Border-hopping in Basque Country June 9, 2013Posted by Tracy in : Adventure , trackback
BAYONNE, Aquitane department, France – The high-speed TGV train dropped us in five hours from Paris at the grand old station near the River Adour in Bayonne, and we began by wandering the narrow streets of the medieval city, gazing up at the gothic towers of its cathedrals and stopping for our first taste of the exquisite Bayonne chocolate. Bayonne, as we learned, is famous for the invention of the Bayonet – in 1640, on rue de Faure (Blacksmith street), to be precise. Nowadays it’s better known for its chocolate, its ham, and the big fiesta every summer drawing up to a million people and featuring a bull run similar to Pamplona’s.
We were here to visit Mathilde, a lovely woman I’d met online through Couchsurfing, and to spend the night in Bayonne before crossing the Spanish border in the morning. It was hard to believe that this vivacious young woman is 70, but when she began sharing the stories of her life, it was clear that she had jumped feet-first and kicking into life a long time ago.
We shouldered our backpacks and made our way to her doorstep, where she showed us around her spacious and light-filled home, filled with antiques and trinkets from her world travels. She offered us an aperitif called “Kir,” a refreshing mix of white wine and Cassis or blackcurrent juice, and shared stories of her travels and her (mostly, but not always, good) experiences as a host to world travelers. (Unfortunately, the bad experiences were usually with Americans.)
Mathilde told us of her years teaching English to 50 young men at a tough school in Algeria just before the War of Independence broke out in 1962, leading to an expulsion of a million foreigners – herself included. Another story of European colonialism and years of oppression, coming to a head just as 19-year-old Mathilde, fresh out of school, was making her way in the world.
We learned much about history and more about a rich life filled with adventure and a love of teaching and sharing. Mathilde worked as a broadcast journalist for a few years in Vancouver before having a child and turning to teaching as a better career for a single mother; she taught in a rough school in Detroit before coming back to France, where she raised her son alone.
We invited her to dinner and she took us for a drive through the charming Old Town before ending up at the Maison de Cassoulet on the Nive River, where we enjoyed a hearty traditional Basque cassoulet stew with beans and duck, sausage and ham.
Back at home she served us a verbena tea and more stories before we finally retired at about 1 a.m. – up again at 6:30 to catch the train to the border. Mathilde insisted on rising early to prepare us coffee and share more stories before sending us on our way.
There in the tiny station of Hendaye, on the border with Spain, my old friend and former student, Javier, met us at the train station and took us on a tour that would be, he promised, the gastronomic experience of our lives. We were not disappointed.
San Sebastian is truly a jewel – the pride of Spain, and indeed all of Europe, and we were soon to see why. We began with coffee and breakfast pastries and a delicious type of soft custard special to the region. We took a walk on the promenade overlooking the spectacular Playa Concha, the crescent-shaped beach that makes San Sebastian one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, beach resorts in the world.
But beyond the beach, we were there to experience the city’s cuisine, for which it is rightly famous; San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than any city in the world. Javier led us on a tour of his favorite restaurants serving pintxos – pronounced pinchos – the Basque word for little snacks, or tapas, typically served with drinks and conversation.
We began wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of Old Town San Sebastian, gazing up at the ornate wrought-iron balconies, hung with bright flowerpots and ferns, and made our first stop at Txondorra, whose exotic pinxto menu included such items as beef cheeks and kangaroo croquettes. I opted for one with a salad-like mixture of leeks and tempting Basque ham. Javier’s second-favorite, which he shared with us, was a small toast slice topped with carmelized onion, brie and sun-dried tomato on sesame bread. His favorite was a small sausage wrapped in a biscuit. “I’m sorry I didn’t share that one with you – it was too good,” he confessed.
The afternoon was filled with exotic combinations of ingredients such as quail eggs, vegetable baskets, roasted barnacles and foie gras topped with local spices. The best way to explain is to serve you a feast for the eyes – so, bon apetit/buen provecho.
And a few images from Bayonne – which is I am sure more beautiful on a sunny day, but it was charming despite the clouds.