Saturday 6th February 2010, Urrugne, Gascony
Tonight we are back on the campsite at Urrugne near St. Jean de Luc. It is the fourth time we have stopped here since we first discovered it back in 2005. The same people are managing it and we are still listed on their computer system. It all feels very friendly and familiar. It's also a good place to start camping again. We've been spoilt since we left Exeter in November and this is the first time we've actually needed to camp. We really are very comfortable however and despite the strong Atlantic winds whistling around outside, straight off the Bay of Biscay, we have turned off out tiny heater as we are too warm.
Having spent best part of yesterday in the casino at Salies de Bearn using their free wifi we gave ourselves an evening off from computing and went to the cinema. Avatar may be a block buster but we didn't see it to best advantage. It wasn't the 3D version and it was shown in French. It was still an excellent film however and only three minutes from our front door across the little bridge over the river, still surging through the town centre.
Before setting out we tried out a local culinary speciality. The lady in the market on Thursday persuaded us to buy a tin of her confit de canard and gave us detailed instructions as to how to cook it. Basically they amounted to "open the tin, heat and eat". But she started with an explanation of how the ducks and geese are reared in open fields, what happy lives they lead, that they are fed on maize and that when their time comes some bits end up in tins marked gizzards, others labelled hearts, breasts or legs. The liver is packed into much smaller tins and costs umpteen times more than all the other bits but there are discounts if you buy several assorted pieces of duck in different tins. We bought the cheapest simply to find out what the natives thrive on. The maigrit de canard inside the tin was completely lost in white duck fat which we scraped off and threw away. The lady had told us it was wonderful and showed us tins containing nothing but fat. People here really do eat it almost daily and we have been assured it's zero cholesterol!
Each area of France has its regional cuisine which is eaten to the exclusion of almost everything else. Down in the Languedoc every restaurant and supermarket was selling cassoulet, a fatty mixture of sausages from Toulouse or Castelnaudary with white haricot beans in glutinous animal fat. In the Jura they have fatty dried sausages and rich Comté cheese, in Normandy they eat cream, camembert and soft cheeses and from the Midi area we discovered aligot which is pureed potato mixed to a smooth elastic texture with garlic and very rich cheese. So everything is guaranteed to send you to an early grave, yet generally people look healthy enough. Our theory is that it's all counteracted by red wine. It's a good enough excuse for us to drink it anyway.
This morning we packed up Modestine, locked the house and left Salies behind as we made our way to Cambo-les-Bains, a very pleasant Basque spa town, homeland of Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac. There is a bar there where on an earlier visit we'd seen wonderful meals being served so timed our arrival for lunch. Huh! This is France and they'd not yet re-opened after Christmas! Still, we explored the older part of the town and discovered a pretty Basque church with its three tiers of wooden balconies inside, the hymn books written in Basque and a small cemetery full of 17th century Basque headstones. Throughout the little town the buildings were traditional Basque in style – whitewashed walls and dark red window frames, doors, shutters and wooden balconies. Even factories here have to be built and painted in the local style and of course everything is written in both Basque and French. Even the Leclerc supermarket has its signs up in Basque.
It has been windy and showery all day and both became stronger as we made our way down into St. Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic coast. The sea is far more turbulent than the gentle Mediterranean we left behind last week. The beaches are sandy and deserted but we had no desire to linger in the teeth of the gale and quickly sought out the shelter of the old town.
Here we found the church where Louis XIV married Maria-Theresa of Austria, eldest daughter of Philip IV of Spain in 1660 following the Treaty of the Pyrenees, thus bringing to an end the perpetual fighting between France and Spain. Nearby stands the attractive stone-built house where the Infanta stayed before her marriage. It was built by a corsair from the town and shows just how wealthy some of the 16th and 17th century privateers became. They were no more than legalised pirates licensed to attack and rob any ship, merchant or military, flying the flag of an enemy country. They differed from pirates in that they had the sanction of government and a percentage went to the crown.
St. Jean-de-Luz is a really pleasant town. Many of the streets are pedestrianised and the shops filled with local products – linen, towels, ceramics and chocolates. The Basques really know how to market themselves. Ian even enjoyed trying on a few berets but they really didn't look right on him. So many of the men here do wear them however and it's a typical sight to see someone wearing a beret and carrying a baguette.
