IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 23 > Biarritz (Anglet, Bayonne)

Biarritz (Anglet, Bayonne)

I decided to allow my other room-mates to rise first this Saturday morning. The previous night, it had been very late when Bruce and I finally retired to our rooms after long discussions about life and everything. I had completely forgotten that my bed was unmade and most of my belongings were strewn across it in rustly bags, so when I entered the darkened dormitory full of snoring rhythms I had to mince about for several minutes clearing all the items into the locker below, and wriggling around on the squeaky upper bunk trying to blindly unfold and lay out a set of oversized sheets. This hadn't gone down too well with the other guests, who soon awoke and made mild expressive noises of displeasure. So my best plan was to stay put and not wake them again until they had done so themselves, else they might turn on me, and the next time I returned to my bed I'd find not a bunch of crane-flies but a horse's head on my pillow. Strong passions could be roused in youth hostels.

This was all too evident again with the staff, and now it was the turn of the cleaner to throw a tantrum on me. I wanted to return to my room mid-morning to put something in the locker, but she wasn't having it. Every time I approached within three feet of the door she threatened me with the mop and shouted angrily. Even in French I could tell that she was being awfully rude and unnecessarily aggressive. I felt let down by this place, it had too many hugely condescending and grossly insulting people working in it, and this wasn't advertised on the tin. My hostel guide could only advise of factual information, such as the presence of a bar and linen being charged in the fee only if required, details which both proved to be false once I arrived, and the staff were incapable of giving either a logical explanation or an apology. The most they seemed able to muster were the written threats slapped all over the walls about our behaviour, of the sort which would normally be confined to primary schools.

Thankfully there were a couple of exceptions, and one very relaxed, cheerful French guy with dreadlocks was manning the reception this morning. He eyed my Renault 4 t-shirt with enthusiasm and expressed a long held fondness for the cars. I enquired about bicycle hire and, a little knocked back by the cost, opted to wait until after midday when it would be cheaper at 9 Euros. This was still considerably more than it had cost me for a full day's hire at the great little hostel in Poitiers. I had to kill an hour or so, and I sat in reception studying my rail timetables and mulling over my next move for when I left Biarritz.

A commotion suddenly erupted between several guests, who had all become mysteriously fixated on a rucksack left by the reception desk. From the way they were recoiling in fear, I first thought it must be a suspect package planted by a Basque terrorist group. But the object of their panic turned out to be something much smaller, although in itself worryingly overgrown. Sitting brilliantly camouflaged on the black plastic straps of the rucksack was an enormous beetle which would easily have filled the palm of an adult human hand. I had never seen the likes of one this large before, although they were apparently common in much of Spain and elsewhere. The many hesitant attempts by residents to remove the creature saw it being pinged across the wooden floorboards like an ice hockey puck, as various objects were unsuccessfully used to flick it towards the outdoors.

It provided two minutes of excitement, but short of any further insect invasions there was little to do until noon, so I trotted down to the station to make a reservation for a journey the next day. I was so relieved to find there was none of the Venta Anticipada nonsense here, only a queue of two people and a set of three cheery ticket clerks. France was so civilized! With only a week of my travels remaining, I had to take the plunge and spend Sunday making a long journey. I still intended to encompass each of the remaining countries in my Interrail zones, the first of which would be Luxembourg. The nearest I could realistically get to there without going all the way in and out of Paris again was Lyon, so I approached the counter to make my booking.

As usual, I had spent my time in the queue rehearsing my lines and considering all the French phrases which might be thrown back at me. But I didn't stand a chance of maintaining my composure when I greeted the girl clerk. She had that simple French feminine beauty which was so impossible to define. Somehow, French girls managed to throw on a deceptively casual set of clothes and look insatiably attractive with seemingly no effort. But what really threw me was the outfit barely covering her upper half. She was wearing a white blouse which was held together by a solitary button in the middle, and underneath she wore no bra. She had the option of using the other six or seven buttons but had chosen not to, and I stood with my mouth gaping, completely flustered like a typical English buffoon.

