Archive for August, 2010

UN Inquiry into Rwandan genocide revenge claims…..
August 31, 2010

An article in yesterday’s Times, under the heading Peace threat over genocide revenge report, claims that leaks from a soon to be published UN Inquiry may call, recently re-elected, President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi led government to account for its actions in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide.   

Kagame declared winner of the Rwandan presidential election, held earlier this month, with 93% of the vote, has recently come under increased scrutiny from the international community.

Human rights groups and observers have been critical of political repression during a campaign from which critical opposition parties were barred.     

A press release by the White House Security Council, whilst acknowledging the progress made by Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, raised concerns over a number of disturbing events including the arrest of journalists, the suspension of certain newspapers, the banning of two opposition parties from taking part in the election and the expulsion of a human rights researcher.

There were also acts of violence, including the murder of an opposition official, in which the government steadfastly denies any in involvement.    

Kagame seized power in the wake of the 1994 ethnic genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans (mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered at the behest of the former Hutu dominated government.

The international community’s belated and guilty response to the atrocities has been to provide Kagame’s Tutsi led government with unprecedented levels of aid. 

Kagame has also received high-profile commendation, from leading figures such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates, for the way he has unified the country and masterminded its recovery.  

He responded to mounting criticism from western observers, following the recent elections, in an article for the Financial Times, published under the heading Rwanda’s democracy is still the model for Africa.

In it he claims that whilst few would doubt Rwanda’s rapid social and economic progress they fail to acknowledge the success of its political evolution.

The thrust of his argument for maintaining such an authoritarian grip on the country is that competitive democracy can only be possible following a sustained period of social cohesion.

He wrote that, although the healing and reconciliation process has made great progress, no country with Rwanda’s recent history can be expected to move from genocide to confrontational politics within such a short space of time.   

He further claims it was pluralistic politics spawning newly formed parties with a common extremist ideology that succeeded in mobilising the population to commit mass murder.  

However, when the findings of the UN inquiry are officially released, next month, it is likely they will lead to a rewriting of the current widely accepted historical account of the Rwandan genocide, which may in turn negatively impact on further foreign support for Kagame’s regime.

The report apparently carries detailed information of reprisals carried out by the Rwandan army, whilst under Kagame’s watch, as they pursued Hutu refugees into neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).    

The revelations may lead to calls for Tutsi leaders, for so long portrayed as the heroes and victims of the genocide, to be prosecuted for their actions.

The Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has already communicated with the UN Secretary General and is quoted as denouncing the report as ‘incredibly irresponsible’ and ‘fatally flawed’.

Should the report be published, Rwanda is already threatening to withdraw from UN peacekeeping forces.

Whilst the truth is paramount and needs to be known, it is essential that this report provides an impartial, fair and accurate account of events, and is delivered in such a way that it does not threaten to destabilise the current levels of social cohesion within Rwanda or derail its remarkable recovery.  

If it does my VSO stint might turn out to be shorter than anticipated!

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Cricket – The Shame Game
August 31, 2010

In recent years Pakistan cricket has fluctuated from the sublime (winning the World Cup in 1992) to the ridiculous, never better illustrated than in the final Test of the current series with England which concluded yesterday.

Having reduced England’s first innings to 102-7 they somehow contrived to lose the match by an innings and 225 runs, the worst Test defeat in their cricketing history!  

The great shame is that in the end no one really cared about the result and some outstanding individual performances, from players on both sides, were overshadowed by a News of the World exclusive which seemingly provided incontrovertible evidence of spot fixing involving three named Pakistan players.

Pakistan cricket has been shamed by revelations that captain Salman Butt, and pace bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, were part of an alleged betting scam that has prompted an immediate police investigation.    

Despite supposedly delivering a deliberate no-ball to order (below) 18-year-old Mohammad Amir devastated England’s middle order by removing Peterson, Collingwood and Morgan, all for ducks, within the space of nine balls. He subsequently finished with 6 for 84 and became the youngest ever bowler to feature on the Lords Honours Board.

It is such a shame that this talented young bowler (left) may, if he is found guilty, suffer a life ban from world cricket, when he apparently had such a bright future ahead of him. He deserved greater protection against those who prey on vulnerable young players and lure them into the murky world of illegal betting.

It will also be a great shame if the superb world record-breaking eighth wicket stand of 332 by England’s Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad (right) has its validity questioned because of the controversy surrounding the circumstances in which it was made.

Cricket has an almost religious status in Pakistan and it unifies the nation. Over the years a roll call of talented players such as Hanif Mohammad, Imran Khan (now a popular political figure)  , Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram (left), Waqar Younis, Inzamam Ul Haq and Mohammed Yousuf has afforded Pakistan recognition on the international sporting stage and been a source of national pride for many who suffer lives of great deprivation and hardship.

Unfortunately, however, scandal and tragedy are seemingly never far away from Pakistan cricket, be it forfeiting the Oval Test in 2006, following ball tampering allegations (right), the tragic death of coach Bob Woolmer in the Caribbean during the 2007 World Cup or the bloody terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus, in Lahore, eighteen months ago.

