***Kin’ Fiestas

I’ve never really been a party animal. I used to be something of a music animal but even in my youth, it had to be my music on my terms. Even if the music in question was the best Led Zeppelin track ever [I’ll leave that one to you], I do not ever want to hear my neighbour playing it because it isn’t on my terms.

The Spanish, by contrast, absolutely love a party, particularly a town party. They, of course, call their town parties fiestas. There are usually some daytime diversions involved, often revolving around food and drink. [Yes, I am a fan of both of those.] There may be some entertainments/demonstrations, too, such as the curious Catalan habit of building human towers, called castells, by making a small and fearless child stand atop the shoulders of four or five levels of slightly less fearless but much stronger adults, some wearing crash helmets to keep the Spanish health and safety folks happy. [Yeah, right.]

And, of course, what party would be complete without some music? Fear not, a fiesta is a proper party and there is always live music, sometimes even during the daylight hours. What I utterly fail to comprehend about the Spanish mentality is that most of the fiesta music is performed during the night. No, not the evening, the night. Spanish fiesta music stages tend to fire up at about midnight. As the stars revolve around their celestial orbits, rising and setting as the night progresses, the music continues becoming, it seems, ever louder. That could, I suppose, just be the fact that all other ambient noise ceases, but I really do think the volumes get cranked up. This assault on the eardrums of those non party animals attempting to sleep continues generally until 05:00 or 05:30. Why in Darwin’s name must it happen all night?

I have enough trouble getting to sleep at the best of times, i.e. in complete silence, but with a nearby Spanish fiesta in full swing I have no chance. Casa is built half way up a mountain facing a couple of villages and our balconies combine with the hillside to make a very good noise catcher. I’ve tried earplugs but they’re too uncomfortable – just the feel of them in my ears kept me awake – and were, I found, not terribly effective against rock music. What must it be like for the residents at ground zero? I can’t imagine that the sprightly Spanish octogenarians, fuelled by endless Soberano at 8€ a litre, burn their midnight oil and shake their wrinkly bodies down to ground zero until the wee small hours.

Shortly after arriving for this visit, we found out that we’d flown straight towards another local fiesta this weekend. Ground zero this time is Jalón. Our more usual bugbear is the nearby village of Alcalalí, actually slightly closer. There has been a fiesta in Jalón on one of our previous visits and that wasn’t too bad; maybe the wind was in a favourable direction taking the worst of the racket away from us. Earlier this week, we saw a massive marquee being erected in the main square and enclosing all of it but the surrounding footpaths at the sides. Preparations were well underway.

Sure enough, at about 23:30 on Friday we began to hear music. Well, I assume it was music but given the distance and distortion caused by intervening buildings it came across as unrecognisable noise. It was just enough to keep me awake. It continued to be just enough to keep me awake until my last conscious time check during what still felt like Friday night at around 03:00. At some time I must have entered the land of nod because my next conscious time check of what might just about have felt like Saturday morning came at about 05:00, when I had a vague recollection of an odd dream. [Dreams are always odd.] “It’ll stop soon”, I remember thinking. Wrong! This ***kin’ fiesta continued until about 07:30 when whatever was being played had morphed into something sounding even less musical.

And don’t think for one minute that that’s it. This ***kin’ fiesta is something to do with Jalón’s patron saint and we’re told we can look forward to another three nights of irresistible entertainment.

Escaping to the Parador in Jávea/Xàbia sounded appealing. Calpe is out because they’re staging a Moors and Christians event on Sunday: battle #1, lunch, battle #2, knees-up. Besides, we have guests arriving.

Maybe that Soberano might work as an anaesthetic …

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Posted in 2018-10 Spain

Between the Rains

Surprisingly the sun reappeared today. Following yesterday’s late afternoon thrash I didn’t know how muddy it might be underfoot but we decided to have a run out to the marjal de Pego-Oliva to see who/what might be around. Besides, it looked brighter over in that valley.

