, another Australian Shepherd. This bouncy chap, looking similar to Max bounded up and wanted to play. His owner puffed up sometime later yodelling “Nesta, viens ici!” nicely demonstrating that it wasn’t only me with dog control issues.

Nesta was a meet and greet kind of a chap and despite his owner’s protestations proceeded to say hello to everyone on the beach, whether they liked it or not. Max evidently thought he wasn’t worth sharing his Frisbee with but I believe Aby was smitten. Were it not for the pressing game involved; I think she would have been severely tempted.  


Having exhausted the occupants of our beach, Nesta charged off to the next one to find new friends. His owner, now a relatively long way behind and flagging, was still yodelling. It was going to be fab exercise for the pair of them.

Our next canine encounter came in the afternoon from a different breed altogether. The dogs were busy scrutinising rock pools when an admirer enveloped Max from behind. A very large German Shepherd had taken a great interest in his backside. Understandably, since Max was fishing for shrimps at the time, it was a shock.

It took several minutes for her diminutive owner to heave the aptly named Amazon off the poor lad, but she managed. Amazon, still filled with amour, continued to strain at the lead as she was dragged away. It was quite enough for Max. Looking moderately disgusted, he retired to the shallows for a mollifying wallow.

Our final evening meal was at one of our favourite restaurants. Still wonderfully warm, we watched promenaders wander by. Our surfer buddies, who would appear later, had exchanged places with chic diners and many, many handbag-sized dogs. They were as beautifully coiffured as their owners, but, Lord, can they yap!



We wowed at the fortitude of the couple who commenced battle with their sumptuous fruits de mer. A cornucopia of mixed shellfish, it was served cold on a platter the size of a dustbin lid. It looked amazing and probably was, but it was too much for us. We made no excuses for sticking to our meal choices. Yes, it was oysters again followed by moules frites, one between two. We’d already eaten too well this hols.

All too soon it was time to go, one last Frisbee session, and the discovery of a sandcastle. This was new. Aby eyed it suspiciously, wondering how the moles in Capbreton managed to make such tidy hills. Max blundered up soon after, forgot to stop, and that was that. No more sandcastle.


 We said goodbye to our wonderful apartment, those sea views, that sea air and took our mutts back home. On the whole, they had behaved impeccably well. Were they confirmed seadogs now? Perhaps not surfers, but they did love those beaches!



Saturday, 1 September 2018

Animal Magic



Picture the scene. You’re in rural France surrounded by a collection of tethered animals. Gently lowing cattle mumble to bleating sheep, neighing horses natter to their braying cousins. Goats, are chipping in from time to time, they always have something to say. Then there are the humming alpacas – nobody seems to understand what they’re going on about.

Now you can smell the ironic cocktail of beasts mixed with smoking barbecues and tissue paper crepes sizzling on hotplates. Giggling youngsters and gossiping adults compete for air time with mechanical belches coming from smoke covered ancient machines. And there you have it; the rural French livestock fete my sister, Di, and I visited a couple of weekends ago.

This event was a festival of pulling, though not in the modern-day colloquial sense. It was a celebration of those animals traditionally used for drawing machines, and also motorised traction equipment. Advances in technology have meant that many of these specifically bred animals no longer have a practical use, and several of the machines are now obsolete. Today was an opportunity to admire these workers.



We ambled along a line of portly backsides – docile cattle, every one in perfect condition. Most snoozed in the blazing afternoon sun although some had a spot of bother with flies. Circling to the front end, we were met by liquid brown eyes. Their expressions spoke volumes. Did we have anything to nibble on? Ah no, shame. Never mind, a mouthful of hay will do. Feel free to admire us and scratch our ears, they are a bit itchy.


Adjacent were a collection of metal corrals. Individually, these contained sheep, goats and a different breed of cattle. These were brown with particularly pointy horns.


“Ooh come and have a look at these ones,” I called to Di, weaving my hand through the cylindrical bars to give one a forehead scratch.

Bang!

