Monday, 23 April 2012

Walking the dogs in Barcelona

Sunday stroll in the inner courtyard of the Cetre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona CCCB (above) and on the Passeig de Gràcia (below).

Friday, 20 April 2012

Oh là là, vallée de la Siagne !

One more medieval village and I’m done with reminiscing this spring holiday to France and ready to start packing for tomorrow’s flight to Spain.

This village is St-Cézaire-sur-Siagne located about 50 kilometres to the west from Nice on a vertical cliff overlooking the Siagne river and valley. The village is as charming as any old village in the south of France. However, when you reach the edge of the village and the magnificent panoramic terrace decorated with a single olive tree the view towards the wooded hills and mountains is truly breathtaking. The place is far more magic than my photos reveal.

I made this trip with friends so I must take my husband there one day reserving some more time to admire the view and explore the rest of the village. The nearby St Cézaire caves that were only found in 1890 by a local farmer and are open to public might also be worth a visit but I do prefer the fresh air panorama over the valley. Oh là là !

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

All roads lead to Rome

The country roads leading to our village are winding and slightly hilly and therefore much favoured by motorcyclists, especially in the summertime. Some of them have already returned to the roads and so have some road racing cyclists. We have seen more and more of those here in the last few years.

The other day I was driving home alone when the weather was rather gloomy: it was raining and a heavy wind was blowing. I was approaching a brave lonely cyclist wearing a bright blue cycling jacket with what looked like a large letter T (as in Teresa) in white on the back. When I drove closer the horizontal section turned out to be not part of a letter but a complete word: ITALIA.

When I overtook the man I saw his profile and he sure was an Italian, or if he was a Finn he was an extremely uncommon-looking one. He made my day, not because of his stately looks but because of the associations. Italy, my love, you will catch me everywhere, this time with a fake T on the back of the messenger.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How about your radon levels?

When you live in a ‘house with character’ there will always be something to worry about. One odd corner or another of your old cottage will always be in need of some cleaning, painting, fixing or another, more thorough form of shake-up. I generally leave the worrying to my husband but there’s been one question that’s been a concern to me rather than him: how much radon do we inhale annually?

Radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas that cannot be detected by any of the human senses. It is created by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water and it moves up through the ground to the air we breathe. If the foundation of a building that happens to be located in a risky area is not properly radon-protected by ventilation or insulation, the gas will enter your home and, in the case of insufficient indoor ventilation, it may remain trapped there causing health-threatening radiation levels.

Finland has a population of some 5.4 million but even here it is estimated that radon causes some 300 deaths from lung cancer annually. In the UK where the average radon level is lower, the figure is 1,100 and in the USA as many as 21,000 people die annually because of it. That is certainly reason enough to have your house ‘radon-detected’ if you are in doubt.

According to the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), our indoor air radon levels are the highest in Europe and probably in the whole worlds. This is because of our geology, construction technology and climate. Our rock and soil are of granite and richer in uranium than the average around the globe. The highest concentrations are found on sand and gravel ridges as it is easy for the gas to rise through them. Moreover, radon levels are generally the higher the colder the weather is. That is why the measurement must be made during the cold season.

In our country, the building regulations have instructed at least since 1992 to take radon into account in the design and construction of all new buildings. The situation is most likely rather similar elsewhere, too, as well as that for the older houses: you will find some indication from the radon maps published by the authorities (e.g. STUK in Finland, the Health Protection Agency in the UK and the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA) but the only sure way to know is to measure.

So we ordered a home measurement kit from STUK. The detector is a small black plastic canister with a polycarbonate film inside and a few holes on the top for the radon to penetrate. The radiation will leave marks that can be analysed from the film in a laboratory. One detector costs about 43 including the analysis and report (the current UK price is approx. 50£).

In smaller apartments one detector is enough but in larger ones at least two are required. If your house has several floors the detectors should be placed in the ground floor (not the basement unless someone lives there) and in the first (and every other) floor at the height of about one metre and kept on the same spot for at least two months, preferably three.

We let the detectors be from the end of November until the end of February, then posted them to STUK and less than two weeks later we were safe. The results revealed radon levels far below the national action level of an annual average of 400 becquerels (Bq) per cubic metre of air, even considerably lower than the target level of 200 Bq and even lower than the target level of 100 Bq recommended in some other, less ‘uranium-rich’ countries such as the UK.

Our readings were 90 in the downstairs living room where the hard wood floor has never been removed to see what’s beneath since it was built probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and 80 in the upstairs hall in the older part of the house that has been completely rebuilt.

Had the concentrations been higher, I – for once – would have had a plan. The easiest way to get rid of this dangerous gas in older buildings it to install a radon fan down through the basement to suck the radon from under the house and pipe it up either through the roof or out-of-doors by the side of the house.

Our electrician recently told he had built and installed a radon fan for his house at the cost of less than 100€ but he is a professional in electrical installations. I guess for a layman the cost for a ready-made appliance and its installation would be a few, say 10 times more but even if it were 20 or 30 times more that is nothing for eliminating one deadly carcinogen from your daily life.

Radon can also enter your home through well water if you have a drilled deep well. Luckily our well is built on a natural spring so we do not have to worry about the well, at least as regards radon.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

B&B at 1,000 metres

I must reveal one more thing about Saint-Martin-Vésubie: the reason why I absolutely have to visit it another time rather soon. That is to see whether anyone has rescued the beautiful deserted house I fell in love with on the northern slope behind the old town.

If I were a lady of means I would have reclaimed it myself turning it into a delightful little place called ‘Hôtel Mille et un Mètres’. The grey stone sign on the wall on the street corner shows the point where the altitude is 1,000 metres. Judged from the photos I believe it would be quite legitimate to claim the main doorstep of the house to be one metre higher.

