Cagnomatic for the people

I called into the Auberge de Founex for a coffee and to read the news on my way to work last week. On the way out I spotted something on the wall that puzzled me. I took a photo to enable further investigation…

A Cagnomatic in the Auberge de Founex

A Cagnomatic provides a means of organizing a cagnotte du bistro, a tradition that seems to be specific to parts of Switzerland. The word cagnotte can be variously translated as kitty, jackpot or nest egg. The Cagnomatic is used by a group of regular customers at a café or bistro to collectively save money over a fixed period of time towards a particular goal or occasion.

This post (in French) that I found on a blog published in Fribourg describes how it works. Here’s a translation:

The cagnotte, a veritable savings bank at the bistro, is a custom that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The principle is simple. Each member of the cagnotte commits to depositing a monthly amount. He slides the note into his slot in the Cagnomatic. A committee, elected by the members, regularly records the deposits, puts the money in a bank account, and does the accounts. Once a year they hold a soirée de la cagnotte. The café owner pays for the first drink, followed by the distribution of the money saved and a celebratory supper among friends. Note that the money saved cannot be withdrawn in advance of the soirée.

The post goes on to say that the tradition is widespread in the historic centre of Fribourg, being present in at least seven cafés at that time. (The post was published in 2011.)

I asked my Swiss colleagues whether they had heard of a Cagnomatic and most had not. On seeing the photo some remembered seeing such machines in older Genevois cafés, but didn’t know what purpose they served. It’s reassuring that one can still stumble across local, somewhat secret traditions in our globalized world.

Now I must find a cagnotte to join.

Top tip on bike rental in Amsterdam

I had the pleasure of spending 24 hours in Amsterdam this week, organising a dinner for Netherlands-based alumni of the school I work for. (The Apotheek room at the Pultizer Hotel, where we held the dinner for 14 people, was a perfect venue for this kind of thing. The food was excellent too.) It was so lovely to be back in the city where we spent two and a half very happy years. I hadn’t visited since September 2013 and was definitely missing it.

When we left to return to Switzerland in 2011 I wrote a blog post about some of my favourite things to see and do in Amsterdam. I often share the post with friends that ask me for travel advice. Having returned as a kind of tourist again this week, I discovered a potentially very useful tip for related to bike rental in Amsterdam. There are loads of different rental companies, but only one (as far as I know) that offered what I needed, which was the possibility of returning a bike after opening hours.

I was in the city for just 24 hours and needed a bike from Thursday morning. My flight was at 09:00 the following morning. Most of the rental companies close between 18:00 and 19:00, but I really wanted to have the use of the bike until midnight or later. I discovered (tipped off via an old forum discussion that I haven’t been able to re-find) that Star Bikes offer a late return service. For €9 I could hire for a 24 hour period and simply lock the bike outside the shop whenever I was finished, dropping the keys through their letterbox. Perfect!

They’re located quite close to the central station, on the waterfront just a little further east along De Ruyterkade. The woman that served me was super-friendly and gave me a nice discreet black bike with a big basket (which meant I didn’t look like a tourist, as those on the very popular red and yellow bikes do).

Miriam of Mulligan's

I only managed to follow up on one of my top tips from that 2011 blog post and can happily confirm (thanks to my Star Bikes enabled late night mobility) that Mulligan’s pub is as gezellig as ever. Miriam, the owner, was behind the bar and I enjoyed catching up with her over a fine pint of the black stuff (and possibly something a little stronger to follow).

Breakfast at Café Thijssen

I’ll also mention in passing that I took advantage of the wifi at Café Thijssen (at the Brouwersgracht end of Lindengracht) to do a bit of work on Thursday morning. The yoghurt, fruit and muesli they serve there is every bit as good as I remembered. In fact, I probably should have included this place in that earlier Amsterdam travel tips blog post, as it’s a nice spot to visit at any time of day or night. (Then again, the Jordaan area is spilling over with nice little “bruin cafés”.)

