France - Biarritz - Putting on the (Biar)ritz!
Jul 2, 2004
|Heading south until I basically ran out of France, I finally stopped just this side of the Spanish border in the little seaside town of Biarritz. It's a cute place with nice beaches and lots of scenic coastline, but it's also a very popular tourist destination for both French and foreigners and as a result it's become a real budget buster. It also has some of Europe's best surfing and was due to host the International Surfing Competition in mid-July, so the place was overrun with an interesting combination of rich well-dressed tourists enjoying the sun and sand, and poor surfers hoping to catch the big one.
In addition to checking out the cute young surfer dudes, I was also in Biarritz because of its proximity to various interesting places in Basque Country and the Atlantic Pyrenees.
Trying to be a bit more organized for a change, and reading that the Biarritz hostel is always popular with backpackers and surfers, I had actually called ahead, via the Tourist office in Sarlat, to book a bed. I don't know who the Tourist gal was chatting with but I was to discover that it wasn't the Biarritz hostel as they don't take reservations over the phone, and I had no bed for the night and the hostel was full. So much for being organized! I was about to shuffle off to the one nearby hostel, when that hostel rang to say they were also full. I was sickened to think about what hotel prices would be like in ritzy Biarritz. I was hot, tired and must have looked appropriately pathetic as the Biarritz hostel manager took pity on me and eventually squeezed me into a room. Not in the girls dorm, but in the boys. Sleepin' with the boys ... cool!
To date I've only stayed in girls dorms. I'm not sure, but I don't think France has any co-ed hostel dorms. In my experience, girls in hostels are very considerate about spacial and noise limitations. My male roomates (who weren't, by the way, cute young surfer dudes as I had hoped) showed no similar consideration to this unspoken rule!
I had planned on taking the train to visit nearby sights, but Alicia, an American girl I met at the hostel, was on a similar path. She suggested we share the cost and hire a car for a couple of days and do some road trips. Getting around by car is always a luxury and gives you so much more flexibility so I gladly agreed. We picked up another passenger for the first day, a fella named Jon from the UK ... none other than one of my roomates who actually turned out to be a decent bloke. And my opinion of Jon went up a few notches when he was able to negotiate a cheaper car rental rate through a friend of his who works at one of the rental agencies.
Alright, we've got a car! Heading south, our first stop was in St. Jean de Luz, another coastal resort town not far and very similar to Biarritz. After a quick wander around, we kept going south to the Spanish town of San Sebastian. With no official border crossing, we hadn't even realized we had entered Spain until we noticed that road signs were now in Spanish!
Another popular seaside resort, and a much larger city than I had expected, San Sebastian has an interesting blend of Spanish-French architecture, a lovely inner harbour and, since the weather was very hot that day, tons of sun worshippers crowding the nearby beaches.
After wandering around for a while, we left Jon at the hostel in San Sebastian, and Alicia and I continued on through the stunning scenery of the Pyrenees Mountains back into France again to St. Jean Pied-de-Port. It's a cute little walled town, an important stop for pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostella, probably the last pilgrim stop in France before crossing the border into Spain. We lingered there, enjoying the scenery, and had a wonderful meal of typical Basque dishes. Eventually we started back on the long and scenic road back to Biarritz.
The next day we did a quick tour through Bayonne, a separate town but basically a suburb of Biarritz (or possibly the other way around). Personally I didn't find it a particularly interesting place, although it might have potential during their festival in August when they have a "running of the bulls" like Pamplona ... except with cows!
We started chatting with another backpacker, Megan from Vancouver, who had just arrived in Bayonne by train. Soon she was in the car with us for Road Trip Day 2.
I had originally wanted to visit Lourdes, another pilgrimage town put on the map when, in 1858, a 14 year old girl saw the Virgin Mary in a series of visions that were later confirmed to be bona fide apparitions by the Vatican. Anyway, after visiting St. Jean Pied-de-Port yesterday, and hearing that Lourdes is even more full of pilgrims and cheesy tourist shops, we decided to give it a miss and instead headed to Pau (pronounced "Po").
Pau has a beautiful chateau in the heart of the town, stunning views of the Pyrenees Mountains, and lovely little shops and restaurants which unfortunately were mostly closed as it was Sunday.
Our next stop was to Oloron Ste. Marie, another cute little place with a 10th century church high on the hilltop and, get this, a wine festival going on. It was much smaller in scale and glamour than Bordeaux, but equally charming as it had a quaint small-town feel, friendly wineyard owners to chat with, and free wine tastings.
Hitting the road again, we continued on to Navarrenx, another small walled village where we stumbled across some excavated ruins of a 15th century bastillion and the "7 echo" amphitheatre. Although acoustics were great, no matter where we stood or how loud we shouted, we couldn't get one measley echo let alone seven.
By then we were exhausted, hot and sweaty, and happy to return to Biarritz and the hostel, where a big party was going on to watch the final Portugal-Greece Eurocup 2004 soccer game (better luck next time Portugal).
And the next morning I was on the train to Pau and then heading to Pau airport. My time in France had ended, 4 weeks having flown by with amazing speed. Although I was originally apprehensive about travelling on my own in France, it actually went by with minimal effort and I wasn't at all ready to leave.
Now, before I leave France, I do have a few general observations to share ...
1) Despite their reputation, French people are friendly, in their own snobby and sophisticated French way. It does help, however, to attempt to speak French first and let them switch to English when they've had enough of you butchering their language!
2) The French do love their dogs ... but they never clean up after them. Makes for very messy sidewalks. "Watch your step" takes on a whole new meaning.
3) Everyone in Canada has a BBQ on their deck or apartment balcony. Other than Daniele, who doesn't count as she's been Canadianized, I didn't see one BBQ in France.
4) People in Canada eat lunch at their desk, in their car, always on the run. People in France take long lunches, offices shut down over the lunch hour (often including supermarkets) and they enjoy the midday meal with friends or family, eating in the park, never in their vehicle. There's no such thing as a coffee-to-go or cup holders in cars. Meals and beverages are enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
5) You think you pay a lot for petrol in Canada? You should see the prices here! No wonder cars are so small and public transportation so widely used.
6) Public transportation in France is amazing. Buses and trains run exactly on time. If the schedule says the train leaves at 10:02, at 10:02:01 you're pulling out of the station. Every city and town is connected. It's so quick and easy for locals and tourists to get around.
7) Wine is often cheaper by the glass than coffee. Need I say more?!
And with this wrap-up, I'll see you next in the "Land of the Leprauchans".