Tuesday, May 28, 2019

My first steps on the Camino de Santiago

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
On the Camino de Santiago
Having read a number of memoirs and novels set on the Camino, I realised I was drinking in their journeys with a thirst I didn’t know I had for this ancient pilgrimage route. So when Adrian said he had plotted a ride for our Basque mini-break that would take us on one of the marked Camino routes, from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles in Spain, I was excited, until he mentioned it was thought of as the toughest part of the 800km. Walkers will often reach Roncesvalles on their second day, we were planning to cycle there and back in an afternoon.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Basque produce from the market in St Jean Pied de Port

Following a wander around the morning market in St Jean Pied de Port, full of local produce as expected, and having sampled pâté, cheeses, gateau Basques and a milk-raised veal cooked with peppers, onions and Piment d’Espelette, I didn’t think we’d need lunch. However, the afternoon ride would see us climbing properly up and into Spain, so a quiche, salad, gateau Basque and strawberries seemed a good idea.

With the bikes checked over and the first aid kit and emergency blanket packed, the sun cream applied, and the last-minute nerves settled, we were ready (as I’d ever be) for the off. Looking back at my journal, at this point it jumps suspiciously from lunch to dinner; the local apero, the flavours, the people watching and the atmosphere. The reality was much harder, and it is a little further on in my notebook that I eventually find the words to describe the challenge of my first real taste of the Camino.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
The back roads from St Jean Pied de Port to Valcarlos on the Camino

To begin with it was undulating, quiet backroads lined with meadow flowers and beautiful scenery. The route we had chosen (for there are many marked Camino paths) was the one recommended for cyclists in the Cicerone guidebook Cycling the Camino de Santiago, however in places we had to walk as the gradient (both up and down) and the path surface were not always ideal. From Valcarlos, the route joins the road to Pamplona and traffic, bikes and walkers all need to share. This was the beginning of the slow and steady ascent and very soon the higher we climbed the more bits began to hurt. Left calf, lower back, wrists, I could go on, but Adrian would complain about me moaning. I generally find Katie the Tiny Tourer is much more comfortable for me than my road bike and I’m much happier with her size, centre of gravity, geometry and Brooks saddle. However, this ride was a challenge that was testing my comfort zone and I was hurting.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Top of the Col d'Ibaneta on the Camino de Santiago

The top of the Col d'Ibaneta 1057m was bleak, cold and windy with no café and no life except for a few wrapped up pilgrims and a couple of tourists sheltering in their car. No one was hanging around and I missed the friendly welcoming feeling from the top of the Col d’Ispeguy. Mentally at this point, one of the worst things was knowing that to get to Roncesvalles, see the pilgrim centre and find some much-needed refreshments, we had a 1.5km descent, meaning the first part of the mainly downhill return to St Jean Pied de Port, would be uphill. Did I have the strength for this final step? I wasn’t sure.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Roncesvalles on the Camino de Santiago 

Roncesvalles is a tiny hamlet nestled safely in the mountains, boasting a huge pilgrim auberge where lots of people were already sitting and relaxing in the sun after their day on the Camino. We rolled into the first bar we found, with a sunny terrace, and as we were now in Spain hit the bar together to order our beers. My level of fatigue by this point meant I could barely remember the Spanish for hello, let alone beer. However, used to weary travelers with little or no Spanish, the beers arrived, and we treated ourselves to a warm cheese and ham sandwich. It was obvious we were in Spain, as the availability of food in France, outside of lunch or dinner, is a rare sight indeed. Never has a sandwich dripping with oil tasted so good, even if the peace of the mountain view from the terrace was shattered by a huge digger moving shingle.

It had taken over two and half hours to cycle the 26km and it was gone five in the afternoon when we set off on the return. Despite it being mostly downhill, I was still worried about how long it would take me, not being the most confident downhill cyclist. Sensibly we’d packed long-sleeved tops for the way down and I’m so glad we had. It was windy, as well as being cold and shady in places, and the roar of the wind in our ears was never abating. We both had stiff necks from the combined wind and position of our necks, but thankfully the sun returned in the valley and we were able to gently cruise the final few kilometres in the warmth, tired but happy.

