Travels with Rocinante – Myth and Legend

Biarritz is a legendary resort town with a history of glamour and stylish display. As we drove through the town onto the promenade, we had in mind a stay in one of the swish hotels. I hated it – truly hated it. The beaches were crowded with the ‘beautiful’ people showing themselves and displaying a level of shallow vacuity that I find deeply unattractive. Don’t get me wrong: I am a lover of all things female and enjoy seeing feminine beauty on display. But there is something about the culture of sun-worship on beaches that I find… confusing. How can one empty one’s head for such long periods and remain still while one’s skin burns – where is the pleasure? It mystifies me.

The beach at San-Sebastien.

That might have something to do with my fair-skinned northern predilection for going red and blistering if exposed to even an hours naked exposure. B will tan but she shares my aversion to the beach life. We love to walk on a beach or the shore to explore and pick up shells and peer into pools. These French beaches are not suitable for that. They are not for that kind of pleasure. We drove through Biarritz without stopping and followed the road south. We found a lovely and very inexpensive little motel in a town called Bidart and stayed a night there. I will return to this place later, literally and figuratively.

The town square at Bidart, with trad-Basque singers.


From Bidart it’s only a short drive to the Spanish border and on to Donostia San Sebastian at the heart of the Basque region.

The old town in San-Sebastian.

We struggled to find a place to park and ended up several miles round the promenade that curves around the picturesque bay in which the city nestles. The walk back gave us more opportunity to ponder the mysteries of beach culture, as even in the middle of this working day, the sands were crowded. Siesta time in Spain, even in this Basque area, is a difficulty us north Europeans struggle to deal with. From two until after six, great areas of the cities close up. Main eating happens late at night, much too late for us, we suffer painful regurgitation when in bed. How Spaniards get to sleep on such late filled stomachs is yet another mystery. We noticed many young men wearing white trousers and tops with big red sashes and shops selling the same outfits. A-ah! The bull run fiesta in nearby Pamplona!

The bull run statue outside the hotel El-Torro

We had intended to head there next but decided we would avoid Pamplona town and seek somewhere to stay nearby. It was on route to the mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees. San Sebastian was interesting enough on our brief walk about, during sleepy siesta time, to make us decide we must return this way for a longer visit.

Pampering in Pamplona. The El-Toro hotel.


We made a quick and slightly rash decision to stop at an attractive bodega style hotel in the hills a few miles before Pamplona. The El Toro was attractive, served good food at a civilized hour – around seven, and was stylish if expensive. We decided we needed a pampering treat. Unfortunately the hotel was being rebuilt, so no pool and no spa. The room was comfortable and the dinner really good so we were happy enough.

Next day, we began the long drive into the mountains, broken by a stop at a quaint and ancient hill top town. We kept seeing the scallop-shell signs marking the lanes of the great pilgrimage route to Compostela de Santiago. I found myself wondering at the mystical draw that makes people want to do, what is to me, such an inexplicable thing. More of that anon.

The edge of the camp site at Benesque.

We had a frustrating drive around the town of Jaca, trying to find a sign-posted Auchan supermarket. We never did find it and stocked up in a local marketo that was a great find, since it had a nice range of very local produce. We then headed into the mountains following the most spectacular narrow road through a dramatic gorge. The narrow road  with oncoming trucks, needed many a stop and few precarious reverses. The camp site at Benesque was the most scenically gifted one we had stayed at so far. It sat by the side of a rocky river surrounded by high mountains, sky slopes and forest.

The cols
The route over the Col d’ Aspin.

We headed to the French side of the range to a camp site high in the mountains at Sazus near the little town of Luz-Saint-Saveur. The journey took us over two of the great Cols used often in the Tour de France, Col d’ Aspin and the Tourmalet. Rocinante got a little hot and bothered on these great climbs and I had to watch the temperature gauge carefully. We stopped a few times to let Rocinante cool down, but that was no hardship in this stunning environment.

Col_de Aspin

Watching the amateur cyclists grinding up the cols emulating their Tour heroes made me sympathetically breathless. Why do humans like to push themselves to such painful extremes?  That was almost as much a wonder as the grandeur of the peaks. We decided on an extended stay in this lovely area and planned a trip to the nearby town of Lourdes.

Those of you who hold strong religious views might want to stop reading here.

The Lourdes Basilica.

Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage is popular in Ireland and coach loads of, ladies of a certain age, go there every year, often repeating the trip many times. When we parked and wandered into the town seeking our lunch, we stumbled on the street leading to the Lourdes Basilica. We sat in a pavement café and gawped astonished at shop after shop selling… I called it religious tat. It was like Disney land for believers. A thyme park for the mystically bewildered.

The grotto at Lourdes

The basilica and the grotto was high theater to watch. Lines upon lines of unfortunates, the lame, the ill, the confused, were wheeled by uniformed attendants, into a cave were they rubbed the rock, polished smoothed by millions of previous hands, genuflecting at the icon and leaving hopeful of cure or comfort.

I found the spectacle upsetting and it made me sad and despairing of a humanity that needs such unseasoned mythological nonsense and that inflicts such uncomfortable travel to get there on those unfortunates. There they join a sad and desperate procession of damaged people, many of whom scarcely know where or why they are here. I tried to understand, I really did, but such mythology seems to me to have no place in my idea of how the modern world should and could be.

I had left my iPad in the motel at Bidart on the coast, so we headed back there. Back to Basque country and appointment with ‘Pinchos’ in San-Sebastian.