I like to ride my bicycle …..

Not sure he was into the fat-bottomed girls much either.

Actually, I bet Freddie Mercury never got on a bike in his life. Though there’s something appealing about the idea of of the catsuit-clad and abundantly moustachioed king of camp perched astride a sit up and beg contraption with onboard shopping basket.

The rest of us, however, more or less grew up on two wheels. Yes you did, you sedentary porker. Try to remember what life was like before you got a driving licence and a job, and  gave up physical activity in favour of lager and the telly. It’s nice to see that the exploits of  Mr Wiggins and colleagues seem to have given biking a boost despite the ‘har har lycra shorts’ mockery. Presumably these people would also take the piss if you wore ski clothing for skiing or suits to work.

My first ever bike had three wheels, and was therefore technically a trike. I could also call it a fixie, on the grounds that the pedals were stuck to the front wheel, which means I can legitimately say that I was into fixed wheel bikes before they got so mainstream. Take that, pansy hipster city-cyclists. Unfortunately I didn’t realise at the time how terribly cutting edge this was going to be and spent most of my time coveting a playmate’s trike which had a chain, a place for stand-up passengers between the back wheels and even a sort of boot arrangement in which you could cart your favourite stuffed toys about. This was what passed for sophistication in 1960s Falkirk.

My first foray into proper two wheelers was on another playmate’s bike (small, red, fat white tyres), which I managed to keep upright for just long enough to crash into a rather large middle-aged lady who was walking about minding her own business. (I say large and midde-aged – she was probably a completely normal size and just out of school, but everyone looks old and fat when you’re five.) The only thing I could think of to say as she turned round and eyed me beadily was “I didn’t see you”, which struck me even as the words left my mouth as utterly moronic, given that I was convinced she was the size of half a house.

Having outgrown the trike, I went through a bit of a cycling fallow period until I was presented, aged about eight, with a Raleigh Twenty, something which looked like a folding bike but wasn’t. At the time, I thought this machine was the very nuts of the mutt, though looking at pictures of it now I can see that it was in fact a ridiculous contraption with stupidly small wheels. I spent most of my time swapping it with a mate who had a Moulton Mini, a rather pointless activity snce the only real difference between the two was that hers was a slightly darker shade of red.

Stupid wheels. You’d think it was a shopping trolley. Oh wait ………..

Even sillier wheels, if that’s possible.

The trusty Raleigh only bit the dust when a parental windfall resulted in the purchase of – wait for it – brand new bikes, a ridiculous extravagance in Penicuik in the 1970s. This gave me exclusive rights to a purple Raleigh Caprice complete with those rubbish Sturmey Archer three-speed gears which always got stuck in second gear after the first week. I seem to remember that what I actually coveted was an 18-speed racer with drop handlebars, but I have a vague idea this wasn’t deemed girly enough. Still, the fact that it was blatantly your granny’s shopping bike didn’t stop me razzing round the place pretending to be Batman, though having seen what Batman is really riding I have to confess I now feel a tad foolish.

No, mine did not have a basket on it thank you. Would Batman have a basket? I think not.

Batman’s wheels. Do you see a shopping basket? No.

I am now forced to confess that as a student I abandoned cycling, my completely pathetic excuse for this being that I was at university in Sheffield, a city which resembles Rome in that it was built on seven hills. (This is the only way in which Sheffield resembles Rome.) These days I would think nothing of cycling up and down most of the city’s hills, which gives you some idea of what a bunch of pantywaist pansies students are.

A postgraduate move to Portsmouth saw the purchase of yet another shopper bike (what was I thinking of?), this time in pink, for some reason. This is about the only mode of transport a junior reporter on local newspapers can even think of affording. Besides, commuting to Gosport in anything on four wheels involves getting up earlier than necessary, circumnavigating the harbour and sitting in traffic fumes on the M27 when you could be in bed. Bugger that, quite frankly.

Looking at all this, I am at a loss to say why I’ve neglected biking until this summer and the ripe old age of wossname. Possibly the preponderance of hills in this neck of the woods, though since other people come from the ends of the earth (well, Holland mostly) and pay a lot of good money specifically to cycle up our alps that excuse doesn’t really cut it. I suspect it’s some kind of specialised early-onset dementia in which the gradual deterioration of the mental faculties produces the delusion that biking up 10% gradients to somewhere near the snowline might be a fun way of passing a Sunday afternoon. At least I’m not trying to do it on something which resembles a shopping trolley with a saddle.

Still no shopping basket.

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Picking the perfect pet

‘Aaaawwwww that must be lovely, all the cutesome little animals!’ people inevitably drool when you tell them you’ve landed a summer job working for the local vet. Honestly, have you all lost any capacity for logical reasoning? Think about it – do you take Fido to the vet when he’s young, healthy and in fine fettle? No, you don’t. You haul him along there because he’s got diarrhoea or exotic parasites, or he’s taken to biting everyone he meets.

Cute. Or would be if it wasn’t in the breadbasket.

Certainly there is a liberal sprinkling of kittens and puppies, and these are indeed cute even if the puppies do have a tendency to wee on the floor in an excess of excitement. But their appeal is rather outweighed by the abundance of huge smelly hounds with matted fur and halitosis. Seriously, why would you think of keeping 50kg of incontinent rottweiler in the house? The stench in there must be worse than the zoo’s lion enclosure at cleaning time on a hot day in August.

