Sunday, 4 June 2017

Celebrations

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This year is an important year for the byways and highways of our region. We are celebrating 20 years of the Voie Verte – an old railway line turned into a cycle track that spans the whole of Burgundy – one for the fit and healthy amongst our visitors and 80 years of the Route des Grands Crus – a route that enables you to visit all of the big wines chateaux of Burgundy - one for the connoisseurs.

Unsurprisingly the first event we have been to was for the Route des Grands Crus.

A week or so ago we saw a note in the newspaper that Château du Clos de Vougeot was open free of charge to celebrate the event and as it is a chateau that we had long been planning to visit, we headed off to just north of Beaune, on a thundery Sunday afternoon, to see what the place had to offer.


Château du Clos de Vougeot under thundery skies
Opening time was 14.00 so being chronically early, even after an en-route picnic, we arrived at 13.00. The town was already packed with cars and no one was allowed to drive up anywhere near the chateau itself unless they had a disabled badge. We parked in town and looking at the sky we did wonder just how wet we were going to get, but we headed off none the less. The walk turned out to be shorter than we had thought and arriving at the chateau we were greeted by a wonderful array of vintage cars lining the approach to the man entrance.

We entered the chateau at about 13.30 and were amazed to learn that we could go in and have a look around.

Part of the wine press
Parts of the chateau are Mediaeval in which you can find some interesting wine making equipment. There was the biggest wine press I have ever seen which I couldn’t photograph as it was just too big! At 14.00 there were supposed to be speeches and the opening of a photo exhibition, but we managed to sneak in before the doors were really open and look at the photos which were very good indeed. Having been to enough of these types of events, we managed to get out in time before the room flooded and we had to listen to endless speeches consisting mainly of thank you for coming Mr the Mayor, thank you for coming Mr the MOP, thank you etc etc…… (fill it in yourself, but make sure you have enough names to last at least 15 minutes) then another half hour of drivel before you get to the one or two interesting sentences about why we are actually there and then of course a glass or two of wine. We didn’t think it was worth the wait, well actually we had guests coming round for drinks late that afternoon and we had to get back, so we headed off just as the guests were filtering in.

Enjoying a picnic amongst the vines
We had seen what we had come to see and we hadn’t been disappointed. The living quarters of the château are interesting, but the real highlights are the winemaking buildings including the cellars. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this château, to combine with a couple of other things on a trip out into the Cote-d’Or and of course a picnic amongst the vines is a must.

 
Just in case you are wondering, we even managed to get back to the car before the heavens opened.



Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Morning

Gathered around the Easter fire
Our first visitors always arrive at Easter and yesterday while I was explaining to our new gite guests that the Easter morning service was at 10.00 and that they had to be well in time or the church would be barred, they told me that there was to be a fire on Saturday evening and the evening service was being held in a field. Intrigued, I went on to the Taizé website to discover that there was to be an all-night vigil around a fire and then the Eucharist was to be held at 06.30 and not at the usual 10.00.

Me and mornings do not go together, but even so this fire and early service intrigued me enough to get up at 05.00 (yes that is five o’clock in the morning!) and head up the hill. I knew where the field would be as there have been more open-air services in Taizé and so after parking amazingly close to the church (third parking space on the left would you believe) I walked to the field. As I turned the corner I could hear quiet singing voices and I could see the bonfire and two icons which had been lit. As I got closer I saw at least 200 youngsters sitting or lying on the grass, I am sure there would have been more had it not been drizzling with rain.

Lighting the lamp
After several songs and some Bible readings in English and French, one of the brothers announced that as dawn was at hand they would light a lantern from the fire to take to the church to light the Pascal candle and we were to lead the way. So off we went in procession to the church. The front doors of the church were already barred as that section was full and judging by the huge queues at the other doors, I wasn’t at all convinced that we would all get in. In fact in view of previous years’ overcrowding, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to get in. But in I did get and there was quite a lot of space still available. Even though the flow of people kept coming right up to the start of the service, the church didn’t get to a dangerously overfull state and I decided to stay. I didn’t manage to lay my hands on a candle or a song book, but I know most of the songs anyway, so that wasn’t any hardship.


