Diary 2011

(Compiled in “Open Office Writer” – with which I'm unfamiliar – so please make allowances!)

Fifteen-Year Old Fleurie

2 January 2011 10:56

Do you remember the dozen bottles of Cuvée Présidente Marguerite Fleurie 1995 that I've mentioned many times before? I bought it in Fleurie on the way back from Firenze; it survived the journey back to the UK in the caravan, was stored in the base of a wardrobe until we emigrated to France in 2003 (eight years ago tomorrow!) when it was shipped out by the removal people and has lurked in the chai ever since. I had one bottle left; I decided that it was too much of a risk to serve it on the jours de fêtes, so I opened it last night. It had a little sediment, but not too much, and it decanted well. The cork was in good condition and the wine was excellent – good nose, ripe fruits with a hint of spice. Farewell to an old friend! Tonight we can have the Hautes Côtes de Nuits that I'd warmed up in case the Fleurie had gone off.

Façade Fuss

The story of the stripping and repointing of our South wall: it's told in brief in the video and a slideshow.

Click if you want to skip the following text.

Day 1

8 February 2011 22:29

Façade Man cometh this morning at 9am – his mate who was going to help him with the scaffolding has a bad back – my offers of help were refused so he pressed on at ground level. The untouched wall, stripped bare of bushes and in all its grotty glory is shown here.

FM refuses to use a burineur – says they mark the stone – and is carefully excising the old render with club hammer and chisel – see this pic (Note the china brique that some vandal has used to fill a hole). This is the result of a day's work. - Maybe a sixth of the total? He worked 9 – 6 with about a quarter of an hour for lunch – not very French!

Meanwhile I kept myself busy blocking off a gap in my perimeter hedge to keep out the mad neighbour's mad dog.

Day 2

9 February 2011 22:30

Façade Man turned up with a French mate today – Gregoire. It was sunny but cool. Later on it got up to 18°C and it was shirts off time! There's an interesting change between what was obviously the main house and a later extension which is now our kitchen – the old cornerstones are clearly visible.

Meanwhile I completed my fencing project in Dogsh*t Corner – this has given me the excuse to buy yet another boys' toy; a magazine-loading fence stapler which closes little ring staples to join the mesh to the straining wire.

Day 3

10 February 2011 22:22

Today two towers were deployed. The assembly of the towers and filling of some deep holes took some time – the area of interest moved to the area around the bedroom window which has had shuttered concrete poured as a window embrasure.
The day's work
showed reasonable amount of progress considering the ongoing difficulties (The pic includes just one of the nosey cats who are fascinated by the goings-on!)

Day 4

11 February 2011 22:24

Another gorgeous day for render-stripping at Tessel Bas – started at 4°C and reached T-shirt temperatures after lunch. After some discussion about disguising the space where a stone block was replaced by brique, the offending brique was rebated and I cut some flat pieces of stone with a diamond saw which Façade Man mortared in place – spot the repair . At the end of the day the newly revealed stone looked rather good in the setting sun.

In a bid to stop myself meddling and getting in the workmen's way I put the saw attachment on the Stihl débroussailleuse and cut down all of last year's coppiced ash poles – down the escarpment in full sun there was no cooling breeze and my T-shirt was sodden with sweat. Oh for a few gallons of SBK!

Day 5

14 February 2011 21:26

The day dawned grey and drizzly – but Façade Man turned up as usual, less helpmate who arrived in the afternoon. Rain didn't stop play and all but a square metre or so of render was stripped – some of the areas of concrete slowed progress.

The concrete around the window will be difficult to pretty up successfully. We've decided to avoid any stick-on bits of whatever sort and finish with a lissage of lime render: the colour of this is virtually the same as the stone and since the edges of the concrete have been demarcated and rounded off it should look like a big chunk of stone – as in the kitchen window. We've started a barter economy - I gave him a tub of jointing for plaques de plâtre and he gave me a harness for my strimmer....

Day 6

 15 February 2011 21:53

Today saw the completion of the render-stripping phase - an opportune event as Elle Dedans was getting tired of the noise and the dust. FM left at 15:00 to get a load of sand for the lime mortar. Picture here.

Day 7

 16 February 2011 21:38

I hope this isn't too boring! FM delivered sand and spent the day filling the more unstable areas and bigger holes with lime mortar with an added cement content.

Day 8

 18 February 2011 22:51

After a day's absence on another job FM arrived with sacks of Tradiblanc – a proprietary hydraulic lime mixture and pointed up about 3m2. He'd better speed up or it will take him another fortnight. But the result looks good.

I warned him to cover his sand pile to avoid the pussycats leaving little presents in it...

Day 10

 20 February 2011 21:47

Façade Man came in on Saturday and Sunday - perhaps about 1/6th has now been pointed. I must do a detailed close-up: it's looking good.

