Sunday, 22 June 2014

New volcano eruption

After almost four years of silence Reunion's Piton de la Fournaise volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, started erupting yesterday (June 21st) at 1:35am this morning. The eruption started on the southeastern side of the main summit crater, in a very remote part of the volcano, so there was little-to-no threat from the flows, unlike the eruption in 2007. There had been 10 days of precursory signs that an eruption was in the works, with higher gas emissions and seismicity, along with a red glow in the area very recently. After about 20 hours the eruption came to a stop.

Here are some pictures.

© AFP Photo / Richard Bouhet

This was the 11th eruption in 10 years.

© AFP Photo / Richard Bouhet

The previous eruption was October 14th-December 10th 2010.

© AFP Photo / Richard Bouhet

See also this video, shot by local TV channel Antenne Reunion:


Useful links:
  • Volcano observatory webcams (although unfortunately this current eruption is not occurring in view of any of the webcams pointed at the volcano).

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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Musée de Villèle

The Villèle Museum is set in the former home of a wealthy slave-owning landowner, Mme Desbassayns. The Museum was established in 1974 in order to preserve one of the most important plantation estates on the island, established by the Panon Desbassayns family at the end of the 18th century. Originally cotton and sugar were cultivated, but they were gradually replaced by sugarcane from the 1820s onwards.  The property belonged to the Villèle family from the mid-1900s until 1973. The house is accessible on a guided tour (no photos  allowed inside) and afterwards you can wander round the outbuildings and the 10-hectare park.

Villèle main house

The two-storey main house was built between 1775 and 1788, and has a neo-classical aspect with terraced roof reminiscent of the mansions of Pondicherry, a former French trading post in India. The building was constructed from rough-stone basalt and locally-fired bricks. Originally both outer and inner walls were plastered with a stucco coating called 'argamasse lime' composed of lime, sand, sugar and egg-whites. 

Pediment of the main house

Today you enter the house via the former library, where the Desbassayns family tree can now be seen. Other rooms on the ground floor are the small parlour, the office, Mme Desbassayns' bedroom (the only bedroom located on the ground floor), the large parlour, the dining room, and the pantry. The rooms on the upper floor are sometimes used to house temporary exhibitions.

back of the main house

The kitchens were located in outbuildings for safety reasons, and in Mme Desbassayns' will (dated 1845) reference is made to two separate kitchens: one for the slaves (which no longer exists) and one for the masters (still standing). This latter is in a sober building with a blank oeil de boeuf window and an enormous fireplace; the chimney-piece rests on a large piece of wood which runs the whole width of the room. To the left of the fireplace was an area for boucanage (meat curing). After his stay on the estate, in a book published in 1892, Abbot Macquet commented on both the quality and variety of the dishes served by his hostess Mme Desbassayns: turtle soup, swallows' nests, Madagascan buffalo carri, pheasants from Pondicherry, Cochin Chinese chicken, and Cape lamb. In the slave quarters however meals were made up almost exclusively of corn, cassava, pulses and beans.

former kitchen, with oeil de boeuf window

Close to the main house, the slaves' hospital was built with rough-stone whitewashed basalt, and had a wooden roof covered in shingles. Slaves' living and working conditions were characterised by harshness and discipline. Even sick slaves were set to work splitting vacoa, crushing stone, brushing wool, extracting oil or making rope. In 1918 the hospital was still in use as a treatment centre for employees working on the estate. Since 1996 a memorial inside the building has paid homage to the 461 slaves belonging to Mme Desbassayns and who were listed in a 1824 census by name, age, occupation and ethnic origin.

former slaves' hospital, now a memorial

decorated tiles (modern) depicting the slaves' hospital

bougainvillea in the garden

interesting flowers in the garden

Located in the grounds, the pavilion is a classic example of Reunion Island architecture. The wooden framework rests on a stone base, and the roof and walls are covered in hand-cut tamarind wood shingles.  The verandah has a tin roof. It is not known who originally lived in the pavilion - possibly the steward responsible for estate maintenance. 

The pavilion 

modern statue in the grounds (Mme Desbassayns reading?)

