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Monday, 31 March 2008

Spending spree

The French government might be encouraging people to tighten their belts, and there's still no sign of the much promised increase in purchasing power, but that hasn't stopped one minister from almost blowing her entire expenses.

It's only the end of March, but the justice minister, Rachida Dati, has confirmed reports that her department has already spent two thirds of its annual €200,000 entertainment budget.

She also admitted that her ministry overshot its "party" spending last year by €60,000, claiming there had been exceptional circumstances that led to her spending a cool €260,000 in just seven months.

Those “circumstances” included receptions she organised during Fête de la Musique (World music day) on June 21 and the celebrations for Bastille Day on July 14, as well as playing host to a special soirée for her counterparts from the other member states of the European Union.

Quite how she managed to fit in so much partying remains something of a mystery as when she wasn't shuttling around the country with the prime minister, François Fillon, trying to promote her long overdue but nonetheless unpopular reforms to a sceptical judiciary, she was swanning off on foreign trips with the president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Dati accompanied him to China, Morocco and the United States and was generally Sarkozy's stand-in of choice after second wife Cecilia flew the coop and before number three Carla stepped in to take over the mantle of first lady officially.

And up popped Dati again as part of the president's entourage during his recent state visit to Britain, although this time under the watchful eye of Carla.

The first lady had clearly learnt her lesson when the justice minister all but upstaged her at a reception held for the visit to Paris of the Israeli head of State, Shimon Peres, a couple of weeks ago. Dati wowed the assembled paparazzi at the president's official residence, the Elysée palace, and caused a mini sensation when she turned up wearing a navy satin gown slit to the thigh.

Of course the 42-year-old could hardly be termed publicity shy. Within months of her appointment just last June, she had already graced both the cover and several inside pages of the weekly glossy, Paris Match.

One saving grace so far is that there’s been no cabinet reshuffle and Sarkozy hasn't been tempted to put her in charge of the country's purse strings. A rather cautious Eric Woerth, who is responsible for the French budget, diplomatically said there would have to be some ministerial belt-tightening from Dati's department. And she in turn has promised not to overshoot the €200,000 - again.

But that promise could be short lived, especially if she continues to enjoy spending the taxpayers' money at the current rate. France takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in July and Dati could find the pressure to party big time irresistible.

If nothing else, she has proved herself a worthy accompaniment to what has so far been a Bling Bling president, although maybe now's the time for her to follow his example by dropping out of the limelight and being just a little more frugal.

Soccer slurs

It should have been one of the high points of an otherwise dismal season so far for French football club Paris St Germain (PSG) on Saturday as the team lifted the country's league cup (la coupe de la ligue) for the third time in the history of the 16-year competition.

Instead the stoppage-time penalty, which gave them a 2-1 victory over their rivals from the small industrial town of Lens in northern France, was overshadowed by events happening up on the stands.

At the beginning of the second half some Paris fans unfurled an enormous 30-metre banner carrying the slogan "Pédophiles, chômeurs, consanguins : bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" (Paedophiles, unemployed, inbreeds: welcome to the Ch'tis").

The reference was two fold. Firstly to a comedy film "Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis", a nickname given to the people of northern France, which is currently breaking box office records with over 15.5 million visitors since its release in late February.

And secondly a series of high profile courts cases involving paedophilia or child murders. Those include the Outreau case from 2001-2006 in which 18 people were wrongly accused, convicted or acquitted on the false allegations of one woman, and the recently opened trial of Michel Fourniret, a French serial killer who has confessed to kidnapping, raping and murdering nine girls in a span of 14 years during the 1980s and 90s.

The banner was in place for about six minutes and covered virtually the entire length of one of the stands at the showpiece national stadium Stade de France, where the match was being played.

Immediately following the final whistle to a game, which had produced plenty of action and a thrilling climax, the reactions from club managers, politicians and the football authorities was swift and overwhelming. Unfortunately most of it focused not on what had happened on the pitch, but disgust at the insult that had been brandished by some PSG fans.

Officials from both teams quickly condemned the banner, with the president of PSG, Alain Cayzac, issuing a formal apology and announcing that the club would be launching a civil suit. The deputy mayor of Lens, Guy Delcourt, has pressed charges for incitement of hate lodged on behalf of the town and demanded a replay of the game.

The Lens coach and former French international, Jean-Pierre Papin has asked the French football league to impose sanctions on PSG as they did on another first division club last month. Metz had a point docked from after the captain of the opposing team, Valenciennes, was racially abused during a league match.

Meanwhile the president league, Frédéric Thiriez, has promised swift action and an investigation has already been launched into the incident. Police are currently analysing surveillance camera tapes in an effort to identify the culprits.

So what should have been a celebration of the beautiful game has turned into yet another debate on how to control the behaviour of some fans and the responsibility of both the individual clubs and the league.

There still remain a number of unanswered questions - first and foremost of course is how a not insubstantial banner was able to make into the grounds in the first place. Security was tight before and after the match with almost 1,500 riot police on duty.

PSG "fans" come with a reputation. The club has a violent following of over four thousand largely far right and overtly racist "supporters". In November 2006 after a European match against Tel Aviv one of them was shot and killed by a civilian policeman after rioting following anti-Semitic chanting during the game at the team's home ground at Parc de Princes.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Clothes maketh the man……and the woman

It’s pretty much a sure thing that Tuesday’s headlines here in France will focus on the garb the country’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will be togged up in when she steps off the Eurostar to be greeted by HRH in London. She’s bound to stun and surprise, and the contrast between ancient and modern – to put it rather unkindly – will be there for everyone to see.

But amazingly just for a day the possible dress sense of the former top model and renowned clotheshorse has been shunted from the front pages by the sartorial statements being made by a rising French star of the sporting world – the swimmer Alain Bernard.

The 24-year-old broke three world records and won two gold medals all in the space of three days at the European swimming championships in Eindhoven, the Netherlands last week.

But while his spectacular performance in the pool was making waves in the French media, the swimming world was getting its knickers in a twist over what he was wearing – an all-in-one, state-of-the-art Speedo swim suit.

Now while some will raise their hands in horror because Speedos are apparently back big time, others will breathe a sigh of relief that they’re not quite the 80s fashion victims they perhaps thought they were. But let’s face it these are not really Speedos as we know and love them.

Instead, according to the company’s own self-fulfilling hype, the new little number boasts “stabilising supports to maintain body position, panels to give a streamlined shape and decrease drag, and a strong, light fabric to reduce muscle oscillation and skin vibration.”

In other words squeeze a high-performance athlete into the all-in-one Speedo LZR Racer, and hey-presto, world records will tumble. And so they have – six times in the space of just a month.

That alone has raised a few eyebrows within the sports governing body FINA, over claims that the suit – which retails for almost €500 – will give some richer nations a competitive edge in this year’s Beijing Olympics – as if they needed it. Some argue that it will further diminish the chances of talent winning through as big bucks and sponsorship push the sport even further away from its amateur beginnings.

But in a sense, even as Bernard admits, that’s already happened. In a television interview shortly after his triumphs, he stressed the importance of how a nationally financed sports programme had allowed him to spend hours each day training in the pool and lifting weights in the gym. And certainly his hulking figures bears witness. At 1.95 metres (6ft 5 inches) and 84kgs (190lbs) he’s a veritable muscle machine with an upper body that would grace any bodybuilding competition

Even though of all people the French swimming federation technical director, Claude Fauquet, has waded into the legitimacy of the swim suit by calling for an ethical debate on whether it should be permitted, FINA has already reviewed its “fairness” and declared that everyone who wants to compete in Beijing wearing it should be allowed to do so. Still the price tag might present some from doing so.

Stunned by the polemic surrounding his choice of swimming cozzy and the impact it might have had on his performance so far this year, Bernard mused as to how fast the LZR Racer would be able to complete a length of the pool without someone inside it.

One bright wag within the sport suggested that should FINA really wish to level the playing field so to speak, perhaps it should insist that all swimmers compete naked. That might well boost television ratings, but that would without doubt cause aerodynamic problems of quite a different sort.

