A Burgundy diary –  21 May 2022

Teeming early summer

Season of scabious and of vetch; or buttercups and daisies; of pink and white campion; of thyme in flower, or thrift and clover; of marguerite and lush long grass in the field below me. I swear it doubled its height and more in the ten days we were away. The road verges – still not attached by the roadside mowers – teem. The woods are in full summer green.

It would be churlish to lament the lack of rain; the fact that rain only falls when there is a storm; so for now I’ll look out on the abundant summer still green, and quietly pray for generous rain.

Cretan diary, 10 May 2022

Avdou to Mohos through the olive groves

We walked today about 5 kms (3 miles) through the olive groves for lunch in Mohos, and back by the same tracks. Wild flowers were everywhere along the way. Perhaps the most striking was the broom, which you can see spread up all the side of the hills (and mountainsides, further into Crete. The one I like most, which was perhaps the most frequent, was rose-pink cistus. Both attracted bees all along the track. They were joined by such a variety of wild-flowers. I’ll mention those I can remember (and name): poppies, a kind of local fennel, vetch, blue-eyed grass (which I’ve not seen since in the Tarn valley, many years ago), daises and two or three dandelion type flowers; and a type of orchid grew as we arrived at Mohos.

What is remarkable, though, is that we saw no aromatic herbs on the Mohos side. Even the fennel had almost no scent. Whereas south of Avdou there were oregano, mint, a variety of sage – but no thyme, we saw – up the sides of the gorge we walked a couple of days ago.

Olive trees grew all over the hill-side as we climbed. As we descended the short track to Mohos fig-trees – but with no fruit at all, that we could see – were more frequent. A few almond trees grew with fruit just appearing.

Walking through olive-groves is like walking through vine-yards, in this sense: there are no walls or fences to climb, just tracks which pass through the olive-groves. Today it is no longer cart or pack-horse tracks, but well-used access-ways mostly of concrete or still, occasionally, of rock or stone. These must have been developed when the olive-trees were first planted as today’s olive groves, some centuries ago, I suspect.

A thing I find strange about Crete – and intensely frustrating – is that there seem to be no maps (other than basic tourist road maps). Given that the British and the Germans fought over it in the Second World War and the Germans stayed on, I am sure they must have mapped it. That is my test for my return home: to find a few reasonable maps for here. I would love to come here again, but I would like to walk routes I had worked out from maps, not those recommended by Google.

Cretan diary, 9 May 2022

Avdou, Crete

Avdou: the village is small uneven streets, winding between low houses. The centre where we are must be old. The small stone-built houses are built to no obvious plan, fronting straight onto the uneven concrete laid track-ways. Concrete now: originally I image they were stone and hard-trodden earth, muddy in winter. The small space we are in is stone-built: a kitchen and sitting area, three meters by five at its widest and longest; high ceilinged to open beams. A bedroom above is approached by a spiral stair-case. I think it is all quite new, but – thank goodness – it is all of stone, (not eg plaster washed breeze-blocks).

Cats of all colours and sizes – mostly not domesticated, I suspect – patrol the streets. We ate our first lunch here at a small dark tavern run by an old Greek lady, and – I think – her husband (though he seemed to leave her to most of the work). We ate Greek salad with white wine and water, bread and chicken brochette. She gave us chips, perhaps that is what western Europeans are expected to eat. When he found out I was English he mention Carlos Chaplin.

If they are both native Cretan, I reckon they would be old enough to have been here in the Second World War, as small children. Perhaps they remembered the short disastrous (for the English) battle for Crete. Even if I could speak Greek – which I can’t – I would love to have found out what they could remember.

Cats wandered around in the sun in the lanes leading away from the tavern. At one point I reckon I counted ten. Two or three came to see if we’d give them any food. I had a small piece of chicken. One took it away and carefully kept it from his or her fellow cat urchins.

Trees grow in most available spaces in the village: vines, bougainvillea, medlar, fig, wall-nut, jasmine and roses – and geraniums, of course. Most street areas are gently surveyed by carefully pollarded mulberry trees. Their leaves spread and their shade deepens as summer goes on. There are a few orange and olive trees in the village, though these are mostly outside the village and up into the mountains. And the mountains: that is another story of Crete….

To me one of the saddest things about old Avdou is the signs everywhere showing what I take to have been the occupation of the owners each shop over the past hundred years or so. Each sign shows what I assume was a picture of their occupation – food, tailor, carpenter etc – their name or title of the shop and the period when they were there. A lot of buildings by the streets were once shops: you can tell from their windows and doors. Now tourism (I imagine the majority of properties here are let, not owner-occupied) has taken over. Not even a baker survives. There are only tomatoes and apples and onions as fresh fruit and veg: not even oranges. The small supermarket stocks bare survival necessities: little more.