If you really must keep an enormous hairy thing the size of a small bear, then possibly think about brushing him now and then. And I venture to suggest that he’d smell a bit less like something marinated for three weeks in rancid yak milk if you bathed him accasionally. Yes, I know hauling eight stone of reluctant Rover into the bath is no easy task. Getting the bugger onto the operating table when he’s out cold isn’t funny either, let me tell you.

Furthermore (and I know you don’t want to think about this, but it comes to all of us), when Fido reaches the end of his rich and varied existence and the vet releases him to gambol off into the afterlife, somebody has to get him into a big plastic sack and stash him in the freezer until he can be respectably cremated. That would be me then. And I can tell you that wrestling my own body weight in dead dog into a plastic bag is not easy, especially when he’s covered in wee. (Look, if you euthanase something half the size of a horse at a moment when he was just about thinking of going out for a tinkle, there’s going to be a lot of wee, all right?)  Apart from any one of the many other considerations, it makes the bag slippery.

Not cute. though at least it wouldn’t actually fit in the breadbasket.

All of which has taught me that there’s far more to choosing a pet than just taking whichever mutt looks at you with the biggest eyes when you’re browsing in Pets ‘R’ Us. In fact, what I’ve mostly learned is that if you’re going to keep an animal at all, you’re probably best off giving the pet shop a miss altogether and shopping at the taxidermist. An ex-boyfriend once bought a house from someone who kept a stuffed Jack Russell on top of the piano, something which I thought strange at the time, but which I now fully understand.

But I accept that despite the clear advantages offered by a stuffed best friend, many people might feel that it lacks a certain something (though I bet there are others out there who even now are wondering how much it would cost to have their life partner stuffed and mounted in a glass case on top of the piano – I can see serious plus points in that arrangement as well).

The first thing to consider here has to be size. No matter how much of a ‘big softy’ that rottweiler is, the fact remains that he weighs nearly as much as you do, and if he decides to take off after something you’ll just have to hope that you didn’t wrap the leash round your wrist, because if you did you’ll be picking gravel out of your skin for months. He could also eat you if he decided he fancied the idea, which is rather worrying. Rule of thumb: do not keep aggressive household carnivores unless they are at most a quarter your size, and preferably a lot less. Reject the rotty and consider a chihuahua – I know they look ridiculous, but you have to admit they have comedy value.

Not a dog so much as a rug on legs.

Next, I’d look at hairiness. You thought people left hair in the plugholes? You should see how much loose fur there is lying around a vet clinic at the end of a day. You could make one of those ’70s Starsky and Hutch style cardigans out of it by the end of a week and still have enough left for a scarf and matching woolly hat. Share your house with one of those Bernese mountain hounds and it’s going to be all over carpets and furniture all of the time. You’ll be changing the hoover bag every two days. Short is good in the fur department. Bald could be better. Consider the attractions of a fish tank.

Finally, think about hygiene. While cats, being fastidious critters, can be left to get on with their own housetraining and will generally only wee on your bed when they wish to communicate displeasure, puppies take a lot of convincing before they get the idea that the world is not their toilet. So you might as well get rid of all your carpets straight off, because you’ll have to do it eventually and it will make mopping up easier in the meantime. Or entertain the idea of a gerbil, an animal which doesn’t wee at all. Ever. (Seriously – they live in the desert, can’t afford to waste the water. If they did wee they’d have to drink it, and how disgusting would that be?)

In summary, your ideal animal companion needs to be small, bald and continent. Ladies and gntlemen, I give you ……….. the perfect dog!

That mohican’s going to have to go

All right, he looks like a cross between Dobby and Gollum, and I can’t actually guarantee the continent part, but cross him with a gerbil and you could probably sort that out in a couple of generations. Result.

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Aladdin’s Cave welcomes you. And takes Visa.

Taking no frills a bit too far

Camping. Ah yes, back to nature’s basics. Fresh air, the simple life, just you and your oversized hanky getting away from all this stressy modern gadgetry and consumerfest frenzy etc etc. Not.

In fact, camping is a gear freak’s wet dream, which possibly explains why so many skiers and cyclists are into it. Ooh, shiny spangly gizmos! Lightweight gadgetry! Things which fold up! Gimme!! Yes, here are all my bank details and the deeds to my soul.

Last weekend’s healthy outdoor activities were somewhat curtailed following a mistake with a box of cheap Sauvignon on Friday evening and the following morning spent nattering over coffee, all of which resulted in getting to the chosen camping spot rather too late to do anything very significant. As a result, I found myself doing a tour of Briançon’s outdoor emporia with a vague headache, tempted by summer sales and completely ignoring the fact that a) I have no spare cash and b) I don’t need anything anyway. But let’s be honest, when has that ever stopped anyone buying a load of tat? It’s the zeitgeist innit, everyone’s doing it. Though you should probably note that the difference between you and, say, Greece is that the German taxpayer is likely to give you an unequivocal nein when you ask him to pay your Visa bill.

We all know perfectly well that all it takes to mount a successful camping weekend is a tent, a mattress, a coolbox and a sleeping bag. Yes it is. No, you do not need the mosquito net, first aid kit complete with ebola vaccine, and 85-piece picnic dinner set with wine cooler and cruet. There are two of you and you are camping in Wales.

