Sunday, 13 December 2009

Surf's up and an unexpected gem

written 10th December

Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz sprawl seemlessly together, around the Adour and Nive rivers, which flow through Bayonne, to their estuary at Anglet and onwards south down the coast to Biarritz but they are all actually quite different.  Bayonne, of Roman origins with a Vauban-fortified old town, prides itself on being the Basque cultural capital of France, Anglet is the surfers paradise, blessed with the best surfing beach in Europe and Biarritz is humble fishing village, raised up to a glittery imperial jewel by Napolean III and his wife Eugenie in the mid 19th centuary.

We had planned to stop in Bayonne, figuring it would be cheaper, but unaccountably, according to the tourist office, there were no open campsites and nowhere to park a camping car nearer than St Jean de Luz or St Pee several km away.  Fortunately, the list of aires de camping she gave me proved her wrong by indicating one in Biarritz which we duly found for a mere €10 (which you pay to the police when they come knocking - scared us a bit when they first pulled up and started knowcking on vans... ) - there was water and electric, but we had to walk to the beach for toilets (although it was no St Clements, my new standard for how far away toilets are from where we stop!).

We were woken by an enterprising bakery van which came round and tooted its horn at about 9am - I don't think they actually got any business, I think most people did what we did and buried their heads under the pillow and hoped the yobs would go away :) - and after a couple of hours of breakfast, hair washing and chatting to an English couple across the way, and in t-shirts in the balmy 17 degree sunshine, we headed off up the hill into town on our bikes.

A side note here, for all you people at home, especially those with camper vans or motorhomes - don't doubt the van!  We now have empirical evidence (well two observed occurences which, as any GCSE science student knows, is plenty enough for a trend line and an assertion that "this is what will therefore always happen") where people have, albeit very politely, questioned Jules' reliability and then come to a sticky end (well, their van has incapacitated itself).  Whilst chatting to the english people that morning, they were asking what we were doing and what the van was like and admitted to having wondered the previous evening how reliable it was.  Just as I was saying what we had done and were still doing, their travelling companion came over to say he had a flat tire and could he borrow their tire pump and plug it in to their dashboard! (incidentally it didn't seem to fix the problem so they were last seen limping off to the petrol station).  And don't think this just happens when in earshot of Jules either, the first occasion we weren't even there, when apparently, so hearsay reports, Will's mum said to Will's sister "well I think what Will and Becky are doing is great but I wouldn't do it in a van that old and unreliable"  and then the very next day she went to take her more recently acquired, 15 years younger van (have I told you about that? I might someday) out for a little run and a nice cup of tea to Birchington and it wouldn't start.  So, we don't know if campervans and motorhome have an affinity with each other and, on listening to these comments from their owners, come out in stike in sympathy (well we are in France!) or whether this extends to all vehicles, classic or otherwise - you have been warned, don't diss the van!  :)

You will also be pleased to hear that I do seem to be fitter at last and I cycled up hills! plural!!  (and down them again of course and it may be just that I am now better at picking appropriate gears...)

After our customary stop at the tourist office for more map and leaflet fodder, we found ourselves down by the municipal casino - its a different life, we have municipal parks and swiming pools, they have municipal casinos and campsites...

- and the grande plage, which is indeed a very grand expanse of sand sweeping northwards to the light house. 

We spent a happy hour or so on various rocky promotories watching the waves crash on the rocks and the fishing harbour walls - honestly, if that was the best place to built a harbour it says something about that whole bit of coastline and how on earth they did it I have no idea. 

We also went out the the Virgin Rock where Napolean thought he would start his grand sea defences although as it turns out, he didn't get any further than a white statue of the Virgin Mary on a rock and a metal bridge supposedly built by Gustav Eiffel (you know the one, does small meccano-like ironworks projects...) 

and the waves continued to crash.

After lunch of cheese, bread and fresh pineapple and a chat with the man selling little oil pictures (very nice and quite reasonable but unfortunately probably wouldn't survive the journey) who was lamenting the fact that biarritz was quiet and every one was in San Sebastian, we set off to the lighthouse. 

Unfortunately the lighthouse was only open on Saturdays and Sundays (which we knew) but the view was good and there was a big propeller from a beached russian ship which had been en route to santander for scrap and which wound up on a one of the Biarritz beaches - the story of how they got it off was impressive - and a sundial where you are the pointy bit (although it was inexplicably an hour out!). 

And off we went again, headed for surfers paradise - and surfers we found (although there had been more in Biarritz) on a vast expanse of sand under a vast expanse of sky - although from the signs I am not sure I would want to get into trouble in the water here - if the waves don't get you, our trained helicopter hangman will.... 