For the moment though Bernard remains the toast of French sport – LZR or not – and is undoubtedly among the favourites to lift an Olympic gold.

He has also shrugged off comments – later withdrawn – by one his beaten opponents that he had clearly been “taking the right vitamins”. Certainly his build is far from “normal” – more approaching the stature of a cartoon superhero in fact, but there again it’s just further evidence of how technological training has become for all high performance athletes.

The debate is basically all good silly stuff in the run-up to the games perhaps, but serious business as companies vie with each other in terms of potential sponsorship deals.

One thing’s for sure. Carla won’t be oozing her shapely figure into a Speedo swimsuit when she daintily descends the train in London tomorrow.


Monday, 24 March 2008

The espresso effect

On Easter Sunday the weather was still up to its usual tricks. There was no real surprise as I peered out early in the morning to be greeted by the grizzle of the day. The house was almost completely in the clouds and the village perched less than a kilometre away at the top of the hill, barely visible.

A tramp up the terraces for another "chat" with the Linden tree, leaves me once again pretty much soaked to the skin, so it's quickly back to the house for a shower and change before hopping in the car and making my way to Lucca.

The city is always a delight, even on an autumnal spring day. But I wasn't really prepared for the number of people parading up and down the main shopping street, via Fillungo, braving the elements and proudly and determinedly joining in that time honoured ritual, the passiagatta.

I had thought firstly the fact that it was Easter Sunday and secondly miserable weather for strolling along the streets, would have kept most people inside. But instead the city was buzzing with locals and tourists alike, everyone seemingly going nowhere very slowly.

Instead of joining in, I made straight for the elegant Antico Caffè di Simo, propped myself up against the bar and downed an espresso in double quick time. Now I'm not that much of a coffee drinker and certainly no connoisseur, but there's no denying the glorious effect a small shot of the rich, thick stuff the Italians brew up can have as it hits the back of the throat. It just has to be one of the simplest but most enjoyable pleasures of life and not something the US chains can ever hope to emulate, no matter how successful they might have been in making litres of coloured water a totally unacceptable alternative.

Invigorated and still smacking my lips at the aftertaste I rejoined the throng and took a leisurely walk around the old walls before hopping back into my car to race back to the house.

Monday would be an early start as I once again attempted to beat the traffic by setting off at another ungodly hour.

And little was I expecting the shock that was in store for me when I poked my head outside of the front door at five o'clock the next morning to be greeted by.... snow. And not just a thin layer, but a lovely fluffy carpet stretching from the grass just outside the house all the way down the track to where the car was parked.

The 10-minute drive down the steep and winding road to Pescia was going to be treacherous and of course I had no winter tyres and the roads would not have been gritted. I knew that if I wanted to arrive back in Paris before dark I would have to fast forward my schedule, so I hurriedly showered, dressed and packed before traipsing down to the car.

Rescue of sorts came in the shape of a small Ford Fiesta carefully rolling its way around the bends in front of me, and I followed in its path for the next 40 minutes, gently and slowly battling against my car's desire to go in every direction but the one in which I was pointing it.

By the time I made the motorway the snow had turned to rain of course, the temperature had risen and I was thankfully able to go at a fairly normal pace, given the driving conditions.

Heading north towards Genoa was almost like arriving on another planet. The skies had cleared, the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud to be seen. But on the radio there were warnings of more snow later on in the day on both sides of the Alps and possible tailbacks at both the Mont Blanc and Fréjus tunnels.

A decision had to be made. Did I want to spend most of the day on the shorter route most likely stuck in congestion, or would it be better to take the longer coastal drive passing by Nice and the Cote d'Azur, adding time and distance for sure but where the traffic would probably be more free flowing?

In the end I plumped for the latter, which made me smile somewhat as I realised that I would be travelling past the Fréjus to which I had for a while been unwittingly headed on my downward trip. It also meant that I would arrive in France earlier and avoid having to refuel in Italy, where the price of diesel at least, is a good 10 centimes more expensive per litre.

As I crossed the border, I resisted the temptation to programme the GPS - just to see how much further I had to go. Experience had taught me not to fiddle with it and to rely on my own ability to follow the signs. The Nice-Paris route was after all a familiar one I had taken in the past without any problem.

The hours and the kilometres passed, the traffic became denser, as did the proportion of nutters on the road. Still the traffic was relatively free flowing and the weather had held up - so far.

Then I hit Lyon. I missed the ring road and instead took the Fourvière tunnel, which passes underneath the city and is notorious for its traffic jams at most times of the day. Lady Luck must have been smiling on me - temporarily at least - because I made the other side without incident, but my fortune was short lived as the murky skies threatened and once again I found myself driving in pouring rain.

All four seasons in one journey, made longer by the enforced detour along the coast and one very exhausted Easter weekend holidaymaker arrived home more than 13 hours after he had set off.

Lesson learned - until the next time I fear.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Spiritual talks

So I’ve struggled out of bed still feeling a little groggy after the previous day’s mammoth drive and am ready to bask in the glorious Tuscan countryside and soak up some of the promised sun on the first day of Spring.

Fat chance as it turns out. Admittedly the scenery is as breathtaking as ever – it never fails to impress – but the weather isn’t playing ball and venturing outside again will mean getting soaked to the skin.

I had already made my morning pilgrimage to the local supermarket to stock up on all my favourite treats for the weekend. Vitello tonnato – slices of veal in a tuna sauce, fresh ingredients for a caprese salad - mozzarella di bufala, organic tomatoes and basil, Parmesan cheese and ravioli alla zucca. Hardly appropriate food given the storm clouds that have gathered and I would be have been better advised to buy ingredients to make a wholesome stew. But I’m going to take full advantage of unhinging my jaws and tipping back as much delicious Italian nosh in the short time I have here.

The weather doesn’t really matter too much. I’ve come here alone this Easter weekend to contemplate my navel a bit, gather my thoughts and most importantly to have a chat with my mother, whose ashes are buried beside a tree planted in her memory on one of the terraces behind the house.

Besides a little bit of rain never did any harm, and we Brits are supposedly made of sterner stuff. At least that’s what I tried to convince myself as I grabbed a raincoat and headed outside.

Several minutes later I found myself standing in the middle of a downpour, not so much talking as just allowing my thoughts to run freely. Somehow it seemed more appropriate and certainly a lot faster than trying to articulate what I really felt. Anyway, I always used to joke that my mother would take a trip around the world’s news subjects in 80 seconds – butterflying from one subject to another.

It’s a habit I’ve acquired and honed as I get older. It now seems quite logical to me. I’ll start off taking about one thing and then another idea will pop into my mind from which I’ll make a mental connection to something else. Unfortunately I often miss out the middle bit in a conversation, so others have problems understanding how I’ve made an apparent “Neil Armstrong” leap (I wish) when really for me it’s simply a sequence of totally related ideas.

All right I’m digressing. So there I was “thinking” my monologue and sometimes expressing it aloud to myself of course. A real stream of consciousness – perhaps a little lazy, but it allowed me to cover a whole raft of topics simultaneously and in random order.

Of course it was also bloody freezing - first day of spring indeed - and I discovered that the zip fastener had broken on my windbreaker. How wonderful that the inane can interrupt the oh-so-serious for a moment. I must have looked like the proverbial wreck of the Hesperus, but it hardly mattered as there wasn’t a soul around and I rested my head against the tree, tears streaming down my face, feeling pretty miserable and clutching hold of a €6 bunch of flowers I had bought. They were the sort of Chrysanthemum I hate, but my mother loved so much. Couldn’t believe that after nearly a decade, such emotions could surface so quickly. And they weren’t superficial ones either, but real humdingery strong feelings of loss.

Have to puff out my cheeks and sigh even as I think about it.

