Sunday, October 08, 2017

Concerning Far Off French Forests, Traditional Farmhouses, and Fabulous Wine Festivals

We went wandering across France a couple of weeks back, eschewing the well-trodden routes and heading for the less known regions. Forests, woodlands, lots and lots of tall green trees were required. When De Next Book is finally on its way to the printers (hopefully not long now) Celtic Memory has it in mind to create one which explores the peace of mind and soothing of the soul to be discovered in the heart of great woods: places where ferns overhang little streams and little holes among the roots of trees might lead to elven dwellings; where hazel nuts and crab apples tempt you to fill baskets, and the silence wraps you in an awareness of another world.

The Ardennes are quite a way from the western ports of France:  it took the best part of two days to get there, but it was worth it to explore this region. Don't know if you're familiar with that area, but France sort of pushes up a little promontory into Belgium, with Luxembourg close by on the east.  I had certainly heard of the Battle of the Bulge but until we got here, I hadn't really realised how the geography dictated history.  The mountains rise high between France and Belgium, with this one narrow gap through which the Meuse flows, the railway line runs, and a narrow road twists along between the two.  And throughout history, if anybody felt like invading either north or south, this was the way they came.

History takes other forms, though, than war, thankfully, and the scenery up along the Meuse was pure delight.

Just look at this peaceful barge purring its way along with not a worry other than the next lock to be negotiated.  Quite a few sections of the river were canalised, where narrow stretches or shallow sections would have interfered with smooth travel.

This is Hierges, a tiny and perfectly preserved old-world village.  The square with its fountain is still cobblestoned, and high up there on the hill you see the ancient castle.  Back behind the original tower, later developments were built on, finishing with a rather elegant 18th century chateau, but all still within the original castle walls. Clearly the lord of the manor had no intention of leaving his domain or the village which lay under his sway.  It was evening when we tiptoed in to look at it, and silently peaceful, but one imagines it gets a fair few visitors by day.  It was easy to feel the atmosphere of past centuries though as the church bell chimed the evening hour softly and pigeons fluttered up from the fountain to a steep tiled roof.

This ancient abbey was breathtaking when it suddenly appeared amid the trees.  It's Hambye, and even its ruins are enormous.  It must have been a hive of industry in the Middle Ages, with chiming bells and singing monks and a busy settlement all around supplying the needs of the monastery.

Stopping at a bend in the steep mountain road, we looked over to the valley below and spied this incredible knot garden which belonged to a semi-ruined chateau.  Clearly somebody was taking very good care of the box hedges at least, whatever about the building.

 And eventually you slip into Belgium without really realising it, and discover the exquisite little town of Dinant which spreads out alongside the river.  Had coffee in a cheerful beer house here, and noticed that the atmosphere was already becoming more Austrian or German in style since we had come further east.

This is Le St Hubert hotel and restaurant in the village of Haybes, about halfway up the little French promontory (can't bear to call it The Bulge).  And if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in the Ardennes, make sure you stay here, and only here.  Forget bigger towns, swankier inns:  this is the real thing, the France for which you search and so often don't find.  It's small, it's old fashioned, the staff are delightful, and the food is to dream about.  The hostelry has really been there since the 18th century, but unfortunately, due to its somewhat obvious location, has been rebuilt several times, the last around 1947.  War tends to do that, and everywhere we went, we heard or saw evidence of wholesale destruction and rebuilding.  It does bring home to you just what life must have been like for the locals.

But sitting in the cosy stube (well it was a stube by then rather than a French cafe, having a distinctly more German feel to it) drinking local beer and ordering the plat du jour, not bothering to ask what it was since it would undoubtedly be delicious, remains one of my happiest memories, to be taken out and fondled on cold winter nights back in Ireland.  One night the special dish was a simple omelette with girolles - those little yellow forest mushrooms which the chef's wife had picked in the woods only that afternoon.  Pure poetry!

As I said, everything gradually changed as we moved further east (because of course, having enjoyed the Ardennes so much, it seemed only sensible to move right over to the Vosges on the German border).  Houses were different:

Look at this old relic in a village through which we passed.  Original wattle and daub!  I wanted to buy it on the spot and look after it forever!

And this incredible old - what is it - barn, workspace, storage shed?  Did you ever see anything so huge built entirely in wood?  How it has survived one can only imagine.

 Isn't this cart wonderful?  Far more sophisticated than the leiter waggons of Transylvania (and the wheels certainly look as though they would give a more comfortable ride), but still a relic of older, simpler times.

This man had worked out his own way of bringing his goods to market, and wouldn't thank  you for offering him a large noisy lorry instead.  I remember meeting a stallholder at a French market years ago, when a national strike had immobilised lorries and trucks countrywide.  He had simply loaded all his freshly-picked produce on to a trailer like this and cycled it to the village.  'We had to do it during the war,' he said simply, 'and we have not lost the habit.'

DH was quick on the trigger to catch this picture of two small dogs enjoying their morning fresh air in a special little carriage towed by their loving owners.  It's a great idea if you possess a dog that is less nimble than it used to be, isn't it?

