Sunday 27 December 2015

Our Christmas Day canal walk above Ceret

A small irrigation canal, cut into the rocks above Ceret, has
It's still autumn in Ceret 
provided public water to the town for centuries. It is more of a Spanish-style levada than an English-style canal. In places the canal is probably only about six inches deep and maybe a foot across, however it was important for public fountains and crop irrigation across Reynes, Ceret, Maurillas and St Jean Pla De Corts. Understandably, in times of drought, making sure each town received its fair share of water was a fraught business and conflicts often ensued. Population increase and agricultural development wager needs overtook the limited levada supply in the 1800s so a much larger canal was built from Le Tech at Amelie Les Bains in the 1860s and our walk began near part of this. However, the little old canal still flows and following part of its journey certainly made for a very pretty walk.

An early signposted diversion took us through mostly
The waterfall,
partly hidden behind a rock ledge 
autumnal woods to visit the waterfall. We didn't expect much of a spectacle at this time of year - there hasn't been any  significant rainfall for ages - however the tumbling water was still a pretty impressive sight. Getting close involves rock scrambling which I didn't fancy so early on in the day so this photo makes the waterfall appear smaller than it really is. It's just far away (as Father Ted said to Dougal)!

Despite the ground being carpeted with fallen leaves and nuts, we were amazed to see Spring indicators too. More mimosa was in full bloom and two trees were absolutely dripping with yellow catkins!

We both appreciated walking the narrow woodland paths, even though most of the first hour was uphill with varying degrees of steepness. We had passed maybe a half dozen people also walking to the waterfall and back, but once we returned to our canal route, we seemed to have the world to ourselves for the rest of the day.

Lunch was a slice of Boterkoek each whilst perched on the
Mas Blasi emblem 
roadside by the very grand entrance to the Mas Blasi estate. Their gate emblem was a leaping boar and we had seen lots of evidence that wild boar had been rooting around in search of food.

Shortly after Mas Blasi our path plunged downhill to spend several minutes passing alongside cherry orchards. It must be absolutely beautiful here in the real Springtime when all these trees are in blossom. Apparently Ceret was the first place in France to begin growing cherry trees and the town got its name from their French name, 'cerise'.

For a short distance, the levada hugs closely to the rock and
our path wasn't much wider alongside it. There were a couple of precarious looking concrete slab bridges to cross too, but they seemed sturdy enough as I dashed over them. The photo here shows Dave about to cross one and you can see how the hillside has fallen away underneath the bridge.

Further down the hill, the levada is a sunken trough across the woodland floor. It's raised moss-covered sides stood out against the fallen leaves and made for a very pretty view, but I imagine that continuously having to clear he water's path in olden days must have been a nightmare!

The canal 
Our whole walk took us about four hours and, if you would like to try the route too, it is number six in the free Little Guide Of Hiking book from Le Boulou tourist office. Our final descent back into Ceret took us past the Capuchin Convent, built in 1581 and abandoned after the French Revolution. I loved its gateway, which was about all that we could really see, and also the improvised wooden gateway (pictured below) which we had seen a few minutes earlier and which I don't think is connected to the convent.

Capuchin convent 
Improvised gateway 

Wednesday 23 December 2015

We're nearly ready for Christmas

Huge non-Christmas news with which to start my post:
Image from the RSPB 

We saw a Hoopoe!

It was on the grass at the front of our pitch and strolled around searching the ground for insects for several minutes before being scared off by an approaching car. Of course neither of us had a camera handy with which to capture this fabulous moment so I have borrowed the above drawing from the RSPB website. We have been 'promised' hoopoes in various Iberian sites over the past couple of winters - much as we were promised red squirrels all across the north of England - but never saw a single one, hence our excitement now! We will add it to our other memorable sightings of wild boar, otter, Spanish ibex and flamingos.

Our Christmas preparations are almost complete. We had a wonderfully tranquil supermarket trip this afternoon where we were delighted at the down-to-earth shopping habits of the local French people. Such a contrast to British supermarkets at this time of year. There was seasonal music playing and I was tempted to buy a natural fir-cone-and-candle table centrepiece, but no manic consumerism, no trolleys laden higher than their pushers, no over-excited sugar-filled children and No Queue At The Checkout. Now some of you back home might think I am gloating. You would be right!
Last Christmas I gave you - a Mojito! 