French Village Dairies my first steps on the Camino de Santiago, Pays Basque Chemins de St Jacques
Col de Burdincurucheta, Pays Basque

There is a different type of effort and energy required to ascend and descend and both were hard work, but I’m guessing a pilgrimage shouldn’t be easy. In a small way I was disappointed that my fatigue had tainted my enjoyment, burst my Camino bubble if you like, and a part of me felt the full journey to Santiago was beyond my capabilities. A good meal and a restful night, however, gave me the courage to get back on the bike and tackle a larger col, the Col de Burdincurucheta (a fantastic Basque name) at 1135m high. It was also tough, but I’m so glad I tried (and succeeded) so maybe it is just a bit more practice and faith in myself that I am lacking.

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book review of Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

French Village Diaries book review Two Steps Forward Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Following on from my previous posts set in the Pays Basque, we picked St Jean Pied de Port as our location for its Camino fame, and tomorrow I will share our first tentative steps on the famous route. Today I have a review for Two Steps Forward, a novel written by husband and wife authors Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, about two people walking the Chemin de St Jacques pilgrimage route (or Camino) from Cluny in central France to St Jean Pied de Port, and onwards to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

Zoe is an American widow, escaping to France following the sudden death of her husband. She is not sure what she wants or needs and rather stumbles on the Camino with little prior knowledge of what is involved or time to plan. It just feels right for her as she begins her journey of recovery and starts to think about the necessary decisions for her future.

Martin is British divorcé, working in France, where he invents a handcart for long distance walkers that he hopes will prove to be a success, and hatches a plan to test it on the ultimate walking journey; the Camino.

Their start points may coincide, but there are many things that keep them apart, even when friendship begins to form. Written in alternative chapters by Graeme and Anne, the two characters Martin and Zoe have distinct personalities and their own voices throughout the book. Both of the authors are seasoned Camino walkers and their knowledge is evident in the daily struggles and challenges Zoe and Martin face walking alone day after day, often in extreme weather and crossing difficult terrain. While this book is about the Camino it’s also a novel, with emotions, issues to resolve and sparks of romance to tease the readers imagination along the way. The Camino is as much a journey for the mind as well as for the body; can it give Zoe and Martin a change of direction for their futures, can the bonds formed on the Camino last outside of the Camino bubble, and will what they learn about themselves on the journey help them with their family relationships in the future?

This book is a great mix of fact and fiction and gave me a bit of everything I enjoy; the descriptions of the physical journey of the Camino as well as the emotional journey Zoe and Martin found themselves on. If the Camino is something that interests you, I’m sure you will enjoy reading Two Steps Forward. Available in ebook, audiobook, hardback and paperback format, links to Amazon can be found below.

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Pays Basque Atlantic Coast

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
St Jean de Luz, Pays Basque

The Pays Basque Atlantic coast

The Pays Basque isn’t just about mountains, spicy peppers, sheep’s cheese or Gateau Basque, it boasts a great coastline too, and in what I hoped would be more gentle terrain for my little legs than the mountain cols, that was where we found ourselves on our second full day back in the Basque.

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
Morning coffee in Bidart, Pays Basque

When morning coffee is served with a white-sand vista stretching along the blue horizon, and the warming sun was on our faces, it was with some difficulty we tore ourselves away, unfolded the bikes and set off to explore. 

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
Eurovelo 1, Pays Basque Atlantic coast

Following Eurovelo 1 up, down and around the corniche, I soon realized there isn’t much that’s flat in the Pays Basque. However, with honeysuckle, elderflowers, acacia and viburnum all competing to perfume the air, walking the steeper or loose gravel sections of the bike path just extended the nasal delights. From cool and shady sections with almost hidden glimpses of dramatic coastlines, to open areas with a never-ending view, it was a treat to be there on the bikes and in the sun.

St Jean de Luz reminds me a little of La Rochelle, with its cosmopolitan feel and off-the-scale people watching score, but it retains an unmistakable Basque flavour. White buildings, red shutters, balconies, triangular Basque pitched roofs and a little bit of Spanish creeping in around the edges, it was great to be back. We picnicked in the main square where we have previously feasted on plat du jour regional specialties, but today the bike parking at our preferred restaurant looked tricky. Warm quiche and mini Gateau Basque brought direct from a quayside boulangerie, certainly set us up for the afternoon climb. 

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
St Jean de Luz from Ciboure, Pays Basque

We crossed the harbor into Ciboure and soon the floral fragrance was replaced by fresh, salty sea air as we followed the coast towards Hendaye. Our afternoon was a great mix of climbing followed by sweeping descents, all with a backdrop of seaweed, seagulls and the sound of crashing waves.

