Lockdown Armchair Travel – France – St. Tropez, 2013

F would have been for Finland if I could have found the pictures from our trip there a good while back but I haven’t a clue where they are. So F is for France and a day in St. Tropez during a summer Mediterranean cruise in June 2013.

So what do you think of, when you think of St. Tropez?

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Beautiful people in swanky yachts? Yeah, me too.

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Beautiful blue sea?

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Hidden coves?

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Seaside graveyards? That was a surprise.

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The town is chic

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with a Provencal twist

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and lots of expensive bikes

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There’s a lively market

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selling all sorts of stuff

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and the town has a typically French-town-feel

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But the sea’s the main attraction

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offering a relaxed lifetstyle

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a beautiful vista

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as well as some history

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and some ice cream

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Enchanting and quirky all round

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Definitely a place to revisit!

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Thanks for joining me on this little jaunt around St Tropez. Tomorrow, it’s back to theatreland, and some memories of shows seen in March to July 1978. Stay safe!

 

Eurovision 2015 – The Grand Final

Into the final furlong now with seven more songs that by virtue of their parentage or previous success have made it direct to the Saturday night spot without having to appeal to the midweek crowd as well. As the performance order is not yet decided I’m going to take them in alphabetical order. (I know, I’m so conventional.) Again each preview will have its own star rating and its bookmaker odds courtesy of oddschecker.com, as at 13th May. You know you want to.

Australia – Guy Sebastian – Tonight Again

Guy SebastianDo you need me to explain why Australia is in the contest this year? Course you don’t, so let’s move on. The first time I heard this – in fact by the time I’d got to the first chorus – I said, that’s it, game over, Australia has won. Then after a few hearings, little parts of it started to annoy me; specifically the “do whatchya whatchya whatchya want” sequence, which is just some meaningless verbal equivalent to a huge clearing of the throat before the chorus starts; and – no surprise – that final “again”, which has fourteen syllables. I know. I counted them. However, everything else about it is chock full of contemporary fabulousness, and I really do think this has a strong chance of taking the grand prix to Adelaide. (OK, Germany then, because it has been decreed that they won’t host the show next year down under if they win). For all those countries who put their timid little inexperienced people in front of the massive Eurovision audience and then wonder why they crack on the night, take note. Guy Sebastian is the new Dima Bilan; he is a massive star and (according to Wikipedia so it must be right) has 51 platinum and six gold certifications, with combined album and single sales of over 3.7 million in Australia. You always knew those competitive Aussies would take it seriously. He gave a fantastic performance at the London Eurovision Party. I said hello to him in a corridor. He said hi back. Friend to the famous. 7/2 – 5/1. *****

Austria – The Makemakes – I Am Yours

The MakemakesTricky one this. The host nation goes to the opposite extreme from the campness of Conchita Wurst and ends up with a soft-rock threesome who look and sound as gloomy as hell. The song trudges along without ever lifting its head above the parapet. If you think you like the tune, it’s because you’ve more or less heard it several times before over the decades performed by others. “Let it Be” written by a less talented hand; Coldplay with a cob on. I think they’ll give a good performance because they looked and sounded professional at the London party; but I can’t see this doing anything. This isn’t what people watch Eurovision for. 80/1 – 125/1. **

France – Lisa Angell – N’oubliez Pas

Lisa AngellHurrah for another experienced singer giving us a moving song with dignified lyrics about the effects of war and invasion, and inspired by the centenary of the First World War. Sadly I think it’s let down by a not particularly interesting tune, but I reckon Lisa will give it all she’s got. It’s written by the same nom-de-plume as Natasha St-Pier’s Je n’ai que mon âme, so that’s a pretty good pedigree. 80/1 – 200/1. ***

Germany – Ann Sophie – Black Smoke

Ann SophieRichmond-upon-Thames’ very own Ann Sophie sings this year’s song for Germany, Black Smoke, co-written by Ella Eyre who features on Rudimental’s 2014 BRIT award winning single Waiting All Night (I’m so trendy, me.) This is most definitely a grower, it didn’t impact me much on the first couple of hearings, but Ms Sophie’s performance at the London Party was a bit of a knock-out, and now I rather like it. It’s a song about love gone wrong, with more than its fair share of fire, flame, burning and smoke analogies. They missed a trick by not mentioning ashes. Spiky and quirky. 66/1 – 150/1. ***

