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Saturday, 3 November 2018

Gone Medieval



Did my misanthropic husband, Jack, fancy going to a fete celebrating medieval life in our part of France? No, of course not. Did I persuade him to go? Yes, but there were caveats. There would be a strict time limit to our attendance, and we would have lunch at his favourite (quiet, barely anyone there at all) restaurant on the way home. Deal.

Di, my sister, joined us and we set out early on a hot morning to our venue, Belleperche Abbey. I’d read about this place and was dying to visit.

Established in 1143 on the banks of the Garonne, Belleperche was founded by the Argombat knights. In association with other families, they affiliated it to the Cistercian order to create a large establishment, which they hoped to profit from.


Belleperche became one of the wealthiest abbeys in the south of France during the 13th century. It owned between 8000 and 9000 hectares (19,768 – 22,239 acres) of land and specialised in wine production, cattle, horse and mule breeding. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Historical events played their part in the Abbey’s relative success, the most significant of which occurred during the French Revolution.  Monks’ estates belonging to the French church were confiscated as national property, and the monks moved from the premises in 1791. Belleperche was auctioned off and owned by a succession of private buyers.


In 1983, a project to turn the central portion into a nightclub unsurprisingly caused a cultural uproar. The Tarn-et-Garonne General Council put in a purchase bid for the building, including the section housing the cloister. Happily, it was accepted. Belleperche was given essential restoration work, enough to preserve the bones of this once majestic group of buildings.

Today, as well as being a national treasure open to the public, Belleperche is home to a museum and hosts several cultural and arts festivals during the year. Today was the medieval event.

We arrived and were directed into a field. A short traipse across the grass led us to a serene, tree-lined avenue filled with the scents and sights of medieval France. There were no trappings of modern life here.


Sheltered beneath graceful boughs of mighty trees, folks were selling authentic wares. First were the makers of arms, shields and various gruesome tools of war. Did we want to buy a sword? This sparked an early interest with Jack. Grudgingly, he admitted even he couldn’t think of a use for one, although, perhaps. Possibly. We dragged him away in case he developed a sudden inspiration.



There were trinkets, charms, and handy utensils made from antlers – I quite fancied one of those butter knives. We learned from the apothecary about the natural forebears of modern medicines. Some of those herbal remedies did seem more compelling than their modern chemical equivalents.



The daily dependencies between humans and animals during the Middle Ages was focused on here. Dead or alive, animals were of crucial importance, as aptly demonstrated by another display – the tannery.

After butchering, the skinners, curriers (who dressed and coloured the hide) and specialist artisans would work to transform pelts into a multitude of different items. Learning about the age-old processes was fascinating. Clothes, harnesses, household utensils, they could all be created.

Strange smells alerted us to a new exhibit. Was it witches brew? It certainly looked like it. We peered into the Halloweeny pot, mesmerised by the bubbling matter, trying to guess what it might be. A lady, who I certainly wouldn’t mess with on a dark night, strode up and put us out of our misery.


The pot was filled with a heady infusion of mixed veg and spices. But it was not for eating. This was for dying wool. She showed us the technique involved, and several yarns, which put a whole new twist on that well-known phrase: here’s one I prepared earlier.

Onion skins created the bronzey-yellow colour, as did turmeric. Blues came from indigo and woad, and browns from walnut shells. The possibilities seemed endless. We were amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the folk from this age.

My animal-attuned ear was alerted by bleating. Close by, we found a mini-farmyard with pigs, sheep, goats, cattle and assorted fowl. These would have provided materials for clothing and food, or both.



I’ll confess to spending a while oohing at each healthy critter, watching the hairy hog tuck into an enormous breakfast and admiring the gorgeous cattle. They looked suspiciously as though they had come from the Highlands of Scotland. Perhaps they had. I was eventually dragged away to another happy surprise.


We walked through the magnificently constructed cloister, it was the one used by monks in the 12th century. We trod those very same flagstones. Just imagine! Our historical meditations were disturbed by the sound of squawks. 


Residing in the shade of a ruin, birds of prey rested regally on wood bases. Well, nearly. There were owls, hawks, falcons, buzzards and one having a bath. It was that which caught my attention. Situated at the back, the bird couldn’t care less about the admiring spectators. It splashed, flopped around and generally made a mess.




At first, it was impossible to work out the species, or the size. All I could be sure of was it was a whopper and loved water. Then it raised its head and the penny dropped. We were actually looking at a bald eagle. This species, with a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres (7.5 feet), was chosen in 1782 as the emblem of the United States of America, because of its longevity, strength and majestic looks. I decided it was a fantastic choice.