In 1827, out of 27 working sugar mills registered in the district of Saint Paul, only the mill at Saint Gilles was powered by steam. However harnessing this new energy source required abundant quantities of water and the setting up of a supply network.

old sugar mill chimney in the grounds

Consequently a hydraulic bucket-wheel, a pumping system, and a watercourse were built to supply the mill's water tank and boilers. The water was drawn and then pumped back from the Saint Gilles ravine above Bassin Bleu.

sugar mill ruins in the grounds

The hydraulic wheel, 6 metres in diameter, was located about 100 metres down from the mill and was in operation until the 1970s. During this period the surrounding area lacked running water, and the population would fill their tin water carriers in the Saint Gilles ravine at a place named Bassin La Pompe (literally 'Pump pool').

In 1845, one year before Mme Debassayns' death, the ten acres planted with coffee yielded 100 quintals, whereas the 150 acres given over to sugar cane represented a total yield of 4250 quintals of sugar. Joseph Desbassayns (1780-1850) improved sugar cane production techniques, recommending crop rotations with cassava root, which along with corn, was a staple food for workers.

Before the abolition of slavery, field slaves tended food crops: rice, cassava, corn, wheat and vegetables. Once the sugarcane harvests were underway, they were put to work in the sugar mills. In 1848 slavery was abolished and indentured labourers replaced the slaves.

If you visit the Musée de Villèle you should also visit the Chapelle Pointue, Mme Desbassayn's final resting place, which is located just across the road.

Useful information:
  • Opening times: 10am-12:30 and 1:30-5:30 pm daily except Mondays and public holidays.
  • Guided visits last 45 minutes and only available in French, although a brief visitor's guide in English is available on request.
  • Price: €2

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Some tasteless humour

© David Mullineaux

The above photo was featured in the The Telegraph's Sign Language special photo gallery on toilet humour with the caption 'The world is your urinal'. 'Sign Language' is a picture gallery where readers send in amusing photos of strange signs and bizarre translations in the UK and around the world which are published each week. Pisse en l'air is a small waterfall on Reunion, in the cirque (natural amphitheatre) of Salazie, but ironically it's not the waterfall shown, which is actually 640m-high Cascade Blanche. Pisse en l'air literally means 'piss in the air' and it is another smaller waterfall renowned for falling from a cliff onto the road - and onto your car if you happen to be driving by underneath (make sure you keep your car windows closed!).

Something else that frequently amuses non-French visitors to Reunion is Le Tampon - this is the name of a town and municipality in the south of the island, not far from the volcano.

Le Tampon logo

While 'tampon' only has one meaning in English, in French it has several meanings,  including 'buffer' or 'stamp', however in this particular case no one is exactly sure of the town name's origin. There are several theories:
- Tampony is a Malagasy word which means 'viewpoint', or 'summit that can be seen from afar';
- it could come from tampon de combat, or 'shot plug', a type of stopper used to seal a projectile hole in a ship's hull during combat, and/or tampon d'écubier, which was a 'hawse-plug' or 'buckler' (a block used to stop up a hawse hole at sea);
- documents dating from 1727 mention a small river gully known as the Ravine du Tampon, so known because a tampon de hublot, or 'porthole stopper', had been placed there as a landmark. 

Keeping with the theme of toilet humour, I saw this sign in the lavatory on an Air Koryo flight when I was flying back to Beijing from Pyongyang (it also featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ photo gallery):

Hips don't fly

 Still on matters of taste, what about this on a Delhi restaurant drinks menu:

Name your poison - toxic or tonic?

Back in Reunion a restaurant in Saint Denis has these offerings on its menu:

Drop in for dinner?

For those that don’t speak French the Crotin [sic] de Chèvre Chaud should be ‘Warm Goat’s Cheese’ in English and not ‘dung’! (These photos were also featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ ‘Best of January 2014′ photo gallery).

Here Souris [d'agneau] (knuckle of lamb) has been translated literally as ‘mouse’:

Puts a ro-dent in your appetite?

Things have improved however, as a few years ago filet was translated thoughout as ‘net’ instead of ‘fillet’, and cabot de fond (a type of fish) was translated as ‘dog bottom’!