We are currently on our second bottle of home-mulled wine. (That's the second of the week, not the day, but I am feeling nicely mellow!) The Christmas mixed tape is playing. My freshly baked Boterkoek is cooling on the counter and I am planning to also make marzipans tomorrow. We have some of the delicious local smoked haddock for our Christmas lunch with a Christmas pud that's been stashed since October for afters. And we have our new boardgame, Barricades, to while away the long afternoon. We're not sure yet what we will do on the day itself yet - there won't be Mojitos on the beach this year or a traditional Dutch meal, but I am sure we will find something memorable.

I hope all your Christmas preparations are going well and aren't too stressful? Seasoons Greetings to y'all!

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Three Sisters by Helen Smith / The Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean / Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

Three Sisters by Helen Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The short story Three Sisters was offered as a free download by its author, Helen Smith, to attendees of the BritCrime Ball earlier in December. I subscribe to the BritCrime newsletter as it is a great resource for keeping up to date with the latest in UK crime and mystery writing.

Three Sisters is a modern mystery story set in Brixton, an area of London that I have visited a few times so was able to easily picture, especially with the help of Smith's fabulous descriptions. She really does have a talent for amusing metaphor. Our heroine, Emily, is upset at the recent death of her beloved dog so chooses an apparently atypical action for her - attending an performance art party in an abandoned building at the end of her street. I loved the sound of this party with its circus acts and bizarre characters. Emily soon spots, however, that all is not as it should be and sets herself to exploring behind the curtains.

This is a short story so there isn't space for extensive character development, but, for once, that didn't really matter to me as I was swept up in Smith's beautifully described visuals. The is-it-or-isn't-it crime is neatly plotted and satisfying. I have already downloaded another of Smith's stories and look forward to reading it.

The GlasshouseThe Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of The Glasshouse when I saw it advertised in an Endeavour Press newsletter. I chose it primarily for its Scottish connections because I am not a great fan of military fiction, however The Glasshouse turned out to be a gripping and thought-provoking read. I would love to have read a round dozen of Scottish books by the end of the year, but so far this is only my eleventh book for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.

The Glasshouse is set towards the end of the Second World War. Peace has already been declared in Europe and the Americans have just dropped their first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. World-changing events are kept from the prisoners in the Glasshouse though. This British military prison for British soldiers is completely isolated from the outside world, both by high walls and by the insane mania of its guards. Author Allan Campbell Mclean was himself incarcerated in one of these bizarre institutions during the time period of which he writes so, although his novel is fictitious, it is strongly rooted in remembered fact and this makes reading the book a horrifying experience. Prisoners are treated as less than human by guards who are drunk on power, or just plain drunk, and viciously sadistic, egged on by a mentally disturbed commandant who, to my way of thinking anyway, should not even be allowed command of himself! One particular scene - prisoners building a pyramid from huge timber planks only to have to tear it down and start again when it was complete - reminded me of the forced labour in Martin Sherman's play Bent, where concentration camp prisoners undertook similarly pointless forced labour.

What was most shocking for me were the violently bigoted attitudes displayed by so many characters. Mclean's writing made every one of these men believably real and I do hope that our armed forces no longer display such outrageous racism, xenophobia and misogyny. The Glasshouse is a brilliant piece of writing that perfectly captures a certain place and time. I can't actually say that I enjoyed reading the book - its subject matter doesn't really lend itself to the word, but I am certainly glad to have read it.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind: A NovelSleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock from its publishers, Amazon imprint 47North, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind caught my attention for its wonderful title which I learned is from a Laura Cereta quote. In the book, Charnock tells three stories side-by-side, each tenuously linked by the art of fifteenth century painter Paolo Uccelli and his daughter, thirteen year old Antonia. Antonia's is one of our three protagonists. Living as she really did in fifteenth century Italy, her short life -she died aged thirty-five - was spent primarily within the walls of a convent. Charnock imagines this as the only way her father could ensure her freedom to paint professionally. A husband of the time would surely not have allowed a career for his wife. This rang very true for me having not so long ago read Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel, a biography of a comparable woman's life.