Perhaps part of the problem is that in recent years I’ve become such a big girl’s blouse and so many things seem to set me off. But that’s no bad thing either, I’ve decided. In fact it’s akin to admitting in the 70s to liking Abba (er – remember what I thought about making a leap of thought in my mind?) Back then it was definitely uncool and untrendy to admit to such musical tastes. Pink Floyd would have given me definite street cred. But I was never very “proud” or pretentious” when it came to such things. So I was quite happy to accept the ribbing for knowing by heart all the words to Dancing Queen. In fact I considered it almost a badge of honour to be unhip.

Similarly, it’s not really manly not to be able to control the waterworks – along the lines of not eating quiche. But once again I think “what the heck,” and go for the all-out blubber attack. Maybe it’s going to be the new thing to do shortly.

After several more minutes completing the process of getting well and truly drenched I squelched my way back to the house, promising that I would set aside some more time the following day – weather permitting, or not as the case may be – for another quick commune on the terraces.

To be quite honest, it really is the most magnificent view of the village and the valley my Ma would have from next to the Linden tree, where her ashes lie – fine or foul weather. If only she were around. But there again I suppose she is for as long as I am to remember her.

Morbid thoughts perhaps, but sometimes it’s good not to forget. That’s not being sentimental, just honest.

Spiritual talks indeed.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Driving mad

It takes a while at the best of times to drive the almost one thousand kilometres from Paris to my holiday home near Pescia in Italy - around 10 hours if the traffic isn't too heavy. So choosing the long Easter holiday weekend perhaps wasn't the brightest of ideas.

As soon as the Parisians get a whiff of a break - and it's pretty often given the number of days off they get each year - they pile into their cars and head out of the city. North, south, east or west, the direction doesn't really matter as a huge chunk of the 12 million or so who live in "la ville lumière" and its suburbs seek a few days R&R elsewhere.

The roads are jam packed at the best of times and this year, with Easter falling early, many decided to make their way to the mountains for a last minute chance to hit the slopes.

Needless to say, they were also joined by the hoards of north Europeans, taking advantage of the country's costly but excellent tolled motorways, to escape the forecast rain to either join in the skiing fun at one of the country's many resorts or enjoy the milder climes of the French Riviera.

My plan was to avoid the likely tailbacks on the Friday by setting off at the crack of dawn a day earlier than most and motoring gently southwards through the Alps to arrive at my destination, a small village nestled in the picturesque hills between Lucca and Florence,– some time in the early evening.

So with my GPS suitably programmed, I set off.

Now if I'm honest I'm not the world's best navigator. I'm not that awful either, but more often than not I don't carry a map with me in the car - although I do take a look at one ahead of any journey, just to "make sure" I prefer to trust my sometimes undeniably questionable sense of direction. My motto is to just follow the signs along the route. After all what can be so difficult in that?

Plus it wasn't the first (or last) time that I had made the drive, and since investing in a GPS system I guessed I had a foolproof guide to keep to my bearings from going their usual wobbly way. All in all I was pretty confident I wouldn't encounter too many problems along the way.

The shortest route would take me through the rolling hills of Burgundy - always a pleasure - then a left (yes that's right no east or west for me) at some point towards the Mont Blanc tunnel which would see me arrive in Italy on the other side to continue southwards past Turin, Genoa and Pisa, before taking another left for the final 50 or so kilometres.

By my reckoning, apart from hitting some light evening rush hour traffic in Genoa, the roads would be pretty much free flowing.

Now this is where I have to confess to having made an otherwise simple trip unnecessarily complicated. I don't like using the Mont Blanc tunnel. The last stretch on the French side and the first on the Italian is a real pain. Both the climb and the drop are steep (don't forget I'm talking about a tunnel through the Alps here) and the chances of getting stuck behind a convoy of trucks are fairly high and that can add valuable minutes on to the journey time. It can also require hair-raising overtaking skills or buckets of patience, neither of which I have in abundance.

So I plumped for the slightly longer, but easier route via the Fréjus tunnel. It's a personal thing really. Even though the difference in altitude between the two tunnels is not so great - just a couple of hundred metres - the climb to and from Fréjus on both sides (regardless of which direction you're driving of course) is gentler and easier.

I had rather cleverly I thought, pre-programmed the GPS to take me via my "preferred" tunnel. But by the time I had passed Lyon, I was beginning to wonder whether that delightfully computerised lady who was guiding me steadfastly onwards and southwards had paid any attention to where I actually wanted to go. Surely I should have taken a "left" by now.

And then it dawned on me. I was heading towards the other Fréjus in Provence! Now I've nothing against the town. It's full of Roman ruins - I know I've been there - and is a popular summertime tourist resort with some of the best year-round weather in France. But it's on the Cote d'Azur - over 450kms away from where I had actually planned on being.

A quick pit stop was called for and a reassessment of how I would get to where I wanted to go. Of course with no map to guide me, I tried to remember what other major towns I should be passing on the way and Chambéry seemed to ring a bell. So I quickly punched in my new destination and was soon making that "left" and picking up the signs en route.

A gradual but definite change in the landscape also told me that I was heading into Alpine country and all seemed well. Until that is, I suddenly found myself exiting the motorway at the final toll booth and caught up in mid afternoon traffic in the centre of the town.

The dulcet tones of my computerised companion had indeed guided me to where I had said I had wanted to go. Somehow I had managed to erase Florence as my final destination and instead had replaced it with the capital of the Savoy region of France.

With hindsight I realised that I should have tapped in St Jean de Maurienne - a town just a few kilometres away from the tunnel. That would have made my journey not only shorter but also far faster than the double detour I had already taken.

I finally arrived at the correct Fréjus, just over one hour behind schedule, and tuned in to Autoroute FM - the traffic information station - to listen to all the helpful tri-lingual (Italian-French-English) safety instructions as to what to do in case of an emergency. How reassuring, I thought, as I began the 13km drive.

Imagine my surprise then as I regained daylight on the other side to discover that my radio had automatically reprogrammed itself to Radio Maria. Just what the Pope ordered, I guess, as I settled back to listen to hours of liturgy and rosary.

It might be a somewhat perverse side to my nature, but the repetitive nature of the chanting really began to hypnotise me and I hurriedly had to slot in some Kate Nash just to break the spell.

Now while the French can sometimes drive like road hogs and all too often seem infuriatingly to forget to turn off their indicators after executing a manoeuvre, they've got a long way to go before they can match the excesses of their Italian counterparts.

Unfortunately all those clichés about the driving skills of the average Italian motorist – especially on the autostrada - seem to be oh so true, as quickly became apparent on the ring road around Turin.

Until you’ve actually “been” there then all those stories from many a well-worn foreign driver might seem to be wildly exaggerated. But fear not, they’re all true. Suddenly I found myself haunted by a constant stream of wannabe Ferrari test pilots appearing in my rear view mirror from out of nowhere, lights flashing and tailgating within inches of a two-car pile up.

Having already spent many hours on the road and feeling far too intimidated to retaliate by stubbornly staying in lane and within the speed limit, I pulled over only to realise that time after time the menace had been nothing more than a mild-mannered looking 50-something behind the wheel of a Fiat Panda. Clearly the Italians believe in flooring the accelerator pedal in their attempt to get the biggest performance out of the smallest of cars.

Of course I didn't hit the light evening rush hour traffic I had reckoned with in Genoa. Instead I was stuck in the full force of it as the motorway tortuously wound its way underneath the city, cars and trucks bumper-to-bumper for the best part of an hour.

By the time I finally arrived at my destination, it was pitch black, I had covered a good hundred or so kilometres more than originally planned, and I had not so much beaten the traffic as joined in with it for much of the way. And there was still the return journey to make three days later.

Next time maybe I'll take the 'plane rather than the car - especially if it's such a short break. Or if I insist on driving perhaps I'll spend a few more moment planning my route carefully berforehand.

Perhaps, maybe - probably NOT.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

France’s Italian hero

France paid homage on Monday to its last surviving World War I veteran, who died last week at the grand old age of 110.  

Lazare Ponticelli’s early life – and in particular his military career - was one that’s without doubt hard for current generations to grasp.

