Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Jarnac - cognac and classic cars

Jarnac is a pleasant town on the banks of the Charente River in the new region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. It lies between Angoulême and Cognac and can thus be expected to be obsessed with brandy. It certainly is, having the Courvoisier factory located centrally there as well as other cognac houses.

It's a tourist spot which likes to promote itself as the birthplace of former president Mitterand. Having learned that, I was determined not to visit the museum celebrating what I consider an immoral and rotten politician. For starters, he signed off on the Rainbow Warrior bombing and then denied everything and imposed trade sanctions on New Zealand. Still, ignoring that part of its history, I enjoyed my time in Jarnac.

The mairie puts a big effort into beautification of walkways and municipal gardens. I loved the little free lending library box where anyone can leave a book and others can choose one to take away and read; the whole thing based on honesty and a sense of citizenship.

There's no mistaking we're in cognac country here in Jarnac. Some of the buildings have been warehouses for this alcohol and they bear the tell-tale signs - black mould. This mould arises from the vapours of this double-distilled brandy. Passing by one of these buildings (still in use) I could actually smell the brandy inside, the vapours escape from every crack and pore. This is, of course, a dangerous situation as they could combust so stocks of cognacs are spread here over 11 sites in case of a disaster. That way not all stock would be lost in an explosion.

The mould starts growing almost immediately and nothing can be done about it. It must have quickly identified hiding places in the past.

We visited the Tiffon Cognac house which now markets under the name of Braastad. It shares town space with other famous cognac houses such as Bisquit or Courvoisier. The brand Braastad was created when a Norwegian named Sverre Braastad married into the Tiffon family. We were given an impromptu tour of part of the premises and explored tastings in the shop. Cognac is normally far too fiery for me to drink but I enjoyed the creme liqueur version. It's very like Bailey's Irish Creme but with more of a kick at the end.

The distilling and storage information was interesting. I noted some smaller wooden barrels with fancy plaques on them. Two of them contained private cognac created for Prince Albert of Monaco, one each for his children and named for them. This is not uncommon.

Elsewhere in the town is a well-appointed public swimming pool. For the first time since my one and only dip in the Mediterranean in 2011 I donned my togs and enjoyed some cool widths. I'm a poor swimmer but it was a clean and pleasant break in a hot afternoon.  Drying off, it was time to check out the collection of classic and vintage cars assembled for the weekend.

This display piggy-backed on the car race that would occur at Angoulême the next day. I don't know anything about cars other than appreciating some of the aesthetics so I'll leave you with an assortment of images to enjoy, and maybe identify.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Angoulême for cartoons

As I contemplate the results of this weekend's elections in NZ I feet the cartoon on the left sadly appropriate: "Worse than that, it's reality!" It's a cartoon painted on the side of  a building in Angoulême, France. Earlier this month I was in the cartoon capital of the world as a tourist escaping what seems to be the end of my dream to live in France which has been a bitter-sweet experience over seven years. Being down in this wine-growing area full of old history and also vibes from my French ancestors, along the Charente River,  I was reminded of why I love France, why I have persisted so long to stay here despite so much adversity. 

I was in touch with my soul but my head knew perfectly well that I would have to say goodbye to France and start the whole ghastly process of letting go my dream; what I'd worked hard to achieve here, throw out yet more 'things' and head into what is, at this time of writing, a big void. This time it's much harder going to the other end of the planet. I'm not going to a dream, or hope and certainly not a job yet. Three nights in this part of France would be all I would have to remind myself of how I feel about this country. So let's start with day one: Angoulême.
I was down in the SouthWest of France in a major wine-growing area which specialises in cognac, not far from Bordeaux, to stay with an ex-colleague of mine (Liz) from Waitakere City Council days at her cousin's holiday home in a neighbouring town. Angoulême is located in the Charente département and is famous for cartoons and vintage car races. It is also the centre of the paper-making and printing industry, with which it has been connected since the fourteenth century. With booze, cars, French food and cartoons it was going to be an interesting short stay.

The TGV train from Paris stops on its way to Bordeaux first at Poitiers and then Angoulême which was very convenient for us. The trip down was uneventful except for a lengthy stop at Poitiers where a couple of youths from our train were expelled under suspicion and later led away by the police. We wandered around Angouleme on a warm morning, along the old ramparts, past buildings decorated with cartoons and trompe l'oeil.   We stopped to take pictures outside the historic town hall with its medieval tower and later additions. 
There were a lot of municipal flower beds - this city seems to take a pride in good aesthetics. Everywhere we were reminded of the history of cartoons, comics and animated films. There's a museum to this in the town. Herge the famous cartoonist of Tintin fame is recognised here. He was a belgian cartoonist who fled to France during the second world war. It was The Adventures of Tintin and subsequent prjoects which gave Herge fame though he became increasingly irritated by the success of the creators of the Asterix books.

