September 9, 2012

Travelling to St. Jean de Luz

Today's discoveries:
1. Pick up a loaded bike as low on the frame and as near the weight as possible. Carry the bike up steps! Onto a train! No problem ... this is lovely, and new!

2. Let machinery help: Using escalators to descend, pick up the front wheel. When first entering an escalator, the opening steps push the rear wheel forward. I just let it roll forward, but a better strategy might be to move it as far forward as possible right away.

3. Using escalators to ascend, be sure to have the front wheel straight and in position to get off. I held the front of the bike up this direction also.

4. This is all easier to do when neither jet lagged nor sleep-deprived.

5. Bikes are popular in France. Bike spaces are quite limited on French trains. Reserve for the bike early. Today I purchased my return ticket, Lourdes to Toulouse. It would be useful to learn how to do this via the internet when not in France.

This is written on the train while leaving Toulouse, in the Midi, and traveling towards the Pays Basque, in southwestern France. The region is named Aquitaine, famed for Bordeaux, the city and the wine.  Also, at least for history buffs, as the home of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Married first to a French king, then to an English king, she was an extremely independent and powerful woman.

The Pays Basque is a part of Aquitaine, located on the Spanish border from the Atlantic inland to the Béarn. The Basque people live in Spain primarily, only about 10% live in France, though they are one people, one cultural group, whatever their nationality. The last 150 years of history have been very different on the two sides of the border but still many, perhaps most, identify with each other as Basques, before identifying with either of the two modern nations. History tells us that this was also true when the rulers were Celts, or later Romans, or later still, Muslims: the people who live here remained Basques. Generally, as long as they were pretty much left alone, thy coexisted without too much problem with the nominal governing body.

Theirs is an old culture: some anthropologists and cultural historians say they didn't come from anywhere else, but have always lived here. Some, though, say they might be related the people of Atlantis, or perhaps more credibly, pushed here from further south in Spain. Scholars and others argue, but there is no proof: Basque history is too old for proof. Certainly their language, called Euskadi, is ancient, probably predates the Indo-European invasions, and may be a pre-Bronze Age language. It has no known antecedents, and is not related to any other currently spoken language, although it shares characteristics with some geographically distant tongues.

Don't get me wrong, this is no isolated, moribund, museum culture. It is a vibrant, busy cosmopolitan place, most particularly in the cities and along the shore. Some of the most desirable and popular beaches in France are located here.

Today I will need to descend the train in Bayonne, famous for chocolate, first known in Europe when the seagoing Basques brought it back to that city in 1528 from South America, and still a center of superb chocolates. But there will be no time  to stop for chocolate: since there was no train to take both me and Papillon to St. Jean de Luz, I will ride there directly from Bayonne. It should be an easy ride, perhaps only 20, maybe fewer, flat miles.

But first, there was a connection to make in Bordeaux, with 2 hours between trains. I had a choice: remain in the somewhat stuffy station, waiting with a decent, but not memorable sandwich, from the chain Paul,  or get out into the air and sunshine and look for a meal. You know what I did. And it was a happy decision: outside the station there is a large place (square) with several bistros.

Returning to the station the board showed that my train continues to Hendaye. A quick trip to the ticket office confirmed that the train does indeed stop in St. Jean de Luz, and for 4€ I extended my train trip. I wonder why the Toulouse station didn't sell me that ticket. It was getting dark as I arrived at my hotel. I have included just one twilight photo of the famous Bay.

Note throughout this report, most of my references to food, history and culture rely on two books that I've read, or reread, recently: The Basque History of the World, Mark Kurlansky, Penguin 1999 and Waverly Root's fine classic The Food of France, Vintage edition 1992.


  1. Chocolate and wine... sounds perfect!


    1. Chocolate, wine.... a couple bikes and a sister ... now there's perfection!

  2. Those pilgrims in your photo bring back some nice memories. Also, the answer to your question about reserving tickets online (for bike space?) is an unfortunate one. You can't do it, as far as I know. Regular tickets - piece of cake. Bonne route!

    1. Did you walk the pilgrimage route? Via St Jean de Luz or St. J Pied de Port? And no wonder I couldn't figure the ticketing out. It is a nuisance indeed.

    2. Yes, Shoko and I did it in 2001. Here's the blog article if you happen to have any free time on your trip:

  3. Despite being a history major, my main thought when I hear of Eleanor of Aquitaine is Kate Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. My wife's field is linguistics. She is fascinated by small communities like Basque where they share a culture, even though they don't share the same borders. One day we will visit, and that will be a good way to get me to the Pyrenees.

    Hope you're having a great time.

  4. Kate Hepburn is always good to be reminded of, no question. I am surely having a wonderful time, it is a cycling paradise and provides enough climbing even for you!For me, I try to alternate my days a little.

    Your wife might enjoy the book I mentioned above, unless she prefers more scholarly works. It is full of Basque social and cultural history. The 7 dialects were very consciously united into one in the early-ish 20th century.... Speaking the language is probably the major determiner of being Basque, which mysteriously shares some characteristics with some American Indian languages ... at least being agglutinating, adding syllable upon syllable to base words. At least that is my memory, I inadvertently destroyed my notes, so really might be wrong. But it's fascinating!


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