Friday 29 January 2016

We visit Alfred Nobel's dynamite factory at Paulilles

I had never really given much thought to how Alfred Nobel
Mural at Paulilles 
- of Nobel Peace Prize fame - had made himself influential enough to have such an award named after him. It turns out that he is the man who invented dynamite and the massive site of his former French dynamite factory is just along the coast from our current campsite, nestled in a bay at Paulilles between Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer. Nobel's French associate Paul Francois Barbe had the factory built in 1870 and production continued there, despite a number of serious and often fatal accidents, until 1984. In a twist of fate, this location which produced thousands and thousands of tons of destructive dynamite during its working years is now responsible for one of the few protected and undeveloped sections of coastline in the area. A few buildings have been restored to provide an idea of the former factory to visitors. However others have been deliberately destroyed or allowed to crumble and the bay designated a protected ecological area.

Vintage factory sign 
A large free car park is positioned near to the small visitor
Rails and tunnels at Paulliles 
centre. This contains a different style of exhibition to that which we had expected. Former factory workers have been interviewed and their brief stories are reproduced (in three languages) in board books under vintage photographs of the people and the factory operations. We discovered that the working site resembled a small village and included facilities such as a school. The workers felt privileged to be given free coal and water, and to have necessary repairs to their accommodations seen to promptly. Hoever, they also acknowledged the mortal danger of their employment - accidental explosions were a constant risk and some of the chemicals were also hazardous to health, especially without the benefits of the protective clothing that would be considered vital equipment today.

There is a small botanical garden next to the visitor centre
La Fleur du Mois 
where we admired 'La Fleur du Mois' - in January it is the stunning Cognassier du Japon which provides a vivid blast (pun intended) of colour that made the rest of the plants seem almost greyscale by comparison. A half-dozen or so artists were sat or stood around the garden sketching different plants and scenes.

Further away, the partially restored Dynamiterie Originelle has four chambers, each now open to the sky and each containing a different map of the site and the bay. We also strolled over to the boatmakers' shed where Catalan craftsmen continue to create boats in the traditional styles. The Sentier Littoral coastal walk passes through the Paulilles site too and we took the opportunity to set out across the beach towards the Phare du Bear lighthouse. We
Wartime barricades on Paulilles beach 
wondered at the heavy-duty concrete barriers across much of the beachfront and tried to understand how they would have been of use to the factory. A helpful placard informed us that they were actually Second World War remnants and had been constructed in 1944 by the Toldt company to prevent Allied tanks from landing. The barricades have been broken through now to allow swimmers access to the water, but they are still visible at Paulilles, on the Faubourg beach at Collioure, and on the Elmes beach at Banyuls.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

A week with no blogging?

You must be wondering what's happened to us?
Goats in a tree at St Jean Pla de Corts 

In reality, not a lot!

Our friends Chris and Marta departed for pastures new this morning so we are feeling a little bereft right now. We had been hosting the four of us in Bailey of an evening, with each couple taking turns to cook the meal. It's been entertaining although not so good for the waistlines as Marta and I both took to pudding baking. She does an excellent Pineapple Upside-Down Cake and I discovered this amazing Slow Cooker Chocolate Pudding which is set to become a firm favourite, albeit not too often!

Other than our previously blogged walks and another cycle ride to Amelie-Les-Bains, this has been a quiet week. I got back into crafting when Marta asked me to crochet her a hat. She had some beautiful red and silver yarn which looks fabulous. If I had remembered to take a photograph before they left I would post it here. Oops!

In other crafting news though, I am starting a page of my Hand-Crafted Items For Sale right here on my blog. (If you're looking at this post on a 'proper computer' there's a tab on the right at the top of the page. If you're Apple or Android, there's a dropbox somewhere!) I realised this blog gets way more traffic than my Etsy shop, even with extensive link tweeting so why not use both?  Today I've listed three each of hand-woven Book Sleeves and hand-crocheted Water Bottle Shoulder Bags so far and will add the Buttons and Beads soon too. Handmade items make for great gifts - and there's still time to ship within Europe for Valentine's Day!