As dusk fell we left the town and made our way to this friendly campsite. It even has wifi and a covered swimming pool! Half a mile down the road is the Leclerc supermarket with its own cheap restaurant. So this evening we've not needed to cook. It's really not worth doing so at the prices they charge. Time now though to see if we can remember how to make up the bed for the night.
On our first visit to this area we explored the three main French Basque towns along the coast – St, Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz and Bayonne. Please see that account for more information. We thought its title was inspirational The round of the Basque villes
Sunday 7th February 2010, Urrugne, Gascony
Today has been lovely in every way. We slept really well in Modestine, perfectly warm and comfortable and woke to bright sunshine which has continued all day, at times being almost uncomfortably hot.
In Biarritz parking was free on Sundays so we left Modestine in the centre overlooking a very pleasant park. Walking down to the sea front we noticed how clean everywhere was. It is so chic and smart even the dogs are elegant and sophisticated!
The former railway station is interesting on two counts. Firstly the architects seem to have forgotten the site was on a hill when they built the two towers and had to compensate by staggering the windows of the lower tower. Secondly, it has now been converted into a theatre and concert hall.
Yesterday's wind had disappeared and the seafront was warm, the sandy beach deserted except for a lone surfer bravely facing the high Atlantic breakers as they rolled in.
Outside the Casino a group of Basque musicians was playing local folk tunes and a gathering crowd of local residents were sharing Basque songbooks. What a pleasant way to spend Sunday morning! We listened with delight, accompanying the chorus with "la la las." Perhaps communal Basque singing is an alternative to church for some people.
Following on from the singing a new group with drums, flutes, accordions and tubas started playing dance tunes to a rapidly swelling crowd. Soon the entire area in front of the Casino was crowded with dancers of all ages waving their arms above their heads, swinging each other around and neatly moving in perfect step with each other. The caller announced the music and guided their steps in Basque while every time the music stopped everyone rushed around kissing friends who'd just arrived for the dancing. It went on all morning without a break. People considerably older than us were dancing to every single tune and as the caller announced the next dance delighted cries of "Oh goody", or its Basque equivalent, went up. What a wonderful way of keeping fit and enjoying time with friends. It is all part of their local identity and must have been learnt as children in school. We enjoyed watching it so much we never got any further until hunger finally drove us off in search of lunch. As we left at least a couple of hundred Biarritz residents were twirling to the ever quickening music of the fandango.
Today, being the first Sunday of the month, all the national museums in France are free. Bayonne boasts an excellent museum of Basque life and an exceptional art gallery. So leaving Biarritz for further investigation another time we drove along the coast to Bayonne. Last time we'd tried to visit the town the river Adour had been so high and the weather so appalling that we'd had to abandon our visit. Today there was bright sunshine and we parked beside the river and set off to explore the town. We had no idea there was so much to see. It is quite beautiful with formal gardens beside the river Adour and street after street of huge timber framed houses painted in traditional colours. There are narrow streets in the commercial centre with dozens of shops selling chocolate. This is a Bayonne tradition. It was the first place in France to accept chocolate when it was introduced into Europe and the tradition lingers on. It is thought the skill of milling cocoa beans and creating drinks and chocolate was first brought to Bayonne by Jewish tradesmen expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 1490s.
The rivers Nive and Adour divide the city. In Grande Bayonne, in the heart of the town, stands the Cathedral Ste. Marie with its twin towers and pretty cloisters. There are open squares and a network of narrow streets of half timbered houses many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Across the Nive lies Petite Bayonne with the Basque museum and the Art Gallery.
Once we discovered the museum of Basque life and traditions all hope of seeing anything more of Bayonne was lost. There was just so much to see with galleries covering food, textiles, furniture, building techniques, trades and crafts. There were paintings by Basque artists depicting scenes from everyday life. There were displays ranging from chocolate making to pelote playing and traditional dancing to tombstones. Amongst the crafts were techniques for making pelote rackets and special gloves to enable the ball to be thrown further and harder. In fact, the only thing about the Basques we did not find mentioned is that it was soldiers from Bayonne who first used bayonets.
