Biarritz, Bayonne and the Basque countryside…. .

Well, the continuous run of good weather we’ve been having for the last month finally broke last night.  We were lashed by continuous rain throughout the night which looks like it is set for the day so it’s time for a duvet day and a catch up on the blog.  We are more than happy to have a lazy day after a week or so of sightseeing and walking.  It’s a shame it’s the weekend though as a duvet day is just that little bit more enjoyable on a weekday. Especially a Monday.  But hey ho you can’t time the weather.

So leaving our final stop at Capbreton on the Côte d’Argent we continued south into the La Côte Basque heading for an aire at Anglet at the mouth of the river Adour from where we would be able to walk to Biarritz and Bayonne.  The aire was in an ideal location set below the road at the edge of the river away from the large seafront carpark.  It would have made for a perfectly relaxing couple of nights had we been able to actually get in to it.  Ah, the joys of over engineered machines.  After fifteen minutes of faffing, jabbing, prodding and poking the machine the barrier still wouldn’t budge.  By this time I’d paid twice and been harangued by two French couples simultaneously jabbering away at me in rapid fire French offering me the benefits of their wisdom on the workings of the machine.  I did thank them as they were only trying to help but I couldn’t concentrate on anything with them all talking at once.  The upshot was that the machine was supposed to print out three different tickets but only spat out two (well, four because I’d paid twice) which wasn’t the magic formula for opening the barrier.  Fed up by this point we reversed away from the barrier and decamped to the sea front car park.  Meh.

Ce n’est pas grave as the French would say as we still had an excellent couple of days soaking up the ambience of Biarritz and around for a spot of people watching.  Surfers were out enjoying the waves, families and dog walkers were out strolling in the sunshine and we were out observing it all.  We walked the four or five miles along the sea front to Biarritz which took quite a while as we were waylaid stopping to watch the surfers one side of the path and the golfers on the other.   Before going into decline in the 1950’s, Biarritz was the Monte Carlo of the Atlantic coast and a playground for monarchs and important shiny people but the rise of the Côte d’Azur in the 1960’s put paid to that.  Rediscovered in the early 1990’s by affluent Parisians and a new international surfing set it is now firmly back on the map.

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Grande Plage, Biarritz with the restored 1930’s Casino behind the beach to the right.

Boasting six lovely sandy beaches it’s a great place to lose a few hours sitting at a beachfront cafe eyeballing the surfers.  It definitely has a glamorous but laid back feel to it although every inch of space on the promenade, beach and water is, I suspect, fiercely fought for in the height of the summer.

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Soaking up the surfing vibe with a glass of vino on Grande Plage seafront. 

Bayonne, by contrast, the following day was all but deserted although it was Sunday.  Three miles inland from the coast Bayonne is small by city standards and the narrow streets of the old town are a pleasure to stroll around.  Attractive, tall half timbered buildings abound with the added attraction of the fourteenth century castle and the twin towers of the Cathedral.  The three mile walk along the river from Anglet was pretty unremarkable and a bit noisy and grim though so we made the return journey on the bus.

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Bayonne.

St-Jean-De –Luz, purported to be the most attractive resort on the Basque coast, was our next stop.  We got to the small aire situated just outside the old town and shoe horned ourselves into a space.  Happy campers we were not.  Even though it’s less than a five minute walk to the centre of the town, harbour and beach it has nothing else going for it.  It’s tight for space and sandwiched between four lanes of traffic to the front and a busy railway line to the back.  If we were going to enjoy St-Jean then it was time to spend out on a campsite.  And we are soo glad we did.  For €18 with our ACSI card we had a sea view at Bord de la Mer campsite and it was a lovely two kilometre walk along the coast into town.

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The view from the window at Camping Bord de la Mer, St-Jean-De-Luz.

With its safe, sandy beach, pretty plaza and upmarket boutique shopping it’s a popular spot for holiday makers but also being the only natural harbour between Arcachon and Spain St Jean is still a busy fishing port landing mainly anchovies and tuna.

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St-Jean-De-Luz.