We grilled the falconer about each bird, the skills involved in caring for and hunting with these fabulous creatures. His love and respect for the birds was evident from the way he described them, and also their health. They all looked in prime condition. Sadly we would miss the planned falconry display, but it had been a huge treat to see such proud creatures close up.



Our attentions were distracted by clamouring pagan music and an extraordinary-looking jester on stilts. Wearing a catlike mask, he strutted up and down cajoling us to join the players. Unable to resist his invitation we followed, pausing only to grab a bag of sweet roasted almonds, they were seriously yummy.


A merry band of jongleurs drummed, fluted and strummed atonally. In medieval times they would have been court attendants or perhaps travellers for hire, who recited, sang or performed other acts for the audience’s entertainment. This would likely include jugglers and conjurors. This day their repertoire included a raucous announcement of the display I was desperate to see. The jousting match.



Crowds of us were ushered onto a playing field that looked incongruously like a set from a Harry Potter Quidditch tournament. Di and I, thrilled to the core, unashamedly elbowed our ways to the front leaving Jack, mystified as to why we were so interested in a bunch of grown men galloping around in circles on horses, sitting in glorious isolation on the wall behind.

The marshal of the field, whose job it was to referee such matches, grumpily called us to order. We were a medieval mob. He set the ground rules, some of which included matters of health and safety. We were soon to find out why.



Four knights rode onto the tournament field in full regalia. They were splendid. Two pairs, they would go through a series of death-defying challenges to determine the winners. We watched, gripped, as a duo approached. It seemed one knight was the baddie, the other a shining example of chivalry. Their steeds were equally different. One looked ready for a nap while the other was extremely perky. And came close, very close. We were grateful for that sturdy rail.



Tension mounted as a squire arrived to prepare his knights for their first flight of challenges. This gent neatly dispelled any erstwhile romantic thoughts I’d had about squires being young athletes, bounding around their masters energetically, bristling with lances and shields. This chap was solid. Mind you, it’s just as well because the first test definitely wasn’t for the faint-hearted.



Our sturdy squire took his place halfway down the jousting area and held up what looked to me like an unreasonably tiny shield. One after the other, each knight galloped at full tilt towards him and hurled an axe at the target. Splintered wood, embedded blades, both evidence these were authentic weapons. Their skill was incredible to see. Each knight confounded or triumphant, dashed past to line-up again. Those chargers had excellent brakes. 


Other, similarly thrilling trials were followed by arguments with the referee about points scored. Then it was time. The sharp implements of havoc were traded for blunt-ended lances. Helmets were donned, ribald jeering was dispensed with. The jousting began.



The primary aim of jousting was to replicate a clash of heavy cavalry. Each participant would ride towards his opponent at high speed and try to strike him. The objective was to break the lance on the opponent’s shield or jousting armour or unhorse him. Apparently, participants experience close to three and a quarter times their body weight in G-forces when the lances collide with their armour. Just imagine that blow!


Two knights faced one another at opposite ends of the competition field. Cries went up as the referee thrust his flag in the air. Their blood was up. The steeds, energised by the cheering throng hurled themselves, full gallop at their opponent. 

Lances aimed for the heart.



We watched, aghast as the weapons found their targets, splintering on impact. No injuries, but it was as real as could be. Places were changed, knights girding their steeds to battle. Pounding across the sandy base, kicking up dust, on they charged.


A rider was unseated. Crashing to the ground with a spectacular crunch! We watched, alarmed as his horse carried on at full pelt towards the spectators. Would it jump over them? Fingers were hastily unwrapped from rails as the charger came to a practised grinding halt. That was a relief. Those safety instructions well heeded.



Battles continued on foot. Lances traded with swords by the unseated knights. Baddie versus goodie. Our mob cheered on the black knight, he was gloriously evil. Steel clashed, sparks flew as swords scythed together. Grunting and bellowing in the searing heat, this was frighteningly effective combat. Sadly our rogue lost, but he was a dark hero in all our eyes.



The match ended, and winners were declared. The tournament arena was alive with cheering as the knights paraded one final time. Their horses, still utterly magnificent in their finery, were looking ready to do it all again. Well, aside from the nappy one. He seemed ready for a quick kip in the shade.




Our morning was up, and it was time to honour Jack’s side of the bargain. As we walked back down that graceful tree-lined avenue, Di and I chattered excitedly about the gorgeous horses and excellence of the riders. Even Jack, trying his best to be unimpressed, had a word or two to say about the robust weaponry. Yep, there had been something for everyone the day we had gone medieval at Belleperche Abbey. 

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!