Not necessary. Really.

But it’s hard to resist the pull of the retail addiction, and you can see the results on campsites all over Europe, not to mention at UK music festivals, which appear to have become an irritatingly middle class sort of trendy, necessitating Cath Kidston tents and wellies costing £200 a pair. Personally I like a camping experience which calls for flipflops, but each to his own.

The compulsive camping consumer comes in two sub-species: the Walter Mitty and the Closet Caravanner. Walter rolls up in his car and proceeds to unload the sort of tent you’d expect to find at Everest camp IV, a sleeping bag which packs down to the size of a matchbox and guarantees to keep you warm on the municipal campsite at Archangel in December, an array of tiny pots and pans and a Swiss Army knife three times the size of his tent. He then proceeds to get takeaway pizza and beer from the campsite restaurant before spending an uncomfortable night on his Inertia X-Frame sleeping mat. Walter would like to think of himself as a cross between Ranulph Fiennes and Bear Grylls, yomping his lone way from the Himalaya to the jungles of Borneo with all he needs in his trusty backpack. When in fact he pre-booked his stay on an Alan Rodgers recommended 3* site with English-speaking reception service six months ago just in case they might be full during the first week in June.

The Closet Caravanners come in pairs, sporting Howard and Hilda stylee his ‘n’ hers waterproofs, and driving huge people carriers as this is the only way they can cram in all the basic essentials. Their tent could sleep a family of six plus staff, and if they didn’t bring the kitchen sink it’s only because the Gelert fold-up washing up bowl is so much more technical. These people poo-poo the bar and takeaway, preferring to empty their portable fridge onto the foldaway table before rustling up a full three course meal on their four-burner cooker with windshield, grill and rotisserie attachment, then getting quietly sozzled and retiring for a good night’s sleep on their three-layer delux flocked airbed with built-in electric pump. As soon as they retire, Howard and Hilda will give in and buy an enormous caravan with an inappropriate brand name like ‘Marauder’, which they will store in a local farmer’s barn, annoying him every other Sunday morning by demanding that he move everything else in there so they can get it out and tinker with it pointlessly in the middle of his farmyard.

Go on Howard, you know you want it.

All these people have lost sight of the basic premise, which is that camping allows you to get out and about without spending unnecessary wedges of your hard-earned cash on mere accommodation, leaving you with enough to have fun every single weekend rather than saving up all year in order to go on holiday for one measly week, only to find that it rains on you for five days out of seven. So get a grip on your common sense, avert your eyes from the spangly array of ultra lightweight packable Agas with GoreTex awning and built-in barbecue, and get back to basics. You’ll have more fun, more often. And there’ll probably be less washing up.

This week’s camping spot: Le Champ de Blanc, Pramorel. Not easy to find, due to total lack of directions anywhere including their website. Turn right opposite Géant Casino and just before McDonald’s, but don’t expect any signposts.
Pitches: Large, grassy, mix of sun and shade. Not too rocky for a change. Ensuite grasshoppers for comedy value.
Facilities: None to speak of, apart from peace and quiet and a fantastic view across the Guisane valley.
Showers: Cute – old fashioned tiling, real shower curtains and a rack for your toiletry bottles. One size fits all water temperature.
Price: 13,20€ in high season for car, tent and one person.

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Nurse! The jacket with the long sleeves please.

So this week I will be mainly having myself sectioned before curling up into a little ball in the corner of a room with suspiciously soft walls and sucking my thumb. Or possibly I should just check myself into one of our local psychiatric sanatoria, which we like to call ‘campsites’ so as not to stigmatise the residents, whom we let out now and then to roam about the roads and hopefully gain from associating with normal well-balanced people. Though since most of them seem to use the opportunity either to bike up hills or watch other people biking up hills I might suggest that a change of regimen is in order.

Pah, I’m sure I’ve seen people ride wth no hands.

Following last weekend’s triumph on the Col de l’Echelle and a slightly poxy rainy Saturday, I decided that the best way to spend Sunday would be to cycle up the Col du Glandon. No, I have no idea either. Probably what psychiatrists call a fugue state.

According to mappy.com, the trip from Bourg d’Oisans to the col is 36km. I wouldn’t use this site to do anything important like work out your holiday itinerary if I were you, because it was blatantly nearly 45km, which looks to me like something in the order of a 30% margin for error. (I could easily be wrong about this though – feel free to mock me in the comments section if so.) Mappy also estimated that it should take a cyclist 2h20 to complete the route, suggesting that the site is run by Team Sky on their down days.

Still, I have no doubt that the whole thing was character-building and most certainly a valuable learning experience. And here’s what I learned:

1. http://www.mappy.com is rubbish. Because obviously I would have changed my mind about the project had I realised it was 45km and not a mere 36km.

2. Just because roads look straight on the map does not mean they will be in any way flat. It just means those bits which look like the wormcasts you used to find on the beach have the same sort of gradient as Beachy Head. Next time I do this sort of thing I will look at the route on a walkers’ map which has sensible information like contours and altitude written on it. (Did I say ‘next time’ just then? Someone please lock me up.)

More clothing required.

