Monday, 21 December 2009

drinking and singing all night in St Jean de Luz

This weekend St Jean de Luz started to fill up with Christmas spirit. My choir were on duty. Meeting mid afternoon at our clubhouse in the port we crammed into the back of a transit van and headed for Biarritz. Assembling outside Maison Adam, the owner sings tenor with us, we broke into a variety of traditional Basque Christmas songs. Far from being carols the songs are upbeat and more folksy than religious. All very rousing, we attracted a significant crowd. Between songs the lovely girls that work in the shop ensured we were fueled by wine, chocolates and macarons. By the time it started getting dark we headed back to St Jean de Luz and the main event.
Gathering in one of the trinquets (a very Basque place where pelota is played) we enjoyed more wine before heading into the centre of town. Walking en masse with two of our more seasoned campaigners leading the way with large wooden sticks (our costume is that of the mountains) we were immediately the centre of attention. First we sang at a tapas bar, then outside another chocolatier on Rue Gambetta before moving to Place Louis XIV where we set up outside the main Maison Adam. Wearing Basque costume, including large floppy berets, we sang loudly and well. By the time we had finished our set in the Place the shops had closed. I had also sussed that the singing was centred around food and drink. Unbeknown to me the main event was about to start. A traditional event dating back decades and longer, a very Basque event that I was to feel exceedingly fortunate to be part of.
To kick-start the evening we had been invited to sing at the opening party of a new gallery by a famous local painter. He had painted our accordianist as the centrepiece of one of his favourite works. After canapes and wine we moved to Le Petite Grill Basque for more singing, wine, piquillos, crevettes and oysters. Next up one of the main bars in town where the local celebrity group Arin Luzien was practicing, complete with mandolins and other assorted Basque instruments. We combined and sang more, accompanied by a myriad of locals and several bottles of wine. Moving on we arrived at another restaurant where the local fire brigade were holding their Christmas party. Again more singing and more beer. From here, across the river into Ciboure and to Chez Mattin where we set up camp beside the bar. As the evening drew on more and more Basque was spoken, songs became increasingly passionate and the brethren ever more close. It was about midnight when we finished at Chez Mattin. The snow was falling heavily outside so we took a break to enjoy a snowball fight before moving on.
Heading back towards the port in Ciboure we descended upon a bar next to the fronton. Despite the hour, weather and quiet streets the bar was mobbed. We heightened the revelries into the small hours as the barmen kept the flow of beer moving in our direction. I was quite bewildered. I had expected a sedate rendition or two in town, not twelve hours of drinking, singing and socialising. In St Jean de Luz everybody knows everybody else. To have been at the heart of such a local group and embraced by the throng was a delight, something I dare say few other 'outsiders' can lay claim to. Around half two we left the bar, I presumed for home, not so. We still had our own private party to contend with. Back at our clubhouse we set about a feast of marinated veal, song and more wine.
I have no idea when we finished or how I got home but I did wake the following morning feeling exceedingly satisfied at having been part of something quite special. I also seem to recognise many more faces as I walk around town. Slowly, slowly, I think I am being accepted. Before arriving in these parts I had been warned that the Basques are notoriously unfriendly and that it's difficult to get on with them unless your family has lived here for generations. I am yet to experience this and think it's just an image they convey in order to keep unwanted visitors at bay.
Basque of the day:- thank you :: eskerrik asko

Friday, 18 December 2009

free wine in St Jean de Luz

At Christmas-time the many choirs of St Jean de Luz wander the streets in Basque costume singing traditional seasonal folk songs. My excellent choir, basically twelve blokes who like to drink but also sing brilliantly, are starting in Biarritz at 4pm tomorrow and then back to St Jean de Luz for the evening session. The choirs are amateur but receive payment in kind. We tend to stop and sing outside preferred chocolatiers, patisseries and restaurants. As such we receive fresh chocolates, macarons and glasses of wine. We cheat, the patron of Maison Adam sings with us so we are guaranteed fine fare.
It will be the first time I have worn Basque costume: mountain shoes (black boots that lace up the leg); thick white socks; dark trousers tucked into socks; white top; rough woollen dark overcoat; dark Basque beret. The songs sung in Basque at Christmas are very different from those I am used to. I had hoped it would be the usual carols using music I know but with words translated. Not so. The songs are very local and tell of snowy mountains, family and of course love of a beautiful women (a traditional Basque theme).
Heavy snow has fallen overnight on the surrounding mountains. The mighty La Rhune that stands proudly at the end of the Pyrenees staring out at the Atlantic has turned white. The cold is set to last. My wife finally returns home tomorrow after six months in London so I hope the airport stays open.
Basque of the day:- snow :: elur

Thursday, 17 December 2009

chilling out in St Jean de Luz

Returning from London to St Jean de Luz the temperature plummeted. From a balmy 5C we are now officially sub-zero. Moreover, the forecast for next week, Christmas Day in particular, is even colder ranging from -8C to -21C. The upside is that there will also be snow.

The other big change since coming home is that over the past week St Jean de Luz has turned itself very Christmassy: the main streets shimmer with sparkling decorations; shop windows are bedecked in a vast array of Yuletide splendour; hot chestnuts are readily available and people are finally beginning to talk about Christmas. That it takes until the 17 December for Christmas to arrive in the Basque country never fails to please, no ploughing through Christmas advertising in September here.

I had my first official hot chocolate of winter yesterday. Starting with Etchebaster in St Jean de Luz I will once again selflessly peruse the myriad of coffee houses in the Basque country to discover the Hottest Hot Chocolate of 2010. Last year's winner, Cazenave in Bayonne, will take some beating.