The best Irish pubs outside Ireland

I’ve been an Irishman abroad for more than ten years now, and had already travelled a fair bit before leaving for Switzerland in February 2004. One big difference between being an Irish tourist and actually living overseas is that you tend to visit Irish pubs more often. It helps to keep the homesickness at bay and Irish pubs are usually one of the best places to meet (not just Irish) people, hear live music, etc.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve got a fair bit of experience of Irish pubs around Europe and a bit beyond. And I like to drink Guinness. Nowt wrong with that, eh?

Barack Obama with a pint of Guinness

My absolute favourite Irish pub outside Ireland is Mulligan’s of Amsterdam. Here’s how I described it in a post on my top Amsterdam spots after living there for a couple of years:

Live music and good Guinness in Mulligans – as an Irishman overseas I do sometimes get a hankering for a pint of the black stuff. The best pint in town is to be found in Mulligans Irish Music Bar. It’s just around the corner from Rembrantplein but it feels like you’re stepping into an oasis away from the neon and the tourists. Live music three or four nights a week, trad sessions on a Sunday, bar staff who take pride in their job, and TVs that are only switched on when there’s a match featuring an Irish team. Many’s the pub in Ireland could learn a thing or two. (Honourable mention to Molly’s where Matthew and the gang have taken good care of me over the two years.)

As it happens, Mulligan’s of Geneva has been my favourite Irish pub around these parts. I say “has been” because, sad to say, it’s not the pub it was. In its heyday it was the hub of expat life in Geneva; in fact I think it had probably already peaked in that sense when I first got here in 2004. Nonetheless, I’ve had many memorable nights there and I still like to drop in from time to time for old times’ sake. Otherwise, in terms of Irish pubs in Switzerland, the Café du Cerf in Neuchâtel and Paddy’s Pub in Ferney-Voltaire (alright, that one is technically in France) would be two others worth a visit.

The best pubs…according to reddit

What prompted this post is that it occurred to me earlier this week that the folks that hang out on the Ireland subreddit on reddit.com might well be a useful source of knowledge and tips on this very topic. So I kicked off a discussion there that did indeed generate a fair few tips on Irish pubs outside Ireland. I thought it would be a good idea to gather the complete list together, in no particular order, so that I have a handy reference whenever I find myself in some far-flung place in need of a pint.

Europe

  • De Danú, Toulouse, France
  • Stapleton’s, Leuven, Belgium
  • The Celt, Los Alcázares, Murcia, Spain
  • The George Best Bar, Bled, Slovenia
  • St James and Flanagans, both in Lyon, France
  • Lir, Berlin
  • O’Connells, Stockholm
  • The Corkonian and Flanagan’s, both in Cologne
  • Fitzpatrick’s, Essen, Germany

North America

  • Johnnie Fox’s Irish Snug, at Granville and Nelson, Vancouver
  • McVeigh’s, (formerly the Windsor House), Toronto
  • The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, New York City
  • Kells, Portland, Oregon
  • Molly Maguire’s, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
  • Finn McCool’s, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Nine Fine Irishmen in New York, New York casino, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Gaelic Park in Chicago
  • The Druid, The Field and the Tam, all in Cambridge (outside Boston)
  • Black Rose, State Street, Boston
  • Raglan Road, Disneyland, Orlando
  • Tigin or Fado pubs in the USA

Rest of the World

  • Finnegan’s, Hanoi, Vietnam
  • Tropical Murphy’s, Chaweng, Koh Samui, Thailand
  • Paddy’s, Cusco, Peru
  • Bobby Sands, Afghanistan

Now we just need somebody to create a wiki or a collaborate map for Irish pubs. Any volunteers…

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

I’ve posted photo blogs here following various trips and holidays in the past, so I thought I should also do so after last week’s family holiday on the Atlantic coast in France. There’s not much to report however, partly because we didn’t take many photos, but also because we did pretty much the same thing each day, i.e. go to the beach.

