The Pyrenees & the Basque Country
The natural border between France and Spain are the Pyrenees. A chain of beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks that reminds one of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho or the dramatic spires of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Spread across the landscape are small hamlets, chateaus, and farms. Beautiful trees of all kinds describe the changing geography. On the French side, the terrain is wider with gentle rolling hills and shallow valleys. Church spires and small castle towers dot the landscape here and there. Acres of lush deep green fields with rows of what look similar to corn fill in the the spaces. Everything is embraced by trees.
As we head west into Spain’s northern Basque region, the landscape becomes more dramatic. Skirting the northwest end of the Pyrenees, we follow steeper hills and narrow valleys. Tunnels direct us through mountains that spill into the Atlantic and as we emerge on the other side, we are greeted with expansive ocean views. Here and there, we pass by exposed vineyards clinging to hillsides. The road twists and turns as we approach our first stop –San Sebastian.
As one might imagine, planning a vacation of this length requires serious research into lodging, transportation, eating, and sight seeing. I feel very lucky that driving (while it can be and is stressful at times) is mostly my responsibility. Cheryl is the ultimate organizer and tourist information agent. She is ALWAYS checking, double checking our destinations as well as finding out all about the places we are about to visit. When eating out in France, the custom is similar to eating out back home, be it restaurant or cafe. Spain has quite a different tradition. In Northern Spain, pinxtos are similar to the tapas offered in bars and cafes in the southern part of the country. The Basque spelling uses “xt” in place of the Spanish “ch” in many words such as pinxtos (peen-chos). A great variety of these “hors d’oeuvres” line the counters of bars and cafes. Many bars have special pinxtos (the specialty of the house) that define that cafe/bar’s offerings. Upon entering a cafe, just ask for a plate, select what you want to try, and enjoy it with a beer (usually only one kind in smaller bars and cafes) or a local wine or cider. The idea is to have one or two pinxtos at one bar, then move on to another bar to try another one or two and so on. This is exactly what we did in San Sebastian. It was a great experience not just for the great variety of pinxtos, but to get into the mix of the local culture — listening to the banter of locals exaggerating stories or poking fun at each other. As one would expect, Basque (actually called Euskara) is the primary language here, and when you hear it spoken, there is no other language to which you can equate it. Luckily, Spanish is the primary language in everyday business establishments but you can also hear French, Italian, German, English sprinkled here and there.
San Sebastian is a port city of moderate size nestled in a beautiful cove caressed by the blue green ocean. The city center with its narrow roads and pedestrian-only sections lends itself to strolling along as you discover small shops, cafes, bakeries, bars and restaurants. On the inland side of the cove, sun bathers linger on the quarter mile long sandy beach backed by multistoried housing where it appears that every unit has a personal view of the ocean. It is a very beautiful city. We were very much impressed by it and look forward to a second visit on the way back into France.
Heading west along the coast we continue on to our destination. The Hotel Arbe overlooking the vast Atlantic from the cliff above a small cove.