Saturday 31 October 2015

Bent trees

Not far from Epernay is a small forest featuring Beech trees with a genetic mutation that causes them to grow in short, twisted shapes.  You can visit the forest and it has been marked out with trails and tracks.   The trees are now surrounded by barriers so you can't carve your initials into the bark, or damage the low-hanging branches by walking on them.

The wood is known by the name of the Faux de Verzy, Fau being the old French name for Beech, and Verzy being the nearest town.  (Champagne also features the villages of Bouzy and Dizy, which I thought was cute)

The forest walks claim to be suitable for people with various handicaps, including blind people, but I must admit I struggled to understand how blind people would benefit from a collection of trees that you can't touch.

However, we had a pleasant walk in a quiet woods, a short break in our Champagne hunting.

Friday 30 October 2015

Champagne street

In Epernay, the Champagne houses are mostly located on Champagne street; Avenue de Champagne. It's where the tourist office is too, (with very nice patterned glass doors) so we started at the tourist office end, and strolled down the street.  The big names were there, as expected, and some we'd never heard of.  There was a group of people outside of the Moët & Chandon establishment, and the shop looked open.  We wandered into the compound to visit the shop, but the reason for the people present was that someone had set off the fire alarm, and everyone was outside.  We wandered on.

There was an air of general celebration about the buildings, since the street has just been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There were "Thank you" flags to be seen, the street looked exceptionally clean and the buildings were spotless.

The Champagne house that we visited was the De Castellane, not actually on Avenue de Champagne, but just aside from the end of it, because they have a tower you can go up and survey the surrounding countryside.

They also have a museum of Champagne-making, and one of printing, since the printing of bottle labels is an integral part of Champagne production.  I'm fascinated by the straightforward concept that these complicated mechanical things actually worked, and that offset litho and Linotype machines were in regular commercial use while I was growing up.

Unfortunately the day was rather misty and the glass windows of the tower had condensation, so the views from the tower were limited.  But you can get an idea of the intensity of grape farming in the area, from the pocket-handkerchief-sized patch in the photo.

Thursday 29 October 2015

French, not French

In the little town of Hautvillers, we saw two things of note, one of which struck us as typically French, the other as counter to almost everything similar in France that we had encountered before.

The Champagne tasting and sale shop, at 3, rue Dom Perginon proudly annouces that it is open, amonst other times, 10h30 - 18h00, all week except Mondays, all year with certain exceptions November - March.  Except, apparently, right when we were there.  Very French.

The public toilets were exemplary.  Clean, spotless even, accessible, and with the gentlemens' urinals shielded from prudish view by batwing doors.  Clearly catering for tourists who expect nothing less, especially, I imagine, our American cousins.  Not French at all.

Wednesday 28 October 2015


The little village of Hautvillers can be said to be a place of pilgrimage: it is the town where Dom Perignon lived much of his life and was buried, and is a must-see tourist destination for this reason.

As well as inventing the drink Champagne, Dom Pierre Perignon is credited with making various improvements to its manufacture.  Before he investigated the problem, about 2/3rds of the bottles holding the fizzy wine would explode during the fermentation process.  I know the problem.  My youthful experiments with ginger beer had the same result - it makes a complete mess of the bathroom and wastes all that effort.   So he replaced the French glass bottles with Belgian glass to good effect.  He also replaced the corks with Spanish cork, another good move.

Since the town is a bit thin on attractions other than Dom Perignon's tomb, they make a thing of their metal house signs.  They're not bad; they claim to have (if I remember rightly) 140 of them.  Here's a few.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Around Epernay

A few things struck us about the Champagne vine-growing area around Epernay.  Firstly, there are vines everywhere: vistas where there is nothing but grapes planted, stretching out as far as the horizon, are not uncommon.  The landscape is undulating, cut by valleys with steep sides and narrow bottoms.  Vines are everywhere on the valley sides, even north-facing ones, taking advantage of the chalky soil.  Only in the valley bottoms where the soil is clay arising from silt, are the vines replaced by trees or the very occasional veg patch.

Secondly, the area is not poor: the houses are mostly well-maintained on the outside, contrasting strongly with the impression gained during our trip to Bordeaux some ten years ago.  And unlike the Rioja area in Spain, the apparent wealth isn't confined to the wine-makers' properties.

Thirdly, there are more Champagne houses than you can shake a stick at.  We expected to come across the well-known brands, of course, but we weren't expecting so many smaller houses.  They're everywhere.