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Revisiting Le Boulou and Collioure - there's always more to see

Marta, one of our friends currently 'next door', wanted to
Sainte Marie at Le Boulou 
visit the tourist office in Le Boulou yesterday so Dave and I decided to accompany her for the cycle along the brilliant Voie Verte. It was a sunny wind-free afternoon and we even saw another hoopoe by the Plan d'Eau lakes! (Turns out they're a bit like buses ... !) Once at the tourist office, Marta got chatting with the staff which led to their offering to open up the historic Sainte Marie church. Sainte Marie dates from the tenth century with its impressive carved portal being apparently a twelfth century addition. Once inside, there are fifteenth century painted panels on the walls, but these are very dark so it was difficult to make out the scenes. However what really stands out is the incredibly flamboyant high altar which almost seems too big for the church. It is made of marble and, once we found the light switch to illuminate it properly, was astounding to see.

Sainte Marie at Le Boulou 
Today we revisited our Le Racou to Collioure walk, this time with Chris and Marta and sunshine all day! We all treated ourselves to a delicious Menu de Jour lunch at Restaurant Le Dali which Dave recalled him and I visiting on our first visit ten years ago. Then we all made our way to the Musee d'Art Moderne which is a lovely little gallery with two floors of local paintings and photography ranging from wow to hmm! I particularly liked a pair of acrylic on wood works by Patrick Jude. Entitled Yin and Yang, they were created in 2005 and show the view out over Collioure harbour in a fun way. Other highlights included a series of sixteen wickedly detailed paintings by Emmanuelle Jude - all depicting tourists eating ice cream - and several weirdly staged photographs by Aurore Valade. Both the latter two artists are featured in this Vent Sud post about the Musee exhibition. This exhibition finishes on the 21st of February so we might just have to come back in March to see what's new!

Opposite Collioure tourist office we were lucky to also spot
Photo Expo ville de Collioure 
a free photography exhibition being held in the old Mairie. Works included historic black and white photographs of the pre-war town and these were shown alongside early colour images probably from the 1970s or 1980s and present day shots capturing the vivid colours of Collioure as it is now. Several of the present day photographs were in black and white too - very sharp images compared to the early pictures. The Expo was subtitled Streets and Scenes of Streets in Collioure and showcased various ideas from large family and friend groups to empty streets, scenes of the town carnival, random ballerinas, people outside cafes and bars, and one memorable shot of two young women waist-high in snow! This exhibition finishes on the 31st January so we were pleased to have caught it.

Monday 18 January 2016

And now we are five

Our friends Chris and Marta (and Banksy their cat) have
Eulogia Lucy in Bolivia 
now joined us here at Camping Casteillets in St Jean Pla de Corts. Our neighbouring pitches mean it's no longer quite as tranquil here of an evening, but we're having a lot of fun. So far Dave and I have taken our 'guests' on three of our favourite walks - around the Plan d'Eau lakes, on the Chemin de Vives, and to Fort de Bellegarde. Today's walk was the Fort de Bellegarde one and we were all glad of our waterproof coats from part-way as rain arrived. We took advantage of the burned-out barracks for picnic lunch shelter and still enjoyed our walk although the views weren't as extensive as on our the previous circuit because mist descended. The rain up there was practically sleet too so getting back to snug caravans was lovely. We are hoping to also explore more of the Le Racou to Collioure coast path and perhaps even to cycle all the way to Argeles Sur Mer before our paths divert again in a week or so.

In other news, I was surprised and pleased to be told this
Rusudan in Georgia 
week that I am one of the 3000 most influential SumOfUs members in the UK. Me! It's great to know that readers are responding to my petition sharing here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I am sure there will be lots more to sign in 2016 and if you want to draw my attention to a petition that's important to you, feel welcome to put its link in any post's Comments.

I am delighted to have won a book bundle from Penguin in their Think Smarter prize draw. I don't know what the books will be yet, but Think Smarter is a regular email newsletter that "includes the latest features, essays and extracts from a roster of smart thinkers, unrivalled for their expertise in science, sociology, philosophy, business and general curiosity" so I am sure I will find them interesting and educational reading.

