I had not been long in Los Angeles, when I met Dale Williams, and through him, at a Saturday night party, Tom Anderson. Tom had an asphalting company and when he heard that I was looking for casual work, he offered me a temporary job. The schools were on summer holidays and he had just started a contract to resurface the playgrounds of eight of them in Long Beach. He needed somebody to follow behind his crew and clean up the mess they always left in their wake.
So, on the Monday morning I turned up at Tom’s yard, where he gave me the keys to a big pickup truck, tools, a large can of solvent and the address of the first school, where I was to meet the foreman, who would show me what to do. After most of an hour’s drive to Long beach and ten minutes of briefing, I was on my own.
I had to trim the edges of the asphalt and load the surplus onto the pickup truck and take it back to the yard at the end of the day. Once the truck was full, I spent the rest of the day cleaning the tar marks off the concrete edging and paths, using the solvent and a stiff brush. It was hard back-breaking work and the solvent gave off strong fumes in the hot Californian sun. Each school yard took me about two days to clean and I was happy to have three weeks of paid work ahead of me.
When I had finished, Dale offered me a similar role as an odd-job man. He was a real estate developer, with a foreman and a secretary and he built houses for eventual sale, sub-contracting all the trades. When I was there, he was building a small apartment complex in Santa Monica and a large house in Malibu. He had also recently bought a burned-out plot north of Malibu, the house having been destroyed in a bush fire; all that remained was the concrete slab.
So, for the rest of the year I went back and forward between the sites, clearing up and doing odd-jobs. At one time, I hired a pneumatic drill and towed it up to the burned-out site overlooking the ocean, and broke up parts of the slab that would not be required in the new design. I drilled holes in the concrete and inserted bolts to retain the wood frame. Not being accustomed to working with a heavy drill, I could still feel the vibrations hours later.
On another occasion at the house in Malibu, I dug an 80 m trench out to the main road, to contain the electricity cables. It was that feat that earned me the affectionate title of the ‘human back-hoe’. And one of my proudest achievements was building the road from the gate up to the front door, using perforated concrete slabs, filled with compost and sown with grass seed.
Dale had found that the fire insurance on the Malibu property would be greatly reduced, if the hillside behind the house was cleared of scrub bushes, up to a minimum distance of 50 m. That task took me a several days. There was no shelter and the temperature was around 40 C. The bushes had to be dug out and tossed down the steep hill for later disposal. At one point, I was reaching into a bush to pull it out, when I heard a loud rattling sound and spotted a huge snake poised to strike me. Without thinking, I sliced it in half with the spade which I had in my other hand. I carried both halves of the snake down to the house and the workers watched it with fascination, as both halves crawled around the yard. They told me that it was a diamondback rattler and one of the workers cut off the rattles. It had six rattles, so was at least six years old. Each year when it sheds its skin, it adds another rattle. I buried the head, as it can strike up to one hour after being severed from the body.
Clearing the hillside created an enormous pile of brush. Dale obtained permission from the local fire authority to have a bonfire on a Saturday, providing that a water hose was laid on. So, that Saturday I spent almost an entire day feeding the fire, until all the brush was burned and all that remained was a small pile of ashes.
Those months that I spent doing labouring chores were unforgettable and the modest amount that I earned allowed me to extend my stay and experience the local way of life. I loved being in the open air, especially in the beautiful southern Californian weather. The hard work certainly toughened me up, but most nights at dinner, I could barely lift a knife and fork, my knuckles swollen and stiff from the lifting, carrying and digging, especially when I had been working with the pneumatic drill.
Yes, I have such fond memories of my stay in California and I feel forever grateful to Tom and Dale for having given me the opportunity to participate in it.
Competitive running played a dominant part in my life, from my first race in Venezuela in 1978 (see here), to my last, in 2003 in the UK. In all I ran in 350 races. I was very fortunate in being able to remain relatively injury-free during that period.
When I started competing, the Nirvana of marathon running was Boston, for which a qualifying time was required, and New York, where so many world records were made. So, with the goal of attaining a Boston qualifying time of sub-2:50, I entered in the 1980 Cleveland marathon.
But before I left for Cleveland, my friend Fidel Rotondaro and I decided to organize a group to go to the New York marathon later that year, in October (see here for the article about Fidel). We split up the responsibilities – Fidel with the transportation and me with the race entries and the accommodation.
