Basque country

Saturday May 6th 2017, Urrugne, France
All morning we drove along the busy motorway out of Spain. It was the most practical route to take and enabled us to bypass Santander, Bilbao and San Sebastian. We shot across the border around lunchtime, skidded to a halt at the first French tollpoint of the motorway and slipped off round a tiny backroad onto a minor lane thus avoiding the toll! We discovered this dodge last time we were here some years back. Why pay the toll for a couple of kilometres on the French motorway when it's just as straightforward to take the backroads to our destination?

Back on familiar roads and feeling comfortable driving once more in a country we knew and understood, we headed for the Leclerc supermarket to restock Modestine's fridge and cupboards. The Spanish people are lovely but their food is dry and boring unless you are happy eating octopus and sardines. So excited were we to see the huge array of French foodstuffs suitable for luxurious self-catering in a camper van, we rushed around filling our basket with far too much stuff and have since been eating twice as much as we did in Spain! It's wonderful to have a baguette that is soft in the middle and crusty around the edge rather than dry, hard and tasteless as all Spanish bread tends to be by the time you get it home. We also succumbed to the fresh croissants, so light, buttery and flaky! You can buy things called croissants everywhere in Spain. They are twice the size and four times the weight of the French ones. They are baked with melted sugar over the top and are the same consistency as doughnuts without the jam! In their own right they are okay but they should never be compared with French croissants.

When we reached what is one of the best campsites we have discovered over the years, the owner was at lunch. To be more accurate he was driving a tractor around the site and, seeing us, shouted that we should make ourselves at home and see him later. This we did. It seemed they actually remembered us from last time and all the paperwork had already been done when we went to register! The owner seems to be semi-retired now and spends much of his time zipping about the site on his electric bicycle, always wearing his black Basque beret. He is quite a character.

So tired were we after our long drive that after lunch we both slept for an hour. Then we decided we really needed to wash almost everything we possessed. We loaded the washing machine with duvet covers, pillow cases, towels, clothing and undies, wound our washing line round the trees and soon had everything blowing gently in the slight breeze. While it dried I went for a swim in the pool, took a shower and washed my hair. Ian worked on what he fondly believes to be the largest collection of Spanish manhole covers ever compiled! I have a lot to contend with! So hot was the sun that most of our washing was dry in a couple of hours. This was just as well as around 5pm large drops of rain began to slowly splat over all the campervans and everyone rushed to get back inside. From then on we had pouring rain all night. But we were warm and dry luxuriating in lovely clean bedding as the rain hammered on the roof for much of the night.

This morning the hot sunshine was back. After a leisurely breakfast we drove down the road to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. It is Saturday however and the streets were crowded. We found it difficult to park and most of the parking areas had height restrictions to prevent campervans getting underneath. Modestine is smaller than many of the vehicles parked there but just too tall to pass safely under the barrier. So we admitted defeat and drove along the coast to Socoa. Again all the car parks refused admittance to Modestine but eventually we found a place for her in a residential side road.

Socoa is on the coast and with today's sunshine everywhere looked wonderful. The sea was the brightest blue while the steep surrounding fields were bright green with hedgerows and spring flowers. We walked around the harbour where seafood restaurants were setting up for the day and the marina was filled with smart sailing boats. Everywhere looked smart, clean and prosperous.

The Fort at Socoa, Basque Area, France

We bought fresh fruit and a baguette before driving up onto the corniche, a coastal road through stunning scenery overlooking green fields right to the cliff edge. The rocks up on the corniche are all tilted upwards and the cliffs are formed from vertical strata that stretches out under the sea.

Vertical strata, Basque Area, France

The chateau de Abbadie near Hendaye looked to be both a fascinating place to visit and somewhere for our picnic lunch. However, as so many places here now, we could not get into the nearly empty free car park. We left Modestine outside where she was far more of a nuisance and walked along the busy road and up the driveway to the Chateau. It was closed! The day was becoming very frustrating and predictable! The chateau, in neo-gothic style, was designed by Viollet-le-Duc between 1864 and 1879 for Antoine d'Abbadie, who was born in Dublin in 1810 and died in Paris in 1897. He was a scientist and traveller and the chateau contains his observatory and his research collections. Pierre Loti, the writer and explorer also lived in Hendaye. We discovered his home on our previous visit. It would seem highly probable that the two travellers would have come into contact with each other during the period that they were both living here.

Chateau de Abbadie, Hendaye, France

Down near the sea we found a parking area without a height barrier. The parking meter was not working and, along with other delighted drivers, we parked in the hot sunshine and made our way to the sandy beach.

Released from footwear we strolled along the sand with the waves gently breaking over our feet, into the charming little town of Hendaye, right on the Spanish border. It is a clean, attractive little town with residential streets lined with tamarisk trees. The old casino is now a complex of seaside restaurants and cafe terraces overlooking the sea. Here we bought filled baguettes which we ate on the beach before finding a terrace for coffee. Hendaye stands on a small headland. Cutting across we found ourselves at the port de plaisance with pleasant public gardens.