Basque of the day:- Christmas :: Eguberri

Friday, 4 December 2009

from St Jean de Luz to San Sebastian

I escaped from St Jean de Luz for an evening out in San Sebastian. The short 30 minute drive is always fun. I never cease to take pleasure from crossing a national border. Having spent too much time as a kid looking at maps I always imagine everything will be red in Spain as it was on the map, then again not everything in France was blue.

San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is known in Basque, is a splendid place to take dinner. The old town with its grid-like narrow streets are crammed with bars offering tapas, or pinxtos as they call them in Basque-land. Weaving through the omnipresent throng we arrived at my favourite haunt and enjoyed several plates of braised beef in red wine, sauted octopus, fried gambas and cured veal.

Taking some air after dinner we heard singing. Following the sound we arrived at a large tent on the central plaza. Inside a multitude of locals were sitting around tables speaking Basque. I eventually figured out that they were working on ideas for the town's bid to become European City of Culture in 2016. It seems like yesterday that it was Glasgow. How time marches on.

Basque of the day:- time :: denbora

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

St Jean de Luz verbage

Having been in St Jean de Luz for a year now I am slowly getting grips with speaking French. The more I understand of the language the more similarities I find with English. There are a whole host of words that exist in both languages either directly or indirectly. There are three obvious types:
1. Exact matches: chauffeur, restaurant, profession, avenue, table etc.
2. Close matches: absolument-absolutely, vin-wine, necessaire-necessary etc.
3. Trend matches: English - pret a porter, chic, soiree; French - weekend, cool, let's go
However, there are also a few words in English that are obviously derived from French but which carry a very different meaning. The two most obvious examples are mercy and settee.
Mercy in English is a word used to show compassion by one person to another. It has to have come from the French 'merci' which means thank you. I can only imagine that at some point a group of French soldiers were taken prisoner by the English. During their imprisonment I imagine the French saying thank you to the English for not killing them. Misunderstanding what was being said I like to think that the English saw this as a new word that has been adopted under the guise of mercy.
The word settee is common-place in English. The nearest French translation is canape, nothing like settee. Again, imagining some battle fought long ago, the English were this time captured by the French. I like to think that some French soldier ordered the English to sit on that bench over there, declaring 'assieds-toi'. Not understanding the foreign words or accent perhaps the English soldiers thought their captor was referring to the bench or wooden settee. Who knows?
The more I think about the more confusing it becomes. Throw in Basque and Spanish then I'm completely flummoxed...
Basque of the day:- translate :: itzuli

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

success in St Jean de Luz

There is a rumour doing the rounds in St Jean de Luz that the LGV is being re-routed. It had been planned to destroy various villages as well as scour a gaping hole through La Rhune. It now looks as though it is following the existing rail route with no adverse effects. Why couldn't the authorities simply have opted for this in the first place? It would have saved a good deal of effort and public relations.

On another note... What is it with people in the UK who have already put up their Christmas decorations? I can partially understand reatil outlets touting for business early but bringing the plastic cheer into the home early is just not class. Even the shops here are only just beginning to think about Christmas. It's the 1st of December not the 21st!!!!

Basque of the day:- tradition :: tradizio

Friday, 27 November 2009

tough times in St Jean de Luz

Today was a difficult day in St Jean de Luz. Choir is taking an autumnal break so my cultural pursuits lie in the heady world of dance. The weekly class has extended beyond the two hour mark (from 45 minutes) so I am having to keep moderately fit just to keep up my learning. Having grasped the fundamentals of Sevillanas I have moved on to Flamenco Rumba. Now, the Rumba itself is a fast-paced affair, the Flamenco Rumba is just silly. We need to break down each second into three parts each with a different movement in each 1/3 second for arms and feet. My coordination is not brilliant at the best of times so I am struggling a little.

Fabienne, my wonderful teacher, is probably the strictest woman on the planet. If I feel things are getting too much there's no sitting on the sidelines, she simply tells everyone I'm finding it tough and makes me dance in front of them. Although my feet were several seconds behind the class I felt I moved up in the macho-matador-upper-body-stance-stakes. At the end of the lesson I was feeling a little despondent but Fabienne together with a couple of ladies from my class insisted I am not to give up. I can safely say that I am most definitely the most brilliant male dancer in my class, absolutely no doubting that, then again I am the only male in my class. It's good to be humbled from time to time. (Fabienne, I will practice harder for next week!)

Basque of the day:- to learn one's lesson :: eskarmentua hartua izan

Thursday, 26 November 2009

mad Christmas rush in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz takes its time enjoying the year. There is no sign of the Christmas madness that seems to have consumed more spend-needy oriented countries (those same countries are the ones still stuck in recession). The town is simply relaxing slowly towards winter. People have even started to wear jackets; coats usually arrive mid-December.

People are not hurriedly buying up thousands of pounds worth of gifts that may or may not be well received, they are not busily trying to organise the myriad of Christmas gatherings and they are definitely not even contemplating dressing their homes in shiny baubles. Christmas decorations are seldom seen other than the occasional yule log or conservative colourings.

In St Jean de Luz people take the time to mix and socialise all year round so there is no mad rush to see people as the year draws to a close. This is not to say that people will not be celebrating Christmas. The locals are more drawn to the date's true meaning and will seek out their families and loved ones for a three day feast when the time comes. For the time being it's still November.