Charnock's second thread is Toni, a teenager in 2015 who has travelled to China with with her art copyist father. He too encourages his daughter's artistic talents, but in this time period there isn't a question of art or marriage. Indeed, for Toni such decisions for her future aren't even on the cards yet even though she is the same age as our historical Antonia.

In the year 2113, Toniah is a single woman in her twenties living with her sister and niece in a wholly female household. Due to technological advances, husbands and fathers are no longer necessary for human reproduction and Charnock presents a vision of a Britain where male-excluded households are becoming commonplace and Toniah's work as an art historian is reinstating women who were 'inadvertently overlooked' by traditional patriarchal history.

I enjoyed reading all three stories, especially the historical one, and liked how Charnock asks questions about gender and the importance of balance. Her protagonists' lives have factors in common as well as divergence and I was interested in her portrayal of the differences in female freedom as well as what I thought was a 'is this too far?' question in her futuristic scenario. Some of the dialogue doesn't quite sit right for its character, but overall I found the characters themselves to be well thought through and believable. What I didn't like about the book though, and what really ruined it for me, was the abruptness of the ending. It just stops with Antonia/Toni/Toniah each poised on the threshold of their futures and no sense of closure. I have since read elsewhere that this deliberate device on Charnock's part was inspired by other works she had read, leaving the story open to the reader's imagination, but I was left feeling rather that at least a quarter of the novel was simply missing.

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Monday 21 December 2015

Staying local - Saint Ferreol and Saint Jean Pla de Corts

Despite our Spanish excursion earlier in the week, we don't
Iron cross en route to Saint Ferreol 
actually need to go far for amazing sights in this corner of France. We enjoyed an eight mile hike recently - yes, another from our Little Guide of Hiking - and traipsed from the Devil's Bridge in Ceret to the Saint Ferreol Hermitage above the town. The Hermitage was first built in the late thirteenth century as a sanctuary. It has undergone many changes since then and I don't think its hermit took up residence until the eighteenth century. There isn't one in situ now either. The site has a lovely peace to it and fabulous views out over the valley and surrounding countryside. We weren't able to see inside the church as it only opens at weekends, but from photographs we learned that its sober exterior decor is continued indoors with remarkably restrained gilting.

Saint Ferreol 
As you can see from the deep blue sky in my photographs,
Mimosa flowering 
we picked a gorgeous day for our walk! It certainly did not feel like December and we even passed by mimosa in full flower which apparently shouldn't happen around here until late January. Definitely another sign of screwy happenings in our climate and I have my fingers crossed that the recent historic Paris agreement actually does result in some real action, not just empty political posturing. It's a shame our Tory government doesn't understand what they signed up to though. I hear they are now investing massively in fracking but have stopped all investment in solar energy and other renewables. Isn't that the wrong way round?

We took a stroll into our nearest town of St Jean Pla de
Wall plaque in St Jean 
Corts on Saturday, ostensibly in search of tamarind paste for another curry. We couldn't find it in the Intermarche, but staff at Ceret's Bio shop suggested trying the pharmacy and there is a huge pharmacy in St Jean - where they did have tamarind, but only in capsules as a digestion medication. Hmmm!

The town centre is nice. We discovered its huge, out-of-place brick chimney is a kiln for brick-making and there's a range of social amenities that look very new - medical centre, mairie, visiting library, community centre. Street art includes the sculpture pictured below which is entitled Timidite and was created by Francis Aggery, a local sculptor who lived in Maurillas. The greengrocer and bakery-tearoom are open seven days a week which surprised me. It seems that more and more French shops are opening on Saturday afternoons and on Sundays. They still keep their long lunch breaks though!

Timidite by Francis Aggery, St Jean 
Apologies for any bizarre formatting or broken links in posts at the moment. Amazon decided to unexpectedly release an upgrade of the Silk browser to my Kindle Fire without ironing out all the bugs first! Photographs are repositioning themselves, plus I am having to type out all the links and their html by hand because the paste button doesn't work. 'Customer Services' operatives for the UK refused to accept that the new software had any problems and insisted on 'troubleshooting measures' based around me repeatedly turning my Kindle off and on again! Fortunately an email from American Amazon admitted the pasting issue at least and gave hope of a fix within a' few days'. In the meantime, if you spot broken links or other weirdness, please holler in the Comments below.