Day 15

1 March 2011 15:25

Almost finished – Façade Man definitely needed his dead cat hat with ear muffs today – at 6°C it's near the limit for the lime mortar. Yesterday's pics are here and here.


 7 March 2011 14:48

I spent some of the weekend getting snow blindness, cleating the EDF line to the new stonework in full sun. Boy that uncovered limestone is bright! We had some 18°C temperatures, too, so it was T-shirt weather (although no shorts yet). Façade man wants to give the wall a final touch-up and a wash down, then I can fix the outside luminaire, but otherwise the South wall is finished.

A close look which is interesting to compare with the before" picture.

Final Finish

 24 March 2011 18:33

Façade Man has finally packed up his stuff and gone, and I can call my house, garden and workshop my own again! The West wall has been finished in a combination of crépi and paint; the crépi is the same mortar mix as that used for the pointing, applied with a tyroléenne, and we managed to tint a tub of façade paint to an exact match. I think it's a nice compromise.

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Cuisinière Nouvelle

 15 March 2011 21:51

I bought a new cooker last Friday – the old one had lost its self-lighting doofer and the boss wanted a new one. Of course, nothing is simple in this house: the existing system is a dual gas bottle with changeover in the sous-sol. It was connected via a Christmas tree of old copper pipe with wobbly bends and spurs to the kitchen, both ends being connected by rubber tube and Jubilee clips. So since it was a new cooker I decided to sort out the copper pipe and replace the rubber tube with proper connectors with screwed unions. Soldering new fittings on to the ends of the pipe and replacing the more horrid bits was taxing to my gas fitting skills but when connected up showed no sign of leaks. The water pipe to the dishwasher which was behind the cooker got in the way of the new one so I had to route it via an elbow. Then the cooker was a bit of a self assembly job with legs to be fitted and natural gas jets to change to bottled gas jets. Gratifyingly the cooker was ready for preparing dinner – but it had taken me most of the day! It's an all-gas hob with a big burner for my wok and an electric oven, finished in stainless steel.

April in Paris

 8 April 2011 22:42

We've just returned from a couple of days in Paris, to mark Xine's fast-approaching 65th birthday. We travelled by TGV, leaving the Yaris at Agen station car park, so we were able to scandalise the fellow travellers by cracking a nice bottle of Burgundy with our smoked salmon sandwiches.

We stayed at Allipoos & Neil's pleasant house at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, just a half-hour from St Lazare.  After a pleasant walk by the riverside, dinner was at a serendipitously pleasant Indian restaurant with an attentive English-speaking waiter who got the chef to hot up the curries way beyond French tastes.

For our first day we passed a pleasant morning in the Marmottan Museum . On the way we passed the sculpture of Jean de la Fontaine and his fable of the crow and the fox – it was un-ascribed but a passer-by told us who it was. I love Monet and there are some lovely works in the museum – Soleil Levant at Le Havre (the birth of impressionism), Charing Cross Bridge and one of the Houses of Parliament paintings – and the inevitable nympheas. He seems to be at his best painting the effect of London smoke on sunshine and the actual paintings have an iridescence unmatched by any reproductions. For me it was an emotional experience.

After a long and pleasant lunch in a nearby brasserie we had no stamina for further sightseeing and staggered back to Conflans for a roast chicken dinner.

Next day we visited friends we met on our little cruise boat that toured the Dalmatian islands in Croatia – Gérard who is French and Ruti who is a dancer, now dance teacher They live in a sweet little apartment in Montmartre, right next to the two windmills of the Moulin de la Galette. We had a lovely lunch, then walked around Montmartre in the beautiful sunshine, calling into a little Sicilian-run Italian restaurant and a little “branché” boutique for Xine to look for a birthday present – a charming view of village life in the middle of Paris.

The evening was surprisingly warm for the frozen North and Neil showed off his Ozzy barby skills on an array of snags and steaks!

Our return was by the new IDTGV – booked entirely online, you print your own ticket – you can choose “ambiances” which are quiet, noisy or boogy – no prizes for guessing what we chose – the only noise was the slurp of the wine being poured - I found that first class was only €5 extra so I chose that. At Agen station the poor Yaris was simmering in the hot sunshine and a temperature of 30°C - I went to pick up the puddies from the cattery and we were all snug and quiet again, having had a lovely time but appreciating the “tranquillité” chez nous even more. There are some photos here.

PS I looked up Jean de la Fontaine's version of Aesop's fable:

Le Corbeau et le Renard

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,

Tenait en son bec un fromage.

Maître Renard, par l'odeur alléché,

Lui tint à peu près ce langage :

Hé ! bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.

Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau !

Sans mentir, si votre ramage

Se rapporte à votre plumage,

Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois.”