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
Hendaye, Pays Basque

From Hendaye we looked over to the tower blocks of Hondarribia in Spain, just the river estuary separating the two countries. The air was hot, and the palm trees gave it an exotic holiday feel, but there was beer waiting for us back in St Jean de Luz, so retrace our steps we had to do. A meander up the main shopping street followed the beer stop where my eye was drawn to a Basque coloured trinket to adorn Katie the Tiny Tourer, who is getting quite a collection of quirky dangly bits, none of which help my climbing I’m sure, but all make me smile.

French Village Diaries #KTTinyTourer cycles the Pays Basque Atlantic coast
Guéthary, Pays Basque

It was certainly worth the hour or so drive from St Jean Pied de Port to the coast at Bidart where we left the car for the day. Eurovelo 1 is reasonably well marked, although after the beautiful fishing port of Guéthary (worth a stop) on our return, they send you on a longer than necessary detour, just to pass a museum, which despite the vivid mosaic sculptures in the garden we didn’t have time to visit. You certainly get to see the best of coast line following the Eurovelo by bike, rather than stuck in traffic on the busy main road by car.

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:

Friday, May 24, 2019

Book review of the French Summer Novel series by Laurette Long

French Village Diaries book review French Summer Novel series Laurette Long Pays Basque
Biarritz, Pays Basque
For my latest installment of all things Basque, let me introduce you to the French Summer Novel series of books by Laurette Long.

French Village Diaries book review French Summer Novel series Laurette Long Pays Basque
Bairritz Passion by Laurette Long

Biarritz Passion

In the first book in this fabulous trilogy, Biarritz Passion, as well as sisters Caroline and Annabel, we meet an extended family who reunite every summer in the holiday home originally owned by their grandparents, the Villa Julia in Biarritz. It is a place where four cousins, living different lives in different countries all come together for a close-knit family summer in the Pays Basque. In this first book, (read my full review here) what stood out for me most was the emotions that ran throughout the novel and the sense of place; it really does open up the magic of the Pays Basque to the reader.


French Village Diaries book review French Summer Novel series Laurette Long Pays Basque
Hot Basque by Laurette Long

Hot Basque

Book two in the series, Hot Basque, is set during the following summer and adds to our character list when Caroline’s friend Jill joins them at the Villa and spends most of her holiday touring with Edward’s friend Antoine, learning about the area, the people (and love) and taking us along for the sightseeing ride. It is another book with fire and passion aplenty. There is more emotional blackmail from Caroline’s sister Annabel, and more drama and hurt for Caroline, but this year she is not alone. She has Edward, and with his love and his family tightly packed around her, Annabel’s shocking behavior is easier for her to cope with. Caroline has become one of them now, and Villa Julia has become a place that is very special to her too. 


French Village Diaries book review French Summer Novel series Laurette Long Pays Basque
Biarritz-Villa Julia by Laurette Long

Biarritz-Villa Julia

Villa Julia, the third and final book in the series takes place later in the same year as book two, when the family gather for a late summer celebration for the 60th birthdays of twins Julie and Anouk, mainly organised by Caroline and Edward from their flat in Toulouse (another great French location we get to discover more about). In this book it is Edward’s cousin Claudie and her new man Pete who get a good slice of the action. Pete is a top London chef, in charge of the birthday cake, and accompanied on his first visit to the Villa by his mother, the formidable Hibiscus, or Hibby for short. Things between Claudie and Hibby get off to an hilariously bad start and it would be true to say Claudie’s Basque spirit meets its match in Hibby.

Once the birthday party is done, it’s full swing into preparing for Caroline and Edward’s spring wedding, keeping tabs on Annabel and following the developments of Jill and Antoine as their life takes on a new and unexpected direction. 

Like in the previous books there is no shortage of drama and short-fuses in this final novel and the fire and passion I fell in love with in book one is still burning brightly here. I was sad to get to the end and realise there will be no more, but it was great being back and I was left with a nice feeling of contentment at seeing each couple’s stories through to a conclusion.


French Village Diaries book review French Summer Novel series Laurette Long Pays Basque
The Passage of Desire by Laurette Long

The Passage of Desire, the prequal

Although I had this on my kindle before book three, I didn’t read it until I’d finished the trilogy! This meant that around half way through book three I found myself in a new location, with new characters and a feeling like I’d been dropped into a different book. However, I quite enjoyed the mystery and sense of adventure this gave me, and I soon worked out where it was taking me. Reading the prequal certainly expanded on Caroline and Annabel’s early years.

