Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trip Story: Saint-Jean de Luz

When we were planning our vacation in France, we debated whether to stay in Biarritz or St.-Jean de Luz for our time in the Pays Basque. We ended up choosing St.-Jean de Luz based primarily on the fact that I found a great looking hotel, where we could afford a room with an ocean view- even a private ocean view balcony! I am sure Biarritz is also lovely, but I'm glad we chose St.-Jean de Luz. It turned out to be just what I needed.

St. Jean de Luz is a small town, so it was easy to get around on foot. There were interesting things to see, but not so many that we felt rushed our pressured to make sure we saw all of the "highlights." And it just had a nice, laid back feel to it. It is also a very picturesque town.

Nice town!
We arrived in the late afternoon, so we didn't do much our first evening. We strolled around a bit to get a feel for the town, and we had dinner at a Basque restaurant called Chez Maya. The food was good (although I was surprised to discover I had ordered something similar to chicken nuggets- the chicken was more like sausage, but it was breaded.) We also tried a Basque white wine that was moderately sparkling and was poured with great gusto from a foot or two above the glass. The restaurant also had an old-fashioned ceiling fan system: several "sails" of canvas hung from the ceiling on wooden frames, attached to each other by a long cord that eventually went through a hole in the wall to the kitchen. Every so often, someone in the kitchen would pull on the cord a few times, giving us all a breeze.

The next day, we did some touristing- including a visit to the main church, which even I had to admit was an interesting church. It has the tiers of wooden galleries that I gather are characteristic of churches in this part of the world. There is also a model of a ship hanging from the ceiling- also characteristic of Basque churches.

Nice church!
We also did some shopping, and then the rain came in... so we got back in our car and went to see a nearby castle.

The Chateau d'Urtubie was originally built in the 14th century. It is still owned by the original family, although they don't stay in the castle itself these days, preferring the renovated old stables building. I can't blame them- there was a definite musty smell in the castle. But there were also some beautiful tapestries, and a real sense of history.

Nice castle!

On our way back to St.-Jean de Luz, we stopped briefly in Hendaye. We could tell it would be a nice beach vacation town in better weather, but everything was closed up when we were there, so we admired the view from the sidewalk by the beach, and then got back into our car and headed on to St.-Jean de Luz. We stopped at a marked viewpoint on the way. It was pretty, but we didn't really understand why there was a viewpoint there until we got back to our hotel and did some research to discover that la Corniche Basque ("the Basque Coast") is a big deal, sort of like the Pacific Coast Highway south of Monterey in California. It was indeed some beautiful scenery.

Nice coast!
That evening, we opted for a less authentic dinner- I wanted pizza, which is a heck of a lot lighter than the meals I had been eating. (Pizza in France is a thin crust deal much like what we had when we visited Rome- similar to a a "California style" pizza in the US.) We also had a drink or two at a surf bar called "Duke's," which wasn't bad, but is probably a lot more fun when there are more people around.

The next day, we walked across the bridge to the even smaller town of Ciboure, and walked on to Socoa, a for originally built by Henri IV.

Nice fort!

It offered a nice view of the harbor and town of St.-Jean de Luz, and the walk to reach it was a pleasant way to spend the morning.

By the time we had finished looking around the fort, it was lunch time. We had a ham and cheese baguette from a bakery not far from the fort, and then walked back to our hotel. On our way, we finally understood the distinctive tower we'd seen near the harbor in St.-Jean de Luz. There is a matching one in Ciboure (painted with a green stripe instead of the red used on the St.-Jean de Luz side), and sailors use these towers to locate the mouth of the inner harbor.

Nice towers!
It had been overcast and occasionally sprinkled on our morning expedition, but that afternoon, the sun finally came out. We decided to walk in the other direction from our hotel and enjoy the view from the headlands south of town.

Nice view! This is facing south, towards Socoa.
Later still, we sampled a local culinary treat: pintxos, which are basically tapas. I was not at all clear on whether they are in fact the exact same thing, and pintxos is just the Basque word for it, or if there is some subtle difference. Either way, they were yummy, and went well with wine.

Nice snack. The pintxos are in the little jars. I think this shows some sausage slices and curry shrimp.

If you are heading to the region and want to order them, I'll save you some embarrassment and tell you they are pronounced "peen-chos." If you pronounce the X (as Mr. Snarky did when asking about them), you will get very puzzled looks.

After filling up on pintxos, we didn't want a very big dinner. We ended up at a restaurant on the other side of town from our pintxos spot. I ordered tomato soup and had a religious experience. Seriously, I had no idea tomato soup could taste that good. We also finally had some wine from St.-Emilion, and it was wonderful, too.

That evening was the perfect end our visit to St.-Jean de Luz. We got up the next morning, loaded up our car and headed east and north, spending a leisurely day driving to Dax, our next stop.

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