A ces mots le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie ;

Et pour montrer sa belle voix,

Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.

Le Renard s'en saisit, et dit : “Mon bon Monsieur,

Apprenez que tout flatteur

Vit aux dépens de celui qui l'écoute :

Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute. “

Le Corbeau, honteux et confus,

Jura, mais un peu tard, qu'on ne l'y prendrait plus.

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The Bacalan/Bastide Lifting Bridge at Bordeaux

 19 April 2011 10:50

A group of engineers from the ICE, the IET, the I Mech E and Engineers of South West France (ESWF) visited the construction site of the Pont Bacalan/Bastide and visited the beautiful city of Bordeaux. The visit was organised by the ICE following an idea by Joëlle Chagneau/Philip Ouvry of the IET.

There's a relevant video here and a selection of still photographs here .

The Port of the Moon, port city of Bordeaux in south-west France, is inscribed as an inhabited historic city, an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble, created in the age of the Enlightenment, whose values continued up to the first half of the 20th century, with more protected buildings than any other French city except Paris. It is also recognized for its historic role as a place of exchange of cultural values over more than 2,000 years, particularly since the 12th century due to commercial links with Britain and the Low Lands. Urban plans and architectural ensembles of the early 18th century onwards place the city as an outstanding example of innovative classical and neoclassical trends and give it an exceptional urban and architectural unity and coherence. Its urban form represents the success of philosophers who wanted to make towns into melting pots of humanism, universality and culture.” (From the UNESCO World Heritage Convention).

However the opposite bank of the river is still the poor relation – ill-served by bridges and with no architectural merit, an extra bridge is desperately needed to spur the redevelopment of the La Bastide side of the Garonne – even the old Pont de Pierre was built only so Napoleon could get his armies to Spain.

Our group of engineers were treated to an interesting morning lecture by Egis staff, Egis being a partner in the design and build consortium GTM-Vinci, on the design rationale for the bridge, including the various designs considered but rejected and those of the competitors. We also caught a glimpse of the frustrations involved in keeping not only the city of Bordeaux happy, but also the close involvement of UNESCO in the appearance of the project and the trials of conforming with the aesthetics laid down by them.

Big projects of this kind have a fascination, not just for the amount of money involved but the sheer scale of the enterprise, the need for detailed planning and the potentially vast cost of mistakes.

After a pleasant lunch in La Petite Gironde, appropriately on the rive droite, we were kitted up in hard hats, fluorescent jackets and gumboots to see the beast itself. Both bases for the lifting pylons and the four “buffer” islands which protect the bridge against collision by ships were in place and the first “stubs” for the slip-cast pylons were in position, together with an access tower. All six caissons were pre-cast downstream and floated into position by tugs, then accurately sunk in an operation which must have kept many fingers crossed for some time.

The bridge deck is made in Italy, near Venice, and will arrive in five pieces by barges routed through the Mediterranean via the Strait of Gibraltar. In operation the deck will be lifted in less than 11 minutes by two 132KW motors, the weight of the deck being counterbalanced by four counterweights of 600 tonnes, one in each pylon. Completion is scheduled for the end of 2012.

Saturday evening was an opportunity for the ladies to put on the pretty frocks and for the men to wonder where they had put that tie and jacket – we dined in the Restaurant Dubern in the elegant Allées de Tourny.

On Sunday morning the gorgeous weather continued and we were able to join a guided tour of Bordeaux and its architectural riches, before a farewell lunch in the shadow of the Eglise St Pierre and the return home.

For Christine it was a somewhat different sort of birthday – the bottle of champagne we'd put by for the evening stayed in the cellar and we were early to bed after a tiring but satisfying weekend. This wasn't by any means the first time I'd been to Bordeaux, but I saw many aspects of the city that I hadn't seen before which was a bonus to the interest of the technical visit. Many thanks and full marks to the ICE for the impeccable organisation of the visit by Robert Broatch and the local chairman Lucy Rew.

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Roaming around Rome

 1 June 2011 14:22

Where's your passport and boarding card” said Christine after airport security. Ooer! Where was it? I was clutching my bag, belt, my mobile phone, cash, holding my trousers up – but no passport. Disaster! I dashed back to where the security man had delved in my bag to look at the mess of cameras and chargers – a friendly lady official smiled and gave me back my vital documents - “Comme je suis stupide” I said “Ca arrive” she smiled. It was so nearly a very bad start to our three full days in Rome. Doddery old fool! However, getting to Rome turned out to be very easy; we flew from Toulouse to Fiumicino at a civilised hour and were in Rome mid-afternoon. Toulouse is a very convenient airport for us; access from the A62 is easy and car parking is plentiful and reasonably priced. The new Terminal D is now open and there is lots of room for passengers. EasyJet easily beat Ryanair for friendly service; we had hand baggage only (weight unlimited) and had checked in online, so we could get to the gate only half an hour before take-off.