3. It is a bit chilly at 2000m, even in July. Let’s face it, I really ought to know this. There’s no way I’d go hiking at that altitude without a rucksack containing fleece, GoreTex jacket, trousers, woolly hat, first aid kit, head torch and spare ferret. There is no real reason why, just because I am riding a bike, I should consider it acceptable to be up there in not much more than my vest and pants.

4. It’s positively arctic when you’re whizzing back down at 50kph. I ought to know that as well, given how much time I spend explaining windchill during the winter season. It began to dawn on me that this might be the case when all the pro-looking types at the top started emptying the pockets of their proper cycling T-shirts (no-one else up there in a Marks & Spencer vest, I couldn’t help noticing) and pulling out arm and leg warmers and fancy lightweight windproofs. Half way down, the sun went in and I arrived back in the valley literally shaking with cold, something which makes steering interesting, to say the least.

5. Cycling is not the cheap pastime it at first appears. All you need to do is buy the bike in the first place and you’re off, right? Wrong. Clearly I should have leg warmers and a (no doubt extortionately expensive) windproof jacket. And one of those cycling T-shirts with pockets along the back to put them in.

6. It’s not even cheaper than driving. If we believe mappy (which possibly we shouldn’t), driving up there would have taken me half an hour and cost all of 3,47€. Replacing the calorie deficit took a pint of  fruit smoothie (banana, raspberry, fromage blanc, honey and milk – try it, delicious) plus a pizza, all of which tots up to a good 12€. More if I have the seafood pizza. I can get half way to the parental chateau in Burgundy on 12€ worth of petrol, for God’s sake.

7. Cyclists are lovely. Nobody passed me who didn’t shout ‘Allez!’ or ask how I was doing, or say something unintelligible but vaguely encouraging in Dutch. Two people offered me their expensive energy gel thingies, and I suspect I might actually have died of cold and exhaustion if it wasn’t for the fisherman who stopped his car, fed me madeleines and told me he too had cycled the route and it was indeed ‘tres dur’.

You’re telling me it was tres dur. And I’ve got to get back down now as well.

Next weekend’s activities may involve camping, wine and books. And just to make sure, I’m lending the bike to someone else (I suspect this is a bit like handing out free heroin samples). Maybe I could do a bit of gentle cycling the weekend after though – the Col d’Ornon perhaps. Or Lautaret. Or Alpe d’Huez.

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High tech self flagellation

No, not really.

The Tour de France will not be gracing us with its presence this year, something which you might think is a bit of a disappointment to us all. And indeed it might be if you’re the owner of pretty much any kind of local retail or hospitality business, but as far as the rest of us are concerned it’s something of a relief, to be honest. Last year I had to dump the car two kilometres out of town and walk home through stalled traffic and abandoned vehicles. This is what the end of days looks like – roads strewn with redundant machinery while dazed survivors carrying backpacks pick their way through the carnage trying to get home. I suppose we should be grateful there weren’t zombies.

Of course the absence of the event itself doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of our cycling freak visitors, who spend their mornings trying to kill themselves on the roads before coming back to town to sit in a bar and watch Bradley Wiggins wipe the floor with the opposition on one of the huge screens without which our various hostelries may as well say goodbye to any summer trade whatsoever.

I gather the Wiggo effect has turned road cycling in the UK from a slightly nerdish minority pursuit confined to single men who probably only did it as an excuse to wear tight shorts, into the lastest uber cool sport. This is great news for the manufacturers of bikes, lycra and cycling gadgets, and even better news for anyone looking to pick up a good second hand bargain two years down the line when people realise that a) merely spending £2000 will not miraculously rid you of the beer belly and turn you into Mark Cavendish, and b) cycling to work in the UK involves getting cold, wet and probably run over.

No longer nerds, but still wearing embarrassing shorts.

I have to confess at this point that after ten years spent wondering what institution our summer visitors had escaped from, I too have been sucked into the strange world of biking up big hills at every available opportunity. Not very far in so far, but I can tell that it’s the start of a long dark tunnel full of unnecessary pain and suffering. On the bright side, I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to deal with depression or other mental or emotional trauma – cycling will remove all of your anguish and distribute it evenly between legs and lungs, leaving none for anywhere else. It also means you will be so shagged out at the end of the day that you can barely get the cork out of the wine bottle and click on the next episode of The Walking Dead, let alone brood over whatever’s bothering you.

My embarking on this programme of blatant self harm has less to do with the exploits of Mr Wiggins and his colleagues at Team Sky than the fact that I’ve pretty much run out of flat bits, something which happens all too quickly round here. If I lived in Holland I’d probably never dream of doing something as ridiculous as biking up an alp, but there’s a limit to how often you can ride along to the end of the valley and back without wondering if there’s more to life.

My first foray into this madness needed to be something relatively easy (note use of the word ‘relatively’ there), so I picked the Col de l’Echelle on the road from the Val Claree near Briançon over to Bardonecchia in Italy. The reasons for this were as follows:

1. It’s only about 16km from La Vachette at the bottom of the valley to the col.
2. Most of it looked fairly flat (you can tell I’m not really committed here)
3. A friend – also a beginner biker – did it last summer, so how hard can it be.
4. It’s far enough away to offer an excuse to go camping again. Yay!

Nevache – nice day out. Avoid the right turn.

The route up from La Vachette towards Nevache near the head of the valley is indeed fairly flat and very nice as well, what with the river and the mountains and all that alpine meadow business. If you’re on holiday in the area and fancy a nice bike ride, I recommend it. Take a picnic.

