The round of the Basque Villes

Sunday 27th November 2005, Urrugne, near St. Jean de Luc
Throughout the night the thunder and lightning fought a savage battle with each other and even during today they have continued unabated. It’s such a pity as we have found the area around here to be quite delightful and would have loved to be able to stroll around the streets and ports of St. Jean de Luz and Biarritz.

However, we have made the most of the brief day which has never been more than twilight with leaden skies throwing everything it can at us. St. Jean de Luz is only a few kilometres from here so this morning we parked near the historic port and wandered the pedestrianised allées of fashionable clothes boutiques, restaurants, bars, bookshops, chocolatiers and pâtisseries just behind the esplanade sheltering the town from the fierce winds whipping in across the sea and the wide sandy beach. In summer this little town would be idyllic. It is clean and smart, the streets of the fishing port lined with beautiful white houses with red wooden balconies. There is a pleasant, seaside atmosphere and the town oozes chic opulence. Along the sea front we found the casino and wandered around inside watching people passing a wet Sunday morning playing the machines à sous (one armed bandits). The town’s main church, St. Jean Baptist, provided another diversion. The service was just finishing as we slipped in at the door. We were amazed at the huge congregation. Every place was taken and even the three tiers of lovely wooden galleries around the walls were completely packed. The church has a beautiful elaborate reredos, brightly painted and supporting life-size statues of the saints, some of which were richly dressed, as is the custom in Spain, just a few miles further on. It was in this church that King Louis XIV married Marie Therese, the Infante d’Espagne, in 1660. (Louis may have been known as the “Sun King” but he left little of its warmth for us today. It was more a case of “après moi, la déluge”.) The houses in which both the King, and the Infanta stayed in the days leading up to their wedding stand near the port and are protected as historic monuments.

Interior of the church at St. Jean de Luz

St. Jean de Luz on a wet Sunday

The port here is actively used for fishing rather than for the yachting fraternity and there is a criée or fish market on the quay each morning.

Across the port with views to the Pyrenees

The town from the port

Ciboure, on the opposite side of the port at St. Jean de Luz

Home of the composer Maurice Ravel in Ciboure

Ciboure, St. Jean de Luz

Returning to Modestine, as so often happens, she attracted attention from an enthusiastic Frenchman fascinated that so much fitted into such a small vehicle. We really should let Romahome know they are receiving so much free publicity. If they started producing left-hand drive models they could take the Continent by storm!

We continued around the coast to Biarritz. The whole coastal hinterland is beautiful and although the architectural style is very different, it reminded Jill a little of Torbay. Everywhere the Basque houses are in style, clean and smart with gardens and neatly trimmed hedges. The beaches are sandy and the sea, with its white capped breakers rolling in for ever, is a delight for surfers, even today when the wind on the cliff tops shook Modestine and the thunder continued to crash the skies. With the rain slashing down and the streets awash there was no possibility of exploring Biarritz so we continued on to Bayonne (famous for bayonets, those obscene weapons of war ) intending to visit the art gallery reputed to hold works by Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya and a galaxy of others. However, there was one thing left that the weather so far had failed to throw at us – a violent hailstorm! At 2pm it looked like night and the streets were obliterated by a covering of icy slush. Unable to see any road markings and with most of the road signs in Basque we ended up accidentally crossing the river Adour which was so swollen and violent we decided it might be unwise to even consider parking in case it broke its banks, so turned around and headed back towards Biarritz and higher ground.

Feeling rather cold, wet and homeless on a soggy Sunday in a country where, unlike in Britain, everything practical is shut – garages, DIY stores, computer shops, supermarkets and garden centres - we suddenly saw a beam of bright, welcoming lights. The Casino in Biarritz was open and serving lunches! Vagabonds of a sort we may be, but there are trappings of civilised life we have no wish to forego. These include a warm restaurant, a plate piled high with rabbit in mustard sauce served with roast potatoes and baked tomatoes, accompanied by a carafe of red wine and followed by chocolate tart and strong black coffee. The spotless facilities, hot water, soap and hand towels made a refreshing change too! (Honesty compels us to admit that this was not the actual Biarritz casino but a large, well frequented restaurant of the same name.)

