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VFR in full touring mode, Wee Jimmy Krankie had trouble getting on and off it, but it gave us all a laugh.
At the ferry terminal in Portsmouth
Jack at at the
M27 we arrive at the ferry in plenty of
time, only to be told it's been delayed. It's landed late due to severe weather in The Bay of Biscay and they
have to clear a
vomit tsunami before the new influx of passengers can board. Just what we need to hear! If there's a prize going for
the worst sailor in the
world it would have to go to yours truly. I get queasy just sitting on a wobbly bar
stool. God bless Wee Jimmy though, she's been and bought me some anti seasick wrist bands from the P&O shop. You just don't get that kind of attention when you go away with a bunch of lads. Anyway, we now
have an extra hour or so to wait so we secure the bikes and go walkabout
where we manage to find a
pub and get a drink and a bite to eat!Suitably nourished on beer
and chips, we eventually board the ship, P&O's
"Pride of Bilbao" and make our way to the cabins.
We now have thirty six hours to kill on a ferry, what can we do do? Well, let's go find another pub for a start! Surprisingly, for the time of year the ship is pleasantly un-crowded so we settle in around a nice little table with 4 comfy chairs and a few beers in a nice looking little bar. There's a small stage with a piano on it at one end, and pretty soon an eccentric looking guy steps up and starts playing - that'll be why they call it the "Piano Bar" then? He's not that bad actually. The two onboard cinemas are showing a good choice of films but we'll probably not bother with those - waste of good drinking time! Besides they're showing "Titanic" -and "The Perfect Storm" not good choices! There are however a good few places to eat and drink so I'm sure we'll find plenty to keep us amused.
Crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay, we can't believe our luck. The sea is uncharacteristically calm, and as we sit on the deck in glorious warm sunshine there's not a ripple to disturb our peace - except for those made by the dolphins and porpoise as they swim alongside the ship. After hearing the horror stories before we set off about how rough it had been, it's a case of relief all round. I'd been having nightmares about wasting all that good beer as I chucked it up over the side!
Dusk in the Bay of Biscay
0800 hrs, Bilbao, grey and damp not the most attractive place to land after 36 hours on a ship.
The little cruise
been a really good start to our tour, it's given us all time to chill so by the time we land
in Spain we we're really in the mood for some lovely long quiet roads. Well - we would
be if the weather had at least tried to make an effort for our arrival.
I suppose the one good thing about landing at Bilbao docks is that things can't get much worse. It's a bit like the Spanish version of Wick but on a bigger scale. They may well have the Guggenheim, but in the In the grey damp of an early Spanish morning, it looks like possibly the most depressing place on earth. The GPS is kick started into life and after 500yds.......... we're lost!
Eventually we find the Autoroute, more by luck than judgment and pretty soon we're cruising along at a nice (illegal) speed as we rapidly draw closer to the French border and the Pyrenees. Once north of Bilbao the Autoroute starts to run parallel to the coast just before Zarautz, although you wouldn't know it, it's quite built up here and even after we pass the urban sprawl there's still no sign of bucket and spade territory.
We continue on, by-passing San Sebastian and Renteria before crossing the border into France just east of Irun. Before reaching Biarritz our road turns inland at St Jean de Luz towards the little town of St Jean Pied de Port. Now into France, the GPS is set for our first day's destination, the little town of Barcus in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, but our first job is to find some lunch.
And, that's exactly what we
do here at the Hotel du Fronton in a sleepy little
Basque village called Itxassou, which is probably easier for the locals to say
than it is for me - what a daft name! The Basques are to the Spanish what
the Welsh are to us English, they protest a lot and blow things up periodically,
but nobody really knows what they're protesting about! The language has
parallels too, but whereas Welsh has no vowels, Basque is made up of an alphabet
with only about 7 letters - mostly Xs Ys....then a few more Xs chucked in just
for good measure!
You can ask any Welsh protestor or Basque Separatist why they're revolting, but they'll not be able to tell you! Seemingly It all boils down them trying to keep a dead language alive, but blowing up Spanish trains and burning down English owned cottages in their cause seems a bit excessive to me! But there you go - that's modern life, there's always some bugger with an axe to grind, and a bomb to get their point across ...........I digress - sorry!