More free books have come my way as preparatory
Turana in Azerbaijan 
reading for the virtual Historical Fiction Festival over at Endeavour Press. I chose five titles from their emailed list and all five arrived as downloads within hours. Did you sign up for your ticket yet? There's really free books!

Finally, yesterday was another exciting Kiva Repayments Day and, due to a couple of existing loans being unexpectedly paid back early I was able to make four new loans, three of which are in new-to-me countries so I have now made 121 loans to women in 52 different countries. January's loans went to Eulogia Lucy in Bolivia for her mobile food stall, Rusudan in Georgia for her restaurant, Irma in Paraguay for her shoe shop, and Turana in Azerbaijan for the planting of fruit trees. (I didn't notice until writing this post that all four women are wearing blue!) I love loaning on Kiva! Why not join me?

Irma in Paraguay 

Friday 15 January 2016

Does Apple care more for cash than the environment? @SumOfUs

I recently signed a SumOfUs petition to ask Apple to keep the standard headphone jack in the iPhone. Almost 250,000 people have signed, and it's really starting a conversation about the mountains of waste created whenever electronics companies force people to "upgrade".

Apple plays up its green credentials, but the truth is that Apple only invested in renewable energy, and began phasing out toxic chemicals when public pressure became too strong to ignore. People power did it before, and we can do it again.

Please sign:

Thank you!

Thursday 14 January 2016

One Of Us: Anders Breivik by Asne Seierstad / In Loving Memory by Jenny Telfer Chaplin / The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by ├ůsne Seierstad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of One Of Us: Anders Breivik And The Massacre In Norway by Asne Seierstad from its publishers, Virago, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Having been as shocked as the rest of the world by the horrific attacks on Oslo and Utoya, I was keen to read this account by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad. Interestingly, she is known for her reports from troublespots around Europe and the Middle East and never thought she would be called upon to write similar material about her own country.

One Of Us is incredibly well researched. Seierstad sat through Breivik's trial and read all those documents. She also read his own manifesto and other writings, studied police reports, and conducted extensive interviews with his surviving victims, their families, and people who had known Breivik in his youth. The resulting book is a clever blend of biography and journalism written in a style that is more usually associated with fiction. However everything here is saddeningly and shockingly true. At over 500 pages, this is a longer work than I would usually choose, but it kept me engrossed from beginning to end. We learn not only about Breivik's past, but are also given fascinating portrayals of several of his victims - a Kurdish family who had escaped Iraq, a Norwegian teenager destined to fly high in the Labour Party and others. One Of Us isn't really a book to 'enjoy' as such but admirably rewards its readers' time. The attention to detail is amazing and the book always feels respectful even though sections such as the day of the massacre itself are emotionally difficult to read. Some aspects of the disaster have depressingly obvious causes - lack of police communication in the immediate aftermath of the bomb - others will probably never be completely understood - what ultimately triggered Breivik and why - but I feel that One Of Us goes a long way towards explaining such an in-depth subject to a general readership.

In Loving Memory by Jenny Telfer Chaplin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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In Loving Memory appealed to me because of its setting - Glasgow at the time of the Radicals - which I didn't know much about. Unfortunately, I still don't know much because, while historical events such as the Radicals and the Bread Riots are namedropped, they are not explained. Most of the novel's convoluted plot takes place in our protagonists' homes where two-dimensional characters argue frequently and, again, without much background given so I found it difficult to understand the whys of many decisions. They speak in a phonetically spelt Scots brogue that took a little getting used to, but does at least add some atmosphere. However my main gripe is the device of huge events happening to our characters off the page. At one point a chapter ends with a family boarding a ship, then the next chapter starts five years after the shipwreck. Hello? What shipwreck?!

In Loving Memory is my first book for the 2016 Read Scotland Challenge so, disappointingly, I'm not off to a great start. I discovered some brilliant Scottish books last year though so am sure I will do better as the year progresses.

