6-7 April 2013
Uppsala to Bayonne
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.