Every cloud has a silver lining!

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(The Castillet, the only remaining tower, housing one of the main gates to the former walled city of Perpignan. This building has become a symbol of the modern city)

Being back home in England after a summer spent in the south of France comes as a bit of a shock! Today the skies have been overcast, the wind has been blowing and the temperature is so different from what I was experiencing this time last week! Still, holidays cannot last for ever, nor can the summer, and I know that I am more fortunate than many in having been able to spend some sixteen weeks at our house in Canet-en-Roussillon this year.

Most summers spent down by the Mediterranean in the past have been long hot summers with the occasional storm, helping to clear the overpowering heat and bringing a little fresher air! Not so this summer. Don’t get me wrong, we have had some beautiful days in June, July and August, and one day in August the temperature reached 37 degrees Centigrade. However, September was a different story. One day sunny, another day wet, followed by wind and much lower temperatures. No two days were the same, until just before we came home, and then the weather settled!

So days lazing around the pool or going to the beach were limited, outdoor eating in the evenings was curtailed. We had to find other things to do, things that I have described in my recent posts, and you may have read them here. Certainly my days looking around museums, art galleries and photojournalism exhibitions in Perpignan when the Mediterranean sun was hidden by clouds meant that I discovered beautiful buildings and hidden parts of the city that I never knew existed. Yes, every cloud does indeed have a silver lining! So, as a last look at the south of France for this year, allow me to share some of those places with you.

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(The Castillet, on a brighter day, with the roofs of the old city, and the Cathedral bell tower, left of centre. I took this photo from the recently opened roof terrace café at the French department store, Galeries Lafayette)

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(Just inside the old city walls behind the Castillet, one of the many squares with Le Grand Café de la Poste. This ancient entry to the city is called La Porte Notre-Dame, and you can see the statue of Our Lady above the arch)

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(Another square in the old city – La Place de la Révolution Française. The steps on the left lead to the former Dominican Convent which housed part of the recent Photojournalism Festival, which was very busy on the day we visited, due in part to the bad weather)

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(The old city is full of narrow pedestrian streets. This is the rue des Cardeurs)

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(After a very heavy shower, the sun came out and shone on these lovely old apartments in La Place Hyacinth Rigaud, lighting up the early evening)

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(One of the beautifully restored salons inside L’Hôtel de Lazerme, which is now part of the city art gallery, and where Picasso stayed when he visited Perpignan)

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(The central atrium of the opulent Hôtel Pams, built by Pierre Bardou, one of the founders of the JOB cigarette paper company, and then transformed  in the 1890s into an elegant mansion by his son-in-law Jules Pams, who was a Senator – or member of the upper house of Parliament – for the Perpignan region. It now belongs to the city)

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(Believe it or not, this is the garden just off the first floor of the Hôtel Pams in what I think is now one of the less salubrious parts of the city. Stepping into this garden with its olive trees and a banana tree, is like stepping into another world)

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(The narrow city streets are often very dark, and behind some of the huge wooden doors you often find beautiful little courtyards. This one, in the rue de Mailly, housed an excellent coffee shop which we visited on more than one occasion)

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(This wonderful stairway took us up into the former Jewish quarter of the city, and to an area behind the cathedral and the Campo Santo, a fourteenth century cloister cemetery, and the massive Convent of the Minimes, which is now an exhibition space)

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(And so we leave the South of France, but we leave it on a sunny day with one of my favourite views of Perpignan – the illuminated fountains which play throughout the day and early evening between Cours Palmarole and Boulevard Wilson)

Au revoir Perpignan, et Canet-en-Roussillon. À bientôt!

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Some words of wisdom from a table mat

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Eating in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure. Sometimes it is better than others, because it is not just the quality and presentation of the food and wine that are important, but the ambiance and the service too. I like it when a restaurant gives you those extra little touches, and you come away feeling that the evening was really rather special. One of those special little touches is sometimes there right in front of you when you sit down at the table. For example, a year or so ago, we went to a restaurant in the neighbouring village of Sainte Marie La Mer, the restaurant was called Can Olivier, Can being a contraction of the Catalan word for the house of.  There were three of us eating that evening, and each of us had a different table mat, welcoming us to The house of Olivier. As you see above, one of us had a picture of the Castillet and the Railway Station in Perpignan, one a beach scene, and the third a picture of pleasure boats in the harbour. Immediately, we found ourselves talking about the mats and the views.