The Vosges were breathtaking, tier after tier of mountains rising to the horizon, all wrapped up in dark green furry blankets of trees.  And here life seems almost unchanging.

The very traditional farmhouse of Alsace/Lorraine keeps everything under one roof.  Very convenient in the winter months when the snow piles up all around.  No need to struggle through a farmyard:  just go through from the main living room into the warm snugness of the barn to do the milking and feed the sheep and poultry.  We saw ancient renderings of this type of building everywhere as well as very new ones, showing that the old ways are still considered the best.  Sometimes, when one sees over-grandiose mansions built in the countryside here, where cottages formerly stood, one wishes that we had the same belief in the good sense of older styles.  Yes, certainly indoor plumbing is a good idea, but pillars, flashy electric gates, seventeen bedrooms?  It always looks like a deliberate refusal to admit that our parents were content with simpler ways.

The farmhouse is uber-practical, but in some of the towns, it was like a big book of fairytales come to life.

Just look at this tiny triangular turquoise pet, built exactly to fit the point in a lane where the ways divided.  Isn't it just made for a hobbit?

And this old inn, apparently one of the oldest in the world, at Bergheim?  It's called Chez Norbert.  No, I didn't check if it had indoor plumbing or not.

DH was going mad with his camera, finding one image after another to capture.  See these tiny windows, high up on one of those old houses, each with its own heart-decorated shutter?

And these Pied Piper of Hamelin houses, leaning confidentially towards each other over narrow laneways?  I wanted every single one of them.

As the day was ending, we found the loveliest surprise of all.  A great celebration of the new wine in the village of St Hippolyte - a true fete du vin, where everybody for miles around had come to sit at long tables, sample the dangerously-easy-to-drink new vintage,consume sausages and sauerkraut/ choucroute, and generally have a good time.

  Best of all, there were traditional dancers!  Absolutely the one thing I would have chosen to make the day utterly perfect!

Celtic Memory has a weakness for folk dances.  Well does she remember trying to copy the local gypsies somewhere in Transylvania one hot summer night long long ago.  And, indeed, dancing the czardas in a production of Coppelia, complete with soft suede kneelength red boots.  After these dancers had finished circling and swinging and swaying to the very jolly music, they came down to mingle in the throng and take a rest.  I saw one lady who was beautifully dressed and begged her to let me take a closer look.  Which she most willingly did.

The big floppy velvet bow-hat had belonged to her grandmother, she told me, as had the laced top and the very detailed  embroidered velvet stomacher which went inside the lacing.  She was so proud of it.

She even showed me the correct pantalettes which went under the bright red skirt.  I was delighted!  Note to self:  make an Irish traditional long red skirt immediately, complete with petticoats, and wear on all possible occasions!

Having got as far as Alsace/Lorraine, it would have been disgraceful not to get a sight of the mighty Rhine, so onward we went, and crossed that great river next to a gigantic lock system which was feeding five huge barges through at a time.  This pic might give you some idea of the vastness of the lock:  those boats are but BIG!

A couple of the barges had little dogs on board:  the genuine little schipperke which has been the breed most associated with these canal boats since time immemorial.  It was nice to see the tradition being continued in today's vaster world.  Can you just see that little chap at the top of the ladder there? I was worried in case he fell in, but his impudent confidence showed that he was well used to a life on the water.  As, quite probably, his father, his grandfather and his great grandfather had been.

Of course we crossed the Rhine.  Who wouldn't?  And found a wonderful little riverside cafe where ripe chestnuts split their prickly skins and bounced down on to the table as we sat and enjoyed the view.

Germany spoken this side of the Rhine, French the other.  Great fun.

It was a wonderful trip.  Journeying back all the full width of France was a bit of an undertaking, but we got home safely.  And the memories will remain.  Oh gosh, will they remain!

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Brigit's Day, and the natural world rejoices!

At last we've reached Feb 1, Imbolc, Brigit's Day, Candlemas, call it what you will.  And here in West Cork the animals and birds, not to mention growing green things, seemed to sense it a few days in advance.

We hadn't seen a single rabbit for months, during all the cold dark wet days from November to January, but two days ago, when we looked out at the field behind the house, little heads were popping up all over the place.

And there were some wild chases across the grass.  Doesn't that look like spring is in the air?

The first lambs are here too.  We usually have them fairly early in the mild climate of West Cork, and I tend to worry if we have cold wet spells.  Those little things can't take too much of the chilly damp. Their mothers take good care of them, though, and tucked into that shaggy fleece at night, they must be fairly snug, wouldn't you think?

The catkins are shaking their delicate cascades of greeny-yellow everywhere,

and the rushes are springing strong and green for the traditional Brigit's Cross.  This is the goddess Bright's day. Imbolc, the beginning of spring, the time that ewes come into milk because their lambs have arrived, hens start laying, crops start growing, and we can all draw breath and look forward to plenty of good healthy food again. Or our ancestors did anyway.  We tend to rely on the supermarket year round, but it might not be a bad idea to practise a bit more self-sufficiency now and again, and reflect the different seasons in the food we eat.  At Midwinter we follow the tradition of breaking out the supplies to have a small festive celebration of the turning of the year;  then it's a lean diet again until spring brings back growth.