At first sight it appears to read almost like the script for one of those US made-for-telly movies; a struggle against unbelievable odds, action packed and ever-so-slightly incredible with of course a happy ending. But in reality it’s much more than that. It is in fact a true and remarkable story that reflects the times in which Ponticelli grew up and, in its way, the changing face of Europe over the last century.

His beginnings were humble by any standards. Born into a poor family in rural Emiglia Romagna in northern Italy on 7 December 1897, Ponticelli was left with neighbours at the age of two after his father and oldest brother died and the rest of his family joined his mother in Paris, where she had been working to send money home.

He started working at the age of six and had scrimped enough money together to make the train journey to Paris alone when he was just nine, arriving at Gare de Lyon without speaking, reading or writing a word of French.

“The country had welcomed him,” he said in later interviews and gave him a chance to work, first as a chimney sweep and later as a newspaper seller on street corners. He repaid the debt he felt he owed his adopted country by lying about his age and signing up at the age of 16. “It was,” he said. “A chance to defend the country that had offered him a welcome and given him the opportunity to earn a living.” But without papers he couldn’t enlist in the regular arm and instead joined the French Foreign Legion.

Ponticelli’s first stint in the trenches was in northern France and ended when he was wounded and discharged from the Legion in 1915. Still without papers he was sent under police escort to fight in his native Italy and the war, already pretty incomprehensible to someone who had not yet reached the age of majority, started all over again.

He went through the same horrors, witnessing the same meaningless deaths of his fellow soldiers, the same gas attacks until once again he was injured, this time in the head. "This war - we didn't know why were doing what we were doing. We fought against people just like us," he said many years later. “”We shot at them without really knowing why.”

When the Armistice was signed and Ponticelli returned to Paris, he tried to register as a French civilian, but the authorities didn’t want to know. In fact it wasn’t until 1939 that he was finally granted French citizenship.

By that time he had married and started a successful piping and metal work company along with two of his brothers. It’s still going strong today.

As with many of French WWI veterans, Ponticelli preferred for much of his long life not to talk about what he had experienced in the trenches or in battle. It was only many years later years that he agreed to talk to journalists.

He was also a reluctant hero in the true sense. When France's oldest surviving WWI veteran, Louis de Cazenave died in January this year - also aged 110, Ponticelli was adamant that when his turn came he didn't want a state funeral.

And it was only a few weeks ago that he finally agreed to the principle of a national homage “in the name of all the men and women who died in WWI."

That tribute, broadcast live on national television, was held at Les Invalides in Paris on Monday, with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy leading the ceremony to remember Ponticelli, and all the other French who died in the war.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Election fever

The results are in after Sunday’s second round of voting in France’s local elections and the inevitable post mortem has begun.

And of course the interpretation of what actually happened depends to a great extent on political affiliation and whose spin doctoring appears to be most convincing.

But whatever politicians from across the spectrum might say – and they’ve been saying a-plenty – there’s no denying the bare facts. The Left now controls councils in 183 towns and cities across the country while the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) and its partners are in charge of 124.

There was the familiar blanket coverage of the results on Sunday evening with the usual suspects gracing the television and radio airwaves and hurriedly shuffling from one studio to the next. Perhaps, in this period of belt-tightening, they were actually sharing taxis, cutting down costs and continuing their hot-air rants as they went.

The UMP of course had been expecting the worst and was suitably prepared. The prime minister, François Fillon, had hauled in all the cabinet ministers ahead of the evening’s declarations for a high-level pep talk, just to ensure that they would all be singing from the same hymn sheet and there would be no loose tongues in front of the cameras and microphones.

Meanwhile the Socialists, while not exactly speaking with one voice – that would be pretty much going against the grain in light of recent party infighting – had practised their collective beaming in readiness for an anticipated triumph.

So faced with the same set of results, both of France’s major political forces were ready to go on the offensive.

For the UMP the technique was simple, with attack being the main means of defence. “No, the results were not a wrap across the knuckles for the government or its policies. These were after all local elections, fought on purely local rather than national issues – whatever the opposition might claim,” they insisted doggedly.

The low turnout – at 61.66 per cent, the lowest since 1959 – was, according to Fillon et al, proof that generally speaking the electorate was happy with how the government was running the country and it hadn’t been a protest or a demand for them to change course.

Reform would continue much along the same lines as it had already begun and all that had occurred was a realignment of the balance of political power after the Socialist party’s dismal showing in last year’s presidential and national elections.

Poppycock, countered the Socialists. With around 12 million eligible voters not bothering to cast their ballot, it was clear there was general disillusion with French politics and the way the country was being governed. The election had been a vote on national issues, otherwise how could the centre-right account for the loss of so many major cities whose incumbent mayors had been perceived as having a pretty successful track record in local politics. Among the UMP losses were Toulouse, Strasbourg, Metz, Caen, Reims and Amiens, which joined Paris and Lyon in returning Socialist councils. And it only just held on to Marseille – the fiefdom of the party’s vice president Jean-Claude Gaudin – by the narrowest of margins.

All proof according the Socialist party’s bigwigs - as if it were needed - that the government had “got it wrong”. Add to that the defeat of two prominent cabinet members, the education minister, Xavier Darcos, and the junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, and the message was clear. It was now time not just to increase the pace of reform, but also change strategy and focus more on social policy.

Strip away the political posturing and ignore the sensationalist headlines, and the “truth” lies probably somewhere between the two interpretations. It certainly wasn’t a good result for UMP, but nor was it a tidal wave of support for the Socialists and its allies.

Opinion polls show that on the whole the French aren’t too unhappy with the way the country has been governed over the past 10 months and Fillon’s approval ratings have been rising rapidly. There is though there’s a definite and understandable impatience at the government’s inability to deliver on the promised increase in purchasing power, and there’s no denying that was an issue – a national one too – in these elections.

Most telling perhaps is the absence of comment so far from he president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who for once he seems to be keeping a low profile. And that’s in fact what many political commentators have suggested might be the most significant outcome of the elections. 

Sarkozy could now be persuaded to stop trying to fire on all fronts simultaneously and leave the governing of the country to.... well the government. That would allow him to get on with affairs of state and appear more “presidential.” In other words the best lesson he could learn would be to follow the example of his predecessors Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand, who didn't always feel the need to poke their nose into everything and anything and allowed their ministers to get on with their jobs.

That could be a tough call for Sarkozy and would entail a rapid character makeover, which might prove a little beyond him.

There again with France taking over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union in July, Sarkozy might find himself kept busy in another political arena.

Blesséd relief for the French perhaps, but watch out the rest of Europe.

You’re fired

She might have dropped out of the headlines for the past few months, but France’s former almost-but-not-quite first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy, is back in the news once again.

Actually the press has returned to using her pre-Sarkozy and pre-Martin maiden name of Ciganer-Albéniz, in reporting gossip circulating that she’s about to follow her second better-half, Nicolas, up the aisle to make it third time lucky.

The story first “broke” in January in the daily national Le Parisien that Cécilia and the one for whom she turned down wedded Bling Bling bliss at the Elysée palace, French media hot shot Richard Attias, were due to tie the knot some time in March.

Attias issued a hasty denial in a formal statement that also threatened legal action if further reports appeared that “made any allusion to a forthcoming marriage.”

Public posturing perhaps from a private person trying to scotch any interest in what might or might not be in the pipeline, and about as successful as Sarkozy N was in keeping his whirlwind romance with his Carla off the front pages. It obviously requires time and effort to orchestrate a story so that it unfolds in the way the main protagonists wish.

Not surprisingly the rumours resurfaced at the beginning of March when the fashion house, Versace, spilled the proverbial beans. In a bout of self-praising backslapping it informed those who were interested, and probably many who were not, that the couple had chosen to tog themselves up in made-to-measure His ‘n Hers from its haute couture to celebrate their “happy occasion” slated in New York for the end of this month.

Clearly Ciganer-Albéniz was not amused by the betrayal of confidence and according to this weekend’s edition of Le Journal du Dimanche, somewhat belatedly “fired” the fashion house, preferring to look elsewhere for the right clobber.

