Archive for June, 2008

Surfing in Anglet

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I wanted to drive along the coast down to biarritz, but a few roads led to a dead end at a french missile base. Instead we came across the worlds tallest sand dune just south of arcachon. We walked to the top and though skeptical at first (i once worked in the Great Sandy Desert in australia and some of the dunes there were pretty damn big) I had to admit that this takes the bicuit for bigness. I think it looks even more impressive as it sticks out like dogs balls from the surrounding pine forest.

We picked up a couple from the french alps who were hitchhiking their way down south. We really enjoyed their company and had a few beers with them in Capbreton before we parted company. The guy gave us a very generous gift about the size of a dice. Having done a lot of hitching i try and pick them up when I can and they generally turn out to be cool despite the paranoia about axe-wielding rapists. And it goes both ways, with people who pick up hitchers being the nicer sort in my experience.

We went through the surf towns of Hossegor and Capbreton before settling on Anglet, which has six beaches in a row just north around a rocky headland from Biarritz. They are mainly shifting beach breaks, the only point break coming south of biarritz in a break called le surf that has long peelers more suited to longboarders and goatboats when I saw it. We camped in a carpark next to the beach, and the next day hired some boards and went for a surf where the swell had picked up a little bit. karina was keen to do a session at one of the many surf schools karina using our solar drip shower. angletthere, and after 10 years in london I thought I could definetely use some improvement. The lesson started off him telling us to put our boards down and go for a bodysurf, and I thought to myself, “I cant believe i payed 25 euros to go for a fucking bodysurf”. However in the end he gave me a couple of things to work on that I reckon will make an improvement to my surfing.

The next day the wind was still onshore but the swell was much improved, closing out a few areas with big heavy tumblers. I began to see why the area was rated highly, and there were some good surfers out pulling off ripping moves. The water temperature, though not as warm as Brazil, was fine with or without a rashie, though I did cop a lot of sun as I stayed out a fair while before coming in. I took a few short surfing vids that I´ll post as soon as I´m able.

surf in Anglet

We ended up staying 5 days all told, and rode our bikes into biarritz a couple of times. It was good to be in one place for a while, though we do have a lot of miles to cover. On the last night we had mojitos on crowded and informal clifftop bar in biarritz, and watched the sunset over the atlantic.

suited up and ready to surf, angletThe next day we made our way through the foothills of the Pyrannese to San Sebastion in Spain, where im writing this now. I can see my euros drain away with the clock, so i reckon that´s enough writing for now. more later.

sundown in Les surf, biarritz

friendly hitchers

Al in contemplative mood, biarritz

ka on arrival in angletKa on monster Grand Playa

Nosing the clarets

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

karina in the medocAfter Nantes, we took a windy route along the coast, alternating between rocky holiday towns and marshes used by the salt industry and oyster farms. We headed for lunch at La Rochelle. I’m running low on adjectives to describe some of the good french towns, but i guess elegant and salty would do it for La Rochelle. The old city has great markets and boutiquey shops and the waterfront bobbles with ships in the sun.

The scenery as we went further south changed to the typical French atlantic type of pine covered dunes behind long straight sandy beaches, that continues all the way down to Biarritz. We camped alone for the night in one of them, and had a nice (probably illegal) campfire on the beach while a fat full moon rose up in a starry sky. We had a private ceremony where we burnt the remaining cheque books from visa-side of the business we sold.

The next morning we crossed the gironde in a pricey car ferry, that great downward cut in the side of France. On the south side of the bay are the world famous bordeux wineries of the Medoc and haute-medoc, that have lodged in my consciousness thanks to James Bond ordering the Chateaux Lafitte Rothchild in one of his many movies. On the hottest day so far, we piloted the van down small laneways beween row after row of ripening grapes, in a countryside dotted with chateux and villages. We stopped at a village fete of sorts at a small village, where the locals sat on long trestle tables listening to a one man band belt out synth french pop. Seeing us empty handed, some of the woman quickly put a cake and glass of rose in front of us. It was saturday, and most of the Vinyards were closed to visitors,ka and al in bordeux but we stopped at a local wineseller who was happy for me to taste the lot of them. i noticed at the BYO fete that most of the locals had plastic bottles of wine, instead of labled bottles, and it became clear that it is far cheaper to buy the wine from great steel vats than by the bottle, though I did splash out on a local Grand Cru bottle as gift for some friends of ours. Suitable refreshed, we continued to the city of Bordeux.