Immobile home

We picked the location by drawing a line directly west of Geneva, the idea being to find somewhere by the sea that wouldn’t be too hot in July. We settled on a campsite close to Soulac-sur-Mer, just across the Gironde estuary from Royan. We rented a mobile home at Camping le Royannais, a small-ish site that emphasises its eco-credentials. The owner, Pascal, is proud to be the only French campsite participating in the 1% for the planet scheme. Eco or otherwise, it was perfect for our needs: leafy and quiet with a swimming pool, a place to buy basic provisions, and a playground for Robert.

Perfect beach

The biggest attraction us was the campsite’s proximity to the beach. A leisurely five minute cycle brought us to the foot of a tall, steep sand dune. The reward for scaling it was a perfect, almost empty sandy beach. Great for swimming at high tide; and with rock pools teeming with life when the tide went out.

Swimming

I really enjoyed my daily dip in the ocean. It was perfectly safe for swimming, with waves that were more fun than dangerous. You can just about see me in the middle of the photo above, with Robert trying to decide whether he wanted to join me or not. (Not, as it turned out, but he eventually did a bit of splashing about in the shallows.)

Labyrinth

It had been years – decades in fact – since I spent any time playing about in the sand. I had great fun reliving my childhood, carving moats around sand castles, building dams, digging big holes and all that. But what Robert enjoyed most, and me too if I’m honest, were the labyrinths I drew in the sand for him to navigate through. (In the photo above he’s just made it through one of them.) This will definitely become a thing for us on beach holidays to come.

PGVS Train

Aside from mornings at the beach and afternoons at the swimming pool (not really my cup of tea) we did just a little exploring in the area, which lies at the top of the Médoc wine region. Another definite highlight, aside from the beach, was the tourist train that runs along the coast from Pointe de Grave, the tip of the peninsula, to Soulac. It chugs along at about 20 kmph, running through the forests and sand dunes and providing views of the iconic Cordouan lighthouse out in the bay.

Soulac itself is really quite nice as touristy towns go. The shops selling trinkets and tack are limited to a single street with plenty of other businesses to soften the blow. It’s worth a visit to see the hundreds of pretty little stone and wood villas (and a basilica that was completely buried by the sands in the 18th century).

We took two days for the drive both there and back as we needed regular stops for the kids. Actually, both Declan and Robert were great throughout the holiday and the cross-country drive wasn’t too much bother at that relaxed pace. On the way over we had a very pleasant overnight stay at Hotel le Chatel, just off the motorway about an hour after Clermont Ferrand in a village called Combressol. We’d recommend it if you need a stop-off point in the middle of France.

We followed a different, mostly off-motorway route for the return and ended up staying overnight in Aubusson, a thriving little town in the heart of the Limousin region. The tapestry capital of France apparently…but we were happy just to stretch our legs wandering through it’s streets built in a steep-sided valley. The Hotel le France looked impressive, but our room was quite noisy due to the cars labouring up the hill outside our window. Still, not bad given that we booked it an hour before we arrived in the town – we were lucky to get a room at all.

Oh, and Declan played with his toes a lot!

 

A little bit of Bangalore

My sister Meave and her family moved recently to Bangalore, where her husband James will be working until late next year. We decided to pay them an early visit, taking advantage of Robert’s final “free” flights  before he turns two at the end of this month.

They’re living an a nice big apartment in the Domlur area, which allows James to walk to and from work. Avoiding the often chaotic traffic was a key factor, but it’s also a good neighbourhood, close to the lively Indra Nagar area. (They could have  chosen a more sedate gated community, but I think they’re getting a better experience where they are, even if it takes a bit more energy and effort.)

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They’ve quickly taken to the pace of life there. Even after just a few weeks they have a good grasp of the city – and a dash across the busy streets is almost second nature now.

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We spent a considerable amount of time in autorickshaws – or “autos” – manoeuvring through the busy traffic, with every available gap quickly filled by motorbikes, autos or cars that are remarkably free of dents and scratches. The air is dusty, and always filled with the sound of horns and hooters. But it’s a fun way to get about and we were soon taking rides alone, having learned the ins and outs of agreeing a fair fare. (The photo shows Nadine with James and my nephew Daniel.)