We still had the art gallery to see but there was less than an hour before closing once we arrived. Known as the Musée Bonnat it is primarily a collection of the excellent paintings of Louis Bonnat, born in the town in 1833. The museum also has a gallery of Greek and Roman antiquities, one of religious art and some impressive bronzes. For a town of around 50,000 inhabitants it is an impressive gallery and includes painters of international repute – Rubens, Goya, El Greco, David and Ingres amongst others. It was frustrating to have so little time to see everything. Even today though, when entry was free, there were few people in either museum.
The defensive city walls were yet another work by Vauban. From the top we had a bird's eye view of a rugby game. I think it's the first time I've ever seen a live rugby scrum!
We have decided there is still far too much to see in Biarritz, Bayonne and other seaside towns here for us to consider moving on for a few days yet. It really is a very pleasant, bright and clean part of France. The Basque people are proud to have a regional identity, seeing themselves first as Basques rather than French. Brittany too has its own identity and both areas are well cared for and clean. In both cases the only graffiti we've seen is in the local language, placed there by extremists. The ordinary people do not drop litter or allow their dogs to foul the streets. The pavements are not crumbling, vehicles park in designated areas and builders rubble is not simply dumped in the streets as it is in so very many of the towns elsewhere in France.
Monday 8th February 2010, Urrugne, Gascony
This morning we explored the large local village of Urrugne and found it to be quite perfect. From points around the town there are vistas of the most westerly of the mountains thrown up during the formation of the Pyrenees. Known as Larrune it is accessible in summer by a little train climbing to the summit. At this time of year the only way up is on foot. We took shelter from torrential rain in the church of Urrugne several years ago but had never explored the picturesque streets of timber framed houses, painted, as everywhere here, in the traditional colours. Even the primary school is in red white and green, and that goes for the toys the children have in the playground! There were a dozen or so plastic hoops and tyres being rolled around and they were all in the traditional shades of red and green.
From Urrugne we followed the Basque corniche, or coast road to Hendaye passing through pretty countryside along the cliff top with the waves from the Bay of Biscay breaking onto the rocks below.
It's only a short drive to Hendaye, on the estuary of the River Bidassoa, and the last place in France before crossing the bridge into Spain. We know this as we accidentally crossed it today and found ourselves in Spain. We never learn. We did exactly the same thing the first time we stayed here.
Parking was a problem along the coast. There were literally thousands of empty spaces but camper cars were banned from the seashore, Understandable in summer but a problem for us today as we have already been fined twice on our travels for parking where camping cars are banned. Eventually we found her a place in a residential street and walked down to discover the casino - mainly because we've always found we can use the loos in casinos when we cannot find them anywhere else.
Our Michelin guide to the area, picked up for a few cents at vide grenier on our travels, is a few years out of date. It marks a lake just back from the sea shore. Standing in the middle of it our feet were quite dry! It seems the river Bidassoa has gradually silted up the shoreline over the last few decades turning it into a wetland for sea birds. And there were plenty of sea birds enjoying the area with dunlin running along the water's edge, the sound of peewits and curlews and hundreds of wader birds with long red legs or long sharp beaks digging in the sand. There were several red-legged oyster catchers and different species of gulls. Unfortunately we are not hot on birds but could appreciate what a perfect place it was for them.
The sea path led round the headland and up into the town. On the way we passed the house where the writer Pierre Loti died in 1922. A traditional Basque house in white and green with palm trees in the garden it stands overlooking the river estuary with the Spanish town of Hondarribia on the far shore. Pierre Loti is one of France's major modern writers. Most of his on-shore life was spent in Rochefort where his house is now a museum, every room decorated to reflect the very many voyages of travel he made during his lifetime as a sailor. See under Rochefort on 17th October 2007 for more about Pierre Loti.
Further up the river estuary lies the tiny Ile des Faisans. Because of its position in the river dividing the two countries it has been used as neutral ground for the French and the Spanish to conduct diplomatic meetings and is still jointly owned. In 1526 Francois I, who had been held captive by the Spanish, was exchanged there for his two sons, while the treaty of the Pyrenees was signed there in 1659.