Given that it's impossible to taste all the options available, we decided to go to a Champagne bar (La Fine Bulle) the first night, where you could get a sample of 6 different wines at a reasonable price. By accident or cunning design, we ended up with the 10cc per glass option instead of the 5cc we had planned, which in practical terms meant 40% of a standard bottle each, on an empty stomach.  The wines on offer gave a good spread of flavours and were, we felt, as good an introduction to the variations available as we could reasonably expect in 6 glasses.  We bought some of the strongly fruity 100% Chardonnay, the rosé with strawberry notes, and the creamy one.  We rolled out to our chosen restaurant, where for some reason I can't quite work out, we had another bottle with dinner.

Monday 26 October 2015


I hold the opinion that the French are, generally, not much good at marketing, an opinion I have formed from many observations over the years.  It's a generalisation, of course, and like all generalisations, there are exceptions.  Champagne is one.

If anyone can be said to be the inventor of the fizzy white wine we know as Champagne, it has to be Dom (Pierre) Perignon, a monk whose astonished and delighted cry of "Brothers, come quickly!  I am drinking the stars!" announced its birth (according to legend).  Dom Perignon died in 1715, and here we are in 2016, three hundred years later, and the drink that came to be known as Champagne still carries a certain cachet.

It commands a price premium of anything over 100% above rival products that are produced in exactly the same way, with essentially the same ingredients.  But if you are celebrating something important, and the fizzy wine you are serving isn't actual Champagne from a certain specific area in France, well, you're doing it wrong.  Perhaps your heart isn't in it, perhaps you are not 100% committed to this project, or perhaps the happy couple will eventually divorce.

Pure marketing genius.

Having a short spell between customers, we decided to take a recce in Champagne, swinging back through Burgundy, over a week.  We decided to stay in Epernay, rather than Reims, although the latter is supposedly the capital of the Champagne region.  Epernay is more central to the vineyards, and I think it was a good call.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon when everything is shut, and with a few hours to kill, we spotted a nearby car boot sale and moseyed along for a look.  I got 2 single CDs and a double for 3 euros, and a little metallic-coloured porcelain vase for the same price.

The difference between this car boot sale and one that you might find in our corner of the Mayenne was in the drinks being handed around between friendly locals.  In Mayenne, the bottle would contain carefully nurtured, illegal, apple-based hooch.  The anonymous bottle at this car boot held a white wine coloured, highly fizzy drink.   Welcome to Champagne.

Saturday 17 October 2015


This is just one of many irritations relating to the fact that I recently sold a lump of hi-fi on ebay.  This item was at one time held to be the best preamp in the world, but it has been superseded now, and this particular one had been sitting on my shelf for a while.  So it was time to find it a new home with someone who will enjoy using it.

With ebay it's almost mandatory that you offer PayPal as a payment method.  I have had a PP  account for ages; I don't use it much, mostly it is a means of paying my monthly Spotify sub.  But occasionally I sell things, and the money passes through.   In this case, a bit over 1500 euros.

I get a message as follows, relating to the possible future limitation of my PP account:

"PayPal is constantly working to ensure security by regularly screening the accounts in our system. We recently reviewed your account, and we need more information to help us provide you with secure service. We would like to return your account to regular standing as soon as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience.

So I read this and it seems to expect me to infer that extra information is needed to ensure the security of my account, but that's not actually what it says: it wants the information to "help provide me with secure service".  So it could be about security, or more simply, with the provision of any service at all.  The latter is more likely.

They go on to say:

"You have received €1,800 or more in total payments to your PayPal account in this calendar year and are therefore approaching our annual receiving limit of €2,500. PayPal is required by law to comply with European Union Anti-Money Laundering regulations by collecting information from customers when they reach this limit. "

So am I supposed to infer that "our" annual receiving limit is part of some rule that PP apply?  It seems like it, only that's not what the following text implies.  Being required by our lords and masters in Europe to provide extra information when a limit is reached sounds like "our ...  limit" is something imposed on PP by eurocrats.   But I haven't even reached this limit yet.  I suppose the only good thing about this is that by asking well in advance, they potentially avoid limiting the account when the threshold is reached, pending being satisfied that I'm acting legally.

This is nothing but an irritation, and does nothing to deter determined money lauderers.  These meddling interferences in our ordinary lives get right up my nose.

End of rant.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Fuchsia Magellanica Riccartonii

I got told off once by an unpleasant botanist for calling this plant a Fuchsia Riccartonii in a casual conversation, but that doesn't have to stop me from usng the correct name as the title to this blog, however cantankerous and contrary I might be.

