Today I have the day off. Yeah! We will have our first of three Crystal ship excursions. I am looking forward to being a lemming. My mother is pleased that the pace may be a little slower than my feeble attempt at military precision.. This will be Crystal's maiden call to St. Jean de Luz, France and we will anchor off shore. Seas here have a tendency to be rough so tendering is not always a guarantee.
It is unseasonably warm today with bright blue skies and highs in the 80's. I have packed my sunscreen. This morning we had a relaxing breakfast in the Lido. It was a bit of a challenge to find a table but we persevered. My mother does not like the coffee at all in the lido. However, she brings her plastic French press which is then filled with hot water. She pops in one of her Keurig coffee capsules and she is soon in coffee bliss.
|St. Jean de Luz Coat of Arms|
Saint Jean de Luz is a charming small town with a population of 14,000. It was here on June 9, 1660 that Louis XIV married his first cousin Maria-Teresa of Spain. The marriage ended many years of political discord between their respective countries. Born Infanta Maria Terese, she was the daughter of Philip IV, King of Spain and his consort Elisabeth of France. Being a great-great granddaughter of an Austrian archduke, Maria Teresa was also entitled to use the title of Archduchess of Austria. Infanta is a title and rank given in Spain to the sons and daughters who are not heirs to the throne.
|Infanta Maria Theresa|
We waited in the Starlight Club for the tours to be called. They made several announcements that there was a delay to leave the ship. As our tour tickets were numbered it appeared there would be at least 70 people accompanying us on our tour today. We were encouraged to take bottled water from one of the tables as it would not be offered on the buses. For some reason Crystal calls almost all the tours at the same time. For a tender port this creates a lot of congestion. It did not make sense to me.
Once the tours were finally called we did not get very far. We ended up lined up on the stairs and crammed inside the hallway on deck 4. The line stopped moving which was not a good sign. Someone announced they were going to change the position of the ship. Okay. About 5 minutes passed and the line started to move again. Winds are light but apparently large swells had hampered the tendering process. As we got closer we could see the tender vigorously bounce up and down. People were having a lot of trouble judging how to get on. Someone on the security team was on his radio saying he did not think tendering was safe and that it should stop. Eek!
We were still in line at this point and they were still loading passengers. The crew were very professional and stood on both sides to make sure people did not stumble or fall as they sort of flopped onboard. I have taken my fair share of tenders but perhaps Crystal likes being extra cautious. The tender process was ultimately successful and we were soon on our way to St. Jean de Luz. The seas were surprisingly not choppy and it was a very smooth journey to shore.
Our tour today is SJZ-A: St. Jean de Luz Acquaintance and Biarritz Sightseeing . The cost was a mere $89 for 4 1/2 hours which seemed very reasonable to see the Pays Basque. There were two buses for our tour. We got on the first bus which ended up being a great choice. Our guide, Andy Fischer, introduced himself and said he was from Wellington, New Zealand. There was a bit of a chuckle from the group. I think most of us were expecting perhaps "Gaston" or "Pierre" but certainly not Andy. The short version is that Andy met his French wife while picking grapes and now resides with his family near Bayonne. Our tour bus headed down the highway instead of along the scenic coast for our visit to Biarritz. It was only about a 20 minute drive.
Biarritz was originally founded as a fishing village and later developed as a whaling center. It is located in the Pyrenees Atlantic department and is 18 km (11 miles) from the Spanish border. Biarritz has a current population of 27,000. In 1854 Napoleon III married Spaniard Eugenie Marie de Montijo de Guzman. Napoleon built Empress Eugenie an elegant palace in the shape of an "E" on a the Biarritz beach. Many years later the building was restored and in 1912 it became the Hotel du Palais. It was during this time that Biarritz became very popular with European aristocracy. Russian nobility prior to the 1917 Revolution even built their own Orthodox Church here in 1892.
|Hotel du Palais with its park like setting and direct beach access|
Biarritz reached its zenith between WWI and the 1920's. Edward VII brought his mother Queen Victoria here. Bismark, Alfonso XIII King of Spain, Czar Nicholas of Russia and the Shah of Iran all left their mark on this tony enclave.
We disembarked the bus at the St. Martin lighthouse built in 1831. We had a walk around and appreciated the great views across the bay to the buildings lining the Grand Plage.
|The Hotel du Palais on the left epitomizes Biarritz's 19th century charm|
We walked along the shore and admired the gorgeous views. We did not go up the 274 steps in the lighthouse.