Oh dear the trials and tribulations of being a don’t-wannabe public figure.

Admittedly both Ciganer-Albéniz and Attias have cast themselves as rather unwilling participants in the whole merry go round. But they cannot really be surprised by the level of interest in their impending whatever’s.

Their romance dates back to 2005 when Cécilia, on a “time out” from Sarkozy, split her time between Paris and New York. Photographs and an account of their lives even made it on to the pages of the weekly glossy, Paris Match, before the wayward wife half-heartedly returned to give her marriage a second bash just ahead of presidential campaigning.

Cécilia must be well used to the attention by now with two marriages and divorces to high profile husbands behind her, Sarkozy and the later French television entertainer, Jacques Martin.

And similarly Attias, as head honcho at the French media group Publicis, can be no stranger to the way a story unfolds once the news juggernaut has got wind of it.

Bring on the wedding bells and be done with it.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Not getting involved

For someone who claims he’s going to steer clear of campaigning during the run-up to the second round of the local elections on Sunday, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has a funny way of remaining silent.

On Tuesday he put in an appearance in the southern city of Toulon – long a favourite stomping ground of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National (National Front, FN) party.

And it was surely no coincidence that he was just a hop, step and jump away from France’s second city, Marseille. After all that’s where the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP) party candidate, Jean-Claude Gaudin, is facing an almighty challenge from the Socialist party contender, Jean-Noël Guérini, in the mayoral race.

Gaudin, who has held the post for the past 10 years, is not only a close buddy of Sarkozy, he’s also the UMP’s vice-president. Defeat on Sunday would therefore not reflect too well on the president.

But let’s remember Sarkozy himself is not campaigning. He has already said as much on several occasions. After initially insisting that it was the job of the president to rally the troops, he saw his popularity ratings plummet and, deciding both he and his party would fare better if he kept a lower profile, left the bulk of the work to his prime minister, François Fillon.

So there was no way that Tuesday’s speech in which he addressed the FN’s pet issues of immigration, integration and national identity was a campaign address. Nor was it an appeal to a section of the voters that was vital in securing his election in last year’s presidential race.

No, no, this was, as Sarkozy insisted, a call for people simply to go out and cast their ballots on Sunday – regardless of how they were going to vote.

Clearly he had one eye on the disappointing turnout in last weekend’s first round. At just 65.7 per cent, it was the lowest in local elections since 1959.

His other eye, reporters have suggested, was on his mobile ‘phone, scanning for incoming text messages, just as he was caught doing on camera during a state visit to Saudi Arabia back in January.

He repeated Fillon’s assertion that these elections were not a vote on the success of government policies – or the lack thereof. Voting should not hinge on national issues, he argued, but be driven by local matters closer to the hearts of the electorate.

Such statements though do not seem to be falling on particularly sympathetic ears and perhaps only serve to underline his unpopularity and the general dissatisfaction felt throughout much of the country with his inability to deliver on his own electoral promise of increasing purchasing power.

Marseille isn’t the only traditional UMP stronghold under threat on Sunday. Nice, Strasbourg and Toulouse could all swing to the Socialists.

Further proof perhaps that Sarkozy himself doesn’t believe in what he’s saying is that although he might maintain the local elections are not a vote on national issues, he has also promised to draw lessons from whatever the electorate might say.

And he’s slated to put in another two non-campaigning appearances in two other towns before the week is up.

The spoiler

March 11, 2008

Political analysts here are busy scratching their heads as they try to work out the thinking behind the supposed “strategy” of the so-called Third Man in French politics.

François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Democratic Movement (Mouvement démocrate or MoDem) party is refusing to give his backing to rival parties’ candidates in the run-offs in local elections next Sunday.

He has declined to call on MoDem voters nationally to throw their weight behind either the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire or UMP) or the Socialist party in towns and cities where his party has already been knocked out of the reckoning.

Instead Bayrou has left it up to local activists to decide on a case-by-case basis, claiming he wants his party to be free to pick and choose as it pleases and maintain its independence from either of the two traditional camps of French politics.

But many think Bayrou is playing a dangerous game and risks marginalising himself and his party even further from mainstream politics.

In last year’s presidential elections, Bayrou garnered an impressive 18 per cent of the vote in the first round – not enough to send him into a run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy. But still sufficient to encourage both Sarkozy and the Socialist party’s Segolene Royal to make overtures to both him and his supporters as they went head to head.

Royal is even rumoured to have gone as far as to offer him the job of prime minister if he had backed her and she had won. And her call last week for an alliance between the Socialists and MoDem ahead of Sunday’s vote would seem to give some credence to those reports.

But then as now, Bayrou refused to play ball, preferring instead to cast himself as the spoiler and retreating sulkily to the sidelines when he could have been the “kingmaker”.

As a result last year he saw his archrival Sarkozy triumph at the polls and then suffered the ignominy of witnessing most of his party’s parliamentarians desert him as they ran into the welcoming embrace of the UMP. Even his election manager and close buddy (until then) Hervé Morin accepted a post in the government as defence minister.

When Bayrou retaliated by creating MoDem from what was left of his base of support, he promised a new way forward, a party of solidarity to embrace all parts of the political spectrum. But his tactics didn’t go down well with the punters and MoDem won just four seats in the 577-strong National Assembly in June.

That all happened almost 10 months ago, and you think the man would have learned his lesson. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

He has created a party but is failing to show distinct leadership qualities. His supporters and opponents alike are perplexed and that can never be a very sound political move. And there’s the overriding impression that far from being concerned with changing the face of French politics, Bayrou is playing the same old game of promoting himself and his ego above and beyond what might be the wishes of the electorate.

MoDem has no coherent national policy in coordinating its approach to the second round of the local election. And the chances are that the party itself is unlikely to hold the balance of power in more than a handful of municipalities.

To make matters worse Bayrou himself faces fierce competition in his own personal stronghold in Pau in the southwest of the country and could well find himself failing in his attempt to be mayor of that town.

That would dent his national standing, his ambitions and potentially marginalise him even more than he already is. Perhaps it’s time the man learned a little humility and a whole heap of sense.


Friday, 7 March 2008

Walk like an Egyptian

You’ve perhaps read a great deal about Shakespeare’s collected works being reduced to a mere 20 minutes, or Charles Dickens getting the minimalist treatment.

Well now is the time to brace yourselves for another modern-day Brodies notes version of “everything you wanted to know, but were too idle to find out about” in yet another astonishing tale from the 30 dynasties of Pharaoh history.

Children and adults beware. This is a tale, which combines pre-feminist feminism with the immaculate conception, donkeys years before Christianity first hit the tabernacle headlines.

Or in other words it’s a case of the world’s first women’s libber rewriting history and inventing her own virgin birth.

Hatshepsut was the only female pharaoh to have broken into the male-only dominated club and earn her place in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings on the outskirts of Luxor. Now this is where the whistle-stop history lesson kicks in. And don’t be confused by the more than incestuous relationships involved. In Pharaoh-world it was pretty much par for the course.

Born to Thutmose I and his wife Aahmes, Hatshepsut had the purest of pure blood to be the next Pharaoh. The only problem being, she was a woman. So instead she was passed over for her half brother Thutmose II – same father but different mother, whose royal lineage was less than top notch.

This being ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut was not to be thwarted and married her half brother. But they only managed to produce daughters so he cast his net wider to take another wife – also of dubious royal lineage – and into the world finally popped a son, later to be crowned Thutmose III.

T II popped his clogs when T III was just eight years old. Clearly he was too young to seize the reigns of power and that gave his aunt/step-mother (yep remember this is ancient Egypt) the chance to step in as regent and appoint herself Commander in Chief.

But Hatshepsut had her sights set on her own place in history. After all why shouldn’t she be the first female Pharaoh?

Now this is where the rewriting of history sets in as she had to convince those around her and of course the common folk, that not only was she up to the job, but she also had the right blood qualifications – especially as she self-evidently lacked the one essential to become a Pharaoh. She wasn’t a man.