A similar thing happened on Sunday evening when we went with our friends from Ireland, to a restaurant called La Galiote in Canet Plage. Here the table mats did not have pictures, but sayings connected with food, appetite, gluttony and cooking! At the end of the evening, having expressed my delight with the table mat, the waitress very kindly gave me a clean one to bring away with me.

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The words are probably not too easy to read in the photograph, so let me type them out for you here.

L’appétit vient en mangeant, la soif disparait en buvant. – (François Rabelais)

Le Créateur, en obligeant l’homme à manger pour vivre, l’y invite par l’appétit et le récompense par le plaisir. – (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

La gourmandise commence quand on n’a plus faim. – (Alphonse Daudet)

Si vous n’êtes pas capable d’un peu de sorcellerie, ce n’est pas la peine de vous mêler de cuisine. – (Colette)

Bien manger, c’est atteindre le ciel. – (Proverbe chinois)

“But…” I hear some of you say, “I am still no wiser!” Alright, I’ll translate for you!

Appetite comes with eating, and thirst departs with drinking.

The creator, in obliging man to eat in order to live, invited him there with appetite, and rewarded him with pleasure.

Gluttony begins when one is no longer hungry.

If you are not capable of a little magic, it’s not worth the trouble to interfere in the kitchen.

To eat well, is to reach the sky. – (Chinese proverb)

Words of wisdom indeed, especially as you look down at them staring up at you between courses. Thankfully they didn’t put me off my food!

Post script:

In a similar vein, I read some other sayings, this time not on a table mat, but believe it or not, painted on the toilet wall in another restaurant in Canet Plage a year or two back.

0624B117-A405-4A46-8D70-F543738752A8Unfortunately there is a letter “r” missing at the beginning of the last line here, but the translation of this saying is:

Do not seek the most beautiful woman in the world,

But seek the woman who will make your world more beautiful!

And the other saying on the same toilet wall was:

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To do what you love is happiness

To love what you do is freedom.

So there you have it, words of wisdom from two unexpected places in two different restaurants, a table mat, and a toilet wall!

The 29th International Festival of Photojournalism – Visa pour l’Image

9DE4957B-6A82-4C3C-A9AB-F969690904FDThe Collapse of the Caliphate, Development and Pollution in China, The Spread of Islam in Cuba, Juveniles in Prison, Human Trafficking – The Scourge of Nepal, Berbers in Morocco, resisting and defending their culture, Dreamers – Life on an Indian Reservation, Widowhood – what it means in Bosnia, India and Uganda, Italy Rent Asunder – after the earthquake, and The Battle of Mosul. These were just some of the titles of the exhibitions at The 29th International Festival of Photojournalism, which took place in Perpignan recently.

I have been coming to this part of France for some time, but this year was the first opportunity that I have had to visit this internationally renowned festival and exhibition which takes place in the first half of September every year. In ten different venues spread throughout the city, thousands of photographs are on display, the work of photojournalists from around the world. Add to this a further ninety smaller venues, where locals and others from around the world display their photographs in cafés, shop windows, bars, business offices, hotels, convents and hospitals, and you begin to see the scale of this event.

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(Perhaps the most impressive of the many venues, L’Église des Dominicans)

It was Salvador Dali who, when stepping out of the railway station at Perpignan and surveying the city, declared that he was standing at “the centre of the world”. I have always thought this a very strange statement, but over the past two weeks he would have been right; Perpignan was indeed at the centre of the world of photojournalism, and tens of thousands of people have visited its exhibitions and hopefully been inspired by the photo essays and stories that stir our consciences. For these photographs are not “breaking news”, these are photographs that tell in story-form man’s inhumanity to man, that tell of racism and fanaticism, that speak to us of some of the forgotten people of our planet, and pictorial essays about the damage we are doing to our world.