Having hugged the coast for the best part of two hundred kilometres it was time to head into the Basque hinterland for a few days before coming back to the coast to cross the border into Spain.  We based ourselves at an aire at the delightful knoll-top village of Sare as it looked like a good base for walking and we weren’t disappointed.  We took a footpath up the steep hill out of the village which gave us glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

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View towards La Rhune from Sare village.

We weren’t heading anywhere in particular but just climbing up………..and up.

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Climbing up one of the footpaths from the village.

We didn’t realise, until the path cut across the railway track, that a rack and pinion train built between 1912 and 1924 climbs the steep gradient up to the top of La Rhune, the last mountain top at 905 metres before the Pyrenees fall away down to the Atlantic.  We’d passed the station on our way to Sare but thought it was more a funicular thing with the train just going a short way up the mountain to clear the trees to give a nice view.  We were fortunate to arrive a few minutes before a train trundled along on its way down the mountain and we watched and waved as it passed.

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Le petit train.

The train takes thirty five minutes to get to the summit at a sedate nine kilometres an hour.

The following morning we went to the station intending to go on the train but a sign up said that the summit was hidden under a blanket of cloud so we decided we didn’t want to pay €19 each not to be able to see our hands in front of our faces at the top.  Instead we went back to the aire at Sare and I decided to walk up to the top on the off chance that the cloud would clear while Tim pottered about in the van doing various jobs and sorting out some music ready for his next gig………whenever that might be.

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One of the many Pottok ponies, a breed of rural pony living mainly in the Western part of the Basque Country, were freely roaming the hillsides.

Oh I’m so glad I made the effort to walk up as by the time I got to the top the cloud had lifted and I sat eating my lunch in glorious sunshine with a panoramic view.  Merveilleux!

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View on the summit from my lunch spot.

I must have enjoyed it as I walked up again with Tim the next day.

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Three trains on the track below (there is a passing place on the flat section of the track).

It was touch and go whether we’d see anything at the top but we surfaced into the sunshine above the cloud hanging over the summit and had our lunch under warm sunny skies.  Parfait!

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On the top above the clouds.

A quick flit to the pretty village of Ainhoa, lined with seventeenth century houses, ten kilometres away ended our tour of the French side of the Pays Basque and our time in France before we pointed ourselves in the direction of the coast again heading for San Sebastián or Donastia to give it its Basque name.

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The pretty village of Ainhoa where these houses have a ringside view of the Pelota court.

Hasta luego!

La Côte D’Argent…. . 

After leaving our last Helpx near Niort in the Poitou Charente region we headed south beyond Bordeaux bound for the sea on La Côte D’Argent – the Silver Coast.  The big draw for us to this area was the endless sandy beaches.  We do like a nice good, long sandy beach.  The Côte D’Argent covering more than 200km from Pointe de Grave in the north and Bayonne in the south, is, according to our Rough Guide to France, the longest, straightest, sandiest stretch of coastline in Europe which boasts La Dune de Pilat, the largest dune in Europe as well as Les Landes, the largest forest in Western Europe.  There was also the promise of some nice, flat, easy cycling along traffic free cycleways through the forest.

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Le Teich wetland area.

For our first couple of nights we parked up at a free aire at Le Teich, east of Arcachon.  Being one of the most important wetland areas left in France it was a perfect stop off for a couple of days of rest and relaxation to do a spot of birdwatching.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich is a bird sanctuary and protected area and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of two different walks.  The wetland area seems a world away from the approach to it as it seemed as if everyone was escaping to the coast from Bordeaux for the weekend.

 

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.  The Parc Ornitholigique du Teich.

We had intended to have a gander around Arcachon but decided against it after seeing the queues of traffic to get there.  Instead we peeled off to the south to the Dune du Pilat.  We caught a glimpse through the trees of a crowd of people on the dune not long before we got to the parking area.  Tim said ‘oh look at all those people on that dune there must be some sort of event going on’.    I said ‘Tim, the dune is the event’.  Tim’s general modus operandi is to just punch in the co-ordinates to the satnav that I give him without asking where or what it is we are headed for.  He is more than happy to wait for everything to unfold before him all in its own time.  I think it must be a nice way to be but I’m too much of a control freak to be able to be like that as I need to know where we are going and why way before we have even started the engine.  It’s fair to say we were both really impressed by the scale of the dune.  We’d parked half a mile away from the main parking area which proved to be a wise decision as a footpath through the forest led to the bottom of the dune where we could make our ascent by ourselves without any company at all.

