IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 8 > Bordeaux - Irún - San Sebastián/Donostia

Bordeaux - Irún

Having hit the sack after feeling zonked out early the night before, I'd had trouble sleeping once dawn broke with the humid atmosphere in my room. My best bet was to get up before everybody else hogged the showers, and take breakfast as soon as it was available. This would give me a chance to put the day's initial plan into action. There were two parts to this plan - firstly, make it to the railway station at the earliest possible opportunity, should the only train of the day heading to Spain be scheduled at a silly time, and secondly, avoid the wrath of Mr Grumps who hopefully wouldn't be on shift at reception until later on. It all went well, with the only hiccup occurring during my visit to the shower room.

Being a communal bathroom with two toilets, washbasins and a shower cubicle, my generous spirit determined that I shouldn't lock the main door, barring other residents from taking a leak for the duration of my wash cycle. This was often a contentious point in hostels with such unified bathroom arrangements, and some people believed this was an over-prudish and selfish thing to do. After all, the shower door was frosted, I'd be safe from prying eyes, except the problem was that there was nowhere at all inside the cubicle to put or hang any items, which would become soaked. I left my clothes in a small heap outside the shower door, figuring nobody else was awake at this time anyway and no visual abuse would occur.

Refreshed, I grabbed my towel and dried myself down - now all I had to do was open the doors and survive a few seconds before I got my underwear on. This was where Sod stepped in, with his twisted laws of probability, and ensured that this precise moment was perfectly prepared for the entrance of an old withering man, who despite his frailness and slow movement could not fail to see me in the mirrored wall opposite. In my panic, I managed to step on my underpants rather than insert my first leg through them, and go stumbling forward trampling them to the ground, emerging rather ungracefully from the steamy enclosure like a horse falling at Beecher's Brook in the Grand National. The little man, who resembled the sidekick in The Benny Hill Show who regularly had his head slapped, was quite nonchalant about the whole thing. Had I actually chased him through the corridors in rapid motion, naked and slapping him on the head, true to the television show, I would probably have faced a nasty inquisition from Mr Grumps followed by a long night in the cells.

I had to wait a couple of hours for the train, but it would take me all the way to Irún, across the border into Spain, from where it was only a short ride along to San Sebastián. At last I had this forbidden land within my sights, and I could put all the turmoil of the strikes behind me. Once again, friendly French people sparked conversation with me at the station and on the train, such an unusual and welcome experience for insular Britons.

Even on board in the air-conditioned luxury of the TGV, the heat was rising as midday approached, and alighting the train at Irún was a huge relief to have escaped les grèves, but brought with it a new hazard of excessive heat like I had never known before. I checked the animation status of pensive motionless Spaniards on the platform before stepping off the train, to ensure they hadn't been frazzled and cooked on their seats. After gobbling a quick lunch I boarded my second train to Donostia - the Basque name for its capital, more commonly known by its Spanish title of San Sebastián.

Irún - San Sebastián/Donostia

I was a little apprehensive when I finally reached my destination. Three and a half years prior I had launched my Renault 4 website to the world, and since then many people from far flung corners of the globe had contacted me, some just to say hello, others to send pictures of their own car, to place classified adverts on the site and so on. However, one small, loyal set of followers were quite special.

A pair of R4 enthusiasts in Lisbon had sent me an enormous wealth of high quality photos and detailed information since the conception of my site. They'd made a great contribution, and were spreading their infectious admiration for this unique, humble French vehicle to others in their country and elsewhere. People were getting together around the world as a result of my website, and because of their passion for this car. Two contacts were based in San Sebastián, and they had only discovered each other's existence through my web pages. Subsequently they had met up with the fans in Lisbon and formed a strong friendship, which developed to such a point that within a couple of years, they had all - along with their girlfriends and wives - been on several excursions and holidays together, accompanied of course by their faithful Renault 4s.

It was all a bit of a strange concept for me, some bloke who sat in his bedroom typing a load of waffle and printing it for the cyber world's eyes. I found it difficult to believe that this sort of thing was going on because of me being bored enough to fiddle about on a computer in my own home. Of course I was aware of the potential reach of my website from the moment I started it, but without actually physically meeting any of these many contacts I had made via email, I could never really have any absolute sense of their existence or any firm evidence of my site being read by anyone.

It had originally been my plan to drive around Europe in my Renault 4, but the car was now in a sorry state and not fit for the purpose. I'd had limited email contact with my friends abroad, and I didn't know what to expect of them, but I telephoned Asier on arrival at San Sebastián, and he took time off work to come and meet me on his scooter.

We popped into the city fire station to say hello to Luis, the other R4 fan who we would be meeting again later when he finished his shift, and who had very kindly offered to house me for the night in his family's flat. The heat was phenomenal, but there was no choice - we had to take the Renault 4 out for the afternoon, despite its unsuitability in such scorching conditions. Nothing else would do, it was a ritualistic act, and Asier drove me up into the hills and to a place with a fantastic panorama overlooking the whole city and the distant mountains (below).

Asier and I, united by the Renault 4, sat overlooking San Sebastián

The city was one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited, set in a spectacular location around a bay on the northern coast of Spain (below), and surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrenees. The one sad situation as explained by Asier, was the cost of living in the town, which was now sky-high. Rich residents of Madrid and elsewhere had been buying up large numbers of properties, often using them solely as holiday homes for two weeks each year. People who had been born and brought up in the place could not afford to live there anymore, as it had become the second most expensive area in the country.

In this way it was very similar to my home town of Brighton, which had become the second most expensive town in England and was increasingly invaded by rich Londoners buying up second homes. The towns were also similar in being vibrant and buzzing with life day and night, although the pebbled beach in Brighton couldn't really compare with the sandy shores of San Sebastián.

View of San Sebastián from the hills

Asier stood beside his red Renault 4 We sat in the shade outside a café with glasses of iced coffee admiring the sights, and even Asier was stunned by the extraordinarily hot climate, which he assured me was above average for his city. In fact he claimed it was the first beautiful day in a long while, and the hottest of the year so far.

We took a short walk to the top of the hill, where there was a hotel and a bar. There was also a horrifying little log flume ride, from which any over-active child with inferior balance would surely fall several hundred feet over the cliff to their ultimate doom. Not only that, we failed to understand how any tall child or adult seated in one of the log cars, could survive decapitation at one hairy little feature on the ride. We waited a while to observe somebody foolish enough to have a go, but surprisingly there were no takers to the challenge.

Our next journey was along to Hondarribia, a town several miles to the east on the very border with France. Upon arriving there, Asier received a phone call from Luis, who was warning of the impending weather. According to the two of them we were shortly due for a torrential storm, which quite frankly was the most ludicrous thing I had ever heard, and I suspected that they were winding me up. I had stood atop the hill previously with a 360-degree view, confirming that not a single cloud existed in the shockingly blue sky. The temperature was hotter than anything I had ever experienced in my thirty years, into the forties celsius and warm even by Spanish standards. Asier was convinced that although the storm may not exist out at sea, it would materialize within twenty minutes or so, and as we felt a breeze beginning to pick up we set off again into the mountains.

How a storm could evolve from this barbecued climate was beyond comprehension. A phenomenon I had never experienced until now was the 'hot wind'. The little Renault 4 was baking inside and I stuck my hand out of its dinky, horizontally-sliding passenger window for some relief, but it was not forthcoming. The breeze, even as we cruised at eighty miles per hour along the motorway, almost burnt my arm off. Somebody had switched on a giant hairdryer in the sky.

We began climbing a road through the hills, following a scenic route which was free from other traffic, when the most extraordinary sight began to appear ahead of us. Above the mountains, puffs of cloud were forming from nothing, at first just creeping insignificantly, like a steam train had just chuffed along and left a short-lived trail behind it. But within minutes these menacing creations were rolling fast over the peaks and threatening us with their mysterious contents as they crawled ever closer. We pulled over into a lay-by, and found another vantage point from which to look back and admire the sunlit land we'd just driven through (below). By now, however, we were just seconds away from a mighty onslaught of mean thunderclouds which were approaching behind our backs.

Asier and I taking a breather at a viewing point on the road into the mountains, whilst seconds away in the opposite direction a sudden rolling mass of threatening cloud was approaching

The marauding gloom was about to swallow us up and we jumped back in the car, driving into the centre of the action like a brave soldier running towards an atom bomb with a bread knife. The winds became gusty as we ascended the highest ridges of the hills, but aside from being surrounded by cloud which limited our vision to several feet, we escaped with a short pelting of rain and emerged the other side unscathed.

It was something of a disappointment as we descended the hills once more to normality. The storm hadn't lived up to its hype, and the temperature was only lowered by a few degrees, which left us still roasting under the sun like a pair of ants in the cruel hands of a young boy playing with his magnifying glass. We left the slopes of Jaizkibel and visited a quaint fishing village down by the harbour, accessible only through a series of narrow covered passages, and once home to the poet and novelist Victor Hugo.

Outside in an attractive old square (right), we relaxed with a beer and had a chat about local and world politics, sparked off by the masses of Basque flags hung from the balconies of the surrounding homes. People here were clearly very passionate about their locality. A small quaint fishing village near the harbour, a few kilometres east of San Sebastián

Also visible here and everywhere else we had travelled around the region, were thousands of blue and white flags paraded on the walls and windows of properties, which Asier explained were those of local football team Real Sociedad. They were on the brink of winning the Spanish league, with just a couple of remaining games imminent. Their trophy was virtually assured providing they didn't slip up inexplicably. It would be a miraculous achievement for the club, and a triumph against their much vaunted rivals Real Madrid, who would be condemned to second place. The whole city was in a high fever, waiting to explode into parties over the weekend, and I looked forward to an electric atmosphere when we went out in the evening.