Otherwise, Hendaye is a pleasant but unremarkable town at this time of year though in summer its sandy beaches and boating marina must be packed with tourists.
We could see black clouds rushing in from Spain, the hills disappearing into the mist. We returned to Modestine just in time and headed back towards St. Jean de Luz along the corniche road intending to explore Ciboure across the water from St. Jean de Luz. Once the rain started though it became a storm, flooding the roads and making driving difficult. So we gave up, went to the supermarket to refill Modestine's fridge and ate supper out to avoid cooking with the rain streaming down outside. As it is, this evening we are sharing our living area with wet shoes, coats and umbrellas.
On the positive side though, our camping pitch had been pinched by a big camper van when we got back to the site so we parked further along and guess what? We can pick up free wifi! No idea where it comes from but Merci beaucoup whoever you are!
Tuesday 9th February 2010, Urrugne, Gascony
We are still at the same campsite having returned here after spending the day across the border in San Sebastian. Camping in France is far cheaper than in Spain and this is an excellent site to find open at this time of year.
San Sebastian, a city of nearly 180,000 inhabitants is about thirty kilometres from here. The route though is unpleasant, clogged with heavy, fast moving traffic as it takes the brunt of the frontier traffic between France and Spain, skirting the Pyrenees to the north. Last time we visited the city we must have been very lucky parking as it took us longer to do so this time than it had for the journey across. The town is built around a scallop-shaped sandy bay with a headland to either side and an island midway between. We passed several times through the centre as we searched for somewhere to park or even just to find our way out of the one way systems. Eventually we were forced along the sea shore to the furthest end of the bay where we eventually parked by the funicula to the top of Monte Igualdo and caught a bus back into the city centre.
We have already written enthusiastically about the city when we visited back on 28th November 2005. Today's report supplements that.
We were struck again at the elegance of the city where all the streets are lined with smart blocks of flats with ornate facades, mainly dating from the early 1900s. They are substantial buildings with elegant decoration - balconies filled with potted plants or glass fronted verandas overlooking the bay, caryatids, and elaborate doorways.
The neo-gothic cathedral was closed when we arrived. Everything in Spain closes around 1.30pm and remains closed until around 5pm. We did though visit the Church of Santa Maria, mainly baroque but with gothic influence, evidenced by the ribbed vaulting above the altar.
At lunch time we found a tapas bar. San Sebastian is reputed to provide the best tapas in Spain. Certainly the selection we had with coffee for lunch was delicious and surprisingly filling. An elderly lady at a neighbouring table chatted happily away to us while we nodded sagely and wondered what she was saying. As our ears tuned in to Spanish we worked out something of her chatter though we could have entirely the wrong end of the stick. She told us that one of her two daughters was studying Japanese in Madrid, or perhaps it was that she was studying to be a sumo wrestler. Then she explained that her hand was in bandages because of a self inflicted injury to her wrist. We looked suitably solemn and wished we could think of something to say to this. Again we only think that's what she said. She may have been explaining the bandage was to hide her stigmata. Really our conversational Spanish today rated at zero. It wasn't really necessary for us to tell her we didn't speak Spanish but when we did she smiled and proffered us the large prawn from the top of her tapas. We began to feel like Alice in Wonderland but she happily continued chatting to us, every now and then patting our arms and telling us it was a pity we didn't understand – that much we were actually able to comprehend. When we eventually prepared to leave she shook hands with her good hand and treated us as if we were lifelong friends. It had been a really enjoyable lunch but we felt ashamed that our Spanish had quite deserted us today. We also had a slight misgiving that the senora may have been a few cents short of a euro. Perhaps she felt the same about us.
Having explored the port, the bay and the old town we struggled up to the top of Monte Urgull dominated by a huge statue of Christ overlooking the port. It was raining and the temperature just above freezing. Right on the top we found a restored fort where from the walls there were splendid views down onto the city. We felt elated to realise we'd climbed all that way up from sea level.
Of course we were the only ones up there this afternoon but we discovered a museum inside the fort, dedicated to the history of San Sebastian. It was free and the friendly curator was concerned that we should get the maximum information from the collections. It was an excellent museum and we were relieved to discover our understanding of written Spanish is considerably better than our understanding of the spoken language. Which is just as well because everything was written in Basque with a Spanish translation.