And on a happier note, here's an excellent Christmas song to finish:

Sunday 20 December 2015

IA Initiate by John Darryl Winston / Alla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal / Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

IA: Initiate by John Darryl Winston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I won a copy of IA Initiate and its sequel, IA Boss, from their author, John Darryl Winston, in a Goodreads giveaway run to celebrate the release of the latter.

IA Initiate is set in a slightly futuristic dystopian cityscape. The Exclave is recognisable as the rough end of any present-day Western city, yet is given a sense of difference through interesting use of language and descriptions of elements such as the hyperstores and the Helix train. The Market Merchants reminded me of the Chinese stores in practically every Spanish town - everything you could possibly want even though you don't know you need something until you see it there!

Naz Anderson is our thirteen year old protagonist, a head-down, stay-unnoticed kind of boy, orphaned and devoted to his younger sister, Meri. Winton's creations of both Naz and Meri are well done making it easy to envisage these children and to empathise with them. We learn of the trauma in their past and how Naz in particular is having problems due to these events. Other characters around them are more hazy, but may develop further in sequel(s) to this novella.

IA Initiate kept me interested throughout and I like Winston's understated style of writing. This is very much a YA novella, written by a teacher, and I thought it occasionally veered too close to overt moralising, but I enjoyed the read nonetheless. His created world has a hint of scifi without being bafflingly different and there are enough intriguing open threads to tempt me into its sequel, IA Boss. However, IA Initiate has a good story arc in its own right and A Proper Sense Of An Ending!

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Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet BalletAlla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Alla Osipenko by Joel Lobenthal from its publishers, Oxford University Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. I hadn't previously heard of Alla Osipenko. Although I do like going to see ballet, I don't know many names other than the really famous dancers so I hoped to extend my knowledge through reading this biography.

Unfortunately Lobenthal's writing is very dry, with short journalistic paragraphs and absolutely no sense of flow or beauty to the prose - which is ironic for a ballet biography! The book does mention all the major and minor dance roles undertaken by Osipenko as well as giving details of her personal life, but it's like being faced with a great sheaf of notes that are yet to be properly integrated. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors on every page too, some making sentences completely unintelligible, so I considered several times whether to actually bother finishing the read. It's a shame as Osipenko must have led a fascinating life, but it is not done justice to in this book.

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Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads - Nigeria book choices.

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Buy the woven book sleeve from my handmade shop.

I bought Purple Hibiscus from the great Children's Society charity shop in Garstang over the summer. If you're local to there, they have an excellent book selection!

Purple Hibiscus is a Nigerian-set coming of age novel following fifteen-year-old Kambili over the months after a military coup in Nigeria is the catalyst for massive change in the country and also in her oppressive home life. I was reminded a little of the obsessively religious patriarch in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible who, like Eugene here, puts ridiculous strains onto his family in the name of his God. Eugene however has been so brainwashed by a particularly sadistic strain of Catholicism that he is simply vicious to his wife and children. I found several of the abuse scenes in Purple Hibiscus difficult to read and what makes it more so is Kambili's apparent quiet acceptance of her treatment. It is not until she experiences life with her aunt instead of her parents that she finds a hint of self-respect and courage.

I love Adichie's descriptive prose which really brings urban and rural Nigeria to life for me. She has a wonderful eye for detail and creates realistic complex characters that I could easily believe in, even when I didn't like them! The menace of the political instability surrounds every scene meaning that there is always a sense of unease - within the family or within the country, perhaps one is a microcosm of the other? The contrasts between our rich central family's lifestyle and that of their poor village back home are shocking. Even the forced frugality of Aunt Ifeoma, awaiting her university salary which hasn't been paid, made me realise how much I take for granted. At least our caravan generally has reliable power!

I think I liked Purple Hibiscus the most of Adichie's books that I have read so far, but it's only my third title so I still have lots more to discover!