Italy – Il Volo – Grande Amore

Il VoloWinners of this year’s San Remo festival, this operatic boy band have been together for five years now, and have enjoyed no mean success with their three studio and two live albums, the first of which charted in several countries around Europe (and indeed in Australia) so plenty of the televoters will already know these guys. Their EP version of Grande Amore has gone double platinum in Italy too. For the first time ever, I finally like a Eurovision popera song. Normally it’s a genre that gives me a pain in the aria, but this one is a little gem. Actually the full San Remo version at nearly four minutes is a big gem, and it has suffered a little by undergoing the necessary pruning to get it into the permitted time. The song was originally written in 2003 with the hope of going to San Remo but it was shelved as the writers thought it was simply too old-fashioned. Times change. Certainly Italy’s best entry since their recent return. 3/1 – 11/4 (second favourite). *****

Spain – Edurne – Amanecer

EdurneAnother stunning lady with another stunningly dramatic song. Amanacer means daybreak, but apparently it’s a song about heartbreak – I wish they’d make their mind up. Edurne is a product of the Operacion Triumfo stable, has had a few hit albums and a couple of notable singles, and is also a TV actress and presenter. When she’s not singing and acting, she’s Manchester United goalie David de Gea’s WAG. The song didn’t do much for me at first, but it’s yet another grower. Great for annoying the neighbours when singing in the shower. No tigers were harmed during the making of the video; the bloke, I’m not so sure about. 28/1 – 66/1. ****

United Kingdom – Electro Velvet – Still in Love with You

Electro VelvetAnd finally we come to the UK entry. Ever since its first appearance, subtly introduced to the world by the magic of the Freeview red button, it’s been a matter of some controversy. Certainly if you were hoping for the UK to come up with a contemporary song that can hold its head up in Europe this is Not It. However, in a year where there are a number of similar sounding entries, this is the only one with a novelty sound, which I think can only help it. Many of my francophone friends rate this very highly, and having seen them sing it live twice now I can definitely confirm that they have excellent voices and give confident, fun performances. It does stick in your head, although maybe not for always the right reasons. I have a fiver bet with a friend that it will finish lower down the table than Australia. What can I say, the friend really likes this song. Alex and Bianca are a lovely friendly couple and I wish them loads of luck in Vienna. I really hated it when I first heard it – but now I like it quite a lot. Despite those terrible trite lyrics. And the be-bap-be-bap-be-bap-a-doo nonsense. 33/1 – 50/1. ****

As ever, I do a little counting up of the number of hits each song has received on the Eurovision.tv youtube channel, not that it means anything at all on previous experience.
10th – Belarus (954692)
9th – Israel (988442)
8th – Italy (1058514)
7th – Belgium (1180352)
6th – Spain (1119215)
5th – Australia (1262238)
4th – Armenia (1480922)
3rd – United Kingdom (1819826)
2nd – Azerbaijan (3499640)
1st – Russia (4108146)

Last year Conchita’s song came 2nd in this table, second and third placed Netherlands and Sweden were not in the top ten and Armenia’s fourth placed Aram MP3 came top of this table. Azerbaijan, Italy, Spain and the UK were also in the top ten of youtube views, just as they are this year. The big difference this year is the massive number of views for Polina Gagarina. Do those Russians know something we don’t?

Have a great time watching the show on May 23rd, wherever you are – at home with some crisps, at a party, or in Vienna. No doubt we’ll have some kind of post-mortem at the end of May. May the best song win!

France – Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

MSC SplendidaLet me cast your minds back to December, gentle reader, and tell you about a short sneaky Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle and I took shortly before Christmas. We weren’t alone; accompanying us were the Lady Duncansby, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M. We flew from London Heathrow to Nice on an early morning British Airways flight, where we were met by “representatives”, who smuggled us out of France and into Italy on the autostrada towards Destination Genoa. From there it was an easy boarding onto the MSC Splendida for a week in the pre-Christmas sunshine.

