July 31 : Basque in the Beauty
BAYONNE + BIARRITZ
I’ve been here before. Bayonne. Biarritz. You know I think of them fondly. I know you associate them with painful memories. I would take you here to obliterate those memories. I cannot erase the past but I would show you a magical, extraordinary place that would stick with you as it stuck with me. I would make those words – Bayonne, Biarritz – happier words for you. This is how I would do it.
We wake early as light fills the room and bounces off the limestone brick walls in all directions. It creates a soft glow that seems to kill any trace of a shadow. A silent whisper of a breeze blows through the open window. There is no TV, no radio, no phones, no electronics, just quiet.
Breakfast is delivered. It’s big, hearty. The day will be long because there is just so much to do, so much to see.
We’ll take advantage of the silent, still morning to explore the streets, to get out there before the crowds.
Fun fact about, Bayonne: it was the first place in France to produce chocolate. Spanish explorers brought chocolate from the New World to Spain. The kings and queens and princes and princesses and all those entitled folk loved chocolate and kept the secret to themselves, not sharing with other countries. Unfortunately for them, they decided to kill, ostracize or expel all the Jewish folk from Spain. Some of those refugees ended up in Bayonne and ended up sharing the secret of xocolatl with the rest of Europe. We’ll stop by l’Atelier du Chocolat to see the chocolate museum then stuff our faces with chocolate.
Even though it’s still early, the streets are beginning to buzz. More and more people are walking about, many in all white ensembles with a red sash or bandanna. Something is definitely going on – like an event or something. Before it gets too busy, we’ll make our way up to the cathedral.
This is not the biggest cathedral, in France. It’s not the oldest. It holds no records and isn’t even considered a major church, but it is extraordinary. The two towers stand giant over the rest of the town, peeking over red roofs, ominously staring down narrow streets.
Once inside, it appears that every noise in the world has disappeared. It is silent and still yet every small sound is amplified as it ricochets off gothic walls and careens to every corner of this space. It’s dark, but light fights it’s way in through the high windows and stained glass. We’ll sit here for awhile and just breathe. Then we’ll go to the cloister and sit there awhile, too. Spirits linger in this place. They can be seen in the graceful arches, the flourishes and the filaments. They speak to us through the gaps in architecture. They tell us, “we built this place, we cared for this place, we lived and died in this place.” Whether God exists, in some form or another, isn’t a material question for me when exposed to the allure of this cathedral. Instead, I revel in the profound beauty that has been created by people trying to understand, “why are we here and what lies beyond?” To me, places like this are the best expression of humanity.
After the cathedral, we’ll get a little to eat. There are hundreds of choices – quaint cafes, creperies or even the les halles de Bayonne.
By now, the white shirts are invading the city in large numbers. We have found ourselves in the middle of the biggest festival in France, Fêtes de Bayonne. People jam the streets. It’s white and red as far as we can see.
The Fêtes is exhilarating, exciting but also exhausting. After drinking in the spectacle of it all for about half a day, we escape from the crowds and make our way to the coast. Bayonne and Biarritz are separate towns but, like Santa Cruz and Capitola, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and one begins. When you’re at the river it’s Bayonne and the beach is Biarritz. Somewhere in between the two is a blurred border.
We reach Biarritz in the late afternoon. Bayonne was for quiet introspection and wild partiyng, Biarritz is for surf and sunset and cool ocean breezes on a warm summer evening.
Spain awaits but it’s just a short drive away. There is no need to wake early, so we’ll wander in Biarritz long after sunset. Everywhere we walk, the warm bricks of the buildings and streets fight with the cool air and mist thrown up by the ocean. The soft murmur of the city competes with cymbal sounds of crashing waves. In this town, old ghosts of a glorious past wrestle with new ideas and technology and it’s all dumped in a heap as close to the Atlantic as possible. Like most coastal settlements, everyone is scratching for a piece of dry land next to the roiling surf – people building their castles in the sand. Biarritz has 200 years of evidence to that. Just walking around, we breathe in all those years in every sight, every glance around a corner, every stroll down a street. The quiet conflict of the land and sea, the calm chaos of constructing dreams at the beach, year after year after year – it’s all ours and we walk and walk and walk through the night to claim as much of it as we can until we can do it no more. Then we head sleepily back to Bayonne, to our little room in the old Gallo Roman tower behind the protective walls of an old city.
Tomorrow, we leave. Au revoir, France. Au revoir.