So how do you begin to comprehend a ‘region ’ that spans the Spanish and French Border? Well we started in France and took our campervan up the hills to go mountaineering on the little ‘ Train De La Rhune
To be sure of getting a place on the first train of the day we left the glitz of Biarritz before breakfast and drove up twisty narrow roads. There seemed to be a cyclist in front of us at each bend so the cars coming the other way made it an interesting trip. We eventually managed to find a place in the crowded car park in the little town of Col de Saint-Ignacas and had just enough time to buy some bread before boarding the windowless carriages in the 90-year-old wooden train.
It was a steep and enjoyably scenic 35-minute ride on the cog railway up to the top of La Rhune. It is almost 3,000 feet high and we had superb views of the French and Spanish coast with the Basque countryside backed by the mountains of the Pyrenees. The coffee we had at the café was, considering the location, reasonably priced. We even ordered some frites and made a chip butty with the baguette that we had brought up with us. Yes we know how to enjoy the high life!
On the way back down as the train rounded rocky outcrops we passed griffon vultures perched on the rocky peaks and lots of other wildlife. There were wild ponies called ‘pottok,’ sheltering in forest glades, and amid the lushness, what seemed like every kind of bush and shrub. Distant villages appeared far below in a blue haze. Eventually we reached the one we had started from, made our way through a large tourist souvenir store and exiting found that vehicles that couldn’t get into the car park now. they lined the sides of the road proving that the ‘Train de La Rhune’ was already well known as a ‘must see’ attraction.
Leaving the tranquillity of the mountain behind us we drove into Spain on a motorway that climbed over hills and passed through tunnels. We stopped at a picnic area where hills rose up behind a meadow lined with pine trees while below in the valley steam rose from a factory. Generally we were surprised to find so many towns with high rise apartments and industry so close to such beautiful scenery and beaches.
We stayed for a couple of days above the town Zarauz, and watched as surfboards were carried across the green fields and down to the beach.
The bay, like those in most Basque coastal towns was full of surfers indulging their passion for catching the waves. The next day, taking a rest from driving, we caught the train to San Sebastian. At 4 euros each, (just under £3. each) it was good value. The train was a very modern affair with information on video screens, comfortable seats and big windows. The 30-minute journey gave us a glimpse of the little towns and served as a taster for possible later visits.
On arrival at San Sebastian we walked though streets with rather grand shops, drank coffee at pavement cafes, and admired the public gardens. (There was even one that had a pond with a house for a couple of swans.)
It was quite an elegant city but it took a trip on an open top tour bus, for us to begin to understand just how much lay between its two bays.
Afterwards, on foot, we joined the locals in the narrow streets of the old town. It was lunchtime and in one of the bars we sampled the dishes laid out on the counter and began to appreciate why San Sebastian was famous for its tapis. The gastronomic element would certainly add to the appeal of any pub-crawl.
La Bandera de la Concha
One of San Sebastian’s most exciting festivals is the racing of the 'traineras.' These are boats from the villages along the Basque coast and are manned by teams of thirteen oarsmen. It's held at the beginning of September and involves a three mile sea race which is followed by an armada of spectators.
People seem to pack into everything that floats. Our boat was crowded with musicians. It can be no easy task playing a saxophone or a trumpet on a heaving deck, but play they did, while we scoffed our ham rolls and drank red wine. Excitement mounted as the crews pulled round the great flag at the seaward end of the course. They were then followed home by the entire flotilla of boats. Throttles opened and the sea became a boiling cauldron.
A cheer went up as the team from Doninankeo, clad in pink, surged over the finishing line and we all crowded around the Lord Mayor's boat to watch him present the prize to the victors. My money was on them so you might say “I was in the pink”
I would like to go back and stay a little longer and maybe experience more festivals and the traditional country markets. I might even buy one of the big black berets. (…. but finding the courage to wear one, well that’s another thing.)
Brittany Ferries to Bilbao http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/
Basque tourism http://www.basquecountry-tourism.com
San Sebatian Tourism http://www.sansebastianturismo.com/en/
le petit train de la rhune http://www.rhune.com/uk/ittany-ferries.co.uk
The Basques have a flag that is just like our Union Jack, but with different colours........
The language on the road signs seems strange to our eyes, rather like a bad hand at scrabble......
and in the country, houses with steep sloping roofs remind you of Switzerland.