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Just When You Think Everything Is Under Control

28 Feb

This post was due a while ago.  It has languished as a draft for the last two weeks as I have not been able to clear my mind enough to organise a few photos and publish it.  At the conclusion of my last post I mentioned looking forward to Dad’s visit.  Read on to find out why that got cancelled…

Monday 17th February was a lovely fine and warm day and we spent it going some gardening and relaxing.  We did settle down indoors to watch some highlights from the Winter Olympics ice skating in the afternoon.  So what could go wrong, huh?

Next thing I know there is a noise and Leanne is on the floor in the entrance to the kitchen.  She had tripped on the log basket beside the fire as she was stepping back and turning.  As she went down she automatically put out her right hand and it took the full force of her landing.  The time was 17h15.  It didn’t look too good and she was in pain so off we went to the nearest A&E.  We arrived at the A&E department at Brignoles, where there was a provincial general hospital, at 17h50.  By 18h10 she had had an x-ray and was in a treatment room.  Very efficient.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, she had fractured the radius and displaced the fragment in two planes – upwards and sideways.  This would require surgery.  Because she had eaten only two hours earlier they would not operate that night.  So without reducing the fracture (i.e. without even lining things up as close as possible) they fitted a support cast.  This turned out to be a huge bit of luck.
I left Leanne at the hospital around 22h00 and went back home to start dealing with travel insurance and contacting some friends.  Contacting friends turned out to be crucial.  We are blessed to have great friends who have expertise in a diverse range of fields.  In this case the medical field was trumps.  I sent a message to Belinda to tell her what had happened and the hospital’s proposed course of action.  She in turn contacted another friend who was an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in hand and wrist procedures.  The result was that we declined further treatment at Brignoles in favour of returning home for better treatment.  I finally got to bed at 03h20.
I should stress that this is not meant to be an indictment on Brignoles hospital.  They are a small provincial hospital offering a wide range of services to their local community including a general orthopaedic capability.  Auckland is a much larger city and we have a wider range of services available including a specialist hand and wrist department.  Any provincial hospital in New Zealand would probably have a similar capability to Brignoles.
So with the agreement of our travel insurance company Leanne checked out of Brignoles on Tuesday and we set about firstly getting Leanne’s recovery moving along so that we could take the long flight home and secondly finalising all our affairs in France.  Fortunately we were already working on the close out and compressing what was meant to take 4 weeks into one week was actually feasible.  We also had help from local friends like Jeremy & Jo and Sue.  In fact we stayed with Jeremy & Jo on the first night out of hospital and again on our last night before departing.  They really did pamper us.
The weather was also kind in  our final week – after a very mild winter things turned quite sunny and spring was in evidence all around.  At Jeremy & Jo’s place the mimosa (wattle to us) came in to full bloom and looked great.  One very strange thing did happen with the weather however.  We got up on Wednesday morning to find the cars, and everything else, covered with dirt.  It looked like the cars had been wet down and then very fine dust thrown all over them.  In fact, that was very close to what had happened.  Once or twice a year there is a weather pattern that causes dust from the Sahara to be conveyed north and to be deposited with the rain.  There must have been a huge amount of dust deposited that night because everywhere we went cars looked like they had been on the Dakar rally.  Up at La Regalade the lake looked dirty as did the swimming pool, the terrace and outdoor furniture.  It was a mess.
On Monday 24th February we finished packing and tidying up at La Regalade and drove to Jeremy & Jo’s where we were able to weigh our four bags for the first time.  Bugger!  97kg and our limit was 80kg.  After some serious culling of clothes and keepsakes we managed to get just under the 80kg mark.  It was also time to wash all that Sahara dirt off the car and take it to be sold.
We had arranged a couple of weeks ago to sell it back to the guy we bought it from so we had called him to change the date and he was agreeable.  So with Jeremy in tow we set of to do the deal.  My heart stopped when we got to Draguignan 45 minutes away because the gates to the car yard were locked.  However a phone call brought Matt to the yard and we said farewell to our trusty French sports car.
That evening Jeremy cooked up a delicious cassoulet for dinner and Sue, Robin and Tristan joined us for a very nice evening.  Morning came around a bit too quickly and in no time at all it was time to bid our farewells to Jeremy & Jo and board the mini van that our travel insurers had arranged to get us to Nice airport.  We left right on time at 10am and by noon we were in the lounge taking it easy.
Our flight home was broken in Dubai with an overnight hotel stay.  Nice to Dubai is between five and six hours and then you have time for six hours sleep in a real bed before the long stretch to Melbourne and then Auckland.  The flight to Melbourne was assisted by a strong tail wind plus Jeremy’s cassoulet was still producing its legendary motive force so the flight time was down to 13 instead of 14 hours.  I don’t know where the saved time went to because by the time we had spent 45 minutes getting through the security check in Melbourne (don’t let me get started on that topic!) we only had 45 minutes in the lounge before boarding the last sector to Auckland.
That last sector was three hours and went by very quickly.  We landed in Auckland on time at 13h45 and after a short delay waiting for the gate to clear we were on our way through the formalities and to the waiting taxi.  It was 3pm when we arrived home and Darryn was waiting together with Leanne’s Mum & Dad.  My Dad arrived a little while later and we had coffee and cakes while catching up on the news.  It was so nice to be home!
From here we will need to get Leanne’s surgery organised.  We don’t know exactly what that will entail or how long it will all take but I guess that will be another episode.

Is It Spring Already?

16 Feb

Even though I have stretched my posts out to two weeks and we are not really up to much these days, it is Blogday afternoon already!  That also means that our days are counting down very swiftly towards our departure from France.  We are both now very much looking forward to getting home but there is a building sadness that we will be leaving so much behind here in France.

In the last 5 days the weather has improved tremendously.  The rain more or less stopped and we have had a couple of cloudless and reasonably still days.  Temperatures have been climbing too although it has not yet really been cold.  In the whole of January we had one frost at Jeremy and Jo’s place and since being back at La Regalade at Carcès on 3rd February we have not had a single frost.  Today the high was 16˚C and tonight will only get down to 6˚C.  Very pleasant considering that February is often the coldest month here.  Let’s hope I have not spoken too soon!

Of course all this nice weather brings Spring!  It seems too early but some mature trees are breaking bud and there are spring flowers starting to bloom.  Nice.

To get back into the chronology of the fortnight, we started on the 3rd of February by collecting Jeremy and Jo from Nice airport after their trip to visit their son and daughter-in-law in Thirroul (near Wollongong, Australia).  They had had a wonderful trip and not having to spoil it by telling them that Squeaky was missing was a great relief for us (see the previous post for an explanation).  We spent the afternoon with them and then headed up to La Regalade in the evening.  We should have gone earlier because by the time we got there it was dark and after being closed up for a month it was as cold as a witches tit.  In fact it took three days to get the villa warm again.  We also found that the sanglier had been very active in the gardens digging out plants and moving rocks and soil.

On the Thursday we met Sabine and Jean-Marc for lunch at Le Gourmandin in Le Luc.  We had a lovely time talking and eating (OK, and drinking) and suddenly it was 3pm.  The details of the meal are saved in Evernote Food, click here.

On Sunday 9th we  headed to Saint-Raphaël to go to an artisan chocolate exhibition but Leanne changed her mind when she saw how small it was. We drove around the coast a bit to Agay.  I took a few photos then headed inland in search of snow covered hills behind Draguignan.  We ended up going through Bagnol-en-forêt and Saint-Paul-en-forêt before getting to Fayence.  Got some decent shots from the side of the airfield.  On the way home we stopped for a coffee in Lorgues which turned out to be a treat.  We have been to Lorgues several times but always on a market day (Tuesday) so we had not seen the main street in its normal state. There were lots of things from details to whole big buildings that we had not noticed before because the market stalls and the crowds always dominated the scene.  It was nice to see it at rest on a Sunday afternoon.

On Monday night we met Jeremy and Jo in Lorgues together with most of the local Brit community who had all come to see Philomena starring Judy Dench.  It was the ‘VO’ edition, i.e. the original version in English with French subtitles.  It was a very good movie.

With the better weather we were also starting to get on to some of the outdoor jobs at La Regalade that needed doing before the summer rental season starts.  Wednesday was a another day dominated by food and socialising.  We were invited to Lance and Saskia’s home in Correns for lunch.  We arrived on time at 12h30 joined by four others and nobody left until after 6pm!  This is something of a habit here in France it seems, the all afternoon and into the evening lunch.

