Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Comma butterfly on Sliabh Mannan

It is not often I get to report a really unusual sighting, but here is a first for me at any rate and a quick whirl around local butterfly conservation websites suggests I have not simply been walking around with my eyes shut these past many years.

I am indebted in particular to Scott Shanks & Andrew Masterman who tell me that the Comma became extinct in Scotland towards the end of the nineteenth century and even in England had retreated into a very narrow range by the 1920's.

Since then its territory has expanded, reaching Yorkshire in the 1950's and The Borders by the late 1990's.

Although in recent years it has been seen in Lanarkshire and The Lothians, I can say with confidence that I have not seen one on Sliabh Mannan before.

Even in summer it can be nippy at night at this altitude, but today was a nice warm morning and I was out on the moor with my dog and my new camera when beside one of the high woodlands we came across this beauty.

Much too fast for a slowcoach like me and these were the only two photographs I managed.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Wines of the Northern Rhone

Let's face it folks, if you sign up for a mass wine tasting the odds are you will not get to taste anything better than a reasonable economy standard; somewhere in the region drinkable to half decent is about the best you can expect; very ordinary to mediocre will be the fare if you are unlucky. 

Firstly you are obviously a tourist and not expected to know any better. Secondly you are probably travelling by air and can't carry much anyway.

I am pleased to report that the tasting organised for us in Tournon was much better than that. Whilst the presenters naturally did not include the local celebrity wines, they did present us with an attractive selection. Obviously not a scientific survey, but it did enable us to gain some sort of idea of the differences between the wine of the left bank (left) of the Rhone, known as Crozes-Hermitage and the right bank (below right)  called St-Joseph. I shall leave the discussion of Hermitage itself to those who can afford it and who are therefore in a position to know better.

This is the region of the Shiraz (Syrah) grape and it so happened that the majority of our party were Australians who know a thing or two about this variety. They were not shy about testifying to the merits of Australian labels and interested to sample the French competition. Some we encountered were promptly condemned.

Not so Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. They approved and I would not be turning up my nose at either of these should anyone care to donate a case or three to a good cause, though if pressed I would say the St Joseph is somewhat smoother and more to my own taste.

What is the link between Hermitage and my recent posts about religious mysteries of Southern France? Well, it so happens that the region takes its name from Seigneur Gaspard de Stérimberg who, wounded during the Albigesian Crusade, came here to recuperate and subsequently live as a hermit. Quite why he did so is a puzzle, since in common with the other north Rhone wine areas it has a continental rather than a Mediteranean climate, which means it has wet winters.

On the other side of the river, Saint-Joseph, named for its origins in a Jesuit winery, uses the same grapes but has a different exposure and other differences that produce subtle distinctions from its close relative. The last photograph shows Tournon on the right and Tain on the left, which are the centres of the respective areas.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Viviers - where time almost stops

Viviers is a rare exception to the seemingly universal rule that equates all change with progress. Here on the right bank of the Rhone the past threw up its defences against the encroachment of modernity and held the line, just as the resolute residents of the cathedral district once held the line against unruly soldiery quartered in the lower town.

Both parts of the medieval town remain mostly intact; if you want to buy a house here you can do so cheaply, but along with the medieval dwelling you take on the responsibility of history and a duty to preserve external appearances. Among the narrow streets houses press close upon each other as if for mutual support. Possibly the residents need the same, since many houses now stand empty. It seems it is more romantic to contemplate the simplicity of medieval life than actually to experience it. Nowadays not many folk have the option to stable their cattle on the ground floor in order to provide winter central heating; they'd prefer something a trifle more up to date.

The grandest house in the old town, known as La Maison des Chevaliers  (right), has a Renaissance frontage added in 1546 by an enigmatic local character called Noël Albert. This well to do salt merchant converted to Protestantism in order to escape condemnation for fraudulent tax-farming. During the wars of religion he sacked the cathedral but was later captured and executed after the Huguenot defeat.

It is suggested that the distinctly different quality exhibited by the two stone friezes of jousting on the house's frontage are accounted for by the fact that one was carved by a master-mason and one by his apprentice.

Our party was most fortunate to hear an organ recital in St Vincent's Cathedral by the celebrated Valéry Imbernon. We were joined by a ginger cat who strode down the aisle as though he was at home, which he may well have been.

Inside the cathedral the fine acoustics enhanced the experience, which was closed by a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise. The organist and our guide were the only French people there. Nevertheless it was a moving moment when the whole audience stood and some even managed to sing the words.

"For liberty," is a rallying cry as vital today as it has ever been.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Châteauneuf-du-Pape - the wine of the Popes

Mention Châteauneuf-du-Pape to any lover of wine and he is likely to tell you immediately that it is a famous red wine of the south of France. What he probably will not tell you is that one Châteauneuf can be quite unlike another because in theory eighteen different varieties of grape may legally be used in its production.

In practice Grenache Noir accounts for almost three quarters of the vineyard area of Châteauneuf, with Syrah and Mourvèdre making up the great majority of the remainder. Nevertheless each vigneron still blends the wine to his own satisfaction. Having looked forward to my visit without understanding these facts, I was very surprised to find that wines of the same vintage can range from the frankly quite ordinary and disappointing to the really rather special. Of course your taste (and wallet) may easily vary from mine and therefore my best advice would be to try several and when you find the one that suits you best, stick with it.

Perhaps surprisingly in view of this diversity, Châteauneuf was actually the first of the Appellation Contrôlée rules in France and all vignerons within the region (about 3200 hectares) are subject to strict rules about what they can and cannot do.