The hotel shuttle picked us up in Fiumicino for the half-hour ride into Rome – after unpacking we walked to the Tiber and the Castel Sant'Angelo. The weather was warm but it clouded up and there was a brief shower of water from the sky, “rain” I believe it used to be called – or maybe “la pioggia”!

That evening we found a lovely little family-run restaurant near the hotel – not far from the Vatican – called the “Ragno d'Oro” (golden spider) in Via Silla. The food was so good we had three dinners there; I still dream of the stuffed squid in a subtle oregano sauce. Our other dinner was at the “Osteria dell'Angelo” in the Via G. Bettolo - an interesting and tasty set menu of Roman food at very reasonable prices. It was my first visit to Rome, so we had to do the tourist traps – St Peters, The Vatican Museum, The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon, The Colosseum… They weren't disappointments but the crowds were tiring and it was hot. 15,000 people trudge through the Sistine Chapel on an average day. So we tried branching out to the less popular areas; the Ara Pacis, The Trajan Markets, The Augustine Mausoleum. This was a good move, room to breathe and take in the sights. We're going back – we threw coins in the fountain! - but we
may pick early spring or late autumn next time.

Our hotel was away from the centre of the action, this meant that prices were cheaper and restaurants less busy, but we had to take the tube to get to Central Rome – but that meant we saw a little extra of Roman living – with handbags securely clutched under the arm!

I've assembled the usual collection of photographs and edited a video.

We left Rome at 10:15 and were back at Tessel Bas at 14:30 – on the way back I reflected on how meaningless my history books had been at school – but how exciting to see an obelisk that Caligula had brought to Rome in 36 AD and to realise that he and Caesar were real and fascinating people, not just myths on a dusty page. Everyone should go to Rome – at least once. I hope that coin in the fountain works.

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Humax Beings

 20 June 2011 22:58

I know some of you have Humax Foxsat HDR PVRs, but for those who don't I thought a summary of my experience might be useful. The TLAs (Three-Letter Abbreviations!) stand for Hard Disk (or Drive) Recorder and Personal Video Recorder. Confusingly a HD PVR is a High Definition Personal Video Recorder – the Humax has that capability but it doesn't figure in the title. I bought it from Amazon UK which was as cheap as anywhere, it arrived in a few days from Holland – delivery is free in the UK and some Eurozone countries but not France, but the delivery charge was only £5.99. The new model has a 500GB drive, there's a former version with a 320GB drive that you may be able to find at a cheaper price. Mine is this one. You have to have at least two feeds from the satellite dish if you want to watch one channel and record a different channel at the same time. With two feeds you can also record two different channels at the same time. The two feeds come from the LNB; if yours is a single version you need to replace it with at least a dual feed version. If you've been thinking about more TVs in your house a quad LNB will give you two extra feeds for two TVs or one more PVR. I bought an LNB and 25m of low-loss coaxial cable from Leclerc Brico. The cable uses F-type plugs which can be fitted without special tools although a Stanley knife and a pair of side-cutters makes it easier. The LNB has a standard 40mm clamp and fitting the new one was just a question of slackening the old clamp. I turned it clockwise looking at the dish to the 1 o'clock/7 o'clock position to approximate the required 18° skew for the Astra satellite.

I used the old Sky box signal strength and quality display to confirm that I was still receiving the correct satellite, then used a satellite meter/bleeper to optimise the dish position (azimuth was OK, elevation needed a tweak). I found that the best signal strength for the skew adjustment did not give the best quality - I tuned for maximum quality on a weak channel (BBC1 from Astra 2D). Down at the TV I connected up the box and went through the simple set-up procedure, during which it downloaded a new set of software. In use I found the Humax easy and intuitive to use, although quite different to the Sky box so there's an adjustment phase – particularly for septuagenarians who are resistant to change and suffering from cognitive decline. But “record” is achieved by pressing the “record” button, “stop recording” by the “stop recording” button – so it's not too much of a challenge. I went through the Radio Times and found several films I wanted to see - but which were on far too late to see “live” with the hour's time difference UK/France. I clicked on them and they were all faithfully recorded during the week, including two films on at the same time. The thing records what you're watching automatically, into a 2-hour buffer. So if you watch a film live, then decide to go to bed before it finishes, pressing “record” preserves the whole film for you. And if you're disturbed by a telephone call you can record it and come
back to where you left.

In conclusion I'm very pleased with it – the “retiming” function is what we used the old VCR for, rather than for creating an archive. With the HDR there's no cabinet full of video tape or DVD boxes, neither do we have to buy the blank media. For us it means that we no longer need to rent videos – unless there is something new that we really want to see. The only problem is negotiating a slot to actually watch the recordings with She Who Owns The Remote Control!