There's also a regional centre of fine arts in the city and each September one of the last remaining street races (Pau and Monaco are the other two) is held. You can see a view of the city and the Charente River from the ramparts in the photo. It was this river that my French ancestors travelled down on their way to New Zealand, leaving Rochefort in 1840.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Up the Eiffel

Incredibly, I had been living in France for almost seven years and still never been up the Eiffel Tower. I hadn't wanted to travel into Paris and go up on my own but all attempts to get there accompanied by Jean-Claude just hadn't turned out. Despite us having prepaid for tickets online JC had back problems so I ended up going alone anyway.

On a rather fresh summer morning I arrived very early as on Saturdays there is only one train per hour into Paris from my area. I killed time by wandering the around the Trocadero, navigating past all those with selfie sticks, eventually deciding that I didn't need that sort of photo and watched some rather harried marriage participants. None of them seemed to be enjoying themselves as they tried to get a decent shot of the Tower swathed in an anonymous tea towel, or so it looked.

Since all the nastiness with terrorism in Paris, secruity is  extremely evident and has totally spoiled the aesthetics of the Champs de Mars and around the foot of the  Tower. Be warned, even with prepaid you will queue to get in because each entrant is individually searched. There are ugly galvanised grills and barriers everywhere; consequently the lawn has been destroyed with everyone confined to a small area.

There was a lot more waiting to come but prepaid then helped. The worst wait was to go to the summit. If you just want to go to level 2 you should be OK but the summit is much higher and needs it's own lift.

I did enjoy the view at level 2 and again at the summit, especially when the temperatures rose. Paris is well laid out with the river, trees, boulevards and monuments. On the way down I spotted the little gizmo that controls the 'sparkle' of the Eiffel Tower on the hour during parts of the evenings. These 'boxes' are installed on the structure and switch on and off so fast the tower becomes a flashing bauble - quite lovely though I've only managed to be near the tower once at the right time of night.

On my way down from level 2 to level one I was most disconcerted to discover I felt rather a lot of vertigo so I was obliged to desperately cling to any railing that appeared from time to time and avoid looking down too much while moving. Maybe my recent acquisition of a pair of progressive glasses wasn't helping but I felt disoriented and squeamish. The architecture inside with the beams going off at odd angles really added to it and I hadn't expected that at all. Back on Terra Firma I can advise that toilets are available on site and are free. In Paris, that's important as toilets aren't easy to find.

So what's the view like? Here are a few shots from the summit which is meshed and outdoors. No, you can't jump off these days.

Views include a new Russian church recently inaugurated by Putin's visit, Arc de Triomphe, quintessential views of Parisian architecture. You'll need to allow an hour up there to make it worthwhile, there's waiting times and so two hours may be needed for the visit as a minimum. Guided tours may be booked but they can be very expensive.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017


On a crisp day I drove with JC to visit the Chateau de Compiègne, north of Paris. It's a royal residence built for Louis XV and  restored by Napoleon. Compiègne was one of three seats of royal government, the others being Versailles and Fontainbleau. This chateau has not fared as well as the other two as it's more remote and less ancient.
During the French Revolution Compiègne  was gutted of all its furniture and fell into disrepair until Napoleon visited it and decided to restore it. The result is that most of the style inside is First French Empire, not much of Louis s XV and XVI remain.
Still, it's  a good place to visit. We spent hours there and still didn't get to the carriage/vehicle section. This sprawling museum is made up of three sections: the historic appartments of Louis XVI to Napoleon III, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and the National Car and Tourism Museum.

On the grounds by the rose garden is an old building now turned into a teahouse or informal restaurant. While waiting for it to open I strolled around the garden. There are many old roses as well as irises edged with box. The restaurant menu is limited and I found the staff less than attentive; rather a shame as there were hardly any customers to busy them.

The quality of the renovations is pleasing with many interesting details on handles and hinges, stairways and dark panelled corners. Napoleon I's style with its Egyptian influence is everywhere in furniture and balustrading.

The painted ceilings and beautiful statues really complement the place.

JC explained that the stag's head mounted in one of the foyers wasn't entirely real. He said that a head that old would be unlikely to survive the centuries of dust etc and so normally they used real antlers but the rest was sculpted in plaster.

Among the rooms of note are Napoleon I's library (he had a library in every residence and also a travelling library for when he was campaigning), the Empress's bedroom, Napoleon III's dining room (a cold and rather souless place) and quite a range of impressive chandeliers from various epoques.

Napoleon III's bust is easily identifiable by his moustache and  goatee. It was during his reign that Baron Haussmann remodelled the architecture of much of central Paris into large apartment blocks with their distinctive balconies that we see today.

Look out for the games tables - rather intriguing and the symbols of Napoleon's reign - bees and eagles.

I'll leave you with a collection of photos from our visit. For more information go to http://palaisdecompiegne.fr/