This one is in what is probably the coldest part of my garden.  The bay tree that used to be here had to be moved, since the full exposure to north winds ripped any growing material from the exposed branches.   It is now going great guns somewhere else in the garden.   The Ricartonii, however, tucks itself up under the ground for the Winter, and seems to survive.

It's dripping with flowers at the moment, quite a good display.  I'm surprised and pleased.

These Fuchsia are particularly difficult to propagate from cuttings, but I got both of my plants this way, though I can't remember where the parent plant was that made the donation.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Tourisme et handicap

Our european lords and masters have decreed that physical handicap should not be an obstacle to living a normal life.  So, throughout the EU we have a directive that all publicly accessible buildings should be available to anyone with any kind of handicap, and that people with such handicaps should be able to be autonomous in such buildings.  It also applies generally to access from the outside too.

Fortunately this has been interpreted, at least in France, to mean "any individual handicap", so that combinations of handicap are not necessarily catered for.  There is apparently, for example, no obligation to ensure that a wheelchair-bound blind and deaf person be autonomous.

The new law on accessibility of buildings open to the public came into force in France this year.  There was a lot of fuss about the expense that this would invlove, especially for older hotels for example, so you could submit costed plans to meet the requirements and ask for a postponement of the obligation to inplement these plans.

Our gîte is classed as an ERP (établissement recevant du publique) so the laws apply to us.  The renovations that we did in 2006 - 2008 to bring the gîte into service, were carried out with the knowledge that these laws would come into force in 2015, but at the time, one could only give a best guess as to what they would actually involve.  Inevitably there were some shortfalls, so in springtime this year we got to grips with the problem.

In the context of our market, it's not our intention to focus on handicapped customers; we have no special desire to attract such groups, although they would be welcome if they came.  Our customers are mostly families or groups of friends who come here to stay for a weekend, to celebrate a birthday or wedding anniversary, or simply to bring the family together for a fun time.  Family get-togethers often include (great-)grandma and/or (great-) grandad, who can often be frail and subject to the degradations in faculty that old age brings.  So from our point of view, the new laws represent an opportunity to enhance our offering to this important part of our market.

In France they have decided to go beyond the basic requirements of the law, and have specified a set of optional further enhancements that will allow your place to be labelled "Tourisme et Handicap", a label that confirms that the place offers a high level of comfort and autonomy to handicapped people. It covers four types of handicap: Visual, Auditory, Mental and Motor.   We decided to go for it.

Here's a few of the things we did.  Some are just good sense when you think about it, others seem pointless.  For example, no pedal bins in toilets intended for wheelchair users.  Obvious when you think about it.  However, loo seats in contrasting colours for the visually impaired?  Not convinced.  I happened to have to use a loo in the pitch dark last week (long story, not relevant), and the toilet wasn't hard to find.   I had to add a sink in the disabled toilet, which was annoying on account of the fact that the pipework is necessarily exposed (I hid it in electrical conduit), and would ideally be behind the plasterboard.

Given that deaf people lock themselves in toilets and can't hear any fire alarm, we had to add flashing lights in all of the disabled access toilets.  Well I suppose if you're going to have a fire alarm, it has to work for everybody, and we don't necessarily know if any of our guests are deaf.  The installers did a good job of integrating it into the decor, but it would have been better done as part of the renovations.

Apparently there is no requirement to automatically wake sleeping deaf people, although you can get (for example) vibrating pillows that are activated by the audible alarm.  We might get one; if you're going to look after deaf guests, you might as well do it properly.

For partially sighted people, you must contrast the risers of the first and last steps in any staircase with three or more steps.  And the edges of the steps should be contrasted and with non-slip material.

The stair bannisters had to changed - the rules say they must continue past the steps by an amount equal to the width of the step.  This wasn't possible for the stairs in the lodge so we compromised on this handle to guide people around the corner onto the floor.

The step from the dining room was high and we have had some guests for whom this presented some difficulty.  The step required by the new rules was a good idea anyway.

At the end of the day, we're pleased to have the "tourism & handicap" rating, but it was a significant investment out of our revenues in 2104.  The T&H label has not been promoted much in France, so I doubt that it will bring us much extra business, although it might reduce the need for prospective customers to ask about the facilities.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Thursday 1 October 2015

Fixing a hole

The problem is that the roof is old enough now that the nails holding the tiles in are getting rusty, and some are starting to fail.  So every storm brings down a tile or two, and there's a limit to how often you can glue them back up.  Going to have to look at a new roof some time.

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