Time For A Road Trip

Having fun on 6 wheels!
  • Day146

    St. Jean de Luz - French Basque base

    October 29, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    In order to visit the French Basque region, we based ourselves at a campsite just outside St Jean de Luz, a few miles from the Spanish border.

    This beautiful seaside town has narrow streets, a lively harbour and large horseshoe-shaped bay with golden sand. The town grew up as a fishing port initially with large catches of sardine, anchovies and whales, but when well-to-do French, English and Spanish tourists started arriving in the late 19th century, it became a fashionable resort and tourism took over.

    We watched some local fishing boats netting large amounts of sea-grass, just off the beach. When the haul was landed, we asked them what they were going to do with it. It turns out that it was all off to Spain to be refined and used in many ways including in the production of cosmetics - not exactly what I had in mind for Crème de la Mer!

    The town's main claim to fame is that it is here that Louis XIV spent his final days of bachelorhood before marrying Maria Theresa. In addition, the composer Maurice Ravel was born in pretty Cibourne, just 2.5km west of the town. It is here too that the prominent fort was built in 1627 and later improved by Vauban before he then went off to assist Napoleon in his many battles.

    It proved to be a great base for exploring the area and one that we look forward to visiting again.

    Camping Itsas Mendi. 15 euros per night with ASCI card + 7=6 inc water, services, wifi. Set on hillside with large terraced pitches. On-site site shop with fresh bread and pastries. Great outdoor pool with water slide and indoor heated pool. Only downside was not enough hot water in the showers.
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  • Day146

    Fête du Piment

    October 29, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Who would have thought that a small village in the foothills of the Pyrenees would be famous throughout France for its chilli pepper and hold a 2-day festival every year to celebrate the fact. The basque cuisine features chilli heavily in almost every dish from savoury to sweet and it is the chilli from Espelette which is the most famous. Luckily for us, this year's festival coincided with our time here and so we jumped on the bike and headed into the hills to find the village.

    Thanks to Christopher Columbus, the chilli pepper arrived from Mexico and in 1650, after realising that the growing conditions around Espelette were ideal (how they realised, we don't know!), every local farm was producing it and it became an essential part of every basque kitchen in the area.

    Today, this special chilli is the first and only spice in France accredited with an AOC-AOP (just like fine wines) acknowledging the strict controls governing its production. It is planted in the spring and then harvested between August and December, once it becomes bright red. It is then sold in different ways; as a string of 20 fresh chillies, as a puree in a jar to be used in the cooking process or dried traditionally on the front of buildings and then turned into a powder to sprinkle over a finished dish.

    We were told that visitors from all over France come to the festival and from the long line of traffic backed up into the village, they were right. Travelling on the bike made getting in and parking a breeze.

    Strolling around we realised that it wasn't only the chilli that was being celebrated, it seemed that every basque food speciality was too with stalls full of locally made basque cake, cured meats, cheeses, nougat, wine and the biggest barbecue we've ever seen! For lunch we tried a Taloak, which is similar to a Mexican tortilla, made by hand mixing corn and water before rolling out ( in our case the rolling pin used was an empty wine bottle) and then cooking on a flat, hot plate. Filled wine two types of sausages, onions and of course some chilli pepper, a simple hot-dog will never be the same!

    There followed a procession of bands and dignitaries with the Mayor announcing that next July the Tour de France will stop at Espelette for the first time, to great rounds of applause. Looks like two-wheelers are being welcomed to Espelette. We definitely were.
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  • Day144

    Bayonne - capital of French Basque

    October 27, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    Located between the Rivers Ardour and Nive, with its half-timbered buildings, riverside restaurants and old ramparts all bursting with history, Bayonne is one of France's prettiest cities.

    A strategic stronghold since medieval times, the city is split into three; St. Esprit to the north, Grand Bayonne, the oldest and prettiest part to the west and Petit Bayonne to the east. Visiting places by motorbike is a great way to travel as there are always lots of free spaces to park right in the centre of town. We left the bike under the 11th century Chateau Vieux (Old castle) and wandered around Grand and Petit Bayonne on foot.

    The narrow, rounded streets of half-timbered buildings were a delightful surprise. Being so close to Spain, we were expecting more of a Spanish influence and yet the city could have been plucked straight out of Alsace or Normandy. By contrast, the arches of the Town Hall, opened in 1842, were reminiscent of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

    A visit to the shop of Bayonne ham producer Pierre Ibaialde, gave us an insight into how this famous cured ham is produced. During a free guided tour we learnt the craft of salting, curing, de-boning and tasting too! Interestingly, Bayonne ham was never originally made in Bayonne! It got its name simply because the city was a major trading centre long ago and merchants would buy ham produced in the region from there. King Louis XVI greatly enjoyed the ham and promoted it further. Today, there are tight rules on its production in order to call it Bayonne ham. The next time you eat some in a matter of minutes, think about the 12 months it took to produce.