“Don’t touch though,” I winced unsquishing my hand from between the rail and the animal’s head, “think this one’s had enough for the day.”

“Ouch! I wonder if they were used for pushing rather than pulling things?!”

“Very funny.”

We walked over to the horses. Huge heavyweight draft livestock welcomed us with pleasurable snickers and lazily swishing tails. Bays, roans, blacks, all with hooves the size of dinner plates and proud countenances, each wanting attention. And we were the pair to give it.


We were brought up riding ponies and horses. We learned very early that the smaller the animal, the greater the risk of being shipped off the top – or mauled. Tiny Shetland ponies were quite the worst offenders in our experience. Big beasts like these tended to be less mischievous. Their gentle kind eyes said it all. I was busy fussing a particularly handsome giant when Di gasped theatrically.

“You have to look at this one!”

I joined her at the side of a black beauty.

“Wow, what a gorgeous animal.”

“Ooh, I’d love to have one of these, just think, I could ride it through the orchards and in the forest and…”

“It’s a big broad across the back for you, Di, you’re only little. Your feet would stick up either side of the saddle. Think rider from a Thelwell cartoon.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Besides which, with your stiff back you’d need a stepladder to get on it.”

Humph.”

We discovered it was a Mérens pony (Google image below). Also known as an Ariégeois pony, it a small, rustic horse native to the Pyrenees and Ariégeois mountains of southern France. They were traditionally used for draft work or pack horses and are known for their sure-footedness. This was a trait I felt might come in handy if my sister were to acquire one.



We moved onto the youngsters. Foals peeped bashfully, calves crowded around their mums looking for a quick snack, each one impossibly adorable.



The sheep, goats and donkeys were penned in small enclosures, all looked perfectly at home, enjoying the human spectacle passing by. I wondered what they thought about us – we were a motley old crew.


Our final pen contained a group of alpacas. Normally incredibly beautiful, one jet black specimen tried his best to buck the trend. That boy needed serious dental work!


We stepped out from the shade of trees into bright sunshine and what looked like a Romany encampment. Stalls stacked with bric-a-brac lined one side of the field the other was filled with a fantastic assortment of vehicles, some motorised, others not. Sensing a buying opportunity, my sister dragged me to the first stand and started digging around in a pile of material.

“Look! You must buy that tapestry.”

“Why, it’s tiny?”

“That medieval scene with a bit of Carcassonne in it would go wonderfully well in your place. You can make a cushion out of it.”

Being a sucker for ‘old’ things I approached the trader and asked how much he would consider selling the moth eaten treasure for. He looked so nonplussed I wondered whether I was supposed to open the bidding. In an effort to kick things off I started wafting it about looking suitably disappointed.

Erm, 50 cents s’il vous plaît,” he blurted, apparently plucking a price out of thin area.

Bargain. Buy it!” hissed the retail addict beside me.

I produced a 50 cents coin just as a commanding looking lady joined the young man.

20 euros, madame, s’il vous plaît,” she rapped.

This was embarrassing. I looked appropriately confused while the youngster confessed he had just sold it to me for, ooooh, a fraction of the price. The lady scowled and shrugged her shoulders, I shrugged mine and Di beamed inanely. We scurried off with said tapestry leaving the poor lad to his fate.




We passed trestle tables groaning with old signs, another with tools. Then a basket maker, a saddler, a rope maker demonstrating the technique involved. And if you wanted to buy a hat – no problem. There was a mountain of them from which to choose a special fave. After all, it was a boiling hot day.


The machines and tackle were equally intriguing. Old tractors, rollers, ploughs, motorbikes from WW2 (we weren’t entirely sure why they were there, nevertheless they were fascinating), all gracious and intriguing in an old fashioned way. There were carriages and carts of different sizes, then a wall bearing yolks used by horses. These were superb exhibits from the past, and not so distant in the case of our area.






We turned back towards a grassy arena where they were preparing for the main event. We were dying to see this. It was to be an equestrian show with Festibérique, a local team of riders and performers. Our pal’s granddaughter was performing. I had seen Léna ride before and knew her to be a highly skilled horsewoman.