_18C8796 Aeshna mixtaBrighter it was. There were a few puddles on the stony track but underfoot beside the water conditions were fine and we were soon finding some activity. First up was a female Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) which just goes to show how the season stretches further in Spain than in the UK. She wasn’t posing for pictures, though. A flying Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta), whose relatives are still quite active in the UK, was more cooperative for Francine, though, and she captured the subject on the wing admirably.

J18_2116 Erythromma lindeniiJ18_2123 Danaus chrysippusWe were out in some fresh air with nobody else around and it wasn’t raining so we were winning, though insect activity wasn’t exactly high. We found another damselfly species here, a Blue-eye (Erythromma lindenii), which did cooperate but most interest and action was provided by a butterfly, the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus), of which there were several flitting about. My only other representation of this species on pixels had been a battered specimen from Hondo which I had needed to repair using Photoshop wizardry. I dislike doing such things but needs must. So, I was very happy to catch an example in good condition which will eventually replace my repaired individual. These are relatives of the long distant migrant, the Monarch (Danaus plexippis); in fact, their common name in French translates as Small Monarch.

J18_2127 Orthetrum trinacriaJ18_2129 Sympetrum fonscolombiiIn the absence of any further interest, we moved on to what had been our very first area of the marjal, the rice paddies. Following our discovery of the river at the back of the reserve, we’ve been neglecting it lately. As well as yet more Plain Tigers, here we found quite a few Red-veined Darters (Sympetrum fonscolombii) – here’s one with sun glinting off its wings – and a Long Skimmer (Orthetrum trinacria), being less cooperative on the ground. The latter is rather fond of eating the former so this should have proved a reasonable hunting ground for it. Even if a hunter yourself, It can be a cruel world as a dragonfly.

By most accounts we’re heading towards a wet weekend.

Posted in 2018-10 Spain

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

[Nice one, David.]

I’m getting too old for 03:15 alarms. I’m certainly getting too old to awake at 02:30 waiting for said alarm. We got up early, bleary-eyed after just three hours sleep and prepared to fly back to Spain. We’re trying something new – well, several things new, really.

Firstly we’re flying into Valencia instead of Alicante for the first time. At the time of booking Valencia proved to be almost 50% cheaper. Our hope was that it would prove to be a quieter, less touristy airport and that we might avoid the occasional Benidorm set that frequent the Alicante route. Fingers crossed, we boarded and were on our way by 07:00.

It’s a 20 minute shorter flight to Valencia, too, and we touched down at 09:00 some way ahead of schedule. We were bussed from the plane’s parking spot on the apron to the terminal. The fact that we’re too old for 03:15 alarms was put into stark relief when a young lady on our shuttle bus offered to give up her seat for us. Arghh! “Thanks but no, we’re fine.“ The bus swiftly delivered us to the terminal where two warm bodies checked our passports much more quickly than the pedestrian automated passport readers ever do. – another advantage. We were soon wandering towards the car park for our rental car.

Having changed airports, it was now time for our change of rental car company: Giner in Benissa a town just a few kilometres from Jalón. This seemed flaky. I had booked on-line, a Seat Ibiza giving my email address and required dates, some while ago but booking on-line clearly just generates a message to the company – nothing actually happens immediately. Some 24 hours later I did receive an email saying that my booking was made. My confirmation came with instructions to make our way to the 2nd floor of the multi-storey car park where, in space 759, we would find a permanently parked white car. This was not ours, it was a marker. A man would either be there or shortly be there. It seems that the representative was actually a third party company looking after the distribution of rental cars for several agencies.

Arriving on the 2nd floor of the car park, sure enough, there was the marker car and, after a minute or two, there were two men one of whom knew our name and popped off to get our car “in 3 minutes”. It was a Spanish 3 minutes that took about 10 minutes. We had been early, though. I signed a 1-page contract and was given a key. We drove out of the airport and onto the autopista in a rental car having paid absolutely nothing nor having provided any driving license or credit card details. We were to call in to the office in Benissa later to pay and complete the formal paperwork. How delightfully trusting. I chose to call in on our way to Casa; the Giner lady was very friendly, too. This could be habit forming.

