Driving from from Bilbao to Blighty
Founded in the 14th Century, around the same time as a great many other Biscayan townships were developed, the Spanish
municipality of Bilbao is located within a pair of small mountain ranges. They afford it a combination of protection from the
elements and a usefully pleasant micro-climate. Of course, the significantly larger Pyrenees and Cantabrian ranges, which are criss-crossed with walking and cycling routes, are only a few kilometres distant from the city centre.
Most noticeable, from the road signs, the scripts that constitute shop signages and the spelling of certain words, Bilbao is also on what is known as the Basque threshold. The extensive use of harder-sounding consonants (g, k, x and z being predominant) and a distinctive ‘zhishing’ pronunciation in what your ears pickup from local conversations, are peculiar highlights. The Basque language has no relationship with any other. However, this has been a troubled area, affected as much by politics, as a desire for the Basques people to have their personal demands recognised by both French and Spanish governments.
While there is not really much to be frightened of, these days, although there are minority factions within what is an utterly delightful group of people that would not think twice about bombing a train, being aware of a mild under-current of ‘independence’ cannot be ignored. However, the Basque countryside is utterly stunning. Its tiny villages are beautiful. Its food is beguiling and there is a genuine naivety to its people that is exemplified by a natural curiosity and sense of humour that is singularly selfless.
Residing at the stunningly attractive and well equipped Grand Hotel Domine Bilbao, part of the Silken Group, apart from enjoying typically Iberian gin measures that can only be described as unmeasured and generous and demanding of every last drop of tonic water, I can tell you that a sampler menu presented as our final evening meal was no less than splendiferous. Consisting of four entrees, two fish, three mains, three desserts and one cheese, nothing was too much, everything was flavoursome and, if around the table silence was anything to go by, every member of our small party thrilled to the meal.
Equipped with mildly avant-garde furniture and fixtures, the five-star hotel is directly across the street from the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum and Art Gallery, which provided a perfect backdrop against which to photograph the Mini Paceman that we would be driving homewards. I keep mentioning ‘we’ and the ‘significant other’ is a journalistic colleague, Rob Marshall, who is both a photo and videographer.
Heading for the bay
Early next morning, after taking the opportunity to photograph the changing light patterns of the rising sun, on the alloy panels of the Guggenheim, our Mini was driven from the underground car park beneath the Grand. Setting the first destination of Bermeo into the car’s sat-nav system, we were packed and ready for the drive-back.
Still within the Biscay province, albeit the sub-region of Busturialdea, Bermeo is the most important fishing port in northern Spain. However, it is blessed with one of the most photogenic and spectacularly lovely harbours of any on mainland Europe. Its multi-storey residences are stacked precariously within just a few metres of the water’s edge, filled with yachts and motor launches of various values, the lush green mountains piled up behind. A plethora of lively bars and cafes are at road level, with no differentiation between pedestrian or vehicular access. Everyone mixes it together almost by happy coincidence.
Continuing our trek, we stuck to the coast road religiously, weaving in and out of coves, through many splendid villages (Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Deba, Pasaia), past extensive sandy beaches, until reaching the town of Irun, which is on the Spanish border with south-west France. Known as an international truck-stop, this is where some of the best ‘duty-free’ deals could be struck in those halcyon days of going abroad, when fags, booze, jewellery and perfumery could be acquired for a mere pittance by comparison with domestic equivalents.
The Gascony coast featured large through our Mini’s left-hand windows from this point northwards. However, with time ticking by, we were keen to settle for the first night of our drive-back and Biarritz, the sometime playground to wealthy Victorian British holidaymakers, seemed like a logical stop-over. As it happened, Rob and me decided not to squander resources in any of the town’s grander establishments, of which there are several, and we booked into a most acceptable Hotel Campanile (from Euros29/night), located fairly close to the regional airport and the main routes away from the town.
Biarritz has enjoyed a pleasantly faded elegance over the past few decades, although recent visitors will note that a lot of inward investment, directed clearly at the surfing and watersports sets, has resulted in a general sprucing up of the centre. Peeling paintwork is no longer acceptable and, with its demise, the heavier room rates weigh in. With designer name shop fronts making a major reappearance, it is clear that ‘Beery-ritz’ has reverted to its more Gallic pronunciation.
Next morning, following le robust petit dejeuner, we explored the D652, up the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Heading directly to the coast and the amazing dune resort of St Girons-Plage, I was totally overwhelmed (like most of the residences) by the expanses of fine white sand. Although there are several private hotels in the vicinity of Vielle Saint-Girons town centre, camping is the main attraction around the beach. Incidentally, the sand, swept into the village by Atlantic winds, is cleared regularly by the local council.