This series gives you everything Basque; the scenery, the local festivals, the food and a real sense of place. It also gives you passion, emotions, love and drama. For someone who has been lucky enough to visit the Basque a few times, these books take me right back, so if you can’t get to Biarritz or the Pays Basque, you will at least feel like you’ve experienced a short break just by reading them.

What next Laurette?

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Col d'Ispeguy in the Pyrenees

French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
Col d'Ispeguy

Col d’Ispeguy

Cycling in the Pyrénées isn’t just for hardcore racers, there are plenty of gentle climbs, touring routes and coastal rides to enjoy too. Our first choice, as a good leg stretcher for our Basque cycling break, was one that has quickly become our favourite, the Col d’Ispeguy. A baby, in terms of cols (mountain passes) at only an 8km and 672m climb, to the Spanish border, we first conquered it in 2017 on the road bikes and managed to ascend (and descend) twice in five days on this trip with the Bromptons.
French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
St Etienne de Baïgorry
The weather the week before we left had been against us, the bikes were left folded and unused all week, allowing no training for legs that now needed to be able to climb mountains. We parked in St Etienne de Baïgorry, which allowed a kilometre or so of flat warm-up before the road crossed the river by the church, the Col sign appeared, and the gradient arrived. Cycling up these first few bends a French cyclist, older than us and a local, loomed up from behind. Through my ragged breaths, we exchanged bonjours and despite my obvious lack of fitness, he seemed keen to converse as well as climb. He was tackling the col for the second time that day but was interested in our Brompton’s and how they compared, gearing wise, to road bikes. I tried my best, but soon fell behind, leaving him and Adrian trying to chat around a subject they both knew about, but with language (and accent) issues. Ever the gentlemen Adrian soon let monsieur cycle on ahead and waited for me to catch up.
French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
Col d'Ispeguy
The scenery here is stunning, with green rolling hills, gently curving mountains, rocky peeks visible when you strain your neck upwards and ribbons of road snaking into the distance. 

French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
Foxgloves at the road side, Col d'Ispeguy
This alone makes it difficult to be anything but awed by the journey, even if it was tough going on my legs at times. Add in the shocking pink foxgloves, deep purple aquilegias and many more wild flowers tempting me further along the road, the streams tumbling down the rock side and the birds of prey circling and calling overhead and it was amazing to be engulfed in such beauty. 
French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
Top of the mountain! Col d'Ispeguy

I couldn’t have gone any faster than I was, but it would have been a shame to have rushed the experience, so slow and steady I went, drinking in all that nature had to offer me. 
French Village Diaries Col d'Ispeguy Pays Basque Pyrenees #KTTinyTourer
The restaurant at the Col d'Ispeguy
Unlike some cols, Ispeguy has the bonus of a tiny community when you reach the top. Two bars sandwiched between the now closed customs house on the Spanish/French border offer food and drinks as well as souvenirs and somewhere to rest for the weary cyclist. Once fully refreshed, I took a steady approach to the descent and soon found my rhythm sweeping around the corners in a cautious rather than graceful way, but overall so much happier with the centre of gravity on the Brompton compared to my road bike. It left me feeling positive about the rest of our plans for the week cycling in the mountains. 

Here are a few of my previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like:

I’m not the only one who thinks cycling in the Pyrénées is for everyone, here is a recent post from Adventure Creators with lots of ideas for cycling holidays in the mountains: Cycling in the Pyrenees For All.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book review of The Only Way is West by Bradley Chermside

French Village Diaries book review The Only Way is West Bradley Chermside
The Only Way is West by Bradley Chermside

The Only Way is West by Bradley Chermside

Having just returned from a few days in St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrénées, sharing my review of this fabulous travel memoir about the 500-mile walk from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in Spain seemed appropriate. Many thousands of ‘pilgrims’ make this journey on the Camino every year, following the ancient route over the Pyrénées and across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of St James are said to rest.

