Wednesday, June 29, 2011

World Heritage Sites

The next step was a short step for the Modus under full power.  Ali had been in contact with his friend Micky who was at uni there and was looking for us to meet.  Micky organised a hotel for us and we were rolling.

In full tourist mode
Bordeaux is a Unesco World Heritage Site, our first for the trip, and by some miracle Micky was waving to us from the side of a road into the city centre when we spotted him so the drive in was easy.  He had booked us into a Quality Inn right in the city centre which was very convenient and then proceeded to give us the tourist visit of Bordeaux.  Lovely city too.  More mussels for dinner followed by cigars and brandy ended things nicely.

Next up was a drive down the coast to St Jean de Luz, the first place in France that Wellington stayed in 1814 after expelling the French from Spain/Portugal.  But first to an extraordinary natural phenomenon that is the Dunes de Pyla.  I had been to see them 10+ years ago but thought Ali would be interested too.  They are simply huge sand dunes that have been piled up on the sea shore over the last million or so years by the endless swell from the Atlantic Ocean and currently stand some 100+ metres high and 8 kms long.

We walked to the bottom on the other side... which was far easier than walking back up again!
Below the Dunes is a fairly desolate area of SW France known as Aquitaine that has sand and pine trees and the occasional village.  Miles and miles of it and we drove all of it on secondary roads away from the autoroutes.  This part of France was owned by England in the days of Henry II and you can see why the French didn't really care much at the time.  However these days the intrepid view the endless sandy beaches on the Atlantic as summer beach resorts and surfers just love it with the continuous big swells and no rocky sand to land on.  Pretty breezy though.

I had convinced Ali of the need to not stay in Biarritz and push on another 17 kms to St Jean but we did visit Biarritz to see why the jet set like it.  Pretty posh it is but the day we chose to be there was grim and windy.  The hotels, casinos and beach front were all there though as were a good bunch of people just looking (like us).

Note the fine summer weather!
St Jean on the other hand is small and cute.  We adopted a new (successful and subsequently adopted) tactic of heading for the town centre and finding the tourist information office (which everyone had these days).  This found us digs for the night in the middle of this charming little fishing village.  We couldn't find where Wellington stayed and nobody would tell us.  I guess he wasn't that popular here.  However the people are French Basques who are resolutely different from the French (and Spanish on the other side too) and most things are distinctly un-French.  However seafood remains the order of the day and fish soup and paella made an appearance at the dinner table.

Our next stop was intended to be San Sebastian (or Donostia as the Spanish Basques and road signs confusingly call it) but first we had to contend with the peages.  Tech isn't a strong point but really getting through a peage is like taking an intelligence test.  Symbols all over the place and with nobody around if you mess up, simply getting through one of these things is more stress than you need on a holiday.  But first we decided to head into the Pyrenees and see what the fuss about them is all about.  They are BIG.

If you are a student of Wellington's campaigns in the Peninsular War you will know it took him 4 years to wend his way from the lines of Torres Vedras outside Lisbon to the French border and beyond.  You probably think that it meant simply tramping up roads and thrashing the French periodically.  It wasn't (other than the 'thrashing the French' bit).  The terrain is mountainy and virtually impassable these days in a car, on roads and without nasties shooting at you.  One late-ish affray in early 1814 took place atop La Rhune just outside (actually 9,000 feet above) St Jean de Luz.  The French were on high ground and Wellington's sharp shooters and irregulars pushed them off.  How on earth did they manage that?  These days you take a cog railway train that huffs and puffs and heads up to the top.  Good view though.

St Jean to the left and Biarritz off to the right
San Sebastian is a nice town although they don't really care for Wellington much.  It was the scene of the last battle in Spain in 1813 and when the British troops who had suffered mightily in the storming of the town actually broke in, they spent 2 days pillaging the place and burned it flat.  So no buildings predate 1813.  The tourist information is really rather upset by all this and keep on repeating it however we managed our head in/tourist information office combo again and found the Hotel de la Playa conveniently located nowhere near a 'playa' but more handily located on the edge of the old town.

Very nice place too is San Sebastian these days.  Surfing beach nearby if you want it, thousands of bars, cafes and restaurants in the old town when you've finished.  And with this being Spain (even Basque country), suckling pig or goat is always on the menu -- this time goat.

And did I talk about the tapas?  My experience with tapas formerly was a few plates of small food scrapings you poked around at and said 'very nice' and then went off to dinner.  This was nothing like.  Simply amazing.  Endless platters of small things that you simply wandered around to and grazed at.  The barman would tick off one of this, two of that, and so on, and at the end you give him 10 euros and get change.  AND if things couldn't get any better than this, in the morning you went back for your breakfast tapas.  The little bacon and eggs things were fantastic as was the coffee, as was.... well San Sebastian.

Egg and bacon things on the right... yummy!
Sadly only 1 night as we were next headed for Marseilles where we needed to do some laundry and planned to stay 2 nights.

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