People here – or anywhere else for that matter – no longer take their sewing machine to the mender; or to have clothes repaired or made, or shoes cobbled or a new chair or two made by a carpenter. They drive to IKEA, or to the local super-market and stock up; or in the 21st century – worse still, except for postpersons – they get it all on-line. Local shops and shopkeepers are starved. So what is left? The small ‘Super Market’, a tourist olive oil press (with all tourist treats: nothing of use to any locals); three taverns…

Oh, yes and there are three churches, which grow in size and vulgarity as they move from 14th Century, to 19th to 20th. The first has stunning small faded murals over its low ceilings. I have seen no-one go near the middle one, just our side out from door; still less anyone go inside. Does Avdou’s life now survive with its churches now little more than a relic of a past which fades as we look on; and as all of us fade too?

A Burgundy diary – 27 April 2022

Ups and downs of April

‘April can be the cruellest month’, as TS Elliot nearly said. Blossom on some trees was coming out early in the month; then frost bit, and I suspect any fruit which was to come on those few trees, has gone. We spoke to the trees which were advanced, begged them to hold back; but I fear they didn’t hear us.

And our poor wisteria. It is flowering against the house; but away from the house its buds have met a frost stunned, shrivelled end. We wait to see if leaves will grow around the frost deleted buds.

Sun followed the frost. Day after day of sun. Then finally on Monday we had rain; and I reckon all the grass and wild-flowers grew their height again in 24 hours. Blossom has blown off many of the fruit trees; and you can see the fruit beginning to form. Now we await the possibility of more frost as May goes on; and we hope it won’t come.

Whilst all this waiting works over us, the orchids in the meadow below the house and the buttercups and cowslips spread though the green, and away to the hedge. By the hedge is a trodden path through the grass; and thanks to an infra red camera we know it is a badger’s path. But we only saw the badger once for a few seconds, lolloping across the field. The night camera didn’t pick the badger up again; but you can see where he nestled in under the hedge at the end of his track.

A Burgundy diary –  18 April 2022

A time of blossom…

It’s a time of blossom and wild flowers here. It is blossom and Easter for this note today. All being well wild flowers will stretch from late January (snow drops) till autumn: 8 or 9 months of why you live in Burgundy. Most of the blossom will have drifted down in the next ten days; though each type of blossom has its short season. For us it has been the peach and nectarine, through plums and pears, to – latest, and still a little tentative – the apple trees and quince.

And then for the waiting to see if the fruit has taken. How much blossom over the summer months will mutate into fruit? Two years we were almost overwhelmed by cherries – how could that ever be possible? This year the cherry blossom – wild cherry and domesticated – is everywhere; but how much will survive any late frosts? We covered a couple of small trees in blossom, to insulate them a little, two weeks ago; but most are too big. Any frost this spring, I am sure, will kill the cherries. Our pears – poires des cochons (says out neighbour) will weather anything. And apples and quinces? Let us see…

What I have learned is that, amongst the blossom, there really can be Yeats’s ‘Bee loud glades’. ‘Loud’ may be going it; but a definite susurration of bees there is. Our bees must be loving it…

Finally, for blossom-spotters: above is apple, and at the bottom is cherry on pears. In between is our young apple-tree, the second sentinel pear (on the left), small plum, quince and cherry trees; and then an oak sized crab apple tree in the lane towards Vergoncey.  

A Burgundy diary –   10 April 2022

Blossom and wild flowers in the Spring

Spring is arriving falteringly. Most of March was warm and dry, luring early blossom to tempt their fate with any April frosts. Wild flowers by the lane-sides and in the forests proliferated: celandine was first, I think (after the snow-drops, of course); then violets, and wood anemone, and cowslips. Dandelions rich and yellow compete with the more subtle celandine, and now perry-winkle with the modest violet. We’ve had leaves form the wild garlic (ail des ours) in salad and quiche already; but soon they’ll be in flower in the woods too.

We went to Paris last week-end, and left two of our smaller fruit trees encased in a sort of white synthetic blanket. And last night again we covered them. I am sure some of our blossoms will have been caught by this recent frost; but many of our trees are hearing our beseeching them and holding back on letting their budding blossoms bloom.

Last year we had no cherries. The year before was a glut. Let us see what happens this year. If the frost comes no more, we’ll have fruit. If it descends on us again, there are only so many trees we can cocoon against it.

A Burgundy diary – 27 February 2022

Creusefond, a ruisseau

I live in a village – a hamlet, in truth – called Creusefond. And that is the name of the small stream (ruisseau) which runs through it to the larger stream, la Drée. The Drée goes on to join the Arroux, which ends up in the Loire and so on to the Atlantic.