Earlier that year, I had completed my first marathon in 3:09:45 in Miami, in what felt relatively easy, but a goal of 2:50 would be a marked increase in pace. As it turned out my pacing was almost perfect, as I finished Cleveland in 2:49:52, with eight seconds to spare. That Boston qualifying time resulted in a flattering write-up in one of the main Caracas newspapers.
On the way back to Caracas, I stopped off in New York and went to the New York Road Runners office. There I met Fred Lebow, the founder. He introduced me to his assistant, who would be my contact for any problem with runner entries. He also recommended me to an hotel, close by the race finish, where later I made a block booking of rooms.
So, in October we all set off to New York. Fidel had arranged for a bus to transport us from the airport to the hotel. I will never forget the spontaneous singing of New York, New York on the bus, as we drove into the city.
The morning of the race, it was very cold. The last buses to the start, on the other side of the Verezano Bridge, left long before the roads closed and there was a lot of hanging around, waiting for the start, with frequent visits to the toilets or the ‘longest urinal in the world’.
But eventually the race started and for me it flowed like a dream. I was running at a pace to beat 2:45 and it was feeling easy. When I entered Central Park with only a few kilometers to go, I turned up a gear and finished in 2:42:36.
I only ever beat that time once, in Miami, in 2:37:27. I was quite convinced that I was eventually capable of sub-2:20, but a dusk collision with a bollard in a park and a new job that involved a lot of travel to Central and South America, placed my running ambitions on a back burner, where they have remained.
That year in New York, Alberto Salazar broke the world record and Grete Waitz, from Norway, won for the third time. She went on to win the NY marathon a total of nine times. Fred Lebow was struck down with brain cancer, but in remission, ran the 1992 marathon in 5:32, together with Greta Waitz by his side. Fred Lebow died in 1994. Later, Greta Waitz had her own losing battle with cancer and she died in 2011.
These days, I don’t often hear that melody – New York, New York, but when I do, it is always the memories of that era that come flooding into my head.
Until the early 1900s, when tourism became an increasing source of income, Mundaka lived off fishing, maritime trade and some subsistence farming. Vasco was the language and still is, although most locals are now bilingual in Castellano. The street signs and menus in restaurants are in Vasco, also a section in the local newspaper.
Even today the town is small, but the original part is obvious with its network of narrow streets and alleyways. Beside the harbour is a large building with striking wooden beams and columns, bound with steel bands. Today the ground floor is a bar and restaurant and the owner told me the building was about 220 years old. He said that in Mundaka there were not many (if any) older buildings still intact, apart from the church.
I had gone to Mundaka to see if I could find any trace of the Lázaga family, ancestors of my sons’ maternal grandmother, Norma Lázaga Navarro (1930-2017). She once told me that her grandfather, José Ignacio Lázaga, was born in 1865 on a ship in the harbour of San José, Puerto Rico, the family eventually settling in Habana, Cuba. Her grandfather was captured during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain and was held prisoner in Ceuta. He was sentenced to death, but was reprieved at the last minute. He rose through the ranks of Cuba’s navy and when he died in 1941, he was given a full military funeral.
I don’t know when José Ignacio’s father, José Ramón Lázaga, returned to Mundaka, but he died there in 1890. It was the grave of José Ramón that I was hoping to find, and perhaps those of other family members.
The receptionist at the hotel was curious as to what had brought a Spanish-speaking Irishman to Mundaka. I explained that I was looking for any evidence of the Lázaga family, of which at least one branch had moved to Cuba in the 1860s. I was particularly interested in anyone of the Lázaga name still resident in Mundaka. The girl immediately called one of her friends in the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) to find out what she could. She was told that there were no residents of that name still living in the commune. Of course, there could be married female descendants of the Lázaga family living there, but due to the data protection laws, she was not empowered to reveal that information. But she was able to give the name of the last Lázaga buried in the town cemetery, a Mercedes Lázaga Goyenechea, who died in 2002, aged 75.
I headed out of the town to find the graveyard, which was on top of a hill about twenty minutes along the coast. It was a beautiful walk with glorious views of the river estuary and over the town.
