I am writing this from Biarritz, a seaside town originally put on the map as a holiday resort by Napoléon III when he built his beloved Spanish wife, Eugénie de Montijo, a two-storey villa set high on a windy bluff overlooking the town’s grand plage (largest beach). The villa still stands. Now augmented to five storeys, it looks out across the coast to marvellous rock formations and sometimes worryingly wild waves and is today the very fabulous Hôtel du Palais.
Aside from the fact that the position is right near the Spanish border, it is hard to comprehend for what reason back in the 1850s Napoléon chose such an isolated spot for his sweetheart. Eugénie was born in Granada in Andalucia, southern Spain, so I would have expected that she was more akin to the calm and warmth of the Mediterranean.
I was going to write that the royal couple would not have been here for the surfing because such a sport did not exist back then, but I am wrong. I have learnt this week that surfing is one of the oldest sports on the planet. Even the navigator Captain James Cook in his journals of Polynesia describes how a native Tahitian was catching the waves just for the fun it…
Today, surfers call it ‘stepping into liquid’ and it is a multi-billion dollar industry. I have been roaming the hilly streets and cobbled lanes set back from the beach, peering into the windows of board shops. I have been eavesdropping conversations at beachside cafés where surfers in Rayban shades, bronzed skin and the best bodies you could ever hope to see, are discussing ‘catching waves’, ‘getting amped’, ‘curl ten’… and other terms that require a dictionary to fully understand.
This last week, though, the sea has been translucent and at 24.5 degrees Celsius almost as warm as the Mediterranean. It has meant there has been no action for the surfies but a pleasure for swimmers such as myself.
I am not here though to holiday. I came here to write an article about this town and to interview three particular Basque inhabitants. A father and daughter team and a man who makes shoes. The two interviews are for the new feature I am writing for France magazine entitled Vignettes. I am roaming France in search of people with unusual stories or trades. It is quite an adventure and I am learning a great deal about my adopted country, most particularly how very individual and often passionately independent the regional peoples are. It is also an excellent excuse to indulge my time in ways I never usually would. Last night I attended a semi-final of the Basque ball game, pelota. Three men to a team, it is played with a large woven racket or bat known as a chistera.
Astounding feats of gamesmanship are involved. Someone claimed that it is the fastest ball game on earth. I don’t know about that, but I certainly did a fair bit of gasping and clapping.
Yesterday, driving to meet one of my vignette characters, I found myself very close to the Spanish border, footsteps from the start of the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. I was quite tempted to drop everything and walk. This route also contains a fascinating story but one for another occasion perhaps and one that has already been told. So, it is almost time for me to cross the southern hem of France to return home and continue with the novel I am writing.
A couple of bits of news, as this is a Newsletter:
An Abundance of Rain, my first novel, has been reprinted as an e-book and has been chosen by Amazon as one of their books of the month. It is set in the southern hemisphere on the tropical islands of Fiji. Here are the links, if you would like to purchase it:
If you have already read An Abundance of Rain, another of my earlier novels has also recently been reprinted as an e-book, Mapping the Heart. This one is set between France and Brazil.
I have been receiving lots of mails from US viewers saying that All Creatures Great and Small is replaying again in the States. Thank you for writing, sorry for the huge delay in replying. I have no secretary and I am trying to catch up with my backlog of correspondence. Many of you who have only known me as an actress have been asking which of my books would I advise you to begin with. I suggest, if you read e-books then why not start with one of the two novellas I have written for Amazon? These are The Girl in Room Fourteen or Hotel Paradise. If you prefer your reading in paper form and you would like to know a little of what I have been up to since I more or less stopped acting and started writing fulltime, I would recommend you begin with The Olive Farm. There are six books in the Olive series so if you enjoy the first, there is plenty more material to keep you going through the autumn months.
Our five documentary films inspired by my two books The Olive Route and The Olive Tree are being retransmitted on Arte in France and Germany every evening during the last week of October. So, if you are in one of these viewing regions, please do tune in for them.
Our beehives are still inland in the Parc de la Mercatour and they are thriving now that they are out of danger from the threat of the Asian hornet. They will return here in the autumn when the hornets have died off for the winter. This pest is a new and unwanted challenge for honeybees. The Asian hornet first reached Bordeaux on a boatload of pottery coming in from China in 2004. Until last year, they had kept themselves to the western side of France but they have now crossed to the east and they are lethal pests and will attack beehives, as they have attacked ours. Fortunately, I spotted them and we were able to get our hives off the land before too much damage was done. Next year, we will have to set (non-chemical) traps for them at the entry to the nests. One of the difficulties is that these hornets – not be confused with the European hornet which is more or less harmless and does lots of good on the land – make their nests in high tree canopies so they are hard to spot and then harder to access. Here is a small picture on an Asian hornet so that you know what they look like.
They are identifiable by the yellow marking at the very base of their body. Aside from that, they tend to be smaller than their European cousins and their bodies are black, or a dark velvet brown.
If you care about the future of the honeybee, please go to my Bee Awareness page on this website. There are lots of things you can do to help protect these exceedingly important pollinators. Please take the time to read about their plight. Thank you.
So, now I must get myself organised and return to the olive farm. Soon, we will be preparing a vey early olive harvest. We have not had the same success with our sardines this year, our organic alternative to chemical spraying. I am not sure why. Almost all the sardines disappeared within days of being submerged in the bottles and hung from olive branches. Were they taken by birds? If so, it is the first time this has happened. Because Michel and I were both very busy, I delegated the task of hanging the sardines to someone who has been helping us out on the farm. We don’t know. Perhaps they were not sufficiently submerged in water? The other possibility is that the sardines were much smaller so perhaps they were easier, lighter to lift out of the bottles. It is a puzzle.
I paid a visit to the olive mill a couple of weeks ago and our miller was looking very sorry for himself. ‘It should have been a good season,’ he was moaning while shaking his head. He has been told that there is a possible new threat to the drupes. ‘What?’ I asked him, rather horrified for we really do have enough to contend with. ‘Another fly’… and then he proceeded to tell me a fascinating story, which I am not going to disclose here. I will save it for another time, another Newsletter or perhaps another Olive Farm book… the trials and tribulations of life on the farm!
So, back to work to wrap up these articles, cross France and return to work on my novel. To finish off, here is a photo that I took a coupe of days ago. Biarritz at low tide. Lovely, isn’t it?
Please do follow the links for purchasing my books and novellas and I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for reading this and for your continued interest in my work.
PS: this photo below is not the villa built for Empress Eugénie.