Friday, June 22, 2012

Day 5 - Saint Jean de Luz, France

Friday, May 25, 2012

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

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
Today St. Jean de Luz is focused on tourism with sandy beaches, elegant second homes and cozy hotels.

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
Andy remarked that some of the newer additions to the infrastructure are not as pleasing as the character of the 18th and 19th century Belle Epoque buildings but that the city still has managed to maintain an elegance nonetheless.

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.
We reached an area called Port de Pecheurs. This is a separate entity within Biarritz. It has a charming old fishing village feel with wooden boats and small restaurants serving sardines. Andy was justifiably enamored with it as he led us around the port.

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
Once on the other side we could view several turreted villas above the sea. Apparently these number in the low 200's. They are quite striking and provide an elegant contrast to the rustic fishing boats.

Beautiful turreted villa
Following Andy's direction, we climbed a steep staircase, wandered through tunnels cut through the rocks and across some bridges and finally ended up in one of the main squares. If I had been leading the charge instead of our guide I would definitely be hearing some unkind words coming from my mother! She was remarkably quiet though.

It is actually not as steep as it looks.

Apparently cars can go through the tunnel as well
Andy paused by a plaque of one of the infamous Privateers. He was a rather ghastly looking fellow. The privateer I mean! Apparently the Privateers or corsairs were working for the king of France.

Privateer and our guide Andy
We had a great view of the port and the city behind it. Andy provided a very comprehensive tour. He mentioned that there is a connection between the volcanic eruption on Iceland in 1783 and the French Revolution which began in 1789. The volcanic ash affected the crops in France and other areas of Europe for many years. Poor vegetation, cloudy skies and food shortages eventually led to the uprising and the march to the guillotine.

The old port with Hotel du Palais and other buildings in the background
In Biarritz even the trash receptacles are beautiful as seen below.

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
A friend of mine just had a baby and I would have loved to pick something out but knew I would spend too much time looking at the various items so skipped it entirely. A shame because the stuff was very cute! We walked swiftly but studiously peering into a number of shops selling, clothes, linens and surf boards along the road. The boards appeared more utilitarian than fancy but I am a not an expert. Quicksilver and O'Neils do have locations in town. The ubiquitous surf boards for sale straddling the various side streets provided a certain coolness to the place.

Biarritz Shopping
Biarritz has plenty of shopping to keep one busy. Too bad we had very little time to see it. Antiques, jewelry, Basque tablecloths, linens and souvenirs were on view. Place Clemenceau which we did not get to has the Paris based boutiques. Avenue de Verdun,  Avenue Edouard-VII, Avenue Victor Hugo, and Rue Gambetta are the main shopping streets.

Viewing one of the side streets

Another impressive building
In the 1950's Biarritz relinquished its elite status to the upcommers along the Cote d'Azur. Now more a cocktail of Belle Epoque buildings blended with the casual Bohemian free spirit, Biarritz has had a rebirth and is popular once again.  This may be partly due to the affluent Europeans who happily coexist with their more thrill seeking neighbors.

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
While not the "pearly gates" one of our last sights before our departure from Biarritz was in front of this imposing building.

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!

Basque Countryside
During the drive I noticed the bus has a nifty camera so that passengers can see the road ahead. Very cool since sometimes viewing out the side windows you miss a lot. Andy took our time on the bus to explain some of the cultural influences in Basque life. He said that the Basque home is central to their lives. The family actually retains the name of their home as part of their name. Woman are in charge of the household and men join their wife's family upon marriage. It was all very interesting.

Our bus camera
Upon reaching St. Jean de Luz there were a few people who asked where to get the tender to go back to the ship. It was actually good to point this out as we became a little disoriented at the end of the day. Only 4 or 5 people left the tour and returned to the ship.

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
Andy pointed out the Maison Louis XIV where the reception took place following the wedding of the King to Maria Therese. We tried to go in for a tour but it does not open until June for the high season. There is now a little convenience store/pharmacy tucked underneath. The 17th century stone buildings in the square are a nice contrast to the Basque red and white houses.

Maison Louis XIV
Many of the town's residences were built in the 17th and 18th centuries along the Quai de L'Infante. Other interesting streets are Rue Mazarin, Rue Gambetta and Place Louis XIV. The Maison de I'nfante is a popular tourist attraction and museum.

Red is an important theme in the Basque country. Andy explained that the half timbered buildings were originally painted red with animal blood. The red Espelette pepper is a staple ingredient in some Basque dishes. It can be seen dried and hanging in some of the small shops like the one below.

Grocery store selling Ham and Peppers
I noticed in the grocery shop that there were photos of pigs on the walls. The owner must be either very close to his animals or very proud of his products. I am hoping the former.

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
Our group made our way back to the main part of town near the water. We thanked Andy for a terrific tour. He was a fantastic guide and had a lot of interesting tidbits to share with us.

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
Although Saint Jean de Luz is a maze of narrow pedestrian streets we were now pretty familiar with the layout of the town. We made our way back to Ave de Republique (or restaurant row). We passed several sights along the way.

Typical red and white Basque houses along the street
A plaque honoring Maria Therese
Saint Jean de Luz has many small specialist shops selling chocolate and cake confections. While Biarritz may seem more cosmopolitan, Saint Jean de Luz is more Montauk to Biarritz's Southampton.

Stone building next to a half timbered one

A monument commemorating the resistance during WWII
Our stomachs were clamouring for some tasty French cuisine. We had spied a number of interesting restaurants during our tour. Now it was time to scamper off and make our decision. We glanced at a couple of menus and viewed some of the offerings at the outdoor cafes. There were many restaurants to choose from.

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.

Delicious Moules

The red outdoor awnings gave a red tinge to our food in the photos

Yummy Chocolate pot de creme

Stylish interior of the restaurant
If getting the meal served to us was difficult, paying for it was going to be even more of a challenge. We saw the server tell another table in French that the credit card did not work. When we tried to pay with a credit card (Visa or MasterCard) we were told our card did not work either. It became clear that they only wanted cash and the ruse about the card machine was baloney. I offered to go to the ATM and get euros while my mother waited at the table.

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
While we were waiting we had time to admire the scenery around the harbor area.

Harbor of St. Jean de Luz
The tender soon arrived and we boarded without any difficulty and had a scenic ride back to the ship. I had a very nice view out the tender doorway as we departed 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
As we got closer the Symphony we could see a small "regatta" of boats out in front.

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.

My mother had the Penne with seafood which she said was excellent.

Penne with seafood
For dessert I had the passion fruit. It was very light and refreshing.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad your girl scout training kicked in so you could find your way home. It's happened to me; & it is scary.