Old Casino, Hendaye, Basque Area, France

The day had passed in a lazy fashion and we were too hot and weary to return to St. Jean de Luz. Instead we parked in the nearby little town of Urrugne for a stroll around the neat, clean streets of Basque houses, white rendered with their windows, shutters and balconies in standard colours of either deep red, dark green or marine blue. They are very attractive.

Typical Basque houses, Urrugne, Basque Area, France

A wedding was taking place at the church and we watched the bride enter. At the pelotte pitch four young men were slashing away at the ball using wooded bats shaped rather like tennis rackets. It's a tough game! The ball is smashed hard at the wall and hit continuously by different team member as it rebounds.

Guests gather for a wedding, Urrugne, Basque Area, France

Pelota court.
Urrugne, Basque Area, France

On the walls of the church were election posters for the two candidates standing for president in the second round of the election to be held tomorrow. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. As we wondered why there were two posters for Le Pen and only one for Macron we were joined by a vociferous Frenchman furious that the National Front candidate had two posters on display and threatening to pull it down! We can only hope his sentiment is shared by the rest of France and that Macron will succeed as the next French president.

Presidential election posters, Basque Area, France

Too tired to do more we returned to our pitch and I fell asleep for an hour. When I woke Ian had gone off to explore bus time tables. He has worked out that we should be able to get a bus easily from the campsite to St. Jean de Luz tomorrow. This will be easier than trying to park Modestine.

Sunday May 7th 2017, Urrugne, France
We were up and organised so early this morning that we decided to drive to Biarritz instead of taking the bus to St. Jean de Luz and will do that tomorrow instead. By 9.30 this morning we were already in Biarritz and here we met our first hurdle. Since our last visit the sea front has had a make-over and now there are smart parking areas with barriers to prevent campervans from using them. There are many massive camping cars in France as well as large caravans pulled by 4x4s. We have seen them in other French seaside resorts that do not have restrictions. They line up along the sea front taking several parking places and stay for days. They do little to contribute to the local economy and lead to major congestion problems in towns. So it is reasonable for the authority to prevent them parking along the front but we could not discover anywhere that parking, other than for cars, was permitted at all. We have already been fined down on the Mediterranean and did not want to risk returning to discover Modestine wheel clamped. She is a centimetre too tall to pass under the parking barriers and we prowled the headland searching for anywhere she might safely be left. It is so annoying when the car parks are standing empty and she fits perfectly into a normal sized parking space. Even more infuriating is the number of vans that are converted into campervans that will fit under the barrier yet are wider and longer than Modestine. Eventually we parked in a side road a good mile or more from the centre and walked in along the beach.

Sandy beach at Biarritz

Perfect for surfing,Biarritz

We've had a lovely day. The sun has shone with just a slight breeze. The sand was clean and smooth with rivulets of water threading between rocks and boulders. The sea was an astonishing blue with white breakers ridden by the early morning surfers, rolling in from far out across the bay. Islets stand off shore, sometimes linked together by bridges.

Early morning surfers, Biarritz

Splendid hotel, Biarritz

This is our third visit to Biarritz. Previous ones have been in winter with bitter winds and even snow. Today we saw it in a gentler mood.

Reaching the centre we found Basque singing and dancing outside the casino. They were dancing there on our last visit too. We have obviously struck it lucky. It's a happy sight, offered free by a local band on the first Sunday of the month. Families and friends meet and stand in groups chatting. Then the music starts up and everyone immediately begins dancing. Basque dancing does not need to be done in pairs. Anyone can join in on their own. All the dancers rotate in a large circle while continuing their conversations, raising their arms above their heads and ending each dance with a high jump while spinning round in a circle. They have boundless energy and kept going for a full three or four hours! We went off for a coffee on the terrace of the casino overlooking the sea and when we returned they were still in full swing! Later we went off for a snack lunch and they were still at it when we came back again! One young lad was following granddad around and copying his steps. Granddad was about our age but bursting with energy, jumping and spinning more than others far younger than him! Many of the men dancing wore black berets and the instruments played, as well as the actual music, were similar to what we have experienced in Brittany. Indeed the Basques are very like the Bretons in many ways.

Basque Sunday entertainment, Biarritz

Basque Sunday entertainment, Biarritz

Social contact and good exercise!, Biarritz

During the afternoon we made our way slowly back along the cliffs. The tide was now in and the surfers had been obliged to stop as the waves were now crashing onto the rocks instead of the sand.

