Friday, May 25, 2018


We have several interesting birds that visit our garden for food but (so far) Idris is the most exotic. Idris is the name we have given to a Eurasian Hoopoe (or maybe a couple - I think the male and female look alike) that comes and feeds on our lawn most days. He's got a long beak and pecks away at the grass and normally flies off with a tasty morsel in his beak. He's only a summer visitor, he winters in Africa and our full time residents (e.g. blackbirds) don't seem to fight with him.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Pau Grand Prix

We've seen all the preparations - signs, fencing, guard-rails and diversions - for the last 6 weeks or so and, finally, the Pau Grand Prix was held this weekend. The race is held on a very narrow, twisting street circuit and overtaking is very difficult (in fact, almost impossible in modern racing cars); the circuit is very like Monaco's, but actually narrower. The race has been held since 1930 and this was the 77th edition; previous winners include Jim Clark. Now, it's a Formula 3 race and the highlight of a whole weekend of racing for different types of cars. 

Formula 4 race
I went and saw a few of the races on the Saturday, including the 1st of 3 F3 races over the weekend. It's very impressive for a number of reasons. First, there are a lot of logistical challenges - e.g. the circuit is 2.7 km long and has to be protected by twin layers of fencing. Second, all motor racing involves accidents and, on such a narrow circuit, they have to be dealt with very efficiently; generally the damaged car is retrieved by one of the strategically placed huge cranes as the safety car neutralizes the race for a lap or two, before racing resumes. Third, the circuit is obviously a huge driving challenge; you wouldn't be allowed to design a modern circuit with so many blind bends, undulations and kerbs and with such a narrow track. For the drivers, it must be a pretty high pressure event, especially when they have 3 races over a single weekend.

But, in terms of a racing spectacle, it's spoiled by the virtual impossibility of overtaking. The race is won or lost in qualifying and at the race-start. This doesn't take anything away from the event's challenge or the skill of the drivers, but it certainly reduces the spectacle. Some pics. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Hiking in the clouds

Into the clouds...
I set off for a shortish day hike on Le Layens, a 1625 m high mountain in the Pyrénées that is used as a paraglider launch. Everything went very well until I joined the final ridge, and saw that clouds were moving in from the North. Hmmm, this wasn't in the forecast I saw. Very quickly I found myself in the clouds hiking along a long, indistinct ridge without any real paths. Finding the summit wasn't that hard (just keep going up) but after that navigation became more difficult. For the next hour or so I spent most of my time looking at my compass and peering into the mist, hoping to recognize the few landmarks on the map. Even as a hiker, the mist can be very disorienting - at one point, I thought there were a group of sheep 200 m away, only to realize it was a bunch of daffodils about 15 m away!

Anyway, I followed the intended route, even if it was a little more stressful than I expected. Near the end of the hike, I popped out of the clouds and pretty much the first thing I saw was my car, 750 meters directly below. Maybe next time I'll pack a GPS for my hikes...

Some pics.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Le Trône du Roi

Le Pic d'Anie from Le Trône du Roi
For the last couple weeks I've been looking at the Pyrénées, trying to work out if the snow-line was high enough to permit some hiking. Today's forecast was excellent so I decided it was worth a try and went on a hike up Le Trône du Roi. It's a popular hike on essentially the 'front-range'' of the Pyrénées - so at 1266m not a big mountain but quite a steep hike to a sharp summit and a short drive from Pau.

It all went according to plan, with excellent views of the bigger snowy peaks and a taster for more hikes to come. Some pics.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Big Waves at St-Jean-de-Luz

Typical Basque Architecture
Our 'local' coast has changed from the Med to the Atlantic and it's quite a contrast. The Med always seems to be warm, sunny, calm and blue - even in the middle of winter. The Atlantic is much more elemental - even in summers it can be moody, gray and stormy. The differences go well beyond that; the Atlantic - with the Basque architecture - has a charming 'old world' feel while the Med feels like some modern, Californiaized development. Marinas contain sailing and fishing boats, rather than only luxury yachts. 

We could see most of these differences on a day-trip we made today to St-Jean-de-Luz, a fashionable Basque resort. We didn't know much about the town before our visit, but we learned a lot from the little information plaques throughout the town. It has the only sheltered bay on the south west coast. Before the sea-walls were constructed, the sea would advance a meter per year, but afterwards the town built its wealth on fishing and piracy!

The weather was very pleasant, with almost no wind. But, as we were strolling around, we noticed big waves breaking over the distant sea-walls. We had to see what was going on! So, after a leisurely lunch, we took a boat out to the Fort de Socoa. We were mesmerized by the spectacle! On one side of the sea-wall, spray, mayhem and spectacle; on the other side, kayakers calmly paddling around. I'm keen to go back when it is windy!

Some pics I took. If you want more spectacular waves, look here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Le Pays de Morlaàs

Morlaàs is a little town (population around 5,000) just north of Pau. It has a lot of history (from the 9th to the 13th century, it was the capital of Béarn) but nowadays it seems more like a wealthy suburb of Pau. It's surrounded by a lot of little villages and hamlets, as well as farms, and the countryside provides a good set of hikes and bike rides (mountain and road) near my house. The terrain is flattish but there are lots of steep little lung bursting climbs for variety. There are plenty of well maintained country lanes and farm tracks, so winter mud isn't a horrible problem. I've been doing a bunch of hikes there recently, often looking S to the big peaks of the Pyrénées where I hope to be hiking come late spring. 

A few pics.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hendaye and Hondarribia

Central square with the Castillo de Carlos V on the right
Hendaye is the last coastal town in France before Spain and just across the river is the first Spanish town, Hondarribia. This is the Basque country, and Hondarribia is the Basque name - in Spanish it is Fuenterribia and in French, Fontarribia. We'd never heard of Honarribia / Fuenterribia / Fontarribia until today; but we visited it on chance and it really blew us away. It is charming!

We drove down to Hendaye for a little day trip; it's about 90 minutes from Pau. We wanted coffee when we arrived and stumbled upon a cafe run by a Brit and he said that Hondarribia was lovely and we could take a boat there. After exploring Hendaye (typical French Basque architecture, with a relaxed 'spread out' feel for a coastal town) we took the little boat across the bay to Hondarribia. 

Typical architecture inside the walled town
We found a walled city, with a central square complete with a 10th century castle which is now a fancy hotel showing signs of past French / Spanish 'disputes' in the form of cannon-ball damage. The rest of the city was very attractive; cars are restricted and this makes it much easier to stroll and enjoy a town. The architecture was stunning; Spanish-Basque isn't unlike the French version, but it's still quite different. We had a tapas style lunch - with very strong cider - in a little bar. Afterwards we did more exploring before returning to Hendaye and eventually driving home, a little shocked to have never heard of such a cute place.

A few pics.