As a result of the latter the Pakistan team (through no fault of their own) were condemned to become cricketing nomads, playing matches wherever they could find a country willing to accommodate them. This year the venues for their ‘home series’ against Australia were provided by England prior to their scheduled away series over here.             

Captain, Salman Butt responded to the recent devastating floods in Pakistan by promising that his  team, through their performances, would endeavour to raise the spirits of those suffering back home.

It would be unforgivably shameful if these allegations of corruption are substantiated and lead to the exclusion from international cricket of the people’s beloved national team at a time when life for so many is at such a low ebb.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The Man With Maradona’s Shirt
August 29, 2010

Saturday’s  final, pre-Rwanda, visit to the City Ground didn’t quite live up to expectations. Forest had to settle for a 1-1 draw against Saint Delias’ newly promoted Norwich.

The Canaries were on song, high on confidence after a couple of good results, and played  the ball around well. Forest, however,  looked a yard off the pace, particularly in midfield.

They did take the lead, rather against the run of play, from a dubiously awarded penalty (to make up for a stonewall certainty the ref had failed to give a few minutes earlier) taken by Dexter Blackstock but it didn’t last for long and once again, this season, sloppy defending led to a Norwich equaliser just before half time.

Former Forest striker, Grant Holt, who spent most of the game on the floor (no change there then) might have scored for Norwich late on but keeper Lee Camp made a sprawling save.

Once again Robbie Earnshaw was by far the liveliest Forest player  and nearly conjured up a last gasp winner when he hit the post again (5 times in 4 games) following a very smart shot on the turn from a tight angle.

It would have been harsh on the Canaries  who deserved at least a point. Forest were booed off by a section of the crowd. If the acquisitions group don’t act quickly before Tuesday’s transfer deadline it could be a long haul through to Christmas!     

Before the match I visited the newly extended and refurbished club shop where, former Forest star and England international, Steve Hodge was signing copies of his autobiography The Man with Maradona’s Shirt.

The title refers to  the one of the most controversial  incidents ever seen in an international football match when, during England’s 1986 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, Steve Hodge’s sliced back pass led to Diego Maradona’s Hand of God  ‘goal’.

Amazingly Steve still found it in himself to swap shirts with Maradona after the game. But then again, whichever way you look at it, it is a historic piece of football memorabilia!  

Harry Hodge , as he was known, played 277 games in two stints for Forest, from 1982-85 and 1988-91, both under Brian Clough. He was an energetic, attacking left-sided midfield player with a nice habit  of scoring goals, 66 in total, a ratio of 1 every  4 games – some strikers would be pleased with that!      

He also played for Aston Villa, Spurs and Leeds where he was in their league championship winning side. Harry who made 27 appearances for his country, and was involved in two World Cups (Mexico ’86 and Italia ’90) currently works with Forest’s  youngsters in the academy where I’m sure he is a great role model.

We could certainly do with someone like him in our midfield at the moment!

Snømannen – The Snowman
August 29, 2010

Given it is a Bank Holiday weekend, and a very blustery one at that, rather than toiling in the garden, as planned, I have spent most of today devouring the final third of Jo Nesbø’s Snowman (that is, his book of that title!)

I had been on the hunt for a few paperbacks to sustain me in deepest Rwanda, to be read by torchlight whilst cocooned within my protective mosquito net during the long dark evenings, when I came upon this title.

The Snowman was being heavily promoted in a couple of book shops, as comparable to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, so I thought I’d try it.

The only similarity seems to be that they are both extremely well crafted investigative thrillers in Nordic settings.  

It transpires that The Snowman is Nesbø’s fifth book (translated from the original Norwegian by Don Bartlett) featuring Oslo cop Harry Hole.

I found Harry Hole very reminiscent of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, a rugged but shrewd investigator, a flawed anti-establishment figure with a drink problem.

Hole and his supporting cast are extremely well drawn and within the first twenty pages the enthralling plot had hooked me in to such an extent that I immediately went in search of the earlier titles.

Book two in the series, Nemesis, and book four, The Redeemer, are now securely stashed away in my suitcase whilst I battle with the temptation to start reading one of them straight away. I hope they live up to expectations.     

                  

Simbyumva, subiramo, vuga buhora buhora!
August 27, 2010

September 4th, a week on Saturday, I will be leaving the Shire again and flying out to Kigali to join the VSO fellowship in Rwanda.

There will be twelve new volunteers embarking on this adventurous mission that hopefully won’t prove as perilous as the journey across Middle Earth to the Cracks of Doom made by Frodo Baggins and his mates!

Mind you our 15 hour flight from Heathrow is with Ethiopian Airlines and via Addis Ababa so you never know.

I’m, what is called, a STV (short-term volunteer) as my placement is only for 13 weeks, whereas my colleagues are all LTVs (long-term volunteers) having committed to at least 12 months and in most cases two years. In some ways I feel quite light weight by comparison!