Offshore islet, Biarritz

Biarritz seen from along the cliffs

Harbour for the original old village of Biarritz

Modern town of Biarritz

Clifftop view along the coast at Biarritz

Modestine was waiting peacefully and we were relieved to find her unclamped. With parking such a problem we decided there was no point in moving on to explore further so returned to our campsite for coffee and a snooze. Later we explored the site. It is huge and very beautiful. Usually it is winter when we have been here but today we discovered that it is an extensive park with a large lake with its own beach. There is a farm enclosure for any children to visit and the pitches are laid out on well kept green lawns sheltered by neatly trimmed hedges. There is a restaurant and swimming pool as well as the lake with a water slide. This is all purely for the campers. No wonder some come back every year and never leave the site. There is no need. There is even free fishing available in the lake and as most of the camper vans are huge, once they are here they are happy to stay put.

Monday May 8th 2017, Urrugne, France
Would you believe it? It's another national holiday and the lucky folk of South West France are out enjoying the sunshine with a glass of chilled white wine and gambas à la plancha! Lovely if they can first find somewhere to park.

We decided to not even try taking Modestine out today and left her here while we took the bus from the top of the road down into Saint-Jean-de-Luz. During the day we did not notice a single empty parking space but did enjoy watching a few altercations between drivers fighting to get past each other in a crammed car park!

The bus dropped us right where we wanted to be and we have spent a very happy day exploring this charming and chic little town just across the border from Spain. It was here that Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain in 1658. The church where they wed is typically Basque with just one wide central nave and a very exuberant altar. It has a very small tower and no choir. Along each side of the church there are three tiers of galleries. Men and women were seated separately in Gascony at that time with men occupying the galleries whilst women sat below in the wide nave. The same model can be found in many villages in Gascony, just the scale differs.

View back from the altar of the church where Louis XIV married the infanta Maria Theresa in 1658, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

The town suffered badly from flooding from the sea and failed to respond to several attempts to build defensive sea walls. Eventually of course, Vauban, France's national treasure, was called in to advise and during the reign of Louis XIV a dyke was constructed to hold back the force of the waves. This seems to have worked though regularly huge blocks of stone are still deposited at the entry into the bay where three jetties and dykes break the force of the sea. A large number of buildings from the old town have long disappeared beneath the waves.

Dyke constructed to protect the old town from damage from the sea, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Typical example of architectural style within the town, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

We sat on a terrace in the sunshine, along with the local people, for a coffee and a beer. Today we were part of the smart set! Fortunately our shabby shoes didn't notice beneath the table but around us people definitely looked quite smart compared with many places in France and the area is obviously affluent with its harbour and marina and well maintained streets and buildings. Where in Britain would you see in one town several different men wearing crushed plumb coloured trousers with smart pink pullovers slung around their shoulders?

There were happy families with children of course and these were often settled on the wide expanse of sand where children did their ineffectual best to hold back the tide. We found the market open until lunch time so bought a tranche of paté basque seasoned with pimente d'Espelette, a little town a few miles inland. With this we bought a still warm baguette and made our way down onto the beach. Here we dug ourselves into the warm sand and enjoyed our spoils for lunch. It was delicious paté and the bread fresher than anything to be found back in Spain.

The streets were crowded and every terrace crammed. Gambas and sea food were the norm and fishing boats were arriving back in the harbour to be rapidly unloaded, their cargo immediately sent out to the restaurants around the town.

Lunch in the sunshine, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Crowded tables on one of the pleasant squares, St.Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Harbour, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Harbour, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Harbour with Maison de l'Infante, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Colourful fishing nets on the quayside, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Entrance to the harbour, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Lighthouse specially designed for the harbour, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

Our more modest lunch finished we crossed the bridge that separates Saint-Jean-de-Luz from its charming but more modest neighbour, Ciboule. Here the streets were quiet and almost deserted. Sunny streets of residential houses all built in the Gascony style, tall, white rendered, with doors, windows and heavy balconies painted in the colours of the region. Forest green, rust-red or marine blue. Such a charming blend of colours leads to a very attractive style for the whole region. The church in Ciboule is very similar to that across the bridge in Saint-Jean-de-Luz but on a smaller scale.

Pelota court and typical Basque architecture, Ciboule, Gascony

Residential street, Ciboule, Gascony

Around the town the election posters were still up from the final round yesterday. The turn out at the polls was poor. It looks as if a holiday weekend was not the best time to have a presidential election! Southern France is traditionally more right wing than the rest of the country and we noted there were twice as many posters for Marine le Pen than for Emmanuel Macron. However, in this area there are few people who appear to support the extreme right. Indeed the extra posters gave the electorate additional material to deface!

Marine le Pen does not have the popular vote in this area! Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Gascony

It was hot and we had walked all around the two towns. After a rest on the beach where Ian actually bared his toes to the world and paddled, we made our way back to St Jean-de-Luz and, discovering a bus was due and it would be two hours before the next one, we returned to the campsite and Modestine. Tomorrow we expect to be moving on.

For our earlier account of this area see The round of the Basque villes, 2005.