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Tim almost on his hands and knees climbing to the top of the Dune du Pilat.

At over one hundred metres high, three kilometres long and five hundred metres wide it really was an impressive sight especially as we had the perfect weather for it.

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It’s vast.

P1130698.JPGA very gregarious French chap in the car park called us over just as we were locking up the van and advised us to scramble to the top, walk the length of the ridge, slide down to the beach, then walk back along the beach and to return to the car park via another footpath.  It was good advice as it made for an excellent two hour round trip.

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Coming down the dune towards the beach.
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The beach below.

Numerous sea side resorts which are popular with surfers dot this stretch of coastline whilst inland a string of lakes draw in fishermen, boaters and families as they offer watersports facilities and safe swimming.  We enjoyed a lunch time stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake on our way to our overnight stop at Gastes.  It must get absolutely packed in July and August but we were able to enjoy a stroll along the lakeside with just a few other families.

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A lunch stop at Cazaux-Sanguinet lake .

I was absolutely chuffed to bits to watch three young otters feeding in between the moorings at the side of the lake opposite the aire in Gastes the following morning. Oh if only I’d had my camera with me but I was just returning from the early morning walk to the boulangerie with a baguette safely tucked under my arm so hadn’t even thought about taking the camera with me.  C’est la vie!

We were fortunate with the weather for the ten days we spent on the Côte D’Argent as we could imagine the area could be a bit desolate out of season in inclement weather.  Some of the resorts were completely closed up for the season whilst others just had a few cafes open even though we were still basking in sunshine in the low twenties.

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That’s the first time my wetsuit has seen the light of day for over a year…..and I think it’s shrunk as it took me forever to get on!

Fortunately we were spoilt for choice with aires, which ranged from between 6 and 10 euros a night, spending a couple of nights at a time in one place giving us time to get out on the bikes to explore.

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The aire at Contis Plage.

There isn’t a coastal road as such but there is a cycleway that winds its way through the forest and forms part of La Velo Odyssee, a 1200 kilometre cycle route linking Roscoff in northern France to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

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Part of the cycleway through Les Landes.

Traffic free, smooth and pretty much flat we happily tootled along through the pine trees stopping in at a resort or two to have lunch and to watch the few surfers that were out.

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Excellent lunch stop at Saint Girons Plage.

The Landes forest is totally vast and totally manmade.  Until a century ago the constantly shifting dunes made any attempt to settle or cultivate the land impossible.  Pines and grasses were planted to anchor the dunes and they now extend to over 10 000 square kilometres and were declared a parc naturel régional in 1970.  It’s an under-populated area but wealthy thanks to its pinewood and pine derivatives.

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Tim entertaining customers at a bar at Contis Plage.  Without the aid of a safety net he’d asked the barman if they wanted a bit of music and he said ‘Oui, porquoi pas’ or words to that effect!  He was a happy as larry playing into the setting sun with a few complementary beers to keep him going.

Our last port of call along this coast before we moved into the Pays Basque region was Capbreton.  There is a large aire behind the beach which is really just a car park but convenient for getting out onto the beach and soaking up the atmosphere.  It’s a popular area and much more lively with hundreds of surfers out.

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Capbreton.
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World War II bunkers on the beach at Capbreton.

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A perfect evening for a bit of body surfing before the setting sun.

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Next up, the Pays Basque.

Bonne Soirée!

 

 

Helpx Number 8….. .

Our lazy days trundling through Brittany came to an end a couple of weeks ago as we were booked in for our 8th Helpx in the Poitou-Charente region of France.  This was a return visit to a Ralph and Sue who have 10-12 acres of land, a horse, two donkeys and two pigs to look after as well as running a small kennels and cattery.  We last visited over two years ago and we were looking forward to going back to a familiar area and getting stuck in to a bit of physical work after an idle couple of weeks.  The pounds had been piling on and we were in need of shifting them. Sue had also booked Tim in to play at two bars during our two week stay which he was also really looking forward to.

