Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sunday in Biarritz

What can I say -- it is a gorgeous day in Biarritz today! Unquestionably the best weather day thus far and Biarritz in fine weather is like a strawberry shortcake with an extra serving of chantilly cream.

I wake up just as the sun is about to rise. A holdover from days of opening the coop. I look out my window -- my oh, my, true loveliness!

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Isn't it a grand day to have breakfast on the patio!

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If I was a tad cautious about embracing this little city (it cannot be 25,000 -- it just cannot), that caution has been washed away by the colors all around me. It's just a really pretty day and no matter where I look, I am caught up in a whirligig of loveliness...

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If you're here as a visitor, as opposed to a longer term vacationer, there are certain things you really would want to visit, but none of them are essential, though some do head the pack. This is what I find to be so lovable about Biarritz: yes, it definitely appears to be attractive to the well heeled, but it also appears to be attractive to the surfers and counterculture types and it definitely is attractive to French families, and so there is a mix. And that's a good thing.

(Grandparents, looking after their little one.)

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(On the beach, playing paddle ball.)

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(On the beach, sisters.)

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I go to the market first because it's just a few blocks from me. It's a splendid hall with stalls and stalls of the usual summer market foods, but my attention is drawn especially to the Basque regional staples. Here they are:

Basque hams and sausages, always sliced very thinly.

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Basque cheeses: sheep's milk, for the most part.

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Basque cake: it has a thin layer of jam (sometimes cream) inside.

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Espelette pimento, with or without salt.

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What catches me by surprise is that the vendors are exceptionally friendly. When I pause, one will explain to me how he baked his apple cake. Another offers me some cheese even though I said I'm not buying stuff today. (Well, I pick up the Esplette pepper flakes -- a specialty of this region and only mildly hot.) There's an aura of bonhomie here and I like bonhomie.

(You can purchase a cone of thin slivers of Basque chorizo sausage or a lettuce wedge topped with ham.)

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After the market, I poke around the shops that line the streets of the old section of town. Phillipe assured me that most, including the big department store (Galerie Lafayette) would be closed. He was wrong. Snowdrop benefits.

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But of course, ultimately, I'm ocean bound. I live more than a thousand miles away from an oceanfront. I don't mind that, but when I come close to the vast waters of our seas, I want to really take it all in. 

(My morning encounter with the Grande Plage, the main beach of Biarritz.)

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I'm standing right by the grand Casino. I hear music just outside its doors.

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Ah, Basque music. Very quickly, a small crowd gathers to dance.

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It's all very impromptu, no costumes, no performance aspect to it. And I've seen it so many times -- this love of bringing out the local traditions, especially as demonstrated in music and dance. The Catalonian dances (from Sorede, for example) are so imprinted in my memory! As are the Scottish dances from the Isle of Islay. I can't ever resist watching, always with a smile.

Except that today I also have this nagging thought that perhaps it's only the older generation that is keen on the preservation of these elements of cultural heritage. (Do you see anyone there who is not a grandparent type? There was one little girl doing the dances, but she was in fact with her grandmother.) Yes, children learn much of this stuff in school, I'm sure of it, but perhaps they choose then to forget it? Perhaps they are the ones who care more about a bigger community than the one they were born into? Don't the various elections in Europe indicate just that?

I know when I was a little girl, I loved my Polish folk costume. I just loved it: the sequence on the vest, the ribbons on a white apron, the flowered skirt and the wreath for my hair. I still get a catch in my throat when I think back to it.  But these days, national, cultural, ethnic identities are a tricky business. Are they sometimes used to establish boundaries (often very artificial boundaries)? To exclude?

We live in complicated times.

But I try not to think long about complicated times. Because it really is a beautiful day and there is a vast array of humanity enjoying it here, on the coast of the Atlantic.

Oh, but the waves are strong! There are two designated bathing spots along this tremendous beach (marked by blue flags) and though the areas are not large, each is patrolled by no fewer than five life guards!

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And now I make a small detour to the Orthodox church. There was a time (oh, a century or two ago) when Russians were a significant minority of the vacationing crowd here and the church was built in 1890 for them.

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I come in just at a time of service. The small room is crowded and I quickly retreat. Even so, I have to wonder: who is there now? What community has claimed this place of worship as their own?

I continue along the shore, all the way toward the lighthouse. The views from this bit of land on a clear day like today are beyond magnificent.

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The lighthouse itself can be explored in the afternoon, but I see no point in waiting. Climb a hundred steps? For a view that already cannot be improved upon? I turn back toward the heart of Biarritz, going down to the beach, where I notice that the waves have grown in size in the last hour.

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The life guards now are intensely vigilant. Many of the kids are reluctant to step into the water.

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I smile at their reticence until I go in ankle deep and get nearly knocked down by a wave that came out of nowhere (as I was busy taking this photo).

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I"m wet up to my waist! Time to rinse off under the fresh water showers by the beach stairs. I go back to my coastal walk, making my way south toward the rocks that jut out into the ocean, but can be reached by a footbridge which, they say, was designed by the not unknown to us Gustave Eiffel. You can see a fragment of it here:

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Looking south, you can now see both mountains and coast -- the Spanish coast.

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There is a boundary somewhere on that stretch of land. With what meaning, given that people on both sides of that border regard themselves as Basque?

Sometimes, Monet would tell you, boundaries are so vague and fluid. Sometimes you can't even tell what's what. Yes, I see that before my very eyes right now. White, blue, water, sky, mountains... all merging into something that I experience as one.

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I do a timed release photo. It just seems fitting at the moment.

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And I turn now to the narrow city streets.

I don't typically search out a lunch, but I am hungry! And we live in such curious times: I take out my iPhone. All cell service is of course disconnected for the duration of the trip, but I subscribe to WiFi on the go in France -- something that is so incredibly easy (and cheap) that I can't think why I never heard of it until this year. I carry a little hot spot in my purse and I have WiFi. I can text, call, check email, bring up maps and, this afternoon, look up restaurants I pass to make sure they are beloved rather than despised.

I don't really want a full meal and so I am delighted to come across this place ("Puig & Daro"): it has tapas and a jovial, youthful (I call anything below age fifty youthful) atmosphere.

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I love everything about it. I point to a few tapas I'd like and I'm set.

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And I don't neglect a dessert: the Basque cake, this one with strawberry jam.

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Despite the coffee, I am thinking how easy it would be to just doze off in the (nearby) hotel room. But there are competing forces. Photos to sort through, thoughts to reel in and simplify (it's rarely good to go into the evening with reels of complicated thoughts spinning in your head).

And of course, there is dinner. Tonight I go to Chez Albert, one of the three restaurants that hover by the old Biarritz port.

The line is long even for people like me, who have thought about it in advance and reserved a table. The place is not intimate or small, but it is really among the best of the best of all these waterside fish eateries I know. I ask my waiter how many chefs are in the (open) kitchen. I'm guessing three, he says two plus an assistant. For all the tables they serve, that is nothing short of amazing. The food is fresh and honest alright and I am happy as can be with my warm seafood salad...

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... and bream for a main course, prepared in the "Spanish way." The waiter explains -- bream is really a flavorless fish. You need to spice it up somewhat. They do that and it's great. As is the dessert of chopped fruits in a custardy sauce.

I stroll up to the old streets again. It's crazy busy there and I see why: the Euro 2016 soccer finals are on tonight and France is up against Iceland. You remember Iceland? That little country that defeated the big star, Great Britain the day after Britain voted to exit the EU?

There are a lot of flags in the bars tonight and they're not of GB or Iceland.

And again, I think back to all the soccer finals I have accidentally encountered in my travels through France in June and July. I hope now that the excitement of winning (and France does win tonight, 5 - 2) is merely an all in good fun thing. That after the game, everyone returns to what's really important. Like making sure your girlfriend is having a fine evening over at her family's place...

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Or catching a whiff of something beautiful... Perhaps a sunset over the Atlantic?

There are two kids playing on that beach. Oh, how I wish there was a third! A certain girl who is just two days short of being a year and a half.

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Yes, I'm sure there is somewhere a moon out there for you this evening. May it shine brightly over all those who want nothing more than a quiet evening to think good thoughts about the people they love tonight.

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