With the departure date becoming increasingly imminent I’ve been tackling the outstanding items on a pretty lengthy to do list.

I’ve now, at last, completed the pre-departure Kinyarwanda Language course and whilst being pretty pleased, not to say surprised, with my score of 44½/50 in the final assessment exercise, it is all still a bit of mystery!

Based on the units I’ve covered, theoretically, I should now be able to meet and greet, pass on a little bit of personal information about myself, order some food and drink, barter for a few things at the local market, and catch a motorbike taxi!

It’s highly likely that the words and phrases I will be making the most use of will be:

Simbyumva, subiramo, vuga buhoro buhoro  (I don’t understand, repeat that, speak slowly) 

Uvuga icyongereza? (Do you speak English?)  

Ndashaka hamburger, ifiriti na (inzoga) Mutzig! (I’d like a hamburger, fries and a Premium beer!)  

I’ve invested in a Kinyarwanda, French, English dictionary, purchased through Amazon which I’m sure will prove invaluable over the coming months. There will also be further language sessions as part of the week-long in country training we will all receive in Kigali before dispersing to our various placements across the country.

As my accommodation will be without mains electricity, I’ve also taken delivery of wind up torch, a solar-powered reading light and power monkey explorer which should keep my mobile and Ipod charged up in between visits to the VSO area office, which thankfully does have electricity.  

The power monkey has taken up residence on the bedroom window ledge but seems to be taking for ever to get fully charged, although it has been a very dull week weather wise.

As a charity, VSO needs to attract financial support in order to cover the cost of recruiting, training and sending volunteers abroad. It currently costs £18,000 per twelve month placement.

In this regard they are very dependent on various community groups who promote the organisation’s charitable work and also raise funds to support the placement of volunteers.  

I have been linked with the VSO Worcestershire Supporters Group who have committed to making a donation of between £1250 and £2000 a year to sponsor a local Worcestershire volunteer. This year it happens to be me and I went to meet some of this group for the first time, on Tuesday evening.

The membership is largely made up of returned volunteers who were very welcoming and at this time close to departure, when I’m feeling a little apprehensive, they were able to offer encouragement and sound practical advice which was much appreciated.

I will try to keep them up to date with how things are going in Rwanda via email and my blog and hope to meet up with them again when I return home in December.   

In the mean time if you would like to support VSO’s work by making a small donation please visit my just giving page: www.justgiving.com/Phil-Aldridge

Earnie on a roll and Martin O’Neil for Forest?
August 25, 2010

Forest have hardly got off to a flyer this season but it is early days and their displays have warranted a better points return than the meagre two out of a possible 9 they  have accrued.

On Saturday, having dominated the first half at the splendid Madejski Stadium, they went in 1-0 down after Reading scored from their only meaningful attack of the half.

However, shortly after the interval Forest got their just reward when Reading’s, otherwise outstanding, Italian keeper, Federici, produced a goalkeeping howler to gift them a deserved equaliser. A clearance against one of his own defenders rebounded to Robbie Earnshaw who reacted in a flash to round the keeper and roll home his first goal of the season.   

Earnshaw has worked hard and looked very sharp this season but been denied, in previous games, by a combination of the woodwork and good keeping. He had earned his slice of luck and it was good to see the trademark celebratory somersault in action again.

Given that once Earnie gets on a roll he tends to get goals in clusters, I wouldn’t bet against him appearing on the score sheet again next weekend when Forest take on one of his former clubs, Norwich, at the City Ground.

I hope so as this will be my last opportunity to see the Tricky Trees before leaving for Rwanda. I would like to think that by the time I return, in early December, they will be sitting in the top six!   

In his post-match interview, Forest manager Billy Davies once again berated the acquisitions committee for its inability to dip into the transfer market.

Billy’s familiar mantra is born out of frustration and his realistic assessment that if last season’s promise is to bear fruit this time a round Forest need a couple of quality players to strengthen a pretty thin looking squad.    

It is difficult to know what is going on behind the scenes but are Billy’s protestations beginning to grate with the committee and are they, in turn, keeping a firm grip on the purse strings, hoping that he might step down?   

I was astonished to see the News of the World speculating that should this be the case Forest are lining up Martin O’Neil as a possible replacement!

Martin was a great European Cup winning player for Forest who has an emotional attachment to the club. He seemed to be in line to take over as manager when Cloughie retired but things didn’t work out. Instead he went on to enjoy management success at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa.

If Forest were to get promoted to the Premiership a manager of O’Neil’s stature would certainly enhance their chances of staying there but I can’t really see him stepping down into the Championship unless the acquisitions committee hand him total control over the spending on players. After all he apparently quit Villa because he was unhappy with the transfer funds being made available to him there.

Much as I would love to see Martin O’Neil and his assistant John Robertson (another Forest legend) at the City Ground I can’t help feeling it would be very harsh on Billy Davies who has done a tremendous job at the club since he took over.

I would certainly say he is the best manager we have had since Cloughie and he has a proven track record in the second tier. However there is still a question mark over whether he has what it takes to operate in the top league.