So she carved out a story whereby her father was not only T I, but simultaneously the Sun God Amon Re who had somehow managed to impregnate her mother Aahmes without the usual sexual shenanigans. Sound familiar?

Well the long and the short of it is that she did indeed manage to convince everyone that her version of herstory was in fact the truth and settled down to 22 years of rule.

Mind you, in the process she apparently donned a false beard when the occasion suited and deleted all references to her gender from the record books. So perhaps it wasn’t the “all encompassing” blow for feminism that it appears at first sight.

When she died, her stepson/nephew TIII of course set about discrediting her reputation and vandalising the temple she had built in honour of herself Al Deir Al Balhari.

But that hasn’t, and didn’t stop Hatshepsut from claiming her rightful place in history. She proved herself more than capable of outmanoeuvring the men during her reign and making sure she kept the power where she wanted.

In perhaps one of the most tragic modern twists on ancient Egyptian history, her temple is perhaps just as well known nowadays for the appalling events of November 17, 1997.

For it was the site of the massacre by Islamic terrorists of 62 people – most of them foreign tourists. In an early morning attack, six members of the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest) descended on the temple disguised as security officials. The horrific accounts of the survivors not only shook the world because of the brutality, savagery and extent of the attack, but also persuaded Egyptian authorities to step up security at all tourist sites throughout the country.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Boat people

boat journey along the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, stopping off for a gentle temple trip or two along the way should be a leisurely affair.It sounds enchanting, entrancing and to use the rejuvenated jargon that’s once again full in fashion, totally cool.

The reality though couldn’t be further removed from the theory.

The Nile is a virtual fluvial motorway and in peak season you can count on crossing another boat teeming with tourists heading in the other direction roughly every five minutes.

The river is awash with traffic – around 300 cruisers in total – and innumerable falloukas for hire as well as local boats. With an average of 70 cabins for each cruiser and 2 people per cabin – you do the maths as to how many holidaymakers are taking the three-or-five day trips at any one time. And each port of call of course quickly resembles an ancient civilised bun fight to see who can get to the temple door first.

It all means that tour guides have to run the tightest of possible ships. It’s made more complicated not only by the sheer number of tourists, but also the mix of nationalities.

“Line ‘em up, pack ‘em in and send ‘em off” seems to be the unspoken dynamic behind visiting Egypt’s ancient treasures along the Nile. Conveyer belt tourism at its very best.

Take just a typical day on board. The wake-up call, courtesy of front desk, is at six o’clock for a briefing 45 minutes later. And then it’s a rapid route march off to the Kom Ombo temple.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other early risers, it’s like opening day at some sort of ornithological January sales, as mother goose guides jostle to the front and hope somehow their goslings will be able to waddle together obediently in their wake.

First of the mark – and forgive the cliché – are of course the Germans. Maybe they’re not actually the first through the door but they’re certainly the fastest around the site as they ferociously gobble up culture at a furious rate. Schumacher brothers eat your hearts out.

The French aren’t far behind, although they seem to do it much more intellectually and take the sophisticated approach of actually listening to what the guide is saying.

The Russians show little interest apart from striking gum-chewing poses in front of walls of stunning hieroglyphics, whose monetary value they could well be trying to assess, as well as the price for shipping the lot back home.

The Chinese are ecstatic if their excited chatter is anything to go by, and are big hits with the hawkers peddling their wares as they shop insatiably. Next up are the Italians, their guide rattling off the centuries of history one-hundred-to-the-dozen and as with all groups camera shutters are working overtime.

Finally in the morning melee are the Anglophones. The Americans looked just a little dazed by the whole experience – and who can blame them, while the British, probably nursing a hangover from too much of the local tipple the night before, trumpet loudly that they’re all “templed out”. Vive le cliché indeed.

Yes this is mass tourism at its very best and worst. Egypt could surely teach the United Nations a thing or two. The doors have been open barely two hours. The first groups are through and the second “sitting” is ready.

Back on board for a quick breakfast as the boat slides through the film of fuel that has been belched out over the years to give the Nile its distinctive hue and then it’s rendez vous at eleven hundred hours for another briefing before disembarking for the next manic two-hour temple trot.

This pace is relentless and sometimes remorseless. On a previous day, one poor tour group had had prised themselves out of bed at 2.30am for a trip to Abu Simbel – which can only be reached by strictly scheduled convoy. They returned exhausted at 8.00pm, shovelled away a quick meal and than collapsed into bed for yet another early start the following day.

Undoubtedly Egypt needs the tourists and the currency they bring in, but there’s an awful lot to take in. The history, and its documentation are glorious even if some of the stories are quite preposterous – along the lines of “Pharaoh marries mother, has daughter, bumps off mother to be with daughter, who is also his half sister” sort of thing. So basically the stuff for which any modern day soap opera script writer would be laughed off screen.

Perhaps if the organised boat tours along the Nile concentrated more on quality than quantity there would be a little more time to appreciate truly what marvellous treasures this country has. But that’s just not going to happen, as it’s the push to get as many punters as possible through the doors that takes precedence. The philistine might of course say that it’s “up before dawn’s crack to visit yet another pile of ancient stones.” But that would be a far from fair evaluation. To give them their due, the guides are not only knowledgeable and professional, but they also have an enthusiasm, which quickly becomes infectious.

Maybe the best advice to anyone wanting to dabble in the delights of Egyptology without knowing quite where to begin, would be to give the boat trips a wide berth. Stay in town, and pick and choose your guided tour carefully and at your own pace.

After all there’s so much to see, you’re never going to able to “do” it all.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Damned Aswan

For a couple of centuries now Aswan has had had a very special place in the hearts of many visitors to Egypt. There’s no doubting it has its own fair share of pharaoh treasures that are well worth a visit in their own right.

And let’s not forget there’s always the splendour of taking tea on the terrace of the Old Cataract hotel and being briefly transported back in time.

The town of 250,000 inhabitants has also become the major embarkation point for trips further down the Nile to share in the glories of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and of course the capital Cairo. And with its international airport, Aswan remains the only possible stopover for the onward journey to the treasures of Abu Simbel – 250kms south towards the border with Sudan.

But since 1971 it has also been the site of one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century and, which even today can still spark a heated debate about the environmental consequences – The Aswan Dam.

In truth, it’s the High Dam built from 1960-to 1970 which at the time caused such a controversy that even now rumbles on.

It was the brainchild of the former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who secured Soviet financing and support for its construction.

His aim was to prevent the flooding of the Nile that had occurred regularly downstream, in spite of the original, smaller dam built by the British back in 1902. That had been breached several times and repaired, but the resulting flooding caused recurring havoc in an area where the rainy season normally lasts for four months every year.

Nasser’s plan was to “control” the flow of water properly with a much bigger dam that would also provide a source of power in the form of electricity.

The dam is impressive and jaw-dropping in its immensity, and even today it’s an engineering marvel that’s more than worth a visit.

Behind the construction, the facts and figures are staggering. It took for example a workforce of around 35,000 (mainly) Egyptians, putting in the hours night and day for 10 years to build it. At its crest it’s five kilometres long, and one kilometre thick at its base. It rises 107 metres above sea level.

Although it’s made mostly from local granite and sand, it still needed 66 million tonnes of concrete at its core and after it was finished it helped create the world’s largest reservoir – Lake Nasser. At 500 miles long the lake lies two-thirds within Egypt and one third within neighbouring Sudan.

And therein lie some of those ecological issues that are still posing a problem even today.

When reservoirs are created, they also alter the natural flow of a river and that’s exactly what happened along the Nile.

The construction of the High Dam meant that the mineral rich sediment that had previously fertilised land for crops or been a source of nutrients for animals further downstream, no longer made it through in the same kind of quantities.

In addition there was a general increase in the erosion rates along several sectors of the coast at the Nile delta.

