21 March 2013

This, that and the other

So I told you in my last post that I was due to have a Couchsurfer staying at with me last Wednesday. This was my first Couchsurfing experience, and it was a very positive one indeed! We ate sweet potato, red pepper and chèvre spaghetti, followed by chocolate truffles that she'd made, and talked a mélange of French and English as she wanted to practice on me. The best bit about it, however, was that she is a clarinet teacher, so she introduced me to a genre that she's recently become really interested it - Klezmer. Klezmer is basically a Jewish genre that originated in Eastern Europe. The principal instrument is the clarinet, and the music is intended for dancing to, so it's totally energetic and powerful and exciting! If you're interested, here's a link to a Klezmer track. Hopefully she'll come and stay again in the future and we can do a bit of duetting together :)

Not much else to report this week since 4 days of it were spent back in England for a gig with my band (facebook.com/jegisus. Sorry, blatent shameless plugging, I know). I realise I've pretty much photographed La Rochelle's Vieux Port from every angle possible, but on my way to the airport the sun came out and it looked so lovely I couldn't not take advantage of the kodak moments. Also I'd have no pictures for my blog otherwise, and that would just be unnacceptable ;) 

And then, on my way back from England as I was passing through La Rochelle en route to the station, there was a rainbow, yay! I'm now a mad fan of La Rochelle.

Quoi d'autre?...Well, I've finally done something about my YARP! Until a few days ago, every time I thought about the mountain of dissertation lying ahead of me and that I should have started it months ago, I freaked out and decided to distract myself with something else before I commited suicide. Obviously this vicious circle was getting more and more malicious as each day came and went, so on Tuesday I thought it was about time to face the music and try and organise the interviews I need to do with pupils at my lycée. So I emailed my colleague yesterday morning telling her what would be involved bla-bla-bla, and she replied that I could start interviewing the pupils tomorrow morning, ie today. So after frantically working out what I needed to find out from them, and after preparing the necessary bureaucracy needed, I got my first lot of data for my project. Massive smiley face. Although I've got tons and tons to do still, at least the ball is now rolling.

Another reason for excitement right now is that I have just ordered my first French cookery book. So family, be expecting  bœuf bourguignon, cassoulet and coq au vin on my return.

Bisous, ciao.

12 March 2013

Storms, flowers, castles and eggs

Last week spring finally arrived. This week it's wandered off somewhere, but will hopefully find its way back soon. The gardeners have been let loose in Melle, however, and there are flowers everywhere! 

Whilst you may have cottoned on to the fact that I love summer and sun and warmth, I'm also a girl who likes her storms. It must have rubbed off from my dad who will get up in the middle of the night and stand by the window for half an hour if there's a storm. On Sunday there was suddenly a storm here, and the rumbles made the glasses in my kitchen clink. So I threw open the windows and watched the hail come down like I've never seen it, as the thundery sky passed by overhead. It made for some not bad photos if I may say so myself:

The other day I came home to find a LOCAL PAPER in my letter box. No clue why this is the first I've received, but I was intrigued as to what could possibly happpen in Melle to warrant writing a news article about. Turns out Melle is actually an exciting little place when you dig deep. I'm sure none of you care at all about the history of my dear little town, but I'm going to summarise the article anyway:

During the recent lime-tree felling and replanting exercise in the centre of Melle, an interesting discovery was made as the workers uncovered part of a wall that belonged to the old castle of Melle. Apparently this was the last part of the wall in the 'jigsaw' so to speak, but no one had been able to locate it. Until now. The chateau was built during the 11th and 12th centuries, and was composed of a motte-and-bailey, one or two curtain walls, and surrounded by a dry moat. Most of the building was left in ruin in 1577 after Henry III ordered the castle and the town's fortifications to be demolished during the Wars of Religion. As a result all that remains today are some of the ramparts, including the recently discovered 4.5m thick wall underneath the main town square.