The wild creatures aren't the only ones to be feeling the call of spring.  Marigold has taken to leaping wildly up the curtains and hanging there, uttering little cries of delight at the improved view she can get of the garden outside.

She has also perfected the difficult circus trick of somehow letting go while simultaneously twisting her body so that she can leap to the chair in safety.  I just do not know how she manages to shift her weight around like that.  Cirque du Soleil, are you looking for a new performer?

Yes, the knitting continues.  Although that Fireside Sweater in the bright blue yarn that I mentioned last time had, alas, to be frogged at an early stage.  The combination of thin needles, thick yarn, and exceptionally twisty cables, brought on a painful attack of carpal tunnel syndrome.  No help for it but a week away from the needles.  (Mind you, it is more than likely that over-use of the  mouse at the computer did even more to exacerbate the situation, but typing can't be stopped, unfortunately.  It's how I make my living.)  Hopefully all will be well before the start of Sock Madness next month.  Right now the thought of miniscule needles and fine yarn makes my wrist leap in protest.

Still, this splendid sideways sweater got done before The Revenge of the Wrist:

It's the Faro Pullover by Amy Christoffers and I used four strands of a fine Shetland wool.  Great fun to make, as you start at one sleeve and work right across (frightening number of stitches when you're doing sleeves, back and front all at the same time, but that stage doesn't last too long, thank heaven). It's a sturdy warm gansey for spring and feels very happy in wearing.  I've called mine Hebridean Memories because that seems more appropriate than Faro.

(Which reminds me:  if you fly into Faro, Portugal, do be aware that they have the daftest possible system for motorway payments.  You are clocked every time you use a motorway, BUT you can't pay it for several days afterwards because their system doesn't upload it immediately.  So if you're heading back to the airport with your rental car, ready to fly home (and it's virtually impossible to avoid the motorway for that) you leave knowing that you haven't paid!  The hire car company gets on to you a month or so later, by which time the bill is considerably higher than it should have been.  Intelligent, yes?  It was a couple of years back that we experienced this, and it was enough to stop us returning.  Maybe they have sorted it by now, but it's the kind of thing nobody knows about until it's too late.  Portugal, are you reading this?)

Work on De Next Book proceeds apace.  Well, not quite apace.  It's not always encouraging weather for exploring ancient roads and tracks in the countryside, but when the day looks like it just might be dry for a few hours, off we head.  It isn't simply the wonderful old track that you follow, it's trying to work out why it was there in the first place, where it came from, where it went to, who might have followed it, and what spirits and ghosts of the past might still be there, watching us walk past.

When the weather really doesn't permit, the time is spent working through old documents, maps, books, searching for clues and hints.  Came across those lovely Bee Judgements  or Bechbretha from the ancient Brehon Laws last night.  I'd almost forgotten them.

Bees were so important in old Ireland, for the honey they produced/.  Sugar, whether from cane or from beet, didn't make an appearance until much later, so honey was prized and every decent householder kept a hive of bees.  Do you remember that old custom of Telling The Bees?  You had to go out and knock politely on the hive at dusk and tell them of births, deaths, marriages, or other major events.  If you didn't, they might just leave, and you would be the poorer.

The Bee Judgements dealt with every possible situation, from your swarm deciding to move to a neighbour's land, to finding a stray swarm in your own trees.  Even the fact that  your busy little creatures clearly gathered their nectar from further afield than your garden was taken into account, and neighbours were entitled to a small share each year.  As was the local ruler.  Apparently milk and honey blended into a warm drink was considered a very pleasant treat indeed. Must try it.

The old Irish word for a beehive was corcog.  Here is a rather decorative little holding skep at the back left, with that twisted wreath on top.  You could use that to capture a swarm which you happened upon by the roadside, and then bring it home in triumph.  That dear little straw house on the right is for a broody hen to sit on her eggs in peace and quiet.  I wanted that henhouse when I first saw it, and I still do.  They're made of twisted straw or sugan rope.  Must go and hunt up the chap who makes them.  And isn't it time one learned how to make baskets properly?  Check out courses.

We are also hunting down old standing stones and especially those with ogham writing on them.  Ogham is the oldest form of writing we have, but it isn't the kind  you would choose for writing a passionate love poem.  It's more for chiselling the bare facts on an extremely hard surface.  Cuchulainn Wuz 'Ere, rather than, I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree....

Some of the most magnificent ogham stones are sheltered within the wonderful Stone Corridor at Cor University.  I loved that corridor when I was an undergraduate, I still do now.  The behaviour of those who removed these stones from their original settings and brought them here might be questioned;  but their motives were surely worthy.  They wanted to make sure that they were protected for future generations, not knocked down by developers or utilised as gateposts.

If you ever find yourself in Cork, go and admire these.  Or, rather, stand quietly among them at dusk (it's always dusk in there, on the sunniest day anyway).   They speak to you.