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Naturally, this being India, wheeled vehicles are not the only hasard on the road. These cows were strolling nonchalantly down one of the quieter streets in Domlur, but we often spotted animals in the midst of the rush hour traffic.

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Thankfully our visit was after the rainy season, but there were still showers now and again. When the rain gets heavy, the bikers pull up at the side of the road and take shelter wherever they can, patiently waiting for the shower to pass.

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Our first week took in a visit to Lalbagh Park, where Daniel was very excited to add to his count of monkey-spottings, and a swim at a very nice pool complex in one of the gated communities. Perhaps the biggest hit with Robert, however, were the slides and climbing frames at the playground in Indra Nagar.

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One of our two trips away from the city was to Mysore, just over three hours away by bus. It was a smooth journey in air-conditioned comfort, but it felt quite strange to be watching a Bollywood film shot partly in Dublin while travelling on a bus through the India. (The volume was also way too loud – thankfully our return journey was movie-less.) Mysore is considered a must-see in the region and it was thronged with Indian tourists. We managed a quick tour around the impressive Amba Vilas Palace…

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…but Robert was definitely  more excited by the horse and cart we used to get back to our hotel. (A change from the auto.)

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The following day we visited Mysore Zoological Gardens, where we were pleasantly surprised to find large enclosures, healthy-looking animals, and messaging focused strongly on conservation and sustainability. (Nice photo Nadine!)

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At times it felt like we – and particularly Robert – were just as popular as the exhibits however. We had lots of requests for people to take photos of or with Robert. We mostly declined as politely as possible, but in this case he was pounced on while having a little rest on a bench.

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Back in Bangalore, the weekend included a visit to the small (for a palace!), but perfectly formed Tipu Sultan’s Palace, preceded by a walk through the city’s famous flower market. William and Daniel became the centre of attention, presented with garlands of flowers (in their respective favourite colours of course). We also took advantage of our hosts’ offer to babysit and had a night out to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. Sadly our visit to the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms didn’t live up to our expectations – but it was nice to be out and about for the night (or at least until the citywide closing time of 11pm).

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Sunday brunch at the Leela Palace hotel was a real treat. As impressive a buffet as you’ll ever see and plenty of bubbles to wash it all down. (Robert was so excited by it all he refused to take his usual nap.)

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During our second week we flew down to Kerala for a couple of nights, saying at the little slice of paradise that is the Bethsaida Hermitage, near Kovalam. It’s an Ayurvedic health resort, but our chosen therapy consisted of nothing more than relaxing as much as possible. The food was almost entirely vegetarian and really tasty. We sampled cuisine from all over India, with curries, dhals, biryanis, and breads of all kinds, all bursting with amazing flavours.

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Our room had a little terrace and garden, and a view of palm trees wafting in the breeze coming in off the Arabian Sea. It wasn’t yet high season, so the resort was quiet. There were a few glum-looking Russians lazing by the pools or wandering about in dressing gowns following some treatment or another. (One treatment seemed to involve having a palm leaf wrapped around your head for a few hours – very strange-looking.)

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I took a couple of dips in the sea. The waves were big and there was a considerable undertow, but with advice from the local lifeguard I felt confident enough. It was exhilarating!

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Back in Bangalore we spent a final couple of days shopping, eating, bowling and generally making the most of our time with the family. I have to say, one of the best aspects of the holiday for me was being able to spend two weeks more or less constantly with Robert.

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Our final evening included an early 2nd birthday celebration…

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… and we took advantage of the play area during our stopover at Frankfurt Airport to shake out the long haul wrinkles.

It was my first visit to India and although Bangalore wouldn’t have been my first choice of destination, I feel that I know the country much better than I did before. I’m sure I’ll return to explore more widely in future.