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(Berbers in Marocco, resisting and defending their culture, part of the exhibition of photographs by Ferhat Bouda)

The exhibition was a real eye-opener for me, and the friends who were with me. Had we heard before how Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were funding the spread of Islam in Cuba? Did we realise that between 1980 and 2000, women accounted for 20% of all deaths and disappearances during the period of terrorism in Peru? Did we know that they were murdered, or compelled to be part of subversive groups, or forced into unwanted marriages and sexually abused? Or did we know that in the USA, the richest country on earth, that the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is said to be the poorest place in America, with 85% unemployment, and the country’s worst life expectancy, 47 years for men, and 52 for women? I certainly had not realised that in parts of Bosnia, India, and Uganda, widowhood can mean social death for a woman, relegating her and her children to the fringes of society. Like everyone else, I have seen television images of the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, sanitised for public consumption; here they were realistic, personal, and horrifying.

It would be impossible to describe all of the exhibits, but one which had a profound impact on me, and the friends with me, was the outdoor display in front of the Palais des Congrès, entitled Night falls over Europe, which documented the plight of refugees fleeing for safety to Europe, only to be faced with the closing doors of our continent.

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(La Nuit tombe sur l’Europe, describing Europe’s shameful policies towards refugees)

This festival and exhibition is now a firmly fixed event in the life of the city of Perpignan, and one that is well worth a visit. There is so much to see, and so much to learn. I consider myself to be reasonably well informed on world events, mainly through reading a quality newspaper, and watching television news bulletins, but so much of what is happening in our world is not considered newsworthy by those who bring the news to us. This exhibition draws our attention to so much more than the mainstream media offer us. I shall certainly make sure that I am in this part of the world next September for the 30th International Festival of Photojournalism.

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(Photos from the exhibition, Crowds and Solitude in Africa, by Marco Longari who has been observing Africa for many years)

The Château de Jau

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(Part of the vast expanse of vineyards at Jau, can be seen beyond the hedge)

On the southern foothills of the Corbières Massif, the foothills of the Eastern Pyrenees, along the valley of the River Agly, is situated one of the better known and more highly regarded wine producing Châteaux of this region. Now known as the Château de Jau, this site was first inhabited by Cistercian monks in the twelfth century. All that remains of that monastic foundation is a superb square tower, but in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a magnificent neo-classical mansion was constructed which in 1974 became the home of the Daurë family who have made the wines of the Château de Jau what they are today.

A variety of wines are produced here, Côtes du Roussillon, and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, various Muscats de Rivesaltes, and Vins doux naturels, or dessert wines. The vineyards surround the Château, indeed there is nothing else around here, the nearest village Cases de Pène, is a ten minute drive away. But it is here, almost in the middle of nowhere that one can experience the most unusual and individual of wine tastings.

I have been visiting Château de Jau almost every year for the past twelve years. Hardly anything changes, but then, I wouldn’t want it to! The six course menu of Fougasse aux Olives, Pain à la Tomate et Jambon de Truie, Cotelletes d’Agneau, Saucisse Catalan, Roquefort, and finally Corsaire à l’orange, all excellent in their own way, are served as accompaniments to the wines of the Château.IMG_2311

(The food menu and wine list, above, and some of the food and wine, below)

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Each course helps one to appreciate the wines produced here and in their other vineyards near Collioure and overseas in Chile. It is a wine tasting, but with a difference; no little sips here, the bottles are left on the tables, and if you want to try more, then just ask. We have never been disappointed with the food, it is plentiful, rustic but of excellent quality, as are the wines too, some better than others, and each person will have their own favourite. All this is enjoyed in a beautiful setting as the open air restaurant is located on a terrace surrounded by a cluster of ancient buildings, next to a small lake, and within a stone’s throw of the very elegant Château. Every year an art exhibition is held in an adjoining building which adds a different dimension to the visit. A word of warning: should you ever be in the region and decide to enjoy this most enjoyable experience, take a taxi; then you will really be able to enjoy the wines!

