Bayonne, Friday, September 23, 2011

At the end of September 1968, Biarritz was paradise, at least it was for me; the sky was blue, the air was warm, the water was temperate, the sand was clean, the surf was friendly and the town was quiet, almost devoid of visitors. I had a comfortable room one block from the beach.  I was young and I felt as if I was in heaven; I had never experienced anywhere like it before.

And on Thursday when my flight from Stansted passed low over the town on its final descent, memories of that long past era came flooding back. Above all I recalled the light and the vivid colours of the houses and the landscape, so much appreciated by artists.

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Biaritz with its red roofs and red walls

The little modern airport is located between Biarritz and Bayonne. Once the two towns were quite separate, but today it is not obvious where the suburbs of one ends and the other begins.

From the airport a thirty minute ride costing one euro on a suburban bus delivered me to the Bayonne railway station. And from there most pilgrims, and there were several on my flight, make the ninety minute rail journey to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town before the Spanish border, and the recognized start of the ‘Camino francés’.

But I did not set off straight away; I checked in at a nearby hotel, to ensure that I could see the several games of the Rugby World Cup that I knew were being carried on the French networks that weekend.  I felt it unlikely that they would be shown on Spanish television.  So my pilgrimage would not start until the following Monday.

Aerial view of Bayonne

Bayonnne is situated at the SW corner of the French hexagon and is centred on the confluence of the rivers Nive and Adour. It originated in a Roman settlement, Lapurdum. In 842 the Vikings invaded the area and eventually settled. From 1152 to 1452, until the end of the 100 year war, it was ruled by England. Today it is a relatively sleepy backwater town.  It is also the birthplace of Didier Deschamps of the World cup winning French football team, and Imanol Harimdorquy, the highly-rated French international rugby union star.

France’s wildest party – the Bayonne festival in August

So for the next three days I lazed around; late breakfast of café au lait and croissant each day in the same little hole-in-the-wall bistro, reading the papers from cover to cover and chatting rugby to the friendly proprietor; wandering around the town exploring the battlements and the picturesque narrow streets of the old town; browsing in the bookshops and reading a new book in the sun in the square, accompanied by a beer or glass of wine; eating dinner outside by the river; and of course all  interspersed with returning to my hotel room in time to watch the next game.

Life was feeling pretty good to me.

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