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A gig for Tim in a bar at Finioux with an equal mix of French and English customers.

After getting acquainted once again with our hosts and what was expected of us we set to work.  The main areas of work they needed help with were clearing some areas of two of the fields which have become overgrown with bramble and bracken, moving about a thousand roof tiles to another property a few miles away and general tidying up in the garden behind the house. They’d also had a number of trees felled a while ago which needed cutting up into smaller manageable chunks to be used for firewood.  The only problem was that they were all buried under overgrown bracken which needed to be cleared first before we could get to them.

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Clearing an area of one of the fields accompanied by the donkeys Cafe and Chocolat.

We worked our way through the roof tiles in the mornings and cleared a bit of land in the fields for an hour or two in the afternoon.  The weather couldn’t have been better with clear sunny skies and temperatures in the low twenties.

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Unfortunately the little tractor is not man enough for the bracken.

By the fourth day the tiles had all been moved so we made a start on the felled trees.  Things were going reasonably well with Tim and I using the petrol hedge trimmer to cut the bracken and raking it all out of the way of the trees whilst Ralph used the chainsaw to cut up the wood.   So far so good.  But then the pig’s got a bit too close for comfort.

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Nosey pigs.

We met the pigs on our last visit when they were but tiny wee things.  They were bought not to be eaten but to act as eco friendly lawnmowers for the bracken that was getting out of hand on the land.  Their job would be to trample the bracken, eat the young fronds and plough up the land making it difficult for the bracken to flourish.  Unfortunately it seems that the pigs have trampled, rotovated, ploughed and eaten everything else but the bracken so they haven’t really fulfilled their job.

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The pigs on our frst visit over two years ago.

Once they got bigger and outgrew their small enclosure they were given free access to two very large fields.  The two very large fields we happened to be working in.  Oh, they have had a whale of a time making it their own.  Numerous pig pits and dens have appeared where they like to sleep and the ground has been trampled and turned over by their two snouts   They are friendly beasts and being the nosey creatures that they are couldn’t help but stick their snouts into what was going on.

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They’re a bit bigger now.

By the fourth day of us clearing various areas they seemed a bit put out that: a) they’d been woken up early by the buzzing of a chainsaw and a hedge trimmer and b) that people were muscling in on their space.  I mean it’s not like they only have a small area to call their own as they are free to roam across ten acres of land and with all that space you’d think they’d be a bit more charitable with letting us work in a small area for couple of hours or so to cut down some bracken and chop up and clear a few logs but no they were having none of it.  The pig’s said ‘NON’ with a capital ‘N’ and believe me it’s a bit disconcerting when a 200kg mardy pig comes up behind you whilst you’re trying to work with power tools.  It was an accident waiting to happen so in the end the pigs stopped play.  That particular job will have to wait for another day when they are in a more cooperative mood.  Like when they are in the freezer.  Alas, after two and a half years of a charmed life they have now become a liability.  After a recent spate of escapes by them the necessary decision has been made that they have to go and it’s going to be a one way trip.  They are, in the next couple of weeks, destined for the freezer.

P1130659.JPGSo with the field work put on hold until after the pigs have departed we spent a few days instead tackling the overgrown bramble in two areas of the garden at the back of the house.

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Gig number two at a fish and chip night in another village.
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A little taste of home!

Working outside clearing land (hard work though it is) under sunny skies is one of the things we have most enjoyed about our new life but it does come with a caveat.  We wouldn’t want to have the responsibility of owning and caring for any land ourselves.  Looking after land takes a lot of work and it’s not for the faint hearted.  There is always something to do and it just keeps on growing (why not state the obvious Jane).  Returning here after more than a two year gap just reinforced that for us.  Like all these things we like the idea of living something like the ‘Good Life’ but the reality is a different story.

After a couple of weeks of clearing land we are more than happy to down tools and say ‘Au revoir’ to it all.

À tout à l’heure!