Two-player paradise

I’ve always enjoyed a game of Scrabble. Flicking through holiday snaps from the last ten years it’s often a case of “A win for Nadine in Lisbon”, “Victory for Eoghan in Tromso”, etc. (Actually, sadly it’s more often the former than the latter in terms of the winning player.) In the last few years the menu of games has expanded a bit in our household, with Settlers of Catan being a popular one for when friends are around. But there’s a certain category of game that I’ve really been getting into: two-player strategy games that can be quickly learned and don’t last too long. There are three that I particularly enjoy playing and that I can recommend to anyone who enjoys a good board game, but doesn’t have the time or energy for the one or two hour sessions they sometimes entail. (And they’re great for travelling.)

Quoridor

Before we set off for a trip around New Zealand I visited a games shop in the Nine Streets in Amsterdam and asked them to recommend a good two-player game we could take with us. This is how I was introduced to Quoridor, a game that we’ve now introduced to lots of friends. It involves moving your piece across a simple board of 9×9 squares, trying to get to the opposite side before your opponent. Each player has ten walls they can place at any time instead of making a move. This is what keeps the game interesting, as you try to find ways of blocking your opponent without making your own journey any longer. It’s almost as much fun to watch as to play, and there’s a four player variant that gets quite manic at times (for a board game).

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Quoridor: The dark player looks to be about to win here, but not by much.

Quarto

A mini-catalogue of other games from the same manufacturer brought us to Quarto. It has a similarly short learning curve to Quoridor, but is quite a different game. In this case you’re trying to create a row of four pieces that share the same characteristics. There are 16 pieces in total, each one unique, having a combo of four possible characteristics: square vs. circular; hollow vs. solid: dark vs. light; tall vs. short. An interesting twist  is that you choose the piece your opponent has to place each time. It requires quite a bit of mental agility to keep all of the combinations in mind and to try to second guess your opponent’s next few moves. Both of these games take three minutes to learn and shouldn’t last more than ten to play a full game.

Hive

The same games shop in Amsterdam that recommended Quoridor also introduced us to Hive, another fun quick-to-learn, quick-to-play, two-player strategy game. There are five different pieces that can be played, things like ants, spiders or beetles. As in chess, each has a different movement pattern which makes them useful for particular moves or strategies but not for others. Unlike chess, there’s no board here, with the aim being to avoid having your queen bee encircled.

And with pen and paper…

Finally, I also wanted to mention briefly a fun variant on Noughts & Crosses or Tic-Tac-Toe that I came across recently via kottke.org (a great compendium of interesting stuff from around the web). Called “Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe”, it takes the standard, childish game to a whole new level and actually makes it fun again. You draw one big grid and then place a smaller grid in each of its nine spaces. Once the game is under way each player’s move dictates the grid where the next player must move. Each grid you win becomes an X or an O for you, as you attempt to win on the big grid. This blog post explains well how it works and provides a few notes on tactics. But I recommend just learning the basic rules and then exploring the possiblities with a fellow gaming geek. It’s more fun that way.

A tale of two toilets

Visiting our friends Ruth and Damian about a year ago we noticed that they had twinned their toilet. The money raised by this clever idea is spent on providing safe, clean toilets for people in developing countries. It’s something we take for granted in our part of the world, but actually 2.5 billion people don’t have suitable sanitary facilities.

They ask for a donation of GBP £60, which goes towards providing toilets for countries in various parts of the world. Apparently it can cost between £10 and £100 to build such facilities, depending on the circumstances. In return your toilet is twinned with a recently built toilet in a country of your choosing – and you get a nice framed certificate to display. As with many charity schemes this serves the dual purpose of making you feel good about yourself (not so important) and spreading the word (very important). I think it’s a very clever way to spread the word – when you visit friends that’s one room you usually end up spending time in, right?

Toilet Certificate

We chose to twin with a toilet in Ethiopia, not least as my neice and nephew are both half-Ethiopian. They provide you with the GPS coordinates of “your” toilet’s location. Ours is located in a village south of Addis Ababa.