BeforeWe arrived in sunshine and rebooted Casa. All seemed well, if a little dusty after a 6-month absence. Our standard welcoming lunch of calamares [squid] washed down by a glass or two of rosado seemed in order.

The day already felt quite long but I couldn’t resist checking out the pool by the ford opposite the bar to see if any friends were flying. Sure enough, there were several Orange-winged Dropwings (Trithemis kirbyi) flashing their wing patches and quite a few Epaulet Skimmers (Orthetrum chrysostigma), too. Neither species frequent the UK so they are always good to see. Both were doing a lot of basking on rocks.

J18_2094  Orthetrum chrysostigmaJ18_2100  Trithemis kirbyi

AfterChanges were clearly the order of the day. We’d known that we were flying towards some unsettled weather and the sun that greeted us, if anything, was something of a surprise. A couple of hours later our view had changed to this.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings but we’re expecting changeable.

Posted in 2018-10 Spain

Grasping the Nettle

For a bit of variety, we began by visiting our third high altitude Auvergne lake in three days, this one Lac Montcineyre at an altitude approaching 1200m/3900ft. If nothing else we’d be on more roads showing us more of the scenery in the area.

_18C4555_18C4598

J18_1393 Lestes dryas femaleJ18_1403 Silver-washed FritillaryWe got to a suitable parking area just off the road at the end of a track leaving us a 1km walk up to the lake itself. Frankly, the walk up the track proved to be more interesting than the lake itself; or, at least, at first it did. On our way up we saw another female Scarce Emerald/Robust Spreadwing (Lestes dryas), which was proving to be anything but scarce in these parts. [It’s a female, BTW.] A handsome Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly kept us entertained for a while, too. Once we got to the lake itself, we scoured the accessible edge of the lake without much of great interest.

A bunch of French walkers arrived and peered at us muttering, wondering what we were scrutinizing the lakeside vegetation for, “Libelules”, we replied, jauntily. “Ah …” – further muttering

Interest picked up as we were preparing to leave. Beside some trees and above a patch of stinging nettles, a cluster of emerald dragonflies was coursing back and forth hunting. Dragonflies don’t actually swarm, as such, but they will gather together at a good food source. Here, there must’ve been in excess of 20 individuals. We’d seen a few on the way in but given the background of a confusion of branches together with the fact that these guys don’t settle very much, we’d left them to their feeding. Now, we did pause to watch and admire their aerial display. It’s difficult in flight with a fast moving critter but we thought we could see yellow markings on them so guessed these were more Yellow-spotted Emeralds (Somatochlora flavomaculata).

_18C4780 Somatochlora flavomaculataThen one settled in the nettle patch a few feet from us. A shadow was cast across part of the abdomen but I was happy to get any settled shot. To my amazement, more individuals followed suit and began settling also in the nettles and not just briefly, sometimes for a minute or two at a time. We both clicked away furiously getting shots without irritating shadows as individual continued to land. You just can’t have too many shots of settled Yellow-spotted Emeralds. 🙂

These dragonflies didn’t appear to be eating when they settled. It’s possible they were pausing to rest but given their habitual tireless flight, I doubted that. I have heard of a sort of time-sharing that goes on with at least one species in the UK, given several individuals in one patch; one or two will patrol for food then appear to make way for others. Given the concentration of individuals here, I wonder if something similar was going on.

J18_1506 Purple-edged CopperOnce we tore ourselves away from the Emeralds, another addition to our butterfly catalogue presented itself as we approached the car; a Purple-edged Copper (Lycaena hippothoe) was feeding in one the very rich flower meadows that abound here in spring. June is definitely the time to visit the Auvergne.

I couldn’t resist one last try at Lac (de l’)Estivadoux on the way back to Guillaume, just to see if I could find an Irish Damselfly/Crescent Bluet (Coenagrion lunulatum) but, despite wading in the lake for a third time, the only different life forms I found consisted of a gang of school kids in the company of a couple of teachers armed with a net. Fearing for our sanity, we stayed at the opposite end of the lake.

That concluded what I considered to be a very successful visit to the Auvergne, albeit without my primary quarry, in astonishingly good weather. Tomorrow we begin our journey back north and home.