The road up to the col is a right turn about a kilometre before Nevache, and it doesn’t mess about. This cycling lark is as much about psychology as anything else, I discover, and that moment when you realise you’ve gone through all three of those big gear wheels on the front plus the little ones at the back, and you can no longer make it any easier, is as bad as the point where your body runs out of sugar and switches to burning fat. Not that I got that far, obviously. In fact according to my iWidget the whole project didn’t get rid of the calorific equivalent of a Mars Bar, which was most disappointing. Evidently I have a super-efficient metabolism, which will stand me in good stead come the zombie invasion but isn’t great when it comes to those Nutella doughnuts the boulangerie insists on producing.

I’d like to say I got to the col in a oner without stopping for a wheeze, but resolution (and legs) gave out at a point which turned out to be a mere 50 or so metres from the top. Gutted. Which is more psychology – if I’d known the holy grail was just around the corner I could probably have found a last morsel in the corner of the motivation bag. I bet those Tour riders spend all the rest of the year obsessively driving the routes, noting all the landmarks and working out the gradient. Cheating, I call it.

Still, wheeze break or not, I did it. I rode up a col on a bike, thus proving that it is in fact possible for mere mortals and not confined to the machine-creatures who get to wear that yellow jersey. If it stops raining tomorrw I might try the Col du Glandon – bits of that look flattish as well.

Yes all right, I did stop on the way up. Let’s see you do it, smartarse.

This week’s camping spot:
Site: Camping Les Gentianes, La Vachette
Pitches: Choice of sun or shade, bit stony but peggable
Facilities: Tiny swimming pool, extortionate wifi. Bread from the snackbar in La Vachette, order the day before. (What kind of campsite doesn’t sell bread? Bizarre.)
Showers: Huge cubicles with ensuite wasbasin – you could have a party in there. Adjustable water temperature.
Price: 13€ a night in July/August for a car and a tent plus one person.

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Loitering within tent

Oh, go on then.

Apparently most review-writing bloggers do it in return for free stuff or even actual folding wonga, if you can believe that. I could argue that this compromises the impartiality of the resulting writings and stake out the moral high ground by telling you all that any reviews I might occasionally do are unsullied by the taint of financial reward, therefore pure and objective, and that I do it like this out of sheer righteousness. Actually it’s just because I’m a bit crap about asking for freebies. Like most of us, I’d be more than happy to sully myself slightly with a wedge of cash in a brown envelope, given half a  chance.

All a bit academic in this particular case though, as I can’t see an organisation as large as Decathlon being interested in giving away a pile of camping gear in return for a rave review from some wittering alpine blogger with an audience of half a dozen anyway. I should really have tried I suppose, but the time required was probably better spent making a pot of tea, if we’re honest.

A stocktake of the available camping gear in the loft earlier in the year revealed a lot of perfectly serviceable kit, most of it completely unsuited to my current solo needs. Mansion tents with enough space for table and chairs plus sideboard, wardrobe and staff accommodation are all very well, but not ideal when you’re trying to put one up on your own and still have enough time actually to go and do whatever activity you had planned in the first place.

Instatent. Just add water.

Time, clearly, to flog it all off and get back to the basic camping experience. Which means a trawl round the web followd by the inevitable trip to Decathlon, cheapo sports kit emporium extraordinaire, and a tour of their Quechua range of pop-up montage-in-a-minute instatents.

These things are available in various forms ranging from rudimentary one-man shelters to mini-mansions allegedly sleeping a family of four, though bear in mind that the assumption here is that your children are all under ten and a bit stunted to boot.

Packed down, your tent comes as a flat disc rather than the usual sausage shape. You take it out of the bag, whip off the restraining strap and the thing pings up (smacking you in the face in the process, as a rule) into – ta-daaah! – a fully put together tent complete with inner bedroom bit. Nail it to the floor and off you go.

Unlikely as this sounds, it actually works. Honestly. Though it has to be said that the official estimate of two seconds is possibly a tad optimistic, especially for the bigger version with porch space and muddy boot storage. But I could probably get it down to five minutes, assuming I don’t try putting it up on the stoniest emplacement in the world next time. And remember to bring the mallet.

Luxury version with foyer area.

In terms of size, these tents aren’t bad as long as you follow the basic camping rule of picking one designed for one more person than you intend to accommodate. You may wish to consider the porch space issue as well – personally I like to have a place for stashing gear (boots, coolbox, via ferrata kit, comfy chair, stray cat etc etc) and lurking in should it decide to rain, so I went for the XXL version, a good move as it’s positively palatial for one person, and the height of the porch means you don’t have to do that undignified crawling in and out thing, which is a serious bonus.

Ah, I hear you say, but does it actually pack down into its disc shape after use and go back in the bag? Or do you have to wrestle with it for three hours before stuffing it in the back of the car in a fit of pique? This was a bit of a concern, and it has to be said that the instructions on the bag are frankly rubbish. The various instructional videos on YouTube aren’t a huge amount of help if you’ve got the two-man model either, as they all refer to the bigger one, which doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way. But you kind of get the picture.

Folding the 2XXL up is merely a matter of doing up three colour-coded buckles, followed by one small wrestling move in order to twist it into a figure eight and fold it in half. Once the retaining strap is on, it goes back into the bag in a remarkably docile fashion, leaving you free to push off and do the day’s via ferrata before the crowds get to it.