The Bordello Kid by Kendall Hanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Author Kendall Hanson contacted me on Twitter over the New Year asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing one of his Western novels in return for signing up to his e-mail newsletter. I usually ignore this genre completely so thought it might be fun to take a chance - new year, new genre, new author - and the serendipitous discovery paid off. I very much enjoyed reading The Bordello Kid.

Set primarily in the bars and brothels of small town Seven Rivers, The Bordello Kid has an expertly evoked atmosphere which reminded me of the great TV series Deadwood. I loved our first sighting of soon-to-be lead character Farr who is described walking into town haloed by the setting sun. Hanson takes time creating believably real characters which I appreciated as the novel itself isn't particularly long. Although, obviously, portraying a sexist society, Hanson is as convincing when writing female characters as male ones so our story is definitely more thought-out historical fiction than macho shoot-em-up tale. Having said that, there are violent scenes, not gratuitous, but shocking all the same.

The Bordello Kid is the first in a series of at least four novels (so far) so I was glad to find myself reading a complete story arc, threads left open for sequels but with a satisfying sense of closure. I was so impressed that I have already downloaded the second volume, The Saloon War at Seven Rivers, to my Kindle. If you prefer a physical book, The Saloon War is also available in paperback from tomorrow (15th January 2016).

View all my reviews on Goodreads


Wednesday 13 January 2016

Endeavour Press virtual Historical Fiction Festival

I am excited to already be signed up for a Historical Fiction
Festival with a difference! Organised by Endeavour Press who are exclusively a digital book publishers, this virtual Festival will take place online thereby allowing me to get involved regardless of whereabouts in Europe I will actually be at the time. What a brilliant idea!

The dates for your diary are the 18th to the 22nd April 2016 and tickets are already 'on sale' (they're free!) via the Festival's own website. Over thirty authors have signed up so there will be lots of variety across the historical genre.

Best of all, as well author interviews, live Q and A sessions and writing tips, Endeavour Press will be running competitions and giving away free books.


Stay updated by following @Hist_Fest on Twitter
and go get your ticket today!


Sunday 10 January 2016

Our longest hike of the season - Amelie Les Bains to Montalba

Saint Jean Pla de Corts is a great base for walking and I
There's not much at Montalba 
have blogged several already. Today's was our longest hike since leaving the UK in October. We didn't walk as far as on some of our summer expeditions, however after 11km and with over 300m of ascent, Dave and I are feeling both weary and very pleased with ourselves right now! We were walking for four and three-quarter hours, including quite a few photo stops, and got to see some of the most fantastic views in the area. Several times I thought that I must start taking Dave's big camera on our hikes as my phone really isn't up to the job of capturing a wide panorama. One day I will remember to think about this before we set out!

We nearly had a disaster before we had even extended our
Amelie Les Bains from half-way up the hill 
walking poles. Our map, got from Amelie Les Bains tourist office several weeks ago, indicated that we should park in the multi-storey General de Gaulle car park. On arrival, this car park was completely closed up for the winter break. The what?! It turned out that from the 14th December until the 31st January all the paid parking in Amelie is suspended so the multi-storey was closed, but the roadside car park was open and its Pay And Display machines covered with black plastic. Result!

Starting by ascending the Chemin du Pastou by the General
Woodland path above Amelie 
du Gaulle Parking, we walked alongside the high stone wall of the Hopital Thermal des Armees and on into woodland with lots of cork trees, the occasional olive tree, and huge boulders by the path side. The ascent was pretty much relentless for the first hour to the extent that Dave was a little concerned about his pumping heart rate. (He checked online when we got home and it probably shouldn't beat quite that fast at his age. Oops!) The path was mostly quite narrow and definitely a footpath rather than a vehicle track. We had lots of steps created with rocks or roots and it was beautifully peaceful. Being overtaken by a fell runner - yes, running up! - was mildly galling, but otherwise we had the walk to ourselves.

Uphills do eventually end and this one was almost
Our picnic view of Montalba 
immediately replaced with an equivalent downhill. We got closer to the river which flows along the valley floor and is more of a stream at this time of year. It is tumbled with rocks and boulders which created dozens of diddy waterfalls and, at one point, a deep-looking swimming hole. We ended up right alongside the river for a short almost magical section listening to the babbling water. Then we had to cross to the opposite bank - a tad precarious! And as the river turned away from the path, we saw the remnants of old agricultural terracing on the hillside above us and realised that Montalba was up at the top. Of course! Yay!