It was time to return to the centre of San Sebastián and meet Luis, who was finishing work. Plans were hatched for a Friday night out on the town, and I went off with him to his family's flat, conveniently located slap bang in the middle of the city. I was very kindly allowed to sleep in the kid's bedroom - the poor child being turfed out into the main room next door, but at least there were plenty of miniature model Renault 4s on the shelves for her to play with. They were part of Luis's collection and a mark of his devotion to the car.

Although Asier had a good understanding of English, Luis's third dialect was French, and so another test of my abilities in this language was demanded. My side of the conversation was hardly fluent, but we managed somehow. I even rustled up a few lines in Spanish, which I had only been learning for a short while the previous year. Both Asier and Luis conversed in Spanish and Euskera, the historic language of the Basques. We would all occasionally dip into other dialects as and when required, sometimes changing mid-sentence; a practice which had become quite familiar to me.

Whilst working in Belgium earlier in the year, many of the employees surrounding me at the workplaces would chop and change between four or five tongues without hesitation, depending on who they were speaking to. Each time they answered the phone it would result in a different choice between Flemish, French, Dutch, German or English. I rather admired anyone with such skills, and was fond of the notion of everybody utilizing odds and ends of several languages in their everyday lives. It seemed to be the way much of the world was heading, and a good unifying aspect of modern culture.

Unfortunately, I had forever found most citizens of Britain, America and some other native English-speaking countries to be lagging behind in this respect. Certainly there would always be people with no interest in speaking anything but their own language. This could be found in any country, even places such as Finland or Wales where the national dialect might be uncommon elsewhere in the world, but in my view much of the problem in Britain lay in the teaching. Governments had never wanted to be so closely involved in Europe as our neighbours across the Channel, which was a rather sad thing, and it had led to many schools only half-heartedly teaching one other language to children, and from too late an age for it to become rooted in their brains.

Until now, we English had commonly opted to learn French as a secondary skill, due in part to their presence as nearest neighbours, but we'd gained renown for being decidedly lousy at it. In times gone by it had usually been Latin which was forced upon poor British schoolchildren, but in the modern age this had become redundant for the majority of people on the planet. More recently, German and in particular Spanish started to surface as popular alternatives, but their tuition could only occasionally be found in secondary schools.

Consequently, I'd noted that most Britons would either give up and retreat into their shell, blatantly speaking nothing but English wherever they might be in the world, and eventually believing their own lie that everyone else should speak it anyway, or the remainder would pay a lot of money for private tuition in order to try and force themselves to adopt another language at a later age, when it wouldn't be absorbed so well. My own attempt at a remedy remained to go abroad as much as I could, and put myself into situations such as this one where I had no choice but to speak something other than English.

After my introduction to the family and a quick coffee, Luis and I - donning our Renault 4 t-shirts in an almost scarily obsessive fashion - located Asier and set off into the lively evening streets of San Sebastián. It was a very attractive place, with grand tree-lined streets, pleasant apartments and unpretentious bars dotted around each corner. We stopped off at a tapas bar for a first round of drinks and a delicious snack featuring olives and mild green chillies. It was discovered that we had a common liking for cider, a drink which was a speciality in this region of Spain. In Britain this drink had often had a rough and seedy image, being guzzled by uncouth blokes with muddy boots and crass manners, but it was a forgotten classic of the beverage world. During hot summers there was nothing better than a good traditional cloudy cider, as opposed to the clear, fizzy rubbish often sold in tacky bars.

Asier, Luis and I enjoying a night out in San Sebastián, stood around a barrel with our cider and tapas Contrary to all my previous assertions, we then posed like a bunch of rough blokes with muddy boots over a barrel for a photograph (left), in which I was to be caught with the perfect expression of a ruddy west country cider boy.

We went on a tour of the town, taking in various bars and sights, more nosh in the form of some delicious bocadillas con tortilla de patatas - huge baguettes with a thick Spanish potato omelette inside, and ice creams and sorbets after midnight from a heladería. We strolled down to a jetty jutting out into the bay in front of the giant illuminated statue of Jesus, which overlooked the town from the hill curving around into the sea. It was visible from all over the place, I could just look up and there it was poking out above the rooftops of the city streets, as though the city's forefathers had aspired to their own version of Big Brother.

Asier and Luis's hospitality towards me was grand, with every attempt I made to pay for something being hastily rejected, and accompanied by the same absurd lie which they had been perpetrating all day in my company - that my Euros were not valid currency in the Basque country and I should put them away in my pocket! It kept them amused and I wasn't going to argue. Events became hazy as the night wore on and more drinks were consumed, and I eventually found myself sound asleep back at the flat, thankful that I had made it beyond France and enjoyed a successful first meeting.

HOSTEL REPORT: Luis's flat, San Sebastián city centre
Sorry, this one's out of bounds to the general public - otherwise it would have been highly recommended!

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