As I write, I am sitting on the Cap Finistere sailing from Bilbao Port to Portsmouth on the longest journey I have yet taken out at sea.
Just the initial experience recommends the idea of a cruise to me – not something I would have imagined enjoying, but out here – with all the amenities you could ask for, it seems like the most ideal way to be. A place to dream.
The music on the boat is lucid. Nights in White Satin. Bowie numbers. Classic tunes the crew are singing along to as they, relaxed and smiling, go about their duties for the day, the evening, the night.
This sailing concludes the ‘Chasing Autumn’ tour I began on 24th October, 2016 – a handful of weeks that have whipped by into this vision now embedded in my retina of the misty magical coastline of northern Spain retreating into the blue. The next night, on land, I would dream of rising oceans, a gazillion surfacing fins – but tonight I sail and sleep a dreamless sleep.
The date of my journey is the 8th December. I land in the UK on the 9th. The sea will lull me to sleep early tonight and I will wake tomorrow wanting to row back South. Oh, Pais Vasco, I am going to miss you so much; from your pintxos to your beaches and huge variety of surf breaks, your mountainous road paths, seemingly endless stunning ancient pueblos all buzzing with life (except at lunchtime), generous people who just want you to be happy, “tranquila” the constant refrain, the general vibe being “relax, take your time, don’t worry”: exhibit after exhibit of life lived well.
I wonder what the years of oppression were like during the dictatorship that followed civil war and revolution, the years of the activism of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Basque National Liberation Movement. My heart fills for this people and this country who suffered so much to preserve their culture, their language, the way they know how to live.
For now I’m thinking of the tour I’ve made, managing to chase the tail of autumn all the way into December, eking my way down the continent from the north of France to the north of Spain and being spoilt with the treasures of Bordeaux, Biarritz, Bayonne, Barcelona, Bilbao, Sitges, Sete, San Sebastian, Roses, Oñati, Collioure, Deba, Niort – yes, I’m going for the alliteration, not the chronology – on the way.
The highlights are too many to mention but here goes with a handful from all over the trip, in no particular order…
- The colours of Westonbirt (OK this officially predates the Chasing Autumn tour but was where it all began)
- Watching the geese in Bordeaux, the black swans in Deba
- Collecting conkers and acorns in Bayonne. Some of the most beautiful. Eating chocolate made there. Famous for it, for good reason.
- The longboarding waves of Zierbena, north of Bilbao
- The eclectic charm of La Maloka, the bar facing the ocean at La Arena replete with delicious cortados, a mountain of pintxos, carved wood dividers, pictures, and ornamentation offsetting the disco balls, disco ceiling and sexy poster art adorning the walls; a heaving local crowd and real buzz at lunchtime – I’m imagining this place bursts at the rafters when the sun is high in the sky and the surf is up. Love it.
- Patisserie Miremont, Biarritz. This place is an institution and it faces the surf. Best at dusk as the lights on the interior cozy up the scene. Try the chocolat chaud, a house classic – with or without cream and I challenge you not to choose a patisserie or bon bon to accompany your drink.
- Darwin, Bordeaux. An ex-military base being converted into a series of funky multiple-use spaces. Already established: a coworking space, a skate park, a café bar and restaurant, a shop. It’s cutting edge, eco-minded, and still in a process of becoming which makes it a quantum-possibility treat.
- Sitges: all of it. Gosh this place was a charm. Elegant winding old-town streets which all led to the sea (an occasionally rippling lake). We were lucky to visit on Halloween and see its population at fanciful play. I wrote a little about it here.
- San Sebastián: all of it. Stay at La Galería and wander into town along the Bahía de la Concha to find a plethora of pintxos bars, the surfing beach of Zurriola, and a thriving beautiful old and new town. The only guide you need to San Sebastián is AnnaLamma’s and can be read here and she finds you the best coffee stops here. If you want to take a surf lesson, visit Zurriola Surf Eskola.
- The small fishing town of Mundaka, home to the world-famous 400 meter barrelling left-hander and serving some of the freshest fish I saw on the whole of my coastal journey. Read Tony Butt’s account of the wave here and see some footage of it here.
- Paying no more than 1€30 for a generous pour of vino tinto pretty much anywhere in the Basque country.