It wasn’t until eight years ago that the Egyptian government actually took action and began yearly flooding on a controlled basis. And that has far from resolved entirely the damage already done.

There have also been important health issues surrounding the creation of such a large man-made reservoir. Because of the intense heat in this part of the world – especially in summer when temperatures regularly reach 45 degrees Celsius - a certain type of parasitic worm began to flourish in the water and that made it unsuitable for drinking.

Even though the state has once again taken measures to try to resolve the problem, people are still wary of drinking water from the dam.

And that of course presents a particular problem as the High Dam and the reservoir are supposed to be not only an important supplier of hydro-electricity (meeting around 20 per cent of the country’s current energy needs) but also a major (drinking) water source.

The enforced movement of people, and cultural costs that followed the dam’s construction have also been enormous and widely felt. And although it has undoubtedly brought economic and political benefits to Egypt – a huge chunk of its trained and qualified workforce was involved in building China’s Three Gorges dam for example - it has also placed a heavy burden on the country’s security forces.

Although the military is seemingly omnipresent throughout much of Egypt, nowhere is its presence perhaps more evident than in the south. The army and the air force both have major bases close to Aswan and there’s stringent security around the dam.

The simple truth is that if any attack were launched on the dam it could have a rippling economic and political impact throughout much of the Middle East. But that’s another story.

It’s well worth a visit just to see how modern day Egypt has been able to compete with its illustrious past. But tourists would be well advised not to try any flippant remark with guards and leave those long lens cameras behind.

A door closes on time

The Old Cataract hotel in Aswan is one of those magical names that conjures up all sorts of romantic images of a gentler, more genteel, bygone era.

Of course such sentiments may no longer be either politically correct or justifiable, but the hotel certainly has a reputation built on its heyday of the first three decades of the last century. 

And that’s still what most visitors are looking for. It’s the sort of place whose behaviour, if it were a person, would probably be best summed up as someone who combines jumping to attention with a nonchalant shrug.

Yes it’s full of contradictions. Its setting is incomparable. As its name suggests the hotel sits on the bank of the Nile where the water once crashed against the natural rapids of the river’s granite bottom.

But far from fast flowing, since the construction of the High Dam, the Nile at this point is now often a tethered beast with the gentlest of currents. Moreover the imposing sunsets and the uninterrupted views towards Elephantine island have been marred somewhat by the tower block construction of the New Cataract hotel built in 1961, with all the prevailing aesthetic values of the time.

The hotel strives to retain some of its past British colonial trappings, which of course are now clichés. Royal tea is served to order at the appointed hour on a terrace reserved for the hotel’s “residents” or guests. Breakfast is “obligatory” – a quaint way of saying that it’s included in the price - and there’s a smart/smart-casual dress code for dinner in the “1902 restaurant”.

Hither and thither throughout the grounds are brass plaques reminding residents that appropriate attire should be worn at all times and a more detailed read of the “rules and regulations” reveals that this means open-toed sandals may only be worn around the pool and jeans are frowned upon in the evenings.

But once again the hotel proves itself to be at odds with its polite and proper intentions. In reality it is neither as staid nor as formal as it purports to be and indeed the atmosphere is more relaxed than at first appears.

In all honesty the old lady is probably in need of something of a facelift. The hotel combines the elegance and architecture of the Victorian age, from which after all it originates, with Moorish-inspired interior decor, whose muted colours are gentle on the eye.

The rooms are high-ceilinged and therefore voluminous and while not exactly luxurious they are far from being spartan. Maybe they’re a little on the old-fashioned side – outdated even - but clean and comfortable and comforting without being pretentious.

The air-conditioning is a touch geriatric and along with the plumbing clanks and clonks a fair bit of the time, but that could also be interpreted as part of the hotel’s charm.

Most disappointing perhaps is the food and the restaurant which needlessly turns people away after they have gone to the trouble of togging themselves up for the evening. Surely the front desk could have advised guests of the necessity to reserve a table. And the service throughout the hotel is also a little haphazard.

But this could all be down to the fact that there’s currently a dip in staff motivation – and that might be putting it mildly.

For here’s the rub. From summer of this year the Old Cataract will be closed for business. It’s due for a complete renovation, which should take about two years and the chances are that the current leaseholder – the hotel is owned by the state – the French chain Sofitel, will not have its tenancy renewed.

So that’s all left the hotel’s future rather up in the air. Perhaps the fact that it’s the Egyptian authorities that will have the last say in what happens, means that the building’s illustrious past will be an equally important element of its future.

After all it’s hard to imagine that the memories of Agatha Christie, a young Winston Churchill, Howard Carter or Aga Khan III to name just a few of the host of names to have graced the carpeted floors of the Old Catararct, will be brushed aside by a Las Vegas style glitz ‘n glamour makeover.

Oh yes and one saving grace for future residents whenever it reopens its doors - the eyesore that is the New Cataract Hotel is due for demolition.

Monday, 3 March 2008

On the move

When the British slapped up the lower dam here in Aswan back in 1902, the fate of the Philae temple was already sealed. It was to die a long, slow death as the water levels inevitably rose. And rise they did throughout the twentieth century until the building of the upper dam from 1960 to 1970 finally left the whole thing completely surrounded by water and in danger of total submersion. 

In true heroic style befitting such an ancient treasure, there was only one way to save it and that was to literally up sticks and move it to dry land.

No mean engineering feat even by today’s standards. Of course the Philae temple is not the only world heritage site here in Egypt to have had to hit the road.

When the then Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, finally secured Soviet financing and support to build the dam that stands today, he wanted to prevent the regular flooding of the Nile that occurred further downstream in more densely populated areas.

But the construction inevitably meant that there would be a price to be paid – ecologically and in particular culturally – with some of the world’s most valued treasures coming under threat.

The solution was to move as many of them as possible. The most magnificent maybe is Abu Simbel – 250kms south of Aswan towards the Egyptian border with Sudan. There a whole mountain had to be built to act as a backdrop to the block-by block reconstruction of the temple.

International agreement and funding for relocating treasures such as Abu Simbel and most of the other sites had been secured before the construction of the dam had been completed. In other words, as difficult and unimaginable as it might have been, it was a “simple” case of moving across country - from dry land to dry land so to speak.

What sets aside the modern-day fate of the Philae temple is that it was already surrounded by water. Indeed work on moving it wasn’t started until after the Aswan dam had been completed in 1971. It took the best part of the next decade to lug the whole think just 500 metres to its new resting site – the island of Agilika.

So with all that effort put in to saving the site, Philae had better be able to come up with the goods. And of course it does although the frequency and relentlessness with which visitors snap away, does raise the question as to whether this wasn’t perhaps just another “thing to do” and place to have gone, ticked off the list.

One very popular way to see the temple is by night. It’s a trend the Egyptians have well got the hang of throughout the country – the tourist trap by day becomes a pay-again must-see after sundown as the Sons et Lumières show blasts out centuries of history in the matter of an hour or so.

Mind you that’s perhaps all it’s worth as it does come across rather as a 1960s Hollywood B movie, minus the actors but complete with cheesy music.

The plot is as incredible as the setting is majestic, but somehow loses a little in translation, especially if you miss the nightly English version and end up traipsing around the French “production”.

But in short the visitor learns that Isis, for whom the temple was built, resurrected her husband, Osiris after he had been bumped off and his body parts scattered (his private bits were never found) by his brother, Seth. She then of course marries him, bears a child (no mean feat given his still-missing genitalia) and is venerated for centuries to come. Clearly a lesson to all of modern civilisation somewhere along the line as Isis, Osiris, and Seth were siblings. But perhaps we’ll leave the matter there.

The problem with this particular Son et Lumière production – promoted, as “glamour pure” is that parts of the temple seem to be illuminated indiscriminately and a barrage of snap-happy tourists’ cameras flash seconds after the lights have moved on.

How much they’ll ever remember of the story or understand of the walls of hieroglyphics they’ve been shooting is open to question.

But if nothing else they’re sure to treasure the boat race back to the mainland after the show, which is itself not for the weak-hearted or loose-wigged.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

That’s so heavy. Do you have a gun in there?