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Toilet Detail

(Actually, this is the second time we’ve done this, as our friend Paul pointed out that, having moved house recently, we were cheating by moving the twinning certificate too. It was in fact the toilet in our old place in Meyrin that was twinned with a toilet in Burkina Faso. Hence this new twinning. It was nice to see that in just over a year the Latrine No. has risen from 977 to more than 80,000. Clearly this idea is going viral.)

toilettwinning.org

Not having regrets

My very cool friend Chantal is taking some time out from being a doctor in Switzerland to do a bit of travelling. We’ve been able to follow her progress via the blog she posts to now and again. A recent post from New Zealand included a quote (“Wherever you go, there you are”) that reminded me of a couple of lines from a song that I wrote while we were living in Amsterdam. I thought she might appreciate the lyrics so I sent them to her – and she did! She asked me to send her a recording of the song and since one didn’t yet exist I sat down this evening with my trusty Zoom H4 to do a quick and dirty recording. Et voila!

 

[Edit 2016: actually the recording above is a later one I did in a studio in Lausanne…]

And the lyrics…

Have No Regrets

If I could do it all again I’d make the same mistakes my friends,
I’d follow all the bad advice, ’cause that’s what brought me here tonight.

I’d take a big sharp left down the rocky road to wrong
And realise experience is going for a song
I’d miss my step and I’d stumble and I’d trip
Then climb back on the pony once again to crack the whip.

Have no regrets, Have no illusions,
If what’s for granted’s kind of slanted then just slide away in doubt,
Have no regrets, not no amusement,
And eventually you’ll end up where you’re meant to be, oh yes.

If I could take it from the top, rewind the tape, restart the clock,
I’d say the same lines every time, ’cause they’re the lines that made her mine.

I’d make the same bad choices, upset the apple cart,
And fall in love with women who would only break my heart
I’d pick the same bad moment to say what’s on my mind
Accept the consequences, take the hit and do the time,

Have no regrets, Have no illusions,
If what’s for granted’s kind of slanted then just slide away in doubt,
Have no regrets, not no amusement,
And eventually you’ll end up where you’re meant to be, oh yes,
Have no illusions,
If what’s for granted’s kind of slanted then just slide away in doubt,
Have no regrets, not no amusement,

and eventually, take it from me, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be,
And that’s exactly here you see, ’cause no one’s ever been
Where they’re not meant to be,
Have no regrets.

What Julia did

About five years ago my friend Julia bought a rundown property on some land close to the village of Alegrete in eastern Portugal. Last weekend we paid her a visit to see how the project is progressing.

The property is on the edge of a national park, surrounded by wooded hills. Her plot of land is home to olive trees, cork oaks and various other plants, herbs and bushes.

The building itself wasn’t much more than four walls and a bit of roof when she bought it. It’s now the warm, welcoming home of Julia and Vitor, stretching across two two floors, with a guest bedroom, wood-burning stoves for heat, and plenty of space. Of course there will always be a To Do list – they plan to plaster the exterior wall shown above and there are some chimmney issues to address – but it’s already a very comfortable place to live now.

There are upwards of twenty olive trees on the property.It’s not enough to generate a significant income; nonetheless, they can take their crop into the local press and take home how ever many litres of olive oil they produce. And there are plenty of olives for eating throughout the year too.

Another useful harvest comes from the cork oaks, whose bark is chopped off every nine years. It’s not of sufficiently high grade to use for wine bottles but there are many other uses. The axe above is used to cut a seam down the trunk of the tree…

….and then the bark is prised from around the trunk. The tree itself isn’t harmed, and another thick layer of bark grows back over the years that follow. The trees are marked to indicate when a harvest was last cut from them.

Julia and Vitor have had to clear the land of quite a bit of dead wood, which now serves as a useful supply of firewood. The bark also has to be stripped from these cork oak logs, partly to prevent unwanted ash from clogging up the flue, but also as even these off-cuts can be sold for a modest sum.

It’s quite a labour intensive process. I was happy to give it a try under the guidance of Vitor on Sunday morning. Between us we stripped three wheelbarrows worth of logs in about an hour, generating a couple of big sacks of cork bark. (He, naturally, did the lion’s share of the work, but I felt like I held my own.)