Feeling warm and at peace with the world we decided to return for the night to the same campsite we used yesterday, which is excellent, providing us with electricity for our fire and computer so we can be warm and snug even if the hail and thunder are continuing outside. The scenic route took us along the cliff top – le Corniche Basque - from St. Jean de Luz to Hendaye, the last place in France before crossing into Spain. This proved to be a very picturesque drive if somewhat blustery. Hendaye is a typical, smart seaside town frequented by yachtsmen with a smart marina and separated from Spain by the river Bidassoa. It was too wet and bitterly cold to explore the town on foot so we crawled slowly through in Modestine who fortunately seems quite happy in all this weather.

As previously mentioned, the signs here are generally in French and Basque. So near the border they are also in Spanish! It’s a lot to take in at each roundabout, particularly when Basque separatists decide to efface all but the Basque ones. So somehow we ended up very briefly in Spain! Not a major problem and we soon righted ourselves, but how was Jill to know that St. Jean de Luz was actually marked up as Donibane Lohizune? Basque bears absolutely no resemblance to any of the Romance languages although it does seem that plurals are formed in a similar way to Hungarian. Ian has started a list of Basque words and their English equivalents that should help us survive over the next few days! Here they are….
Welcome – Ongi etorri
San Sebastian - Donostia (Should stop us getting lost if we head for Spain tomorrow!)
Church – Eliza
Bars or Pubs – Ostatuak
Town Centre – Herri barnea
Camping – Erreka

We returned to Urrungne and our campsite around 5.30 pm. Already there were a number of camping cars and caravans, all with Dutch, German, or English number plates. We are right on the migration route to the south where Northerners head to pass the winter months in the warmer climate of the Algarve!

Monday 28th November 2005, Urrugne, near St. Jean de Luc
Today the temperature rose from -5 overnight to +12 during the day and the rain actually stopped! At least it did in Spain. We decided to visit San Sebastian, about 30 kilometres west of Urrugne. The roads were very busy crossing into Spain as it’s the northern route around the Pyrenees. We found ourselves channelled along into the town but managed to park beside the river Urumea enabling us to visit the nearby neo-gothic cathedral. It was very simple in style for a Spanish church.

In an impressive building near the cathedral we found the Basque cultural centre with an excellent library which was extremely busy with users. It contained a huge amount of material relating to Basque culture. It was on three floors with hardly and empty seat. We encountered our first Basque online library catalogue, thankfully with English, French and Spanish options.

The town is lovely being beautifully laid-out in wide tree-lined boulevards. There are well maintained blocks of flats with ornate facades dating from around 1900. There is a port, sandy beaches and a clean bright promenade. The law courts are set in public gardens with big shady tamarisk trees, spiky palm trees and pretty flower beds. Everywhere is immaculate. There are lots of green lawns which is very different from French towns where gardens and grass are a rarity.

Puente Maria Christina near the cathedral at San Sebastian

Puente de la Zumols at San Sebastian

Flats below Monte Urgull at San Sebastian

Attractive façades in the town centre at San Sebastian

The sea front at San Sebastian

The Law Courts at San Sebastian

Shady sea front promenade at San Sebastian

We had no maps or guidebooks so were only able to get a feel of the town. The people were friendly and there was a very pleasant atmosphere. We found the old town near the port, clustered around the foot of a hill topped with a large statue of Christ. There we discovered the church of San Sebastian complete with his statue pierced by several arrows. We browsed a guidebook in a nearby bookshop, making notes about the main sites to seek out. At midday we lunched at FNAC, outside under heated burners - coffee, ham bocadillos and tortillas. Later we walked along the beach, deserted except for a few joggers, and leaving the promenade we found a shop trading in sticky Spanish sweets and access to the internet. The friendly owner said he’d been in Dublin for seven years. We said we’d been in San Sebastian for several hours, so could we please all communicate in English.

