We left the Pyrenees behind and returned to the coast south of Biarritz, to the little resort of Bidart. My iPad had been left in a motel there and that was the reason and excuse for the return. We booked three nights in one of their comfortable self-catering apartments, which cost little more than three nights in a camp site – now it was high season and much more expensive.
Next day we headed into nearby Bayonne. What a surprise that was! A delightful medieval city at the confluence of the Nive and the Adour rivers and the largest city in the French Basque region. We struggled to find a spot to park our longish van but found a place under the main bridge on the west bank of the river. The bridge led us into the heart of the old town and I soon sniffed out the market – I do love French markets!
The picture shows me sizing up a charcuterie. I did not pick anything there but found a very small stall were Madame specialised in poultry. (A small Label Rouge poulet was bought here and provided a splendid meal that evening. I simmered it in white wine with mushrooms and cream.)
We wandered the ancient streets and did our usual slow gawping tour, stopping to poke our noses into any interesting corner, building, church or shop. Bayonne was a completely unexpected delight and it was well worth ignoring its bland commercial suburbs to penetrate to the old center.
We ate out one evening in Bidart and found a lovely restaurant serving organic local produce in a smart and stylish way. After dinner and good wine, we walked the few miles to the beach and spent the evening, in the fading light, being mesmerised by the seas restless beauty. My reverie was spoiled by a loud band getting going in a nearby beach surfers bar.
Next day we returned to San Sebastian in the late afternoon and having found a place to park closer to the centre than during our previous visit; set off to explore the old town and the bars serving the famous Basque version of tapas – Pinchos. We peered into a few bars before one took our fancy and then we went mad and picked far too many pinchos. Two or three at most is normal –we had five or six! They all looked so damned good – picking just a few became impossible. Mostly they are served on small slices of baguette, I stay off bread when I can, so picked others things and one in particular was such a triumph, B went back for a portion herself having at first been not keen on the look. They were little tarts filled with elvers. Baby silvery eels. Had I not already had four other pinchos, including a mouth-watering mini steak sandwich topped with ham and fried quale egg, I would have had more of those. We had a few glasses of dry chilled white sherry with the food before moving on to explore more bars laden with tempting treats. When we saw the variety, we realised our mistake in stuffing our faces in the first bar we entered. A tour of different bars with one or two pinchos in each, is the way to do it. We did enter other irresistible bars, and had a few mini snacks. We left the town feeling a little tipsy and overstuffed. No dinner that night!
We headed north to La Rochelle and an appointment with one of the ‘Plate de Fruits de Mer’ that this sea port is renowned for. We found a camp site about ten miles south of the town that had all the facilities but was a typical high season French coastal site – stuffed with families noisily enjoying the extensive water park within. It was hot – meltingly hot –over 110f. We struggled to find anywhere to park the van in La Rochelle and ended up several miles outside the center. The walk down to the port was long and sweaty. We found a cool restaurant on the sea front that was bearable inside and had water misting devices cooling the outside tables that were inexplicably packed. Why do people sit outside in the blazing sun? No, how do they? Out Plate de Mer, featured lobster, crab, oysters, langoustines, prawns and would have had bullot–welks but we refused those as they attack me. We had a bottle of chilled Sancerre rouge and spent a happy two hours peeling and picking. It was much too hot to linger long in the craft market so we headed back. Now I am known for a great internal GPS and never get lost- never except this day when I did. We headed out of town, not the way we came in but: ‘by a more direct route” – said me. We were getting seriously hot and bothered and we could not recall the name of the road we’d parked on so asking directions didn’t help. Nearly two hours later I spotted an area I recognised and we staggered into the van and swallowed pints of water. The van had cooked in the sun and was unbearably hot inside, despite superb insulation. That night getting on the bed was like trying to sleep on a hot grill. Adding to our misery was the itch of multiple mosquitos bites got siting out trying to cool off before bed. Yes we had spray and burned citronella candles but these were determined buggers that got through all our defenses.
Next day we headed to the salt marshes that surround the town, the Marais. We stumbled upon a little town called Marans on one of the big canals that crisscross the marsh. There was a boat hire place there and we hired a little motor boat for a three hour cruise. It was delightful, peaceful and infinitely interesting seeing the area and the waterside houses from a different perspective. B loved driving the little boat and it did have a nice canopy to hide from the sun – however once again our anti-mossies’ spray failed us and we got chewed to bits. Not that we noticed as it was happening – only in bed did the itching and red spots erupt.
We headed north again headed for Le Mont St Michel and a hotel of the same name. We needed respite and air-con and baths to heal from the heat and bites. I’d booked the hotel on line but when we got close we discovered it was on the causeway leading to the Mont and behind a barrier that one needed a code to open. This was new since we’d last visited the area and it nearly got me arrested! There were lines of vehicles waiting to go through and nowhere to park near the barrier. I sent B to walk to the hotel in search of the code. I stopped near the barrier, out of the way and causing no obstruction. Local police arrived and a female officer came and told me to move. I refused, explaining that if I moved B would not find me again. She kept saying I was “causing an obstruction” – “No I’m not, vehicles are passing easily alongside and behind.” She was adamant and I dug my heals in. Clearly she was not used to disobedience and was getting very agitated. French police are armed and as her hand rested on her pistol I decided to give in and move. I drove around in a big circle and came back to the same spot, just in time for a text from B giving me the code. It was worth nearly getting shot, the hotel was lovely, the free bus ride out to the Mont was fun and the food we had in a restaurant in one of the most spectacular locations on earth was average but made splendid by the stunning views.
The drive to Cherbourg and the last supermarket stock up before sailing home was uneventful and only a little sad. B said she wanted to turn around a do it all again. We could not do that but our next sailing is booked for next June and we will have another four week adventure in Rocinante – south of France and Northern coastal Italy is the target – we are counting the days. Consolation will come at Christmas when we fly to Rome for two weeks in a nice little hotel, much walking and gawping. A cheap old-fart high-speed train travel that will take us for day trips to Florence and Venice. We do love to travel with or without Rocinante.