St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the capital of the Basque region, dates back to the 12th century. It would be our destination after riding the railway from Bayonne through the Basque countryside. As we walked out of the train station we noticed a cluster of folks on what appeared to be a hike. Indeed, they were on a pilgrimmage, or camina. I learned it is very common to see many such pilgrims on bicycles or on foot pass through the mighty, ancient gate that is the entrance to town as their final destination. Or, perhaps just another stop on the way to Spain, just to the South. Some latter day travelers may be retracing the steps of St. James from centuries ago. The original "path" traces all through Europe. Many treat the long trek as a religious quest, others just enjoy the views and stoked metabolisms.
In the center of this cobbled-stone-streeted town is an impressive citadel:
We climbed the curving roads and were rewarded with splendid views of the town. Rows of white houses and red shutters. Similiar to each other but distinguished just the same. Grassy fields with sheep were just below us at various points within the citadel. One may also gaze out through the slits in the stone where weaponry once hid to surprise enemies and assorted marauders. Towards the bottom, narrow streets filled with shops can be strolled. One may also gaze down at the Nive River from the bridge. My wife and I posed there for a shot.
The next day we rode down some rather treacherous mountain passes over into Spain. No border patrol; all part of the European Union. These passes are historic as many Basque and Roman military leaders had staked claims there. Also, the Basque helped the French Resistance and others uses these roads for supply and escape transport during World War II. We drove to the village of Almondoz, north of Pamplona to meet a cousin of my father-in-law's girlfriend. We met at a lovely restaurant called Posada Polacia Beola:As you can see, the eatery is an old manor house, renovated quite artfully. Our group had an amazing brunch of locally caught fish that I should've noted for this blog. Trust me, it was delicious and satiating. Some incredible Spanish wine also flowed.
Our ride back was memorable as we found an interesting radio station that played everything from folk to hip-hop. It surprised me that my FIL left it on while House of Pain's "Jump Around" and Afroman's "Because I Got High" played. Perhaps he was oblivious to it and just mesmerized by the beauty of the Baztan Valley and mountain ranges, despite his having taken this drive many times in the 7 plus years he has run the Château. The wonder of everything before me was still an eyeful, still exciting. Dreamlike.
When we returned to Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry later that afternoon we caught the last part of a local outdoor Jai-Alai game.You may be aware that this sport began in the Basque country, sometimes called Basque pelota or pelote Basque depending on where you are or how the game is played. The version we know in the States involves players wielding a long, concave weaved basket-like piece of equipment called a cesta or xistera. The players stand in an open-walled area called a fronton and attempt to serve/fling a ball (pelota) against the wall ala racquetball style, more or less, with similiar rules to that game. What we observed in France was reminiscent of what used to be big in West Palm Beach and is still pretty popular down in Dania, FL. Several people sat on bleachers and stood watching. A nice diversion.
Later we had dinner at the Château with a friend/business partner of my FIL's, an American who spends part of her year translating and interpreting in Baïgorry. The rest of the year she's in San Francisco doing voiceovers and is also a casting agent for some pretty well known Hollywood films. She was quite entertaining, cracking gently ribbing anecdotes about her experiences, particularly with Asian culture and women's roles therein. She also brought over some of the largest cucumbers I've ever seen. I don't usually use the term "on steroids", but these certainly appeared that way.
Next time? We'll head back to Spain and also visit a swine farm!