Back in the Basque Country

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The morning comes and I am still undecided as to which way to head. I type a random address in Santander into the satnav to see which routes are available. There are several, via Bordeaux, Biarritz and Pamplona. Thinking that Bordeaux lies on a North / South route I am bound to travel in the future, and Pamplona is possibly most interesting during its famous summer city festival and bull run, I opt for Biarritz.

The run is uneventful, rolling along comfortably at around 110. I’ve heard of Biarritz’s famous Wheels and Waves Festival, celebrating custom motorcycle and surfing cultures. When it came up in conversation with Ted Simon, he raised an eyebrow. Others did too.

They were right, of course. It’s best to visit Biarritz during the festival. I stop for fuel, get the phone out and book a room in a 1 star hotel in San Sebastian which is about 60 kilometres away across the border. I have a special relationship with San Sebastian / Donostia for various personal reasons which we needn’t go into here. Sufficient to say it has a very warm place in my heart, and I have no issue with heading there for the evening. The run takes about an hour because of road works. On this occasion I know that I am crossing the border, as there is a big green sign which says “GIPUZKOA”. A few metres further there is the usual small EU border sign which reads “España” but it’s barely noticeable compared to the large Basque province one. The message, if one is intended, seems clear.

It’s hot, about 31 degrees, and I’ve been riding at speed for a number of hours. For the first time during the trip Veronica is not sounding great. Each time I try to get above 100 she complies but under protest, making sad wookie noises. It’s hard to tell what it is: is she overheating, is it the expensive French 98 petrol finally catching up with her digestive system, or is it the fuel air mix, running lean because of the lambda sensor eliminators needed to accommodate the custom Vance and Hines exhaust. Usually this should not be a problem except for in unusual climactic conditions, so perhaps this is the one situation where it makes a difference. A full inspection will take place when we get to our pit stop.

Then there is the utterly Byzantine motorway system around San Sebastian itself. There are exits going in five directions, intricately complex roundabouts which seem to end up in the same place, no apparent consistency to the speed limits (from 100 to 40 to 90 and so on), and the whole thing makes the infamous “Spaghetti Junction” look like a Roman road. I remember it from the last time I rode here. Not reasonableThat time it was on a rented 2016 Harley Road King and it was not pleasant. Thankfully this time it’s a very familiar bike, which makes the sudden lane changes and totally counter intuitive speed changes significantly easier. Still, 15 minutes is spent orbiting the city trying to find the right exit. I decide to go off at a tangent which feels vaguely right and hope. The Road takes pity on a tired and sweat drenched me and a wheezing Veronica and allows us a relatively painless escape route and challenge free concluding mile to the destination.

A few hours previously I’d booked a room at a 1 star hotel in the east of the city up a hill. Eventually rolling up to it, it’s a low rise old building with a gravelly court yard at a steep angle and with a few  palm trees. I take care to park Veronica facing uphill and dismount. The door bell goes unanswered, as does the phone. A couple of guests arrive at the compound. I hail them in a mix of English and Spanish, since Basque is beyond me. They are English speakers; they say they’ll let the receptionist know that I am here, and disappear round the back. Eventually the door is opened. There is a guy standing there there who stares at me with utter disbelief. I tell him in my best Spanish that I have a reservation. He calls me in, looks through his paperwork and appears  stunned, albeit pleasantly so when he finds my reservation. IMG_3131.JPGHe joyfully takes me upstairs up the narrow staircase and lets me into the room. It’s clear that this is the best and biggest room here, with a big balcony taking up the entire front of the building. He gives me the wifi code and backs out, still looking entirely bewildered but contented.

The room contains nothing apart from a bed, some bed clothes and a towel, although I do eventually find a hair dryer in a shoe box. There is no soap or supplies of any kind, but the wifi is working well. I wander out and find the guy, asking him “Tienes jabon?” My Spanish can’t be that awful, because it seems to work: he looks completely shocked again but goes outside into a kind of shed and brings out a couple of little shampoo bottles. It’ll suffice.

I take a quick shower and hand wash some boxers, socks and a base layer top: I’m down to the last clean set. Perhaps the least glamorous part of this entire adventure has been the constant clothes washing cycle, every two days, either bothering my hosts for a washing machine or by hand using soap when this has not been possible. I hang stuff up to dry, pull on my jeans and a shirt and head into town, about 30 minutes’ walk away. Given the long day’s riding, I’m looking forward to a stroll. As I am departing, an older guy in very bright yellow spandex arrives on a push bike. Apparently he’d cycled here from Switzerland. I have a quick chat with him as he removes his helmet and unpacks his panniers, under the horrified disbelieving gaze of the guy on reception, and then head downhill into town.

San Sebastian (Spanish name) or Donostia (Basque name) is a beautiful small city, although it does not feel small. There a few things about it which stand out. There are the two beaches which make it a resort city, and a very upmarket one without being haughty: during the War for example it was a place where a lot of Europe’s aristocracy, displaced by the fighting, sat out the hostilities. IMG_3134It is reported that Bruce Springsteen has a house there after he fell in love with it after visiting the city. How he bought it is hard to tell, since apparently people without a local family connection are not able to purchase property.  The buildings are nice but not stunning, the consistency is what makes the city pretty. There is a monstrous cube like convention centre on the sea front but it sits apart from the rest of the architecture and so it’s not too awful. A funicular on one hill to the west of the city centre leads to a religious statue, on another hill there is an old fortress which is now an almost wild park. Motorbikes and scooters are everywhere: it feels as though they make up half or more of the traffic, and they are parked in large numbers on every street corner.

Most street signs and shop names are in Basque, one sees very little Spanish. Little wonder: the people here are very proud of their heritage. The Basque language is a linguistic mystery: it does not resemble any other, and appears to be older than all of them. There is even a theory that it is descended from the language which Neanderthals spoke, so ancient are its origins. It really is fascinating.

There is also a darker note to the region’s history. The separatist paramilitary organisation did not lay down its arms until only a few years ago. During the Franco years they managed to assassinate a few of his ministers. Clearly peace is better than war, and it seems that the underlying question of sovereignty has been settled for now, but these sorts of conflicts do cast a long shadow.

A major thing which this town is known for is food: it has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per head of population than anywhere else in the world. There is a tradition of private gastronomy clubs where people try to impress their friends with amazingly elaborate cooking. IMG_3140Occasionally one of them opens a restaurant which is almost inevitably awarded a Michelin star, or two, or three. The best thing is that these amazing establishments remain affordable, and one can usually get a table at relatively short notice.

There is no Michelin starred joint for me tonight, I’m after something else. Pintxos. To describe pintxos as “Basque tapas” as some folks do is to do this genre of mind blowing intricate little platters a terrible injustice. A cuisine so distinct that it’s impossible to describe, these are small dishes of great complexity, usually served on a small slice of baguette. I go into one of the best pintxos places called Bergara and wave hello to one of the guys behind the counter. He hands me a plate, I pick up half a dozen pintxos and I’m in heaven. This is easily the best food I’ve eaten during this journey, if not during this year.

With the pintxos mission accomplished, I stroll around the familiar streets for a few minutes before turning east and heading back to my hotel. The evening has been a success. On getting back I catch up on some writing. A noise alerts me to two more bikers arriving at the hotel. I look down from the balcony as they lock up their sports tourers next to Veronica, unpack and go roughly through what I went through a few hours previously with the guy on reception. With the entertainment over, I turn out the light: tomorrow won’t be emotionally easy.

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