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Saturday 19 December 2015

Art at last! We visit the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres

It seems like months since we last got ourselves to a good
Gold plated allium flower by Dali 
modern art exhibition so I was very excited to discover that the famous Dali Museum in Figueres, although just over the Spanish border, was easily within reach for a day trip. The building itself was originally the Municipal Theatre and very popular until cinema became the more favoured pastime. The theatre was damaged during the Spanish Civil War and later burned by pro-Franco troops, so I imagine that the local council officials must have been only too glad to consider Dali's offer to regenerate the forgotten space for his museum. The new Dali Museum opened in 1974 with the man himself being at the centre of its organisation and arrangements. It has apparently been the most popular visitor attraction in Catalonia ever since. The admission price of €12 for me and €9 for Dave, while steep by our frugal (tight!) standards, is very good value for the volume of exhibits on show.

For an absolutely free experience, you can just admire the
Sculpture outside the
Dali Museum 
outside of the theatre building with its huge eggs along the parapets and its pink walls decorated with golden painted loaves of bread. The repetitive design reminded me of the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) in Salamanca, but I didn't realise the items were meant to be bread until a helpful information plaque told us so.

There are several large statues, sculptures and artworks dotted all around the streets and squares adjacent to the Museum and the Libreria shop next door which is free to enter and has some amazing small Daliesque sculptures amongst its surreal offerings.

Our first sighting of the Dali Museum 
We had learned online that queuing is inevitable to buy tickets and get into the Museum. However I can recommend Wednesdays in December as a suitably quiet time to visit. We only had one trio ahead of us, already part-way through their transaction. This might just have been luck though!

The Museum incorporates huge spaces as well as small
galleries so we got to see works such as the amazing painted ceilings and the whole central courtyard with its vintage car, gold coloured figurines and re-situated gargoyles. A significant proportion of the exhibits are created from found objects and I love how many are repurposed to give them fun and humorous new meaning.

Dali left his entire estate to the Spanish state on his death and they promptly shipped many of the most famous works to Madrid, much to the dismay of the Catalan people. However that means that most of the work on show in Figueres was completely new to me. This painting pictured here, Phantom Cart, has incredible tiny detail and is my new Favourite Dali work. I'd love to be travelling on that cart to that city, wherever it may be! The oil painting is only 19 by 24cm - caravan sized!

The Phantom Cart by Dali (1933) 
The Dali Museum doesn't just have Dali's work. Pieces by
Rock figure by Antoni Pitxot 
other artists are also on show, some that Dali had collected himself. Our favourite of the 'other artists' was Antoni Pitxot, a close friend of Dali who was invited by him to show a gallery of his incredible rock inspired paintings. Pitxot collected interesting pieces of rock, arranged them in wire cages to represent human figures, and then painted the result. To see a whole gallery of these 'people' was a fantastic experience.

The final delight, also included in our Dali Museum ticket price, was a visit to the Dali Jewels which are housed in a separate very secure building just around the corner.  It's very dingy in the Jewels Museum, presumably so the items in the illuminated cases glitter more by comparison! I couldn't get any decent photos, but loved seeing these incredible brooches, rings, crosses and objets d'art. My absolute favourite was a diamond encrusted eye brooch with a tiny teardeop pendant. There was even a beating ruby heart too! We learned that the jewels were made by expert jewellers in New York under close supervision from Dali. Next to the cases were his original drawings of how he wanted each piece to appear.

I thoroughly enjoyed my hours in the Dali Museum and wouldn't mind returning if we are around this way again. The sheer volume of work was getting quite overwhelming towards the end so I am sure I didn't really take in everything! In the meantime, we are hoping to also visit the modern art museums in Ceret and in Perpignan so expect more arty posts before we move on again.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

I buy Christmas presents for my bicycle!

We planned a trip to the Perpignan branch of sports megastore
Pretty gel seat pad 
Decathlon on Monday afternoon, ostensibly so I could buy Dave a pair of lightweight walking trousers for a Christmas present. He's been getting some odd looks for striding out in t-shirt and shorts when all the locals are bundled into their thick winter coats. Of course, although we think it's pretty warm here - 19c today! - there were only heavy fabric trousers available. So no pressie. Maybe in Perpignan? Or maybe not until the new season stock arrives in Spring? I remember we had a similar problem being out of sync with the season in Spain last winter.