Posted in 2018 France

Emerald City

Our second day high in a brilliantly sunny Auvergne and what a glorious region it is in such weather. There are a staggering amount of walking routes all around us with breath-taking scenery to be enjoyed.

Yesterday we spent a lot of time combing Lac (de l’)Estivadoux for the Irish Damselfly/Crescent Bluet (Coenagrion lunulatum). We didn’t find it but we did get a tantalizing glimpse of what I now believe was a Yellow-winged Darter (Sympetrum flaveolum). More precisely, Francine got a glimpse of it but I did not. I couldn’t waste weather like this in such far flung habitat; had to go back for more.

J18_1283 Sympetrum flaveolum imm maleReturning to Estivadoux, I put my trusty Salomon Techamphibians on again and we began combing the shallow vegetation-rich lake. Now I had two quarries, the Crescent Bluet and the Yellow-winged Darter. I continued not to see any Crescent Bluets but I did briefly happen across a Yellow-winged Darter – just briefly enough to snag a mostly in focus shot. However, Francine discovered a sheltered dip in the ground beside the lake that appeared to be attractive to them and we managed some much improved shots. This species was just emerging and all the examples we found were immature. This is an immature male whose abdomen will eventually turn red. The wings do show the extensive yellow patches characteristic of the species, though.

_18C4653 Somatochlora flavomaculataI still didn’t find my primary quarry but another interesting character, a Yellow-spotted Emerald (Somatochlora flavomaculata), did put in an appearance as we were leaving, hunting over the access path. It flew tirelessly, as is their wont, but Francine managed to snag it.

Where we left to was another high altitude lake [1168m/3800ft], Lac de Bourdouze.

Lac de Bourdouze

J18_1358 Brilliant EmeraldThis place turned out to be Emerald City. As we approached, we saw more examples of the Yellow-spotted Emerald that we had just encountered at Estivadoux. When we were actually at a suitable observation point beside the lake, though, there was a brilliant metallic green flash as an appropriately named Brilliant Emerald (Somatochlora metallica) zoomed past. This was one of those critters that I’d observed before but not managed to photograph. The main problem is that they fly almost continuously, rarely settling. This beast was being reasonably predictable, flying a couple of paths, not exactly predictably but at least relatively frequently. We both took up station and clicked away, soon abandoning autofocus [too slow] and switching to manual. “Everything looks sharp on the back of a camera”, sprang to mind. The trouble is, it’s a small thumbnail. Best not to get too excited. We both thought we’d got something reasonable, though. Once back at home base and with processing available, indeed we had. One of my two bogey dragonfly snagged. [Since you ask, I still need the Northern Emerald (Somatochlora arctica).]

J18_1386 Cordulia aeneaAfter a while, I saw an Emerald settle in a tree beside us – dreadful lighting, though. It took off again and began flying. I kept trying more in-flight shots. This one turned out to be a third Emerald species, a Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) which we do have at home. It was nice to snag one in France, though.

So, one more lake but with three different Emerald species and a bogey laid to rest. A pretty good day, really.

Posted in 2018 France

The Irish Problem

Since we ill-advisedly partitioned Northern Ireland a few hundred years ago to create a false protestant majority, Ireland has been a problem for us. You’d think we’d learn but no, we continue to grab land and partition countries causing yet more problems. What use history if we fail to learn from past mistakes?

I have an Irish problem of my own. Of the 45 breeding species listed for the UK, there is one Damselfly that I am yet to see. There is a clue in the name of this beast as to the reason that I haven’t yet seen it: it’s the so-called Irish Damselfly (Coenagrion lunulatum). Yes, in the British Isles C. lunulatum occurs only in Ireland and wild horses wouldn’t drag me to Ireland. Fortunately the critter is also available to be seen in other parts of Europe where the alternative, non-UK-centric name of Crescent Bluet is decidedly more appropriate. There are a few scattered populations in France, including in the Auvergne, which is where we now find ourselves. I wonder why?

