We were a bit towned out and had thought to seek a country inn to stay in after Santiago but whilst there we thought of some South African friends Richard and Debbie and in particular Debbie who had covered some of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. We texted Richard to say 'Thinking of you...' and to our surprise he replied he would be 15k away from us when we fetched up in Pamplona next day as he now was 'El Pelegrín' and on the road. