We left La Jourdanie late, the packing for a three week trip taking longer than anticipated. We had thought we were nearly ready, but the final essential items to add still ate up our morning – so much for an early start in Benny. We were finally away by 11am, heading south, pausing only to empty our recycling tubs as we passed through Châlus. Now-familiar roads carried us to Thiviers and around the west of Périgueux, where we called into a Benimar dealer to see about a few niggling items, forgetting that all but one were actually Fiat issues. Large plops of rain dulled the day as we passed Bergerac vines with the first hints of autumn colours, set in fields lined with golden red ferns fluffed up like bright plumage. We passed more familiar villages, places with aires we’d once stayed at, others we’d cycled to or visited on walks. Many looked different, lessened in the muggy rain, not matching the perfect memory of the clear blue skies filled with warming sunshine our memories dredged up, or had perhaps created.
We crossed the calm flow of the rivers Isle, Dordogne and the Garonne. We reached our first overnight stop, Caumont, a small free aire on the banks of a canal flowing parallel to the Garonne, the same stretch of canal where we spent much of our time running and cycling during our La Reole house-sit. We parked up under tall plane trees laden with yellow leaves and reflected on the simple serenity, the instant hit of peace that can be found in some well-positioned aires. Inevitably the church bells began and we started to reconsider, but even their incessant ringing was tuneful enough to soothe us rather than annoy. We enjoyed a short walk along the canal banks, watching the drifting yellow leaves drown in the milky green water, before pizza, darkness and bed.
The next morning brought a longish drive, on ruler-straight roads through scrub and wild woodland. We were back in the true south-west, empty and sparse, with only the brief oasis of small villages breaking up the monotony. We had vague notions to visit the only large town on our route, Mont-de-Marsan, but on arrival it was solid with parked cars for miles in all directions and we saw nowhere easy to stop. Rather than loop around and spend time hunting out a place to park, we kept on, back on the long straight road to the bottom corner of France. We stopped a little to the north west of Bayonne at a paid aire (€6 / night) in Anglet, on the coast. It was two minutes from Biarritz’s north beach, where we spent most of the afternoon watching the wild, powerful waves break hard on the sand.
We returned for dinner then headed back to the coast to be bombarded by an incredible sunset on a busy beachfront boulevard. Walkers, runners, skateboarders, surfers floating in the pinkish water framed by a backdrop of wild red sky, families walking dogs, drinkers, eaters and selfie-takers. Active and vibrant, thoughtful and serene, the only negative were the occasional swarms of roaming sandflies. Many water-babies, tanned and tattooed, were standing wrapped in fleece towels, shivering gently after a full day of attempting to surf that perfect wave. There was a wonderful vibe, chilled and easy, a proper community feel for the entire length of the shore. Very different groups were mingling peacefully to enjoy the warm autumn evening and the exploding sunset. We felt privileged to be here at this moment, the fall of the dice aligning perfectly for us. We have to remember to keep appreciating it all, this glorious freedom we have.
The crashing thuds of the waves kept us awake, seemingly creeping closer and closer in the dark, unknown stillness of the night. We finally slept and awoke late, a welcome benefit of our fluid lifestyle. We readied our bikes and cycled off, towards Bayonne; we had a race to complete our registration for and a city to discover. We zagged across empty roads, passing hugely impressive houses, both ancient and brand new, hidden behind high walls and tall trees. We reached an off-road area with a network of criss-crossing parkland trails, pine needles and ferns draped over a deep sandy base. We climbed up small, steep hills, dunes really, with our back wheels spinning out in deep sand, making the rises that much harder to summit than we’d expected, or hoped for.
We headed first to the Stade La Floride, where we would catch a bus early Sunday to take us to the start of the race, only to find this was not the actual location of the registration. We doubled back into town and after a few more false stops we located the correct place on Rue de Basque just moments before it shut for a two-hour lunch. We happily collected our T-shirts and race numbers, safely tucked them away and were then ready to explore the city. First impressions – Bayonne was a delight. The day had reached 28 degrees before lunchtime, unexpected by us in mid-October. A produce market filled a long, thin plaza set along a stretch of the river Nive, and narrow streets brimming with boutique shops and busy cafés led off in every direction.