The entire teachings of French intermittently spanning twenty years of my life flashed through my brain too fast for me to single out anything useful, and once again the emergency default greeting of 'Bonjour' sprung out of my mouth. At least this time I was in the right country, and it seemed to work a treat. I said it with such softness and after such a patient delay, during which I had melted into her eyes, that she went all coy on me and bowed her head with a sweet grin.

I knew that these girls existed, I had waited all my life to discover them. And all that time they were sitting just across the Channel like a big tease. What gave the girls here such a pleasant outlook? Was it that in their polite society they had spent years sipping wine over extended family mealtimes and growing up with the freedom to liberally explore their sexuality, rather than gobbling oven chips on the sofa watching soap operas on the box, and being fed a constant diet of sensationalist media tripe making them feel inadequate? Pondering over these heavy and possibly over-simplified subject matters, and the likely strength of the girl's remaining button, wasn't helping me to construct a coherent sentence and in my mumblings I just about got my ticket request understood, but at the expense of gaining any Brownie points for suave masculine sophistication. I wondered if I should return at the end of the day just to check for any costume developments.

I arrived back at the hostel just as the afternoon kicked off, and I was accordingly invited to take my pick from the bikes. I had enjoyed my jaunt around the countryside in Poitiers, and was keen to have at least one more outdoor pursuit before what I expected to be a set of city hops finishing my travels. I started peddling around the peaceful waters of Lac Mouriscot nearby, and continued around to the southern beach of Biarritz, which was busy despite the looming clouds rolling in. Further up the road I passed a chocolate museum, and another pair of Renault 4s sitting above the cliffs (below). The number that I had seen during my trip was into the hundreds, and outscored the total that I had ever witnessed in Britain over the previous seven years. All the more reason perhaps for me to move to France one day. I loved it here.

A pair of Renault 4s parked on the cliffs above the beach at Biarritz

I reached a pretty spot where a short, rocky outcrop provided a natural pier. A walkway was carved through one of the rocks and led to a vantage point between two of the town's beaches. Around the corner from here, a tunnel took me under the cliff and alongside a small fishing harbour, then past a tiny sandy bay surrounded by bars and cafés. Biarritz was a very pretty resort, not always spectacular in the town itself, but a nice alternative away from some of the busier seaside holiday destinations on the other coasts of France and Spain. I took a detour into the town to find a supermarket, in order to stock up with provisions for the day and alcoholic treats for the night.

Further north up the beach, I reached another section of land which jutted out into the sea, on which stood a lighthouse. Nearby were some gardens which offered a perfect spot for a short picnic. The benches in this mini-park commanded a supreme view across the southern beaches and out to sea, and amongst the dense shrubbery I had spotted a secret platform further down the cliff. I found an overgrown path leading down to this small, hidden walled balcony which nestled below the cliff-top. I put down my bag and my bike, and sat in private on the stone bench enjoying some lunch.

Down below there was a beach set in a small bay which was cut off from all the others and inaccessible unless approaching by boat, yet a small gathering of people were occupying it. I realized that they must have swum across some rocks from another beach at high tide, and they now had the place to themselves - a cunning strategy. Not only were they free from prying eyes around them, but this secluded spot couldn't be seen from the cliffs above either, which rolled off gradually and dangerously towards the top. In fact, aside from the lighthouse further out above the sea, my little command post was the only place from which they could be seen.

Upon closer examination, I could make out that this group were all men, and they were all parading around on the beach naked, showing little restraint with their indulgent behaviour. A bell in my head went ding, as the missing piece of a jigsaw slotted into place. For the last few minutes, several seedy men had approached my quiet haven and then retreated once they noticed my presence. I was occupying a pervert's platform; this place must have been well known to all except me as a voyeur's paradise. The folks down below were either putting on some scheduled entertainment, or were another group of tourists blissfully unaware that their covert discovery was not as secret as they thought. My home town of Brighton was also well known for such a place. The nudist beach had been famous for years, and overlooking it were some gardens below the upper promenade, in which one could always expect to find several dodgy men in macs with binoculars.

With yet another man storming down the path and shuddering at the sight of me, I felt I should best get out of here, and I rode off towards the beaches of Anglet a little further north. There was another youth hostel in this neighbouring town, and I wondered if it would have provided a better atmosphere than the one I was staying at. I had already booked my second night at Biarritz, however, and I only hoped Bruce and Vicki would show up so that it wouldn't be completely dead in the evening.