Had I the resources, I would also be the happy owner of another gorgeous little bed & breakfast on the slope of another but much bigger place in another Mediterranean country. I spotted the below deserted house in Plaka, the old town of Athens, at the foot of Acropolis a few years back. I do think this beautiful place on a great location would deserve to be salvaged, too. You can find more photos of it in an earlier post of mine about Athens.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Driving in the Vésubie valley

One week to go and we’ll be on our way to Spain. It’s been grey today and we got some sleet late in the afternoon. I came to think of another spring in another place where there was still some snow higher up but mimosas were blooming by the sea where I was staying with friends.

I was thinking about the time we drove from Nice to the picturesque mountain village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. The roads winding in the valleys led us through country landscapes with no or hardly any dwellings in sight but also by many lovely villages such as Tourrette-Levens I recently blogged about.

Living on the edge, the village of Venanson seen from Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

Saint-Martin-Vésubie is located some 60 kilometres from Nice towards the Alps on the southern outskirts of the Mercantour national park. As the village stands at the root of the Alps of the French-Italian border, it is a popular starting point for hiking and mountaineering. I guess it was only appropriate that it was in this village where I who possess no inclination whatsoever towards sports of any kind would hurt my ankle and toe, despite the knee-high boots I was wearing.

This happened when I was photographing the main street of the old town where there is a sort of a mountain stream canal, the gargouille, flowing in the middle. I was stepping backwards and didn’t notice one of the steps downwards there were every now and then on the street. I fell on my knees and had to take the rest of the day very easy. Luckily it was nothing serious and I managed the rest of the holiday with the help of some painkillers.

I later learned that Saint-Martin-Vésubie is one of the two places in France with a gargouille, the other one being Briançon, said to be the highest town in Europe in the Alps at 1024 m. I wonder... In any case, another entry to add to the ever-increasing list of places to see one day.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Towards the sun

Progress towards spring is speeding up and there is someone here who is taking the most of it. Whenever we have a sunny day, Jack will find a spot where to enjoy the warming effect of every beam.

It has now stayed above freezing point through the nights and Jack is slowly turning into his summer season mode spending more and more time outdoors. It will take a while, however, until his rich winter figure will have reached its lighter summer dimensions. Moreover, as we older people so very well know running around in the night time will inevitably result into sleepiness (and an aching body) during the day.

So he still often slumbers the best part of the day away on one of the beds only to revive late in the afternoon demanding to be let out and then again in for a bite and then at once out and soon in and so on for the rest of the evening. He will have his food and water bowls on the porch as soon as we can be sure they won’t attract any unwanted visitors but until then we’ll just have to accept this.

Never mind the minor inconvenience Jack causes such as scratching the side of our bed wanting to be let out at night, he is my hero. He knows exactly what’s best for him each moment concentrating on the joys life can bring never having any worries nor scruples. Not that Im the worrying kind and not that Id like to be half as idle as him but it would be so nice to be less hesitant.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Back on the spring track

Decoration on top of the facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence.
We had a very peaceful Easter at home. My daughter came over with one of her two cats and stayed for a couple of nights. My husband’s son also stayed for one night before leaving for a short break in London. Other than that it was very quiet. The only events we knew about were the natural ones taking place out-of-doors.

The nights are still several degrees below freezing point but the warming effect of the sun is winning and spring seems to be back on the track where it was a week ago. The swans and other water birds staying by the flooding fields of the neighbouring village have survived and more species are arriving. I spotted some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and Northern lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) (töyhtöhyyppä). There were many more having a rest on the same spot but they were too far to be identified.

Canada geese.

I don’t know why – maybe it’s age – but in recent years I’ve turned my eyes to the sky much more often than earlier. I don’t recall ever having considered the clouds part of it when admiring a landscape when I was young or perhaps I just don’t remember how it was in those days. Nevertheless, now I’m constantly paying attention to the skies.

The resting place of the migrating water birds can be seen in the middle.
An approaching cloud front caught my eye on Easter Monday when I was driving towards home. The weather was just beautiful and I loved the landscape of the fields with patches of snow and the masses of clouds in the distance. A few minutes after I reached home the weather changed completely. The sun disappeared and we had heavy snowfall for a while. Luckily the fresh snow melted right away and we are back on track even though for us it still means quite a thick layer of snow anywhere else but on the roads, under the trees and by the buildings.

A common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) (sepelkyyhky) overtaken by snowfall.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A short stop at Tourrette-Levens

We have winter again with cold nights and days only slightly above freezing point. The progressing spring has stepped aside for a while and everything is once again covered by snow. No wonder my thoughts are on the forthcoming trip to Spain as well as the earlier trips to the Mediterranean, especially the one I made with a few friends to the South of France a few years ago in March.

Here are some photos taken during that trip in the lovely mountain village of Tourrette-Levens some 15 kilometres and a half-an-hour drive inland from Nice. There is a castle dating from the 12th century on the hilltop. However, we didn’t find the château open and I learnt only later that it houses, in addition to various artworks on the grounds, a natural history museum with a magnificent collection of butterflies and other insects, le Musée des Papillons.

Stone sculpture of a panther by Emmanuel Augier in the courtyard of the castle.

This lovely statue was standing in a private garden.
Another interesting place to visit is the museum of traditional occupations, le Musée des Métiers traditionnels, exhibiting close to 7,000 tools representing some 40 traditional occupations since the Middle Ages. The museum is the accomplishment of a private collector who has had a passion for the field for more than 25 years. However, because of the unlucky timing of our stroll in the village we could only have a peek into the courtyard. Must pay another visit to the montée du Château some time.

Courtyard of the Musée des Métiers traditionnels.