Swarovski StaircaseA few words about the Splendida. She certainly lives up to her name, being the most beautiful ship I have ever experienced. Elegantly and colourfully furnished, with a stunning central atrium and four (at least) staircases fashioned courtesy of Swarovski. Any minute you expect the Princess Crystal to leave behind a slipper at the top of one of them – especially at Christmas time. During our week on board, the place got progressively more Christmassy. A few decorations at first; but by the end it was chock full of fairy-light trees, tinsel and glitter. We had a balcony cabin which was larger than we expected and as comfortable as we expected; the food and service was excellent; the drinks and tours reasonably priced; the shows were relatively poor by MSC standards; and they made a helluva noise collecting and sorting the luggage on the final night as we were trying to get to sleep, which resulted in the normally docile Mrs C bellowing in her jimjams at bemused-looking crew members. She’s not proud of it, but to be fair she was driven to distraction.

MarseilleAnyway, our first port of call was Marseille. We’d actually cruised this identical itinerary once before in 2004 on the MSC Sinfonia. That time, Marseille was cold and wet and looked drab and miserable. This time, however, the sun was shining and the city wore an altogether glossier coat. I think someone has been around with some cash in the intervening years and definitely given Marseille a makeover. Shortly after breakfast we boarded our coach and drove along the waters edge from the port into the city centre. The marina was looking stunning, and all the shops and cafes were just beginning to wake up as we followed the road round the little harbour, past the archway with its view towards the Count of Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, and steeply upwards to visit Notre Dame de la Garde.

Notre Dame de la GardeThis beautiful church stands high on a hill above the city and thus offers enviable views all around, if that’s not too much like an estate agent. There’s been a religious building of some sort there since the 13th century, but this particular building was consecrated in 1864. The gilded figure of Virgin and Child atop the tower cuts a very smart figure as it gleams in the sun. Inside, it is richly decorated in a Moorish style that reminds you of the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba. Its maritime associations are represented by hanging models of ships – quite an amusing touch – and oil paintings of ships and boats line the walls. It also has the most difficult to find public toilets in Europe. Allow yourself at least an extra twenty minutes to track them down. You won’t be surprised to find that they are deserted.

Aix-en-Provence Christmas Market We weren’t in port for very long, so the tour we chose to do just gave you a feel of the area without any great depth; so after visiting the church it was back on the road to Aix-en-Provence. Not the Aix where they brought the good news from Ghent – that would have been a very long gallop. This Aix is a charming market town with a very relaxed feel and gently attractive French architecture; it’s the kind of place you’d want to find a quite corner and flump down with a book for a few hours. We walked along the Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard that you would swear would lead to a stately chateau at the end – it doesn’t, it’s just a T-junction. One side of the road was given over to a Christmas market and it was full of stylish and luxurious items – enticing looking food and drink, elegant crafts, beautiful glassware; honestly, you couldn’t be further from Milton Keynes market. Male Parent D found a café with a French girl’s name on the awning (presumably la propriétaire), but which appears amusingly rude in English, and so took a photograph of it. It’s amazing how travel broadens the mind.

Fruit and Vegetable stallsWe turned left at the T-junction and wandered round into the old town. There we discovered a very atmospheric and typically French market, selling all the usual fruit and veg, fish and meat, fromage et charcuterie. It was charming. Further on up, towards another square, there was a milling-round of expectant looking people and a few locals with flags, all dressed like what I would imagine 16th century Ruritanian soldiers would look like. Mrs C ran ahead to see what all the fuss was about. Really, the soldier-dressing-up routine should have given her a clue. BANG! went a dozen exploding muskets, and the surprise shot her at least two feet off the ground; much to the amusement of the rest of her family, who looked on in smug non-participation. It must have been some re-enactment of some historical event; but what exactly, we did not find out. Probably the ancient practice of frightening the life out of 16th century shoppers.

Ruritanian soldiersWe didn’t have time for a long stroll – one hour was all the meanie guide would allow us, so we headed back to the Cours Mirabeau where our coach awaited. Gasping for some water, Lady Duncansby and I diverted into a quaint looking little shop that sold all sorts of groceries, where we smiled pleasantly to the staff and locals, who ignored us completely. We located the water, and queued up at the till. Our appearance seemed to ensure the slowest possible service to the people in front of us, but nevertheless we waited patiently and said or did nothing. When we eventually got to the till, we were treated to the most antagonistic hostility that I have experienced in a foreign country for some time; a combination of rude resentment and silent animosity. So, if you find that little grocers’ shop on the right hand side of the market square walking back towards Cours Mirabeau, do me a favour and don’t give them your money. Thanks. Sad that should be our parting memory of France!