If, and it’s a big if, Forest have enough money to approach O’Neil they surely have the funds to make realistic bids for the couple of players that would strengthen Davies’ squad.

It’s an intriguing situation but I think if Martin O’Neil goes anywhere it’s more likely to be as England manager, should Fabio Capello fail to convince over the coming months!

The Oval and red buses on the Harleyford Road, my dear old thing!
August 23, 2010

Congratulations to Pakistan for winning the 3rd Test at the Oval. It would have been easy for them to have given up on the series following England’s relatively straight forward victories at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston; both played of course at a time of traumatic devastation and loss of life resulting from the terrible floods back in their homeland.

Now a revitalised Pakistan team probably fancy their chances of levelling the series, with the final test being played at Lords (starting on Thursday) where, with the exception of last year’s Ashes test, the home side have invariably struggled in recent series. 

This defeat for England, who appear to be in danger of believing they are a better team than they actually are, has probably provided a timely wake up call ahead of this winter’s Ashes series down under.  

It was good to see Alistair Cook battling his way back into some kind of form and reaching a somewhat fortuitous but confidence boosting century. However if we are to mount a realistic challenge against Australia and retain the Ashes, Peterson, Collingwood and Strauss need to follow suit and rediscover their batting touch at Lords

I always look forward to the Oval Test Match, traditionally the last in an English summer – but why not so this year? This seems to be yet another strange decision by the ECB, hard on the heels of playing a test match on a building site at Edgbaston!      

The Brit Oval, as it is currently called (for sponsorship purposes), has been sympathetically developed in recent years, whilst maintaining its original pavilion, and is still overlooked by the  gasometer, an iconic landmark at this south London sporting venue.

It was the Oval, not Lords, that staged the first ever test match in England 130 years ago. In September 1880 a 3 day match was staged against the men from down under which England won by 5 wickets with Gloucestershire’s, legendary, Dr WG Grace making a top score of 152 in the first innings.       

The Oval will forever, in my mind, be associated with the image of red London buses shuttling up and down the adjacent Harleyford Rd, as regularly referred to by veteran Test Match Special commentator, the bespectacled, cravat wearing, and claret quaffing Henry Blofeld.  

Sadly, forgetful, eccentric old Etonian, Blowers with his trade mark catch phrases such as, “My dear old thing”, doesn’t get too much air time these days, in the ‘new look’ TMS commentary box, more is the pity.

To go off at a tangent, it was Henry’s father, an old school friend of author Ian Fleming, who is said to have been the source for the name of James Bond’s adversary and head of SMERSH, Blofeld, seen here played by actor Donald Pleasance who bears an uncanny resemblance to Blowers!         

Meanwhile back at the cricket, the first test match I recall following with any degree of interest was at the Oval in 1964; the final match in an Ashes series. I watched on TV, in black and white, enthralled as the late great Yorkshire fast bowler FS (Freddie) Trueman had Neil Hawke caught at slip by Colin Cowdrey to become the first English bowler to take 300 test wickets.   

A year later, during a family break in Surrey, my late uncle took me to the Oval for an afternoon to watch England play the final test of a three match series against South Africa. It turned out, due to the anti apartheid sporting ban which shortly followed, to be the last time South Africa would play a test on English soil for 29 years.

A few weeks earlier in Nottingham, I had excitedly visited my local Trent Bridge cricket ground to watch a live test cricket encounter for the first time. The sun beat down as I sat, full of anticipation, perched on a hard slatted wooden bench in the unreserved seating area, at the boundary’s edge, on the Fox Road side of the ground. On any other day splinters in a numb bum might have been all I recalled, but on this occasion I was lucky enough to witness one of the best ever test innings.

South African batsman Graham Pollock strolled to the wicket and treated the crowd to a display of elegant left-handed stroke play which lifted him into the pantheon of all time cricketing greats. He caressed the ball to the boundary 21 times in an innings of 125 off 145 balls in 138 minutes. I was memerised (as were the English bowlers and fielders) and have never seen anything to better it since.

Une semaine en Touraine…..
August 17, 2010

Une Semaine en Touraine : 8 – 15 August 2010

Lundi 9:

Disembarked from the overnight Portsmouth – Caen ferry at 7.00 am and set off due south, through the early morning mist, towards the Loire Valley.    

This was a first outing en France  for our  sat-nav lady, Jane, but she soon had the route sorted with an estimated journey time of  around 3 ¼ hours.

An hour or so later the call of cafe et croissants had become irresistible. We pulled up outside a small bar, in une ville d’un cheval, and enjoyed our first petit dejeuner of the week.

Croissants on home soil, across La Manche, bear little or no relation to the pap masquerading under the same name in the UK.

On the other hand the French idea of un grand café never fails to amaze me. It’s high on flavour but low on volume and my craving for caffeine requires at least two if not three cups!  

Appropriately refreshed we continued our journey. The Peugeot 207 SW,  clearly at home in France, ate up the miles as we bypassed Le Mans, of 24 hour race fame, and were soon crossing the Loire at Tours, reputedly the home of the most pure French in the country.    