Bradley is one such person and this memoir tells of his journey, from the planning, his arrival in France, his blisters and sleepless nights along the way, the people he meets and the mysterious girl he hopes will be waiting for him. His writing style is funny, his descriptions and observations, especially of those he shares his Camino with, bring his journey to life, and I enjoyed every page. He certainly fanned the flame of fire within me to make my Camino dream a reality one day. 
French Village Diaries book review The Only Way is West Bradley Chermside Camino
Following the Camino
This book is mostly his account from the journal he kept, but also includes some of the emails sent to friends and family and their words of encouragement, that always seemed to arrive just when he needed them most. The Camino is tough on the body; the grueling terrain and nights spent in large hostels with shared dormitories and basic facilities. Plus, with long, hot days, often walking alone, there is time outside of your normal routine for your head to think and make decisions. I really enjoyed the experience of following Brad and couldn’t wait to see if he found what he was looking for at the end of his journey and also discover how the Camino changed him and shaped his future.

This book would be a great read for anyone planning their own Camino, or for those who like adventure and travel memoirs written with honesty, emotion and humour.

The Only Way is West is available in ebook and paperback format and links to Amazon can be found below.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Back in the Pays Basque

French Village Diaries back in the Pays Basque
On the French/Spanish border Pays Basque
Sometimes it is important to forget your worries and count your blessings, so having left our requests for post-Brexit residency with the Prefecture in Niort, and spent a good few days struggling to move around whilst keeping everything crossed, we decided enough was enough and in true Bollox to Brexit spirit hit the road. 

A four-hour drive from home and we caught our first glimpse of the Pyrénées in the distance. Light shadows of mountain peaks teasing us, there one minute, gone the next, then majestically reappearing and revealing a little more of themselves. The Pays Basque was beckoning us; Adrian with his inner mountain spirit was keen to stretch his legs, feel the burn, and crest col after col (mountain passes) and I was dreaming of reacquainting myself with the rich, buttery, moist and chewy Gateau Basque.

French Village Diaries back in the Pays Basque
St Jean de Luz

Instead of looking at (yet another) week of no work for Adrian as a sign of the possible recession the UK seems to be heading for, we made the most of it and proved we don’t just live in France, we are LIVING in France. In four days we cycled 189km, climbed three mountain cols, each one a little higher than the last, dipped from France to Spain and back again a few times (EU freedom of movement bonus) and followed the Atlantic coast from Bidart to Hendaye, taking in cosmopolitan St Jean de Luz. We were powered by stunning scenery; green rolling hills dotted with white Basquais houses, wild horses, sheep and flowering verges, as well as lots of delicious Gateau Basque cakes.

French Village Diaries back in the Pays Basque
Valcarlos in the Pays Basque

There is something about the Basque that captured our hearts five years ago, the hills are soft, not rough jagged peaks, but they are not exactly gentle either. Cycling here is a constant climb, curve, descend, climb again, pattern, but after a while it’s easy to get into a routine. There is locally produced wine to enjoy with sheep’s milk cheeses, and the warming effects of the Piment d’Espelette chili can be found in many local dishes. With a language of its own and boasting one of the oldest civilisations in Europe, it is a unique area of France (and Spain) and also home to St Jean Pied de Port, pilgrim gateway to the Pyrénées and our home for four nights. 

French Village Diaries back in the Pays Basque Camino Saint Jacques de Compostelle
The Chemin de St Jacques, St Jean Pied de Port

I have a fascination for all things to do with the pilgrim camino to Santiago de Compostela. Maybe it’s from living on the Chemin de St Jacques that passes through Tours, Poitiers and Melle, on its way to St Jean Pied de Port, or because of my namesake, Ste Jacqueline, an Italian who walked as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela many times in her life, but whatever it is, the pull is there. Immersing myself in St Jean Pied de Port for four days gave me the opportunity to watch the comings and goings of the pilgrims as we drank our morning coffee in the sun, spot the pilgrims from the holiday tourists (like ourselves) over dinner, and as a reward for conquering a short (but steep) section on my bike, buy myself a Camino shell trinket in the hope I can one day return.

French Village Diaries back in the Pays Basque Camino Saint Jacques de Compostelle
Walking the cobbles of St Jean Pied de Port

Not everyone is on a pilgrimage, but we are all on a journey and putting my body through the sometimes-grueling climbs of the Pyrénéan cols certainly left no room in my head for worrying about where our future will take us. The fatigue was fought off by the sense of achievement, the encouragement from seasoned local cyclists warmed me when the cold wind hit at altitude and the time Adrian and I spent sharing our adventures created special memories to cherish.

This week the blog is going Basquaise and I will be sharing some of our days on the bikes in the Pays Basque, as well as some reviews of books set in the Basque and on the Camino.

Here are a few previous posts about the Pays Basque you might like: