Archive for August, 2009

Anna and Alain

August 30, 2009 11:14 am

P1020537P1030283We’ve become great friends with two remarkable “agriculteurs” – farmers – here in Barbentane. Anna is a Force of Nature – a tiny 87 year old ball of fire, originally from northern Italy, who’s lived in Barbentane for almost sixty years. Except to sleep (briefly) at night and to faire une sieste every afternoon, she never stops working. She rises between 4:30 and 5:00 every morning and starts cooking. First she bakes a cake to share with the endless stream of visiting friends and purchasers of her produce. Then she cooks vegetables that are past their prime for les ‘poo-lay’ (les poules, the chickens, which in French sounds like ‘pool’ but not with Anna’s undiminished adorable Italian accent). Before 7:00 am, she heads down to her large champ (field) near the Rhone, about a 5 minute’s drive away, with Alain. He’s originally from the area around Bourges in central France, in his 70’s, and lives in Anna’s big house on the floor above. Over the years, he’s worked many fields in Barbentane and has been working Anna’s ever since her husband, Romeo, died years ago.

Together they work the field every day of the year. In summertime, the air is cool and fresh when they arrive. By 10:00, though, the sun is starting to simmer and reaches a full boil shortly thereafter. I know this because this summer Kevin and I have been working in the field occasionally with Anna and Alain. The thought of Anna bending over and working away in the Provençal heat is worrying, so we wanted to help out with all the endless chores that must be done at this time of year. We love hanging out with these two, who don’t speak a word of English, and – being frustrated gardeners with no growing land of our own – we’re thrilled to be working a real patch of ground in this region, renowned  throughout millenia for producing exquisite fruits and vegetables.

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Leonard Cohen in Concert in Nimes

August 21, 2009 3:17 pm

P1030217When a friend told me that Leonard Cohen was giving a concert in the Roman coliseum in Nimes, I balked at paying the hefty 96€ for a ticket. Then, the day before the concert, I thought “Am I crazy? Who cares what it costs? It’s Leonard Cohen!” Plus, I realized, he will be 75 years old next month and he might not be planning another world tour any time soon.

So, off to Nimes last night to see a performer I’ve been in love with for 40 years. Can that be possible? He recorded Suzanne, the first song I heard by him, in 1967. Mon dieu …

P1030200I knew the concert would be wonderful but I didn’t expect that I would say afterwards – without exaggeration –  “That was the best concert I have ever seen in my life.” After literally every song, he received a standing ovation. The audience was all over him. I was stunned that he left the stage for good after only 4 encores. It was all over so fast!

P1030172The concert was in the two-thousand-year-old Roman coliseum, Les Arènes – a superb venue for a concert (and, I suppose, for the gladiatorial shenanigans of yore). The air was soft and warm, the sky was clear and dark, and the music was pure magic.

I have been steeped in Leonard’s music all day today and I am watching and listening to Leonard Cohen, Live in Concert as I write this post. Friends Doris and Hu gave Kevin and me the DVD when they visited recently from California. I highly recommend it. Last night’s show is pretty much the same as this London concert of July 18, 2008.

On the DVD, he told his audience that it had been a long time since he had stood on a London stage: “It was about 14 or 15 years ago – I was just a 60 year old kid with a crazy dream.”  Leonard, you’re timeless.


A visit to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (Midi-Pyrénées Observatory).

August 19, 2009 9:41 pm
It looks like a Medieval Fortress (with modern bits)

A Modern Fortress!

A place with a view

A place with a view

As part of our trip to the Pyrénées our host very kindly took us to see the Pic du Midi observatory.  Since he worked there we were in the privileged position of having a much better tour of the place than members of the general public.

We drove up into the mountains and parked in a small town of Bagnères de Bigorre where we were greeted by several Llamas wandering around the car park.  Being a ski resort there were many ski lifts and cable cars around. We went to a cable car building and caught the first of two cable cars to the top.