I also spent some time taking photos looking across the lake to La Regalade so I could create a panorama.  WordPress does not play nicely with wide panorama images so if you are interested just hit this link and it should take you to the latest panorama on my Flickr page.  If the link doesn’t quite work you will find the image on my photostream and in the set called ‘Panoramic Images’ on my Flickr page, click here.

And now for some photos and less rambling from me!

Just a sample of the damage done by the sanglier (wild boar) at La Regalade.  They have unrooted some of the lavender plants and pulled some of the irrigation lines apart.

Just a sample of the damage done by the sanglier (wild boar) at La Regalade. They have unrooted some of the lavender plants and pulled some of the irrigation lines apart.

This is Le Gourmandin where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Sabine and Jean-Marc last week.

This is Le Gourmandin where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Sabine and Jean-Marc last week.

The coast at Agay, near Saint-Raphaël.  This was one of the few very clear and sunny days we had during a period of many rainy weather.

The coast at Agay, near Saint-Raphaël. This was one of the few very clear and sunny days we had during a period of many rainy weather.

I found a gap on the perimeter of the airfield from where the view of Fayence and the show behind was clear.  I am not so sure that I was meant to be there...

I found a gap on the perimeter of the airfield from where the view of Fayence and the show behind was clear. I am not so sure that I was meant to be there…

While I was there no harm in taking another shot!

While I was there no harm in taking another shot!

The Mairie (Town Hall) in Lorgues.

The Mairie (Town Hall) in Lorgues.

Looking away from the Mairie in Lorgues this time.

Looking away from the Mairie in Lorgues this time.

Being the middle of winter on a dreary Sunday afternoon the streets of Lorgues were deserted.  This highlights how well presented the buildings actually are here.

Being the middle of winter on a dreary Sunday afternoon the streets of Lorgues were deserted. This highlights how well presented the buildings actually are here.

The spillway from the Lac de Carcès.  It is when this is opened in times of heavy rain that the river Argens floods.  This is the outlet of the Lac de Carcès which is the manmade reservoir that we overlook from La Regalade.

The spillway from the Lac de Carcès. It is when this is opened in times of heavy rain that the river Argens floods. This is the outlet of the Lac de Carcès which is the manmade reservoir that we overlook from La Regalade.

Only ~200m from the dam, this is one of the local irrigation canals that criss-cross this area. The sluice gate feeding it was closed hence the very low water level. I am guessing that this was to stop silt laden water due to the rains from circulating through the canal system.

Only ~200m from the dam, this is one of the local irrigation canals that criss-cross this area. The sluice gate feeding it was closed hence the very low water level. I am guessing that this was to stop silt laden water due to the rains from circulating through the canal system.

Probably ~500m down from the dam there is an area of rapids and small falls.  It is normally a fairly peaceful area but with the amount of water being released from the lake it is now raging.  The noise completely drowns any conversation (how's that for a pun?).

Probably ~500m down from the dam there is an area of rapids and small falls. It is normally a fairly peaceful area but with the amount of water being released from the lake it is now raging. The noise completely drowns any conversation (how’s that for a pun?).

More water...

More water…

And even more water, still at the same location.

And even more water, still at the same location.

Ample evidence of the very wet and warmer than normal winter so far.  Really just an excuse for me to attempt DoF photo.

Ample evidence of the very wet and warmer than normal winter so far. Really just an excuse for me to attempt DoF photo.

Streetscape in Carcès on a winter Thursday morning.  Not a lot going on but a nice village all the same.

Streetscape in Carcès on a winter Thursday morning. Not a lot going on but a nice village all the same.

That’s it for now.  The clock is ticking and the next time I post Dad will be here.  Really looking forward to that.

Sold The Sports Car

3 Feb

Again this week most of the action has been down the road at James and Lavinia’s property, The Fairies.  David and Diana are now the incumbent housesitters and we have thoroughly enjoyed starting to get to know them over the last couple of weeks.

Leanne and I went back down to The Fairies on the second day after the flooding that I covered last time.  It was Tuesday morning and we were amazed at how normal the place looked.  Sure there was a little sand and silt, not too much, and a couple of small trees pushed over, but except for the side fence everything looked pretty good.  We spent nearly two hours walking by the river and trying to reconcile what we were seeing now with how it had been 48 hours earlier, under ~3m of water in many places.

When it has not been raining we have had some fairly strong winds which played havoc with some of our plans, like burning winter prunings.  We have also had a couple of thunderstorms which means we unplug all the electronics (TV, ADSL modem, telephone, etc.) and hope it doesn’t last too long.  Even short periods without internet access are becoming seriously inconvenient these days.  How did we ever cope before?!?!

One very good task we did manage to complete was to arrange for the sale of our car when we leave.  We took it back to the guy we bought it from and he agreed to buy it back from us on 5th March for a set price provided we did no more than 6,500km more and it was otherwise in the same condition as the day he saw it.  That certainly un-complicates one aspect of our departure from France.  We also sorted out what we have to do with the car insurance company and that is simple.  That just leaves the bank and the mobile phones.  The phones should sort themselves out if we stop paying!  The bank could be a challenge.  Stay tuned.

A couple of days ago Stephen Fry tweeted a link to a YouTube video showing how to open a bottle of wine with just a shoe.  I had to try it.  It works!  But not with a running shoe, probably too shock absorbing.  I had to use a more rigid shoe.  Check out the clip for yourself… http://youtu.be/u1wROm-OF9w.

And getting back to the river… the level had stayed fairly high since the 19th due to ongoing spells of rain.  But it was slowly receding.  Then on Thursday night/Friday morning (30th/31st) we had 35~40mm more rain and the river breached its banks again.  We were heading out to go shopping on Friday afternoon and had to turn back and take the other route because the road was flooded!  Some of The Fairies was under water again but only ~20% of the area compared to last time.

The photo selection is a bit limited again but here goes…

Looking at the main gates at The Fairies from the road.  The water has been right up here.  That is a lot further up than when we had left it on the Sunday evening thinking it was at the maximum then.

Looking at the main gates at The Fairies from the road. The water has been right up here. That is a lot further up than when we had left it on the Sunday evening thinking it was at the maximum then.

The gate openers got a bit wet but after some TLC from David they are working again.

The gate openers got a bit wet but after some TLC from David they are working again.

The side fence has definitely seen better days.

The side fence has definitely seen better days.

This log and other debris up the tree is over 3m above the main ground level.

This log and other debris up the tree is over 3m above the main ground level.

These are the conifers that I drew a line from last time.  Except that my line was probably too low.  Leanne is 1.7m tall so I guess the high water mark is ~2.5m.

These are the conifers that I drew a line from last time. Except that my line was probably too low. Leanne is 1.7m tall so I guess the high water mark is ~2.5m.

That lump in the river is where the barrage (dam) is.

That lump in the river is where the barrage (dam) is.

Looking downstream over the chute and the barrage.

Looking downstream over the chute and the barrage.

The table was well secured to the tree and reappeared when the water receded.

The table was well secured to the tree and reappeared when the water receded.

The walkway through the woods is still there but looking like it has been hoovered clean.  There is also a bit of debris stuck on the trees.

The walkway through the woods is still there but looking like it has been hoovered clean. There is also a bit of debris stuck on the trees.

Less than 48 hours ago this plant was under 3m or more of water.  Hard to tell now.

Less than 48 hours ago this plant was under 3m or more of water. Hard to tell now.

Down at the far corner of the property the water was up where Leanne's feet are, completely submerging the steps.

Down at the far corner of the property the water was up where Leanne’s feet are, completely submerging the steps.

The water got onto the big path through the woods but didn't quite cross it.

The water got onto the big path through the woods but didn’t quite cross it.

Evidence of the high water mark.

Evidence of the high water mark.

Because it was there!

Because it was there!

I put this in for comparison with the similar shot two days earlier that was in my last post.

I put this in for comparison with the similar shot two days earlier that was in my last post.

We have had more than our share of rain in January and on the non-raining days it was usually windy.  Do you see that in this photo?

We have had more than our share of rain in January and on the non-raining days it was usually windy. Do you see that in this photo?

Squeaky is Jeremy and Jo's adorable cat.  Don't let the eyes fool you, she is almost totally blind.  Poor thing, but she manages very well even concealing it from the casual observer.

Squeaky is Jeremy and Jo’s adorable cat. Don’t let the eyes fool you, she is almost totally blind. Poor thing, but she manages very well even concealing it from the casual observer.

If she wants to pose, I will take the photo!

If she wants to pose, I will take the photo!

