Grazing in Switzerland

Summer holidays this year were spent in the Swiss Jura, just across the border from France.

We drove from Paris to Switzerland through some hidden corners of eastern France – like Bar-sur-Aube,

We camped by the Lac de Joux, at 1000 metres above sea level,

Where Camping Cat ruled the roost, and visited us around the campfire,

and visited the once Top Secret Fort de Pré-Giroud, built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasion in WW2,

before climbing to the high meadows for view of Lake Geneva and the Alps…

Happy Summer, everyone!

Of Châteaux and Chavignol

We managed to escape Paris for a weekend in the Sancerrois – a miniature region of France between Bourges and the Loire valley. The place is famous for its white wines (sauvignon blanc for the most part) and the goat’s cheese made in the village of Chavignol: a product so highly regarded that it has its own appellation contrôlée.

We hunted the famous goats and took pictures of them.

We tasted wine from the Côtes des Monts Damnés – Sancerre’s most prized terroir…

We stayed here, at the Château de Beaujeu… built in 1560, and now accepting guests for Bed and Breakfast.

The château’s farm featured the largest pigeonnier (pigeon house) in the département… but no pigeons were in residence. Just one old owl.

Overall, the region around Sancerre turned out to be one of the loveliest parts of France I’ve seen so far!

Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Energy State: 4 Days in Saudi

Last December, I spent a few days in the Gulf – it was, as I mentioned at the time, a most intriguing experience.  Last week, I had the opportunity (and the visa) to go further down the rabbit hole: this time to Riyadh, the extraordinary capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is extraordinary, in the sense that in ordinary circumstances, the city should simply not exist. In Riyadh, 7 million people – the population of one and a half Scotlands – live at 600m above sea level, in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on the planet, with neither a river, port or a strategic geographic setting to recommend it. One can barely imagine the energy required to bring water, food, fuel and power to the place. And yet the city still grows, and the traffic gets worse, year after year.

For visitors (who are either businessmen or expatriate workers, the Kingdom does not welcome tourists), there is virtually nothing to do.  Saudi Arabia offers neither bars nor cinemas. Alcohol is contraband, and the outside temperature in summer (40-50 degrees) makes sport simply impossible. If my experience is typical, visitors spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned hotels and offices, in air-conditioned taxis, climb to the top of the Kingdom Tower to count the mosques, and then jump on the next plane home.

Even the shopping malls are strictly regulated, to prevent single men and women mixing. There are separate floors for women’s shops, and “family nights” are reserved for wives, husbands and their families: single people are turned away at the door. At prayer time, we saw shopkeepers closing their shutters, and Mutaween cars cruising the streets with loudhailers, apparently berating the backsliders and infidels for not attending prayers.

My hotel thoughtfully provided a prayer mat, in a bedside drawer, along with a sticker pointing the direction to “Holy Makkah”. In the privacy of your hotel room, there are thankfully no Mutaween: the instructions to face Makkah can be heeded or not, as one wishes.

After four days in the Kingdom,  although I had been fascinated by the experience and deeply appreciated the generous welcome given by our Saudi hosts, I was very happy to depart. It is a privilege to live in a place where there are trees, public transport, and where the media consisted of more than just koranic readings, propaganda and football. Allah may not have blessed our western countries with almost endless oil wealth, but in our own way, we are very blessed indeed.

Glimpses of Budapest

A weekend before a week of trade show madness… a chance to scrape the surface of a another European city… I quite liked what I saw. These are all the obvious tourist shots, I’ll have to go back sometime when I have more time.

The Danube, viewed from Gellérthégy hill

The Royal Palace in Buda

The Chain Bridge and the Országház


Spring in St Cloud

With the winter definitively behind us, and the sun warming the city to a not-unpleasant 20 degrees, it was time for a Sunday walk in my favourite park in Paris – the Domaine National de St Cloud.

Climbing the hill behind a wide bend in the Seine southwest of Paris, St Cloud was the site of the Château de St Cloud: preferred residence of the Bonapartes, and home to Napoleon III until it was destroyed (ironically, by a stray French artillery shell), during the seige of Paris in 1870.

Today the park of the Château is owned by the nation, and its gardens, lawns and forest are a popular escape from the city.  The Domain forms part of a swathe of parkland that stretches all the way to Versailles.  Great triumphal avenues cut through the trees providing glimpses back towards the city – La Défense, Issy-les-Moulineaux and the Eiffel Tower.

If you carry on over the hill, you’ll eventually hit the edge of the forest at Marnes-la-Coquette, a village that proudly remains one of the smallest communes in the Paris region, with a population of just 1,700 people. Although less than 10 kilometres from the edge of Paris, Marnes has retained  the atmosphere of a country village.

Rather predictably, Marnes’ discrete location has made it a coveted bolthole for the rich: this is where Johnny Halliday and the Emir of Qatar have their Parisian homes.  Most mere mortals can’t afford to live here. Luckily, on the north side of the park, the SNCF “L” line is waiting to carry us back to the Gare St Lazare.