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Long-Lasting Apero

 25 July 2011 10:56

Found a new aspect to the French experience on Saturday – the long-lasting apero! We were invited to take an aperitif at 19:00 with neighbours opposite, expecting the couple of drinks, an amuse-gueule and a return home after an hour or so. As it was my cooking night I'd planned a quick menu for Saturday dinner. It wasn't needed – everyone sat down and was fed by a long succession of nibbles, nems, melon, cheese, salad and lots of wine.. We ended up tottering home in pitch dark, well after 22:00, brave enough to bark at another neighbour's fierce dog who retreated, whimpering. It was very enjoyable to have a really good evening amongst a large group of locals, none of whom spoke any significant French. We were both a little fragile on Sunday morning. And we ate Saturday's dinner on Sunday!

The Final Solution

 10 August 2011 15:46

Not to those riots but to my problem of never being able to find that elusive jar of kaffir lime leaves which is at the back of the shelf and by the time I've found them the saucepan has caught at the bottom... grr.

I got two pairs of coulisses from Gamm Vert and fitted them to two cut-down cupboard shelves, and made some wooden partitions for the top. Now I can use any sort of jar, they don't get greasy and I can slide out the shelf fully and find them instantly.

Inspired by this success, I decided to put my computer keyboard on a sliding shelf so I can get rid of it when not typing and have the space free for writing or using the track-pad/mouse.

Minoan Lime Mortar and Renovating French Houses

 24 September 2011 15:51

Since lime mortar was invented not by the Egyptians or even the Romans, I felt that I should take the opportunity of a visit to Knossos near Heraklion to poke at the lime mortar to see how it had survived 3000 years of Cretan weather. The bits that I found that hadn't been buggered about by Sir Arthur Evans and his concrete "renovations" seemed to be in pretty good nick - what a pity the volcano of Santorini decided to erupt, cover it with ash and knock most of it down, not to mention the tsunami that destroyed the Minoan fleet and left it open for the Mycenaeans to take over (hate Myces to pyces?).

Back home I found myself totally confused between hydrated, hydraulic and non-hydraulic lime, so I did a bit of mugging up.

Non-Hydraulic Lime is produced by burning limestone to produce quicklime, then slaking it with water. If you use a certain amount of water then the resultant slurry will mature into lime putty, which can be kept underwater without setting. If you use rather less water it produces a solid product that can be ground to produce non-hydraulic, slaked lime. When used in mortar it sets as a result of exposure to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Lime Putty is thixotropic and can be made more fluid by vigorous agitation ("knocking up").

Hydraulic Lime starts off with limestone including clay and silica and follows the same process, but is slaked with limited amounts of water. When the ground result is used in mortar it sets when water is added to it.

Hydrated lime is any lime other than quicklime.

Non-Hydraulic Lime can be given the properties of hydraulic lime by the addition of pozzolans (after the volcanic sand from Pozzuoli (a former Greek colony)). Compared with Portland cement lime may be weaker, take longer to set, set in a different way, and require a higher level of skill or understanding to use properly, but it has distinct long-term advantages. These include: greater compatibility with soft materials, good workability, increased initial adhesion, flexibility, greater porosity (breathability) and better weathering properties. The mortar lets moisture out as well as in. Cement mortars lock the moisture in so that the only way it can escape is through the brick or stone, deteriorating it in the process. Lime mortar is self-healing. Movement in masonry structures may result in large individual cracks where hard cement mortars are used, but lime mortar will develop multiple fine cracks. The lime mortar possesses a unique capability known as autogenuous healing, the process whereby free lime in the mortar combines with water and CO2 from the atmosphere and through carbonization is transformed into calcium carbonate which seals the minute fissures that occur as the mortar flexes. Old time mortars were used in masonry construction not as glue, but as a gasket or separator between the individual masonry units. The purpose of this gasket (just like in an engine) was to absorb small amounts of movement yet keep the pieces together. It is important to note that, while the lime mortar and masonry unit are not glued together, there is a bond between them and this bond helps masonry walls to resist expansion and contraction, wind shear, and seismic as well as gravity loads.

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The 66 Steps

 2 October 2011 11:40

The moment you've been dreading: the Crete Report!


I shuddered when the Redcoats greeted the coach from the airport with a glass of non-alcoholic orange – maybe they said “Bonjour” not “Hi-de-Hi” but I was looking for “Kalimera”! What had I done? I chose the week at the Marmara Athina Palace near Heraklion since we've had Marmara holidays before and they've all been impeccably organised. This holiday was no different, but it was our first at a Marmara “club” resort. I wanted to go to Santorini but I couldn't find a direct flight from Toulouse; I don't like changing at Paris, Toulouse is a nice airport with convenient access, a spacious new terminal and plentiful parking.