Arriving in Montalba two and a half hours after setting out
Cross at Montalba 
from Amelie, we laid out our picnic rug and paused to enjoy the view from 543m above sea level. Not quite as high as our Campanilles picnic last March and considerably chillier. The hamlet seemed to consist of two farmyards, the one pictured above with its chapel and another a couple of hundred metres away. This was also a junction of footpaths including the PR-1 and had a running water fountain of (presumably) drinkable water. I saw this simple cross too. It has a name plaque in the centre which is worn, but I think said 'Laurent Coste 1859'. I haven't been able to find out anything about it online though.

The map had our return route as retracing our steps, but
Old footbridge viewed from the road 
did also suggest walking the road as an alternative possibility. The road is mostly only wide enough for one car and seemed very quiet so we thought we would be ok going this way and it actually turned out to be a perfect contrast to the outward route. Walking to Montalba we had to spend much of the time watching where we put our feet and were often between trees or at the bottom of the gorge. Walking back we could trust the road to be smooth and there were gorgeous long views up into the mountains and along the valley. The road was mostly flat or gently downhill but took a longer route so we didn't expend as much effort, but did still take two and a quarter hours to return to Amelie.

I joked that we could treat ourselves to a cake when we got to town, expecting everywhere to be very closed as it was now late on Sunday afternoon. We got lucky though - a patisserie was open and had a delicious selection of gateaux so we brought a couple home. Dave had a Foret-Noire slice and I had a Paris-Brest eclair. Perfect!

Le Petit Prince by Andres Munoz 

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Sentier du Littoral coastal walk - Le Racou to Collioure

The weather has turned distinctly autumnal since New
The view I remember 
Year here in the south-western corner of France. Our first significant rain since we arrived at St Jean Pla de Corts began to fall just as we were picnicking on the harbour front at Collioure! Our last visit to this beautiful town, popular with artists, was some ten years ago when our holidays had very different priorities mainly because we both still smoked and Didn't Walk. A decade later and we surprised ourselves with what we had missed first time around.

We began our walk from the hamlet of Le Racou which is
Lone house on the Sentier du Littoral 
about four kilometres from Collioure. It's a pretty and interesting place in its own right with several quirky bars and cafes, lots of sand and little stone houses built out right out onto the beach so the 'roads' between them are actually just the sand. The word 'racou' means nook in Catalan and the hamlet is tucked into a small corner of the bay. Originally a tiny fishing community living in wooden shacks, the first stone houses were constructed in the 1930s with development really taking off after the Second World War. Le Racou declared its independence in the 1960s and, although no one else really took them seriously, this did result in specifically local oddities such as Catalan street names. I guess Le Racou must be incredibly popular in the summer months judging by the size of the car park and dozens of bike stands. However visiting in early January meant the streets were almost deserted. The Sentier du Littoral was busier than any of our other walks in this area, but we still had the coast to ourselves a lot of the time!

There are two coastal routes from Le Racou to Collioure,
one intended for walkers and the other for cyclists. We actually ended up doing both - the walking route out and the cycle route back - because I didn't fancy a couple of the rocky walking descents after the rain. It would probably have been fine. These are a number of interesting sights en route including isolated houses, wartime remains such as gun emplacements, and large fortress-like buildings. We weren't sure exactly what the pictured brickwork was supporting as we couldn't see above the cliff edge from the footpath. We passed our campsite from all those years ago, Camping Les Amandiers, and had no problem with walking the steep down and uphill into Collioure town. Previously we had driven as close as we could get and really struggled to get back to our car. (We were so much older then, we're younger than that now!)

My main image memory of Collioure was the view through
Sculpture by Francesca Caruana 
an empty picture frame on the harbour front as shown in my first photograph. It turns out that there are several of these frames dotted about, each positioned to allow viewing of Collioure as seen by a particular artist. Details of the painting are etched into the frame. It's a great idea for a cheap tourist route and made a change from the painting reproduction plaques we have seen elsewhere. Presumably no royalty payments are involved either! Original artwork has been commissioned for public spaces too and I particularly liked this sculpture by Francesca Caruana. It must be amazing on sunny days with the light spearing through the circles.

Sheltering under a conveniently empty marquee, we decided to head back to Le Racou rather than wander around Collioure first. I did see a good mix of independent arty and touristy shops as we passed as well as lots of restaurants. Despite the greyness, Collioure was busy with practically everywhere open for business. This was a contrast to Le Racou where most businesses, other than a couple of the cafes, were closed.


Sunday 3 January 2016

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters / The Bees by Laline Paull / Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I think we've got The Paying Guests awaiting reading too, but my first Sarah Waters book, recommended by Dave's daughter Carrie, was Fingersmith. Set in Victorian era London the novel is a wickedly fabulous pastiche of the overly melodramatic literary style of the period and includes one of the best plot twists I have read in ages. Waters has created a varied cast of Dickensian characters, none of whom I would trust as far as I could throw them, and I also loved her scene-setting. The faded glamour of Briar House, the dingy terrace of Lant Street, and the terrors of the asylum all became very real as I kept reading. My favourite part of Fingersmith was the dual viewpoint. Seeing scenes that we thought we already knew, but now through a completely different lens provided great tension and I appreciated how each character had a distinctive voice so it was easy to follow their take on the story. Occasionally Fingersmith did feel a tad overlong, but generally the writing kept to a good pace and I was always keen to find out what would next befall our heroines.

The Bees by Laline Paull
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I have been intrigued by the premise of The Bees by Laline Paull since I read a number of other bloggers' reviews earlier in 2015 so I was very happy when Dave bought a copy for his Kindle. That Amazon Household setting means we get to share each other's books! Paull has obviously done a lot of research into the real world life of a bee hive throughout the year and this expertise shines through. However I was much less convinced by her humanising of them. I think my main problem with this novel was the massive contradiction of Flora 717's life. On the one hand we are constantly being told that each bee is born to a certain destiny and can absolutely never change her place in hive society. Yet our heroine skips through every class and job with scarcely ever a check on her behaviour. While I accept that this device allowed us as readers to visit every stage of bee life, for me it took away from the tale's credibility. With the exception of the wonderfully cartoonish drones, there isn't much in the way of fully rounded characterisation in The Bees which made it difficult to empathise and I always felt somewhat distant from the story. I did like how much I learned through reading The Bees, but as a reading experience it was lacking in enough depth to really keep my interest.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Having loved Audrey Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, I had looked forward to her second offering, Her Fearful Symmetry. Having now finished that book though, I am struggling to accept that the two were written by the same author. I really didn't enjoy the mish-mash of half-baked plotlines, flat characters and ridiculously convenient coincidences. And was I the only to feel uncomfortable at Robert's transference of his affections from Elspeth to her young niece?

On the plus side, Highgate Cemetery comes out of the book well - perhaps all that does - and I am now keen to take one of the frequently mentioned guided tours. This and the fact that I did struggle through to the final pages has merited a two-star rating, but I can't honestly recommend Her Fearful Symmetry to anyone.

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Saturday 2 January 2016

Musee d'art moderne de Ceret

A quick blog post this evening as our wifi is a bit hit and
miss. Hopefully I will get finished before it conks out again!

On New Year's Eve we decided to cycle to nearby Ceret to take a look at their modern art museum. Established in 1950, the museum was created by artists Pierre Brune and Frank Burty Haviland with the support of their friends including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. There is, understandably, lots of Brune's and Haviland's work on show. We quite liked the latter's style and were less taken with Brune's work as it was often dark and too gloomy for our taste. I was excited to see paintings and a large sculpture by Joan Miro, as well as remarkably un-Picasso-like paintings by Picasso. He was pretty good before he lost perspective! We were entranced by a large display of his matador-inspired pottery too. The museum has eight large terracotta plates painted with black toreador designs, and a couple of dozen small bowls, again painted with bullfighting scenes but the bowls are decorated in bright colours.