This place may be Basque but the food is pure French.....i.e raw! We have what they call ham, I call it
uncooked bacon. Kind of like
chewing salty elastic bands is the best way to describe it I suppose. The
natives are quite friendly though so it isn't all bad. Pity we're
riding, we could do with a couple of those ice cold beers we can see in the
fridge behind the bar
It's now getting a bit on the warm side, you can tell that by the fact we've started looking for shady bits to park the bikes up. The weather has definitely improved from our grey start in Bilbao earlier in the day. Now though, fed and watered, we had some serious miles to get behind us if we were to make Barcus in time for afternoon drinkies by the promised pool.
The scenery as we ride through this part of France isn't as mountainous as I'd expected it to be. Having explored the Pyrenees in Andorra last year I was expecting more of the same, but here the mountains are much tamer offerings. Still stunning but in a different way, more like big rolling hills.
We stop at Saint Jean Pied de Port, for a cooling ice cream. Well hey!... Even hard assed bikers need a 99 now and then. St Jean is a little walled town which once guarded the main southern gateway into Spain. it's position ensured that it attracted lots of pilgrims & merchants who made the town very rich over the centuries. They do a good ice cream here too! Nicely refreshed we set off once again. We couldn't find anywhere in the shade to park the bikes up at St Jean, so when we get back to them it's a case of "Blazin' Saddles".....Now It really is getting bloody hot.
One of the narrow streets in St Jean Pied de Port
This is the first success of the tour for the GPS, it does a great job in taking us right to the door of the Hotel Chilo in Barcus where we've booked for 2 nights, and what a hotel it is. It's situated in the sleepiest village you can imagine where nobody ever rushes. Not even the hotel dog - a big daft Rottwieller - who just can't be bothered moving. His daily exercise routine consists of lifting one eyelid to reveal a big red blood shot eye as he lays on the cool stone hallway floor in the shade.
The hotel itself is just as stunning inside as out, the rooms are spotless but a few repairs need doing. Alight in Wesley & Morticia's bathroom isn't working, in fact it's hanging out of the ceiling by 2 bare wires. The French aren't that big on health and safety, so this is quite a normal occurrence in their hotels.
The bog's the most interesting feature of their room though, it's fitted with the ubiquitous macerator unit - so beloved of French hotels out in the sticks. This makes the most incredible row. It goes on in different stages for a good few minutes before reaching it's climax.... The finale, which rises to a screaming crescendo and sounds like the pained screams of next doors moggy with a red hot poker stuck up it's bum. If either of them get up in the night to go pee pee, they daren't flush the bugger because the noise will wake the whole hotel up. (not the dog though, he's way past caring)
The front of the Hotel Chilo in Barcus
Apart from that, and the fact that the staff aren't very amicable it's a lovely
hotel. We're not eating here though because we really don't feel
comfortable with the people running it. Also the menu
looks suspiciously like arty farty, "Nouvelle Cuisine" (raw)
stuff, so we're off to find another restaurant, and
we stumble upon a contender a bit further along the road. This one is run
by an amicable Alain Prost look-a-like called Norman. He makes the
most fabulous "Potee" which is a soupy stew type affair with
all sorts of good stuff in it. More our thing than the pretentious
"art on a plate" offerings at our hotel. We order it for
our starter, and the first sighting of it is when Norman appears, carrying
this rather large, erm... Couldrony
/ Buckety thing. We're
bloody hungry though so we scoff the lot along with the thick slabs of bread
which accompany it, which apparently is not what you do
- oops! It's just too good to leave though.
It's a really bright evening and Morticia is starting to squint as the sunlight comes around through the window and into her eyes. The guy at the table next to us decides to be her knight in shining armour and gets up to pull the curtain across. He gives it a wee tug and the whole shooting match - curtain rail, rawl plugs an' all come flying off the wall. Funny that! Norman doesn't appear to be too too upset though because we get free Ricards off him. He's a good guy, but for the life of me and to my eternal shame I can't remember the name of his hotel.
The back of Hotel Chilo
Inside the Hotel, which used to be an old Staging Inn
Barcus itself is quite a plain little village, not a lot happens
here but it's
quiet and an excellent place to unwind, especially around the hotel pool which we have
all to ourselves. The favourite sport among the local kids appears to be
a game a little like squash, but played outdoors against a purpose built
The game is apparently called "Palota" or more commonly "Jai alai" which in Basque means "Merry Festival." It takes on a few different forms that use either an open hand, a gloved hand, a basket or as here with a solid paddle to propel a very hard ball against the wall.
It's very noticeable that the kids, mostly teenagers all take turns playing, with those waiting for their turn just standing around talking amongst themselves. No smashing things up, no fights or threatening behaviour, maybe some of the UK youth could learn a thing or two from them. They could also learn how you get 5 people on a 50cc moped, but that's another story.