From the roof of the museum there is a panoramic view down onto the town, the promenade along beside the sandy shore, the sweep of the sea on one side of the headland, the circular bay on the other, the Island of Santa Clara, and Monte Igualdo guarding the entrance on the far side of the bay. Inland the town is ringed by distant green mountains.
It only looked a stone's throw from where we had left Modestine but it took ages zigzagging back down to sea level, skirting the aquarium – reputed to be the best in Spain, and eventually making our way back to the town centre. It would take a good hour to walk right round the bay in a stiff cold breeze with black clouds scudding in from the sea. We took the easy option returning by bus which, by the time it had made its circuitous route, didn't save us much time but was certainly warmer and dryer.
We still had to drive back across the centre of the city and fight our way out. The map made it look easy. The reality was less so. Hey but we're well hard! We've driven through Bologna, Riga, Oslo, Tallin, Gdansk, Munich and a huge host of other cities. We can do this! So I kept telling myself as we dodged buses and lorries, crossed interchanges and fought to get into the right lanes before being shunted off to Pamplona. At least this time we were streetwise enough to follow the signs to Irun and not Iruña. They are two different places in opposite directions, the first being the border town with France, the second the Basque name for Pamplona. We made it back okay but next time we take the train. It's all a bit too much!
The residents of San Sebastian are smartly dressed and sophisticated. Regardless of age they really seem to care about their appearance. In general they seem more smartly dressed than the French (though Biarritz struck us as smart and sophisticated too.)
It is surprising that an area that shares its regional identity across the national border can be so very different from the French Basque region. In the Basque areas of both France and Spain we hear Basque spoken on the streets. In France we feel very much at home yet twenty miles away in Spain we are in a very different environment. Men still wear berets and signs are still written in an incomprehensible language with lots of Xs and Ks but Spanish Basques are still very Spanish while French Basques are definitely French.
Wednesday 10th February 2010, Near Bayonne, Les Landes
Having spent the day in Biarritz and Bayonne it didn't seem worth returning all the way to Urrugne. We found one of the very few all-year campsites some 15 kilometres north of Bayonne and have settled here for the night. We are the only visitors and the owner had to open up especially for us. It's slightly creepy but we have electricity to run our fire - essential when temperatures are well below zero outside. The toilet block is unheated so I doubt we'll opt for showers in the morning but otherwise we have all we need.
It was bright and sunny as we left Modestine and walked along the cliff top down into Biarritz this morning. The temperature was minus one though it warmed up a bit as the day wore on. Views from the cliffs were quite wonderful with the sea rolling in, in huge, white-topped breakers, to hurl against the rocks and drop back in a violent surge of white foam. The swell of the Atlantic along this south-western coast of France is keen, clean and agitated, very different from the blue, limpid waters of the Mediterranean gently lapping the sandy shores of Southern France. It has sculpted the rocks into tortured shapes and we were able to walk across flimsy bridges onto a couple of the headlands.
Below the cliffs we found the old port and fishing harbour, presenting yet another aspect of this sophisticated tourist resort of smart bars, hotels, restaurants and gaming tables as well as its popular beaches and promenades.
In the market hall we bought chicken rolls and a chocolate cake for Ian before returning to picnic in Modestine on the cliff top watching the waves with their plumes of white foam, rolling in from way out to sea. Today there were several surfers riding their crests despite the freezing temperature.
We drove on to Bayonne to finish exploring the picturesque city centre. Today, unlike on Sunday, the shops and the Cathedral were open. The Cathedral had a detailed exhibition about the Turin shroud that so intrigued us we almost forgot to look around at everything else! The shroud is certainly inexplicable, depicting the imprint of a crucified man believed by many to be Christ. The Cathedral displayed a full-size copy of the original, the shroud marked with blood and sweat. Carbon 14 tests date the shroud to the 13th century providing irrefutable evidence that it cannot be the shroud of Christ – although the compilers of the exhibition dismissed this scientific evidence. Nobody has yet been able to explain how the markings came to be there and theories abound. It's certainly intriguing.