The service started in a normal sort of way, songs, Bible readings, more songs and then there was a lot of talking in French and I suddenly realised that a novice was taking his vows and being accepted into the community as a brother. This is something I have wanted to witness for a long time and here it was happening right in front of me! Just at the end of his vows I heard the sound of car tires on the gravel at the side of the church where no cars should be and, call me a wimp if you like, I got very nervous. The service was long from over, we hadn’t even got to the silence and the consecration of the bread and wine hadn’t been done, let alone handing out the communion, but I decided, as everyone stood up to applaud the new brother, it was time for my departure. Back at the car I saw that it was 07.30 so I had been there for more than two hours. After going to the baker, I headed for home and as I write this I can hear the bells ringing out to wish the world a happy Easter, it is now 08.30, so I am glad I left early, I don’t think I could have coped with another hour on the floor.

All in all it was a very interesting experience and it has solved the overcrowding problem of the 10.00 service, either many people didn’t know about the time change or 06.30 is too early for most. So a big well done to the brothers for this innovation and a happy Easter to everyone.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

LED Lightbulbs


A real light bulb fading into history
Ever since the European Union passed one of the silliest and patronising laws banning the manufacture and sale of “normal” lightbulbs, we have struggled with lights in our house. I’m all for energy saving - just ask Cees how I follow him round the house switching off lights and I had energy saving bulbs long, long before they were compulsory, but I had them where I wanted them and where they were “safe”.

It is totally unsafe to have a system of lighting that you have to wait up to 2 minutes (I kid you not for the ones in our living room) before you can enter a space safely and can actually see where you are.

We have been relying on hand-me downs from Cees’ daughter and the one or two precious bulbs we still have left, to use in places where light is actually needed instantly.

Emergency rations
Finally LED lights have come of age and are available and affordable and wow… it is still a joy to walk into our living room and flip the switch and hey presto there was light. But their price is not a rock-bottom, giveaway prices and our old energy saving lights are still working, so we have only slowly started the replacement process.

One of  the recently removed light bulbs
This process was given a big boost last week when a money-off voucher arrived for our local DIY shop, finally we could replace the lights in the kitchen cum dining room.

At that moment we discovered another reason that you shouldn’t use these horrible energy-saving lights – wasps! We found a wasp’s nest in each of the four energy-saving light bulbs and none in the two proper light bulbs. Not only could we have been stung by these angry beasties, but those nests could have caught fire.

All four had the same problem
We are now "real light bulbs-less" in the house, and almost "energy-saving light bulb-less". I’ll keep the real ones for posterity, they might be worth some money in a few years but those ghastly things are going in the bin, it was almost worth voting Brexit to get rid of them – I said almost...



Saturday, 11 March 2017

Discovering a New Restaurant in Cluny

Well it isn’t really a new discovery, we have seen this restaurant many times before, it is a pizza joint, just “the wrong side” of the market square, with a rather tatty terrace that projects into the road making driving up the main street a little tricky.

Now doesn’t that sound like a good recommendation of a restaurant? I think that explains why we had never been. For whatever reason (mainly because all our favourite restaurants were shut for their holidays) we decided to give it a go last weekend.

We arrived at La Calbrese at 12.00 and the place was empty – not a good sign I thought. The waiters were very friendly and we were shown to a nice table. The restaurant itself was very clean, modern and roomy; it had a really nice atmosphere about it.

Quick snap before the hoards of eaters turned up.
The menu looked interesting, a bit more than just pizzas and pasta, which is more than you can say for most French restaurants of this genre. We were so engrossed in the menu that we didn’t spot the other hungry lunchtime guests arriving and by the time we had made our choice, we looked up to find the restaurant was packed.

The lasagne I ordered came with salad at a price way below the competition in town and Cees’ spaghetti bolognaise looked very good as well. Both of us were very impressed with the quality of what we received. The pasta was al-dente, the balance between the pasta and sauce was just right, the parmesan was freshly grated, the wine was very good - in fact I can’t fault anything about the place.

Doesn't look worth the effort, but it is.
I am so glad we finally tried it, but I do have some reservations about recommending it to others, if too many more people start going there, we won’t be able to get in! They were turning people away before half past 12 which shows just how wrong our earlier impressions had been.

Summary - this is an absolute bijou of a restaurant, we will certainly be going back and we will try their other main meals next time, to see if they live up to the high standard they have set.


Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Royal Monastery of Brou

Stunning roof tiles
Last week’s visit into the Bresse to see the cattle market allowed us to revisit one of the most impressive Gothic sites in this area - the monastery at Brou just outside Bourg-en-Bresse. Our first visit to this place was when we stayed on a camping à la ferme near Villefranche, which must have been 15 or more years ago, back in the days when we only dreamed of doing what we now do. Although we have visited it since, it is not one of our regular haunts. We were definitely not disappointed with this visit and we were both left wondering why we don’t come out this way more often, it’s less than an hour from home and well worth the detour.

The choir and the beautiful stained glass windows
The church is exquisitely decorated and is a perfect textbook example of Flamboyant Gothic. Amazingly the whole place was built in a record time of less than 20 years, but sadly the commissioner (Margaret of Austria) died in Belgium three months before it was completed and she never saw the buildings herself even though her remains are interred there. The monastery parts (three cloisters and surrounding buildings) are impressive in their size and decoration, and the roof is really something to behold. It is all a big difference to the simple style Romanesque style we are so used to visiting around here.

Bizarre detail of the back of a choir chair
This place is really well worth all the Michelin stars it gets and as a bonus, the entry ticket gives you a reduced price entry to the Abbey in Cluny – having said that, I think we’ll stick to the free Sunday visits during the winter period, which of course less fortunate visitors can’t do.

This was on a writing desk in one of the nuns cells..
After all that walking and absorbing the culture we were in need of some refreshment and the icing on the cake of the day was the array of restaurants directly opposite the church. They weren’t there when we first visited as I can remember spending hours, on a miserable Sunday, looking for something, looking for anything, to eat. All the restaurants looked good but we plumped for La Duchesse de Savoie which was superb value for money, excellent food and packed by 12.00 which is always a good sign. So we finished our day out in the Bresse with that excellent lunch.

What better way can you imagine to spend a leisurely day?



Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Biggest Cattle Market in France

When we were at the Charolais cattle market at St Christophe-en-Brionnais recently, we got chatting to a man who sells cattle feed. It transpired that the “biggest” cattle market in France was just down the road from us in Bourg-en-Bresse and not being able to resist a day out, we went on Tuesday morning to see yet more cows.

Farmers milling around amongst the cattle

Less than an hour from home, we were outside the huge building where all the action takes place.

Nosey cows
Inside the building there are hundreds of pens with each pen containing different types, sizes and ages of cattle. The farmers mill around and chat to one another, business is done on a human scale here. Unlike St-Christophe, the selling is still done on a one to one basis between the buyer and seller for the animals in each pen. To the untrained eye, it looks like a bunch of farmers chatting with each other, but on careful observation you can see some of them writing in little notebooks and then pieces of paper are furtively exchanged.

Isn't she a cutey?
It is a far cry from the cattle markets of my youth with the incoherent shouting of the auctioneer and the market “à la cadran” in St-Christophe which seems just as frenetic. This is really chilled out and apparently just as effective as all animals seem to be sold and all the farmers we saw seemed to be content. The cattle are not marched in and out of an auctioneer’s ring and they seem to be very content.

Depending on the age and type of animal, different times are allocated for the selling and where the bidding is not going on, visitors like us can have free access to the animals. It was lovely just walking around and chatting to the calves.

Sampling the merchandise
The only bad thing about the market is that it is a way out of town, that makes access and parking easy, but you can’t leave the market and wander around the town, soaking up the market day atmosphere and enjoy a leisurely lunch in a restaurant. There is an on-site restaurant but we decided to move on and visit the monastery at Brou. We found a superb restaurant just opposite the monastery and I’ll give you three guesses what we ordered - well what else can you eat on cattle market day?




Saturday, 11 February 2017

New restaurant at Ponte de Cotte

Massive rennovations
When we first arrived in France, there was a great simple restaurant at Pont de Cotte, less than 10 minutes drive from here on the way to Cluny. It was packed every lunchtime and when we ate there we could see why. The food was good, wholesome, home-cooked food for a reasonable price. Sadly the owner became ill and the restaurant shut. Someone bought it but they soon realised that they couldn’t fund the renovations and by the time another person with enough money to do the work arrived, we had been without our restaurant for a couple of years.