One of my fellow odo-nutters informed me of a specific location where my quarry might be found. Somewhat confusingly, the name of said location seems to be documented inconsistently varying from a simple Lac Estivadoux, through Lac d’Estivadoux to Lac de l’Estivadoux. In any event, the key piece of information is the Estivadoux bit and here we are camped but a few kilometres from it. I pointed to the lake on our Michelin map and, guided by my primary navgatrix, we set off to find it.

We failed but not by any fault on the part of primary navigatrix. We had definitely found the correct road, which began more like a cart track, passed through some open countryside on proper tarmac followed by a wooded area, then ended up at a crossroads, a right turn from which soon had us looking over the bigger, more touristy water body of Lac Pavin. We were in the right location; we’d passed Lac (de l’)Estivadoux but not seen anything resembling a lake, just fields. Ignoring the tourist trap of Lac Pavin, we returned to the crossroads where we now spotted a helpful walkers signpost pointed back up our original road saying Lac (de l’)Estivadoux 0.7km. We backtracked, slowly.

Lac EstivadouxFrom this direction, the south, we could see behind the trees into the fields as we approached the wooded area. My eyes were on the road looking for oncoming traffic but primary navigatrix suddenly said, “there it is!” [gesticulates outside left window]. It still didn’t look like a lake; what it looked like was a very flat field, so vegetated was it. Having parked in the woods and wandered a short distance, a picture may help you to see the problem, though from this end you can see a little water which is not visible from the road. At least we’d found it. Now to the searching.

J18_1248 Lestes dryas maleThe first critters I found on the walk from the car to the field lake was another rarity that I’d made a special trip to Norfolk to find, the so-called Scarce Emerald, the better non-UK-centric name being Robust Spreadwing (Lestes dryas). The place was absolutely inundated with them so that was a thrill already.

J18_1165 Coenagrion hastulatum maleWe started combing the vegetation for blue-striped pyjama jobs – Bluets. I soon found out that there was a mixture of Common Blue Damselflies (Enallagma cyathigerum)  and Azure Damselflies (Coenagrion puella). Drat, that’s make the searching hard work ‘cos you have to study everything minutely. Then I spotted what I thought was my much sought after Irish Damselfly/Crescent Bluet. I snapped excitedly, hardly controlling my breath. I was sure I had it. I hadn’t. Unbeknownst to me, this lake also held a population of the very similar Northern Damselfly/Spearhead Bluet (Coenagrion hastulatum), which had been one of my quarries on last season’s trip braving the vagaries of Scottish weather. [OK, I can just about do Scotland but Ireland is a step too far.] “Bother”, said Pooh, crossly. Well, don’t get me wrong; I was delighted to see these critters again but I was still missing the Irish irritation.

A few years ago I had invested in a pair of wonderfully useful shoes – not particularly useful for Joe Normal but very useful for an odo-nutter. These shoes are Salomon Techamphibians. They were, I seem to remember being told told, originally designed for river guides. They are made entirely of materials impervious to water, including Kevlar cable fasteners. Absolutely nothing on them absorbs water and their grip on wet rocks is quite exceptional. In an uncharacteristic attack of far-sightedness, I had packed them and was now wearing them. [Frankly, they’re less useful in the UK where water temperatures are generally lower – not this year, perhaps – but are brilliant for odo-hunting in the south of France.] I began wading into Lac (de l’)Estivadoux, which proved to be about 30cms deep at most. I tried to study every blue-striped pyjama job that would settle long enough to permit study. I didn’t find anything buzzing with an Irish accent.

_18C4480 Sympetrum flaveolumAs I was wading failing to find anything Irish, primary navigatrix Francine spotted and snagged a Darter. I waded out of the lake but it had scarpered and we couldn’t find it again. Back at home base, I studied the Darter, which was snagged almost full frontal – not the best angle for identification. She’d done well getting it at all, though. I was perplexed; it didn’t look like anything I was familiar with. It wasn’t. Eventually, the heavy black along the lower side of the abdomen gave me the clue and the sizeable yellow area on the wings confirmed it: this was a brand new one for our catalogue, a Yellow-winged Darter (Sympetrum flaveolum). Joy! Well, joy except that we’d have to return to try and get better shots of it.