Getting close to the Pic du Midi was quite a sight, buildings nestled right on the peak of the tallest mountain in the area.  The very first building there, now part of the cafe, took eight years to build! Everything was bought up manually and they only had three months of the year to work as it was too cold at other times. The view from the top was pretty spectacular too.


The Coronagraph

At the top we had a good look around the outside of the site and then went into the deep recesses of the buildings to see all the equipment that was hidden from view. The first thing we went to see was the Chronagraph, a special telescope for studying the Sun’s corona.  A Coronagraph simulates an eclipse of the Sun with a disk over the centre of the Sun of just the right size to allow the corona to be seen.

Coronagraph Control Screen

Coronagraph Controls

We were allowed to sit at the control console and using the mouse we were able to point the Coronagraph precisely at the Sun and to take some photos of the corona. It was a little tricky to keep the Coronagraph pointed properly as the Sun was moving all the time (relative to us!) so we had to keep adjusting our aim. Once we had it precisely centred, we switched from pointing mode to observation mode and took several pictures using different instruments mounted on the gimbles.

Ruth and Kevin look at their picture of the sun

Look! It's the Sun!

Here we are looking at the picture we had taken.

Next we went to see the large telescope, a 2m telescope known as the Bernard Lyot Telescope, named after the inventor of the Coronagraph. It was housed in a large dome at one side of the site. We had to descend a few levels to get into the building and then took the lift up to the telescope level and found ourselves in a large, dark dome which was freezing cold. The temperature has to be maintained at a few degrees below the air outside. This is to stop perturbations of the air rising when the telescope is in use and distorting the picture. There was not a lot to see inside the dome, partly because it was so dark and partly because it was controlled from elsewhere; no one actually looks through it, it has cameras for doing that.

The telescope dome was followed by a look at the control room and then back to the visitors’ area and a visit to the museum there. We had a thoroughly enjoyable visit and and have put more of our photos of the trip in our Pic du Midi gallery.

Here are some useful links:


Visit to Les Pyrénées

August 16, 2009 5:23 pm

Our Picnic Site on the Canal du MidiThis week we drove to the Pyrénées for a short visit. On our way there, we stopped to picnic alongside the Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and thus to avoid the then month-long journey through the pirate-laden waters around Spain. It was so breathtakingly beautiful there that I didn’t want to leave. But the lure of the mountains got us back on the road.

We stayed with French friends in the little village of Momères, which is just at the base of the Pyrénées and very close to Spain. There aren’t any foothills; rather, the mountains seem to just rise straight up. The first day, we drove up Le Pic du Midi de Bigorre – which visit Kevin is going to write about. Later that day, our friends took us to Lourdes, where thousands of “malades” come daily looking for miraculous cures. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in a grotto along the river Gave de Pau in 1858. That apparition converted Lourdes from a tiny village into a huge pilgrimage-tourist site. (The only city in France with more hotel rooms is Paris.) The Catholic church built huge cathedrals on the site, both above and below ground.

PyrenéesThe next day, we drove back up into the mountains, this time towards the Col d’Aspin. We hiked up to a small lake, where we were surrounded by cows, sheep, and horses. It’s August and hot, but there were still plenty of wildflowers there – including tall blue delphiniums. Hiking in the Pyrénées looks superb and I cannot wait to get back.

Of course, when visiting France, we always dive head first into the Gastronomic Specialties of the region. We bought a Pic Bigourdan, a type of cake that is meant to resemble a mountain peak (hence, “pic”) but looks more like a fir tree. It’s made by pouring batter over a spindle as it twirls in front of a fire. We also bought a Tourte Myrtilles, another cake, much different in shape – small, high, and round – and filled with blueberries.

At the market in Tarbes, we bought Haricots Tarbais from a bent-backed woman who looked over a hundred years old. These are the beans the French make cassoulet with. I cooked ours today with bacon, onions, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and a bouquet garni. Incroyable!

We keep intending to start a diet but we never seem able to empty the refrigerator first. Maybe if we stopped buying all these tasty delights …

Check out our photos!