Andy guided us on a leisurely journey around the bay and down Avenue de L'imperatrice and finally into one of the main squares. It was a little warm but the scenery compensated nicely.
Today Biarritz is more Oahu meets Monte Carlo than faded royal haunt. With a climate similar to Carmel, CA it is understated with a bit of a hippee feel. In 1957 screenwriter Peter Viertel was in town for the filming of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises". He was impressed by the waves in Biarritz and requested his longboard be sent from California. A surfer's paradise was born. There is now an annual surfing competition held each July. Biarritz is a regular stop for the Association of Surf Professionals.
|Our walk along the bay. I believe the pancake white building is the Sofitel.|
In 1944 German soldiers built bunkers along the coast which are still visible. These formed part of the German defences against invasion called the Atlantic Wall.
|Port de Pecheurs (Port de Fisherman) with a view to the lighthouse|
Among the lush foliage the seaside route is lined with tamarisks and hydrangeas. The little white flowers looked something like jasmine, which I am sadlyvery allergic to. But I think they were something else. In any case I kept sneezing for well over the next 45 minutes.
From the port we had our first glimpse of the the Eglise St.-Martin which was originally constructed back in the 12th century. It has an imposing presence over the harbor.
|Eglise St. Martin|
Andy lead us along to the plateau de L'Atalaye. The tunnel was carved on Napoleon's orders and the bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel. There is a footbridge to the islet named Rocher de la Vierge (Rock of the Virgin).
|Bridge and path to Rocher de la Vierge|
The Rock of the Virgin statue was erected in 1865 and is said to protect the fisherman and sailors. The Spanish Basque countryside in the distance may be visible with good weather. The Eiffel foot bridge was under repair so we could not access the Rock of the Virgin. I took several photos but somehow seemed to miss the Madonna on one of the stone outcroppings.
|Rock with the waves sometimes crashing right over it, howerver it was calm today|
|Beautiful turreted villa|
|It is actually not as steep as it looks.|
|Apparently cars can go through the tunnel as well|
|Privateer and our guide Andy|
|The old port with Hotel du Palais and other buildings in the background|
We arrived in the Place Eugenie and Andy announced we would have about 30 minutes for shopping. I had wanted to see the Hotel du Palais but it would take 15 minutes just to get there. So we went on to plan B which was just to take a quick stroll around town.
|Near the Place Eugenie|
While we did not have high expectations for our brief shopping escapade, we made the most of it. We passed several stores selling nice fluffy towels suitable for a fancy bathroom and an assortment of fine linens.
|Very nice linen store|
|Viewing one of the side streets|
|Another impressive building|
The fad of spending the summer on the Cote d'Azur is a recent idea. In earlier days the Riviera was for winter. People came to Biarritz to cool off in the summer. Biarritz is more understated than say St. Tropez or Cannes. Surfers have replaced the whalers but there is still that connection with the sea.
Sports are important to Biarritz. Not only is it the home of continental Europe's first golf course but the surfing enthusiasts are not the only athletes in town. The Basque sport of cesta-punta, known to Americans as jai-alai is very popular. It is described as the fastest ball game on earth. Using bare hands and a wooden racquet players in groups of 2 try to outlast one another in this grueling sport. One of the shore excursions was to see a match. That would have been fun.
|Don't know what this building is or what the initials stand for|
It was around 12:30 pm when we boarded the bus and drove back down to St. Jean de Luz. We passed through the beautiful Basque countryside. Andy pointed out the mountain in the background that resembles Napoleon's face. It really does!
|Our bus camera|
During our walk we learned some of the history of St. Jean de Luz. Andy captivated us with the story of a catastrophic tidal wave that struck the town in 1749 destroying half of it. Dozens of buildings were destroyed but the fishing industry rebounded and kept the town afloat. We stopped to view a map depicting the area of the town lost after the tidal wave.