The cemetery was isolated and very peaceful. There was not a soul around. The receptionist in the hotel had drawn a sketch of the approximate location of the grave of Mercedes Lázaga and I had no problem in finding it.
The plaque was pinned to an older grave, the stone of which was so weather-worn that it was impossible to make out other than a few isolated words. I took pictures from several angles and later on my pc I tried to decipher the words, but to no avail.
I spent some time searching the graveyard for any evidence of the Lázaga name, but without success. It seemed as if Mercedes Lázaga was the only Lázaga buried there. But the graveyard did not seem to be very old and apart from the worn stone on the grave of Mercedes, the stones were relatively new and easily legible, with the oldest being from the early 1900s.
So where were the older graves? Was there another graveyard somewhere that could have contained gravestones of the Lázagas? When I got back to the hotel, the owner explained that there had been a graveyard beside the church, but it had been removed when the new graveyard was created, and the area was now private residential property. I suspect that the eroded stone on the Mercedes Lázaga grave was from the church graveyard.
The next day I woke to a clear blue sky, warm sun and no wind. I had an excellent breakfast in the almost deserted dining room – there were only two others staying in the hotel. After breakfast, I decided to head out of the town for a long walk along the coast and perhaps up the hill into the countryside. Just outside the town I passed a pristine and secluded beach, completely deserted. It was perhaps too early for sunbathers.
From the top of the first hill I had an excellent view of the church, prominent on the headland. There was already a church on the site in the 11th century, as a document from 1071 noted its existence and recorded a donation that it made. The original church was destroyed during factional wars, being rebuilt and enlarged in the XVI century.
I eventually came across an unpaved road off the coastal road and decided to follow it to see where it led. For perhaps thirty minutes the road steadily climbed up a narrow valley until it finally stopped at a dilapidated farmhouse. A dog started barking when it spotted me and an old man came to the door. He was exceedingly wizened and frail. I spoke to him but he did not seem to understand me. He replied in Vasco. But sign language can be universal and I indicated that I wanted to walk further and was it possible. He indicated that the farm was the end of the road, so I reluctantly returned back the way I had come. It was a pity that I could not have asked him if he could remember of any Lázagas.
Once back to the coast road, I stopped in a bar and had a beer, a light lunch and read the newspapers, before returning to explore Mundaka.
The Hermitage of St. Catherine sits on a peninsula and is isolated from the rest of the town. It was built in the 19th century on the ancient remains of a fortress. It was often used as a meeting place and as a place for quarantining victims of epidemic.
The view across that bay to the next headland was spectacular. The day was peaceful and the water calm, but on the exposed headland one could imagine that the winds from the Bay of Biscay could be quite fierce during a storm.
Today Mundaka is renowned for its surfing and even on a relatively calm sea, there were several surfers patiently waiting for a suitable wave. The waves rise in the shape of a tube and can grow to four meters high and extend for 400 meters. In the village there are constant reminders of surfing in posters, photographs, rental shops and groups of young people, bronzed and athletic.
The sea was remarkably calm that day and there was no activity in the harbour to shatter the glass-like surface of the water. There were a few men fishing from the wall. There was no evidence of the fishing fleet and maritime trade that used to exist, just pleasure craft.
Before I came to Mundaka, I had ambitions of accessing the church records and proving the veracity of what I had been told of the family history. But I had read several accounts of how difficult it was to get access. The records are not centralized as they are in many countries and one is quite dependent on the willingness to help of the parish priest. When I saw the locked gate and the iron bars around the church, my thought was that the priest has bigger and more pressing problems that helping amateur genealogists. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future the Spanish church records will be centralized and available on the internet, as they are in many other countries.
When I returned home, I documented what I had found in Mundaka and sent the photographs and a local tourist brochure to Miami, to my sons’ grandmother. I am glad that I made the effort to go to Mundaka when I did, for she sadly died suddenly, earlier this year.
I had intended to spend the weekend in San Sebastián and continue walking on Monday. I wanted to watch some of the rugby matches involving the Irish clubs – it was nearing the climax of the season, but there was no wifi in the pension. Moreover the room was uncomfortable and rather expensive, at least by my standards, so I decided to return by Euskotren to the comfortable and inexpensive hotel in Irun for the weekend.