Basque of the day:- capitalism :: kapitalismo

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

storm force 10 in St Jean de Luz

Weather is always an important topic of conversation in St Jean de Luz. For the last few days we have watched as the rest of Western Europe is flooded out and ravaged by cold rains. We, as usual, have enjoyed unbridled sunshine and warmth. However, deep in the Bay of Biscay the cyclonic depression that has been throwing Europe out of kilter was about to send us a gift.

As I listened to the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, an addiction that remains from my days in the UK, I heard that Biscay was about to experience storm force 10. This implies winds of 60 knots and very high seas carrying waves that can reach over 12 metres in height. Jumping out of bed I headed for the coast to see what was going on. I wasn't disappointed.
An enormous army of white steeds was racing in from the Atlantic crushing and crashing into everything in their wake. The waves exceeded those during January's hurricane in their relentless ferocity. The walls/digues that provide protection to St Jean de Luz were seemingly overwhelmed by the onslaught. Meanwhile, on shore there was no wind, no clouds and no sign of the warmth dissipating. Calmness covered all as it stood facing the racing tempest. Late last night some of the more maniacal local kids decided to go surfing on the beach. It was a joy to watch although I think that some of their mothers were less than pleased.
Basque of the day:- crazy :: zoro

Sunday, 22 November 2009

from St Jean de Luz to Bilbao

Moving further afield this weekend we left St Jean de Luz to visit Bilbao. Bilbao is a true hidden gem. It is steeped in history, industry, culture and cuisine (they say there is evidence that food was being cooked in Bilbao 10,000 years ago). Of course there is also a plethora of art museums. Prior to the Guggenheim the city was visited by few but since it burst onto the big screen in The World is Not Enough it is on the trail. Deservedly so but thankfully it has retained its soul. The old town is a real gem. Bustling narrow streets flow with bars and restaurants. Revellers enjoy Rioja, pinxtos and more formal dining. I opted for fried squid followed by pig cheeks in wine, fabulous.

The Guggenheim is quite simply splendid. From the moment you see the Frank Gehry design it is captivating, a real visual feast. The ground floor houses permanent installations, the second is dedicated to a theme or artist (Frank Lloyd Wright at the moment) with the third floor showing art from the vast global Guggenheim collections. If you have a spare day it is well worth getting lost here.

To begin to appreciate Bilbao you need more than a day, and certainly at least one night. Nightime is when the city seems to come alive. Walking along the river past the opera house and into the old centre the city feels like a melange of Rome, Paris, London and Edinburgh. A true European feast. It is unreservedly Basque having been at the centre of Basque nationalism for centuries. We are already planning our next visit.

Basque of the day:-art :: erti

Friday, 20 November 2009

sunny again in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz is having not so much an Indian summer but an African autumn. After a wet start November is proving to be unseasonably hot. With temperatures up in the mid twenties I couldn't resist spending the day on the beach. Granted, there weren't many of us but that made it all the nicer. The sea isn't as warm as it was a few months back but it is refreshing.

The local trawlers are busy scouring the bay. The are collecting seaweeds that they sell on to cosmetic companies. A nice wee sideline. With autumn comes bigger weather and the surfers are out every day. St Jean de Luz is one of many surf destinations along the Basque coastline. Although it doesn't have the gravitas of Biarritz or Les Landes on the surf circuit there are two spots in the bay where you can catch waves. I am still playing about in the easier mid section while more intrepid surfers head out to the point break.

Basque of the day:- by the sea :: itsasaldean

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

meanwhile, back in St Jean de Luz...

A busy interlude from life in St Jean de Luz. Arriving just in time for a dinner party in London on Thursday I barely slept before meeting friends for breakfast and then lunch. Friday afternoon was spent at the National Portrait Gallery before heading to see Rachid Taha at the Festival Hall - undoubtedly the best concert I have ever been to. After the concert we drove to Canterbury where I rested, ate and drank with friends for twenty four hours then caught a flight to Scotland to see family, visit a couple of castles and eat a haggis supper from the chip-shop (salt and sauce) before heading back to St Jean de Luz. I slept most of yesterday.

Today I have enjoyed being back in the sunshine and reacquainting myself with my preferred pace of life.

Basque of the day:- friends :: adiskide

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

remembering in St Jean de Luz

In St Jean de Luz today everything stopped at 1100. Around four hundred people met with an army squadron at the war memorial. A band accompanied several Basque hymns before the mayor addressed the gathering. Police stopped traffic while the bells tolled the eleventh hour. After the silence local school children read the names of those Basques from St Jean de Luz who have fallen fighting for the country over the last century. The squadron stood rooted throughout. Comparing the children reading out the names and those in uniform carrying guns there really seemed to be very little age difference.

I recently made a visit to Guernica/Gernika. It is a fairly average looking town that hides well the true importance and horrors of its history. For centuries the seat of the Biscayan assembly met under a giant oak tree in the centre of town. It is constantly replanted as the parent withers and has become symbolic of the traditional rights of the Basque people as a whole. The trunk of one of the original trees is now protected while its offspring take root nearby.

On April 26, 1939 Francisco Franco, frustrated by the Basques' refusal to meet his demands, used the Nazi luftwaffe to annihilate the town. The Germans used the sortie as an experiment for their terrifying incendiary bombs. The unarmed population had no hope of escape. Those that survived the bombs were mown down by pursuing fighter planes.

The massacre is remembered in Picasso's painting and more recently in a wonderful book by Dave Boling, both called Guernica.

Basque of the day:- tree :: arbola

Monday, 9 November 2009

St Jean de Luz waves

The sun came back today in St Jean de Luz, albeit fleetingly, somebody forgot to tell the sea that the storm was over though. Looking back up into the mountains I caught a glimpse of the first snow of winter. I'd hate to have been caught up there over the last week.

As I walked along the clifftops I thought about the coming week. The 70th anniversary of the beginning of WWII. It reminded me that St Jean de Luz was heavily occupied during the war and paid its own price.

Nazis came and went, drinking in the same watering holes used the C17th pirates that went before them and the tourists that came after. Perched high along the clifftops are inumerable German pill boxes, each ominously facing out to sea. Some are tiny, others enormously labyrinthine. They have been blocked up now but it is good they remain to remind us of what could have been.

During WWII the famous Comet Line passed through the Basque country into St Jean de Luz. Grounded airmen shot down behind enemy lines were helped to travel secretly through France by the Resistance. Once in St Jean de Luz they made their way through the mountain passes into Spain before being ferried back home to Britain. Many are reported to have stayed in the rooms above Le Corsair, the supposed Nazi drinking club of choice. It is a good bar.

Basque of the day:- to have a narrow escape :: ozta ihes egitea lortu

Sunday, 8 November 2009

gusty St Jean de Luz

The weather is showing no signs of abating in St Jean de Luz. Unless you are an extreme sports fanatic, the surf is excellently dangerous, it is wiser to be indoors at the moment. I had little sleep as my wooden shutters were taunted endlessly throughout the night by the untiring gales. Thankfully the downpour didn't commence until I was back from my early morning bread run. I have now battened down the hatches, cranked up the heating and am not intending to leave my candlelit warmth for the remains of the day.

Basque of the day:- storm :: marruma egin

Saturday, 7 November 2009

weather in St Jean de Luz

The storm in St Jean de Luz is beginning to become fun. After spending the last few days joking with locals that the weather had become very Scottish, today I had to insist that it was most definitely Basque. The sun was streaming first thing this morning. Walking along the coast I could see a huge weather front out at sea. One brave soul was out windsurfing in the gusting winds. The moment the tide changed it must have given a shout to the front. 'Oi up, time for you to unleash hell!' The weather responded immediately, racing in and within moments the tranquil landscape had been transformed by the tempest. Walls of rain drove in off the Atlantic and people huddled in cafes seeking shelter. I assume the windsurfer made it back to shore.

We do get fantastic weather here. Good and bad. Being nestled in the far corner of the Bay of Biscay, weather coming in from the Atlantic is coralled along the north of Spain and down the west of France. Here it hits the Pyrenees and all hell can break loose. The seasons can be extreme. Big snowstorms followed by raging heat followed by hurricanes (seriously, we had one in January). Locals joke that in any given you day you may need to change your mode of dress five times, it's not far from the truth. The biggest plus is that the mountains, sea and forests are rich with life.

Basque of the day: what will the weather be like tomorrow? :: nolako eguraldia izango dugu bihar?

Friday, 6 November 2009

matador in St Jean de Luz

Cultural pursuits are back underway in St Jean de Luz. I have just returned from three hours of dancing. Now that sounds all good well were it a disco after several bottles of wine. However, when it's at lunchtime, involves flamenco and rumba, and means I have to pretend to be a matador in front of twenty women it is a far more daunting prospect!
Having graduated (without honour) from the beginners sevillanas class I am now being taught dancing way above my ability. Being the shape of an ex-rugby type doesn't help either. I still do the sevillana class as a warm up but the flamenco rumba is where it's at. I get to hold my shoulders back, click my fingers lots and look overtly proud as a bevvy of lasses do their stuff around me. Top stuff!
The only challenge is the actual dancing. I've never been particularly shy and like to think I have a modicum of rhythm. Today Fabienne demanded I master clicking my heels three times a second with each foot one after the other. I can just about master two a second, three is just silly. Next week I am getting to dance with a hat, whatever that entails?!
I'm not sure if it's my age but after class each Friday I have the same sort of high buzz I used to get after playing rugby or a good days skiing. The local flamenco season is warming up and from this month on there are soirees most weekends. If you'd told me I'd be doing this and enjoying it so much when I was still working in London I'd never have believed you.
Basque of the day:- shall we dance? :: dantzatu nahi al duzu?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

St Jean de Luz paddling

It is still raining hard in St Jean de Luz. That's three days now. Given there was a full moon when it started the chances are the dour weather will stick around for the lunar cycle. The winds are whipping up too, excellent waves. I fear another surfing adventure coming on.

Struggling a bit today. Had a boys night last night to watch a football match, Lyon v Liverpool. Was torn. I prefer French teams normally but the wife's family are from Liverpool. Luckily it ended in a draw. Am not normally a football fan but it was a good excuse to get to know the chaps better. Will opt for a rugby match next time.

The local children are back to school today after their mid-term holiday. They are relishing being able to jump in so many puddles, much to the consternation of their mothers. You can't beat jumping in puddles but I am clearly not as expert as these kids.

Basque of the day:- puddle :: putzu

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

November in St Jean de Luz

I have now been living in St Jean de Luz for a year. I have had more adventures in that time than I could have imagined. I am also astonished that in the course of a year so many people have visited Basque Bylines and from so many places (over 60 countries at last count). Thank you!

Nothing is more cyclical in the Basque country than the weather. If it is warm for a couple of days with an increasingly strong, balmy southerly wind then it is bound to rain hard very soon. Couple that to the month of November and you can guarantee lots of precipitation. So far this month has not bucked that trend. Saturday and Sunday on the beach, the rest of the week beneath a wooly jumper. The forecast won't encourage tourists either.

Still no news on whether our demonstration in Bayonne resulted in success. There has been a large run on 'meat' pies in one of the butchers following last week's pigeon cull, I am sure this is wholly unrelated.

Basque of the day:- anniversary :: urtemuga

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

pigeon patrol in St Jean de Luz


Today the pigeon catchers were out in St Jean de Luz. There is a problem by the end of the summer with the flying beasties. They are nothing like their countryside cousins who are clean living and taste delicious. The urban variety are simply scavengers and even I wouldn't eat them.

After laying their trap, poisoned grain, the trappers played a waiting game. They waited, and waited. The trap was laid some two hours ago and still the pigeons sit in the trees above. Even they seem to know there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Basque of the day:- pigeon :: urzo

Monday, 19 October 2009

art in St Jean de Luz


Whilst walking along the coast near St Jean de Luz the other day I got a bit of a shock. Rounding a headland I was greeted by a hundred large jellyfish floating in the air. Well that's what I think they were meant to be. Attached to enormous poles the jellies were each some fifteen metres in length and swayed gently in the clifftop breeze. I think there is a planned invasion of the Basque country afoot. Wiser thoughts on the subject welcomed.


Basque of the day:- jellyfish :: marmoka

Sunday, 18 October 2009

marching near St Jean de Luz

Yesterday some ten thousand people massed near St Jean de Luz in the town of Bayonne. The demonstration was to defy new plans to build a tunnel through the Pyrenees and in so doing, destroy many villages' soul. It was a successful march that wound through the delightful old town. Given sensitivities over all things Basque demonstrators had been urged not to display overt Basque sentiment for fear of rousing passions. A rather feeble proclamation.


Despite the authority's efforts, and although we demonstrators refrained from politically motivated Basque chants, there were a myriad of large signs in Basque, traditional music was played as we walked and many people were speaking the language (I had to explain why I wasn't able to which was a challenge).


There were of course some politically motivated people in the crowd distributing leaflets about Basque people who were being wrongfully held in prison. In any other circumstance I would have thought them militant but during the last century there have been thousands of people wrongfully imprisoned or worse still, disappear. The Spanish and French governments have done their best to expel all things Basque but the harder they try the stronger the culture becomes.


Basque of the day:- demonstrastion :: manifestazio

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Basque rally

St Jean de Luz has been a hive of activity this week. Everybody has been coralling friends, family and neighbours. This afternoon as many Basque people as possible (plus friends) will descend on Bayonne. We will be demonstrating against the wanton destruction of countryside by those who place efficiency before heritage, euros before respect. If building of the proposed LGV goes ahead I fear that it will cause problems the authorities hadn't wagered on and will lose them much support of the people.

IF YOU ARE IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY TODAY
PLEASE GO TO BAYONNE CENTRE FOR 1700
VOICE YOUR SUPPORT!!

Basque of the day:- LGV :: boom boom

Friday, 16 October 2009

breakfast in St Jean de Luz

The first hour of sunlight is one of my favourite times in St Jean de Luz. I try to get out for a run just before the sun rises, heading up a sleepy Rue Gambetta, past Ravel's house, back along the promenade and up to the little hill at St Barbe that sticks out into the ocean. If I time it right I catch a wonderful glimpse deep into the Pyrenees while the air remains crisp and clear.
Having spent most of my life living in cities it is still a shock to see such vast views everywhere I look. When I lived in cities I was concerned with my immediate vicinity, down here I have so much to take in that any concerns readily dissolve. It is a joy.
St Jean de Luz is nestled deep in the Basque country, right in the corner of the Bay of Biscay where France meets Spain. There are often many aeroplane contrails lining the sky, and they all seem to take a similar change of direction directly above. I imagine such a perpendicular geography makes an easily identifiable landmark, reminding pilots of their route.
First thing in the morning it is a busy route for long-haul flights from Spain, Africa and northern Europe but thankfully they are all flying so high there is no noise pollution, only Etch'a'sketch scribblings. All those people heading to so many destinations oblivious of the worlds beneath them.
Basque of the day:- big :: handi

Thursday, 15 October 2009

St Jean de Luz kindergarten


A friend from St Jean de Luz seconded me into babysitting duties today. Rather than sit around playing a game or watching a movie I took her children for a walk up the nearby mountain, La Rhune. After packing a wee picnic we set forth carrying two sets of binoculars in search of monsters and dragons. I quickly realised that children have significantly more energy than adults, I was exhausted by the time we got onto the hill proper.

The mountain is exactly the shape a child would draw: conical with jagged rocky edges. The weather was fine and we made good progress. Autumn has finally arrived and the trees offered a magnificent display of burnt reds and oranges. Butterflies flitted by readying themselves for winter, gathering sustenance and seeking shelter.
La Rhune is home to an abundance of wild ponies. They are very inquisitive creatures. They are also plentiful, I had expected to perhaps see one or two, I counted at least twenty. I fear I may have caused a problem by proclaiming they were the dragons we were seeking, the youngest of the children was very tearful and hid behind me whenever a pony came near. I was a little wary and made sure we kept in front of them, they looked like they pack quite a kick.

The views from the mountain are terrific. On one side the Atlantic stretches into the distance. with the coastal towns of Biarritz, St Jean de Luz and Hendaye clinging to the edge of its shores. On the other side the Pyrenees rise into the skies. It is quite a breathtaking contrast.

We walked close to the message that was burned into the mountain-side demanding that the authorities resist ruining the landscape by building a tunnel straight through the mountain. How anyone could even contemplate destroying this astounding beauty is beyond me. I just hope that the demonstration in Bayonne this Saturday makes those in power think again.
The Basque country continues to surprise me, it is one of the most beautiful regions on earth. We returned home safely to hot chocolate and cookies, but no sign of any monsters.

Basque of the day:- beauty :: edertasun

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

hotbed in St Jean de Luz

A friend from St Jean de Luz has recently had a successful operation. I went to visit them in hospital yesterday. Winding my way through the labyrinthe of corridors I eventually arrived at the wing I was seeking. As I tried to enter, two enormous armed and balaclava wearing guards ordered me to halt. After padding me down and eventually believing my reason for being there they let me pass.

Walking up the corridor towards my friend's room I counted a further eight armed guards each carrying huge machine guns. At the far end of the passage I could see a balcony where a further six gun-toting special forces agents were having a cigarette break. I think I was worse for wear than my friend when I finally arrived at their room. I readily enquired what was going on.

It transpires that the previous night an alleged member of ETA had been shot by the special forces and was receiving medical treatment in a nearby room. Fearing reprisal or escape the armed guards were taking no chances with their charge, mounting a full-scale 24-hour vigil. I didn't see the other patient but the guards were extremely courteous, once they believed me harmless, and I think the nurses were enjoying having a bevy of muscle-clad men milling around. Most importantly my friend is well on the road to full recovery. Outside the hospital a myriad of television networks from France and Spain were reporting developments.

I don't think this sort of thing happens on Harley Street.

Basque of the day:- hospital :: ospitale

Monday, 12 October 2009

mountainous warnings in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz is experiencing a renewed spate of heightened political sentiment. France and Spain have long been known as world leaders for fast, efficient train links. A proposed LGV (the new TGV) link between Paris-Bordeaux and Madrid is set to be developed. This link will run down the coast past St Jean de Luz (great news) and into the Spanish plains. Given the small obstacle that is the Pyrenees planning has come to a stop. However, one lunatic developer has come up with a plan that seems to be gathering momentum.

In order to save a mammoth six minutes from the journey time he has proposed to cut a huge tunnel through La Rhune, the mountain that stands at the end of the Pyrenean chain. The tunnel will be fed by enormous viaducts scraping their way across the countryside. The plans would utterly devastate many Basque villages, completely ruin a wonderful heritage landscape and dramatically increase noise pollution. The plans are reported to cost some €300m (which probably means €0.5bn). There is a perfectly robust train line already in place that currently carries the TGV. What is it with people in local government/council, from which form of slug have they evolved?

As soon as the plans were made public a group of intrepid campaigners climbed La Rhune. They wrote a very strong message against the plans in petrol across the mountain-side, then set fire to it. An enormously dramatic statement and effect. All night long the four hundred metre wide beacon screamed "NO!, NO!, NO!" This weekend I am taking part in further demonstrations in Bayonne and urge any locals who read this to attend.

I am in favour of excellent rail links. It amazes me how good and cost effective an experience travelling by rail in France is, especially after having taken sub-par trains for years in the UK. Once all the plans are in place it would take two hours to get to Paris or Madrid, three to Barcelona and four to Morocco. However, nature and culture have been here far longer and are infintely more important than convenience. A mountain is worth more than six minutes of efficiency savings.

I spoke to one local about their opinions of the plans. They suggested that if the plans went ahead there would probably be a little bit of boom-boom. I enquired what this was. It seems to be the polite way of suggesting terrorist action might be rekindled (the last time was when McDonalds threatened to open).

Basque of the day:- nature :: nolakotasun

Thursday, 1 October 2009

surf's up in St Jean de Luz

One of St Jean de Luz' sub cultures has allowed me into its midst in recent days. With summer over, autumn winds and weather systems are forcing bigger waves onto the Basque coast. My neighbour insisted I join him and his friends to learn the way of the board. Now I knew it wasn't going to be easy but had figured the difficulty would primarily be technical not physical. How wrong I have been.
My first day was spent largely taking waves while lying flat in a press-up position. By lunchtime of day two I was halfway up and by the end of that day I managed to stand, albeit for only a couple of seconds. Today was meant to be day three but I am walking like a robot and can't lift my arms above my waist.
Now I had always sort of smirked at the whole surf thing. That whole 'being at one with nature man' thing. However, when you are sat on your board out at sea, watching and waiting for a wave to take it is a unique experience. Seriously big waves and serious amounts of fun!
I have been very fortunate in taking my first waves on one of the biggest beaches in Europe which runs some 200km from Bordeaux to the Spanish border. An enormous forest protects the beaches from the inland towns. Finding a desolate beach with excellent waves is not difficult. We were on our own the whole time we were there. Looking north and south up the beach, nothing and noone. Magical.
Basque of the day:- surf :: olatu-apar

Monday, 21 September 2009

relaxed St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz was a hive of activity yesterday. The lads walking the streets mulitplied into a full band, Friday's Breton piper piped happily, a baroque choir sang in the street, antique cars drove through town and the church hummed with classical music. Unlike St Jean de Luz I took it easy, other than buying myself a large cake as a Sunday treat.

Today has seen a return of the fine weather. The beach is nice and quiet after the summer so on days like today the Luziens take full advantage, congregating on the sand to catch up on local gossip and enjoy a glass or two of wine.

I went for a lovely stroll this evening ending up at the far end of the beach. Here the Nivelle river flows out to the Atlantic. On one side is St Jean de Luz, on the other the town of Ciboure. It is a lovely wee place that has less of the pomp of its neighbour but is equally charming and resolutely Basque. It is also where Maurice Ravel was born (in the large stone house pictured that looks less Basque than the others).

Basque of the day:- quiet :: isil

Saturday, 19 September 2009

St Jean de Luz floods

It has been raining hard in St Jean de Luz. Just like everything else, when it rains here it rains to excess. Bayonne and Biarritz have reported widespread flooding and the Nivelle is looking dangerously high near the port. All this in twenty four hours. Early this morning, not at all put off by the clement weather, groups of local lads walked around town playing music to rouse better spirits (see below).
video
Another unique experience last night. Our choir was giving a concert at a hotel in the nearby town of Ascain. The purpose was to entertain a group from Britanny. The group responded to almost every song by playing their version of bagpipes and dancing to traditional Breton music. The entertainment took place during the course of a lengthy dinner for around 100 people. My singing was probably under par due to excess red wine but it was good fun and I felt rather privileged to be sharing this experience as an outsider.

I am not somebody who is a fan of such things but the world's longest running soap opera, Guiding Light, has come to an end. What high brow entertainment is replacing it? An extra edition of some random quiz show called Let's Make a Deal. American television is so cultured...

Basque of the day:- culture :: kultura

Friday, 18 September 2009

dancing in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz once again held its breath as my Flamenco course recommenced. I am in the equivalent of big school now, being the hardcore flamenco man that I am, but went to the beginners class today to remind myself how to move. The ever wonderful and omnipresent Fabiana sasheyed around the floor showing newcomers how to move their hips to the rythym.

A couple of friends were doing as I was and we agreed to stick together for our first day in big school. It was a blast. After an hour of full-on flamenco practice (on top of the beginners hour) Fabiana decided to shake things up and had us busting salsa grooves and latin moves.

Once again I am the only chap, why beggers belief. If the single men of St Jean de Luz could get over themselves they would find a myriad of delightful girls and ladies (of all ages). Being a happily married man I am deemed 'safe' so find myself very much in demand as a dance partner, you've got to love it!

From the sublime to the ridiculous. This evening I, and ten other chaps, are giving a concert of Basque song up in the mountains. None of this ever happened when I was working with numbers.

Basque of the day:- flirt :: pertxenta

Thursday, 17 September 2009

singing in St Jean de Luz

Clubs and associations in St Jean de Luz have started coming back to life after the summer. My choir started up again this evening. I had been ardently practicing Basque and French over the summer but was completely thrown after trying to keep up with the guys as they chatted speedily after three months apart. I know I am far from perfect on the French front but I am usually able to understand what people are saying, tonight I had no idea. The guys have all grown up knowing each other which while it gives our choir a brotherly feel also means they have their own secret language. I gave up and sat silently, utterly bemused, as tales of drunkness and beautiful girls were recounted (I think?).

Tomorrow is a busy day. I have coffee with a friend in the morning, lunch with another, Flamenco starts after lunch, coffee with another friend in the afternoon and we (the choir) are singing at a festival in the mountains tomorrow evening. People working in offices may moan about how busy their schedules are but they haven't a clue how jammed the social scene is in St Jean de Luz, they have it easy...

Basque of the day:- busy :: lanpetu

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

St Jean de Luz coffee break

St Jean de Luz has the type of cafe culture you read about in books. In the small squares at either end of Rue Gambetta there are a variety of establishments to choose from, not to mention the myriad of others in adjacent streets. All thrive with a mix of local and visiting trade. Beret wearing gentlemen sip coffee amidst heated debate over the latest sporting results. Younger business-people take a quick caffeine boost or bite to eat between rendezvous. Couples linger over lunch and gossipers gossip. Weaving between them all the uniformed waiters ply their dark arts. The cafe is not a place to rush; sit in the corner, order your preferred choice, relax, observe. I sometimes lose a day there.

Basque of the day:- cafe :: kafetegi

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

the music plays on in St Jean de Luz

The music never stops in St Jean de Luz. Just as the summer season came to an end the music festival began. Town is filled with musicians carrying their instruments to and fro with music pouring out of the various venues night and day.

Now I love music as much as the next person but there is an accordian player who has played outside my office window from 0900 till 1800 for the past week (listen below). Much as I try to imagine I am sitting in some Parisian cafe on the left bank musing over some philosophical conundrum or other the overriding question that occupies my mind is where I stored my bow and arrow? Bless him, he is very talented.

Basque of the day:- annoying :: gogaikarri
video

Monday, 14 September 2009

executive stress in St Jean de Luz

Another particularly difficult day in St Jean de Luz. After being rudely awakened by the sunshine flooding through my bedroom window I looked out towards the mountains in search of clouds. There were none. Taking advantage of such a day I called my good friend Michelle who I assumed would be finding today equally difficult.

Driving up the coast some six kilometres we settled at a little table next to the beach in Ilbarritz at the wonderful La Plancha restaurant. A starter of crevettes and guacamole was followed by sea bream in garlic before a large chocolate brownie with ice cream arrived at our table. Between mouthfuls and conversation we watched as intrepid surfers braved the Atlantic's swell. By the time coffee arrived we had been there three hours, certainly too late to begin any real work.

Heading in land we travelled behind La Rhune passing through a host of delightful Basque villages. The sun warmed us as the wind swept away any remnants of weekend cobwebs. We ventured on through the Spanish village of Vera de Bidasoa before arriving at the port town of Hondarribia, some ten kilometres south of St Jean de Luz. In search of a digestif we had forgotten it was Monday and finding an establishment open was an almost impossible challenge. We settled for a seat on the promenade and imagined the many battles that had been fought here since the C14th. Fishing boats glided past, brave swimmers swam the currents and an elderly gent took a shower using a tap and plastic bottle. Home, exhausted, we parted company and agreed that Tuesday is a far better day to start the working week.

Basque of the day:- tomorrow :: bihar

Friday, 11 September 2009

Willy Wonka in St Jean de Luz

Today we move outside of St Jean de Luz. Cadbury, the UK chocolate company that inspired Willy Wonka, has been under fire this week from Kraft of America (they make processed cheese and stuff) who made a hostile bid for the company.

The British do love their chocolate. Locals in St Jean de Luz are often amazed at the plethora of confectionery on offer in UK shops. Basques are also chocolate experts. They claim they were importing cocoa, making and exporting chocolate before anyone else in Europe, even the Belgians.

Cadbury is one of those rare brands that people grow up loving and not just people in the UK. Even the French have a soft (centred) spot for the company and are aghast at the American overture (I can't imagine the French government allowing this to have even reached the table were it a French company). Despite centuries of war and verbal wrangling chocolate seems to be finally bringing people together on a united front. I am sure Willy Wonka and his oompa loompas would be impressed. I also suspect that if John Cadbury had a time machine in his shop back in 1824 he would have a wry smile on his face.

It is a robust, innovative company that makes my favourite treat (Dariy Milk), may the ghosts of Bournville and Wonka's chocolate factory rise up and safeguard its heritage.

Basque of the day:- defence :: defendatze

Thursday, 10 September 2009

fishy St Jean de Luz

The fishermen of St Jean de Luz do work hard. No matter what time of day (or night) you walk past the small Basque fishing port there is always something going on; boats coming and going, others unloading their catches, bickering bartering, preparations and so forth. The town has a rich history in the fishing trade. From the C13th there are reports of whaling from the port. These intrepid adventurers sailed as far as Greenland in search of whales and seals.

It is said that when Colombus first arrived in the Americas the natives spoke a form of Basque implying he was far from the first visitor to those shores. When the Dutch and English began to commercialise fishing (whaling in particular) it is to Basque fishermen they turned for expert guidance.

The port of St Jean de Luz is still thriving and very active. Freshly caught fish is on sale daily; from squid to lobster to bream. Unfortunately most of the whales were killed off at the beginning of the last century but there is said to be a growing population that visits the Bay of Biscay annually.

Basque of the day:- fish :: arrain

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

comparisons in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz basked in wonderful sunshine today. It really was the perfect late summer's day.

Apparently, in St Jean de Luz some 70% of bread bought in shops is made on site, in the UK it is reportedly nearer 3%. Everybody seems to eat a lot of white bread in these parts but they appear considerably slimmer than people in the UK. Everybody in these parts seems to drink continuously and more than half smoke yet the average person seems to live a lot longer than in the UK (for a small town there seems to be a lot of people living beyond 100). Any thoughts why? Aliens?

Basque of the day:- question :: galde

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sunday roast in St Jean de Luz

A sweltering Sunday in St Jean de Luz, it reached 30C. Up early I went to the early 0830 church service. It wasn't as busy as the later family service, only around 500 people compared to nearer 1,000. The congregation was different too; less pomp, more relaxed and more social. Afterwards I caught up with my friends Pascale and Bruno (and their delightful children). We spent a few hours on the beach before heading to their lovely home in the foothills of La Rhune for lunch. Upon returning to St Jean de Luz the remains of the day have been spent on my terrace catching up on sunshine and reading. A very bon dimanche.

Basque of the day:- sunshine :: eguzki

Saturday, 5 September 2009

dawn in St Jean de Luz

Early morning in St Jean de Luz is a telling time. In any given town you can tell a lot about it if you get up early and see what's going on at the break of day. I try to get up and out around half seven for a run or walk each morning.
By this time the boulangerie ovens are up and baking, meats have been delivered to the butcher, fruits are being set up in the market, the flower lady is setting out her displays and the fishermen are returning to port. Other early birds are up and exercising while others set out tables at local cafes. The by now immaculate streets are empty in anticipation of commerce and visitors.
So what does this say about the Basque port? It is a town that has fresh food, exercise and sociability coarsing through its veins. It takes itself seriously as a centre of tourism and local business, but not too seriously.
Basque of the day:- dawn :: argitu

Friday, 4 September 2009

Friday lunchtime in St Jean de Luz

It being the fin de semaine I took myself out for lunch today in St Jean de Luz. I have read a lot in the international press in recent years about the decline of French cooking, that the country has lost it's culinary way, that Tokyo/New York/London are the new Paris. Possibly at the top-zillion-Michelin-star-end there are discrepencies but when it comes to straight, no-nonsense working lunch tucker there is no comparison. Well there is, but it is not favourable to the UK.
On a given Friday in London I may have taken my team for lunch, but where to eat? Three choices: top end pricey, pizza or gastropub. The top end is just silly for a quick bite to eat, pizza is rather staid and though tasty, gastropubs are hardly healthy and tended to be filled with inebriated office workers.
On this given Friday in St Jean de Luz I asked myself the same question. This time only two choices: top end pricey or straightforward. Being a Scot I am always going to opt for the latter option. I am then given 62 possibilities to choose from in terms of venue, bear in mind that St Jean de Luz is not a big town. I have six preferred eateries and selected my option 2: Txantxangorri (granted, you have to know where to eat). For the same price as two pints of beer and a vodka lemonade I had a delicious three course meal plus coffee: vegetarian couscous, roast pork with haricots verts and salad, skimmed rice pudding with ginger.
No comparison. Excellent food at an affordable price, the professional waiters are jolly and friendly so there is much banter once you get to know them and the restaurant is clean. Moreover, in France you get to eat all the best (more interesting) bits of animals that the PC Police have banned in the UK. Next week: tete de veau (check out photo!).
Basque of the day:- offal :: tripotxak