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(On the left can be seen the barbecue where the meats are cooked, and to the right is the entrance porch to the public area of the Château, looking down the long drive)

The Little Yellow Train

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(Our train awaits)

Up in the mountains of the Eastern Pyrenees about forty kilometres from where our house is on the Mediterranean coast, is the start of one of the famous little railways of the world. From the station at Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains-Fuilla to that at Latour-de-Carol-Enveitg the track of this pride and joy of the Catalan Pyrenees wends its way along sixty three kilometres serving twenty two stations, at fourteen of which the train only stops if a request has been made before the journey begins.

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(Two of the trains in the sidings at Villefranche)

This bright little train decorated in the Catalan yellow and red, or gold and blood as the locals describe it, looks like it has stepped straight out of the 1950s as it chugs its way slowly through mountain valleys, clinging precariously to its track through spectacular scenery, as it leaves behind houses built in the Mediterranean style, replacing them with Alpine chalets built for severe winters with heavy snow.

Last Friday I made another journey on the Little Yellow Train and saw again for myself the beautiful scenery of this part of the south of France. Our journey began from the SNCF Station in Perpignan, where we boarded the regional express train to Villefranche, a distance of thirty kilometres, for the princely sum of one euro! At Villefranche, where the main line train terminates, we crossed the track to the platform of the narrow gauge railway and boarded the train having previously bought our tickets online. We were only going to travel part of the way to the ski resort of Font-Romeu, and the fare was around twenty four euros for the return journey, or aller retour as the French say.

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(The very impressive rail bridge at Planès)

Soon the train set off following the course of the River Têt, which we were able to see, first to the left and then to the right, way below us, as it meandered over rocks in places and flowed very fast in others. The valley widened and, passing through the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes, we came to the first main station of Olette-Canaveilles. It was after this point on my first visit that, on a not too sunny day, we passed through the clouds and found ourselves in glorious sunshine. Our journey continued through Fontpédrouse, Mont-Louis and Bolquère-Eyne, which, at 1592.78 metres, is the highest station in the French railway network. IMG_0640

(The station at Bolquère-Eyne, the highest station in France)

Then as we rounded a bend, high above us to the right was the town of Font-Romeu with its large hotels for the skiers who flock here between November and March. To the left across the valley we could see the ski lifts and the clear runs between the trees, all green now in the hot summer sun.

Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via is famous, not only as a winter sports’ resort, but also because it is home to the world’s largest solar furnace in Odeillo, which can reach temperatures up to 3,500°C (6,330°F).IMG_0639

(The solar furnace at Odeillo)

Our stay in Font Romeu was short, just time for a little wander, maybe a cup of coffee, before taking the train back down the valley to Villefranche. Up here it is almost like being in another world, so different from the Mediterranean lifestyle on the coast. The buildings have a totally different style, the air is fresher, and is filled with the sound of cowbells. Here you are just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, but you could imagine yourself in the Alps. IMG_0709

The Circle of the close friend

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Many times during the early 1950s, Pablo Picasso came to stay with friends in Perpignan. His hosts on those occasions were Jacques and Paule de Lazerme, whose beautifully spacious home is now the city’s delightful Musée d’art Hyacinthe Rigaud. He brought with him his close family, and many intellectuals, artists, writers and poets were attracted to stay there too. These friends became known as Le cercle de l’intime, or the circle of the close friend, a group of friends whose intellectual and artistic talents has shaped the cultural life of this Mediterranean city which lies close to the border with Spain.

To celebrate the reopening of the art museum, a special exhibition has been mounted to display pictures of Picasso’s intimate circle and to describe his frequent stays in the city, which appealed to him, not just as an ideal place to rest with friends, but also because of the Catalan nature of the city, Picasso having spent his formative years in Catalan Barcelona on the other side of the border between France and Spain.IMG_0064

(Picasso with some of his intellectual circle of friends at the Hôtel de Lazerme)

These friends were able to provide a protective environment for Picasso who was going through difficult times in the 1950s. His marriage was in crisis, and he was unable to return to his home country across the border since the implementation of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Being in Perpignan was the closest he could go.