The new owners had very grand plans. They totally gutted the place including a disused barn next door and turned it into a party centre cum restaurant cum music venue cum wine seller cum cum cum cum. In my humble opinion, the scattergun approach to their business model left everyone confused as to what they actually were. Their menu was not very exciting (steak and chips and the like) and expensive enough for us to travel the extra 5 minutes to Cluny to get the same food for a fraction of the price. I asked a number of people who went there what they thought of it and every single one of them said the surroundings and the view over the river were lovely. From that I read that the food was not worth the visit. Secondly they had a sneaky way of selling wine. Being wine merchants, they advertised the price on the menu as the price from their shop with a corkage charge in small letters at the bottom of the menu. Their wine was not cheap to start with, and it gave some of our friends a nasty shock when the bill arrived. All in all, unsurprisingly, they shut after about a year.

Unfortunate name for a restaurant
The next set of owners opened a restaurant rather unfortunately named “The Number Two” (I kid you not) and despite the name (obviously the French didn’t understand this English idiom) they brought the restaurant back to the earlier levels of popularity by offering excellent value for money and great food. The place was always packed. Suddenly last year the restaurant closed. On asking around it appeared that they were only renting the place and the owners (the people who had invested in the renovations) had upped the rent so far that the new restaurant owners couldn’t afford to pay it any more –what did I say about poor business sense?

Looking good!
It must have been shut more than year when we noticed a sign – opening 20th January. It was advertised as a Franco-Italian restaurant and encouraged by the lack of the word pizzeria, we eagerly waited for the opening date.

On the 20th January we were there and we weren’t the only ones. I was rather disappointed to see that it was in fact a pizza pasta restaurant – don’t the French understand Italian cuisine? That said, the menu was interesting and they did have a menu de jour. As it was a Friday, the plat du jour was seafood, which left me out, so I decided to go for some ravioli and Cees chose the menu de jour. As the order was taken, we were heavily encouraged to take the most expensive wine, reliably informed that it was the landlord’s own wine – will he not stop meddling and promoting his flawed business model? We opted for a glass of something significantly cheaper.

Looks um well I won't say - it tasted fantastic though
Before my meal arrived the waitress returned to say that the ravioli hadn’t arrived yet and neither had the lasagne, so I had to choose something different. Not a good start, pre-made raviolis I can cope with (although if you are advertising yourself as an Italian restaurant I would expect that to be homemade) but lasagne bought in pre-prepared? Never mind, some spicy macaroni with lardons would do.

Cees’ starter arrived - a tomato and mushroom salad. I’m not sure what you would expect, but I was rather surprised to see that it was just a plate of sliced raw tomatoes and sliced raw mushrooms with a drizzling of balsamic vinegar. I was glad that I hadn’t ordered it.

The main courses arrived, mine looked very unappetizing but was in fact delicious, Cees’ looked interesting, but according to him was tasteless. When the plates were delivered to our table we were offered parmesan cheese, which we said we would like, but sadly that was either not easily available or forgotten and we waited about 15 minutes for it to arrive, I was already half way through my pasta by then having given up any hope of seeing it.

It looked a lot better in real life, but no taste
Paying was also extremely painful. We stood for about 20 minutes at the bar waiting to pay and that included the waitress taking orders from two tables and delivering useful things like a jug of water to another table. Every time she walked past us she said “j’arrive” but never did.

I will forgive a lot as it was their first day, but when I got home and found out that they have a restaurant in Tournus, the inefficiency of the staff is unforgiveable. Your first day is your showcase and on the basis of that experience we won’t be going back in a hurry.

There are a lot of cars in the car park when we pass at lunch times as it is conveniently located and reasonably priced for the tradesmen who need to have a lunch break in the area, but I can’t see many people like us going back again for a second, similar experience. I hope it works out for them, but I have my doubts.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Christmas Presents

Back to the UK for a late Christmas
This year Christmas was delayed by Cees’ slipped discs and so we didn’t manage to collect our Christmas presents until into January. A part of our trips to the UK is buying essential things like peppermint tea and marmite either not available or so expensive we would have to mortgage the house to get them here. I also bring back black pudding, sausages and an Indian takeaway. But this year I left without the sausages - why? I hear you ask - well my present to myself was a sausage stuffer. Why buy yourself Chanel no5 when you can have something practical?