Instead, while Dave chose himself a lovely Christmas coloured fleece, I
Rechargeable bike light 
went wandering through the bicycle section. There are some beautifully elegant models for when I might want a new bike, but I am still enamoured with my little B-Fold 320 for now. I got a new front light - the batteries leaked in my old one - which is rechargeable by USB using the same type of lead as my phone. I hadn't seen these light types before, but apparently it's de rigueur now as there weren't any AA battery ones. I also saw the pretty gel seat pad pictured above. It fits simply over my existing saddle and secures with a drawstring underneath. I was hoping it would provide the same added comfort as cycling shorts, only without their expense!

On Tuesday we took ourselves off on what we think is our second-
Partly-hidden chateau 
longest cycle together, about 30km covering already-known ground on the Voie Verte as far as Le Boulou, then onto a different cycle route - also a Voie Verte - towards Argeles-sur-Mer. Having set out after lunch, we knew we wouldn't get as far as Argeles, but surprised ourselves with 11km before turning back. I might have a bright new light, but Dave didn't have so we couldn't risk being still riding at dusk. The cycle route was practically all tarmac or concrete, wide and fairly flat, and almost completely traffic free. It runs alongside the main road for much of the way, utilising a pre-existing agricultural service road, so we were aware of cars and trucks hurtling past, but were safely several metres and barriers away. Apart from the gust of wind from a passing static-caravan-on-a-lorry that blew Dave's hat off that is!

We were so pleased with ourselves that we think we might ride out again soon along the same route, but starting out earlier and with a picnic lunch so we could continue as far as Argeles. It would 'only' be another 11km each way so easy peasy! And, with my super new gel pad I probably wouldn't notice the extra saddle time at all!?

Street art by the Voie Verte 

Tuesday 15 December 2015

On The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Lesley Downer / Into The Fire by Manda Scott / The Heart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of On The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Lesley Downer when I saw it mentioned in an Endeavour Press newsletter. Like Richard Flanagan's similarly titled Burma railroad novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Downer's book owes its naming to Matsuo Basho's ancient travel memoir. The famous Japanese poet inspired her to follow in his footsteps across the rural north of the country and this fascinating book is her record of the journey.

I love the idea of visiting Japan myself, especially the country outside of Tokyo which is completely different to the ultra-modern city. On The Narrow Road To The Deep North reveals some of the mysteries of the culture and also describes important historical events that took place in the places Downer visits. I appreciated the clever intertwining of the three main journeys: that of Downer herself, Basho and his companion Sora some three hundred years previously, and the almost mythical heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune in whose footsteps Basho himself was following. The inclusion of Basho's haiku is an inspired touch. I don't think I had read any of his work before and enjoyed the dual visions of places which often had hardly changed in the intervening centuries. This book is a great history lesson as well as a travel memoir.

A Western woman travelling alone is an incredibly unusual sight in rural Japan so we readers get to see the varying local reactions to their visitor. I was amazed at the poverty of these village communities as I had believed all of Japan to be an affluent nation. The landscapes, once away from the concrete towns, sound incredibly beautiful and I was frequently envious as another footpath sign pointed out into the mountains. Downer's writing really brings her journey to life and her love for Japan shines through. I would highly recommend On The Narrow Road To The Deep North to travellers, walkers, poets and history buffs.

On The Narrow Road To The Deep North is on a Kindle Countdown deal at the time of writing this blog post. It's just 99p instead of £2.99 for the next six days so buy it now!

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Into the Fire (Capitaine Inés Picaut, #1)Into the Fire by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I won a huge hardback copy of Into The Fire, signed by its author, Manda Scott, through a Twitter giveaway over the summer. Thank you @followthehens! Being posted meant it took a while to get to me and I thought I would save it until we were well into France. Into The Fire is set in Orleans, miles from our current Pyrennean base, and it has a good sense of Frenchness about the writing, particularly in the early stages of the modern day crime story.

