Sunday, May 1, 2016

Biarritz et Barcelone

The French are serious about their vacation and the kids get two weeks off every couple of months. Normally that means more work for me since the parents are still working and I have to be with the kids, but for the last round of vacation the parents took the second week off and I had the chance to travel! I haven't been so good about blogging since I've been in France and this post is about two weeks late but I wanted to write it anyway.

It was hard deciding where to go - I mean, I could've gone pretty much anywhere in Europe - but it just so happened that my sister, Beth, was going to Spain around the same time and I had talked with one of my friends here about going to Barcelona (although she didn't end up coming) so I decided on Barcelona. I had a few days free before Beth arrived so I figured I'd stop somewhere along the way since Barcelona is about 10 hours from here if you go direct and most trains don't. I chose Biarritz 'cause I'd heard it's a really beautiful place... and it's known for it's surf. ;) So I took a board (which the family kindly let me borrow) and got the train to Biarritz.
Basque country

In my imagination, I would be staying at a hostel within walking distance to the beach. I would surf at least two times a day and in the evenings I would relax with a beer and good food and talk with the other surfers from around the world who had come to Biarritz to surf. Of course, it would be sunny and hot and the waves would be perfect. In reality, I had to take a bus from the hostel to the nearest beach and I was the only surfer in the hostel. In fact, I was practically the only person in the hostel (okay, I exaggerate, maybe there were a dozen people). The first day I was there, the waves were almost 3 meters (about 9 feet) which is not exactly my level. But since I had bought an unlimited bus pass I could go anywhere I wanted, right? In theory... Unfortunately, the buses only run every hour or half hour in the off-season and they don't necessarily stop close to the beach. But I asked the people at the hostel desk (they looked like surfers and seemed to know what they were talking about...) where I could find some slightly smaller waves. They suggested a place called Bidart so I took my board and boarded the bus to Bidart. After about 30 minutes, we arrived at a small town which, as the driver informed me, was Bidart plage (beach).
Bidart Plage
I quickly realized that I would not be surfing there as the waves were huge and rather messy. But I had heard about another plage nearby so I set off to find it, hoping it would be better. After climbing a huge hill, toting my surfboard - which acted more like a large sail - all the way I found the other beach. There were still no surfable waves but there was a surf club unpacking boards from a van. I asked a lady where they had surfed and she rattled off a list of names, none of which I understood clearly enough to repeat but I figured I could find them on a map. I walked back to the bus stop and consulted the map. Saint Jean du Luz sounded familiar so I took that bus. However, there were about six different stops under that name so I just got off at one that looked like it was near the water. I found the tourist info center and was informed that it was on a bay and, thus, there were no waves but I could walk up the coast to the open beach. I must have walked at least five miles and the only waves I found were huge. I finally gave up and slowly made my way back to the bus and then to the hostel. That evening I went into the center of Biarritz to see the Grande Plage and find something to eat. It is really a stunning area and the sunset was absolutely beautiful!
View of the bay at St Jean du Luz

The port at St Jean du Luz
Grande Plage

Sunset over Grande Plage

The next day the waves were significantly smaller and, although I still did quite a bit of walking during the morning, I managed to find some good waves and surfed all afternoon until the sun set. Back at the hostel that evening, I met a Canadian guy while I was in the common room using the internet and we talked for a bit about what we were doing in France and then he started playing his guitar. Some people heard it from the kitchen and came to ask if we wanted to join them in singing and playing guitar and of course, talking travel. It was so nice and I met a lovely French girl who had been an au pair in the U.S.! It was cool to hear the opposite perspective and to be able to share a connection like that.

The day after, I set off for Barcelona. My train wasn't scheduled until 2:30 pm but I left early because I had to check out of the hostel anyway. Luckily I did because, upon arriving at the train station, I learned that there had been a problem on the tracks and all the trains were delayed 1-2 hours! Since I had a connection in Irun (a Spanish town just over the border with France) the man at the station recommended I take the next train to Hendaye, France and walk "15 minutes" to the station in Irun. Although walking was the last thing I wanted to do after walking about 30 miles over the past two days with my backpack and surfboard, I accepted his advice. It was easy enough to find the town of Irun but the station was nowhere to be seen. It's amazing how fast the language changes when you cross the border. No one seemed to speak French. I asked for directions at a store and the woman explained them using Spanish with a few French words and lots a pictures and gestures. It worked and I made it to the station but as I had some time to spare, I found a cafe and sat for a while. About an hour before my train was scheduled to depart, I made my way back to the station and I was sitting outside waiting for my train when a man who worked there came up to me and asked if the surfboard was mine. I said "yes" and he said "No, not possible" "The train is too small". I must have stared at him for at least a minute and then I attempted to explain that I had already taken it on three different trains without any problems but all he said was "No, not possible" "I don't speak English, but no".  So I tried the man at the desk. He told me "You can walk to the station in France to get the money for your ticket". I tried to ask if there were other options but I got the same response every time. I tried the other man again, still no. And again. Finally he found someone who could speak English and she translated for me and he agreed to let me buy another seat just for my board. Of course, when I finally boarded the train, it was basically empty and my board would have easily fit in the overhead storage or the luggage racks. I'm sure there are lovely Spanish people, but I have to say from my experience, I prefer the French...

I made it to Barcelone that night, took the metro to the Airbnb, and spent some time talking to the hosts while I waited for Beth to arrive. In case you don't know what an Airbnb is, it's a room or an appartement which the owners rent out to travelers. Our hosts were an Argentinian couple who work as lifeguards in Barcelona during the summer and travel the rest of the year - not bad! It was great to reunite with my sister and travel together which was something we wanted to do for a long time. We spent the next two days exploring the city by metro, bus, and foot. We walked over 10 miles each day but we really made the most of our time there. We admired the works of Gaudi at Sagrada Familia, Casa Battló, and Park Güell, took in the city's history (recent and not-so-recent) on the old streets, at the Olympic Stadium, and at the Castell de Montjuïc, enjoyed the beautiful weather on the beach and at the Park de la Ciutadella, and savored the delicious and inexpensive food at the Mercat de la Boqueria and various local eateries. On our last night we watched an amazing light display at the Magic Fountain. Beth left early the next day and I wandered and the city a bit more while waiting for the bus to Paris.
Parc de la Ciutadella

An old Roman fortress

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Parc Güell

Castell Montjuïc

View of the harbor from Castell Montjuïc
The magical fountain display

I spent the afternoon and night on the bus and, between a screaming baby and the bus's constant stops, I slept very little, and arrived at 5:15 am the next day in Paris. Since I had the whole day before my train back to Lorient, I walked around Paris and explored some places I hadn't yet seen, like Sacre Cœur and the Luxembourg Jardins. My train trip back to Lorient only made me more sure that I would never again take my surfboard on public transportation. Between the annoyed looks of other passengers and the fact that I had to stand in the corridor with my board because there were no empty seats and there was not enough space in the luggage rack, it was not the most pleasant journey. Luckily, someone let me have their seat for the last hour or so until people got off  and more seats opened up. Upon arriving at the train station around 11:30 pm, I found my car wouldn't start and I had to take a taxi home. Needless to say, the next day back to work was a bit rough but traveling is like that and it was worth it.
Luxembourg jardins

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