Friday 24th September 2010. This time last week I was picking up three of my relatives at Bordeaux airport who were going to be staying with us for a few days. The first to arrive were my cousin M and her Canadian husband R who had flown over from Toronto via Paris; they were followed a short time later by S, my cousin from England. We'd been greatly looking forward to their visit since we first invited them over a year ago. I'd been looking at the long range weather forecasts for weeks and, after a prolonged spell of great summer weather down here, clouds and rain were being predicted over the five days of their stay in the Pays Basque. I shouldn't have worried as far as they were concerned - for Canadians like M & R, anything north of freezing point is a bonus! They'd have been just as happy here if it had been snow and ice!
Hotel/restaurant Ramuntcho, St Jean Pied de Port
As it turned out, despite all the gloomy predictions of the weather forecasters, they were treated to perfect weather every day they were here.. it couldn't have been better for them with blue skies and temperatures up in the mid twenties. They really saw the Pays Basque at its very best. For me, one of the many highlights was a lunch we had one day at St Jean Pied de Port. We had thought of taking them to one of our favourite places, the hotel/restaurant "Ramuntcho", an excellent family-run traditional restaurant set squarely in the historic part of town.
Unfortunately, when we arrived there we found it was their closing day so, after exploring the picturesque street with its Pilgrim* signs everywhere and walking along the old fortified walls of the town, we found our way across the main road to the Hotel Central** (below), situated on a bridge high above the Nive. While its stylish and cool dining room was tempting, we found a shaded table for five out on their terrace that overlooked the river and - well, all I can say is: try it for yourselves..! That lunch will live long in the memory.
* Santiago de Compostela **Needless to say, I have no commercial interest in this hotel or any other business recommended here.
We also took them to San Sebastian and stopped for a lunch of pintxos (tapas) at our favourite dog-friendly bar Aralar (follow the link for photos) in the heart of the old town.
There was the usual colourful and mouth-watering display of pinxtos - bite-sized appetisers made with prawns, fish, crab, croquettes, tortilla, jamon, egg, red peppers stuffed with cod and many other tasty morsels too numerous to mention - set out all along the self-service bar-top which you then take to the friendly multi-lingual barman (who speaks at least 5 languages) for him to total up.
What to drink? Sangria is the drink of choice at Aralar which they serve in an oversized glass (tough job but someone has to do it!). After a bracing 130 octane unleaded extra virgin cold pressed Spanish espresso to finish off with, we emerged blinking into the sunlight, stuffed to the gills, feeling suitably mellow and riding 'very low in the water'*, to wander around the beautiful old streets of San Sebastian for a while in the late afternoon sun.
* A saying of Bill McLaren's, rugby's greatest ever commentator.
La Concha, San Sebastian
We narrowly escaped bumping into Julia Roberts who was breezing through town and due in a plush downtown hotel on a whistle-stop tour around Europe to promote her latest film. Her loss! This review suggests to me that the film has all the essential ingredients that any successful chick flick needs. Without being too dinosaur-ish about it all, when it plays in Bayonne I reckon I'll be otherwise engaged giving my sock drawer the Mother Of All Tidyings ..! Anyway, don't let my curmudgeonly ramblings put you off. Here, for all you ladies out there, is the trailer.. (tell me I'm wrong!)
Another unexpected bonus occurred during a visit to a sunny St Jean de Luz.. We found out on arrival that the Patrouille de France were going to be displaying a little later over the bay.. so we found a good vantage point on the sea wall. The team is led this year by a woman - Commandant Virginie Guyot.
We took our visitors around all our favourite places in the Pays Basque - as well as San Sebastian, St Jean Pied de Port and St Jean de Luz, we visited Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Saint Etienne de Baïgorry (where we bought some Irouleguy from the cooperative), Biarritz and of course Bayonne. It was great to see them here but suddenly it was the day of their departure for Carcassonne and their stay with us was over all too soon. It seemed as though we'd only just said hello to them before we were saying goodbye. There is so much more here we could have shown them. For instance, one of our favourite villages is Sare - notable for the Hotel Arraya in the centre. We had lunch there one day - it was worth the trip just to see the dining room.. Being totally honest, we both found the portions on the light side - even accepting that in these days of nouvelle cuisine, a groaning table is a thing of the past.
Jonathan Ray, the Telegraph's former wine correspondent gives his view of wines - Irouléguy, Jurançon and Madiran - of the Pays Basque and Béarn here. If you do visit the region, you have to try the wines.. They're not quirky oddities, they don't fall into the "don't travel" category and you definitely won't regret it. Just ensure that both the reds are not cool from your cellar.. pop them into your airing cupboard to bring the temp up a few notches.
Having tried many of the Irouléguys I'd recommend the Irouléguy Gorri d'Ansa (expect to pay ~8-9€ in a shop). There is a white Irouléguy butI've not tried it. I'd say 9 out of 10 bottles of Irouléguyare red.
Madiran? Chateau Peyros would get my vote. Yes, there are cheaper alternatives but as always... fill in the rest yourself!
As for the Jurançon, I don't know it sufficiently well to recommend one above another. You can find dry and doux (sweet) Jurançon. The dry is excellent with seafood whereas you should save the doux as an apero or with foie gras or dessert. If unsure which one you're looking at, the doux Jurançon has a hint of amber in the colour whereas the dry is very pale.
If you find yourself standing in front of a shelf feeling a tad confused, always remember this tip.. Look at the label to see if it gives the name of the Propriétaire - it might say Mis en bouteille par - bottled by Gaston Dupont. As a quick rule of thumb, I think if someone is prepared to put his name on his wine it counts for more than one produced by a Société.. How will you know if it's been produced by a Société..? At the base of the label,you might see the word Société or you might see an acronym - something like SCEA or something close to.. That means the wine has been produced by a number of growers and well.. human nature being what it is etc etc. Reading the label though is no substitute for tasting a wine at the right temperature and with food. At this point I'll put my tin hat on and await the incoming!
25th September 2010. The skies looked a bit threatening this morning on my way down to the rowing club.. The river was in full flood mode and there was one heck of a strong downstream current. We had about 3 yolettes (beamy 'fours' for beginners) out on the water and they were barely making any headway up-river. I went out in a quad sculler and, sure enough, fifteen minutes into the outing there was a downpour.. Ah well, 'tis only water.. Did 12 km (running total 190km).
26th September 2010. Down to the beach at Anglet this afternoon to enjoy the sunshine and we sat and relaxed watching the rollers surging in and bursting in explosions of foam and spray against the jetty there.
28th September 2010. My cousin brought me a fascinating book about the Royal Flying Corps and that's enough of an excuse for me to replay the late Rik Mayall at his very best:
Out in the VIII (rowing, not sculling) this evening.. Set off late due to a small tech problem so we headed off down river to join the wide open spaces of the Adour. There was a rolling swell as we neared the sea which made for uncomfortable rowing so we turned about and came back. 12km(running total 202km)
30th September 2010. We went to Biarritz this morning - Madame had an appointment at the hairdressers there so I ambled around with the pooch doing pensioner impressions for an hour - shouting at passing traffic, blocking pavements, pulling doors marked push - that sort of thing. Then, after she'd finished, we had a pizza in a place opposite Barclays Bank (near Hotel Windsor). Delicious pizza - highly recommended..
Went rowing this evening in a quad sculler - 12km (running total 214km).
2nd October 2010. 15km this morning in a IV. (running total 220km)