Scott develops two stories alongside each other - one being a police procedural set in political circles in 2014 Orleans, the other taking us back to fifteenth century France and the military campaigns of Jehanne d'Arc. For the first half of the book I really enjoyed both stories. The political intrigues of both are interesting and well described. The characters are realistic and Scott has a talent for concisely portraying her scenes to enable easy imagining without slowing the pace with too much description.

However, once the modern day story steps up a gear, I found it headed swiftly into unbelievable events with the characters losing all sense of themselves. It was as if they were merely following a bad Hollywood action screenplay where all realism is sacrificed for relentless action. There is even a random unprofessional romance flung in for no good reason and, of course, the whole plot is centres personally on the chief investigator because that's the way these thrillers always pan out. By contrast, the historical storyline stays strong and fascinating, but I found the modern day shenanigans so distracting that it was hard to keep focused. I would far rather Scott had made this purely a historical novel and not tried for the dual aspect. The two stories are only tenuously linked so Jehanne's tale would easily have stood alone and the book would be the better for it.

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Heart of a DogHeart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In some ways, the life of Mikhail Bulgakov is as odd as his writing! A Russian satiricist, his work was banned during the Soviet era leading him to appeal directly to Stalin for assistance - and getting a positive response. The Heart Of A Dog was written in 1925 but not published until 1968, after Bulgakov had died. In the sublime novella he imagines the result if, say, a progressive scientist and doctor was to implant the testes and pituitary gland of a man into a stray dog. The resultant chaos may be scientifically impossible (or at least extremely unlikely!), but it makes for a fabulous read.

We first meet stray dog Sharik as he is near death, shivering in a doorway and badly hurt from being scaled by boiling water. We see the heartless city through his eyes and experience his joy when a stranger shows him a tiny kindness. Back at the stranger's luxurious apartment, old Russia is still very much in evidence despite the best efforts of the Soviet management committee who are charged with further subdividing all the flats for communal living. One of the committee is even a Woman! What horror!

As the mad experiment turns Sharik from naughty dog to disruptive human, Bulgakov manages to use his surreal scenario to not only poke fun at the best efforts of the new Soviet regime, but also to deliver moral life lessons - kindness will always succeed over terror. Sharikov's efforts to assert and educate himself are poignant and I love the bureaucratic stubbornness of Shvonder. Fabulous set pieces such as the cat in the bathroom are hilarious and make The Heart Of A Dog one of the best novellas I have read.

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Sunday 13 December 2015

A bronze age dolmen and a confusing hike

I have been feeling a bit under the weather for the past couple of days so
The Dolmen Siureda 
today's 10.5k took much more effort than it should have done. We started from the historic commune of Maurillas-Las Illas. This area was important during the Second World War with Las Illas especially being an escape route for people fleeing France. It's history goes back much further though with repeated wars between French and Spanish armies over the preceding centuries. We caught a glimpse of the huge bell on top of Saint-Martin-de-Fenollar - a pre-Roman church that also boasts amazing twelfth century frescoes. We didn't see them as our walk took us straight out of town and into the cork woods. Today we attempted No 8 in the Little Guide of Hiking - the Dolmen Siureda.

I saw this persimmon tree right at the start of our walk. These trees are
Persimmon tree 
eyecatching because of all their bright orange fruit, but otherwise at this time of year they appear pretty much dead. There aren't any leaves at all. We haven't found any ripe persimmons in the shops yet - the few I have noticed have been rock hard and we know from experience that they can't be relied upon to ever ripen nicely! Hopefully we will get lucky before the winter is out because I love persimmons.

Hike No 8 pootles around the edge of town for a while and we managed to lose our way briefly early on. We found the yellow route markers again, but this set the tone for the rest of the walk as we took a couple more wrong turns later on as well. We ended up doing an out and back route rather than the mapped lasso shaped one in the book. It was still good though with pretty woodland, far-reaching views, and the bronze age Dolmen Siureda pictured at the top of this post. As dolmen go, Siureda is on the small side and not as well preserved as the ones we saw near Antequera, but I think it was our first since Carnac. Some wag had thrown a number of large bones into the Dolmen Siureda. They didn't look old and the real bone fragments discovered there are now in the archaeological museum in Ceret together with pieces of an ancient vase. I would like to see the modern art museum in Ceret and hope we might take in the archaeological one too.