An 17th century engraving of Melle with the castle on the right, by a Monsieur Chastillon, which I've stolen from the paper, muahaha.
Other than that, I've had a very uneventful week. Apart from agreeing to receive my first ever Couchsurfer who is going to be staying with me tomorrow night and other Wednesdays over the next few weeks. Yay to potentially having another French friend (who is relatively young at 25), with the added bonus being that she's a music teacher, and not just that but a clarinet teacher. How coincidental is that?! Hopefully she's nice and we can toot away together. 

Dinner time for me now. The pressure cooker is whistling away as if it may explode volcano-style any second now if I don't go and relieve the egg steaming away inside it. Yes, I've made the most amazing discovery of pressure cooking eggs when I want them hard-boiled for my salads. For some scientific reason this method of cooking puts a layer of air between the shell and the white, thus making them easy to peel, and I know no one else in the entire world universe is going to find this piece of culinary genious in the tiniest bit interesting, so I'll just go and enjoy my easy-peeling hard-boiled eggs with a smile on my face.

Bon appétit ;)

Fresh daffodils in front of an 11th century church....poetry right there

09 March 2013

Giving Sophie a taste of La Vie Melloise

So, Sophie's here. Well she would still be if I updated my blog on time. Let's pretend it's 10 days ago and Sophie is indeed in France's Poitou-Charente.

As she was only going to be here for 3 full days we decided not to venture too far and instead show her what there is relatively locally. So on Wednesday we stayed in Melle. I won't go into much detail seeing as I've already bored you all on numerous prior occasions about Melle. But we just walked for hours around town, visiting the churches, walking around the old fortifications, strolling along the Chemin de la Decouverte, and getting the most delicious chausson aux pommes from the boulangerie. With the sun breaking through here and there it once again reminded me how much I love it here and am proud to call it my town.

Probably definitely taken a pretty much identical shot somewhere along the line, but anyway...La Beronne river
Thursday we went to Niort. We did a spot of shopping before the sun came out, then had a picnic on the river, then went into a couple of churches, and then, something I hadn't yet done, we went into the Donjon which is Niort's castle. Free for 25-and-unders, the visit included the history of the building and Niort itself, details of its construction and modifications over the years, and lots of narrow windy staircases in the turrets. But my favourite bit was getting to go up onto the roof to get 360º views across Niort.
Sophie on the roof of the Donjon de Niort with the impressive Eglise Saint-André in the background
View NW of Niort with the Eglise Saint-Étienne close by
Neither taken on this particular day, but here's the front and back of the Donjon (although I'm not sure which way's which...)
If I was a decent blogger I'd now go on to educate you on a brief history of Niort and its castle, but I'm feeling somewhat lazy today, so if you're feeling curious, I recommend a certain website of the name 'Wikipedia'... :P

On Friday we had planned on going with Mike to Saintes, a city in the Charente-Maritime that I've wanted to go to for months. With it being fairly difficult and time-consuming to get to from Melle without a car, it was necessary that we take the 06:50 bus out of Melle, in order to get to Niort in time to get the 07:38 train to Saintes, which was the only direct train there for the day or there abouts. Who comes up with these ideas?! Whoever it is, I'm not his greatest fan. A 05:45 alarm was very unwelcome indeed, but we wanted to go to Saintes. So we caught the bus, updated Mike (who had stopped over in Niort the night before) on our progress, asked him to get our tickets as it'd be touch and go whether we'd have time, pulled into Niort at 07:35, legged it, found Mike by the ticket machines, made our way to the platform...


...and watched our train leaving without us. Putain de merde! Having envisaged this might be the case, and with the weather forecast promising a gorgeously sunny day, our Plan B had been to get the bus to Coulon. But Monsieur Météo had been telling lies, and it was in fact gloomy and totally overcast. So we knocked that idea on the head and took the next bus back to Melle. That's a waste of 5 hours if ever I saw one.