We love Crete – we anticipated our marriage with a wonderful holiday some 29 years ago at the little south coast village of Plakias, so this time we thought we'd give the north coast a try. The week was a “combiné” of three days of tours around Heraklion, with two days to our own devices. The resort turned out to be rather nice – on a headland with spectacular views the rooms were individual units which cascaded down the hill like cubes of feta cheese. It was well provided with swimming pools and mature plantings of hibiscus and other exotica. It was big enough to need a little bus that helped people get from the nearest road to the restaurant – however to get to the road we had 66 steps to climb which were hard to start with but got easier as we got fitter. The “demi-pension” terms of our holiday meant nothing at the resort, which was “tout compris”: breakfast, lunch and dinner were available at the restaurant which was operated on a buffet basis, with hot and cold food and fountains for beer, red and white wine – yeah! The food was of a good standard, international but with some Greek dishes. So with an already competitive holiday cost there was no need to spend anything more.

The tours were typical Marmara – well organised with educated, knowledgable, francophone guides who spoke slowly enough for us to keep up.

The first one to Chania via Rethymnon covered the westerly direction from Heraklion; Chania was one of the nicest towns we visited. On the way back to Heraklion we made a pilgrimage for the French to Fodele and the birthplace of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who you will no doubt instantly recognise as the artist El Greco. Knossos was fascinating; as an engineer I found it amazing that a bronze-age civilization some 1500 years BC had separate systems for water supply, sanitation and rainwater. I was disappointed not to see The Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived – it's thought that the palace itself with its 1000-odd rooms was the labyrinth. Theseus and Ariadne weren't there either – it all sounds like a load of bull to me.

We took the bus to Heraklion for a private visit – it's not a very attractive town since it suffered major damage in the last war and most of the buildings are modern. The Archaeological Museum has been housed in a temporary building while the old one is being refurbished, but there's a good selection of the better exhibits of Minoan art, in particular the gold jewellery. Interestingly, there's no gold in Crete and the gold is thought to have been shipped from Afghanistan – in 1500 BC!

Our last tour to the eastern side of Crete took in Elounda and Agios Nikolaos – we didn't like either very much; both resorts have been comprehensively spoiled by the Brits – tavernas selling “Full English Breakfast (with chips)” - but Spinalonga makes an interesting trip by boat from Elounda. It has Venetian fortifications, Turkish buildings and was a leper colony from 1903 to 1957.

So we enjoyed our holiday after all – we didn't spend much time around the pools, kept out of the sun and were protected in an efficient francophone enclave – but it wasn't Greek… Maybe a good alternative would be to buy a “vol sec” ticket from Marmara – Toulouse to Heraklion is only €350 return – and stay in a village taverna somewhere?

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Engineers Visit Nice & Monaco

 13 October 2011 14:47

Selected photos for this text can be found here.
A video is here.

The 702 km across France from Tessel Bas to Nice is a fair distance, but it was a lovely sunny day and the sweeping curves and contours of the A8 Autoroute are always a pleasure to drive as it skirts the Massif d'Esterel and Cannes before its final approach to Nice. The SatNav delivered us accurately to the entrance of the subterranean Parking Grimaldi, only a short walk from the Hotel Mercure Grimaldi which proved to be a comfortable place to stay.

Having renewed our acquaintance with the arriving travellers we adjourned to “Le Boccaccio” seafood restaurant for a rewarding dinner. The “Decameron” that ensued started with a visit to the Malpasset Dam north of Fréjus, scene of the 1959 disaster when the five-year-old dam filled for the first time during a heavy rain storm and ruptured, unleashing nearly 50 million cubic metres of water down the valley and into the unsuspecting town of Fréjus at 21:13h on the 2nd December 1959. The walk to the site of the dam from the park beneath the A8 Autoroute is a pleasant stroll through a valley in the Var, until you notice enormous boulders of broken concrete and the sides of the valley that are still scoured of vegetation over 50 years later, mute testament to the force of a 60m-high wall of water unleashed by the fractured dam. A chastening thought for the engineers amongst us. I confess that I hadn't heard of the catastrophe before – surprising considering that I was 20 years old when it happened; But the world was a larger place then, and news reporting wasn't what it is now. But over 420 unfortunate people died and their relatives will never forget that fateful night. Rather than delving into the detail of the failure and its consequences, I append the following links for those who would like to know more: the contemporary newsreel accounts are particularly illuminating.


Short textual history in English for Tourists


Newsreel (55s US English)

Newsreel (2m 23s French)

Newsreel (7m 27s French)

Newsreel (2m 3s French)

Documentary (56m 53s French)

As a light relief the group then toured the Clos des Roses vignoble, with a dégustation of the excellent local wine and a buffet lunch. The coach then toured the magnificent coast of the Massif d'Esterel and stopped at Cannes where we walked along La Croisette and gazed longingly at all the billionaires' yachts. Back in Nice we had a short time to shower and to don the posh suits or posh frocks and stick the aching legs under the table of the Le Grand Balcon restaurant for the gala dinner – mercifully everyone was too tired for speeches and jokes and we got to bed at a reasonable time ready for the technical day in Monaco.

