Saint-Jean-de-Luz to San Sebastián

Thursday 11 April, 2013

Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Irun – 14 km

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.

Typical Basque architecture on the outskirts of Saint-Jean-de-Luz

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.

Looking back to Hendaye Plage, on the other side of the river, from the path starting to ascend the mountain

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.

The short crossing from Pasai Donibane to Pasai San Pedro

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.

San Sebastián with the rain about to fall

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.



Bayonne to Saint-Jean-de-Luz

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.

Three different paths to Santiago, with my little back-pack ready to go

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.

Looking back to Bayonne from the path by the River Nive

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.

The excellent little hotel in Bidart

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.

Looking back to Bidart

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.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz was somewhere in the distance, behind one of the headlands

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.

The tranquil harbour of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, sheltered from the wind


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.

The house used by the Infanta of Spain

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.

The main square with trees still bare of leaves