After parking it soon became apparent that there was some kind of music festival going on, with bands of every description playing in the streets and squares of the old city. Reggae, techno, military brass bands and some remarkably good indie rock bands were all in the mix, so karina and i got into the swing of things with a glass of punch and dancing in a night I’ve only vague memories off. I remember us crawling into our van that was like a sauna after the heat of the day, just as a big thunderstorm hit and thankfully cooled things down as we drifted off to sleep. We both nursed fair hangovers the next day.

cheese farmal doing air guitar near beachSt Karina\' \

The van in Vannes

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

ka with new friend, village outside rennes

We arrived in the pretty Brittany port of Vannes on it´s weekly market day of monday, and it was packed with shoppers. We parked on the point near the boneyard, and rode our bikes down into town. The food on display was mouthwateringly good, with charcuterries (butchers), fishmongers, bakers, and local artisanal producers diplaying the local tasty tidbits. Karina really rates French fashion, and happily browsed the stalls and clothes shops with a knowing eye, dragging me along in her wake. We had had a plate of delicious brittany oysters in a bar that seemed to be popular with the fishmongers who had finished hosing down their stalls, washed down with a tasty crisp chardonnay. After cruising the plains of northern france and the low countries, we were finally on the Atlantic coast and faced a happy stretch ahead of us of sun sand surf and the odd bottle of wine.

We pushed on south that night to the big university town of Nantes (pronounced something like ‘not’) where we decided to splash out for a camping ground so we could have a shower and recharge our equipment. It was a al in streetmarket, Vannesstately town of impressive building and squares, but with a modern feel to it, and also had trams which coming from melbourne I have soft spot for. The campground had its fair share of goth and emo looking kids, in town for a nearby death-metal music concert called Hellfest. We had a beer and watched a disappointing Euro football match without sound. The next day we awoke to drizzling rain, so we decided to have an easy day of working on the Van and battling to get any signal out of the campground wifi.

I have some childhood memories of campgrounds on Victoria´s various surf beaches, but, our old vw aside, modern campers are a new beast entirely. They pull up and then use a remote control and servo-motors to position it perfectly, something my dad relied on child labour to do (though after hours in the backseat in the australian summer, anything to stretch butcher in covered market, Vannesthe legs was appreciated). Most have hot and cold showers, sattelite tv with plasma screens, and everything to make sure you dont strain yourself. And europe has hordes of them lumbering around the countryside. Its enough to give me an inferioty complex, until it comes to fitting in a parking space or squeezing under the 2m height bar that france has erected in a lot of places to block the big campers from staying there. That´s when our nimble brown van comes into it´s own.

oysters and chardonnay in vannes

vannes harboural driving

Monks on the mount

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

mont-st-michelI remember seeing pictures of this of the fairytale little island of Mont St Michel in books as a nipper, and in the flesh it looks just as unlikely. You see the top spire and then town underneath before you even see the sea. It was kind of on our way to Brittany, and the weather had finally turned up the thermostat. A long spit of land joins the mountain to the mainland on the normandy coast. This can be submerged on big high tides, but on our visit the tide was out and it was mudflats going way out into the bay. The spit of land was used as a carpark, and i´d guess at at least 400 cars and 40 buses lined the entrance. Upon entering the gate a single road spirals up to the abbey perched on top, and the road is packed with gift shops, museums, restaurants and lots of people. We had a beer and a crepe, a normandy speciality, on a inside-mont-st-michelterrace looking northeast across the bay while the blazing sun pinned me to my plastic chair. We climbed the steps to abbey, but decided not to pay the entrance fee. I´ve always found active churches charging admission a bit cheeky, not to mention against their own tenets. Canterbury catherdral springs to mind. Defensively, you can see why the fortress slash abbey was always a tough nut to crack, though as Bill Bailey points out, the weak point is always the gift shop.