This is Polly, one of the two chickens.  They are busy all day around the garden and will follow anyone carrying a plastic bag.  They expect it to contain tasty morsels from the kitchen.

This is Polly, one of the two chickens. They are busy all day around the garden and will follow anyone carrying a plastic bag. They expect it to contain tasty morsels from the kitchen.

The chickens supervised as I installed this cutting edge piece of technology in Jeremy's back garden this week.  As far as I know it has only recently been released to the market after centuries of R&D and this is the only model of its type in France today.  It is called a ‘Flexi-Ditch’ and the reviews are just raving about it.  The remarkable thing about it is that it can be moved to any location you want using only a common garden spade.  Remarkable!

The chickens supervised as I installed this cutting edge piece of technology in Jeremy’s back garden this week. As far as I know it has only recently been released to the market after centuries of R&D and this is the only model of its type in France today. It is called a ‘Flexi-Ditch’ and the reviews are just raving about it. The remarkable thing about it is that it can be moved to any location you want using only a common garden spade. Remarkable!

Our little French sports car.  For those not already informed, we refer to our Clio as a sports car on the basis that sports cars have only two seats.  This Clio has only two seats, QED.  It is actually the 'commercial' version of the Clio family and has a large cargo space instead of rear seats.  It has been very practical for us.  It does not normally look this clean but we were about to take it to a car dealer to arrange its sale.

Our little French sports car. For those not already informed, we refer to our Clio as a sports car on the basis that sports cars have only two seats. This Clio has only two seats, QED. It is actually the ‘commercial’ version of the Clio family and has a large cargo space instead of rear seats. It has been very practical for us. It does not normally look this clean but we were about to take it to a car dealer to arrange its sale.

Our NZ sticker on the back left (there is another on the glass on the right but it is practically invisible in this shot).

Our NZ sticker on the back left (there is another on the glass on the right but it is practically invisible in this shot).

It is now 7:45pm on Sunday evening and we have not seen Squeaky since about 7pm last night when she got off Leanne’s lap and went outside.  She was not back when we went to bed and she did not respond to calling.  This morning we looked all over the garden and in and under everything inside and out.  Nothing.  Sue came over for lunch and while here tried telephoning the neighbours where she is known to visit but there was no reply.  The neighbours have been away for most of the time we have been in residence, only returning in the last few days.  So Squeaky has now been missing for just over 24 hours and Jeremy and Jo get back tomorrow morning.  Shit!

Then Sue called back.  She has finally got hold of the neighbours and Squeaky is relaxing in front of their fire after enjoying a shrimp dinner!  The little witch!!  She has had us very worried.  Words will be had when she comes home…

Have They Got Any Idea How Busy I Am?

18 Jan

Do you have a mental list of companies that really piss you off?  I do and it is populated by telephone companies, internet service providers (why they have the word ‘service’ in their name baffles me), insurance companies and now Epson with their inkjet refill scam.  To their credit, Epson’s responses were prompt but I guess that is not too hard to do when they regurgitate scripted emails generated by their propaganda department.  In my internet research on the topic I discovered that am I not alone in my annoyance with this unfair practice and there have even been successful class actions taken in the US against the printer manufacturers.  The whole topic is very ugly.  Anyway, for your edification, education and entertainment, here is my conversation thread with Epson…
1. My first contact:

Epson model: Epson Stylus SX130

My message to Epson:
I have a full black cartridge in this printer but the cyan and magenta are empty. I cannot get it to print. Have downloaded all the latest software for it but it always says it is either offline or error. It does scan.
Does the empty coloured ink cartridge stop the printer from working at all? If that is the case it is not at all environmentally or consumer friendly and would be a reason for me to never buy an Epson product again.
2. Two business days later, Epson’s reply:
Thank you for contacting Epson’s UK Customer Inter@ction Centre.
The Epson range of inkjet printers is designed to produce both high quality black and colour output. This is achieved by a combination of the print head unit and the ink cartridge used within it. The printer will operate until one of the cartridges runs out, at which point the printer will effectively go “offline” until this cartridge is replaced.
The reason behind this is to protect the printer from unnecessary damage that would be caused if the printer attempted to draw ink into the printer head when the ink has run out. If a print request, cleaning cycle or start up cycle (from switch on) is requested and the printer is out of ink, the printer is designed to prevent it to ensure air is not sucked into the print head (instead of the ink that prior to the cartridge running out was available) therefore potentially damaging the printer.
(Not happy to just fend off my inquiry, they then insult me further by trying sell me more bloody ink cartridges!)
You can purchase new products and consumables directly from Epson.
Buy now with FREE delivery on everything.
If you are interested in purchasing any Epson products please confirm the following details and I will call you to take payment and arrange delivery:
3. My next message was sent not expecting a response.  Also, upon actually checking  my calendar, I found the printer had been unused for eight months.  Oops, how time flies when you are having fun!
Your repetition of the corporate propaganda attempting to rationalise Epson’s abuse of the faith of its customers does nothing to help me.
I spent the full retail price on a genuine Epson black cartridge that has printed 11 pages and now I can’t use it without spending another €30+ to replace the cyan and magenta that have mysteriously depleted during three months of storage.  I use the SX130 while touring mainly for scanning documents and for printing the occasional boarding pass for services that still require it with e-ticket purchases.  B&W draft printing is all I need.  A simple override at the customer’s risk would solve this problem (e.g. ‘If you continue to print with an empty cartridge you may damage your printer and void the warranty.  Click OK to proceed.’).
I feel betrayed and cheated by Epson.  I have searched the internet on this topic and I seem to be in a lot of company.
I will never purchase an Epson printer again.  I will also ensure that every person I know is informed of the basically dishonest practice of locking the use of B&W printing to the purchase of expensive colour refills. I hope you are personally in the position one day where the waste of a few Euros/Pounds is important.  Right now you should be ashamed.  I now have little option but to send my SX130, in otherwise perfect working order, to a landfill.  Epson is an environmental disgrace.
4. Epson’s final boilerplate response:
Thank you for contacting Epson’s UK Customer Inter@ction Centre.
Epson appreciates this opportunity to comment on the issues you have raised.
As a responsible manufacturer, whilst we strive to produce high quality and economical products, we are aware that there are times when some customers may experience an issue with our products or service. Therefore, we would like to thank you for your feedback and whilst we are disappointed to learn about the problems you have experienced we will ensure your comments are used positively in order to enhance our service in the future.
If you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact the Customer Inter@ction Centre and we will endeavour to resolve any further queries you may have.
END
So there you have it.  You have been warned.  When you buy that next new printer, or get one bundled with the purchase of a new computer, check carefully first.  Do you actually own the printer and choose how to use it or do you really only have a licence to use it on condition that you buy expensive proprietary ink refills from the manufacturer?  More people need to object to this business model if only for the reason that it is dishonest.  That’s not to mention the waste that this system promotes.
It looks like I may have found a new hobby once we return home.  I can start writing ‘letters to the editor’ under a nom-de-plume like ‘Disgruntled of Auckland’ complaining about moral decay in modern society and how young people don’t offer their seats to older travellers on the buses.
I wrote the proceeding paragraphs early on in this two-week period when I had not taken a photograph for a week and the prospects looked bleak.  Wow, did things change a week later!

Happy New Year!

6 Jan

Perhaps a little late, but Happy New Year to everyone!  Why not make 2014 the year that you stop rationalising, dust off that long harboured dream and go for it?  Work backwards from ‘what is the worst thing that could happen’ until you get to ‘what is most likely to happen’ if you follow this dream.  You will probably find that there isn’t really much in the way at all.  It just seems like there might be.  That’s all the philosophical content of this post!

You know that list of things you keep putting off doing but you know is going to bite your ass one day?  My list is not too bad while we are travelling, we only have phones, iPad, computer and a camera to look after.  So it has stuff on it like needing to sort out my ‘Documents’ folder on the computer so that I am not cluttering up my backup system with stuff that should not be there.  And going through my 105GB iTunes library and deleting stuff that I no longer listen to or watch.  Real rainy day, stay inside and keep warm types of tasks.  Well we have just had several days of perfect weather for getting those things done.  The reason that this housekeeping has come to the top of my attention list is that I am having some performance issues with my laptop, especially with Aperture, which is the program I use to manage my photos.  The Apple Store guys reckoned the best thing to do was a clean install.  That means having everything backed up properly.  I knew this day was coming but had been in denial because of the risks involved but I agreed that it is time.  Part of the problem is with the way I set this computer up in the beginning – I loaded it with a backup off my desktop machine.  What that has done is carry forward 2+ years of dusty baggage from the desktop and I have now been on this laptop for 2 years so that adds up to a lot of baggage.  Time for a fresh start.  So in about a week I will be sitting in the Apple Store in Nice using their free high speed WiFi to to re-download OS X and all my applications, about 20GB worth, and setting up from scratch.  If anything comes up they will be there to help.  Wish me luck!