It’s hard to know how to answer such a question when first going through the security checkpoint at the hotel in Cairo. After all it’s not every day a guard appears to be so flippant.

Metal and explosive detectors may make a visitor baulk initially, but that’s perhaps an indication of just how important tourism is to this country’s economy.

Past experience and present threats have left the authorities in no doubt as to how carefully that precious trade must be protected. And quite quickly it becomes a simple part of the visitor’s routine to pass through a control – just in case.

Off-the cuff remarks don’t normally go down too well with security guards. So of course even though their ribbing at the heaviness of the holdall seemed good-natured enough, common sense advised playing it straight, and owning up to lugging around an overweight laptop instead.

Strictly speaking there had already been a frisking of sorts as the taxi from the airport pulled into the hotel “compound.” It was engine off and a quick reconnoitre by a guard and his dog before being waved on to drive the remaining 600 metres.

So security, police and checkpoints seem to be a given here in Egypt.

Police are everywhere – at least in the capital. Whizzing past public buildings on the main avenues, their presence isn’t too unexpected. That is after all what can be found in many major cities anywhere in the world.

But Cairo seems to post additional clusters of differently-uniformed officers on most street corners,

Then of course there are the multitude of traffic police – out in force at each and every crossing and roundabout, vigorously waving their directions while chatting with passing drivers. Once again it all comes across as too good-humoured to be taken seriously.

Guaranteed full employment it would appear as the traffic lights, which should be controlling the flow seem to be set permanently flashing on amber, with motorists and pedestrians competing against each other for priority.

And of course who can forget the tourist police. They are huddled around every major monument ancient and modern, once again coming in quadruple packs with three watching and one checking as visitors file through the detector.

And there’s a thing. With belts, bags, cameras, mobile phones and all manner of metal passing through, the poor machine seems to be on beeping overload as the hoards make their way ever onwards. Not an eyelid is batted by those ever-vigilant law enforcers. Clearly everyone in principal is a potential suspect, but at the same time they all make the security grade.

Similarly the smooth passage through the airport when alarms shrieked as baggage and passenger went through the detector seemed to attract only cursory attention.

All right so there was a brief frisk from one of the – yet again several does it really take so many – guards, but it seemed to be more of a bored formality than a serious search.

Perhaps it was also because it was a domestic flight terminal only, but all the same it came as quite a surprise and leaves room for thought. As does the fact that last-minute passengers managed to scoot past the final security check with full bottles of water in their carry-on.

So that was security for what it’s worth in and around Cairo. Full of good intentions and certainly the sheer numbers to enforce whatever controls might be deemed necessary. But there’s also a sense of awareness that the tourist doesn’t want, or need, to be harassed constantly.

Pyramid perils

More tales of the road as our driver hurtles along at breakneck speed from the hotel to the pyramids of Giza on our first day of sightseeing. His course sees him bobbing perilously between lorries, cars, the occasional horse and cart and the more frequent donkey dragging an overladen trailor of vegetables. Oh yes and let’s not forget the odd camel or two.

I quickly realise that this makes France’s infamous Arc de Triomphe look like a doddle to drive around, and count my lucky stars that we hadn’t even thought about a hire care. I briefly wonder why there are no Egyptian formula one drivers (lack of money I muse) but my attention is quickly diverted. “Hang on isn’t that a 1970s Peugot 504 taxi headed straight towards us – on the wrong side of the road?”

I’m so Zen that it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m not buckled up and have long since stopped worrying about the future. And yes of course it’s on the wrong side of the road, but with one deft manoeuvre our driver has avoided a head-on collision and instead cut in front of a gas-belching truck. Our only concern now is to wind the windows up as quickly as possible.

Nor am I really listening to the guide, who is trying to give us centuries worth of ancient history in just a few minutes – less than 60 seconds for each of the 30 Pharaoh’s dynasties. Instead I’m gazing through the window, gaping at 21st century life – which I’m having enough problems grasping never mind what has gone on before.

Cairo is enormous - around 25 million people we’ve been told – and it’s one of those places where the very rich rub shoulders with the extremely poor – and it just seems to be the natural order of things.

It’s all very difficult to arrange in one’s pea-sized brain, especially as there’s also the cultural element to factor in. I shouldn’t but I do, stare at women in headscarves – by far the majority here it seems – and wonder what all the fuss is about back in Europe. Here they seem to just get on with life, wear the thing proudly and accept it. But heck, what do I know, I wonder to myself. Maybe it is after all just a way of keeping women in their place. And then I see a couple wearing the whole black caboodle from head to toe, with just their eyes peeping through. I’m even more incensed and horrified, staring further in incomprehension.

The pyramids soon provide me with another distraction. Boy is it hard to keep one’s focus in this country as the ancient and modern collide with each other so frequently and so noisily.

There are the young boys desperate to sell me any kind of nonsense for a few Egyptian pounds, and there are the tourists all striking the same stiff pose as the camera lens clicks for what must be the umpteenth time in a gesture we know has been and will continue to be repeated ad nauseam over the years.

I try hard to join in, but I feel embarrassed and superior and anyway, the guy perched on his camel as we drove past, would have made a far better picture. Except now I’ve been told even if we had wanted to take a photo of him, we would have had to pay for the delight.

Still I marvel at the sheer effort there must have been in moving all that stone in worship of a pharaoh. Not strong on the original thinking I guess. But would anyone be willing to do the same for Posh n’ Becks or Brangelina today I wonder if they decided they needed immortalising in the same way.

A quick lesson on mummification from the guide takes the stomach to unchartered territory so far on this trip. Perhaps that’s still to come with my steadfast refusal not to be persuaded against eating the fresh fruit and veggies.

Time for a quick peak at the Sphinx, minus its beard, which apparently the British museum still refuses to return, although quite why yet again escapes me – and the tour guide wasn’t much help on that front either.

So the whistle stop is over and Aswan beckons. Internal airlines will test my steel.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Page Viarge

After piling off the bus, which brought us from the 'plane to the gate – just how we managed so successfully to be first on and of course last off will remain forever a complete mystery – we shuffled towards a mass of waiting tourist reps.

Each was waving a board rather like one of those exits from an Italian motorway when you can’t find the sign for where you want to go because it’s lost in the sheer of multitude of advertising boards.

Miraculously enough though, through the wood we did managed to see the trees. There holding aloft our names was Omar Sharif (or so he claimed) in appalling French. His English was apparently better, but there was no real proof. He promptly provided us with our visa (included in the price clearly) on a “page viarge”, which neither we nor the other couple he had collected understood, but which turned out to mean two blank pages in our passport – one for the stick-it-on-yourself visa and one for the official stamp. His English really was better than his French as I wheedled the explanation out of him.

Luckily the interminable wait for the luggage was accompanied by some light entertainment in the form of one veritable mountain of a local man shouting very “largely.’ No idea what it was all about of course as my Arabic only goes as far as to say “thank you.”

And that’s courtesy of Michael, in whose care Omar Sharif left us after we had cleared customs He was there to usher us into our taxi. The welcoming melee was to be expected and far from disappointing as drivers set up a honking serenade to see who could get closest to the pick-up points.

One family successfully managed to try to stuff far too much luggage into a waiting car and a mad woman headed straight at a throng of people, hitting the horn relentlessly to clear her path. It obviously worked as within minutes she had parked, and engine still running, hopped out of the seat to shower what surely could only have been her mother with a such a joyous embrace it would have been impossible to view her driving and parking skills as delinquent.

We’re eventually bundled into our taxi and driven off rapidly to our hotel.

Ah yes on the roads, the Egyptians are something else. There are lanes for sure, complete with solid white lines for no overtaking of course and panels indicating what you should do. But what the heck. This is a free world. This is still a democracy – of sorts - and there ain’t nobody gonna tell anybody else how to drive.

But there is one rule of the road and that seems to be “SOUND THAT HORN” and the longer, the more often and the louder the better!
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