Despite the forecast of heavy rain over the weekend, I woke to blue skies. I passed the morning wandering around and spent some time in a tiny café, with a coffee and reading the newspapers. Every bar and café in Spain (and most of Europe) has the local and national papers readily available to read, and I usually took advantage of them.
Early afternoon I caught the Euskotren back to Irun, arriving in time to watch the first game.
Monday 15 April 2013
San Sebastián to Zaraútz – 20 km
I left the hotel early and shortly after 08h00 I was back in San Sebastián, on my way to the beach and the promenade along Bahia de la Concha. The pavements and benches were still wet from the overnight rains, but the sky was clear and the early morning sun felt warm and reassuring.
From the end of the promenade the path climbed to the top of the headland and from there it undulated, parallel to the coast, finally descending abruptly to the little fishing port of Orio.
I stopped in the little square by the river and had my typical lunch – una caña y una ración de tortilla con pan. I sat outside, in the shade, as the sun was strong, even if it was still early in the year. On one side of the square were several examples of apartments with dark wooden balconies and façades. They looked so solid, and reminded me of similar buildings in the old quarter of Lima.
From the square the route crossed the river, and then followed the riverbank toward the sea. Just before the headland, the path turned up a steep valley, and ahead of me I could see a rather frail old man, moving very slowly. He had a large pack and sticks in both hands. When I caught up with him he turned out to be an old Frenchman walking to Santiago de Compostela from somewhere near Bordeaux. He spoke no English nor Spanish and he seemed to be more than a little bewildered. We chatted for some time about nothing and everything – he reminded me very much of my old friend Roy Bishop. Eventually I wished him ‘Buen Camino’ and moved on. The old man had about another 700 km to walk to Santiago. I suspect that he either made it, or died on the way. He neither looked like nor sounded like a man who would ever give up. One day that may be me.
Once at the top of the valley there was a short walk along an escarpment followed by a steady descent to the main road into Zaraútz.
I had no problem in finding an inexpensive room, but it turned out to very cold and damp. It felt like a room that had not been inhabited since the previous summer. But once showered and dressed and seated in a nearby bar with a beer and a newspaper, I was quite revived. I had a walk around the town, but there was a cold wind from the sea, so I returned to the bar and snacked on tapas, washed down with a delicious red wine.
Being a Monday evening, the bar was quiet and the barmaid had time to chat. I asked her about the walk next day to Deba and she said that it was similar to the walk from Zaraútz. But she said that the next two days after Deba were quite challenging. Apart from the small village of Markina-Xemein there was nothing for about 50 km, not even a farm. And there were some steep sections. She advised me not to tackle it alone, especially as there had been a lot of rain and me with a noticeable limp.
When I went to bed it was once more raining heavily. I was not quite sure as to what I was going to do the next day.
Tuesday 16 April 2017
Zaraútz to Mundaka
Next morning, when I saw how wet everything was outside from the overnight rain and with more heavy rain forecast for the next few days, I decided to call a halt to the walking and leave it for another time and warmer weather. The camino and the mountains will still be there.
So after a leisurely breakfast, I headed to the station and caught the train to Lemoa, where I would have to change to another train to Mundaka. The train progressed slowly, going on a long loop to avoid the mountainous area that I had intended in crossing on foot. It took over two hours to get to Lemoa, where the train to Mundaka left just as I was crossing the bridge to the other platform. I had to wait for an hour on the deserted platform of the unstaffed station for the next train.
The train to Mundaka consisted of two small carriages, more like two joined-up buses on rails. Progress was slow and there were frequent stops, including two in the town of Gernika-Lumo, better known as Guernica. It was the scene of the first major aerial bombing by the German Nazi Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. They had been ‘invited’ by Franco to practice their tactics on a real target. The town was razed and official reports claimed that 1654 people were killed. It inspired the famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso. I don’t imagine that many Mercedes, BMWs or Volkswagens are ever sold in Guernica.
The station at Mundaka is on the hill at the edge of the town and from there I walked down through the narrow streets to the open square in front of the church. There I found a room in a very comfortable hotel.
I was about to start my search for the Lázaga family (see here).
I set out in high spirits soon after breakfast – the sun shone and the air felt warm. The road climbed out of the town and into the country, past beautiful Basque farms with their traditional houses of white walls and red roofs, doors and shutters. The road climbed and descended without cease.