The area, known as Landes, is spectacularly beautiful, peppered with fishing and pleasure lakes. The best way to see it is by bicycle and, devoid of hills to contend with, this is a low impact, yet very healthy way to experience the gorgeous countryside and its super-clean atmosphere. We found a delightful restaurant (l’Estanquet) at Lit et Mixe and partook of a superb and
filling lunch at less than Euros13 per head.
While ours is a fairly brief, potted drive-back story, it is worth contemplating a longer retreat in the Bordeaux and Arcachon areas. While the Bordeaux countryside, the 270,000 acres home of claret and its inimitable links with the UK, is based on the River Garonne, it is an historical location possessing many stunning tourist attractions. Bordeaux’s city centre is not on the UNESCO World Heritage list for no reason. The buildings are wonderful to look at and many of them are open to visitors. However, driving the 40 minutes, or so, to the coast reveals some peaceful lagoons and the lovely coastal town of Arcachon. Apart from some quite magnificent properties on the sea-side of the main drive through the town, many of which are owned by wealthy Parisians, the area is liberally serviced by small shops, ranging from antique purveyors to food and clothing emporia,
many offering coffee, or snacks services, while a plethora of fish restaurants (locally shot wild boar is also a speciality of the region) and small boutique hotels cater for holiday visitors. This a splendid and seldom visited location that is worth the diversion.
Continuing homewards, Angouleme, just off the nonpeage N10, around 90 minutes north of Bordeaux, is a place where I have thoroughly enjoyed a family holiday and its hilly location, ancient centre and lovely surrounding countryside make it a guaranteed return. Its relative proximity to La Rochelle, one of France’s true coastal beauty spots (the stacked Ile de Re is accessible
by toll tunnel), means that residing at significantly less cost inland but taking day-trips to the coast make financial sense.
Our route continued north, past both university towns of Poitiers and Tours, to Le Mans, the home of the annual 24-Hours motor race. This was our second stop-over and we found another Campanile Hotel, adjacent to a lake, just to the south-west of the city centre.
All Campanile rooms have benefited from recent refurbishing, which has given them excellent beds and superb shower-rooms. They all feature wi-fi and cable television. Although quite basic in terms of detail accoutrements, the ability to park, motel-like, close to your room is beneficial. The restaurant on-site features a good, if unadventurous dinner menu and breakfast is an unlimited, help yourself affair. The important aspect is the sheer value for money.
Le Mans is truly delightful. Its history is well established and, as long as you do not mind hill walking, because there are quite a few steep gradients in the old centre, the ancient sights are well worth visiting. Of course, the racing circuit and its museum are among the main attractions and driving along some of the public routes that become part of the bigger circuit, during the 24-Hours race week, is strongly recommended. Just watch out for the gendarmes, as they can be really speed keen in this area.
Our next scheduled location was the city of Rouen, which is north-west of Paris but within the River Seine valley. To get there, we drove across country (on the wellsurfaced departmente roads D301, D938), past Belleme, Mortagne-au-Perche and l’Aigle, all of which are simply beautiful and restful spots that are within easy reach of historical centres like Caen, Chartres and Lisieux. Some of the most highly-rated and picture-postcard beautiful villages in all of France are in this region. Local food specialities include fresh fish and black pudding, which has its Gallic origins in the vicinity. Cafés and local restaurants are fairly inexpensive.
Rouen is a city that we featured before (in TLM Winter 2013) but, away from its industrial connection (it is a main rail link between Paris and the coastal port of Le Havre), its city centre is historically important, crammed with alluring back streets and main shopping thoroughfares, as well as wonderful churches, cathedrals, public buildings and immense open spaces, despite its ancient history. After taking some photographs downtown, we headed uphill, taking the road to Neufchatel, only to stop for a late luncheon at Restaurant Le Cheval Rouge, a few minutes north of Rouen centre.
Owned and operated by a pair of brothers, local specialities are on the menu, which avoids pretension and delivers a culinary style for which the French used to be more famed. The quality of the produce was marvellous and the service was relaxed but timely. A glass of local rosé went down very well indeed.
Driving from Rouen to Calais is made more cheery by sticking to the D-roads but, if you happen to be in a rush to catch a TML train or a ferry back to the UK, you can bypass Neufchatel, Abbeville and Boulogne, all of which have typically French attractions (old buildings, café culture, charming eateries and much more besides). The A28/A16, Rouen-Boulogne, will cost c. Euros10 in tolls. The last toll barrier is close to Boulogne-sur-Mer. As French fuel is noticeably less expensive than that in the UK, I usually stop at the large Total service station, alongside the dual-carriageway, near to Marquise.
Naturally, you take whichever route you wish or need to, following the signs to the Channel Tunnel (Tunnel sous la Manche) or the ferry terminals as appropriate. Ensure that you have passports at the ready. If you have a ‘Business Class’ ticket, you can take advantage of the free lounge on most P&O Ferry crossings, or the café stop just prior to boarding the train.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you drive from Bilbao to Blighty.