23rd March 2010. One of the benefits of living down in the extreme south west corner of France is that, apart from being a reassuringly long way from Calais(!), we are close to the border with Spain. Close enough so that we can set off for Spain at short notice (as in 5 minutes) without it becoming a major logistical exercise. Travelling abroad from Britain with a car was, and still is, a pain.. There was that inescapable feeling that we were being exploited by the cross channel operators whether it was by the ferries, hovercraft or the tunnel - especially during school holidays. I once read somewhere that it's the world's most expensive sea crossing. No surprises there as I've always suspected that the cross channel companies operate a cartel. The thing that always wound me up was that in spite of a 5 hour journey down to Dover, followed by a rip off channel crossing, we were still only at Calais! Anyway, breathe deeply and relax.. (again!)
Living down here provides us with another welcome string to our bow. If we feel like a good strong Spanish coffee, one of their wonderful hot chocolates or just some casual strolling about window shopping, then from leaving the house to arriving in Irun it's no more than a quick 25 minute zip down the road. Sometimes it's just nice to be able to go and access a different culture.. plus Madame speaks a little Spanish which comes in handy.
On the French side, almost without exception, houses are painted white with the woodwork picked out in Basque Rouge - blood red. However, once over the border, there's a subtle change in building styles. After the all-pervading 'whiteness' of the Pays Basque there's an indefinable sense of austerity in the style of their brown stone buildings that I find attractive. This aspect of their domestic architecture becomes more pronounced in towns like San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque).
This noble old town (pop: 180,000) is only 60km (37 miles) from Bayonne - 45 mins by car - and it's set on a magnificent circular bay known as La Concha. The development of rail travel in the mid-19th century enabled Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie to travel in comfort down to Biarritz to set up their summer residence. The Spanish monarchy followed suit and chose San Sebastian as their preferred seaside resort in order to escape the relentless heat of Madrid summers. Subsequently the Spanish nobility and the diplomatic corps opened residences in the summer capital.
San Sebastian has a real style to it - it's a more formal, more businesslike town than its neighbours across the border in the French Basque country - even Biarritz - with its many offices and shops in addition to the numerous hotels. The arcades, streets and boulevards are lined with heavy brown stone apartment buildings in a rococo style, many with ornate curlicued balconies. Our first visit there was during one of our holidays in the Pays Basque and we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Very quickly we realised that the residents were dressed for work rather than the beach and after that, we always spruced ourselves up for a visit.
The river Urumea has been canalised to flow through the town and it is spanned by some beautiful bridges. After strolling around the sea front and looking in countless shop windows (!) we generally head for the Parte Vieja (Old Part) - a fascinating quarter characterised by its narrow streets and an astonishing number of bars and cafes, all of which serve pintxos (or tapas as they're known elsewhere in Spain).
Entering one such, you'll find that every square inch of the bar top will be covered in pintxos dishes.. of all kinds - fish, tortillas, crab, sausage, egg, various hams & salamis.. and the ceiling space is taken up with cured hams - a feast for the eyes. These pintxos are best eased down with a glass or two of Sangria.. followed by one of their trademark black coffees..
Overheard in an English pub (probably apocryphal!):
Customer to waitress – “That was inedible muck, and there wasn't enough of it."
And, coming in from the car park to complain again: "And frankly m’dear, once I've eaten a thing, I don't expect to see it again."
An old favourite of mine - Judi Collins singing "Send in the clowns".. This song could have been written for Madame and I..