French Basque Country

Traditional half-timbered homes painted the red and green colours of the Basque flag
Basque Flag

We are currently staying in Basque country (Pays Basque).  Most people think of Spain when they hear Basque but the bordering area in the southwest corner of France is French Basque Country.  You see a lot of red, green and white Basque flags and you see Basque colours on the houses. The Basque population is about 3 million.  Canada, mainly Newfoundland, has about 7,000 Basque Canadians.  Basque sailors were whaling and fishing around Newfoundland starting in the early 1500s.

We are staying about two kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, or more specifically, the Bay of Biscay.  I really think that I jinxed everything naming my last article “Spring has Sprung”.  The last few mornings the temperature has been right at the freezing level when we got up.  It has got to a high of about 9° C (48°F) most days.  The first week was rain, or threatening rain, which was enough to keep us off our bikes.  We have seen hail a few times.  The hail is never very large but there can be a lot of it.  Our car and the campground looked like they were covered in snow, there was that much hail. We did have one glorious sunny day when the temperature reached 22°C (72°F) but then the rain returned.  That day we took our bikes out and rode up the Atlantic coast from the campground.  It was great.

Great day for cycling near the Atlantic Ocean

We spent one day driving around the area in our dry car visiting a couple more of France’s “Most beautiful villages”.   This was when we got our first introduction to Basque architecture.  Really common are the half-timbered houses done in the Basque colours of red or green.  One village we stopped in had a population of only about 1,000 people and yet they had a large, lovely church.

Mike and I were very impressed with most of Central Europe and the way they stopped for people at crosswalks.  In some countries, the drivers would quickly stop whether you were at a crosswalk or not.  In all the countries we visited in Central Europe, drivers would stop very quickly when someone was at a crosswalk.  It used to drive Mike nuts that the pedestrians would just assume that the drivers were going to stop and they would barely look up before they crossed the street.  It doesn’t work that way here in France.  I am not sure if this is indicative of Western European drivers in general or more specifically French drivers.  Time will tell.  Of course, I can’t be too negative about this.  I don’t think that Canadian drivers pay enough attention to crosswalks. 

I think I mentioned previously that we were trying to stay in a group of campgrounds called “Camping-Car Park”.  Most of them so far have been fairly small paved areas like the outside row of a parking lot.  Our current location in Labenne is much bigger and looks more like a normal campground with lots of trees and campers spread around.  Within the campground the amenities are the same: electricity, water and dumping area, no toilets or showers or extra buildings.  This is great for Mike and I because we don’t use the public washrooms or laundry facilities etc.  After taxes and all this is costing us 12€ or $16.39 Canadian per night.  There is a pizza restaurant right next to the campground and the ocean is nearby.  Compared to where we have been staying this campground is quite busy especially on weekends.  It is amazing how many campers we have seen in the last six years from the Netherlands.  The Netherlands is a country of about 17 million people.  I think that the entire country must be interested in travelling and camping.

We met our first pro Brexit British couple.  They believed that the UK should be able to negotiate their own trade deals without being tied to the EU.  Our impressions of the feelings of Brits towards Brexit is very skewed since the only people we meet are ones who enjoy traveling and camping outside of Britain.

Something that I have found amusing in France is how many pharmacies advertise veterinary supplies.  Mike says this is very unusual for me because I grew up a city girl.

Bayonne street scene with typical Basque houses

The two main towns in French Basque country are Bayonne and Biarritz.  We have both driven and biked to these towns a few times.  Both have lots of the Basque colours of green, red and white around.  Flags are flown a lot.

Bayonne is more a mix of Basque and general French culture.  I had a very confusing time in Bayonne.  Two rivers meet in the centre of the city, the Adour and the Nive.  I am somewhat directionally challenged and this has caused all sorts of problems.  I can handle when places are on one side or another of a river but add in a second, intersecting river and knowing what side of which body of water I am supposed to be on is very confusing.