Instead, Sophie and I decided to go for a walk in the afternoon, when the sun had finally come out a bit (although still nothing like as predicted), to a nearby village called Saint-Romans-les-Melle. A fortnight earlier Rob and I had tried to do this walk, but being mapless we had unknowingly taken the wrong road right near the beginning of the walk thus ensuring we obliviously walked 1 hour in the wrong direction. It's meant to have a nice church and a washhouse though, so I still wanted to walk there at some point. So after carefully studying the route on Google Maps, Sophie and I set off. It was a nice picturesque walk there, along an old Roman country road with the sun slowly getting stronger. But when we got to Saint-Romans we couldn't find the church. I mean, normally they're pretty easy to spot with a steeple or a bell tower, but we could not find it. On a small scale map we saw there was apparently 2 churches, and a temple in this place, but they were obviously hiding from us. We took what seemed like every road possible (which in a village of a population of 700 this isn't too difficult), and thought we'd have to call it a day after 45 minutes of searching, or else the sun would be down before we got home. But we finally found it, the Eglise St-Romans, at the bottom of the village in the little valley. We later read, on an information board inside the church, that its unusual location is due to 'ground constraints' when it was built in the 12th century. So we didn't feel quite so silly. Anyway, it was a really pretty church, with a mini grotto/shrine thing opposite, and a really old crumbling graveyard on the side of the hill. We also found the washhouse. In the late afternoon sun, it was lovely.

L’église Saint-Romans, 12th century 
Old graveyard with some graves dating to the 1800s. The church is at the bottom of the hill.
The lavoir de la fontaine de Font Maye
The grotto/shrine thing to Our Lady that reminded me a bit of the Grotto in Lourdes
The silhouetted graveyard
On our way back we went past a spooky abandoned chapel which had crumbling murals, broken windows, and plants growing inside. I love coming across stuff like this, it makes me feel like I'm in a movie!

Creaky rusty gates, overgrown graveyard, crumbling walls....glad I didn't stumble upon this at night.
And then it was Saturday, and Sophie had to go home :( But we still had a good few hours in La Rochelle before she had to get to the airport, so we did a bit of shopping, had lunch on the harbour front, and once again took advantage of being under 25 and went up 2 of La Rochelle's towers for free. Although a bit boring inside, it gave us nice views over La Rochelle and the sea. I'm sure the views would have been a lot nicer on a warmer and sunnier day, but it was cool nonetheless.
View across the Vieux Port from Tour de la Chaine
View over the Rochelais rooftops from Tour de la Lanterne
Then Sophie left, and there was one.

05 March 2013

A grey day in Ile de Ré...and Sophie arrives!

The end of Rob's stay with me was marked with a little trip to Ile de Ré, an island off La Rochelle which I've wanted to go to for some time now. So on Monday morning, with the hotel booked, we woke up excited to go on our mini holiday by the sea, only to be greeted with snow. Bit of a piss-take when the whole of the week before there hadn't been a cloud in the sky. 

I do like my snow, however I'd rather it didn't come on the day I was going to the seaside.
Anyway, 2 buses and a train ride later we arrived in Sainte-Marie de Re, a town on the south of the island, walked for about half an hour in the freezing cold to our hotel, and checked-in to our swanky lime-coloured room that practically walked out into the swimming pool that we couldn't use as the weather was too cold. 

This would be perfect in the summer
Just after it started raining we decided to walk to the beach and check out the nearby restaurants so we could choose in advance where we would spend our last night meal together. I've never seen a 21-year-old so excited to be at the seaside but not be able to swim in the sea. That was Rob. I on the other hand was freezing cold and thinking how gorgeous this place would be in the sun. It was still nice to see the sea and boats bobbing on the horizon. 

After our restaurant reccy proved futile (two were super pricey and the other was closed for the month) Rob and I were left weighing up our options: a) Rob ends up bankrupt after treating me to a meal at one of the 2 aforementioned eateries, b) we could buy some bits from the nearby Carrefour and have a picnic in our hotel room, or c) hope that the takeaway service we saw advertised earlier in the hotel was still operating at this time of year. After 10 minutes of head-scratching in a bus shelter we decided to go with optioned C combined with a bit of option B for booze, biccies and chocolate pots. Ordering a microwaved piece of fish and rice back at the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised when plates, cutlery, glasses, a bread basket and cute little salt-and-pepper shakers got brought to our room. 

Take-away in our hotel room. Call it 'room-service' and it suddenly becomes much more classy.