Andy took us on a pleasant 30 minute stroll through St. Jean de Luz and pointed out several landmarks. The terrain is very level and it was an easy walk through town. We stopped at the Eglise St. Jean Baptiste and met up with one of the other Crystal tours. There was a service taking place so Andy advised to come back later.
|Eglise St. Jean Baptiste|
|Maison Louis XIV|
|Grocery store selling Ham and Peppers|
Eglise St. Jean Baptiste
We circled back to the church and it was now possible to go inside. The church is much larger inside than it appears from the exterior. The three storied carved wooden balconies are distinguished by a small wooden sailing ship dangling from the ceiling. After the royal nuptials in 1660, the doorway to the St. John the Baptist church was walled off denying access across the royal threshold.
|Eglise St Jean Baptiste. Maria Therese stayed in the top left tower prior to her wedding.|
|Sailing ship is suspended from the church ceiling|
|Beautiful altar and three story carved wooden balconies|
We could see the ship in the distance and the beach also looked very inviting. However, eating lunch took precedence.
|A beautiful day at the beach.|
|Symphony anchored off St. Jean de Luz|
|Typical red and white Basque houses along the street|
|A plaque honoring Maria Therese|
|Stone building next to a half timbered one|
|A monument commemorating the resistance during WWII|
We wanted seafood and found a shady table at the White Pigeon.
There was at least one other couple from the ship having lunch here. We ordered the moules frites.
It took a while to get our meal. There was only one server outside and the extreme heat was getting the best of her. I honestly expected her to pass out at any moment. We finally received our food. The mussels were delicious! It was a very large serving but we both somehow managed to finish it.
|The red outdoor awnings gave a red tinge to our food in the photos|
|Yummy Chocolate pot de creme|
|Stylish interior of the restaurant|
The ATM was nearby, about two streets away. As I reached inside my bag for my card it was then that I remembered I did not take it with me! I left in the safe on the ship. I recalled that I in fact had euros and just enough to cover our lunch. Phew!
I am not sure if it was the heat or if I just got turned around but I had a lot of trouble making my way back to the restaurant. None of the shops looked familiar. I had taken a photo of the restaurant sign so I aimlessly walked around showing the photo and asking for directions. I was gone a good 15 to 20 minutes by now and wondered if I would make it back at all. Finally a really nice lady pointed me in the right direction and I was greeted by my mother and some other patrons with great enthusiasm. I was so relieved to make it back but not too embarrassed to admit that I got lost. One of the other tables of French customers was going to form a search party for me!
We paid for the lunch and then took a walk around to the other end of town. We walked by some stores but it was soon getting to be time to go back to the ship. This time I redeemed myself as my mother was absolutely convinced that the way back to the tender was the opposite direction I wanted to go. I honestly don't blame her for doubting me (my expedition to the ATM is a case in point) but I stood my ground. She relunctantly agreed to go in the direction I suggested.
It took a good 25 minutes but we finally made it back to where the tenders were located. My mother was very happy! The tender had just left so we had to wait a few minutes. There were no cold lavender towels on hand. I had read about them and was a little disappointed. However, they did have water and little pretty white Crystal canopy to sit under.
|Waiting for the tender to arrive|
|Harbor of St. Jean de Luz|
On the tender I sat next to a nice lady who took a tour to Pamplona. She showed me some postcards she purchased and explained each one. "This is where Hemingway lived, etc". She was sort of "grandmotherly" and very sweet. It was nice meeting her.
We had a nice view back to the shore and could see some cliffs.
|Cliffs of St. Jean de Luz viewed from the tender|
|sailboats meeting the Symphony|
We arrived back on board and returned to our room. We really enjoyed our day in the Pays Basque region and learned quite a bit about their history and culture. I definitely would like to return to Biarritz and stay at the Hotel du Palais. St. Jean was also a nice surprise. It was much larger than I had anticipated and had many restaurants and shops to enjoy.
Tonight we are dining for the first time in Prego. After a nice steamy shower I felt human again and excited to experience the Italian menu. I ordered the carpaccio, caesar salad and the lasagna. The presentation of the carpaccio is very interesting. They bring it without the balsamic and olive oil and create a kind of masterpiece in front of you. It was very tasty. The caesar salad was not very spicy, kind of limp and had no flavor. Otherwise it was great!
|A work of art!|
|Salad was disappointing|
Lasagna has a high bar to achieve in my book. My favorite is from a childhood restaurant in Massachusetts and is still the best I have ever eaten. I probably unfairly compare every lasagna to that one. The one tonight was very good. The cheese was soft and creamy and the meat was well proportioned and not overpowering. I give it an 8 out of 10.
|Penne with seafood|
Since we had a long day we skipped the entertainment tonight and retired to our room.
Tomorrow we have a sea day and are thrilled to have the entire day on the ship.