The sun had beaten back the overcast, misty skies, and it was another delightful day away from the humdrum realities of normal life back in Britain. It was moments like this, with the fresh summer breeze blowing in my hair, that I felt so enlivened. I loved a lot of things about Britain, but there was enough there also to grind me down and provide a need for regular escape. Travelling offered a strange view of the world where I commonly got to see the best side of things, and where I would believe that I had absorbed a particular town, place, country or culture, but all I was doing was skimming the surface and avoiding the tedium that existed for most people everywhere. That's why it was often so enjoyable, and helped to open the mind to new ideas. I had been taught a lesson many times in life, to not stick at one thing or in any one place for too long as life could become stale, but I never seemed to learn and take heed of this advice. I hoped that this travelling experience would spur me on to other things and change my life for the better.

The easygoing guy at the hostel had provided me with some maps, and had described a route to follow which would take in the three neighbouring towns of Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne. I pursued a long cycle path along the beaches of Anglet, which eventually led me to a peninsular miles away from anywhere. I was at the mouth of the River Adour, and another cycle route along the water's edge led to the pretty, historic town of Bayonne, which had streets lined with tall, distinctive, pastel-coloured buildings featuring dozens of shutters. I had been meandering all afternoon taking several rests, but I had no time to stop and explore what looked like an attractive town.

It was a few miles back to the hostel, following the course of the River Nive and the railway for much of the route. It almost seemed too perfect at times. Couples strolled leisurely along the river bank hand-in-hand, families enjoyed their Saturday afternoon in the park and wildlife flourished in the surrounding woods and countryside. Life here was so happy and merry that it almost made me queasy. I felt compelled to sign up to an insurance company on the back of their promotional literature, which always showed these scenes of contented families with dogs and balloons playing in a field. Presumably there was some reasoning behind this image they portrayed. The balloon might suddenly pop and burst the dog's eardrum, forcing untold misery upon the family as they had to fork out for unexpected vet expenses. It could happen anytime, anywhere, and it was our duty to make sure we were ready for it. What a clever marketing vision.

The last section of my cycle route hit a few snags. The tranquil towpath and country lanes had come to an end, and I had to continue amongst some heavy traffic on dual carriageways, and through barren industrial estates. I also had to overcome some shortcomings with my map, a whole section of which was plainly incorrect. Either the area had substantially changed since the last printing, or there was a secret military base nearby which nobody wanted me to find, because it was grossly inaccurate and left me hopelessly lost.

I followed a route which, according to the map, was a short cut through some rural suburbs, and diverted me down a hill away from the main road. A few minutes later I had only discovered a set of dead ends amongst some bungalows on a quiet estate, and I couldn't face going all the way back up the hill again. It was totally illogical, there had to be some way out of here. The map suggested there was at least one escape route, but the road layout it presented was completely at odds with my actual surroundings.

It was early evening now, and the sun was just beginning to sink and cast golden rays across the valley on a quiet summer day. Sitting at the end of a cul-de-sac, I saw a gap in a hedge, beyond which was a secluded path. It seemed that it may offer the only way out, and I stumbled through with difficulty, hauling my bike over and sliding down a bank. There was little chance of getting back through there in the opposite direction, and I now found myself on a grassy track close to a lake.

According to the map, this narrow path circled the whole lake, and there just may be a point further around at which I could exit. Backing onto this path were rows of houses which surely held access at their fronts to the mystery road I sought, but they were all fenced off, which made me increasingly suspicious that I was not on public land, but rather following a track belonging to a private estate. I crept quietly, carrying my bike so as to not disturb the nearby residents or set off any dogs, for fear that somebody would order me back and get angry at my trespassing. Eventually I had to get on the bike and ride the rough bumpy ground, as the lake was large and it was a long way around its perimeter. I had seen one possible escape path running between two back gardens with a locked gate at the end, but I was reluctant to be seen sneaking up it and hoisting my bike over.

After a few minutes of exhausting riding I had travelled halfway around the lake, when I found myself approaching an opening. It was surely the exit and I rode boldly on, but as the hedges either side unfolded, horror struck me at the sight ahead. I had caught the sound of chattering, and before I could stop I emerged into the grounds of a large mansion holding a high society function. Unable to hide in my bright yellow t-shirt, I instantly attracted the gaze of dozens of suited, rich, champagne-quaffing socialites. There followed a soul-shattering silence as the glasses stopped clinking and the voices halted, and the entire party's gaze was focused on this scruffy intruder who had barged into proceedings on a mountain bike. My jaw dropped to the handlebars and I cowered, as it became clear that the path I had followed was part of the grand estate of this country house, and there could be little excuse for my encroachment upon it. I smiled meekly, whispered the words sorry and désolé softer than a squirrel's fart, and did an about turn, peddling off with more haste than a rider in the Tour de France. Indeed, my yellow jersey was fit for the purpose.

When I reached the private path between the houses for the second time, I was up it and over the gate faster than a rocketbelting antelope, still fearful that a toff from the manor might be in pursuit. I found myself on the elusive road shown on the map, which eventually took me where I wanted to go.

Back near Biarritz station, I passed a couple of confused-looking backpackers. I could tell instantly that they were lost and in search of the hostel. It became very easy as a traveller to recognize one's own kind and their predicaments. They were two friendly Australian girls, and they believed there was another hostel nearby. I knew, having ridden through the area, that nothing much existed there, and I offered to show them the way to the place I was staying at, sure that the information they'd been given must be wrong. They were keen though to take a look around for themselves, so I rode off. I was convinced they would find nothing, and I felt terribly guilty for leaving them to explore a road to nowhere with daylight receding over the horizon.

I needn't have worried. A couple of hours later after having a shower and some food, I found them outside in the hostel garden, already friends with Vicki and Bruce. We all spent the evening together again, this time armed with more in the way of alcohol which, according to another of the many intimidating wall postings, we were not allowed to consume, but given the hostel staff's inability to open the bar we felt justified. One of the great inventions I had been so proud to obtain was a pair of special travel cups, which I had purchased before embarking on my voyage. They seemed like the best buy I had made; an ingenious idea that would surely impress all my companions. Their simple design incorporated sets of concentric, slanted plastic rings affixed inside a small disc-shaped container. These were collapsible, and when opened out they created a convenient cup; a miracle which would change the lives of drinking travellers the world over.

I touted the merits of my discovery to all at the table, then by way of demonstration poured my red wine into the vessel and smugly sipped at my drink, only for it to dribble attractively all down my chin and onto my top. Both the cups were not totally watertight at the base, and when tipped they tended to leak more fluid than they retained. They also had an unfortunate habit of buckling and collapsing under the mildest pressure exerted upon them by the hands of thirsty drinkers, soaking the unfortunate victims' laps with their blood red liquid contents. If I'd had any visions of enchanting the two Australian girls, I had surely cocked up my chances now.

Again we chatted long into the night, later being joined by an American guy who felt equally keen to unite with the sole merry crowd in the hostel that we represented, until we were once more turfed inside by unhappy staff. The red wine - or what I had salvaged of it - had parched my throat, but the bar was dry and I wasn't the only one dying for a beer. The American must have consumed at least fourteen small bottles of lager provided generously by the Canadian, but his grand supply eventually ran out. I was surrounded with friendly company, and I was rather fond of the lovely Aussie girls. Everybody else was intent on stopping another night in Biarritz, but I just didn't feel that the hostel itself merited an extended stay, and I had already organized my train tickets.

In the small hours of the morning I was forced to turn in, facing another very early journey only a few hours later. Once again I had completely forgotten about the mess on my bed since my last visit to the dormitory many hours before. In the dark, I faffed about with umpteen rustly bags which had to be repositioned, and sheets which were in a mess and required reorganization on the squeaky bed frame. In my drunken attempts to be as quiet as possible, I managed to make every conceivable bungling noise, at one stage bashing my knee whilst climbing the bunk ladder and shouting in agony. For several minutes I must have been the most annoying room-mate that any of the other guests could have dreaded, and I checked under my sheets for any freshly decapitated objects from the charcuterie. Thankfully I found nothing but acres of sleepy white fabric, and I soon nestled into it and entered happyland.

HOSTEL REPORT: Biarritz - Aintziko Gazte Etxea - see day 22

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