After the mont, we headed south through the regional centre of Rennes, with the aim of staying in the Forest of Paimpont, which is supposedly of king arthur fame, though quite a few other countries have laid claim to him in what I thought was a tale of medieval fiction. Anyway, we arrived at the village but there was no forest to be seen, so we drove around a bit looking for it before camping in a pleasant village municipal park replete with ducks and a welcome toilet block. i had a fish without luck on the lake at sunset off a little jetty while karina read and we tried a nice bottle we´d bought in lorraine, while eating saucisson, pate and bread. I saw the lake was covered with hundreds of insect skippers. somebody had told me once that if you alter the surface tension of the water with detergent the buggers instead of skimming will sink. So in the interests of science i took a bottle of zapf or whatever the belgian equivalent of fairy or palmolive is, and then had a buddhist remorse as just a few squirts seemed enough to capsize the lot of them. Ces´t la vie

Ahh Paris.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

old-car-on-the-roadWe had to be in Paris on Monday as karina had some visa buisness to do and i had some post. I took the backroads through slightly rolling farmland east of Paris as far as I could, but eventually we hit the Periphique, the ring road around Paris, and with it the bumper to bumper traffic. An hour of crawling later, we camped in the big park just outside Roland Garros. We rode our bikes in the next day, crossing the Seine river and did our chores close to the eifel tower. Both Karina and I dig paris, and have been here quite a few times. Like Amsterdam, bike is a good way to get around. The arondissements around the Eifel tower arent my favourite. I find the shops a bit overpriced, but wandering the streets you can still find the odd gem or insanely specialised shop selling violin strings or teas labelled “tahiti mix”.

As we drove out of Paris we started talking about Eurodisney, and karina mentioned there was an ‘Asterixland’ to which my response was “Why has no one told me this before?!!”. But it was too late to turn back. We swung past Versaille and then Chartres on our wayout, both with impressive edifices, a palace and cathedral respectively. But we didn’t go in. We pulled over down a lane, cooked a tasty dinner of saucise, rice and lentils and tomatos, then fell quickly asleep. I managed to reverse into a grassy embankment while maneuvring the van in the dark, leaving our exhaust pipe hanging off the muffler. I cut it off rather than leaving it dangling, and our van now sounds considerably more farty. I might stick it back on with bog and muffler tape when it comes time to sell for it’s rapidly decreasing resale value.

Al paris

Epernay – fizz wizz

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

The French like their lunch, and like their weekends. Not that others don’t, but French take these things with considerable gravity. Consequently, everything including supermarkets but barring the odd restaurant and bar, shuts down between 12:30 and 2pm and on weekends, Sundays eing especially dead. So when we drove band playing in eperanayinto Epernay on Saturday at the heart of the Champagne producing region, I carefully consulted all the literature to find where we could drink the most champagne for the least money, and then found that all the champagne house were closed apart from the most expensive tour at the stately Moet and Chandon. The tour was alright but not expecially revealing, and I made a mental note to bring a bag if ever I come next time as they leave a lot of bottles lying around and the security was non-existent. The bubbly they serve at the end was rather nice if overly long anticipated. I wondered how all the grandeur of the estate survived the revolution but it seems the Moet family did well by bribing Napoleon with lots of champers. We camped by the river on a sunny day, and the town had a little fete of sorts with a dom perignon8 piece brass band playing funk.

Verdun- Honour or Insanity?

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Karina at the Butte de Montsec memorialNow I confess to being a bit of history buff. Real history often makes better reading than any fiction. So I wanted to visit at least one of the World War One battlefields of northern France. I would have preferred the Somme, where my granddad served and was captured, or Arras, but that would have required a significant amount more driving, and Verdun lay between us and the bubbly producing towns of Champagne. After Luxembourg, and staying at the camping ground of god’s waiting room (couples in their 80’s staring motionless at the grass all day), we swung through the pretty cathedral town of Metz, where i had a beer and watched the Germany v Romania game in a cafe with an excitable deaf romanian, we went southwest into the forest near the Moselle River looking for a place to camp. I can’t think of moselle without thinking of barbeques in Australia in the late 70’s and the women gettingAl at Montsec memorial. Van in background stuck into the the green casks and bottles of ‘Moselle’ wine. I picked out the top of the only hill in the area to stay the night, the Butte de Montsec, that turned out to have an American war memorial on top of it like a greek temple. With the red sunset over the lake and escarpments below, and then a big moon rising, it was quite an atmospheric place to park up.