The downside to all this is the packed size of the thing, which is a disc measuring about 80cm across and weighing over six kilos. You’re not going to be yomping along the Tour de Oisans route with it tied to your rucksack, that’s for sure. But assuming you’re doing your camping out of the back of a car this isn’t an issue, as it fits easily into the back of something as small as a Twingo and still leaves more than enough room for the rest of the kit. You might have a problem if you’re driving a Smart car, but I’d suggest that if you’re running around in something as ridiculous as that then the size of your tent is the least of your worries.

All in all, this could very well be the perfect tent for basic weekend camping trips. It’s on sale at the moment with 20€ off the original price, so nab one now.

Make and model: Quechua 2 Seconds XXL
Available from: Decathlon stores or online here
Price: 120€, reduced at the moment to 100€

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Posted in Summer Season | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Gardening in the litter box

Parental sunbathing spot

Having burnt my legs in the extensive ornamental jardins of the parental chateau last time there was a bank holiday weekend, I find myself coveting a garden of my own. Or more likely the idea of a garden if I’m honest, as I have to admit to little interest and less skill when it comes to the grubby business of actually being responsible for growing living things. Cats I can just about manage, as they  more or less grow themselves and don’t need much weeding, but the idea of spending weekends mulching the compost heap doesn’t fill me with earthy back-to-the-land satisfaction.

All of which is just as well really, as in order to acquire any viable outdoor space I would have to move to a bigger house, thereby reattaching myself to the financial ball and chain which is a mortgage. Bugger that. I shall just have to take advantage of weekends at the château, where the gardening staff do an admirable job of keeping the grass neat and supplying homegrown strawberries.

But in a bid not to be a complete flat-dwelling townie I have made efforts with pots on the balconies, though my one attempt at long term horticultural commitment in the shape of a rhododendron came a cropper during last winter’s Siberian cold snap, which finished it off entirely, presumably by freezing its roots off.

Spider plants. Will probably survive a nuclear winter.

Having learned my lesson there, I am now restricting my vegetational husbandry to spider plants inside the house (since these are so tough they might as well be made of plastic) and ephemerals such as herbs and the inevitable geraniums out on the balconies. So far I have even remembered to move the right-hand tray of gernaiums when it rains so that they don’t drown in the water feature created by the broken guttering. Yes thank you, I know it’s been like that for three years and I should do something more sensible about it than just play chess with the geraniums.

Leaving aside the thing with the guttering, I have been far more conscientious than usual about the whole business, going so far as to start by rootling through the compost in order to assess whether or not I should replace it with new and presumably nutrient-packed dirt in a bid to give my basil the best start in life. I’m not at all sure why I imagined digging about in it with my hands was going to give me an answer to that question, now that I think about it.

Geraniums. Smell marginally better than cat wee.

Still, it did in fact give me some idea as to the advisability of putting edible plants in there, as the foul pong emanating from the pots as soon as I was up to my elbows in there would strongly suggest that certain furry residents have spent the winter using my limited growing space as an extra litter tray. Possibly the most distressing aspect of this is that I have never caught them at it, as watching something the size of Eric balancing on the edge of a flower pot and trying to aim his bum for the middle would almost be worth my ending up covered in cat wee and worse.

I coud just about forgive them this behaviour in the winter, when otherwise convenient toilet spots are either frozen solid or covered in snow, but a combination of the sorry state of this summer’s basil plus a suspicious niff leads me to believe that they might have got used to the extra ensuite. The dilemma is that the chives are growing like triffids on it – maybe I should leave them to it and install a further pot for the basil. Preferably in  a hanging basket.

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Posted in Feline Life, French Life | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ready steady cook!


The end-of-season scramble to scrub everything down and get out of resort without losing tempers, dignity or accommodation deposit resulted as usual in piles of discarded food and occasionally drink. Although my share of this year’s alcohol booty consisted of half a bottle of rum so rank I’m not sure I’d use it as lighter fuel let alone drink it, which was a tad disappointing, particularly when previous seasons have been known to yield enough red wine to keep an entire household sozzled for six weeks. Some of it has even been drinkable.

Diehard seasonnaires who insist on persevering with with the somewhat minimal alpine summer rather than doing the decent thing and getting a soul-destroying temp job while crashing in the parental coal bunker can generally score for half a summer season’s worth of provisions at the end of April, a vital boost at a time of year when jobs are scarce and wages less than minimal.

Canny summer bums will put a bit of effort into getting to know staff in chalets run by small TOs, whose habit appears to be to write off perfectly good dry goods stock at the end of the winter rather than stashing it somewhere for later. Let’s face it, tinned tuna and three cases of Cornflakes are hardly going to off before next December, are they? But feel free to bin it if you insist. Just one small request – couldn’t you go into Rice Krispies next year? Not such a huge fan of Cornflakes really. Thanks in advance.

Never going to be as much fun as skiing.

It also pays to chat up the most incompetent and/or careless chalet hosts you can find, especially if they work for a company which does its ordering from proper suppliers rather than wasting perfectly good ski time by dragging everyone down the hill to Lidl evey week. These people will have an Aladdin’s cave style haul of God knows what tucked away in various corners of their chalet. Go for dazed-looking 18-year-olds who haven’t twigged that if a product comes in boxes of six they don’t need six boxes of it. This does have the downside that you risk living on biscottes and strawberry jam all summer, but free food is free food.