    Having bought some ham, we then paid a visit to one of the town's premium chocolatiers, Cazenave. It was the Spanish inquisition that led to Jewish chocolate-makers fleeing their Spanish homeland to settle in Bayonne. By 1870 the city boasted more chocolatiers than Switzerland, although now only a dozen remain.

    During a final wander around, we came upon a shop selling local beers and came out with a bottle of dark beer with a hint of the famous Espelette chilli pepper with the unlikely name of Bob's beer!

    We had a great day visiting this beautiful city and came away with lots of goodies to remind us of it too.
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  • Day141

    French Basque Country

    October 24, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    Nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the foothills of the Pyrenees, the French Basque country feels like a stepping stone between France and Spain.

    The locals are very proud and protective of their history and unique culture which includes a language - Euskara - unrelated to any other European language. Don't dare to call a Basque French or Spanish!

    Pelote Basque is a generic name for around 16 traditional Basque ball games that are still played today and every village has its own pelota court.

    Most Basque dishes seem to include Le Piment d'Espelette, a chilli pepper from the town of Espelette. The region is also known for its ham and chocolates from Bayonne.

    The main towns of the region are Biarritz, Bayonne and St. Jean-de-Luz, which will be our base whilst we explore
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  • Day140

    Hossegor - surfing capital of France

    October 23, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    What we thought was going to be a 3 night stay around Arcachon turned into a week; there was so much to see! However, the weather turned chilly and we headed a little further south, to an area known as Les Landes, a vast tract of pine forests, lakes and seaside towns with seemingly endless beaches. We based ourselves at an aire at Soustons Plage for a couple of days, which was quite busy due to it being French half-term holidays. From there we jumped on the bike to celebrate Chris's birthday at nearby Hossegor, the surfing capital of France. We were in luck as our visit coincided with the French surfing championships and we found ourselves surrounded by cool dudes from all over the world, with bleached blonde hair and tanned bodies.

    Whilst the conditions were not epic, they were good enough to provide us with a taster of what all the hype is about. We enjoyed our moules frites lunch watching the action every bit as much as the surfers enjoyed their waves.
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  • Day131

    Arcachon Bay - oysters and sand dunes

    October 14, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    Within an hour and a half of leaving St. Emilion, we'd skirted around Bordeaux and arrived in Arés, on the northeast corner of Arcachon Bay, the 6th largest natural marine park in France.

    The bay is an inland sea between Arcachon and Cap Ferret, open to the Atlantic ocean, accessible only through a narrow channel, and is encompassed by ports and oyster villages, long, fine sandy beaches, pine forests and Europe's largest sand dune - Dune de Pilat.

    This is an area that neither of us had visited before and 'Camping La Canadienne' provided us with a great base from where we explored the whole bay, over a week of mostly sunny weather, on the motorbike.

    In Cap Ferret, at the end of a long peninsula that borders one third of the bay, we sat in the sunshine having lunch at an oyster-farmers rustic restaurant and feasted on fresh oysters, pate de campagne and a glass of chilled white wine.

    At the opposite end of the bay, is the town of Arcachon, with its beach villas that drew in the bourgeois from Bordeaux at the end of the 19th century for its long, golden-sand beaches and protected bathing.

    Just south of Arcachon is Europe's largest sand dune, Dune de Pilat, which is growing eastwards 1-5m per year, depending on the wind! The view from the top, at 115m above sea level, is magnificent. You can see the sandy shoals at the mouth of the bay, oyster-fishermans farms, a bird reserve where 6000 couples of Sandwich terns nest each year and dense pine forest as far as the eye can see.

    Looking out from the top, towards the ocean, we reminisced on our journey across the Bay of Biscay heading south, just as we were doing now but on wheels.

    Camping La Canadienne with large pitches separated by hedges and lots of oak trees with thousands of descending acorns in Oct! Inc. wifi and electric. Good facilities and location. 17 euros per night. Recommend.
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  • Day128

    St. Emilion, wine country

    October 11, 2017 in France ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    It is here that we really had a taster of what we were looking forward to in France - spending a few days getting to meet the locals on their own 'turf' and tasting wine!

    We couldn't have chosen a better place to stay, at Chateau Arnaud de Jacqueameau, owned by the Dupuy family who have been growing grapes and making St. Emilion Grand Cru for five generations.

    The family graciously allowed us to stay on their land, free of charge, in a designated spot in the middle of the vines, for 3 nights. This gave us time to visit the town of St. Emilion, just 1.5km away, as well as having a private tour and tasting by Mr. Dupuy senior who, at 83-years old, spent two hours showing us how he produced his wine and how best to taste it - all in Franglais!

    Whilst in St. Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we were able to enjoy the beauty of the village from the various viewpoints and then had a tour of the monolithic 'underground' church in the centre of the village. It is believed by many that the hermit Emilion lived in a cave, where the church now stands, for 17 years. The church, which is massive, was excavated over a period of 50 years and carved out of solid limestone. It is effectively underground, with the bell-tower the only part that stands proud for all the visiting pilgrims to see from afar. It is a wonderful area, steeped in history and one that we look forward to returning to.
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