The exhibition gives us a glimpse, through the many photographs taken between 1953 and 1955, of this group of friends sitting talking, visiting various sites around the city, spending time with his children, and painting some of this close circle of intimates. The whole thing is beautifully displayed and includes some of his sketches done here in those years. The permanent collection at the Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud also contains several original work by Picasso, including some ceramics. Our visit, which I described in my last post, was very enjoyable. The permanent collection alone is well worth a visit, but to have this temporary exhibition about Picasso in the city, was indeed the icing on the cake.IMG_0059

(Portrait of Paule de Lazerme in Catalan dress, painted in Perpignan in 1954)

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(Boy playing with a lorry, painted in 1953)

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(Peace Dance, painted in September 1953. The figures are dancing the Sardana, the local Catalan dance, performed in a circle)

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(Man with barretina and other sketches)

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(Pablo Picasso photographed by Raymond Fabre at his studio in Perpignan)

Perpignan’s Art Museum Hyacinthe Rigaud

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(Louis XlV in his Coronation Robes, painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701)

Every French schoolchild learning of the history of their nation will have come across the portrait of Louis XlV, the Sun King, in his coronation robes, and those of us who have been in the Louvre Museum in Paris will have seen this huge portrait, or have recognised the copy of it which hangs in the Palace of Versailles. What I had not realised until recently was that this painting was executed by Hyacinthe Rigaud who was born in Perpignan, and who gives his name to the Art Museum in the city, and who was the most famous portraitist in the royal court at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries.IMG_0047

(Self portrait of Hyacinthe Rigaud with a turban)

Last week I made my first visit to this museum which has recently reopened after massive renovation and extension work. Since 1979 the museum was housed in part of the Hôtel de Lazerme, one of the grand town houses in a city which had many such buildings. This had been the home of the Lazerme family, and home also to Perpignan intellectual life, and a refuge for writers, artists, musicians and poets, as well as a centre of resistance during the Second World War, and it was here that Pablo Picasso often stayed with the family when he visited the city during the 1950s. The massive building works were made possible by connecting this town house with another, the Hôtel de Mailly, thus creating a huge L shaped museum facing two different streets. The result is quite spectacular, and this relatively small city in the far south of France is now home to one of the most beautiful museums in the country. The space for its permanent collection has increased threefold, and it now provides six times more space for its visiting temporary exhibitions. The opening temporary exhibition is called Picasso in Perpignan, which I shall be writing about in a few days time, and which is proving to be a huge success.

Perpignan, and this region, was home to many famous artists, Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, Gustave Fayet and Pierre Daura, and the famous sculptor Aristide Maillol, many of whose works are exhibited here, along with works by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró. The permanent exhibition is divided into four sections displaying works from the Gothic, Baroque, and Modern periods in the life of the city, and work from today’s artists. Below are some of the works which interested me but there is so much more to see here, and if ever you find yourself in this region, the Musée d’Art Hyacinthe Rigaud is certainly well worth a visit.

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(A few of the two hundred and eleven small framed works by various artists bequeathed to the museum by a local lawyer. One is by the Catalan artist Joan Miró)

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(Cadix – an oil painting by Jean Lurçat painted in 1924)

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(A work in bronze by local sculptor Aristide Maillol from Banyuls-sur-Mer, created in 1907 entitled Le Désir – Desire)

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(Self portrait of Pierre Daura as a soldier, painted in 1938. He had joined the Republican militia in 1937 to fight against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War)

And finally my favourite from the whole permanent collection was this altarpiece by an unknown artist, which was commissioned in 1489, by the five consuls who administered the trading port of Perpignan, and which was placed in the chapel of the Loge de Mer, or maritime consulate. Recently restored, the piece is quite stunning, and dominates the room in which it is displayed.

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(Retable de la Trinité 1489 by unknown artist)