They’re not just removing trees from the land – they’ve also planted lots of fruit trees, with a clever watering system designed by Vitor to help them get through the hot summers.

While they wait for the new trees to bear fruit, they have many generous neighbours who are happy to share. This pomegranate tree is just around the corner – we made fresh pomegranate syrup – and some quince fruits from a neighbour were made into jam over the weekend too.

The longer term plans revolve partly around the distillation of essential oils. For example, there are lots of rock rose bushes on the land, which can be used to create a sought-after essential oil. And that’s just one example of the many plants that can be used in this way. The still above was bought at the market in the nearby town of Estremoz and can be used to distill oils above a gas flame.

The steam travels through a long pipe, cooled by water, before ending up in a flask like this one, which can be used to separate the oil from the water.

What will all that hard work harvesting fruit and cork and distilling essential oils, it’ll be necessary to relax too. The ground between these three cork oaks has been earmarked for a spa pool, with the trellised entrance already taking shape. A return visit will be necessary I think!

We took a stroll up a nearby hill on Monday afternoon. I got to watch the sun set from close to the summit – and to look down on the valley where Julia and Vitor’s place is.

A bird-watching hide has been erected from which you can spot a multitude of birds of prey. We, however, just used it to keep Robert amused!

We had a wonderful time sharing a few days with Julia, Vitor, Zoe the dog, and Antonio and Lou the cats. Robert was tolerated by the animals and spoiled by Julia and Vitor.

When we got up on Tuesday morning they had prepared a plate of special treats for the birthday boy.

They’re living in a kind of paradise, in circumstances that many people dream about, but few have the persistence and vision to see through. I admire Julia very much for the way she’s made this work. We were neighbours on Rue Jean-Violette in Geneva for five years – nice and all as that was, she’s in a much better place now.

Oh, and I should point out that I won the winner-takes-all domino match on our last night in Alegrete, taking the golden fly swat as my prize!

To finish, here are a couple of other shots of us enjoying the Portuguese autumn sunshine.

Turning water into wine (or my beef with Wine & Beef)

Wine & Beef  is a bistro in central Geneva that specialises in, well, wine and beef. Like a few other places around town, the idea is that you decide only how you want your steak cooked and what to drink. I planned to go there for the first time yesterday, having taken a half day to spend some time with our visitors. We did eventually eat excellent steak, but at Café de Paris. Here’s why…

We took our seats, ordered three saignant steaks, a bottle of red wine and, as the waiter was closing his notebook, a carafe of water. He said they only served bottled water. I explained that we wanted tap water – that the water in Geneva is excellent and there was no reason to drink l’eau plate from a bottle in this town. He still refused.

Et si j’insiste?” I said. Nope. It was a business thing, he said; it was completely normal in Geneva he said; there’s no legislation forcing him to serve tap water, he said. I offered to pay for a bottle of water if he would bring us a carafe of tap water. Nope. He simply would not serve tap water. Taking his cue from that biblical tale, he  even offered to, in effect, turn our water in wine, saying he’d give us a free half litre of wine. After checking with my cousin and her husband that they were in agreement, we got up and walked out. As I said, we had a wonderful lunch just up the road in Café de Paris, where they had no problem serving us a carafe of water.

An overreaction? Perhaps. I certainly do drink bottled water from time to time, and if the people I’m eating with have ordered it I don’t create a scene, but I believe it’s my right to be served tap water if I ask for it. And there are lots of reasons why drinking tap water is a better idea in general…watch the video below.

So my beef with Wine & Beef is their refusal to serve tap water to a customer that had just ordered over 150 CHF worth of food and drinks from them. It’s a very stupid and shortsighted attitude to have. I won’t be eating there in future.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge the irony of the fact that, according to this infographic (which looks fantastic, by the way), 15,400 litres of water go into the production of a single kg of beef. That kind of dwarfs the bottle we refused to order!

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