The way was well marked, or at least it was, until I realised that I had not seen a sign for some time. I could see the sea in the far distance, and rather than retrace my steps, I decided to continue and follow the coast to Hendaye.
Eventually I came to a sign for Hendaye Plage. It was soon after that the wind picked up and I could see a huge pile of black clouds over the mountain, heading directly towards me. The rain started slowly and then suddenly with full force. I was drenched before I could react and get out my poncho. There is not a lot one can do with no shelter, except press on and hope it soon passes.
But it did not pass and I eventually reached the centre of Hendaye Plage only to find out that I should have gone to Hendaye Ville, for which I never saw a sign. The guy who gave me the bad news that it was a further three kilometres, offered to drive me there, for the storm was getting worse. He was a surfer complete with board and I squeezed into the back seat. He did not seem to mind that I was rather wet. He said that he had once hiked around England and had received so much help from local people, often going well out of their way to help him find accommodation. He said that it was now his turn to be the Good Samaritan. He dropped me outside the train station at the Spanish border.
I caught the local Euskotren for four short stops to a hotel in Irun and checked in, still dripping wet.
Friday 12 April, 2013
Irun to San Sebastián – 25 km
I had a schematic map of each stage of the route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and from my hotel room I could see what was almost certainly the path cutting across the mountain that stood between where I was and the sea. As the day was going to be somewhat more challenging than the days since Bayonne, I had an early breakfast and set off before 08h00.
I caught the Euskotren two short stops back to Irun, asked in a bar for directions and I was soon on the path, following the familiar yellow arrows indicating the Camino del Norte. The arrows are painted on walls, rocks, trees, posts, pavement etc. all the way to Santiago. The Spanish are rightly proud of their many well-marked caminos and whether one is a genuine religious pilgrim or just a casual hiker, the local people make one feel genuinely welcome. At least that had been my experience over many weeks of hiking in Spain in the previous two years. In contrast, my recent short walk in France did not leave me with such a positive impression.
For the first hour, the going was easy – a flat walk through marshlands, and then a steady climb to a path that followed the contours of the mountain, the same path that I could see from the hotel earlier that morning.
For the next ten kilometres, the going was gently up, gently down, until finally a sharp descent down to an inlet of the sea, at Pasai Donibane. I ended up on a quay, with no sight of the bridge that I had expected to cross to the other side. I spotted a man fishing and I asked him how I could cross the water. He laughed and said that I could walk across, but he did not recommend it. But just around the corner there was a boat that I could take. I did not mention my expected bridge, but I felt rather foolish nevertheless.
Once on the other side, the yellow arrows resumed and led me seawards. Eventually, they pointed towards a steep stair cut out of the rock of the cliff face. The steps were steep with only a low wall and I soon felt my heart thumping. I ascended slowly. The steps seemed to be interminable and I was glad that the rocks were dry; with rain, a strong wind and my bad leg, I would have found it quite challenging.
Once up and away from the cliff, the going was straightforward, with several short climbs and descents. Finally, there was San Sebastián below with its beautiful concave beaches. It reminded me of Acapulco in Mexico.
But I had not noticed the gathering clouds and before I got off the mountain, the rain started. I sheltered under some trees until it passed. It was obvious by the dark clouds that more rain was on the way, so I continued on my way down and to the centre of the town, to find a hotel for the night.
Finding a hotel did not prove to be very easy. Normally I would look for hotel signs, but where I expected there to be hotels, there were none. All I could find were pensiones and sleeping in somebody’s spare bedroom was not my scene. I asked some locals and they did not seem to know of any hotels and recommended that I find a pension. By now the rain had started falling heavily. I tried several pensiones, but all were full. In the end, I found one that had a room available, but the old lady that answered the door would only let me have it, if I paid for double occupancy. By then I was getting tired and quite wet, so I reluctantly agreed to an exorbitant rate for a room with a little bed, no table, no chair and the only socket contained the plug of the only lamp. And of course, no wifi.
But after I had showered and put on dry clothes, I felt better. It was still raining heavily, but I found a McDonalds close by, with wifi, and I caught up on my mail and the sports results.