We headed towards it via the horseboxes to wish Léna good luck as she prepared for the show. The mounts were ready, saddled up and relaxing in the shade. They were all stunning. But it wasn’t all horses. Di drew my attention to a very unusual artist. It was the tallest cow I have ever seen in my life. I had no idea what this fine animal was expected to do.







Hunger and thirst had got the better of us by now. We decided to satiate both before the display began. Di trotted off to buy drinks and I made a beeline for the ice cream man.

We settled down on the grassy mound that formed our seating for the arena, dribbly ice cream in one hand, water in the other, waiting for the spectacle to begin.


On came a duo of greys, stunning horses ridden by men with lances who executed a series of intricate movements. Horses in perfect harmony to the complex manipulation of the props – we were gripped.


An interlude of fun came next with an impossibly cute Shetland pony and its human sidekick. That well known film theme blared across the showground from speakers close by. Yes, we were in the company of Pirates of the Caribbean. They were alternative, they were brilliant.



The feisty pony swaggered and cavorted around the arena, plainly loving the fun. We suspected it wasn’t doing exactly as its co-performer asked, but that’s Shetlands for you. As they tumbled out in came the enormous cow. I’ll admit I haven’t seen a performing cow before.


I suspect it really wouldn’t have mattered what its owner commanded, this animal was going to do its own sweet thing come what may. That said, it obliged with several very un-cowly slow motion manoeuvres before discovering the arena base material. Grass. Lovely lush green grass.

The audience roared with laughter at this amiable monster as his master tried his best to divert its attention but it was always going to be a losing battle. Finally the act came to an end. The pair strolled out of the arena to the sounds of cheers and uproarious applause for the cow with attitude and a mouthful of the green stuff.

Then came the performers we were really waiting to see. The music changed. Silence fell among the spectators as ethereal notes filled the air. Léna rode in on her beloved Swany, a majestic grey horse who loves to perform.




They moved in perfect harmony, both horse and rider utterly in tune. Dressage movements, movements one naturally associates with those famed Lipizzaner horses, Léna gave the subtlest commands and Swany responded.

This beautiful horse glided, side-stepped, high-stepped and pirouetted. Her elegance was remarkable as was the grace with which she executed each move. We could have watched for hours.

As their performance came to an end, both Léna and Swany bowed to the each section of the audience. Cheers of admiration rang out, the audience were in love with this talented pair – the bond between them as obvious as their demonstration of equestrian excellence.


We had time to see one more act before leaving and this had a wow factor all of its own. On came another big grey horse with its male rider using a saddle but no bridle. They began by executing a series of death-defying acrobatics. As the horse thundered around the arena the rider slid off the saddle, under the horse’s belly and back on the saddle the other side. It was an unbelievable stunt, and just the start.


The rider vaulted either side of his mount, made handstands on the saddle, reached horizontal, you name it – he performed it, all the time while the horse was in motion. We couldn’t believe our eyes.



Their piece ended to huge cheers of admiration for both rider and his fantastic mount. But that was not the end of it.



As spectators excitedly gossiped about the rodeo-like show we had just witnessed they returned. This time without saddle or bridle, the mighty horse, refreshed with water, came back in with his master to dazzle us with a series of fantastic moves that showed the true athleticism of this wonderful animal.


The horse reared, it bucked, it spun, it danced. It made a capriole-like move by leaping into the air, tucking his fore legs under his chest, and kicking out with his hind legs at the top of the jump. It must have taken years of training to achieve. We watched, spellbound as this partnership entertained. Finally, under the beating sun, their act was complete. It had been another stunning performance, one that reinforced our love for these noble animals.



A final bow from this great steed signaled the end of our visit. We returned home, Di chattering excitedly about owning Méren horses (she was up to a small herd by now), and me about Léna and her co-performer, we were both still in awe of what we had just seen. There’s no doubt about it, we really do reckon animals are magic.