For the rest, the Cathedral was built from the 13th to 16th centuries in simple gothic style soaring 26.5 metres to the decorated ceiling bosses in the central nave. The window tracery is ornate, flamboyant even, though much of the brightly coloured stained glass appears to be recent.
We also discovered the old castle, built on Roman foundations in the 12th century – by the English according to the panel, presumably Henry II securing his newly acquired province of Aquitaine after his marriage to Eleanor of Ditto in the 1150s. It is currently garrisoned by a parachute regiment, so only partly open to the public.
Browsing the numerous chocolate shops around the Cathedral provided some relief from the penetrating cold of the afternoon. It also provided free samples of some of the chocolates produced. With Valentine's day approaching there were some superbly presented confections with chocolate hearts, bouquets of chocolate and little baskets made from chocolate, filled with an assortment of chocolates with pistachios, praline, orange and almond. The shops were selling art work rather than comestibles and we eventually selected a small masterpiece as a Valentine's day gift for our next hosts whom we will meet in a few days in Bordeaux.
Soon we were overcome by the cold and needed little persuading that we really should go into one of the little tea rooms for a hot chocolate. It came rich, dark and warm. Made from melted chocolate and cream it was exactly the right blend of sweetness and the bitter taste of the chocolate. After that we scuttled back in the cold along the banks of the River Nive to rejoin Modestine and make our way out of the city in the rush hour traffic.
Thursday 11th February 2010, Near Bayonne, Les Landes
Disaster! We are marooned, all alone on a deserted campsite on the edge of Les Landes, that empty wilderness of flat, boring countryside still scarred by the thousands of trees blown down in the gales little more than a year ago. There are few towns, villages or even houses to speak of and the wilderness stretches northwards some 180 kilometres to Bordeaux. The snow has returned and the roads are so icy it would be folly to consider moving on. Here at least we have an umbilical cord linking us to the electricity supply so we have warmth, hot water and our remoska so we will just have to sit it out and hope the weather improves by tomorrow.
This morning we looked out onto a white, white world. It's bad enough in the morning to don coats and boots to trudge along an icy, snow-covered path to the toilets in an unheated shower block, but it's even worse when we discover we cannot get out of Modestine! The snow had blown all night against the back door, partially thawed and refrozen, icing-up the hinges and all around the ineffective door seal. Once we managed to force a way out we were faced with a blizzard of fast tumbling flakes that buried Modestine faster than we could dig her out. So we've returned to the warmth and comfort of the womb where we feel as cramped as full-term twins. Our thermometer tells us it's 20 degrees in here and minus 1.5 outside. Seeing how fast the snow is mounting out there it's rather scary, and it's getting dark in here as the light from Modestine's windows is becoming blocked by snow. Thankfully we have plenty of food on board so won't be reduced to gorging the St. Valentine's Day chocolate bouquet just yet.
The snow eased temporarily, the sun put in an appearance and there was the soft thudding sound as the surrounding trees shed their loads. Ian has been outside to remove a foot or so of snow from Modestine's roof and she has been weeping steadily, tears trickling down her window. The campsite owner appeared with a shovel and dug us out. He told us all of France is covered, that he's never known it like this here before and that it's even worse in Bordeaux - where we are heading. He also said it's due to freeze again overnight but so far no more snow has been forecast for tomorrow. His greatest worry is that he's out of sunflower seeds for the free-loading birds living on the campsite and wonders whether to risk the weather to try driving to the nearest shops. We've put out crumbled bread for them but it gets covered by snow before they can get to it. We set off for a walk but gave up when the snow returned and we saw the state of the road – compacted snow and ice turning to slush.
We did have a moment of panic when we realised we only have quarter of a bottle of wine left, before remembering we've 20 litres stored under the seat to take back to England with us. It may not all get that far!
Ian's perfectly happy finding time at last to concentrate on the introduction to the Normandy book trade up to the Revolution. Other regions of the country are being compiled in academic libraries across France, funded by research grants. Alain's section is being edited and completed in a tiny campervan in a snowstorm by an ordinary Englishman without his French dictionary! Will they really publish it when he's done?
Well, if you are reading this you will know we've survived yet another adventure on our travels but by the look of the swirling snow building up on the windscreen again we could be here for days yet!