Related links:

Saturday, 22 March 2014

My list of unique eating places

A chance question on Facebook recently asking about my favourite restaurant got me thinking - do I have a favourite eating place? On reflection I realised I don't as there are too many to choose from. There are many restaurants I've enjoyed for different reasons, depending on whether I was looking for relaxation, luxury or a fantastic view. So here are some of my favourites:

  • Most 'desert island' - during one of my trips to the Maldives in 2005 I stayed on board the Four Seasons Explorer. One evening we were taken to a deserted island where the crew dug seating into the sand. When we arrived back on the ship later the remaining crew members played us music on local instruments. A truly magical evening.

Eating temple food at Gilsangsa, Seoul

one of the dinners I had in North Korea

one of my lunches in North Korea

  • Most northerly - lunch in the Icelandic town of Akureyri which is 65°N. We had spent the day diving in the nearby fjord.
  • Highest altitude (on land) - any of the meals we had in Tibet which has an average elevation exceeding 4,500 metres (14,800 ft).

hammock restaurant near Tonle Sap, Cambodia

  • Highest above ground - in April 2011 we were lucky enough to spend two nights in what was then the world's tallest hotel above ground - the Shanghai Park Hyatt. Our room was on the 81st floor and meals were in the restaurants on the 87th and 91st floors - almost 400 metres above ground.
  • Highest on a building roof - in 2009 we were in Bangkok on my birthday and to celebrate we had dinner at the open-air Vertigo restaurant of the Banyan Tree Hotel, located on the hotel's 61st floor.

    a vertigo-inducing dinner?

my favourite dessert

What about you? Do you have any unique eating places to share?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Some Reunion Island stamps

The first stamps of Reunion were issued on 1 January 1852. By 1860 there were 15 post offices on the island, and by the second half of the 1860s about 3000 letters were being posted every week.

A French stamp overprinted for use in Reunion,
circa 1900 (source)

The two photos below show stamps that all date from 1942 and commemorate the 300th anniversary of Reunion being claimed for France by Jacques de Pronis. In effect in 1642 Reunion (then known as 'Bourbon' Island) was granted to the newly-created Compagnie d'Orient (one of the fore-runners of the French East India Company) by Cardinal Richelieu. As the governor of the French colony of Fort-Dauphin in Madagascar, Sieur de Pronis had the task of developing the new island concession. In 1643 he exiled 12 mutineers to Bourbon and several years later they were found still alive and healthy.

Note the inset of French King Louis XIII

as previous picture, with a higher face value

These six stamps below also date from 1942 and the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Reunion's first settlement, but are anachronistic as they show the horticulturalist Pierre Poivre bringing spices to the island. Pierre Poivre lived 1719-1786 and was Intendant of Bourbon and Ile de France (present day Mauritius) 1767-72, so the stamp depicting him in 17th century dress is inappropriate! (By the way the writer Bernardin de St Pierre fell in love with Poivre's young wife Françoise and had her in mind while writing his novel Paul et Virginie). Amongst other things Poivre introduced cloves, lychees, star aniseed and avocados to Bourbon.

1942 stamps showing Pierre Poivre bringing spices to Reunion

as previous picture, with a higher face value

During the period 1949-74 locally produced 15 and 30 centime French stamps surcharged with CFA Francs were used. Since 1st January 1975 normal, unsurcharged French postage stamps have been used.

This 25 centime stamp shows the Barachois area of St Denis

The stamp below was sold on Reunion between January 16th 1960 and May 19th 1962 and was used for sending airmail to Indochina. It has a 1 CFA franc face value and shows the church of Cilaos with the Grand Bénare behind, (although 'Grand Benard' is actually what is printed on the stamp). Bénare means 'very cold place'  in Malagasy.

1960 Cilaos and Grand Bénare stamp

Below is a stamp showing Captain Etienne Regnault and his ship Le Taureau arriving in the Bay of St Paul. It was printed to commemorate the 300th anniversary  of Reunion's permanent settlement.  It was sold between 3rd October 1965 and 18th June 1966 and was used for sending letters in Reunion.

1965 stamp to commemorates the 300th
anniversary of Reunion's permanent settlement

This is a fairly recent stamp - it was on sale between 8th November 1971 and 7th July 1972. It was used for sending postcards abroad and shows a chameleon.