Snow on Canigou (still!)

Of course, part way round we saw the almost obligatory view of snow on Canigou. I guess you must all be getting fed up of this view by now so I will stop posting photos of it (unless we actually get there!), but it does still feel magical to turn a corner on a dusty track under blue sunny skies and suddenly see snow glimmering in the distance. It's about the only thing that feels remotely Christmassy around here! The shops are doing their best with decorations and festive music, we saw the outdoor nativity scene model in Ceret and several town centres are decked out with lights. However, warmth and sunshine just don't make for the traditional British Christmas atmosphere. I'm not swapping them though! Instead, I'll try to be festive by ending this post with Rebecca Pronsky's new song, Snowing Sideways ...

Friday 11 December 2015

Two hill walks and a very large cairn

We learned today that our Dutch neighbours have been wintering in St
Love that snow view! 
Jean Pla De Corts for fifteen years and, despite invitations to go further south into Spain, they are quite happy still exploring and discovering everything there is to do in this little corner of France! They are also keen walkers so we swapped recommendations including, for us to them, Hike No.1 in our Little Guide of Hiking which we undertook on Wednesday. Entitled Chemin des Mas, the walk is a 13k circuit from Pont-de-Reynes and passes by a number of Mas which are large agricultural estate houses. Traditionally, everything needed for the large farm house would be contained under a single terracotta tiled roof with the number of lean-to outbuildings surrounding it being a sign of prosperity. The French word 'Mas' is often substituted locally with 'Can' (meaning chez and probably from the Spanish con), or with 'Al' (meaning at and probably from Moorish Arabic).

We nearly got lost right at the very beginning as the green gate we were
instructed to look for appeared at a glance to just lead into someone's garden. Fortunately a local woman came rushing over to poin us back in the right direction - we didn't seem to be the first to have missed it!

The first half hour or so was uphill passing over a levada and on through cork oak woods. This walk had a different vibe to our previous two because we were led along narrow footpaths rather than wide vehicular forestry tracks. We saw lots of bright yellow gorse flowers and a few butterflies, but otherwise very little in the way of wildlife. There was pathside evidence that wild boar had been rooting around.

A winding shaded road took us through the village of Reynes which had some lovely houses set back from the traffic. The village appears almost piled on top of itself as it is strung out along the zig-zagging road. We saw cherry orchards which must be absolutely beautiful in Spring when all the trees are in blossom, but were unsurprisingly bleak in December!

Another feature of the locality is its narrow old stone bridges. We saw three on our journey and I took the below photograph of Dave standing on one before a couple of dogs came rushing up barking at us because we weren't exactly on the public footpath. Once we got back where we 'should' be, they got bored and loped off!

Chemin des Mas was another good workout walk with not much ground that seemed flat, but a mix of uphills and downhills so it wasn't too easy or too exhausting. We took about four hours in total, not including our picnic stop, so were a little longer en route than the book's stated 3h40.

Today we drove firstly to Sorede whose Tourist Office has yet another
walking route selection. Their booklet is nowhere near as nice and professional as Le Boulou's though - and we had to pay four euros for it! We drove out to La Vall along a fortunately-quiet single track road, then a half-kilometre of dirt track to the 'car park'. Once there, we abandoned our newly acquired booklet in favour of following the signs right in front of us, one of which pointed to Tour de la Massane. This walk was an out and back or, more accurately, an up and down and we were pretty pleased with ourselves for getting all the way to the PR route along the ridge and back, even though we didn't quite reach the tower. I added a small stone to the huge cairn that marks the top! Dave found a drawn image of the walk online - on this Argeles-sur-Mer Tourisme page.

Although much of the path was through forest making the only possible
View from lunch to Collioure 
view that of trees and more trees, we did get to gaze out to sea from the very top. And our lunchtime picnic view was over Collioure, a town we enjoyed visiting probably about ten years ago in our tent camping days. I remember there was a frame on a stick on the harbour front through which visitors could look to create their own temporary pictures of the views. I wonder if it is still there?