My present to myself
This week pork was on offer in the supermarket and so it was now or never for the stuffer. I started looking up recipes and they were all a bit too exotic for my taste, what’s wrong with plain Walls’ sausages, nice and pink, not too meaty and bland – very bland.

In desperation I resorted to asking my friends who run a small holding in the Vendee and who run min-courses in self sufficiency skills. They sent me a recipe which also sounded rather exotic – do mace and nutmeg really go in sausages? I trust them, so I decided to try it.

At least they look like sausages
The ancient, noisy meat grinder was my first port of call, twice through the grinder and then I had to take a fist full of aspirin to get rid of the headache. No matter, I was on a mission. After the mixing I was advised to make a small patty, fry it up and taste it – not a bad idea and I was amazed it tasted like Walls’ sausages!

Now on to the sausage stuffer. After a bit of trial and error (read meat mix all over the place and Cees hiding in his room) I managed to get the stuffer to stuff the casings I had bought. And guess what, they actually looked like sausages, which did rather amaze me to be honest.

A real English breakfast
Everything needs to dry for a day or so and so the tasting of the Chazelle sausages couldn’t take place until this morning. What better breakfast can you imagine than bacon, eggs and English sausages? They were scrumptious!

The rest of the batch has gone into the freezer and I will never have to buy additive filled sausages on my trips to England again!


Sunday, 1 January 2017

New Year’s Service in a Romanesque Church

The welcoming interior of Taizé's Romanesque church
Every year the vast majority of the brothers and permanents go off to the European meeting over the NewYear (this year in Riga) and Taizé is practically empty. The last service in the big church this year was Christmas morning and then the remaining brothers retreated into the small Romanesque church in the village.

I have promised myself that I would actually go to the Sunday service between Christmas and New Year one year and this year that Sunday fell on the 1st of January - perfect timing.

The stained glass window above
the front door
I arrived well in time and the church, which is usually empty of all but a few wooden kneeling stools scattered around, had been decked out with benches for the older brothers who would be attending and for the older than average congregation that was expected. The church was heated with discrete electric heaters under the side benches which made it warm and cosy inside. It felt so much more welcoming than it does in the summer months when it is packed with the young visitors who make one feel uncomfortable about entering the building.

When I arrived there were “books” stacked at the entrance to the church and on one of the front benches, entitled “Cantique – Avent et nativité”. I have never seen these books before and they gave the full sung mass for the Christmas period and a number of songs I have never heard sung before. Interestingly these songs had verses, only 3 or 4, but still this is something that the modern song book shies away from.

By the time the bells started, there were 12 or 13 brothers and about 50 in the congregation. We all fitted easily into the church.

Sung mass for the Christmas period
I say there were 12 or 13 brothers as I am not entirely convinced that the priest was one of the brothers. The Eucharist is conducted by a priest of which there are a few within the community itself, but visiting priests also perform the task from time to time. Whilst I am sure that I have seen today’s chap before, his whole “way of doing things” didn’t seem to be the way it is normally done. He gave a short sermon, which is very unusual, whilst Brother Alois does that sometimes, I have never heard one on a Sunday morning. I also felt that the silence was shorter than normal, but maybe that was just me. But the real giveaway for me was that he waited at the door to shake the hands of the parting congregation, whilst the brothers snuck out through the side door.

Frère Roger with the original brothers
when this church was used every day
The whole atmosphere during the service was one of a real monastic order - or should I say what I think an old-fashioned monastic order would be about and I can well imagine that the brothers who partake of these days of intense quiet in this little ancient church must have a great sense of stillness that the large church, and certainly its thousand-fold congregations of the summer months, cannot possibly give them. It has been said that the original order sung all its masses from start to finish and that the Sunday mass is the only service that maintains a high level of singing in its content. This short week of the brothers returning to the Romanesque church also sees for them a return to these sung masses - I wonder how many of those present today were among the original brothers who started here so long ago?

After everyone had gone I returned to take pictures, the church still smelled of extinguished candles and even with its grim grey walls, it still felt very welcoming. For these few days a year, the church is returned to its original purpose, the holding of services and singing with acoustics that really zing - it is a pity it isn’t used this way more often.

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