Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Basque Country

By Train to Biarritz

As I write, it has been announced that the Queen will not be returning to London to appoint the new Prime Minister but that the appointee will have to travel to Balmoral to see her instead. Apparently the last time a Prime Minister designate travelled to visit the monarch, it was to Edward VII who was not at Balmoral but in Biarritz, on the west coast of France, where he visited so often that several things, including a principal street, are named after him. As it happens, I am writing this in Biarritz, but in my case on my very first visit and nothing has been named after me ... It is a beautiful town and I can well see why anyone would wish to return, and yet my own visit here was a bit of an impulse purchase, really, although I have long wanted to visit the place, never having been to the west of France before.

Since Great Rail Journeys recommenced escorted tours as pandemic restrictions eased, they have taken to sending advertising email sometimes offering small incentives to book early for forthcoming tours (or, presumably, to take up spaces on tours coming up soon), and one such message I received was about a river cruise on the Dordogne from Bordeaux, preceded by three nights in Biarritz and I thought that this just ticked so many boxes on my mental list (I had started writing down the list before the pandemic wrecked our ability to plan anything!) that we had to do it. It was hard to fit into the calendar but would be worth it. We would have long enough to explore Biarritz since the included activities were minimal (but worthwhile) and would then get to see something of France's wine industry which we had never done before. So we booked, paying for the First Class upgrade and taking the free upgrades offered as inducement to book. Waiting for the great day of departure was not too much of an issue because (a) it was not long and (b) we already had our summer holiday to come before it, and a short break in London. We had to think through the packing because we'd need seaside clothing and cruise clothing, too, and weather was expected to be variable. 

We travelled to London the afternoon before departure, with open First Class CIV (international package trip) tickets supplied by Great Rail Journeys and the journey went very well, the usual connection at Peterborough into a train for London which had come only from Lincoln and was still providing its full catering. We checked in at our usual Premier Inn and went for a stroll around the St Pancras shops to get something for a light supper - although I managed to buy a new jacket as well ...

We met Andrew our GRJ Tour Manager at their office at St Pancras and then went to wait for the train. We were in very good time and sailed through the ticket barriers, security check and passport check and then waited for the train to be announced, with far more time in hand than we needed. I bought coffee and we found seats together, although the departure area was very busy and seats together were hard to find. Eventually it was announced that our train would be twenty minutes late because it was late coming in, so the departure area became even busier as people kept arriving for later trains and we had not gone. The delay was not a problem as we had plenty of time in Paris for changing stations and GRJ had arranged for the transfer to be made by coach. Soon we were aboard the train and speeding off to Paris, a light breakfast served on the way.

At Paris our coach took us, via the notorious Peripherique, from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse where we had just half an hour to take lunch in one of the many cafés at the station before boarding the TGV heading for Hendaye which would take us Biarritz, a journey of about four hours. 

The whole GRJ party was quite big this time. Our Tour Manager Andrew had about thirty in his group and another Tour Manager Gareth had about twenty who had not gone for the First Class upgrade, so at Biarritz there were over fifty of us needing to take the subway to the exit, all of us with quite a lot of luggage and most of us not wanting to take heavy suitcases via the stairs. It took a while to take all our things via the lifts. A coach took us to the hotel, a trip of about ten minutes: the station is a long way from the town centre - but if we come here one day on our own, we did note that there is a service bus so we would be able to cope.

A Seaside Holiday

The Plaza Hotel was amazing. The usual facilities and a good room, but with a stunning view and the hotel itself was an art deco building on a street corner overlooking La Grande Plage, and we had a second-floor window with a beach view. We could not have asked for more.

Although we were quite late arriving at Biarritz dinner was not included on this day, so we set off into the streets to find some supper. We did not need a lot and settled on a "Sicilian street food" café a short walk from the hotel, just what we needed, followed by a walk along the seafront after dark.

Wednesday, the first full day in Biarritz was unallocated until dinner, and we used the morning for a long walk northwards along the shore, beginning with a walk to the famous lighthouse. The café there was just right for the morning coffee break, then we set off again exploring further along the coast, returning to the centre of biarritz by bus. "Lunch" consisted of a locally-made ice-cream on the beach, La Grande Plage. We had a walk along the beach and then went back to our room to prepare for the included dinner at the Café de la Grande Plage. Like many others, we gathered at the hotel bar for a cocktail while waiting for the start of dinner: it was lovely to sit in the sun on the sea front at Biarritz sipping cocktails! During dinner the sun set over the Bay of Biscay outside the window, and the dinner itself was a very good three-course set meal.

Climbing a Mountain by Train

On Thursday were the two inclusive activities of the stay in Biarritz, a ride on the Petit Train de la Rhune to the summit of the Rhune mountain on the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees, followed by lunch at a cider producer on the way back. This began with a coach trip to Col de Saint Ignace where the mountain railway terminal is: the railway is a metre-gauge rack railway with each train consisting of two coaches and a vintage electric locomotive with what is probably a unique overhead electrical system. Our party had a coach allocated to it on one of the trains and we all travelled to the top where there was the inevitable café-restaurant and gift shop, and an opportunity, between the clouds, to take some photographs of the distant scene, and of the vultures (yes, vultures) whirling overhead. 

We had an hour or so at the summit before it was time to take a train back down and board the coach for our appointment with the cider maker Txopinondo (pronounced something like "Chopinondo" - it's Basque!) for a cider tasting and excellent three-course lunch. We chose a thin breakfast that morning between the previous evening's dinner and this day's lunch. The cider tasting was interesting: we were given in turn a taste of one of the ciders, which had to be poured from a height in order to aerate it to give the best taste and texture, so there were wet hands in plenty the first time. After that we went to eat and every now and then a member of the staff would call out that it was time for a drink ("Txotx," I think he yelled, which sounded like "church" to most of us) and we went to try another cider, poured the same way. The number going each subsequent time was quite small, but I did try each of them. I think you have to, really .... There was water, apple juice and red wine on the tables for those who did not want to keep on with the cider or who thought that red wine was correct with the steak that was the main course. I steered clear of the wine but did use the water and apple juice to supplement the five ciders.

France seems to take Basque culture seriously. The region is known as "Pays Basque," "Basque Country," and the Basque flag appears alongside the French and EU flags on public buildings, and signs are often bilingual in French and Basque (like the English and Welsh or English and Scottish signs in the UK). This close to the border there are also many signs in Spanish, and some in the ubiquitous English, too, and we did hear some Spanish spoken. The cider culture is pure Basque, though.

Back at the hotel that afternoon I wrote my postcards but it was too late to buy stamps at La Poste so they had to await the following day to be posted. I did some work on this blog and then very little was needed for supper after the wonderful lunch, so I had a fruit salad from a local supermarket, and we both walked out to try to see the sun set over the Bay of Biscay but cloud cover meant that this was not as dramatic as it might have been. 

We had one more morning in Biarritz and we did not waste it. As well as buying the postage stamps, we visited the market (Les Halles) and saw the amazing range of quality food on offer. Some rain interrupted our walking but we did get one final stroll along the sea front before it was time for the whole group to gather and make our way by coach to Biarritz station (in the rain) for the train out to Bordeaux. With thirty of us, all with luggage, plus quite a lot of local people to load during a short station stop, there was quite a scramble to board the train and then there was the issue of getting us all upstairs into the First Class section on the upper deck of a duplex coach, with our cases. There were no reservations on this regional train and the group took up nearly all the seating in that section. But we were on our way, and the weather improved as we went. The next adventure would begin soon!

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