I'm glad I've now ticked Ile de Ré off the list, but it's definitely somewhere to go in the summer months rather than the winter - so many houses are shut up at this time of year and the town we were in was pretty dead. I certainly want to see it in high season in the future though.

Before Rob's plane the next evening Rob still wanted to take me to a restaurant, so we decided to leave Ile de Ré the next morning and go to La Rochelle where we knew there'd be reasonably priced restaurants. Once seated in a restaurant I lolled on finding that there was horse-meat burger on the menu, so naturally I couldn't resist.

With horse burger on the menu, it would have been boring of me not to
We had a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so we wandered for a bit around the harbour...
...and found the beach as the sun started to come out

After an emotional goodbye, Rob went through to departures whilst I waited for Sophie my cousin to arrive half an hour later. I'd been a bit nonchalant in my original planning of meeting Sophie at the airport then getting to La Rochelle station in time to get the train that would get us back to Niort for the last bus to Melle. I realised a few days before that Sophie's plane was due to land at 17:15 and the train from the other side of the city was leaving at 17:44. After messaging her in advance to tell her to make sure she's the first off the plane, I was pleased when Sophie was the 3rd person to emerge through arrivals. However it was now 17:25. We ran to the nearest taxi and leapt in whilst I was trying and failing to conjure up a Plan B should we miss the train, which was looking increasingly likely. Shoving 20€ into the cabby's hand as he rolled into Gare de La Rochelle at 17:42 we sprinted with case and travel bag in tow to the departures board to see that our train was to be leaving from the furthest platform which you have to reach by going through an underpass. So we legged it. And....

We made the train. About 30 seconds before the doors closed. Never have I been so proud/amazed.

Once again I've waffled in this post, so find out tomorrow what I got up to when Sophie came to Melle :P

02 March 2013

Les Mines d'Argent

I am so behind on my blogging. I still haven't finished writing about where else I went with Rob whilst he was here, and I've had another visitor in the form of my cousin Sophie since then. So I shall attempt to recap the highlights of the past week.

Apart from its Roman Triad of churches, Melle is most 'famous' for its Mines d'Argent des Rois Francs (The silver mines of the French kings) and is the oldest of its kind in Europe still open to the public. It is also a 2 minute walk from my flat. Having been closed over the winter, Rob and I were excited to learn that it opened for the new season at the weekend. So we went along for a guided tour on Sunday. As Rob can't understand French, I asked at the beginning whether there were any guides in English, but the guy said it was only French. Rob didn't mind though, so we paid our 7,50€ and went inside. The tour guide obviously felt sorry for Rob not being able to understand, so attempted from about 3 minutes in to talk in very broken but nevertheless comprehensible English, which was very nice of him! And it was a really great trip - educational, interesting, and pretty to look at. I'll sum it up for you what the mines are about:

In use between the 8th and 10th centuries, miners dug and blasted through 30km (of which 300m is open to the public) of rock underground in order to extract the galena (a lead ore composed of lead, sulfur and silver). Once out of the ground the galena is washed to remove any lime or quartz, then is put into a furnace where the lead and silver melt down to rid themselves of the sulfur. To be left with pure silver it was then necessary to put the metal into another furnace where, with the help of bellows, the metal was oxidised. Reaching temperatures of almost 1000ºC, the lead oxydised but not the silver. This process was carried out until all that remained at the bottom of the furnace was pure silver. The silver was subsequently cut into small circles and stamped on both sides to make coins.

Sorry for the chemistry lesson, I hope I didn't bore you too much! In any case, here's some photos of the interior of the mines:
When the miners dug and exploded the rock, they made sure they left
columns so that the roof wouldn't collapse
There are many ventilation shafts throughout the mines which have, over hundreds of years, caused calcium deposits to grow on the rock as a result of condensation
And I can't remember why this mini lake has formed, but I like it because it's pretty, and apparently in the summer when there's no rain dripping down, the water is as smooth as a mirror, therefore allowing a perfect reflection of the surrounding rock :)

I know I said this post would be a recap of a few events, but the above is longer than anticipated, so I'll write about the rest in another post soon!