Portico of the church of San Sebastian

Plaza de la Constitución, formerly used as a bull ring

Along the beach at San Sebastian

Returning to Modestine we left San Sebastian around 4pm. Despite our best efforts we ended up on the motorway heading for Bilbao. There was a chaos of traffic and we were entirely without maps, having left our Europe-wide atlas in Ambre. All we knew was that we never wanted to be on the motorway in the first place. Where the Hell are we? We recollected that the border town with France was called Irun and seeing a sign for Iruña assumed that was the Spanish name and must be our route. Just as we started to relax we realised this was not the same place at all! How were we to know that Iruña was the Basque name for Pamplona? We pulled off the motorway, turned around and retraced our route back to San Sebastian and beyond, until, with a great sense of relief, we reached Irun and the French border. A twenty kilometre wasted journey to say nothing of the adrenalin surge of coping suddenly and unexpectedly with a busy Spanish motorway.

It was dusk when we re-found the campsite. We continued past it up the road to the Le Clerc superstore, in the wilds of the countryside. Here we found an entire shopping complex with bookshops and clothes stores. We replenished the contents of Modestine’s fridge and then had supper at the supermarket restaurant – a delicious Basque dish of stuffed spicy red pimentos with rice and green beans. At ten euros for the two of us it was a real bargain! We returned to the campsite in the dark and the rain. It continued to pour all night. There were ten other camping cars here over night, nearly all owned by retired British couples migrating south for the winter. This site seems a regular stopping place for them each year. They struck us as rather brave to undertake such long journeys in huge camping cars. They all seemed rather frail and elderly. As they washed their dishes they discussed together the price of propane gas in Portugal and in the showers they whistled the Teddy bears picnic.

Tuesday 29th November 2005, Near Soustons
We arrived here in cold, clammy mist this evening. The campsite lies north of Bayonne on our planned route back to Ambre-les-Espagnolettes and is owned by a very friendly English couple who are friends of Ralph in Salies-de-Béarns. He had told them that we may appear at some stage so when we arrived as dusk was falling, we were invited into their warm kitchen for welcome mugs of hot tea. In the corner of their living room are a couple of huge stone griffins which Andy rescued from a skip many years ago while working on a building project in Merton, South London. Recent investigation indicates that they may well be the only remaining Royal Beasts from the old Nonsuch Palace, long since disappeared. Andy then showed us some of the work he has done on the property over the past sixteen years. Their house is possibly constructed with ancient reused timbers from a wooden-framed ship. It is of wattle and daub, used to be a wheelwright’s and appears to be very old indeed. In the grounds are eighty permanent mobile homes, scattered amongst the pine trees. We are amongst the very few touring vehicles here at this time of year as the site is rather off the beaten track and it is not obvious that it is permanently open. Andy says the mainstay of winter use is from the Dutch who are great travellers throughout the year.

It was interesting to hear that they moved to France thinking they had bought a campsite, only to discover on arrival that they had been gazumped! They had no option but to rent somewhere immediately – they had sold up in England and had a removal van full of furniture – and start searching all over again. With two young children this must have proved a massive difficulty. In the event, they found this site, learnt French, sent their children through the French education system – the youngest is currently at Pau university - and have become hardened and streetwise. As we have always suspected, they confirmed that French tax laws and administration are a complete nightmare and they are totally in the hands of their accountant. Even the French, it seems, do not fully understand their own legislation!

This morning we left Urrugne heading in the direction of Biarritz. It had rained all night again and the roads were waterlogged. Most of the town car parks were closed to Modestine as she is too tall to fit under their barriers. So we cruised Biarritz with its road works and one way systems through narrow streets until we eventually found somewhere near the market to park. We headed down to the casino on the seafront. The town really is quite chic, as you’d expect, with lovely flats overlooking the bay, exclusive shops and smart folk drinking coffees – inside as there was an icy breeze from the sea. The original casino was rebuilt in 1929 in the Art Deco style and is great fun inside. We have discovered, that at seaside resorts, there is usually a casino and no restrictions on access – other than being reasonably dressed and we just about scrape into that category. Smart bouncers welcomed us and directed us to the casino. We diverted and used the loos. They are state of the art with huge mirrors, marble basins, and every luxury you’d expect from the Biarritz casino! No charge! Absolute bargain. Just as well really as there was nowhere else available at this time of year. However, there was a problem as we wandered around looking at the machines and gambling tables. Would Monsieur and Madame kindly mind accompanying the big fierce smartly suited bouncer to a secure area and opening our rucksack? Game for a laugh, we happily complied and loaded him up with a soggy umbrella, woolly hats, a bottle of (possibly holy) water and a Michelin map of the Pyrenees! We must have looked a bit suspicious and I cannot say I blame him! He then said we were welcome to take a few photos of the interior but on no account were we to photograph the gambling tables! We never told him we would put the pictures on the internet or he may have been less accommodating!