Other artists whose names we recognised included Raoul
Dufy and Antonio Tapies. Artists we didn't recognise, but whose work we very much liked included Edouard Pignon, Auguste Herbin and Vincent Bioules. The trees work pictured above is by Bioules and covers the entire wall down a staircase. It is also the cover of the museum's flyer which I was comfortable photographing at home. Unfortunately no one else was snapping away inside the museum - and it was nicely busy - so I didn't want to take a chance and risk getting us kicked out! I have 'borrowed' a couple of images from the museum's website instead. Hopefully they will encourage you to visit too! To the right here is 'Porteuse de linge catalane' painted by Auguste Herbin in 1919, and this post finishes with 'L'homme et l'olivier' painted by Edouard Pignon in 1954.

The museum entry was €5.50 each and we spent over an hour wandering around. Most of the work is local scenes, some of which would probably be undisplayable if they weren't local(!), but there's a good selection of work and it was definitely worth a visit.

Friday 1 January 2016

Perthus and Le Fort de Bellegarde

The 17th century Fort de Bellegarde is an imposing sight
Ruined barracks below Bellegarde 
sitting as it does high up on a hill overlooking the French/Spanish border. Originally designed by Vauban, one of thirty-seven fortresses whose building he directed, Bellegarde has changed hands between the French and the Spanish several times since its creation, and was also a German prison during the Second World War. Unfortunately the massive complex is only open to visitors during the summer months so we weren't able to view its historical and archaeological exhibitions this visit, however we did get to explore a ruined small barracks area downhill from the main structure and saw several other unusual buildings during our hike from Perthus.

Getting to Perthus is a slow business at the moment due to
Le Reposoir de Madame 
the police presence at the border crossing causing long tailbacks. We took the local road this time, remembering our delays on the motorway to Figueres last time we headed towards Spain. It didn't make much difference! The car parks are well signposted (and free) in Perthus though.

Up the hill from Perthus centre, an easily overlooked small stone building by the roadside is Le Reposoir de Madame. Dating from 1752, this hut is apparently where the wives of the Marquis de Castellane and Governor Bellegarde would pause to rest during their journeys to the castle. To be honest, I am not sure that an affluent fashionable woman of the time could have comfortably fitted herself and her frock into this hut so maybe the story is apocryphal?

Further on, a series of three even tinier huts with
La Font dels Miquelets 
accompanying grottoes are military fountains. Springs, rather than fountains in the English sense, each has a gentle trickle of water that could have refreshed an army although it would certainly have taken all day. The third we saw, la Font dels Miquelets, is named for the mercenaries who fought in many wars in the area. Warfare here has been a common theme for centuries. Another important site was the ruins of le Trophee de Pompee. This Roman General had some form of monument constructed to celebrate his army's victory over that of General Sertotius, the leader of the Iberian peninsula. I have no idea what the moment was though as it is now reduced to just its foundations with low walls of a very ruined medieval priory over the top.

We saw the first of a half dozen or so border markers above the priory ruins. These tall obelisks are numbered and we began walking the border at 567, leaving it to return into France at 572. It did feel quite weird to suddenly turn a corner and be gazing out over Spain. Somehow walking along and picnicking on the border line seemed more significant acts than just driving across it.

We were very taken by our sighting of this watchtower,
Bellegarde watchtower 
presumably constructed around the same time as the fort. The overhanging upstairs sections did look rather precarious now and the doorway is actually halfway up the tower's side so sentries - and attackers - would need to come prepared with their own ladders. We didn't know this so failed to get much of a look inside!

As well as the burned out buildings, whose complex is pictured below, we did get to walk around the outside levels of Bellegarde fort. It is quite a maze of moats and plateaux which must have been intended to confuse attacking forces, channelling the soldiers into dead ends and traps. I was reminded of the defensive structure of the Iron Age Maiden Castle which we saw in in Dorset. I wonder if Vauban had been inspired by a similarly ancient French site?

Ruined barracks below Bellegarde