Karina piloted the VW through the narrow country lanes and villes of the Lorraine countryside, and we had breakfast at Bar-de-luc, which is famous for it’s currants, but we just had a coffee and croque monsiuer (cheesey bechamel sauce and ardennes ham on toast) that was the best I’d ever scoffed.Al in fron of church, Metz

After that, we choofed north to Verdun. Now Verdun saw some of the heaviest fighting and casualties of the Great war, almost a million dead in 14 months of mainly French and Germans soldiers fighting over the same small patch of blasted earth. You see streets and squares named after it all over France. We went to the citadelle museum in the town and took an amusing electric cart, almost like the Ghost Train at the fair, that had automated film and displays about life inside the citadelle during the battle. It had an effective bit where you were asked to imagine you were flying over the fields of france, with model farms laid out below our cart and a giant fan simulaing the flying experience. As good as it was, it seemed difficult to see how this bit in anyway related to the verdun conflict. It finished by talking about the pride of the french defence and the honour it had won, as our electric car rolled through a Get Smart like tunnel of raising flags, medals and banners with the Marsellie playing. As an afterthought, they mentioned their dedication to peace, which I thought was a bit rich given the previous room. We walked out through a collection of propaganda posters from both French and German sides from the period. My take on it is that the Battles of Verdun, the Somme, and other slaughters like Fromelle and Bullecourt, is that they stand as testiment to how leaders and men can dangerously abuse power, and manipulate societies so they will send men in their millions to be mown down like wheat and blasted to blood and bone, and asked to murder and maim other men, and be at the whim and command of a self aggrandising fools serving their own ambitions, and then call it glorius and honourable, and shout down and humliate and imprison and execute anyone who dissents or refuses to take part. The millions dead should be used as a warning, but even this century we’re still getting dragged into wars that benefit only the few. That’s my two cents. After the citadelle we drove around a few of the nearby battlefields and memorials of the Douamont. The unwooded area still has the overgrown shell craters of 90 years ago and rusting barb wire.

Al’s World Beer tasting Notes

Friday, June 13th, 2008

Jupiter – Belgian

Light to medium Pilsner style. Solid but not exceptional. Expected more from a Belgian beer

Duval – Belgian

Pricey, medium colour Belgian beer that drinks a bit too easy for its 8% alcohol.

Bofferding –Luxembourg

Clean, light, alpine style beer that was quite refreshing, though after 4 hours driving I would have drunk fermented ditchwater and liked it

Sheltering in the Tax Haven

Friday, June 13th, 2008

Luxembourg, Thursday-Friday

The Van handled the hills of this pissy little country surprisingly well, though as mentioned before third gear is a challenge to slip into without a grind. Luxembourg is a verdant hilly patchwork of forests and meadows with content cattle grazing, the wafting scent of industrial fertilizer, and the gentle fattening of tax-free investment portfolios. We took a detour en-route to the Duchy looking for non-existent petrol stations thanks to our helpful GPS and ended up at the Spa racetrack. Icy rain fell and I had to keep the windows open to stop the windscreen from fogging up.

We stopped for lunch at the first city inside the border, for a sandwich with the mildly famous Ardennes ham, though it might have been spam as the boucherie woman spoke no English. We were surprised to find the town had a large Portuguese population, who all had their flags out for the Euro football tournament. Karina was able to chat with them and learn that the Portuguese had infiltrated the Duchy in significant numbers, thanks to the Eurozone laws.

luxembourgThe city of Luxembourg takes the biscuit for capital city picture postcard looks, beating Prague, Stockholm and Paris by its ridiculous grandiosity. The palace is set high upon flying casements and revetments that plunge down into the gorge below, spanned by precipitous stone arched ponts. No glass insurance buildings or concrete superstores mar the uniformity of its black renaissance roofs and sandstone walls. I was half expecting to see serfs pulling carts out the gates instead of drunk but well dressed luxembourgers wandering between the few clubs and bars of the old centre.

We have to be in Paris for Monday, so today we’re off to the Reims to sample the bubbly, then work our way westward to the Somme in case the Bosch tries any flanking maneuvers.

Smoke gets in your eyes

Friday, June 13th, 2008

Amsterdam – Monday and Tuesday

I don’t remember any of this. I think it had canals

Seriously though, the ‘dam is as pretty as ever. We had a picnic in the Vondelpark, which has recently legalised outdoor sex in a fairly liberal move, even by dutch standards. I’ve spent a bit of time in Holland, and I think the idea of the Dutch as a liberal alternative bunch is wide of the mark. What they are is tolerant, in that they will put up with a lot but not necessarily like it. While the tourists smoke it up in cafes, the Dutch are at home or in cosy pubs drinking beer in moderation. I knew a nice couple from England that bought a house in a northern Dutch town and found all their neighbours very cold, disapproving of anything they did that was outside the normal, such as playing music in their home or dressing differently.

I spent a bit of time squeezed underneath the van, trying to get off a particularly stubborn nut to change the transmission oil, but lacking the right tools I had to admit defeat.

Some kids graffiting on a bridge V

In the Vondelpark V