General view of Biarritz


Interior of Biarritz Casino

Interior of Biarritz Casino

Ceiling window in Biarritz Casino

After a brisk scamper in a howling gale along the seafront we headed back to Modestine, stopping to explore the market on the way. We are totally addicted to markets even thought we rarely buy things. Our tastebuds are not fully switched on over here and we cannot get excited at the thought of confit de canard which appears to be ducks legs or breasts packed in ENORMOUS quantities of white fat. Of even less appeal are ducks hearts, gizzards, necks, and even heads! A tray of these looking up at you from a butchers slab is enough to turn anyone vegetarian. We were offered a free sample of something that tasted wonderful – rich beyond belief and very unctuous. Further enquiry revealed it to be half-cooked goose liver – pâté de foie gras. We don’t want to like it! It was wonderful! We saw them all laid out for sale. A small packet cost 34€. They are a pale yellow, nothing but fat. You may know how they are produced but if not – the geese are force fed. A tube or gaveuse is thrust down their throat and special corn pushed down. They get no exercise and when their livers are massively distended they are slaughtered so that Jill and Ian can have free samples and the elite of Biarritz can make cute little canapés before handing in their rucksacks at the casino and spending the evening playing Blackjack.

The beach at Biarritz

Sandman on the beach

So quite an interesting morning in Biarritz. We continued our travels to Bayonne with its fortifications by (guess who, yes of course) Monsieur Vauban (as usual) and its cathedral with its twin spires, added in the 19th century to the original building dating from the 13th century. The town was quite pleasant to wander about in with cobbled, arcaded streets and specialist chocolate shops for which it is famed. The window displays were all very attractive, particularly as Christmas is fast approaching. Street decorations were all in place and at night would probably look delightful.

Street scene in Bayonne with the spires of the cathedral

Cloisters of Bayonne cathedral

We could not linger however. The wind was icy and the rain never ceased. The museum of Basque culture and the wonderful art gallery were closed on Tuesdays – we are sure there are more Tuesdays in the week than any of the other six days as everywhere seems closed when we visit. So we returned to Modestine and headed for Capbreton a little fishing port and holiday area about fifteen kilometres north of Bayonne. Here, although still claimed as Basque country, Les Landes are just starting. These form an area of sandy dunes covered in bracken and long-needled green-grey pine trees that stretch for ever, either side of die-straight roads, for a couple of hundred kilometres north to Bordeaux and beyond. Today though, we have only touched the edge of this region. So far we have found it very pleasant. Capbreton today had little going on. Most of the properties were shut up until the spring. The restaurants and cafes were closed while proprietors took their annual leave. Indeed, the only place open was the casino by the old port.

The seaside properties are generally low-level, nicely kept buildings just back from the port set amidst tamarisks and pines. In summer it would be a very pleasant place for a holiday. Locals cycled along specially designated sandy paths under the pine trees, their dogs running beside them.

We continued inland towards Soustons, a pretty lakeside town surrounded by Les Landes. Here in the season there would be sailing, rowing, canoeing and bathing with little restaurants and cafés by the lakeside offering shady terraces beneath the pines. The surrounding streets are all lined by plane trees, pollarded and contorted into tunnels of bare, knobbly grey branches that in summer would provide cool sheltered leafy avenues against the oppressive heat. (Hard to imagine today!)

Winter sunset on the enchanted lake at Soustons

Plane trees in winter

And so we reached this campsite where, through the evening gloom, vapours of white mist are rising through the surrounding pines as we enjoy a glass of wine in Modestine’s snug interior, regardless of the cold outside – until we need to trot across to the showers!