I was also reading an article on how FaceBook, WordPress (this site) and others mash uploaded photos.  I don’t often look at the finished blog post because I can see the photos anytime in their full glory in Aperture.  So I went through some of the recent posts and I was amazed.  The photos look terrible, at least compared to what I see before uploading.  I am certain that they were previously much better than they appear now and I have read some comments that the compression techniques have been changed.  There are now fringing artefacts, fuzzy details and generally dull colours.  I didn’t realise they looked so bad.  There are ways to improve them and I don’t understand all the options yet but it seems that they all involve spending significant sums of money and complicating the workflow.  Neither of those things are on my agenda at this point in time so I guess the photos will continue to be destroyed by WordPress as they seek to minimise file sizes.  What I might try to do is to load more of the photos on to Flickr in future.

That is of course for the posts that actually have some decent photos to upload and this does not appear to be one of those!  It is Sunday afternoon, 5th January, as I write this and I have just taken my first two photos for the year using my DSLR.  There are no photos to be taken while sitting inside keeping warm and working on the computer.

This post is meant to pick up from Xmas till now so here goes…

We spent Xmas day at Sue’s place after cancelling plans to go somewhere like Gap.  We bought lots of really nice prepared treats from Picard and had a nice relaxing time.  We started our Xmas lunch at 2:30pm and finished at 6pm.  Sue got back home about 8pm just when the drizzle we had been having all day ramped up to an icy downpour.

We had a few nice days between Xmas and New Year but we didn’t get up to anything special other than move up to the villa at Carcès on the 27th.  Jeremy and Jo invited us to join them with their family & friends to see in the New Year.  It was a lovely evening culminating in the ritual butchering of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ around the bonfire at midnight complete with fireworks.  We left the revellers to it at 2am and went back to Sue’s place (she was kindly putting us up for the night to spare us the trek back to Carcès in the wee small hours).

Today we have been to Correns for a very pleasant lunch with friends there.  I was hoping to getting out in their area to take some photos and although it was nice and sunny the wind was cold and brutal.  No photos again!

That really covers the last couple of weeks.  I have scrounged together a couple of photos just for completeness so I’ll sign off with those.

This ice-cream log was just one of our treats on Xmas day.

This ice-cream log was just one of our treats on Xmas day.

The lake at Carcès was looking very good on the 29th but it is not all that it seemed. There was an icy wind so coats, hats and scarves were required.

The lake at Carcès was looking very good on the 29th but it is not all that it seemed. There was an icy wind so coats, hats and scarves were required.

In spite of the wind it was a popular day to take a family stroll after lunch.

In spite of the wind it was a popular day to take a family stroll after lunch.

A Citroën DSuper5 parked near the villa at Carcès.  I really meant it when I said I was short of photos!

A Citroën DSuper5 parked near the villa at Carcès. I really meant it when I said I was short of photos!

Beautiful Provençal Scenery

16 Dec

Two weeks already!  Actually I have been keeping busy.  One topic I have been learning about is creating panoramic images using software to stitch multiple overlapping photos seamlessly together. Using this technique it is not difficult to create an image that is equivalent to having been taken using a 130 megapixel sensor. I tried uploading a couple of examples here but WordPress did not want to play nicely with them so I gave up.  But you can take a look on my Flickr page, here, if you are interested.  The captions that belong with them are…

1. The first Gorge du Verdon panorama.  Made using 10 portrait photos exported from Aperture as 8-bit TIFFs.  Calico (photo stitching software) created the panorama as a TIFF which I imported back into Aperture for a little post-processing.

2. In the village of Sainte-Croix there is a great viewing deck.  This image was made from 9 portrait photos exported from Aperture as full sized TIFFs, 66MB each.  Calico created the panorama as a 430MB TIFF which I imported back into Aperture for a little post-processing.  Then exported as 100% JPG and re-imported to get this image.

The weather has been awesome.  Frosts on many mornings but followed by clear sunny days and as long as you can stay in the sun and not in any of the slight breezes it is warm and comfortable.  We have been on a few outings and spent time catching up with folks.  Here are a few photos to tell the rest of the story.

Looking from the car park of the the 'cooperatif' after stocking up on local wine.  The tower overlooking the village of Taradeau is also the start of a walking trail that runs along the ridge to Les Arcs.

Looking from the car park of the the ‘cooperatif’ after stocking up on local wine. The tower overlooking the village of Taradeau is also the start of a walking trail that runs along the ridge to Les Arcs.

There are good views from near the tower but we couldn't get over how much smoke was in the air.  It had been a frosty morning and the air was very still but this was almost noon.  I remember being very surprised when we first came to Le Thoronet with the number of fires around the district where people just burnt off all their prunings and garden waste.  Since then we have heard that restrictions are being introduced.

There are good views from near the tower but we couldn’t get over how much smoke was in the air. It had been a frosty morning and the air was very still but this was almost noon. I remember being very surprised when we first came to Le Thoronet with the number of fires around the district where people just burnt off all their prunings and garden waste. Since then we have heard that restrictions are being introduced.

The day was perfectly still so I packed the tripod and camera and drove to Lac de Carcès to find the water looking absolutely mirror-like.  You might just see the road near the summit - that is the access to La Regalade, where we stayed last winter and will return at Xmas.

The day was perfectly still so I packed the tripod and camera and drove to Lac de Carcès to find the water looking absolutely mirror-like. You might just see the road near the summit – that is the access to La Regalade, where we stayed last winter and will return at Xmas.

While taking photos of the lake I saw this otter head into a sheltered alcove so I went to have look.  It was very shy and scarpered for a small island in the middle of the lake almost as soon as I was able to get any view at all.

While taking photos of the lake I saw this otter head into a sheltered alcove so I went to have look. It was very shy and scarpered for a small island in the middle of the lake almost as soon as I was able to get any view at all.

Back at the reflections, this is a panorama made from three photos.

Back at the reflections, this is a panorama made from three photos.

On Sunday the 8th we went for a drive to La Garonne, a beach near Toulon.  Perfect weather again and some rather nice looking places to live.

On Sunday the 8th we went for a drive to La Garonne, a beach near Toulon. Perfect weather again and some rather nice looking places to live.

On the Monday we went up to the Gorge du Verdon and it was looking stunning. I particularly wanted to take some series of photos that could be turned into panoramas later.

On the Monday we went up to the Gorge du Verdon and it was looking stunning. I particularly wanted to take some series of photos that could be turned into panoramas later.

This is across Lac de Sainte-Croix, the lake created when the Verdon was dammed, looking over the village of Sainte-Croix.

This is across Lac de Sainte-Croix, the lake created when the Verdon was dammed, looking over the village of Sainte-Croix.

This is how Sainte-Croix looks in the afternoon sun from the opposite side of the lake.  It really was a beautiful day.

This is how Sainte-Croix looks in the afternoon sun from the opposite side of the lake. It really was a beautiful day.

At the salt flats near Hyères on the 10th there were a range of wading birds.  Not being a bird expert I will stand to be corrected on the identifications but I think this is a grey heron.

At the salt flats near Hyères on the 10th there were a range of wading birds. Not being a bird expert I will stand to be corrected on the identifications but I think this is a grey heron.

Cormorants sunning themselves and flamingoes not doing much at all. We watched for about an hour but there was not much variety.

Cormorants sunning themselves and flamingoes not doing much at all. We watched for about an hour but there was not much variety.

"Get out of the way flamingo!"

“Get out of the way flamingo!”

We drove to La Tour Fondue which is at the end of the Giens peninsula.  It was pretty - by the time the sun came out from behind some clouds, the seagulls that had been sitting on the jetty and completing my picture had gone.  It is hard to get reliable help!

We drove to La Tour Fondue which is at the end of the Giens peninsula. It was pretty – by the time the sun came out from behind some clouds, the seagulls that had been sitting on the jetty and completing my picture had gone. It is hard to get reliable help!

Back at the salt marshes in the setting sun the flamingoes were at least starting to move about.

Back at the salt marshes in the setting sun the flamingoes were at least starting to move about.