We had done very little homework but had spotted a possible campsite, in the Rough Guide to The Loire, on the banks of River Indre just outside Azay Le Rideau.

By 11.30 am we had booked in, found a pleasant emplacement right next to the river, and unpacked our Gelert Quick Pitch tent. It didn’t quite live up to its name but half an hour or so later it was up and we had avoided any obvious embarrassment, as we grappled with it for the first time, in front of our German neighbours who were watching from beneath the awning of their camper van!    

By now the sky was blue, the sun shining, and the temperature approaching the top 20s and all was well with the world. All that was missing was une grande biere pression so  we set out for an initial reconnaissance of the area. 

The architectural gem, which is the 16th century Renaissance Chateau D’Azay Le Rideau, lay secreted behind the trees on an island in the river, and just a five-minute walk via the charming town of Azay.

Our nightmare scenario had been, hordes of English visitors spilling from their coaches into a town given over to tacky gift shops and restaurants with le menu touristique!

We were therefore pleasantly surprised and delighted that picturesque Azay has retained its integrity as a local town for local people. We felt very much part of a thriving, working French community.

It was great to be able to use our French, receiving responses en francais, rather than English, and we soon established ourselves as regulars at Le Francois Premier, where we hardly heard an English voice all week.   Sante!                  

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Mardi 10:

Camping du Sabot doesn’t have a shop but a van du pain calls at the site at 8.00 o’clock every morning.

Our only concessions to self catering had been to take a single campingaz burner, a camping kettle, a saucepan (just in case) and a cafetiere. We had also packed Yorkshire teabags, Lazy Sunday coffee and a pot of Hartley’s apricot jam!     

It was all very tranquil as we sat beside the river, admiring the pastoral scene before us, while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and munching on chunks of freshly baked baguette et confiture d’abricot.

As we set off bright and early, for nearby Rigny Usse , the sky was disappointingly overcast but we arrived at the medieval chateau that had inspired the story of La Belle au Bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) well ahead of crowds.

The white stone chateau, on which Walt Disney based his fairy tale castle, perches impressively above the River Indre, on the edge of the dark and mysterious forest of Chinon.

Just a further 15 minutes drive and we were in Chinon, where the ramparts and towers of Henry Plantagenet’s huge ruined fortress loom in rather more foreboding fashion over the medieval city, set by the River Vienne. 

Chinon is a hugely popular tourist destination, particularly with the English -many of whom now reside in the surrounding countryside. However we were lucky. Our visit coincided with the obligatory two-hour French lunch break and we were able to amble through the ancient streets and alley ways unhindered.

It was at Chinon, in 1429, that a 17-year-old peasant girl in men’s clothing caused a stir by talking her way into meeting the Dauphin (heir to the French throne) the future Charles VII, who had been nursing his wounds in the castle following defeat by the English at Agincourt.

Her name was Joan, Jeanne D’ Arc, and she believed that angelic voices had delivered messages to her from God, stating it was her destiny to help the Dauphin reclaim his kingdom by leading the French to victory in the 100 years War.

She won Charles over with her charisma and in no time at all was leading his army to a famous victory over the English at nearby Orleans. More successes followed and eventually Charles was crowned at Reims with Joan at his side.   

It is also at Le Chateau de Chinon that Richard the Lionheart is said to have breathed his last, although apparently it is more likely he was DOA, having been wounded in a nearby battle.

Another local hero, immortalised in a statue down by the riverside, is Francois Rabelais one time 16th century monk, doctor, humanist, writer and all round bon viveur!   

The Rabelaisian tradition lives on in the Companions of St Vincent de Valleres .

Quite by chance we happened upon some of its members at an early evening wine tasting session outside the tourist information office in Azay.   

The brotherhood, the oldest in Touraine, was created in 1753 in honour of St Vincent and has enjoyed a recent renaissance. Its members, dressed in traditional burgundy robes, gather under the banner of friendship, good food, wine growers and wine lovers of Azay-le- Rideau.    

Their motto, ‘My wine is not in vain’, is enshrined in a song especially composed for the companions and performed by them on this occasion, after a few glasses! 

I’ll drink to that – santé!

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Mercredi 11:

Weather-wise, the term changeable springs to mind. Yesterday’s less than promising start had blossomed into glorious late afternoon sunshine.

During the early evening les pecheurs had been out in force along the banks of the Indre and, from our tent, we had enjoyed watching their antics (a droite!) over a glass of local wine.

Aujourd’hui I woke to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the flysheet and it was certainement a morning for waterproofs et un parapluie as we set off towards Le Chateau de Villandry, where elegant Renaissance architecture is set amidst stunning gardens.

Gardens aren’t normally my thing but les jardins de Villandry are stupefiant and in many ways a greater attraction than the moated chateau itself.

In 1906 the chateau was purchased by an American, Ann Coleman. Her husband, a Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo set about recreating a grand French garden in a historically accurate style.

Carvallo’s terraced creation includes a water garden, an ornamental garden symbolizing four different types of amour, a maze and a medieval herb garden.