And despite the crap bed, I slept the night through, without once wakening. The fresh air and the exercise always seem to have that effect on me.
I had not intended on returning to Uppsala until the end of April, but the heavy rains, flooding and unseasonal cold weather in Extremadura caused me to abandon my walking north from Seville to Astorga, and I reluctantly returned to Uppsala to conserve my funds.
But April in Uppsala is not great either. Even though the snow may have largely gone and the hour changed to summer time, the ground can still be frozen, the northern winds quite bitter and the paths thickly coated with grit, that will not be completely cleaned up until well into May.
It did not take me long to come up with ‘Plan B’ – to go to Mundaka to see if there remained any evidence of the Lázaga family, a family history research task that I have had in mind for several years. I have traced my sons’ ancestry through their mother’s ancestors to José Ramón Lázaga, who was born in Mundaka in 1838, but prior to that date I have not been able to verify the information that was passed to me, regarding three further generations dating back to 1736.
I reasoned that gravestones from the mid-1800s could still be legible and that it was possible that evidence of the prior existence of the Lázaga family may still exist. It was also possible that there were descendants of that name still living in the village and perhaps the village priest (if they still had one) would let me look at the church records.
And where is Mundaka? It is a small fishing port in the province of Bizkaia, about 40 km to the north-east of Bilbao. The closest airport to Mundaka from Sweden was Biarritz, so I decided to fly to there and walk from nearby Bayonne, following the pilgrim path (El Camino del Norte), which passes near to Mundaka, at Gernika-Lumo.
So, on 6 April I set off to the airport at Skavsta, about 90 minutes south of Stockholm, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, and arrived mid-morning in Biarritz, to a clear blue sky and a warm spring day.
Another camino was about to begin.
Monday 8 April 2013
Bayonne to Bidart – 14 km
As I sat there in the little plaza of Bidart, with its white-walled houses and red roofs, I could see the Pyrenees, as they descended to the precipitous Basque coast with its cliffs, inlets and beaches. The sky was still blue and the early evening sun felt warm and comforting.
But when I left Bayonne cathedral that morning, the western sky was dark and ominous, and the forecast was calling for afternoon storms. I was tempted to just take a bus to Bidart and avoid another soaking, but as the bus station was close to the cathedral, I decided to check if they really did have a pilgrim desk as stated on their website, staffed between 10:00 and 11:00 during the week. And sure enough, there was a desk and a very helpful girl, who gave me a rather tiny map, assuring me that the path was well-marked. So off I set off down the hill from the cathedral to the river, having overcome the temptation to take the bus and oblivious of the impending storms.
For the first hour, the path followed the river until it came to an intersection. I took the right fork, which led to the Coastal Camino, while the left fork continued alongside the river, eventually splitting into two routes over the mountains to Pamplona, one via Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the other via the Baztan valley.
On my little map, the route was indicated with a broad-tipped yellow marker and it seemed to twist and turn and meander across Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz, like a drunken Irishman returning home from the pub on a Saturday night. There were some signs, but they were often not obvious, and at some intersections they seemed to be missing completely. It was not long before I was lost and asking directions of people, most of whom seemed to have never heard of the Chemin de Santiago, a situation that was to repeat at too frequent intervals.
And when the signage eventually did improve, the first storm suddenly hit, with hail like marbles, followed by torrential rain and strong winds. It did not last long, but long enough to turn the road into a raging river. Thanks to my recent frequent practice in Spain, I managed to quickly don my poncho, covering myself and backpack in record time. I looked like a large green turtle. I huddled under some trees until the worst was past. An hour later a second storm hit, but without hail. When it finally cleared, the clouds disappeared, and the sun shone for the first time that day.
The route skirted the airport and later passed by the Biarritz railway station. The first time I was at that station was in 1968, and it was in Biarritz that I bought my first bottle of cheap wine, in a small grocery store. Later in the hotel room I had to prise the cork out with a pair of scissors; I had no corkscrew. It was the start of my lifelong love affair with cheap wine.
After the station, the path led to a large lake, and followed the shore to the other end, before climbing to the main coastal road. From there a thirty-minute walk along a busy road took me to Bidart, my stop for the night.
There only seemed to be one hotel open – it was still very much off-season, and I seemed to be the first guest that day. The rate seemed very reasonable for France, and the room was surprisingly luxurious, with a beautiful view across fields to the mountains.