Five or six storey townhouses lined these streets, their colourful shutters closed against the sun, some timber-framed, many with stone-arched passageways at ground level utilised as commercial premises. The domineering twin peaks of Bayonne cathedral, the Gothic Cathédrale de Sante-Marie, were always visible above the rooftops. A wonderfully colourful and fragrant permanent covered market selling a wealth of tempting delicacies teased our senses. They were serving tapas and wine at makeshift bars, and in several places we heard more Spanish than French being spoken. We had no prior knowledge or any real expectations of Bayonne, so were utterly contented to have time in this gem of a city.
We had dismissed it two years ago as we passed, eager to reach Spain and the Picos de Europa, and we’re now sorry to have done so. We sat on the cathedral steps and watched a wedding photoshoot where the bride, not to be outdone by her groom’s orange waistcoat, donned dark sunglasses and a blue denim jacket over her flowing silk dress. We wandered through the nearby Botanic gardens to reach the Monument aux Morts, the grand memorial to the war dead from Bayonne. We continued our stroll to the Hôtel de Ville and adjoining Opéra house, buying our mothers local postcards in a small tabac off the Place de la Liberté.
We wandered a while longer, lingering on busy streets to soak up the sights, smells and sounds, before returning to our bikes, abandoned on rails beside the cathedral. We cycled back on the easier but slight longer coast-hugging cycle path, through the more practical, robust, industrial northern harbours. The rest of our day was spent back on the beach, our skins gently bronzing, watching an unending conveyor belt of waves crash into 3m diameter tubes of white foam and froth. It was a delight to lazily watch nature’s wild sea, but it conflicted with our desire to swim.
Race Day 1 – 13km from Ustaritz to Bayonne
The next morning was race day. After a self-imposed alarm and a quick pack up, we no doubt annoyed our neighbours with our Sunday 7.15am exit, the day still wrapped in moody darkness. We parked up at the Stade La Floride, ate breakfast and dressed for action. The first buses left from here for the town of Ustaritz at 8am, where we would run the 13km back to Bayonne, along the banks of the river Nive. We caught a bus and it smoothly deposited us by the village church to await the 10am race start. There were no facilities here, and no water available (they had coffee though) and we wished we’d waited for a later bus. We mused about, pretending at a thorough warm-up, but fooling no one. More stripy buses periodically arrived, carrying the 350 or so race entrants to the over-crowded start area. The trees and bushes of the church grounds were soon overrun with lycra-clad hooligans peeing everywhere, trying and failing to be discrete.
Eventually we were called to the start and the race began, first through the town streets on temporarily closed roads before cutting onto a wider than expected path following the banks of the river. Small pockets of spectators clapped us on, with a few small kids delighting in high-fiving passing runners. Avoiding the scramble, we’d started near the back of the field so had the guilty pleasure of slowly picking off the slower runners, one or two at a time, as we made our way towards the finish, a bright string of colourful vests stretching out into a long line in front of us. The river was hidden from view for long stretches and the snatched views of it proved not as picturesque as we’d hoped, although we did see single skullers gracefully skimming past on the still waters.
The route was paved and flat the entire way, all easy running, or at least it would be for those runners who’d trained sufficiently. After 10km the lack of recent distance in our legs began to tell as our pace slowed rather than increased as we’d hoped. The last 3km were a slog, but we were buoyed by larger crowds and our arrival at the stadium. Sadistically, they then made us complete a lap of the running track before allowing us to cross the finish line in relief. We gorged on cake, chocolate, apricots, bananas and oranges at the finish, then luxuriated in long, steaming hot showers in the changing facilities of the sports centre. Glowing from our run, we paused to watch a high quality rugby match, before driving Benny back to the same aire to relax for the afternoon.
No sooner had we slotted back into the same spot (such creatures of habit) the heavens opened in violent torrents, but contented and weary we rested up snugly in Benny – let the weather do its worst.