However la piece de resistance is the potager, a fascinating Renaissance kitchen garden covering 12,500 sq m, where intricately planted cabbages, pumpkins and aubergines sit side by side with beautiful rose bowers and a range of other flowering plants and shrubs. The entire area is completely replanted twice a year!      

Worryingly, Chris was very taken with this harmonious juxtaposition of vegetables and flowering plants. She was busily making notes on her mobile and at one point proclaimed a similar gardening project, chez Aldridge, would be under way by the time I return from Rwanda!    

During the afternoon we drove on to Amboise, a part of France forever close to our hearts, but which has sadly become rather twee (exemplified by a dreaded  petit train – a pet hate of mine!), over commercialised and over run with tourist groups since we last ventured here.

On that occasion we had lingered for several days, camping on LIle D’Or in the middle of La Loire, gazing up at the heavily fortified chateau rising sheer from the river bank.  

Amboise makes much of its association with the greatest Renaissance man of them all, the great Leonardo da Vinci. Invited by Francois I to cross the Alps and join his court, Leonardo spent his last three years, from 1519, at the Le Clos-Luce.

Unsurprisingly this is now an over priced tourist trap but I remember a leisurely, un-crowded visit, over two decades ago, and marvelling at forty or so working models of Leonardo’s mechanical inventions, all constructed according to his plans and sketches.

To say Leonardo was ahead of his time is a rather an understatement. Apparently those same models remain, down in the basement, and are still the star attraction!

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Jeudi 12:

Yesterday late afternoon /early evening was once again the most pleasant part of the day.

The sun dappled trees on the river bank were mirrored in the slow moving waters of the Indre and we might have been forgiven for thinking we had been transported into Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows as, with a joyous ‘poop poop’, Mr Toad drove on to the site towing his caravan.

Unfortunately it was a lighter shade of beige rather than ‘canary coloured’ and it was Herr Toady at the wheel of an old Mercedes!

Today was designated un jour a pied!

Having breakfasted on freshly baked baguette, from the van du pain, liberally topped with Bonne Maman confiture de rhubarbe, a wonderful discovery at Chinon Intermarche, we set of to visit our neighbours at le chateau.

Five minutes later we arrived, the gates had just opened, and for a very short while we were able to experience this remarkably tranquil and picturesque setting almost to ourselves………..and then the coach-loads started to arrive!  

Apparently, not that I’ve read it, Balzac’s romantic hero in Le Lys dans la Vallee described the Le Chateau D’ Azay le Rideau as, “a diamond cut with facets, set in the Indre,”  which absolutely remains the case.

It is not grand in size, compared with the chateaux at Amboise and Villandry, but petit and beautifully formed in its island setting. There are captivating views, from every angle, of this perfect turreted, early Renaissance gem reflected in the surrounding waters of the Indre.    

During the summer evenings, the chateau provides a wonderful setting for a spectacular Songes et Lumieres. This year’s offering, Le Miroir Enchante, features un chameau et deux chevaux blancs, which spend their days padding around a paddock across the river from our tent.

Azay takes its name, le Rideau, from the Ridel family who occupied a small fortress nearby during the 13th Century. However, for centuries it was known as Azay le Brule (‘the burnt’) after the Dauphin Charles smoked out a Burgundian garrison here in 1418!

Another idyllic Kodak setting is presented by an old mill next to the bridge on the edge of Azay.

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Vendredi 13:

Not a promising date, for those of a superstitious nature, but ce matin, in the words of the song, le soleil port son chapeau………..

It seemed an ideal day to take in our last chateau of the week and arguably the most graceful of them all, Chenonceau, which arches its way across the River Cher.

Unfortunately today was a French public holiday (one of many) and a few hundred other people decided to make a similar excursion!

The Rough Guide had warned that Le Chateau de Chenonceau was a firm favourite on the coach party circuit and that during mid summer the place can become uncomfortably crowded with day trippers. It was spot on!     

However, there is no escaping its architectural merit and the highlight for me was the long gallery with its windows opening out on to beautiful views along the river.

There was a brief respite from the heaving throng on the floor above which houses a temporary exhibition of works by the renowned contemporary French artist Andre Brasilier who was born and studied in the Loire Valley at Saumur.     

Owned by the Menier Chocolate Factory family, the chateau is now a thriving business with its waxworks, paddle boat trips, orangerie restaurant and huge gift shop – but not really to my taste!

Having decided that, after the morning’s exertions, a glass of wine was called for,we stopped off at the vineyard and winery of Le Chateau d’Aulee, on the outskirts of Azay, for a spot of degustation. We tried a couple of pleasant whites and a red and came away with a bottle or two for the cellar.

Ce soir, Azay played host to un Grand Marche Gourmand. This gastronomic fete, clearly a highlight of the annual calendar, centred on the Place de La Republique and spilled out along the surrounding streets and alleyways.

It opened at 5.00pm and was soon thronging with locals, but thankfully very few tourists. We thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, to say nothing of the food and drink!