Near the spot in my photo is the source of the Creusefond, which itself means the fontaine (fond), or source, of the Creuse – just a petite Creuse (there are much larger Creuses and one département named after one of them, in the south-west centre of France). Our Creusefond goes down the scarp slope of the tree-lined plateau, from near Auxy, passes through the middle of our village and then makes its way through the fields to the Drée; and there gives up its life to the larger river. But, the water in my picture will one day join the Atlantic with all the other streams which feed the Atlantic.

In the undergrowth by the stream there is still little evidence of growth, but leaves were appearing on the wild honey suckle which scrambles through the forest.

A Burgundy diary – 19 February 2022

A walk in the Morvan

On a grey, but mostly dry, afternoon we set off for a walk in the Morvan hills.  It was a part of the area we can see ten miles or so from the barn. Wet green fields sloped away one side of our path (a farm track, at that stage); and the other was bounded by scrubby hedges with field and then pine forest above. A small stream shared the track with us part of the way, and occasionally gurgled away into a neighbouring field. At one point it filled a track-wide puddle which we than had to pass: tufts at the side of the track, stones in the puddle and a jump at the end three of four metres away saw us over its length. We came to a small hamlet with two or three farmhouses. Here the tack was metalled from the hamlet to a small road.

From that road we walked up into the pine forest: a steady firm tack which climbed around the side of the hill. Rain threatened; but mostly it stayed dry. The trees held dark and looming as they mounted the small slope above us. Trunks were black. At the summit the well-used track became grass. Four trees had fallen across the path left there for any users of the path to scramble over. Bramble (ronces) crept unseen across the path, and threatened every few metres to trip us up.

Another three meter deep puddle with scrub crowded edges greeted us as we neared the end of our walk. Feet finally a little wet, we strode the last kilometre to the car and home. And with hopes of longer evenings and more exploring in the Morvan ahead.

Postscript: I’ve found many more snow drops since I put up my last post, mostly in the lane either side of the ‘Pont Romain’ by the barn.

A Burgundy diary – 15 February 2022

Snowdrops and an approach of spring

Only very modest – in size and extent – snowdrops have appeared this year. We have a few small groups dotted around the garden now. There used to be a quince tree (cognassier) outside the back door with a patch of snowdrops in early spring under it. The tree started shedding whole branches a few years ago. It had to go I am sad to say. From that patch of snowdrops only a very few survive amongst the stones I’ve laid around the door.

A few buds are coming on trees and shrubs. Catkins have been in the hazel trees for weeks. Twigs in a few trees are shaded with red. But we still have little rain, even on a cloudy day like today. I used to love evidence of the arrival of spring. Now this is tinged by fears of its early arrival being just more evidence of the worsening climate crisis.

A Burgundy diary – 13 February 2022

Beaune: a cold clear day

Market day in Beaune is on Saturday. Yesterday in cold clear weather we drove up the Autun to Beaune road. It passes 200 metres from our front door. It is twenty-five miles (forty kilometres) to Beaune. The Côte d’Or pretty much starts in Nolay, almost exactly half way up the road. The Côte d’Or department starts just above Nolay. Form there it is Grand Cru wine villages all the way: St Aubin and St Romain (just off the road); then Auxey Duresses, Monthelie, Volnay and Pommard; and just to the right, visible most of the last ten kilometres, is the steeple of Meursault. All are part of the Côte de Beaune.

As we passed through the valley towards Beaune we could see the smoke of the half-oil drums – like barrows – burning last years wine twigs, keeping the vines a little warm in the overnight frost.

Beaune is another world from where we are, this side of the hill. Here it is all cows and green fields and forests. Hedges – or what pass for hedges – are everywhere. There it is sloping vineyards, some trees, and limestone villages where the viticulteurs cluster in their comfortable houses. Paths pass between the vineyards, everywhere; and sometimes more substantial tracks. There are no hedges; though one or two wealthier viticulteurs may have erected a wal here or there.

I love Beaune, but yesterday it felt suddenly almost oppressively chic. Well-dressed people were out in the winter sun, shopping. All the shops – often expensive shops – are still open and doing business (where a substantial proportion of businesses in Autun and Arnay-le-Duc are bust and the premises empty: a combination of local supermarkets and more and more people shopping on-line). And, of course, wine-growing can be hard work, I am sure, but – as Lucie pointed out – it is profitable.

Like Autun, the market was busy. Lots of bistros were open. We ate well and came home through the afternoon light, the vineyards – as Lucie said – like a clothing of tweed at this time of year, spread up the gently sloping hills, and later below the cliffs above St Romain.