Having more or less escaped from nano-wages and interseason homelessness (touch wood) I have become a tad more picky in my end of season scavenging, though when people come round and dump three carrier bags of produce on my doorstep I’m not about to turn them away. I do perform a fairly ruthless triage on the bounty these days, mostly because it saves having to rootle through cupboards full of junk every time I want dinner, before throwing most of it away anyway when it all goes out of date two years down the line.

First to go this time round was any jam jar containing less than two slices of toast’s worth of jam. Seriously, how did this get as far as me in the first place? Next for the bin were any and all sorts of prepped pseudofoods (Super U allegedly ‘Mexican’ salsa anyone? No, me neither. Besides, I couldn’t get the lid off it.), though I did keep the Cup-a-Soups, a decision I am regretting, having eaten one of them for lunch yesterday.

Thank you Ainsley.

Multiple half-bags of pasta are always a bonus, but I have to say I was unimpressed with the mushroom flavoured stuff, authentically Italian though it may well have been. Suffice to say that black pasta which smells vaguely of mould is not the most tempting of repasts. Bucketloads of flour comes in handy as well, though I did offload some of it onto passing parents since there’s a limit to just how much cake I can eat. More problematic is the glut of polenta – I have to admit to having not the first clue what to do with polenta, and nor does anyone else of my acquaintance judging by their reaction to being offered the surplus. But I’m reluctant to bin entire unopened packets of real food (as opposed to Super U’s faux Mexican salsa, which is blatantly made of petrol and dead dogs), so clearly I will have to find out.

So if anyone out there has any tempting recipes involving two kilos of polenta, half a jar of possibly fermented apricot jam and three leek and potato Cup-a-Soups, feel free to post them in the comments section. Honestly, where’s Ainsley Harriott when you need him?

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Posted in Summer Season | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Lose half your body weight in a week! New miracle diet!!

Cats. Decorative but rather annoying.

Season’s end approaches here and thoughts turn once again to how to earn enough of an interseason living to keep the bills paid and the cats in expensive foul-smelling biscuits which they ungratefully regurgitate in the very spot where you might want to put a bare foot on walking into the kitchen of a morning.

Most people go for building work, migration to the coast or just straightforward sponging off the state, assuming they’ve done enough work to qualify, but in a burst of creativity I feel I might branch out into new enterprise. The market for babysitting, cleaning and the like is not only saturated but frankly pretty dull, so my cunning plan is to market a mad celebrity diet plan. Come on, it’s working well for Dr Dukan, despite his recent loony proposal to link people’s academic grades to their BMI. Just as well Einstein wasn’t a fatty, or we might never have had the hydrogen bomb. Oh wait ….

The diet will have several unique features making it particularly suitable for mad attention-seeking celebrities. First up, it’s one of these plans where you only get to eat random combinations of weird foods which any normal person would immediately identify as being a bad idea bordering on poisonous. The unique selling point here is that you can choose your own freaky foods and eat them in whatever combination you like, giving you endless material for your next series of interviews for Hello! magazine and whatever appalling breakfast TV shows you can worm your way onto. Oh yes, I spent six weeks eating nothing but pork sausage and pistachio custard, I lost virtually all my body fat and most of what passes for my mind, you can say smugly, while Richard and Judy glaze over on the sofa and the viewers rush off to slit their wrists.

And that's just breakfast.

Secondly, it’s dead easy to follow, as it removes all desire to eat anything anyway. Some people might regard this as cheating, but it also boasts a wide range of uncomfortable side effects which again provide more than ample self-obsessive discussion fodder, essential for the insane c-list celebrity about town. None of the side effects involve constipation, bad breath or gout either, which puts it way ahead of Atkins for a start.

From my point of view, the big advantage is that because the dieter selects his or her own mentalist food combinations I don’t have to supply glossy recipe supplements endorsed by irritating TV chefs, who presumably demand a cut of the profits. In fact, the whole thing can probably be typed out on a sheet of A4, though obviously I will doll it up a bit with expensive colored paper. I could even laminate it and charge an extra £50 a go.

The only stumbling block so far is the name, since it’s currently called the My Husband Ran Off With A Child Half His Age Whom He Had Known For Six Weeks Diet, which a) isn’t particularly snappy and b) isn’t going to fit across the top of a page of A4 either. All appropriately zeitgeisty branding suggestions welcome, though be warned that I’m not paying extortionate consultancy fees for meaningless random word combinations with the capital letters in all the wrong places. Be sensible.

Just to give you all an idea and a bit of inspiration I am willing to give readers of this blog an exclusive sneak preview of Week 1. The plan will be to send out subsequent weeks one at a time, allowing the dieter to build up a complete collection and store it in the attractive ring binder provided for that very purpose at the beginning of the course. Just think how good it’s going to look on the shelf next to that cod psychology self-help nonsense you wasted three years collecting.

Tea, you crazy fool

Days 1-3. Allowed foods: none. You may drink as much tea as you like and you are free to take one bite of anything at all as long as you then throw the rest of it away. This phase is much easier to stick to than it sounds, as everything will taste of cardboard and the mere idea of putting any of it in your mouth will make you nauseous anyway. Forget all that ‘comfort eating’ rubbish – people who claim to do that aren’t even mildly upset.