As the technical day coincided with the England/France rugby match a coach equipped with a radio was demanded and there was much friendly banter on the way to Monaco between the French and the English and the slightly-confused, French-resident English. To earn our lunch on the technical day we had five lectures - fortunately they were interesting so I got away with only a short ”long blink” and no-one was caught snoring or snorting in mid-lecture although some were seen consulting their smartphones for the match score. We had an introduction to Monaco, a résumé of the Floating Harbour project, a description of floating devices to allow oil tankers to ”plug into” oil pipelines at sea, a recap on the Malpasset dam failure and a description of cold “sticking plasters” to repair and reinforce hull and tank failures in flammable environments using composite materials.

After a sandwich lunch we visited the floating jetty. The scale of this is difficult to convey: imagine a floating four-story car park 352m long, 28m wide and 25m high. This was prefabricated in Algeciras, Spain, and towed into position at Port Hercule, Monaco. It is connected to the mainland by a spherical ”towball” of diameter 8m to allow movement. At the base is a 44m wide flat plate which encloses an enormous volume of water, the inertia of which acts as a “fixed seawall” to attenuate any incoming surges. The ”car park” is not just an analogy – the jetty does indeed provide four car “decks” for 360 badly-needed car parking spaces. I was told that in the (unlikely) event of a tsunami in the Mediterranean the jetty would not move more than a few centimetres – which is more than can be said for the yachts behind it! The jetty is just a short walk from the Monaco Oceanographic Museum - lots of well-presented sea creatures, alive and dead, and a somewhat anomalous exhibit showing the wedding clothes of Prince Albert and his bride Charlene. By then our legs were giving up and it was good to be kids again and ride on the “petit train”, which didn't exactly reach F1 speeds in the Tunnel, but I could dream… A nice dinner in the Restaurant Aurore with its sympatico Italian staff and good cooking culminated in the traditional telling of ancient jokes about ancient engineers by ancient engineers and the traditional Lemoncello shower for lovely birthday girl, Ann Dunbar. And so to Nice and to bed.

For Sunday we almost had a “grasse matinée” - a 09:30 start with a tour of Nice, a 2:30 walking marathon taking in the Old Town and the ruins of the Castle on La Colline du Chateau – very interesting and a good contrast to the many areas of faceless concrete apartment blocks. A farewell lunch for those departing and to refuel those attending the ICE AGM was held in the Marlone Café. We stayed an extra night and I took advantage of the Sunday afternoon off with a swim in the warm water off the pebbly beach of Nice.

We had an uneventful trip back on Monday, apart from the SatNav taking us on a diversion via the N7 to avoid real or imaginary adverse traffic reports on the TMC system.

In conclusion, we had an interesting and enjoyable time, renewed our acquaintance with old friends, ate good food and drank good wine and we owe it all to the ICE and the impeccable organisation of William and his Girl Friday, Jocelyne – nous vous remercions mille fois!

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Bordeaux Mixture

 24 October 2011 21:56

Our increasing familiarity with Bordeaux has shown that it can be a delightful city, so the chance of a day out and an overnight stay in Bordeaux is viewed with pleasurable anticipation. So when we got a personal invitation from none less than Alain Juppé, Maire de Bordeaux, Minister of Foreign Affairs and former French Prime Minister, to the vernissage of our American artist friend Pierre's exhibition in the Base Sous-Marine last Thursday evening, we were very pleased to accept.

We set off mid-morning on a perfect sunny day and arrived at the hotel just after midday. I'd decided to try, for just an overnight stay, the cheapo Etap Hotel which has the twin attributes of being within walking distance of the centre of Bordeaux and costing less that €50. The SatNav took us reliably to the entrance to the car park near the hotel. As the room wasn't ready we put the overnight bags in the consigne and went to lunch. After lunch we had a good window shop – me to the Apple Store and FNAC, Xine to Galerie Lafayette and Zara. In the early evening we took the tram from near the hotel along the river front to the Bassins des Flots tram stop – only to find that Someone hadn't done his homework properly; it was a 2km walk to the Base Sous-Marine. After a hard afternoon's shopping we could have done without that extra walk! The exhibition was excellent; the building has a solidity that only 600,000 cubic metres of Teutonic concrete can provide and the exhibition started in one of the submarine pens, then dived into a labyrinthine series of matt-black-painted rooms which set off Pierre's kaleidoscopic art-forms beautifully. I made a short video of the experience.