Ireland aside, what and incredible piece of habitat Lac (de l’)Estivadoux is. Here is a high mountain lake, a lake that to the casual eye looks more more like a field, sitting at an altitude of 1250m/4100ft. It is home to at least three specialist species that we did see, including one difficult-to-find Darter that I was thrilled to add to our catalogue, as well as the one we didn’t find, the accursed Irish Damselfly. I like it better as the Crescent Bluet, despite disliking the term bluet.

I removed my Salomon Techamphibians and dried my feet as well as I could – clearly my forward planning wasn’t perfect. We have another two days. 😉

Posted in 2018 France

Like a Train

There are many wonderful lines in the film Zulu but one of them in particular sprang to mind today as we headed away from the Languedoc and up to the Auvergne. In Zulu, as the British forces are preparing their defences at Rorke’s Drift, a strange noise is heard in the distance causing Gonville Bromhead, played by the wonderful Michael Caine, to remark, “Damn funny, like a train, in the distance”. The noise was, of course, the sound of about 4,000 Zulu warriors approaching intent on wiping out the defenders.

We had driven north from Loupian, largely on autoroute, and then began tacking across country to Murol about 40kms southwest of Clermont Ferrand [or Clement Freud, as we prefer to know it]. All was going smoothly until we came across some French road works. Well, at least they maintain their roads which is more than I can say for us, these days. A contraflow system was in operation as the road crew covered some nice, fresh, sticky tar with lorry loads of new gravillons [gravel]. We waited as the opposing traffic cleared whereupon it was our turn. We were last in the queue with Guillaume looking reasonably pristine after nearly four weeks on tour.

Eventually it was our turn and our line of traffic began making its way slowly over the freshly completely lane that was opened to us. A cacophony began and, in the towing mirrors, I could see poor ol’ Guillaume being peppered with gravel reaching half way up to the level of his front windows. I was being very cautious and doing only about 20mph/30kmh. Soon we were alone as the leading vehicles had all left us in their wake.

The new road surface went on for what felt like 5kms, though I didn’t measure it. Finally, mercifully, we left the freshly gravelled surface behind and were again driving on a seasoned tarmac surface. It is always an unsettling feeling when ones car makes odd noises whilst driving. Ours now sounded very different. I didn’t actually think I could hear the normal note of the engine or, indeed, the engine at all. I wasn’t losing power and things appeared to be working correctly but there was a drumming noise smothering everything, like a train. I was naturally apprehensive, as was Francine. This strange drumming noise continued for several more kilometres, through a village or two, before it seemed to begin to moderate. Or was that wishful thinking on my part? No, I believed I was now beginning to hear the note of the engine again.

Another kilometre or so and normal service appeared to have resumed. I can only assume that our tyres had been so coated in sticky gravel and that we had been running on stones rather than on Pirelli rubber.

With a little relief, after a few more kilometres, we made it to our campsite in Groire and checked in. Having got Guillaume installed I had as much of a squint as I could beneath the car and could see nothing untoward. Guillaume’s front panels were a different story; they were now spattered in tar and every flat surface and cranny had collected a goodly array of gravillons. I needed to learn that the French for tar is goudron in order to buy some solvent.

Our pitch had an electric hook-up, a branchement, but it was a paltry 5 amps, which brought to mind another film, Apollo 13.

“How much is that?” 

“Oh, barely enough to run this coffee pot …”.

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Posted in 2018 France

Parcs à Huitres

Time to renew our acquaintance with Mèze and its picturesque harbour. Fortunately we chose to cycle down the voie verte and give our hard-working tow car a rest. Mission accomplished, we returned to our Loupian campsite.

As we cycled back in our delightful French neighbours across from Guillaume’s pitch came over to us excitedly. A Cicada was emerging on the side of the awning of their caravan. Eleven years ago and this very area, we had been fortunate enough to witness and capture this spectacular process on film (ISO 50 Fuji Velvia). I would dearly love the chance to document it again on my modern digital equipment but this one was not photogenically placed and was half way through its emergence. Nonetheless, I snagged a record shot. Well, having been invited over it would’ve been rude not to.