As we have seen throughout this area, Bayonne has many classic half-timbered houses in red or green with brightly painted shutters.

Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne

The Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne is extremely impressive inside.  Mike teases me about wanting to see the interiors of all the churches but he is just as quick to enter if I don’t suggest it.  The interiors and exteriors are all very impressive but the thought of the money required for this many phenomenal buildings is scary.

WWI memorial

At the edge of a park, Bayonne had a monument to the Bayonnaise who died in WW 1.  I really liked this one.  It shows a farmer on the left having to become the soldier on the right and then presumably dying in the war.

South of Bayonne, along the coast, is the seaside resort town of Biarritz.  It is known as the birthplace of surfing in France.  It is very touristy with lots of Basque style houses.  It is a nice town to spend some time wandering around.  Its most visited historical monument is Rocher de la Vierge or the Virgin’s Rock.  This is a landmark rock formation in the Bay of Biscay with dramatic views and a statue of the Virgin Mary high on the rocks.  You can see it in the back ground when Mike and I cycled through Biarritz.  I am in a Canadian ski jacket, turtleneck sweater, gloves and thoroughly enjoying myself.  Even if the weather isn’t very cold, when you have a bit of a cold breeze and you add 20+ km/hr winds that you generate cycling, it gets cool quickly.

Cold but fun biking in Biarritz in early April

Yesterday was a bit of a problem.  We drove this time to Biarritz and left our car at the train station.  We then took the train south to the French / Spanish border and planned to cycle back along an Atlantic bike path.  We got off the train and discovered that my tire had a major rip in it and a large orange bulge sticking out.  Mike has been lining our tires with this orange strip of plastic between the outer tire and the inner tube which is supposed to help prevent flat tires.  Mike didn’t think the liner would hold for too long.  We found a bike shop that was open about three km away.  We decided to see if I could ride there.  Mike warned me that the tire could explode which scared me to pieces (I fall off easily!) but he then said explode really meant, just go flat quickly.  We got to the bike shop that turned out to be someone’s backyard where he did some work.  Matthieu was very nice but he didn’t have a tire the right size and he couldn’t find one in town.  Mike told him that he had a spare tire in our car and suggested that the Matthieu drive us to our car (35 minutes away) and get the tire.  Matthieu very nicely agreed.  He and I waited in the car for more than ten minutes while Mike ran into the parking lot to get the tire.  By this time we both realized there must be a problem.  It turns out that Mike used to keep the tire in the car but it was now stored in our camper.  We all start back to Matthieu’s, were our bikes were (too bad they weren’t with us) when Mike suggested that he follow Matthieu in our car so we could pick up our bikes.  Poor Matthieu then had to turn around, round-abouts are great inventions, and go back to the train station.  It took us a good hour and a half in the car with Matthieu.  When we got back to his place I asked how much we owed him.  He looked very hesitant and eventually said 10 Euros which is like $14 Cdn.  That hardly covered the tolls both ways, never mind his time and aggravation.  Obviously we gave him more money than that.  As I am writing this Mike has my bicycle inside the RV (it is cold outside) and he is installing a brand new back tire on it for me.

Staying warm while replacing my tire

On our home I asked Mike to stop at Saint-Jean-de-Luz , one of the little towns we had planned to bicycle through. We wandered around the very narrow streets in town and into the obligatory church.  This time Mike was super impressed whereas I thought they might have gone a little overboard.  Walking along the waterfront we stopped in a little café for a lovely hot chocolate and sweet crêpe.  There were at least six people working in this little café and Mike and I were the only customers the entire time we were there – and we shared one crêpe!  I completely understood why so many of the cafés were still closed.  Nonetheless the people in the café were all very friendly, even though they spoke very little English. 

Mike and I are planning to drive one hour into Spain to visit San Sebastián, a resort town in Spain’s Basque country.  Two different sets of campers have highly recommended visiting this town.  I am looking forward to it.


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