Cycling on through Anglet we reach the "end" and set off back through the forest path and wended our way back van-wards through the back streets until we once more found the Biarritz casino.  Deciding to follow the prom back, we rounded the corner and there, over the waves, was Spain, beckoning us on. 

And what waves! you know in cartoons and car ads they show horses in the foam, well, on my bike, heading into the sun, I'm sure I saw them, just for a moment, in the rolling surf...

and then we came to an unexpected stop of the prom and a "dangerous cliffs" sign and a steep near-vertical cliff face which I had to push the bike up - although after a valient attempt to cycle!  Will would like me to point out at this stage that it was actually a sloped path which zigzagged up the cliff with hairpin bends, not actually a sheer cliff face and that he cycled up it no problem but it makes me feel less inadequate to report that I was unable to able to cycle up a sheer cliff face... :)

Back at the van, we were pleased to find that the solar shower, which had been basking in the sun on the roof of the van, had acually worked! 

Obviously these are not ideal conditions - it promises that in direct overhead sun in 21 degree heat, the water will get the 41 degrees in three hours however no mention is made of eventual water temperature in 17 degree heat in slanty december sun which hangs low over the horizon and being in shade for the last hour or so... - but it was certainly warmer than air temperature and Will was quite easily able to wash his hair!  I will probably stick to kettles and washing up bowls inside until we are a bit warmer out :)

After a bit more fettling, some refusing to start (hardware/software issues, not unreliability on Jules' part I hasten to point out, it is stoically putting up with an awful lot!) we set off towards Bayonne for dinner as we had promised ourselves so proper basque food, via a McD's for some free wifi.

Unfortunately, such was the extent of our faffing, fettling and need for interweb that it was later than we thought when we eventually arrived in Bayonne and for a while we feared everything was shut.  But we walked down the quay in the cold night air anyway for the second time this trip, found that the Lonely Planet recommended restaurant was still open and buzzing and it was good!  The LP promised hearty basque food in a tapas bar environment and with the recommendations of the owner (who had lived near oxford for several years) we had the basque fish and meat specialites of squid cooked in its ink with rice (much much more delicious than it sounds!) and spit roast pork topped with Brebis cheese (ewe cheese I think), salsa, chips and fried egg.  yum yum yum!

We considered staying on to actually explore Bayonne which I am sure is lovely with its rivers, bridges and fortifications but as that would have meant going back to Biarritz (where we'd already told the policemen we weren't stopping, and then coming back north again, we decided against and headed on south to St Jean de Luz where with the help of the sat nav, we eventually found the camping-car spot, just on the edge of a bridge, with a busy road on one side and a railway (with TGV's) on the other.  In the dark, nearing midnight, with no sign of any toilets (St Clement+), it all didn't look promising...

But in the morning, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and as we emerged from the subway under the road bridge we found an unexpected and beautiful gem!  St Jean de Luz and its twin town Cibourn on the other side of the river, circle a natural bay estuary (with unnatural protective breakwaters) with golden sand and gently lapping waves. 

They are working fishing harbours with stalls on the quayside selling freshly caught fish and fishermen mending nets and it is all rather lovely. 

We wandered into town and foraged a sticky breakfast tutti frutti brioche encrusted with pearls of sugar and bejewelled with gems of dried fruit - truly scrumptious! - and then once the practicalities of clothes washing were out of the way, had moules frites at a pavement cafe - and they were even better, and bigger and juicier than the last lot! 

Back at the van we hung the washing out and settled in for a nice cup of tea

then I went out for a walk in the setting sun whilst Will fettled some more.  We are still Arm powered and running the new throttle but as the lamda sensor is so far away from the engine (albeit in a better, less bodged position than stuffing it up the exhaust pipe) it is not learning any more, it is now logging readings as we drive using a static map and every time we stop, Will can graph the min, max and average lamda sensor reading for each amount of air flow and use this data to manually poke the fuel map so it will hopefully eventually converge on the right average for all airflows.  He has also rigged up a longer cable so I can now have the laptop in the front whilst still being connected to the "project" in the engine bay and, on instruction, I can change the idle position as we go for when Will feels we need more "umph".  clever eh?  This will all eventually be automated in some way but that requires the assembly for more hardware which isn't yet done (although apparently we have the bits). 

And so, we set of south again once more.  I should have said before, in case you are interested, we finally got bored of RFM and its incessent "party quatre-vignt" and, after a brief foray into RTL2 - "the best of pop-rock, this isn't radio, this is music" - which was largely the same but with less Phil Collins and more Madonna, we are now on NRJ - "onlee zee 'its" - and for the last 100kms or so have been accompanied by Black Eyed Peas,  Pink and the Ting Tings.  Bu it won't last as we are irrovocably set for Spain....

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