Here’s where the “fortunately” in relation to our early cycle ride comes in. As we sat with lunch, Francine spotted a second Cicada, having just left its exuvia (the nymph case left behind), clinging to the front wheel of our car. I certainly would not have wanted to drive off inadvertently and squish the poor thing. How ignominious would that have been – years developing underground only to be flattened by a Pirelli P Zero after just a few minutes of adult life?

Franco assumes the positionJ18_1085 Freshly emerged CicadaOur guest being too far advanced when Francine spotted it, I couldn’t capture the whole sequence but I did have to assume the position to snag the tail end of the event. The adult Cicadas can take an hour or two to harden off before being able to fly. The insects darken as they mature. We wouldn’t be driving anywhere until the poor beast had flown to relative safety.

_18C4381As it turns out, we didn’t drive at all, electing to return to Mèze in the later afternoon. The Bassin de Thau upon which Mèze sits has a sizeable oyster breading industry, accounting for 7% of the French production. We were interested in a 55-minute cruise in a catamaran, the Mansathau, around the oyster frames out in the étang, the so-called Parcs à Huitres. [The names Bassin de Thau and Étang de Thau appear to be interchangeable. Either way, Thau is pronounced “toe”.] A sunny ride on a catamaran lasting almost an hour had to be worth the €12 each. We had a different view of Mèze harbour as we set off.

Our host and captain was from one of the oyster farming families centred around Bouzigues. He gave us an introduction both in French and English, thinking that his strong southern French accent might prove to be “une catastrophe”, before handing over to an informative video on the oyster breeding process. In the étang off the shore of Bouzigues, are dozens of metal frames called tables. From these, the oysters are hung/strung. Very young oysters are put into netted sacks to grow. When big enough, these are transferred to cords, to which they are affixed with cement, the same stuff used to build houses but for this it is mixed with salt water. The process of affixing the oysters to their cords looked manually intensive. On a long grooved support table, pairs of oysters are placed two by two. The all important cord is then strung along the top of these pairs of oysters before a dob of cement is added followed by a third oyster on top. the three are now cemented together. These cords are then strung from the metal tables out in the étang. The farmers raise the oysters out of the water for six hours at a time to starve them and encourage them to feed more when they are lowered back in. I think this basically replaces the natural action of tides elsewhere, the Mediterranean being a little lacking on tide action, and speeds up the growing process.

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We had to sample some more, including sharing some unpronounceable expensive jobs at €3 a pop. They were delicious.

Posted in 2018 France

Long Distance Meeting

We’ve left the unsettled weather of Fanjeaux (just as it is due to brighten up, of course) and headed for Marseillan. Actually, we’re staying on the Camping Municipal at the charming little village of Loupian just a few kilometres northeast. Apart from this being one of our favourite haunts in southern France, being an area that supplies wonderful white wines like Picpoul de Pinet and Viognier, we had a specific reason for coming here. We are renewing our acquaintance with some friends.

I thought we were being adventurous buying a holiday home in Spain. What Gwenn and Ian have done leaves me, well, not exactly speechless but certainly feeling like a wimp. Gwenn and Ian have a very pleasant holiday home in the middle of Marseillan. The catch is that they live in Australia. No, not Austria, Australia. A holiday home 12,000 miles away is a commitment to flying for 24 hours in both directions on a regular/frequent basis. All I can say is that they  must be built of stronger stuff than me.

We actually met Gwenn and Ian only last October on their home turf when we were visiting Francine’s brother in Australia, before embarking on our November campervan tour of New Zealand. That’s when we learned of their holiday home in one of our favourite areas and made a loose arrangement to meet them, their visit tying in quite nicely with ours. We began at their house, where the roof terrace gave us good views of whirling Swifts (Apus apus) being harried by a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus).