Thinking things were winding down we left for home just before midnight. No sooner had we snuggled down into our sleeping bags than we were unexpectedly roused by la grande finale a spectacular firework display!

We had no idea that this was scheduled but there was no moving Chris at this stage and she opted for her ear plugs as I managed to secure an interesting vantage point with my head stuck out of the tent flap, lying on my back, staring up into the illuminated sky. Bonne nuit!       

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Samedi 14:

Our final morning in France is always, without fail, given over to ‘a big shop’ at le supermarche. On this occasion it had to be Intermarche (the one outside Chinon) because Chris had bought a bottle of wine there on the first day of our visit that she had particularly enjoyed but not been able to find anywhere else during the week!

As we pulled into the car park, at the sign of les mousquetaires, Chris’s eyes lit up and my proposed question of, “How long will it take?” was clearly a  futile one. How long is a piece of string? I know from past experience she can happily push a  trolley around the food and wine section for at least an hour and maybe two!

Re-stocking the Aldridge wine cellar for the months ahead is a serious undertaking.  No bottle passes without a thorough scrutinisation and provided it comes in at 5 Euros or less it stands a good chance of making it into the final basket!     

I should say I am allowed to contribute to this process but apparently I’m too easily swayed by posh labels, gimmicky names and trendy looking bottles!    

With the fruits of our labours merrily chinking in the back of the car we arrived back at  Camping Le Sabot and the sun was shining!

Having sampled one of our purchases for lunch, with a spot of pain et fromage (otherwiswe known as a camembert butty), Chris took herself off to the swimming pool, a final opportunity  to top up her tan, and I settled down in the shade of a tree, with my ipod, to catch up on a spot of Kinyarwandan!

An hour or so later it was a somewhat different picture with gathering storm clouds culminating in a downpour of biblical proportions, or as they so quaintly put it in France: Il pleut comme la vache qui pisse!    

Some time later it relented sufficiently for us to emerge from the tent and head into Azay for something to eat.

En plein air was not an option so we opted for the dining room at L’Hotel-Restaurant Les Trois Lys where we enjoyed an excellent three course menu du jour followed by a final café et cognac huddled under the canopy at Le Francois Premier.

Tomorrow there will be a very damp tent to pack away and a long homeward bound journey to look forward to. C’est la vie!  Sante!

Finis

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Grey Days & Away Days…..
August 8, 2010

It’s been another hectic week……..

Having returned to a miserably overcast Birmingham Airport, late Monday afternoon, from blue skies and 40 degrees  in Spain, thoughts immediately turned to our next jaunt, motoring in France, next week.

We booked tonight’s ferry crossing from Portsmouth just over a week ago so rather a last-minute decision. We don’t have a fixed destination in mind but thought we would head, in leisurely style, towards the châteaux and vineyards of the Loire Valley, an area we last visited way back in 1982!

Hopefully, along the way, there will be plenty of opportunities  for me to gain much-needed practice in my spoken French – pre Rwanda.

Having checked out a few hotels on-line, all of which looked rather over priced, we have decided where possible to camp. Having recently spent four weeks under canvas in Zambia I think I can just about manage another week on the Thermarest mattress shoe-horned into my mummy style sleeping bag.  

Thinking our camping days were well and truly behind us we got rid of our old frame tent and cooking equipment during a loft clearance exercise a few years ago. We have therefore invested in a lightweight, erected in seconds, affair – we’ll see! We are taking just the single gas burner, a small kettle for an early morning cuppa and a box of cornflakes but apart from that we intend to eat out.      

Having given Tuesday over to selecting and buying a tent, Wednesday was ear marked for  getting to grips with the  beginners’ Kinyarwanda course, which to be honest is proving easier said than done.

Half an hour in and I received an emergency phone call from VSO. Apparently the Rwandan authorities require my CRB clearance to be updated before they can issue a work permit. With time of the essence and my passport, which I will be using next week, required as evidence I had no alternative but to present myself in person at Putney HQ.

Thursday, at 6.30, I joined the early morning commuters from Pershore station, bound for Paddington. By 9.30 I had negotiated the District Line down to East Putney and presented myself at the VSO office. Within thirty minutes I had completed the paperwork, the accompanying documentary evidence  had been scrutinised and I was on my way again.

Having made my way,via the Central Line, to Chancery Lane I collapsed inside Café Nero, with a much-needed black Americano and  a (low-calorie) sticky toffee muffin, for breakfast.

This was my pre-appointed place of rendezvous with Gem who has recently taken up an appointment, as features writer, in the Old Holborn office of Love It magazine. We managed to grab 40 minutes or so together and she seems very happy with her new job which seems to be going fine. You can check out what she’s up to every Tuesday, copies available from all reputable newsagents and stationers!

Friday was another day of Test cricket, this time at Edgbaston. I hadn’t realised when I booked the ticket, months ago, that Pakistan would prove such light weight opponents this year and that I would be spending the day under gloomy Birmingham skies watching the play against the grey backdrop of a building site.

A 30 million pound redevelopment of the pavilion end is mid completion. It will be great when it’s finished (right) but it remains a mystery to me how the ECB could justify scheduling a Test Match at this venue, under these circumstances, given that there are a number of other grounds perfectly willing and able to stage the game.

The ball seamed and swung and, with Pakistan all out for a paltry 72, by mid afternoon the game was, to all intents and purposes, over. Given the advantageous bowling condition and the fragile state of the Pakistani batting it’s quite difficult to judge just how good the England bowlers are but it was good to see Stuart Broad amongst the wickets again.

Yesterday, Saturday, was the first day of the 2010-11 football season for all of those teams outside the Premier League! Forest were away at Burnley, who were relegated from the top-tier last year and are favourites to bounce straight back up again.

I decided to make the journey north to Turf Moor as there won’t be too many opportunities for me to watch the Tricky Trees before Christmas. With the aid of the trusty sat nav I was there in two and a half hours, motorway all the way.

It was a bit of a nostalgic trip for me. Back in 1966-7 Forest finished runners-up in the old 1st Division and as young 13-year-old fan I tried to get to as many games as possible. Visits to away grounds were quite a rarity in those days and Burnley was one of the first that I managed to get to.

I remember  it vividly. A friend’s uncle arrived mid afternoon in his old Morris Minor and offered to take us to the Easter Tuesday evening match. Of course we jumped at the chance. The old car wasn’t much of a speedster, especially with five of us in it, but we made the kick off.

I can remember the glistening cobbled streets around the ground which was tucked in amongst rows of terraced houses. It was real flat cap and whippet territory and the accents on the terraces were as thick as Lancashire Hot Pot!

Forest won that night with two goals from the legendary Zigger Zagger , Zigger Zagger, Joe Baker!  We could have done with him up front yesterday. He would have buried at least one of the three chances Nathan Tyson managed to lash into the crowd. The 1-0 defeat, was hard to take but the performance suggested we will be there or there about again at the business end of the season.     

That’s  just about it for this week. I’ve mowed the lawns, packed the car and the sun is even shining for the first time this week. La belle France beckons!

PS.

Bonne Anniversaire Gem!  I hope you are enjoying Lille and Reims with Nicci and Rache and enjoying a celebratory bottle of fizzy (or two)!

La corrida de toros – a cruel beauty!
August 6, 2010

Chris and I spent much of our final evening in Cordoba perched on bar stools in the Café Gaudi. This traditional tapas bar owes much to the artistic style of the renowned Catalonian architect after whom it had been named.

We were the only tourists, surrounded by locals following their typical Sunday evening routine. As we sipped on our Cruzcampo beers, accumulating an impressive pile of empty tapas dishes, it was interesting to observe that in this particular corner of southern Spain smoking is still allowed and la corrida de toros (bullfighting) remains ever popular!

Duels in the sun were being fought out on a large TV screen in the corner of the bar, casually followed by customers, in much the same way as Match of the Day might be in England.

Just before leaving the UK I had read that the regional parliament of Catalonia had become the first on the Spanish mainland to ban this controversial traditional art.  

For many of course it is purely and simply a blood sport and animal rights activists have secured a long-awaited victory. They are now, apparently, setting their sights on the regional parliament of Madrid.

They will be armed with the evidence of recent polls which suggest nearly 70% of Spaniards have little or no interest in bullfighting as a spectacle while 35% are in support of a ban.

Catalonia has a long tradition of staging contests between el matador and el toro, particularly in Barcelona, but it is a region which considers itself quite separate from the rest of the country. Cynics are therefore suggesting that by providing such a high-profile public stance, against what is considered a Spanish national symbol, this decision smacks of political opportunism!       

Through his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously did much to popularise the cruel beauty of bullfighting outside of Spain. During the grey years of Franco’s dictatorship it provided a certain touch of Hollywood glamour which endured into the 1960s and the early years of the international tourist boom.  

There is no doubting the spectacle; the artistry, skill and bravery of the matador dressed in his traje de luces (suit of lights) playing the raging bull with his muleta (cape). There is also no denying the resultant gore, be it of man or beast.

More often than not it is the estoque (sword) of the matador  that deals the estocado (death-blow) but there are huge risks and very fine, potentially fatal, margins of error when a half tonne bull lowers hits horns and charges by within inches of the torero (matador).  

Top toreros in Spain are feted alongside their national football and pop idols. Jose Tomas has demanded fees of up to 400,000 Euros for providing an afternoon of thrilling spectacle for bullfighting aficionados.

He is, however, currently recovering from a savage goring received in Mexico earlier this year. You may recall the TV images of the bull tossing him aside like a rag doll and his bloodied body being carried from the ring!

Apparently the history of bullfighting stretches back nearly 1300 years. It is undoubtedly a cultural tradition that forms part of the Spanish national identity. If its public appeal is on the wane, as polls suggest, it will die a slow death of its own.

In the meant time I suggest that the regional governments allow la corrida de toros to run its natural course and ignore the calls for a ban in much the same way as they appear to have dealt with European smoking laws!