The most remarkable thing I found was vines growing in what appears to be a glacial moraine. We were consistently told on our tour that the vines need to be stressed in order to produce the best grapes, pushing their roots deep into the soil in search of moisture. Well, I have to say I have seldom seen anything that looked less like soil than the acres of galets roulés or big round pebbles of the vineyard we visited. It seems the stones retain the heat of the sun and keep the vines warm at night, enabling earlier ripening. Well that's what they tell you anyway. This is certainly an unusual terroir.

What nobody tells you is that the village has only officially been Châteauneuf du Pape since 1893, though it was informally so called for centuries. Interestingly, it was already Châteauneuf (Newcastle) before Pope John XXII ordered the construction of the castle whose ruins now dominate the town. This construction was undertaken during the Avignon Papacy, though in practice the Avignon popes made little use of the castle until after the 1378 schism.

Like many another medieval building the castle became a stone quarry for subsequent generations.. During the Second World War it suffered the additional misfortune of being blown up by the retreating Germans.

But in this case we're really here for the wine.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Ardèche Gorge - where we touch prehistory

North of Avignon, the Ardèche River, which gives its name to the whole region, finally reaches the Rhone.  Before it does so it carves its way through limestone crags up to 1,000 feet high, forming the largest natural canyon in Europe (left).

On another day I might have liked to join those brave members of our group who took on the challenge of canoeing down the gorge.  It may or may not be the case that the 'other day' referred to was a score or more years ago.

I contented myself with the slightly less strenuous task of descending (and of course subsequently ascending again) the innumerable steps that form the path down to Grottes de St-Marcel d’Ardèche.  This is not the famous Grotte Chauvet, discovered in 1994, where the walls are home to the art of our distant ancestors of thirty millennia ago.  For obvious reasons that is not open to the public. Nor is St Marcel the recently opened replica cave.  It does however, for the truly desperate, include a reproduction cave painting (right).

Far more impressive is the remarkable natural architecture of the caverns themselves.  Rimstone pools, stalagmites, stalactites and imaginatively titled sculptures created over centuries by the action of water upon the living rock.

Even amid a heatwave, the underground chambers are cool and relatively quiet, although for those who like that sort of thing you can enjoy a son-et-lumière show at the rock waterfall (above).

The most famous natural landmark of the Ardèche Gorge is Vallon Pont d’Arc where the river has undercut the cliff forming a great natural bridge. Sadly there are things that you simply cannot do on a day trip, except perhaps in the mind's eye.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Vivarais Railway

Sometimes called Le Train de l'Ardèche, the metre gauge tourist railway running up the gorge of the Doux River is a great tourist attraction of Southern France.

In summer, visitors can ride in open sided carriages, the traditional rolling stock (left) being reserved for times when more  weather protection is required.

Closed in the 1960's, like so many rural lines in the UK, the line was promptly re-opened as a heritage railway and though it struggled for funds for a few years in this century it is now going strong again.

Part of the problem, our guide informed us, had been the cost of sharing the last kilometre of the route into Tournon with SNCF (the French  national railway.) To get around this the enthusiasts constructed a new station just outside the town at Saint-Jean-de-Muzols.

From there the train makes a daily round trip to Boucieu-le-Roi, a distance of about ten miles through some spectacular scenery, hugging the side of the gorge and looking down on the river far below. 

At the terminus the engine is shunted on to a turntable where the fireman (right) is able to display a combination of muscle power and superb engineering as he switches the direction of the engine without any power source but himself!

Because of the sharper than usual curves necessitated by the terrain, the steam locomotive is articulated according to the Mallet design. This means that what looks like a single 0-8-0 set of driving wheels beneath the engine is actually two in a  0-4-4-0 layout, the front set being mounted on a separate bogie which is able to turn independently of the main frame. 

The front set of wheels is driven by the second stage of the compound steam engine's power output.


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Sous le Pont d'Avignon

The Bridge at Avignon (above) is famous because of a popular song, but in olden times it was important for far more serious reasons.

The only fixed bridge over the Rhone south of Lyons, in the early Middle Ages Avignon Bridge marked the boundary between the Papal State (Comtat Venaissin) and France. From 1309 to 1377 Avignon was the official residence of the Pope and a great palace (right and bottom) was built there. (This period should not be confused with the Schism of 1378 after which there were two men claiming to be pope, one of whom resided at Avignon and the other in Rome.)

Relations with France were not necessarily friendly in the early years of the Avignon Papacy.   Later French influence grew. The Bridge was guarded and fortified by both sides, though at some stage apparently song and dance parties were held on an island which formed the base of some of the bridge's great stone piers. What appears to be the far bank of the Rhone in the photograph below left is actually a large island; there is a further channel beyond which is not visible.  So the song has it wrong, the dancing was sous and not sur le pont.

The papal era bridge had 22 stone arches, but was vulnerable to damage by the Rhone's powerful floods which would sweep away some sections. It appears temporary patches were made with wood, but after being finally abandoned in the 17th century much of the bridge was demolished or swept away, so that now only four arches remain, into one of which the Chapel of St Nicholas is built.

Modern archaeology has discovered Roman foundations and radiocarbon dating suggests that a Gallo-Roman bridge may have existed for a time between 290 and 530 AD.

The canonised shepherd boy Saint Bénézet inspired the building of a bridge in the 12th century by miraculously lifting a huge stone. He was originally interred in the St Nicholas Chapel on the bridge itself. After the abandonment of the bridge, his relics were removed to the Hôpital du Pont on the Avignon side. Saint Bénézet's original bridge was destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade, when the Cathar Heresy (so-called) was extirpated in Provence.