Sunday, August 05, 2001

The Basque Country

Rob and I left our friends, Paulette and John after a morning jog through some forested area on the outskirts of the town in which they live, Tarbes, in southern France. Taking longer than expected (as per usual), we were delighted to be able to fit the two bike frames in the screened boot section of the wonder car, a Renault Laguna Nevada, with their front and rear wheels, and most of the miscellaneous cycling gear. The suitcases and backpacks then sat notionally unobtrusively in the back seat, and the small containers throughout the car were extremely useful for all those other things one needs at hand.

Driving out of France through the picturesque and bustling town of Pau (pronounced ‘Po’), we travelled the scenic route partially through the Provence of the Atlantic Pyranees, and crossing the mountains on an extraordinary, if not especially high, pass. It is hard to avoid beauty anywhere in the Pyranees ~ it is inescapably glorious. Our first night was spent just on the other side of the border, in a very good hotel, the only one we could find, and ordered our beer (Rob) and coffee (Carolyne) with élan, if not the perfect accent. Our morning run the next morning was marred only by my suggesting that Rob spitting (as one does when running) immediately outside the Imposing fortified local headquarters of the Spanish National Police where they had raised the Spanish flag moments earlier was not the wisest move. Signs of ETA, the Basque Independence movement was everywhere, and the dual language signs in invariably had the Spanish blacked out, along with much graffiti proclaiming their autonomous rights, and the Basque flags strung along most streets, with banners proclaiming their right to independence from about a third of the houses.

Succeeding in finding the track leading to a road which climbed the substantial hill Rob saw outside our window in the morning, we were still only the second table to breakfast in the morning with more than enough time to get away around 11 a.m., despite relishing the prospect of a midday checkout. Taking the scenic route was not difficult ~ all routes were scenic ~ however navigation was frequently difficult with the Spanish directions spray painted over, leaving only a word or name of a village which bore very little resemblance to the Spanish on the map. Hitting the Atlantic Coast – the Bay of Biscay to be exact – around three o’clock, we looked at the town square, and for an information centre for maps and accommodation. Unfortunately, it was siesta time, and waiting around for an hour or more when there may have been no room at any inn, encouraged us to head further west along the coast. We were diverted inland for quite a way by police, the reason unknown and worthy of speculation, and landed in the coastal port town of Lekeitio. The place was really buzzing, imagine an old Spanish/Basque sea faring town and cobbled streets, with it’s summer holiday population increased ten fold. Not quite Bateman’s Bay, it was exciting and the two stretches of caramel coloured sand were a sea of beach umbrella’s and people frolicking about. There was a high tree’d island in the bay, which could be walked to across a concrete breakwater at low tide, although it screamed, “swim to me”, and although there were a mass of people on the beach and in the water, few were actually swimming.

Rob and I were to rectify this error a couple of days later, conspicuous in our goggles and distance from shore.

Upon arrival however, a place to lay our head was the prime objective. Without reservations accommodation, even significantly inland, were few. Campgrounds thrived, providing the long summer holidays a relatively cheap place to bring the family for a seaside holiday. Other accommodation was far more salubrious, and more than we were prepared to pay. We were both keen to get the bikes from the car and go for a ride, and stay for more than overnight in a place. We were lucky in securing a place at a small pensione attached to a popular campground on the coast road a few kilometres east of the main town, and a bit closer to the main beach. Dinner was very much on Spanish time, which meant that in a tourist and holiday area, some places brought it forward to as early as 8:30 p.m.