Monday, July 20, 2015

I Left My Heart in Bayonne

My friends, I am in love. I am in love with a city called Bayonne.

 Bayonne is famous for its chocolate.

Given, my adoration may have something to do with the circumstances of my stay. It was my first time using Airbnb, and I'm never going back to hostels. Basically all I've ever wanted to do is to live in a historic building with a rehabbed kitchen and bathroom on the banks of a charming river, and that is precisely what I got to do for several days, for roughly the same price as a hostel. The only downside was that the wood floors of each room were at different levels and I kept tripping on them--but for that apartment, I would trip happily and often.

My Airbnb was in one of these buildings.

The other delightful thing about Bayonne is that it has weather. There was a thunderstorm my first night there, and I was thrilled. I try to be grateful for the constant sunshine in Vegas, but sometimes I want a little variety. Toulouse is almost always sunny as well, and ferociously humid, so the trip to Bayonne was refreshing.

If you're more of a constant sunshine person, though, don't worry--you can find that just a few short miles from Bayonne in the seaside town of Biarritz. I suppose it's not always warm and sunny there, but the day I visited it was perfect beach weather, as evidenced by the vast crowds laying out on the sand. I walked along the coast of the Atlantic (a big theme overall for my trip), right past the summer villa Napoleon III built for his wife (now a fancy hotel), all the way up to the lighthouse towering above the town, and then I climbed that, too--all 248 steps (nothing will ever be as much of a workout as the Vatican). Biarritz has all these amazing rock formations in and along the water, and you can climb out on some of them from the street.

 The path to Rocher de la Vierge in Biarritz.

If life in France is getting a little too French for you, Bayonne also offers the perfect solution: you can pop into Spain for the day. On Saturday I took the train to Hendaye, where I switched to the Euskotren and traveled on to San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque). Another popular beach town, I spent most of my day wandering the streets of the old city, ducking into beautiful churches. I climbed Monte Urgull, too--the large hill at one end of the bay. I'm working on a theory that you can tell what European country you're in based solely on the wrought-iron balcony railings: in France there are lots of flowery motifs, in Italy there are curving lines but fewer flowers, and in Spain they're darker in color with more curlicues and corkscrews. At one point I encountered a small parade that consisted of large puppet people, men in traditional garb playing instruments, and young boys with paper-mâché heads beating innocent bystanders with what appeared to be inflated animal stomachs of some kind. My knowledge of Spanish history and culture is weak, so I was rather amused, but I didn't know what was happening. I went to a tapas bar, since that seemed like a rather Spanish thing to do, and I found it to be extremely stressful, as I was unsure about the proper etiquette and people kept reaching around me. I've had tapas served to me in the States before, but that is not how tapas works in Spain--it's like a crowded, hectic buffet. Luckily there was a friendly Canadian who also had no idea what to do, so we ate together.

Isla de Santa Clara in Bahia de la Concha, San Sebastián.
For the record, the members of the official Passport Stamp Tattoo Committee (me) have convened, and we (I) have decided that international trips short enough to lack an overnight stay do not warrant a new tattoo. If I want Spain on my arm, I have to earn it.

Perhaps you're just tired of existing at sea level. Bayonne can help you there, too! Thanks to my strong Google skills, I figured out how to get to the small village of Sare via public transit. Sare is at the base of a mountain in the Pyrenees known as La Rhune, and there is a tiny train from the 1920's that will lug you and many other tourists up that mountain for a reasonable fee. That's how I wound up walking around in the clouds. With ponies.

At the summit of La Rhune.

 Wasn't kidding about those ponies.

After a few hours I descended and took the bus back to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, another coastal city famous for its corsairs. (I'm looking at you, Carmel Catholic High School.) I enjoyed Saint-Jean-de-Luz--it was like a slightly less pretentious Biarritz. And the houses were beautiful, many in the traditional Basque style with red and green shutters and colored wood beams.

The fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

Can we take a quick moment to talk about traditional Basque food? Freaking delicious. I'm going to have to exist solely on salad for the next few days, as I definitely overate. But I couldn't help it! Axoa (ground veal, onions, tomatoes, potatoes), txistorra (sausage flavored with garlic and paprika), jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne-specific rather than Basque, but still delicious), fromage de brebis et confiture de cerises noires (sheep cheese with black cherry jam)--I ate it all, and enjoyed every minute of it.

Axoa. Yum.
It's a shame I couldn't stay in Bayonne for another week or two--the Fêtes de Bayonne was about to start. Millions of people come for the 5-day festival with dancing and parades and bullfighting. (Yes, I agree that bullfighting is cruel. That doesn't mean I don't want to see one.) Maybe it's good that I missed it, though--I had the quiet city all to myself. And besides, one day when I write a bestselling novel and purchase a beautiful apartment in a historic building with a rehabbed kitchen and bathroom on the banks of the Nive River, I'll be able to go every year.

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