The village of Barcus may be plain, but the surrounding (vast) countryside is lovely, it's very English in parts but with sunshine, heat and lots of lizards in the stone walls. We spend a pleasant morning just walking about the nearby lanes and generally "being on holiday".
The old church in the centre of Barcus
Could be the English Lake District, but they're the Pyrenees in the background
After 2 nights at Hotel Chilo the bikes are loaded up and pointed toward our next destination, Saint
Beauzeil which is somewhere up in the Aquitane region. The run is uneventful, but we pass through some very typical French villages and towns including Condom! It makes me think if we have any towns with names that mean different things in French. For instance what would a French person would make of "Nether Wallop" or "Horsey Windpump" - yes there really are such wonderfully named places on our
beautiful sceptered isle!
Eventually we reach the area where we hoped to find our hotel, the Chateau de l'Hoste. We turn off the main road and follow the signs to St Beauzeil. The village is there ok, if that's what you could call it. It consists of about 3 houses, a broken down barn and a knackered old donkey! We surmise that the hotel isn't going to be found here. We spend what seems like an eternity riding up and down the narrow country lanes looking for it, but see nothing that even resembles a hotel or a chateau. Even the GPS which has done a magnificent job of getting us this far can't find it. To be fair to it though, as we later find out, the hotel isn't actually in St Beauziel, and it had brought us to the village ok.
We've now stopped on a narrow country lane to discuss what the hell we do next, we're lost and haven't a a clue where we are. I pop the bike on the side stand leaving Wee Jim sat perched on the pillion telling her she'll be fine and I won't be a minute. As I walk away from the bike, gravity rewards stupidity and over it goes onto a grassy bank with Wee Jim still sat on it. Just before it reaches the ground she jumps off and executes a perfect gymnastic manouvre with a wonderful flourish which couldn't be bettered this side of the next Olympics! A flip with a pike and half twist - brilliant! We give her a nice clap for her efforts and she was fine, so we pick up the Honda and carry on looking for the damned hotel.
Eventually, we ride up to a house in the middle of nowhere, there are a few people sitting drinking and soaking up the afternoon sun in the garden. These are the first signs of life we've seen since leaving the main road some time earlier. Now, none of us speak French very well other than ordering raw meals and buying petrol etc. Yet here we are, faced with the prospect of having a conversation with a French person somewhere in the back end of bugger all, and hoping to understand what the hell the directions are! Wesley is our appointed spokesman, so he gets off his bike and a guy walks over to the gate - he speaks first..."Can I 'elp, are you larst?" Thank God, he speaks English. Not sure how he knows we're English though, maybe it's the knotted hanky on Wee Jim's head that gives it away. Or, it could be the fact that only the English would be daft enough to be out in the heat of a Southern French afternoon in full bike gear................
We follow his directions which take us back to the main road from where we came, if we hadn't turned off it in the first place then we'd have found the hotel within the next quarter mile! Ah well, it's all character building stuff.
Entrance to the superb Chateau de l'Hoste at St. Beauzeil
Chateau de l'Hoste is
a fantastic hotel,
where the owners have successfully created a lovely laid back atmosphere. At some time
in the past it's been a very grand
country home. The rooms are just perfect, clean and very well prepared
for our stay. Wesley has a bit of trouble with the low beams which he
banging his head on but that's his fault for being such a lanky git...shortarses like me me have no
problem whatsoever. After removing our sweaty bike gear and showering, we head off down to the bar for a few
drinks which we
end up drinking under the shade of the pine trees in the garden. This is all very
civilised! A meal is booked in the restaurant for later in the evening,
from the menu it looks to be a bit "arty fartyish" but we don't have a lot of choice seeing as how
we're miles from
anywhere else to eat. We arrive for dinner
6-30, to find the tables are laid out on the lamplit terrace. Looks like it's
to be, "Posh nosh al Fresco" then!
As it turns out the food is superb. The French custom dictates that eating a meal is an event, so we're here 'til about 11-30pm and during that time partake of some very passable food, and that's not to mention the usual tanker loads of red wine. I know I usually criticise French cooking for being over the top ostentatious uncooked crap with a twist of bullshit, but this is some of the best food I've ever eaten in France, top chef whoever it is.
The place can look a bit imposing when you first arrive, but we never felt at all uncomfortable, the owners and staff are very professional and they made our stay very relaxing and memorable. Our only regret is that we'd only booked for one night at this idyllic place. A tad expensive, but worth every single penny.
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