In the same area, this is a juvenile flamingo.  They gain the pink colouring as they mature.  The blue line is the reflection of a lamp post.

In the same area, this is a juvenile flamingo. They gain the pink colouring as they mature. The blue line is the reflection of a lamp post.

We have a busy week coming up so you will hear about that in about ten days.  Until then, be good!

A Restful Time Back In The Var

2 Dec

After a very full on time last week we have had a very quiet time back at Le Thoronet.  It has been nice to be back ‘home’.

It was a frosty start in Girona, we had to scrape the car windows before heading in to the city to find some breakfast.  Most of the day was spent getting to Sète in France.  The skies were clear but there was the strongest wind I think I have been in.  Driving along the A9 it was a real struggle to hold the lane, the bonnet was flexing all over the place and I wondered if panels would be ripped from the car!  The speed limit is 130kph but even 110kph was really pushing it.  We stopped at a second service area near Fitou that overlooked a large harbour.  The offshore wind was so violent that the bay looked like there was a sandstorm in progress as the water was being whipped up into the air.  We dared not get out out the car for fear that the doors might be torn off as soon as they cleared the latches.  Needless to say the drive was rather tedious and tiring.  Fortunately the road was bone dry.

Heading north on the A9 towards Perpignan just after leaving Spain we managed to stop at a service area that had a good view of the mountains.  If I am not mistaken, Andorra is directly beyond these peaks.  You might just make out the misty appearance of wind blown snow at the summit.  There is no other indication in the foreground of the wind strength - it was not easy to walk around and it was bitterly cold.

Heading north on the A9 towards Perpignan just after leaving Spain we managed to stop at a service area that had a good view of the mountains. If I am not mistaken, Andorra is directly beyond these peaks. You might just make out the misty appearance of wind blown snow at the summit. There is no other indication in the foreground of the wind strength – it was not easy to walk around and it was bitterly cold.

It was too cold and windy to enjoy Sète.  It is probably a delightful place in the summer but right now all we wanted was to have lunch and keep warm.

It was too cold and windy to enjoy Sète. It is probably a delightful place in the summer but right now all we wanted was to have lunch and keep warm.

On Tuesday we drove through a small corner of the Camargue and visited Aigues-Mortes.  We wound our way through the minor roads not in a particular hurry but because it was still so cold and windy we didn’t venture out of the car.

On the way to Aigues-Mortes we spotted these flamingoes on a large shallow estuary.  Even with a 300mm zoom lens they were still too far away for detail, but it gives the idea.

On the way to Aigues-Mortes we spotted these flamingoes on a large shallow estuary. Even with a 300mm zoom lens they were still too far away for detail, but it gives the idea.

Aigues-Mortes is a spectacular walled town on the western edge of the Petite Camargue.  The Camargue area is an expansive wetland at the mouth of the Rhône and as well as being a fertile asparagus and viticultural area, bulls and Camargue horses are reared in the semi-wild and salt is produced here.  [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camargue].  The walls of the city are 1650m long and were completed around 1300AD.  [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aigues-Mortes].

Aigues-Mortes is a spectacular walled town on the western edge of the Petite Camargue. The Camargue area is an expansive wetland at the mouth of the Rhône and as well as being a fertile asparagus and viticultural area, bulls and Camargue horses are reared in the semi-wild and salt is produced here. [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camargue%5D. The walls of the city are 1650m long and were completed around 1300AD. [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aigues-Mortes%5D.

On the inside of the walls at Aigues-Mortes looking out.

On the inside of the walls at Aigues-Mortes looking out.

This view shows about 300m of one side of the Aigues-Mortes walls.  There are many gates to the town and they line up with the streets that already existed when the walls were built.  Hence the walls are not symmetrical.

This view shows about 300m of one side of the Aigues-Mortes walls. There are many gates to the town and they line up with the streets that already existed when the walls were built. Hence the walls are not symmetrical.

We arrived back at Sue’s place in Le Thoronet by 16h00 and tried to keep a low profile as she was busy preparing to go into hospital on Thursday morning for a double hip transplant on Friday.  We caught up with Jeremy and Jo on Wednesday and generally took things quietly.  The weather down here has been surprisingly crisp!  We had -5˚C and -4˚C on Wednesday and Thursday mornings respectively.  Dry but cold to start with clear sunny days that get up to 12~15˚C.  You certainly need the fire going.

Sue's cat Jazz snoozing in the warmest spot in the house.

Sue’s cat Jazz snoozing in the warmest spot in the house.

Being Black Friday in the US and therefore all over the internet, I did manage to score a couple of new photography eBooks very cheaply.  Its always interesting to find out how things are meant to be done!  So I have been doing some reading and some trial and error with the camera.  I was also trying to see if there were any ‘creative’ bones in me rather than just the pedantic technician who is usually to the fore.  These are not especially original shots, but do they work?  You be the judge.

#1 Experimenting with DoF, focus technique and composition followed by a new technique in post-processing.

#1 Experimenting with DoF, focus technique and composition followed by a new technique in post-processing.

#2 Same beehive from another angle but similar techniques.

#2 Same beehive from another angle but similar techniques.

#3 More autumn fun!  Let me know what you think in the comments.

3# More autumn fun! Let me know what you think in the comments.

And that really is about all there is to report without descending into the really mundane like getting the car serviced and grocery shopping!  😉

Now that we are back in the Var we will be staying put most of the time.  That means there will not be much to post so I will try and get a post out every two weeks from now on.  So the next post should be on the 15th December.

An Epic Road Trip

25 Nov

We have covered a lot of ground this week.  It started in the Charentes on Monday.  We had a farewell lunch with John and April as well as packing and getting the house ready for John and Gaye’s return (yes, I know, two different Johns makes it confusing).  In the end we were finished early and that was just as well because John and Gaye arrived about an hour and a half ahead of schedule.  It was 19h00 when they pulled in and I went outside to move our car and it already had ice on it.

In John and April's shed - a set of racks once used for drying wine bottles.

In John and April’s shed – a set of racks once used for drying wine bottles.

The bottles are all hand made.  When stood on a flat surface they typically lean to one side!

The bottles are all hand made. When stood on a flat surface they typically lean to one side!

In the morning we hit the road at 10h30 after debriefing with John and Gaye, hearing a little about their trip and saying goodbye to Archie and Daisy (the cats).  Our first stop was Bordeaux and although it was cold the weather was quite sunny.  We parked fairly centrally and walked through some of the older parts of the city before it was time to head to our hotel.

The water mirror at Bordeaux.  We had seen this on a recent TDF and were lucky to have parked not too far from it.

The water mirror at Bordeaux. We had seen this on a recent TDF and were lucky to have parked not too far from it.

Looking back towards the Place de la Bourse.

Looking back towards the Place de la Bourse.

The Porte Cailhau if I recall correctly is the best preserved of the gates to the city of Bordeaux.

The Porte Cailhau if I recall correctly is the best preserved of the gates to the city of Bordeaux.

This was one of a series of sculptures that we came across.

This was one of a series of sculptures that we came across.

All the statuary from this fountain, and there was a lot of it on both flanks, disappeared during WWII and was rediscovered in Angers safe and sound a couple of years later.

All the statuary from this fountain, and there was a lot of it on both flanks, disappeared during WWII and was rediscovered in Angers safe and sound a couple of years later.

We had to scrape a good layer of ice off the car windows on Wednesday morning before driving to Arcachon for a quick look at the coast.  The day started cold, clear and still but on the coast the breeze made it feel very chilly.  La Teste-de-Buch is actually a bit south of Arcachon and is a summer holiday spot where good friends of ours have spent some family time but at this time of year it is very quiet.  The area from Arcachon to Biarritz down the coast is flat and largely covered in pine plantations.  Reminiscent of driving from Rotorua to Taupo or up around the Kaipara Harbour.

Us at the beach at Arcachon!  It was too cold to do much else.

Us at the beach at Arcachon! It was too cold to do much else.

The weather was a bit stormy by the time we arrived in Biarritz in mid-afternoon and we ended up in a bar ducking for cover from the rain.

It was windy and the sea was well stirred at Biarritz.  All the same, some hardy surfers, about a dozen of them, ventured out in the short time that we were watching.

It was windy and the sea was well stirred at Biarritz. All the same, some hardy surfers, about a dozen of them, ventured out in the short time that we were watching.

Most people take photos of this island/rock from the other side as an icon of Biarritz.  That looked like rubbish with the stormy and rainy conditions so I tried this.

Most people take photos of this island/rock from the other side as an icon of Biarritz. That looked like rubbish with the stormy and rainy conditions so I tried this.

Looking back towards to little island with the protected marina in the foreground and the Grande Plage and city in the background.  Being exposed to the Atlantic Ocean they must get some huge storms hitting here, hence the fortified marina!

Looking back towards to little island with the protected marina in the foreground and the Grande Plage and city in the background. Being exposed to the Atlantic Ocean they must get some huge storms hitting here, hence the fortified marina!

Looking south down the coast as it started raining.  Time to put the camera away I think.

Looking south down the coast as it started raining. Time to put the camera away I think.

It was only a 45 minute drive from Biarritz to San Sebastián in Spain on Thursday morning and we had plenty of time to look around before finding a tapas bar for lunch.  The place seemed to be a locals type of haunt, everything seemed to be €2 whether it was a glass of wine or items of food.  For some reason there was also sand scattered on the floor.  We did a bit more exploring after lunch and before heading onwards to Pamplona.

The beach at San Sebastián is protected by an island in the centre of the bay's entrance.  Part of the island is on the left in this shot.

The beach at San Sebastián is protected by an island in the centre of the bay’s entrance. Part of the island is on the left in this shot.

The weather was not too much better at San Sebastián on Thursday.

The weather was not too much better at San Sebastián on Thursday.

But San Sebastián does have a nice beach.

But San Sebastián does have a nice beach.

We found a charming little tapas bar for lunch with an owner who was more than likely a bit of a character.  The food was great and cheap too.

We found a charming little tapas bar for lunch with an owner who was more than likely a bit of a character. The food was great and cheap too.

Stopped a couple of times on the way from San Sebastián to Pamplona to take photos.  At the second stop we saw seven large birds of prey soaring and we think they were Griffin’s Vultures.  This was quite high up at the exit of the last tunnel we were to pass through.  We got hurried back to the car by the worsening weather and just as we got in sleet started falling.  We had seen a snowplough standing with its engine running at the first stop.

On the way from San Sebastián to Pamplona we made a couple of photo stops in the hills.  This is overlooking the village of Berastegi.  There was no other reason for the shot than I liked the scenery and the autumn colours looked so intense.

On the way from San Sebastián to Pamplona we made a couple of photo stops in the hills. This is overlooking the village of Berastegi. There was no other reason for the shot than I liked the scenery and the autumn colours looked so intense.

Our second stop.  That is the direction we are heading.

Our second stop. That is the direction we are heading.

Less than ten minutes later and the weather is closing in.  By the time we got back to the car there was just a small amount of sleet falling.

Less than ten minutes later and the weather is closing in. By the time we got back to the car there was just a small amount of sleet falling.

After arriving in Pamplona we walked into the old city under threatening weather.  Luckily I had a plastic shopping bag for the camera because I was not carrying my camera pack.  We explored for a while and saw where the bulls are released from for the annual running.  The the rain finally chased us towards shelter.  It was way too early for dinner so we stopped for some tapas and wine.  After that we started wandering again but only got 15 minutes before the rain was a problem again.  Later we stopped for dinner and to shelter from the rain at Café Iruña.  This is meant to have been a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway’s.  The food was delicious but we only had one dish each as this was our second stop for the evening.

Friday was spent further exploring Pamplona and clocking up over 20km on foot.

Since we were in Pamplona I had to show you this photo.  The red sign down there identifies this as the start of the annual running of the bulls.  I assume that the small car park with the big rails is a holding pen.

Since we were in Pamplona I had to show you this photo. The red sign down there identifies this as the start of the annual running of the bulls. I assume that the small car park with the big rails is a holding pen.

Once released they head off up the street past the coach.

Once released they head off up the street past the coach.

This shot was an hour later and it is dark.  The weather was a bit wet so we sheltered in a bar (sampling their wares of course!) until it was clear enough to wander again.  This rotunda is in the Plaza del Castillo.

This shot was an hour later and it is dark. The weather was a bit wet so we sheltered in a bar (sampling their wares of course!) until it was clear enough to wander again. This rotunda is in the Plaza del Castillo.

The Plaza del Castillo again.

The Plaza del Castillo again.

The interior of the Iruña Café was magnificent and their tapas selection was very good too.  Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent the place.

The interior of the Iruña Café was magnificent and their tapas selection was very good too. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent the place.

The Town Hall looking great.

The Town Hall looking great.

The walls of the old town were heavily fortified (often to defend against the French!) and the defences were continually upgraded to deal with new threats.

The walls of the old town were heavily fortified (often to defend against the French!) and the defences were continually upgraded to deal with new threats.

France Gate - Pamplona is on one of the main routes of the El Camino de Santiago.  The pilgrims enter the city through this gate.  The chains and drawbridge are original from construction in 1553.

France Gate – Pamplona is on one of the main routes of the El Camino de Santiago. The pilgrims enter the city through this gate. The chains and drawbridge are original from construction in 1553.

I should have included something to give this context; this sculpture is about 1.6m tall.

I should have included something to give this context; this sculpture is about 1.6m tall.

A street view in Pamplona.

A street view in Pamplona.

Another one but more colourful and not atypical in Pamplona

Another one but more colourful and not atypical in Pamplona

Another street not far from the bullring (not on the path of the bulls).

Another street not far from the bullring (not on the path of the bulls).

The Pamplona bullring seems to have undergone a capacity expansion with a modern upper layer.

The Pamplona bullring seems to have undergone a capacity expansion with a modern upper layer.

I don't know what the banner is about but this is the entrance to the bullring and the end of the road for the bulls.

I don’t know what the banner is about but this is the entrance to the bullring and the end of the road for the bulls.

The food line up at the bar where we stopped for lunch.

The food line up at the bar where we stopped for lunch.

Back in Plaza del Castilla in the daytime.  A little too much ripple on the water for a good reflection shot.

Back in Plaza del Castilla in the daytime. A little too much ripple on the water for a good reflection shot.

We left Pamplona on Saturday at about 10h00 heading for Lerida.   The roads most of the way were péage (French toll road) standard but without the toll.  There was a section of 60~80km in the middle that was the old slow road but it was very scenic.  Didn’t stop to get out and take photos because of the usual difficulty with finding a suitable spot and also because it was blowing like crazy, easily 50kph. Luckily it was blowing with us.  The final new section of highway approaching Lerida was over 100km of very new construction.

Not much further along the road and this unfolds before us.  The photo struggles to do it justice; on the rightmost rock column there is a separate sliver standing like a dagger.

Not much further along the road and this unfolds before us. The photo struggles to do it justice; on the rightmost rock column there is a separate sliver standing like a dagger.

Only another couple of kilometres and now on the sunny side of the rock formation.  The village of Riglos is nestled near the base.

Only another couple of kilometres and now on the sunny side of the rock formation. The village of Riglos is nestled near the base.

An example of some of the beautiful scenery between Pamplona and Lerida.

An example of some of the beautiful scenery between Pamplona and Lerida.

We drove up an unmarked gravel track to take the previous photo and at the side were these retired road markers.  It was nearly noon and there was still ice on the puddles!

We drove up an unmarked gravel track to take the previous photo and at the side were these retired road markers. It was nearly noon and there was still ice on the puddles!

Once in Lerida we walked into the town and found the elevators to get up to the hilltop cathedral and castle.  We spent a couple of hours up there including watching the sun set (17h30).  Went back down to the town at about 18h30 which was now full of life but the main strip was all fancy boutiques so it took a while to find somewhere to even get a glass of wine.  After having that we searched for food but didn’t find anything of interest.  Back at the hotel we got directions to the quarter where all the restaurants were meant to be but it was underwhelming.  We were looking for something like we had enjoyed in Pamplona – a bar with tapas/pintxos lined up on the counter. We were disappointed and ended up in an overpriced pub.  It seems that style of food is not here, you have to order everything off the menu.  We had very much enjoyed our food experiences in San Sebastián and Pamplona.

The bridge an elevator that got us up to the Castle and cathedral in Lerida.  Just exiting the lift there is a viewing platform that allows a great view over the countryside.

The bridge an elevator that got us up to the Castle and cathedral in Lerida. Just exiting the lift there is a viewing platform that allows a great view over the countryside.

Everywhere we looked around here there were Catalan flags - on proper flagpoles and draped out of apartment windows.

Everywhere we looked around here there were Catalan flags – on proper flagpoles and draped out of apartment windows.

The site was huge - the castle in the background and the entrance to the cloisters on the right.

The site was huge – the castle in the background and the entrance to the cloisters on the right.

There was an uninterrupted 360˚ view from the top of the hill in the centre of Lerida.  This was taken not long before sunset (36 minutes) and the snow is tinted pink because of that.

There was an uninterrupted 360˚ view from the top of the hill in the centre of Lerida. This was taken not long before sunset (36 minutes) and the snow is tinted pink because of that.

The business end of the cathedral in the late sun.

The business end of the cathedral in the late sun.

Sunset was 17h31 and this was 17h15.  I changed to my 300mm zoom lens with CPL to get some shots of the snow.

Sunset was 17h31 and this was 17h15. I changed to my 300mm zoom lens with CPL to get some shots of the snow.

Most of the lower areas in shade but still sun on the mountains.

Most of the lower areas in shade but still sun on the mountains.

The view goes forever in the other directions as well.  This is 7 minutes after sunset.

The view goes forever in the other directions as well. This is 7 minutes after sunset.

Another shot of the cathedral tower but now under artificial lighting.

Another shot of the cathedral tower but now under artificial lighting.

Back down in the main shopping precinct the place was coming to life.

Back down in the main shopping precinct the place was coming to life.

We left Lerida on Sunday morning and drove again parallel to the Pyrenees foothills through some beautiful scenery including Montserrat in the distance.  We were in the centre of Girona by 14h30 but the shadows were already long so getting good photos was a challenge.  Girona has a huge cathedral and to make it even more imposing it is situated on the top of a hill.  Check it out on Wikipedia.

A pedestrian bridge into the old town part of Girona with the cathedral on the hill above.

A pedestrian bridge into the old town part of Girona with the cathedral on the hill above.

Same bridge, different angle.

Same bridge, different angle.

There are a lot of steps to get up the the entrance to the cathedral and even when you get there it is still a very tall structure.  Wikipedia tells me that the main part is 45m tall.

There are a lot of steps to get up the the entrance to the cathedral and even when you get there it is still a very tall structure. Wikipedia tells me that the main part is 45m tall.

I left it too late to do these shots along the river and the contrast went ballistic as the sun dropped low.  Still, it is a pretty location.

I left it too late to do these shots along the river and the contrast went ballistic as the sun dropped low. Still, it is a pretty location.

Note to self - plan shots better in future taking care of the available light!

Note to self – plan shots better in future taking care of the available light!

The sun is gone, just some pink clouds left.

The sun is gone, just some pink clouds left.

Back at the bridge after dark.

Back at the bridge after dark.

And now for something completely different…

I have decided to start a new themed collection - park benches, wherever they are.

I have decided to start a new themed collection – park benches, wherever they are.

Another instalment in the newly launched park benches series.

Another instalment in the newly launched park benches series.

So that is a slightly cryptic account of our week travelling down the western side of France and across the northern part of Spain.

Cold Weather And A Very Long Lunch

18 Nov

We set a record this week!  On Monday we went to lunch at John and April’s place.  It is only 200m from here so we walked across for 12h30.  We had a lovely roast lunch with Pineau/Bordeaux/Cognac and good conversation.  Next thing it was 17h30 so Leanne went back to our place and brought over the pot of French onion soup we had on the cooker.  We heated that on the wood burner, John made toast over the embers and dinner began.  We finally got back home, in the dark, at 19h30.  A seven hour lunch!  Epic.

The Pineau and Cognac we enjoyed so much on Monday were from J. Balluet in Neuvecq-le-Château, about 90 minutes drive away.  We were well equipped with colourful stories about Mr Balluet and the only way to get our own supplies was to pay a visit.  So that was Wednesday.  Mr Balluet was absolutely charming and took us on a personal tour of the distillery.  The business was started in 1845 by his great-great-great-grandfather.  He regaled us with stories and detailed information about the business and the process but I don’t have time to go into it all because today (Monday, 18th November) we are meant to be packing and cleaning to be ready to leave tomorrow morning.

This is the still that was installed by J. Balluet in 1968 to replace the original one from 1845.  It will start the new season's work soon and will stop either when the job is finished or it is 31st March 2014, whichever is sooner.  Cognac distillation must be completed by this date by order of the Appellation.  http://www.cognac.fr/cognac/_en/2_cognac/index.aspx?page=distillation

This is the still that was installed by J. Balluet in 1968 to replace the original one from 1845. It will start the new season’s work soon and will stop either when the job is finished or it is 31st March 2014, whichever is sooner. Cognac distillation must be completed by this date by order of the Appellation. http://www.cognac.fr/cognac/_en/2_cognac/index.aspx?page=distillation

This is Mr Jean Balluet himself beside the condenser section of the still while taking us on a tour.  He is opening a barrel...

This is Mr Jean Balluet himself beside the condenser section of the still while taking us on a tour. He is opening a barrel…

... for us to smell the cognac.  It was sweet and fruity and beautiful.  The glass panelled doors behind are closing off a small room with a single bed - once the distillation starts the distiller stays here full time.  The process is totally manual and needs frequent intervention based on years of experience.

… for us to smell the cognac. It was sweet and fruity and beautiful. The glass panelled doors behind are closing off a small room with a single bed – once the distillation starts the distiller stays here full time. The process is totally manual and needs frequent intervention based on years of experience.

As well as the oak barrels, cognac is matured in these oak vats.  Apparently the result is the same only slower.

As well as the oak barrels, cognac is matured in these oak vats. Apparently the result is the same only slower.

Naturally there was a tasting involved!

Naturally there was a tasting involved!

Barrels in a warehouse just starting to be covered by the fungus “torula compniacensis”.

Barrels in a warehouse just starting to be covered by the fungus “torula compniacensis”.

Barrels gaining character as they do their work.

Barrels gaining character as they do their work.

There is a now disused tower at the distillery that has had a viewing room made at the top complete with a map table.  This is the view over most of the distillery buildings.  Balluet also grows all his own grapes and owns many acres of surrounding land.

There is a now disused tower at the distillery that has had a viewing room made at the top complete with a map table. This is the view over most of the distillery buildings. Balluet also grows all his own grapes and owns many acres of surrounding land.

Another view from the tower this time over the village of Neuvecq-le-Château.

Another view from the tower this time over the village of Neuvecq-le-Château.

Mr Balluet told us that he has several warehouses full of cognac in barrels all around the village.  He also told us that you can always tell where the cognac is being stored because the normally orange clay roof tiles turn black with the “torula compniacensis” fungus.  It looks like it doesn't only affect the rooves.

Mr Balluet told us that he has several warehouses full of cognac in barrels all around the village. He also told us that you can always tell where the cognac is being stored because the normally orange clay roof tiles turn black with the “torula compniacensis” fungus. It looks like it doesn’t only affect the rooves.

We stopped for a coffee near Neuvecq-le-Château in the village of Matha.  When we came out the weather was in the process of changing and this cloud bank was moving in from the west.

We stopped for a coffee near Neuvecq-le-Château in the village of Matha. When we came out the weather was in the process of changing and this cloud bank was moving in from the west.

But the clouds did create some nice effects.

But the clouds did create some nice effects.

The weather has definitely turned a corner here this week.  Frost, fog, clear blue skies and icy winds.  Time to head south alright!  We did manage to finally get back to Niort for another quick visit on Saturday and Autumn is unmistakeable now.

Place de la Brèche in Niort is a new park on top of the new underground parking facility and beside the bus terminal.  Directly ahead is the beginning of the pedestrian precinct.

Place de la Brèche in Niort is a new park on top of the new underground parking facility and beside the bus terminal. Directly ahead is the beginning of the pedestrian precinct.

These door handles on a fashion store in Niort were cool.

These door handles on a fashion store in Niort were cool.

Niort was once the capital of France and a major port.  The river, la Sèvre, I understand is now more used for recreation.

Niort was once the capital of France and a major port. The river, la Sèvre, I understand is now more used for recreation.

The very Autumn feel on the walkway along the river.

The very Autumn feel on the walkway along the river.

After ‘not getting around to it’ for seven weeks we also went for a walk down the chemin (lane) that passes the house here.  We just did an hour’s walk down the lane and around the block.

This is what becomes of the lane that runs past the house we have been in for the last seven weeks.  It is still marked as a public road on the map!

This is what becomes of the lane that runs past the house we have been in for the last seven weeks. It is still marked as a public road on the map!

A little further along our Sunday walk I couldn't go past this poor old barn.

A little further along our Sunday walk I couldn’t go past this poor old barn.

Another local "road" but this one is used by the farmers with their tractors and it is passable by car (provided you don't mind a little mud on the wheels!).

Another local “road” but this one is used by the farmers with their tractors and it is passable by car (provided you don’t mind a little mud on the wheels!).

If one roller is good surely five will be better!

If one roller is good surely five will be better!

So that wraps up our time in the Charentes.  This coming week we will be on the road so next week’s epistle will more than likely be quite late.  We plan to arrive back at Sue’s place in Le Thoronet  on the 26th November.  The route is down the west side of France and into Spain, across to Pamplona then Andorra then eastwards to Le Thoronet.  Should be fun!

Under A Rainbow

11 Nov

Last week I mentioned getting out and doing some experimenting with the camera based on reading I had been doing… it didn’t happen.  Not that I haven’t achieved any milestones this week.  Tuesday was a dreary day weather-wise and I managed to pass the entire day without putting even a toe outside the door!

On Wednesday, in spite of the ongoing dreary weather, we went for an afternoon drive to Melle.  Not much to report from there except that it was cold and damp.  Apple maps had a bit of a fit too.  On the way in to Melle it tried to get us up a pedestrian path and when we were leaving it took us to a T-intersection but in order to get to the other road we needed to got down a flight of stairs!  We decided against it.  We rarely get a bad call from this system but Melle was an exception.  On the way home we passed through La Mothe-Saint-Héray – see the photo below.

Passing through La Mothe-Saint-Héray on a drive one afternoon.  We had been for a short walk but a light rain had started so we made for the car.  No sooner had I put the camera away and got in myself when this rainbow appeared.  By the time I got the camera out and took this shot it was fading quickly.  The whole thing was over in 30 seconds.  So not the best composition but at least I got something!

Passing through La Mothe-Saint-Héray on a drive one afternoon. We had been for a short walk but a light rain had started so we made for the car. No sooner had I put the camera away and got in myself when this rainbow appeared. By the time I got the camera out and took this shot it was fading quickly. The whole thing was over in 30 seconds. So not the best composition but at least I got something!

The weather looked quite reasonable on Thursday so we left the house about 9am and took the minor roads to Chinon.  On the way along the river to the city centre we spotted an interesting looking cave and it was open so we stopped to explore.  The tunnels were easily 7m high and 10m wide.  They went off in all directions.  And it was really dimly lit.  I was on ISO 12800 and shutter speeds under 1/30th second to get anything.

The entrance to a wine cave (pronounced "carve").  This was called Cave Monplaisir.

The entrance to a wine cave (pronounced “carve”). This was called Cave Monplaisir.

The entrance hall of Cave Monplaisir.  From here there were a labyrinth of tunnels.

The entrance hall of Cave Monplaisir. From here there were a labyrinth of tunnels.

It was almost pitch black inside.  We used the light on a phone and a small flashlight for this photo.  Everything was covered in a thick grey mould.  [ISO 12800, f/4.5, 1/25sec, 47mm]

It was almost pitch black inside. We used the light on a phone and a small flashlight for this photo. Everything was covered in a thick grey mould. [ISO 12800, f/4.5, 1/25sec, 47mm]

Some fresh looking barrels in Cave Monplaisir - no mould yet!

Some fresh looking barrels in Cave Monplaisir – no mould yet!

There's a nice display!

There’s a nice display!

We wandered through the city and up to the fortifications before lunch then found a nice place to dine. It was raining lightly when we came out but that didn’t last long.

Chinon from the bridge across the River Vienne.  There are usually sandbanks on the side but the river is quite high at the moment.

Chinon from the bridge across the River Vienne. There are usually sandbanks on the side but the river is quite high at the moment.

The River Vienne again.

The River Vienne again.

Looking over the rooves of Chinon towards the river from the path to the fortified hilltop.  The water is just visible before the grass on the far side.

Looking over the rooves of Chinon towards the river from the path to the fortified hilltop. The water is just visible before the grass on the far side.

Just a snapshot of the place we found to have lunch. We were a bit early, it ended up with a steady flow of locals coming in. At least I assume they were locals based on the way they greeted the waiter!

Just a snapshot of the place we found to have lunch. We were a bit early, it ended up with a steady flow of locals coming in. At least I assume they were locals based on the way they greeted the waiter!

A view of the city through the flags.

A view of the city through the flags.

Looking back to the city and the fortified hilltop behind it.

Looking back to the city and the fortified hilltop behind it.

Looking back to Chinon with autumn coloured vines and trees under the afternoon sun.

Looking back to Chinon with autumn coloured vines and trees under the afternoon sun.

After Chinon we went to Fontevraud-l’Abbaye.  What we could see of the exterior didn’t grab us so we went back to Candes-Saint-Martin to see the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers.  The village looked OK and we read later that it is meant to be ‘one of the prettiest in France’!  Like all the other 10,000 claimants to that mantle.

Candes-Saint-Martin.  This is the confluence of the rivers Loire and Vienne.  The Loire is directly ahead with the small island dividing it and the Vienne is to the right.

Candes-Saint-Martin. This is the confluence of the rivers Loire and Vienne. The Loire is directly ahead with the small island dividing it and the Vienne is to the right.

Friday was a deliberately restful day because on Saturday we went to Paris… just for the day.  We got up at 05h00, were on the road at 05h30 and parked in Orléans at 08h10.  We had non-changeable tickets for the 09h35 train to Paris but managed to talk our way on to the 08h35 service.  So we were in Paris at 09h30.  The forecast was 60% rain but it was overcast and dry so that was good.  In the interests of flexibility and safety I did not take my camera, just the phone.  It was a tough decision!

Now here is a travel tip for Paris; if you look on the transport websites for Paris you will easily find the one, two and three day tourist passes.  You will also find books of ten single journey tickets.  What you have to search harder for is to find the ‘Mobilis’ ticket.  That’s the one you want.  One version is valid for zones one and two (this covers central Paris) and includes all Metro, bus, tram and RER (local trains) for one calendar day (not 24 hours necessarily).  All this convenience for €6.60 and you can buy it at the kiosks in the Metro stations.  The other options start at €10.50.  You just need to know what to look for, and now you do!

My motivation for visiting Paris on this public holiday weekend when the All Blacks were playing in Paris that evening was to go to a photographic exhibition, Salon de la Photo.  It was held at the Port de Versailles Exhibition Halls, Hall #4, and we arrived there at about 10am.  It was pretty busy.  There were lots of trade stands and dotted around the hall amongst all this were the various exhibits.  Unlike many others I did not think it was appropriate to photograph the work on display but I can say that some of it was amazingly beautiful while other work was, frankly, disturbing.  I did manage to find a new camera strap system to try out and I looked into some other products that are, for now, on my wish list.  There is always something.

Leanne only stayed a while at the exhibition then she went off to see Gallerie Lafayette and other shopping areas with their Xmas decorations all on display.  After the show we met up again at Place de la Concorde and starting walking – in the rain!  We went to the Petit Palais and after having a nightmare session getting through the security – had to pass through a metal detector but could not remove our jackets, they wanted all metal removed and put in a tray and this is not possible with our jackets – the galleries and the building itself was beautiful.  After that we walked to the Left Bank, around Saint-Sulpice, the Odéon, etc. until we were ready for a drink and a snack.  Then it was time to get back to our train.

Petit Palais from the courtyard.

Petit Palais from the courtyard.

The courtyard of the Petit Palais... it was actually raining lightly at the time.

The courtyard of the Petit Palais… it was actually raining lightly at the time.

One of the magnificent galleries.  The building is stunning and then there is the amazing art.  Nice visit.

One of the magnificent galleries. The building is stunning and then there is the amazing art. Nice visit.

I don't think this guy is going anywhere in a hurry.  Just one of a million reasons to never bring your car into Paris.  Far better to park it 100km away and take the train.

I don’t think this guy is going anywhere in a hurry. Just one of a million reasons to never bring your car into Paris. Far better to park it 100km away and take the train.

And its not like the next guy can move either!  SMS message to wife, "Honey, I could be some time.  Start dinner without me."

And its not like the next guy can move either! SMS message to wife, “Honey, I could be some time. Start dinner without me.”

We left Paris again just after 7pm and in an hour we were back in Orléans.  After an uneventful drive back down the péage we were home again at 11pm.  A busy day.

Needless to say Sunday was a very quiet day.

This is Archie, patiently waiting by his bowl for that guy with the camera to stop pfaffing about AND GET MY BLOODY SUPPER!

This is Archie, patiently waiting by his bowl for that guy with the camera to stop pfaffing about AND GET MY BLOODY SUPPER!

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