Lubrication having been started, we finished the evening at an unpretentious seafood shack on the etang called Chez Titin. Here we enjoyed a surfeit of shellfish. Francine and I began by sharing half a dozen of their raw oysters, followed by another little appetizer of a dozen moules gratinées d’Edith, which were excellent and our favourite. We finished ourselves off, completely (!), with a huge steaming pot of brasucade de moules au feu de bois de Phillipe. This last seemed to be a development of the more classic moules marinière but cooked over a wood fire, the juices being collected as they cook, then tarted up, possibly with turmeric and who knows what else, before being added back to the finished mussels. It was interesting to try but I still don’t think you can beat a classic moules marinière.

Somehow we managed to waddle our way back from the restaurant.

Posted in 2018 France

Escape to Gruissan II

Having rain feature in the weather forecast most of the time is depressing enough. It’s even more frustrating when rain does not feature in the forecast but turns up anyway. Such was the case this morning. The campsite had dried just a little but now, after two hours of mostly continuous morning rain, the puddles and mud-wallows were back with a vengeance. All we needed was, to quote Flanders and Swann, a couple of hippopotami.

During our first escape to Gruissan, Francine had seen some paintings featuring rather impressionistic representations of a subject at an area known as La Plage des Chalets in Gruissan Plage, namely the chalets themselves. The chalets are built on stilts and are arranged in a sort of chalets village, with intersecting streets. Frankly, it can look a little seedy but nothing like as seedy as Jaywick Sands near Clacton in the UK. Once you get used to them, these can look like an architectural curiosity. They are a subject that definitely benefits from an impressionist approach rather than a photographically precise representation. The painted art works all had an unrealistic colour tint. Francine fancied a go with her camera, skipping the colour tints, and why not, indeed? We decided to escape the rain again and go for an experiment.

Just as with our first escape, 10kms east of Fanjeaux the rain ceased and the skies had brightened a little, solid dark grey becoming broken lighter grey. After 50kms, passing the Corbières region, the clouds had given way to more or less uninterrupted blue. It’s worth a few tolls and more fuel.

‘T was a Saturday morning and the Gruissan market was in full swing so parking spaces were at more of a premium than on our initial visit. However, following signs to La Plage des Chalets, we were surprised at just how few people were there. We parked and began looking for a suitable line of chalets. What constituted suitable was a bit of a guess but we thought that less tall concrete poles, strung with black cabling, sticking up high and fowling the roof line would be better.

_18C4174The wind was once again very strong. modest sand dunes collected in seemingly random spots along the walkway, caused by the wind eddying around gaps in the low wall according to some complex fluid mechanics. The wind was providing great fun for collections of wind surfers and kite fliers alike; I don’t recall ever seeing a wind surfer travelling quite so fast. The first items of interest to receive the camera treatment were lines of stakes casting razor-sharp shadows on the fine, dry sand.

We finally found a frontage line of chalets that looked suitable. I spotted the tell-tale waggling up and down of Francine’s camera; we were in for some ICM [Intentional Camera Movement]. The cynical side of me finds this technique odd in that one pays £1000+ for a professional quality lens capable of producing pin-sharp images, then proceeds to create a blurred image with it. Go figure, as the Americans say. There is no doubt, though, that the technique can produce an interesting artistic end result.

Francine’s difficulty was the amount of light. Most DSLRs’ minimum ISO rating is 100. Landscape photographers have been screaming for years at the camera manufacturers to introduce lower ISO ratings to slow things down more, so they can reproduce the sort of exposures that are possible on, say, Fuji Velvia rated at ASA 50 or even Kodachrome rated at ASA 25. Neutral density filters achieve the same effect but … we weren’t carrying the holder. Oops! The slowest exposure Francine could achieve was 1/30th second so the waggling needed to be a bit faster and better coordinated. The digital advantage is that you can see if you are getting anything close to your desired effect before returning home. I think Francine did pretty well.

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Do that through a Lee Big Stopper and, as well as slowing down the exposure by 10 stops, you’d get a slight blue colour cast naturally, a bit like some of the original art works that led to the experiment, though softer. The trouble is, you can’t actually see through a Lee Big Stopper – it’s just too dark – to time the shot anything like accurately. The Little Stopper at 6 stops, maybe? This looks good to me, though.

Posted in 2018 France