Day 4. Allowed foods: anything bizarre, unbalanced and preferably bad for you. Fish fingers and fried egg, for example. Or pasta and tomato ketchup. Make your own combinations, the more outlandish the better. Carry on throwing half of it in the bin.

Day 5. Allowed foods: doesn’t matter at this stage since most of it is going to end up in the bin again. Today you should make an effort to pull yourself together and cook something sensible. Make some sort of normal grown-up dinner like sausage casserole or roast chicken. Eat just enough to feed an anorexic mouse and put the rest in the fridge. Leave it there until it goes green and then throw it away.

Day 6. Allowed foods: anything you don’t normally eat, plus some wine. But not (and I cannot stress this too much) NOT too much wine. Trust me, after nearly a week of this you are in no fit state to deal with a hangover – it will wipe you out for three days and make you suicidal. Two glasses consumed while watching old episodes of House MD on the MacBook will have a useful anaesthetic effect. An entire bottle might actually kill you.

Day 7. Allowed foods: any new weird combination (noodles on toast, kipper and ice cream, blue cheese with oatcakes and mango – use your imagination). At this stage though, you can stop chucking most of it out. Come on, it was getting beyond a joke, particularly with the price of kippers being what it is here. Besides, by this point you should be down about three kilos, and unless you started out as a complete porker you’re getting into starvation territory, which is going to foil the best efforts of Richard and Judy’s makeup minions. Pale and interesting is one thing, but downright haggard isn’t a good look.

Just to hold the attention and keep people waiting on tenterhooks for the next diet sheet, I might do occasional specials in between the regular issues. Special Edition #1: how long a human being can survive on a diet of anchovies, toast and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I can tell you’re looking forward to it already.

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Posted in Pot Luck | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Skiing the urban ghetto

Not manly. Sorry.

Finally the French school holidays have petered out and we’re back to some semblance of peace and quiet, thank God. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for people to come on holiday the week after all the schools have gone back, so just when you think it’s safe to get back out on the hill, you get mown down yet again by North African youths under the mistaken impression that snowblades don’t make them look gay. Really, someone needs to break the news to them there.

Peak season rather makes a mockery of all the peace and quiet of the mountains, man against the elements stuff you hear people wittering on about when they talk about their ski holidays. What with more crowds than you see at Waterloo during rush hour, helicopters chattering overhead and the Pano Bar’s industrialised idea of what constitutes music doing your head in over half the mountain the place is more Brixton than backcountry. So much for peace and quiet.

The idea that you’re pitting yourself against the whims of nature is a tad ridiculous these days as well, when everything is thoroughly signposted, avalanche-controlled, shaped, groomed flat every night and generally managed for your convenience. It’s no coincidence that the other main plank of the Compagnie des Alpes operation is theme parks.

The odd mogul by the boardercross. More than a lot of places give you.

Not that I’m suggesting we should allow random avalanches to carry off our visitors and leave the pistes to go into six-foot icy moguls either – there’s a place for that sort of thing, mainly at the top of the Tunnel over in Alpe d’Huez, and probably not all over the easy runs in a resort popular with families and only moderately competent skiers. So most of the skiing public then.

Ski forums inevitably have a ‘stop the brutal grooming’ faction keen to advocate a return to wintersports sauvage and usually just indulging in a bit of ‘look at me I can ski powder and moguls’ willy-waving. Put your money where your mouth is and hire a mountain guide then. If you’re that good you’ve got no interest in sticking to the pistes with the proles, have you?

What these old schoolers choose to forget is that without all the grooming and snow management, they frequently wouldn’t be skiing any time after March, let alone into the first week in May. If we’d left nature to take its course last season we’d have been lucky to stay open beyond mid-February, which would have been nothing short of a disaster for an already fragile mountain economy. You try making seven months earnings last a year – I can’t see your mortgage provider being too happy with the proposition.

On the other hand, I’m starting to have a bit of sympathy with the idea that the whole business is over-managed. We’ve got a few places here left to go into moguls, but too many resorts bash them out so assiduously that it wouldn’t surprise me if people who started skiing in the past 10 years or so have never seen one. And what’s with the habit of taking perfectly skiable fresh snow and flattening it before anyone can get to it? I know there are legions of holidaymaking skiers out there who can’t deal with it, but that’s no reason to squash absolutely all of it as soon as it falls, is it?

For the punter, the solution to all this is either to get good enough to trek off into the backcountry, not usually feasible for someone with limited practice opportunity and other commitments, or to head off to the smaller resorts which can’t afford as many piste bashers. And while the lift passes might be cheaper in the little places, getting there under your own steam usually isn’t.

Peace and quiet in Alpe du Grand Serre - that's more like it.

Alternatively, the big resorts could try to remember that the fun of wintersports isn’t necessarily all about easy cruising, factory restaurants with more throughput than McDonalds and banging on-piste apres ski. I’m not about to apologise for them turning ski into big business and thereby providing a viable economy in areas which would by now otherwise be populated entirely by inbred 80-year-olds and the odd goat, but it might serve them well to turn the alleged music down a bit and leave us a bit of natural snow here and there.

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Posted in Ski Season | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments