Week 7 of the Grand European Tour
Week 7 – Day 46 – Monday 13th November 2017
Biarritz to Biarritz – 12 miles
After 2 days in the free Aire beside the beach to the north of Biarritz we moved all of 12 miles to an Aire on the south side of the town via the seafront at Anglet, not far from our free Aire. It was a beautiful morning after such a wet and windy weekend and many people were out walking along the seafront and watching the surfboarders ride the breaking waves.
After getting to our next Aire the fun and games began. There was one French van in front of us at the barrier who was also on the first site. He came over to say there was a problem with the barrier and he had called the number listed and someone was on the way to fix it. You might think our French has come on leaps and bounds to have understood all that but there is a sort of international language, understood by most people, that can interpret barrier kaput, mechanic une heure! The mechanic came and was defeated by whatever the problem was and gave us the name on another Aire to try. We arrived to find a fairly unkempt place and certainly not worth €12 but we were there, and it did have electricity, with the services we needed so we went in.
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I finished off the blog and uploaded it, which I think only half our subscribers got as no-one with an e-mail address beginning with a letter in the 2nd half of the alphabet received apparently. I think the internet connection was lost half way through the uploading process, so apologies if you never received it.
Week 7 – Day 47 – Tuesday 14th November 2017
Biarritz to San Sebastian via Hondarribia – 20 miles
The next morning I thought I would edit some more 123 SECONDS IN… videos and upload them and this is where the day started to go pear shaped. I edited a couple of videos but the signal wasn’t strong enough to upload them to YouTube, so we got the van ready to depart. On approaching the barrier to leave The Navigator had the job of keying in the code to get us out as the keypad was on her side, but try as she may, it would not budge. You cannot go to far wrong entering a 5 digit number, but even my efforts drew a blank. By this time a French couple were behind us waiting to get out as well and the madam came to help us, again with no success until the penny dropped. We were 2 minutes late in trying to get out as our 24 hours had expired without us realising, so we were trapped! Reluctantly I put my credit card into the machine to buy another €12 ticket so we could get out. We put this code in the keypad but still the barrier wouldn’t rise, then I thought I should enter the code as if we were arriving but the entry barrier would not lift either. With mounting embarrassment I reversed back to let the French couple out and voila – it rose for them and I sensed my opportunity so when he cleared the barrier I accelerated right behind him and managed to escape that way so €12 was spent for all of 30 seconds. We stopped and loaded our respective wives and headed for the Spanish border a few miles away.
We had driven this route 2 years ago and found a place called Hondarribia where we had stopped and enjoyed the views from the massive car park between the marina and beach. According to t’internet, so it must be true, motorhomes could park overnight on the car park for free so thats where we headed. The river Bidasoa enters the Bay of Biscay here and on the right bank it is France and on the left bank its Spain, and on crossing this imaginary border, there are no signs to say you have crossed an international border or that Spain welcomes you. All of a sudden everything changes, the cars are all Spanish, the roadmarkings and signs, the shop names etc etc are all now in Spanish. Jusht like that, as the great man used to say!
We got to the beach car park and had lunch near to 2 other vans, one of which was Dutch. I saw the Dutchman come out of his van for a smoke, as Dutchmen are prone to do, and looking over the yachts bobbing about in the marina. I asked if he had spent last night there and was it ok, however it turned out they had just arrived before us but he said it should be fine to spend the night there as it was out of season and he was going to stay as well. With that reassuring news we went for a walk up a huge big long pier and sat at the end watching a few men set up mountains of expensive looking gear to try and catch their supper. Boats were coming and going from both countries and it was lovely sitting in the sunshine. We then walked back and right round the marina before retiring to the van for my personal Chef to rustle up a Butter Chicken Curry.
The Curry simmering away, and the rice about to get boiled and the lagers on the brink of being opened, I noticed a policeman at my new Dutch chums van and thought this doesn’t look promising and so it came to be that the Spanish policeman came and told me very politely, and in perfect English, that we had to get out of the car park as we were too long as apparently the limit for a vehicle here was 5 meters and Louis is a smidge over 7.
I asked for a stay of execution, but only a few minutes were possible, certainly not enough time to polish of a Butter Chicken Curry and trimmings with a stubby of lager! It was now dark as the 6 vans left the now empty car park in convoy, a car park that must have 1,000 spaces, but rules are rules and we were the closest thing to a crime wave in Hondarribia that night. As we were heading for San Sebastian the next day, I set off for the 30 minute drive there with the Curry securely stowed away. In the 10 years of having the van and using it all over the UK and Europe this is the first time I’ve ever been moved on by the police.
San Sebastian was a madhouse of people thronging the streets, the roads chock a block with traffic and youngsters with a death wish coming at us from all sides and angles on scooters. Should they not all be home by 7pm watching the Spanish One Show? It can’t be any worse than ours surely. Anyway, we made the Aire where, the final act would be played out in this pear shaped day, as, with a head torch fastened to my bonce, I was defeated hands down by the payment machine so gave up and enjoyed my Curry at last.
Week 7 – Day 48 – Wednesday 15th November 2017
San Sebastian – 0 miles
San Sebastian had made a big impression on us 2 years ago and that’s why we were making this diversion into Spain to visit it again. Its a vibrant city in the heart of the Basque country beautifully laid out around a lovely sandy beach, little harbour and an old town with warren like streets and alleyways filled with bars competing to put on the most tempting selection of tapas to adorn their counters.
We cycled along the esplanade on the well laid out cycle path and the good news is The Navigator made it to the old town and back later on without falling off and doing herself an injury as she did last time. The bikes padlocked up, we strolled along the sea front in the warm sunshine, probably the warmest day of the whole tour, killing time until tapas time! The interesting thing about the following picture is not us but the throng of people walking about on a Wednesday morning – its as if it had been raining for a month non-stop and they were desperate to get out and about again after the rain had gone off…
Come 1pm on the dot we headed for the same bar as last time as we thought it had the widest selection of all the hostelries. You collect a plate at one end of the bar and make your way along ooohing and aaahing at the incredible variety and quality of food on offer. At the end of the bar you order your drinks and pay before finding a table, and we found the last free table tucked away in a corner. We had 4 different tapas each with half pints of sangria and lager to wash it all down for €25.
After our very Spanish lunch we continued wandering about the old town before finding ourselves back on the esplanade where it was even warmer than pre-lunch so we decided to sit and digest lunch soaking up the warm afternoon sunshine. As I can’t sit for long doing nothing, I decided to try a time lapse on the GoPro so set it up so that The Navigator was filmed sitting on the seat with everyone passing by seemingly in a Benny Hill sketch.
Moving on nearer to where the bikes were we found another bench looking out over the beach to the sea so I set the camera up again on the railings and filmed the both of us with a different setting to make everyone seem even faster. A few people noticed the camera but most passed by completely unaware. A group of young Dutch girls did see it and I asked them to join us to be on the film.
After a chat with them The Navigator went off in search of some afternoon tea and I was joined on the bench by a Spanish gentlemen who started chatting but when I informed him I did not understand, he started speaking in perfect English, shaming my language skills yet again. It turned out he was 88 and as bright as a button. He had worked at the Spanish Embassy in London for a while and lived in High Wycombe for a period of time as well and not only was he delighted to be speaking in English again, but as well as Spanish, he could speak Basque and German too.
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Back at the Aire a young Brit had parked next to us and when I saw him heading for the pay machine I followed to see if he had better luck than me, and low and behold he did! I eventually managed to pay the €3.30 with coins as it took a dislike to my credit card.
Week 7 – Day 49 – Thursday 16th November 2017
San Sebastian to Lourdes – 188 miles
We set off mid morning heading back into France for the world famous town of Lourdes, a few miles to the east of some seriously high snow covered Pyrenean mountains. The drive was probably the most spectacular and memorable to date, memorable until dementia kicks in anyway. The satnav, as ever was set for no toll roads and no motorways and as I may have mentioned before, it leads us through off beat roads and countryside. The first part of the journey in France was unexpected to say the least as we travelled through the undulating hills and little villages of the Basque country. What was so striking was the style of the houses, very reminiscent of Switzerland with white walls, dark red roof tiles and a sort of rust colouring on the eaves and shutters that were on every window. Also noticeable were the road signs which had both French and the Basque translation on them, but in that order, unlike in the west of Scotland where Gaelic takes precedence over English!
In one smallish village we found a Netto discount store so we stopped and bought a few necessities, and a multipack of Snickers, which were not so much a necessity, but a rare treat for someone with type 2 diabetes! Netto was a dissapointment and not a patch on Lidl and Aldi so I can’t see us frequenting them again. We continued on for a bit before stopping beside a little river for lunch, mind you this ‘bit’ had 2 interesting incidents. The first saw us (me) driving through a narrow section of road when from a lane on my left bolted 2 stocky horses that decided to run in front of us until round a corner came 2 oncoming French army trucks and a Jeep, at which the horses thought better of it and ran back in our direction before heading back up the lane they had come from.
The above picture is a still from the dashcam and I’ll post the video sometime. The next interesting thing when I spotted in the field we were approaching on my right about 50 red kites, both on the ground and circling overhead. I slowed right down to watch this spectacle but could not stop to take some pictures, so the following still from the dashcam has to suffice.
We were now out of the Basque country on undulating roads in rolling hilly countryside, the rolling hills obscuring a view of the Pyrenees which were a good bit away to our right until all of a sudden the hills were behind us and we got our first real sighting of the mountains in the distance and luckily there was a bit I could pull into to stop and take in the view.
The sky was blue with hardly a cloud and the mountains were covered in snow shining brightly in the afternoon sunshine and from this point onwards we could glimpse them on our right most of the rest of our journey.
Another highlight was approaching the magnificent walled town of Navarrenx, sitting high above a river with again no time to stop and explore, but it did look fantastic, however, as it had taken us by surprise, we had to press on.
Another thing that took us by surprise was our satnav throwing her toys out of the pram just as we were approaching the largest city in these parts called Pau and going in the huff for some reason, so The Navigator had to step into the void and look out for the signs for Lourdes. Now there are many things in this life that rile The Navigator and top of the list, by far, are French road signs, so be warned, never bring up this thorny subject in her company! Somehow we managed to find our way around / through Pau and get on the road to Lourdes just as her ladyship sparked into life to guide us down the straight road with the ever closer Pyrenees looking magnificent in front of us.
Arriving in Lourdes with the 100 capacity Aire’s co-ordinates in the satnav we entered the town centre, seeing for the first time the magnificent castle, Château fort de Lourdes to our right and then I found ourselves about to turn down what looked like a pedestrian precinct so decided to ignore the satnav and turn round in the little square to find another route when 2 cars whizzed past us down the ‘pedestrian street’ so I did a 360 degree turn and followed them to the bemusement of some local men having a blether in the square. It turns out that this was the road that leads directly to the front gates of the shrine and I’m equally sure that there will be a fine waiting for us on our return as the CCTV are bound to have noticed this Scottish motorhome travelling down this street scattering the bewildered pilgrims in its wake. To add insult to injury the huge Aire was closed but we managed to find a car park to stay in so had a quiet night in the heart of Lourdes.
Week 7 – Day 50 – Friday 17th November 2017
Lourdes to Agos Vidalos – 29 miles
You know those Autumn / Winter days when you’re out and about and you see your breath in front of you. Well imagine waking up in a motorhome snug under the duvet and you see your breath, you then know its a cold morning, -3 to be precise, but with no frost.
I’m sure you have all heard of Lourdes, in fact you may well know someone who has been (us now). We went solely as tourists but as such we were very much in the minority as this is a major place of pilgrimage for people of the Catholic faith. Wikipedia gives the following description of Lourdes…
“Lourdes is a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is part of the Hautes-Pyrénées department in the Occitanie region in south-western France. Prior to the mid-19th century, the town was best known for the Château fort de Lourdes, a fortified castle that rises up from a rocky escarpment at its center.
In 1858 Lourdes rose to prominence in France and abroad due to the Marian apparitions claimed to have been seen by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, who was later canonized. Shortly thereafter the city with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes became one of the world’s most important sites of pilgrimage and religious tourism. Today Lourdes hosts around six million visitors every year from all corners of the world. This constant stream of pilgrims and tourists transformed quiet Lourdes into the second most important center of tourism in France, second only to Paris, and the third most important site of international Catholic pilgrimage after Rome and the Holy Land.”
I’m not sure when the 6 million come but there were hardly a few hundred milling about this morning. From a purely tourist perspective it is incredibly well laid out and impressive. The site of the Sanctuary and the grotto are superbly well presented and there were many people deep in prayer and reflection who had obviously come from all over the world.
That said, once you cross the bridge into the town it was so tatty and unworthy of the purpose of the pilgrimage, but the few souvenir shops that were open were doing good business selling water containers, candles and assorted jewellery, beads and other mementos, and for me it turned this solemn and revered place into a bit of a bazaar.
We headed out of Lourdes to the south and parked up next to a fast flowing river and had lunch and sat out in the sunshine taking in the magnificent scenery around us. At the Aire when we were servicing the van we were treated to another aerial display by a lot of circling Kites.
This was day 50 of our trip and we both put our thoughts onto a separate Blog which you can read HERE if you haven’t already.
Week 7 – Day 51- Saturday 18th November 2017
Agos Vidalos to Saint Gaudens – 76 miles
Saint Gaudens, never heard of it I hear you all cry in unison, and to be honest, neither had we until misfortune struck, but I’m getting ahead of myself. It was another bright sunny cloudless morning in Agos Vidalos, but chilly as a consequence. I think it was a 4 layer day for the Navigator and the usual 1 for me.
We set off north skirting Lourdes and onto a really good road heading for Tarbes, an unusually large town, again we had never heard of. On the way there we passed an airport on our left called Aéroport de Tarbes-Pyrénées which had dozens of large aircraft lined up in a neat row. This was odd as if this was the airport for nearby Lourdes, and it is, there were never that amount of pilgrims in Lourdes to justify all these planes. As we got closer we could see that most of the planes were not airworthy and this side of the airport was an aircraft graveyard. Unusually for our journey we were actually following signs for todays destination of Foix, – but it says above you ended up in Saint Gaudens! – True, but stay with me…
Leaving Tarbes and following the green signs for Foix and not the blue motorway (toll) we turned a corner and there was a toll booth where you took a ticket. Not happy at being on a toll motorway, nevertheless we made good time as the French motorways are nowhere near as busy as ours, no doubt because of the tolls. Just as we approached the first payment booths there was a sliproad off to the right with a green sign for Foix which we took. Now thinking we had evaded the payment booths we turned round a bend to be faced with an unmanned payment booth. The Navigator always panics when confronted by technology she has never encountered before, and, I had wanted to argue with a toll collector as we had been issued a ticket from the high dispenser (for lorries) and not the low one (for cars) meaning we were going to be billed for driving a lorry! Armed with her purse of euro coins The Navigator put the ticket into the machine and voila, the barrier raised without needing to pay. Result!
We continued through some very pleasant countryside and villages with the snow covered Pyrenees still looking magnificent away to our right. In one small town we stopped at a Lidl for some bits and pieces and had our lunch before setting off again. All was going swimmingly until we came to Saint Gaudens, just over an hour short of Foix, which we were skirting round on a good bypass – when misfortune struck – I heard the distinctive sound of a rear tyre blow-out and the van starting to handle erratically so I pulled over as far as I could with the hazards on, half on a cycle lane and half on the road.
We were on a steepish hill, not ideal at all for changing a wheel, but that wouldn’t be my job hopefully. As the Navigator went to put the warning triangle back about 20 yards, I consulted Google Maps to get my precise location before phoning the AA European Assistance number. After getting through to Stuart and answering a million questions, or so I thought, on my location, van size, number of people, any pets, time left till back in the UK, etc, etc, he then asked the killer question – what was my postcode!! Week 7 and 51 days on from even thinking about my postcode, my mind went blank, I had no idea. Looking at The Navigator for inspiration she at least remembered the first part but the second part defeated us both, luckily Stuart managed to find us on his system with the first line of our address.
He thought there was a garage about 10km from us that could attend to change the wheel, but this being France and it being 2.15pm on a Saturday afternoon, my hopes were not too high. But low and behold, about 45 minutes later a truck arrived with orange flashing lights with a young guy with not a word of English at his disposal. Once we had all said bonjour and shaken hands, and The Navigator was reassured that we were not going on the back of his truck, our French tyre changerer started to get on with it, the biggest problem was getting the wheel nuts off. He had obviously never come across the power of Kris’s pneumatic air tool from the Pier Garage, Ardrishaig!
All completed, form signed and $10 richer for a few bière du pressions that night, our knight with orange flashing lights final act was to draw us a map of the nearest tyre depot who, you will not be surprised to learn, did not have the correct tyre for a motorhome, and so that is how we find ourselves on an Aire in Saint Gaudens for the next 3 nights awaiting a tyre being ordered and delivered for hopefully Tuesday afternoon.
Week 7 – Day 52 – Sunday 19th November 2017
Saint Gaudens – 0 miles
The Municipal Aire at St Gaudens overlooks the valley in front of the mountains and has a fantastic view, with, as it turns out, great sunsets framing the mountains as the sun dips to the west on the Spanish side of the border. As it was Sunday there was no point walking into the town centre as everything would be closed so I took advantage of my enforced free time by updating this Blog and editing the backlog of 123 SECONDS IN… videos. Here are we about to enter Andorra and aim for the warmer (hopefully) climate of the Mediterranean coast and the 123 videos are still on the north coast of Brittany! Anyway, I managed to edit 5 which you can see by clicking on them below, including one from the little coastal village of Le Vivier sur Mer where there was not much to film, so its padded out with a speeded up record of us eating mussels and drinking the local cider from teacups!
My labours over for the day, I sat outside in the afternoon sunshine and did my manly duty of barbecuing 2 steaks bought at Melton Mowbray market in what seems like a lifetime ago.
Keen observers will note that there is only 1 chair outside as The Navigator did not think she had enough clothes with her to put on and join me outside.
I mentioned earlier we had stopped at a Lidl en route here for some necessities and the lovely white South African Chardonnay in my hand was one purchase, along with a red Cabernet Sauvignon from the same country for The Navigator, her favourite so far, and both only €1.99 each.
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To put this week into context here is a map of our route…
As we visit new towns and villages I am filming a series of short videos entitled “123 SECONDS IN…”, primarily to help us remember where we have been, but also to give viewers a flavour of the places, and hopefully inspire you to travel to them as well.
The videos from previous weeks now reside on this PAGE in the 2017/2018 Tour menu above.
If we get our new tyre on Tuesday we are aiming to cross the Pyrenees into Andorra and on into Spain – if the snow stays away and the roads are clear. Stay tuned…
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