But finding a hotel with an available room was only part of the challenge; I now had to find my way from my room out of the hotel. The building contained a maze of corridors and stairs leading up and down. I now understood why the friendly barman insisted in taking me to the room and I should have paid more attention as to the route. For what seemed like an eternity, I went around and around, up flights of stairs and down, ending in store rooms, exits with the door locked, a boiler room. There were no windows and I was completely disoriented. Not once did I even end up at my room from where I had started out. Finally, I went through an unmarked door to what seemed like a large deserted restaurant in semi-darkness. At the other end were stairs which led to the bar and my friendly barman.
The staff had a good laugh at my getting lost.
Tuesday 9 April
Bidart to Saint-Jean-de-Luz – 10 km
As I did not intend to walk very far that day, I went to bed not setting my alarm, and woke up at first light to the dawn chorus. I had a leisurely breakfast of café au lait and croissant and set off in the morning sun, following the path down the hill from the church, as indicated by the Santiago sign. When I arrived at the edge of the village and an intersection with several roads merging, I could not see any further signs, and it was not obvious to me which way I should go. There was nobody around, so I decided to return to the village and get a map.
By that time the tourist office had opened, but no, they did not have any maps. A rather snooty woman said that there was no need for maps, as the paths were clearly marked. Anyway, I was told, most walkers follow the coastal path, as it is much more scenic and interesting. Turn left, then right and follow the path down to the beach, I was told and she started talking to the postman who had just come in the door. I was obviously dismissed, so I left. It seemed that the concept of customer service had not yet arrived in Bidart, but come to think of it, Paris was little different.
For the next couple of hours my progress was repetitive – a steep descent to the beach, a short walk along the sea, followed by a steep climb back up, sometimes to not far from where I started. The steps were made with log retainers holding back the earth, and all was wet, muddy and rather slippery, due to the heavy rain of the day before. And the wind, at times, was quite fierce. I regretted not having persisted with the ‘less interesting’ inland walk along country lanes.
When I eventually came to a new road development, the signs stopped, or at least I did not see them. I had enough of the coastal walk and did not feel like going back to find the sign, if indeed it existed. I decided to just follow the road into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, despite the horrendous traffic jam that seemed to have been created by the road works. It was further than I thought and for the next hour I walked alongside stationary or barely moving traffic. Not very enjoyable.
But what a delightful little town Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be. With its Basque architecture, narrow streets, wide beach and peaceful harbour, it was most appealing. I crossed the bridge to my hotel and extended my stay for an extra night, to allow me to explore the town the next day.
Wednesday 10 April
It turned out to be a beautiful day, and with only a slight breeze, the sea was calm. I walked along the seafront, but there was not one person on the beach. Obviously, there were no sun-starved Scandinavians in the vicinity and it was too early in the year for French tourists, at least for those who lie on beaches.
As evidenced by signs on many buildings and streets, the town’s main claim to fame was the royal wedding on 9 June 1660 between Louis XIV of France and María Theresa (the ‘Infanta‘), the daughter of Felipe IV of Spain. Louis XIV is best remembered as the ‘Sun King’, who built Versailles and ruled France for 75 years. The marriage was a result of the treaty ending 30 years of war between France and Spain.
I went to the church where the wedding had taken place, but I found it locked. It was quite a small church – it was probably a small town in 1660. I guess that only a few of the court could have witnessed the ceremony. Interestingly, after it was over, the main door of the church was bricked up. I have no idea why.
According one notice that I read, Anne of Austria – the mother of Louis XIV arrived in the town about a month before the ceremony and stayed until a week after. She was joined by the Infanta two days before the wedding. The building where they stayed is quite striking, with pink stonework. It belonged to a rich merchant.
In the past few years I have read several French historical novels set in the era of Versailles and the Sun King. I was not aware of the wedding in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and being there somehow seemed significant to me. Perhaps it reminded me of many evenings during my years in Paris, reading Alexandre Dumas novels over dinner and a carafe of wine in a restaurant, and later walking around the old city to see if a building or street I had read of still existed.
In a nostalgic mood, I went to the little central square, found a comfortable table in the sun, and ordered a cold glass of rosé.