After the non-alcoholic vin d'honneur and mercifully-short speeches we of course found no taxis outside the building, so set off on another 2km walk through the seedier areas of Bordeaux waterfront to the tram stop. Not a word of complaint came from my beloved, thereby illustrating why I love her so much and why beatification as Ste. Christine must surely be imminent. Dinner was at a restaurant we found when staying at the Acanthe Hotel (recommended but it was “complet”) - just a few doors up the rue Saint Rémi and a stone's throw from the Place de la Bourse is “Chez Paulette”. It has mixed reviews – the décor is described as “brocante” in some – to me it seems old and atmospheric. The cuisine was French, of a good standard and cheap – three courses for €19. Thus fortified we let the tram take the strain back to the hotel; squeezed into our Etap “cupboard” and slept soundly until breakfast - €5 extra but adequate. Friday was another gorgeous day but cold – 3°C in Bordeaux, frosty at an aire on the A62 but warm and sunny back at Tessel Bas.

<RANT> I really didn't want to take a big 3 litre car into central Bordeaux, so I looked at the Park & Ride schemes; there are several car parks, some of them free, on the tram lines that I could use to
get into central Bordeaux. But no, I couldn't find a park that offered enclosed parking with surveillance overnight; most offered parking up until 01:00 and from 05:00. Why?
An alternative would be to risk parking overnight in Agen station - fares €100, car park €8.
So I drove to Bordeaux centre for considerably less, even taking into account autoroute tolls and a car park fee of €19. Being green is very difficult! </RANT>

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Pierres Apparentes on the Porcherie Wall

 25 October 2011 21:54

There are some pictures here.

My latest project is more-or-less finished; having had the South wall professionally re-pointed it showed up the North wall. Since my house is “blottie dans la colline” at that end the walls are not very high, so I resolved to have a go myself. The old render was in a poor condition near the ground, but the upper part of the wall was in good condition and included some geometric features that I wanted to retain. So I decided to strip the render and re-point the lower part of the wall, leaving the upper part which I would paint. I'd watched the professionals, so I was prepared with the three vital tools – a “langue de chat” round-ended trowel, a soft brush to smooth and blend the mortar into the stone and an old rag to wipe mortar off the stone face. Even so, my first efforts were indifferent but I got better with practice. I used Rénocala 2:1 hydraulic lime:white cement mix with plasticisers – it was easy to work and stayed workable for a couple of hours, even in hot conditions. For sand I used sable gris, which I had to riddle as there were some big pebbles in it. I used the soft brush soon after application, then a scrubbing brush after it had partially hardened, and a wire brush on the stone.

Kitchen Chaos

 27 November 2011 22:36

Last night was my night to cook “something special”. I chose Rogan Josh – an aromatic Kashmiri lamb-based curry that I learned to like when travelling in the region on a Radar Survey between Jammu and Kashmir. Rogan Josh is a dry-ish curry, so I thought I'd make some dhal to go with it – I've been experimenting with using ras el-hanout to make a spicy “Moroccan” dhal – ethnically-incorrect but it's quick and easy to prepare. So everything was coming up to the point where it's cooked to perfection, and I've washed up or put in the dishwasher all the utensils and bowls I've used, so Xine doesn't have too much of a job with the washing-up. So I thought I'd just use the Moulinex liquidiser wand thingy to make the lentil dhal a little smoother. In a moment of aberration I lifted the thingy a little too high out of the saucepan with the blades still spinning, spraying boiling hot dhal all over me and the cooker surrounds.

Rude words passed my lips. Sorry God.

This was the point when a friend rang up for advice on burning DVDs on a Macintosh. I hope I wasn't too abrupt with him. Afterwards I managed a quick policing of the area, changed my T-shirt and served the dinner, which was very nice, even though I say it myself. But Xine had some extra work to clear up after me – without complaint – I've entered her into the beatification queue – and today I've got some fat blisters on my arm. I'm not sure I'll get the contract for next Saturday's dinner! Who said men were hopeless in the kitchen?

Christmas Day

25 December 2011 19:27

2°C this morning at Tessel Bas but I could see frost in the valley - lovely blue sky, sunshine and sparkling clear air. Our drive to lunch was about 50km so we got a good view of the countryside. Our friend Jean is teetotal so he drove back! It was nice to have no sprouts to prepare!

Here's our menu:

Menu @ €35

Velouté de Cresson
Boudin blanc en salade
Foie gras de canard au Jurançon
Saumon fumé écossais
Tournedos, sauce aux fruits rouges
Ballotin de pommes Sarladaises
Salade, Plateau de fromages
Bûche de Noël

Vin de Cahors, vin blanc pair le poisson

It was all delicious, created by madame in the kitchen and served in a
delightful setting by friendly monsieur.

Not sure we'll be able to eat anything else for some time...

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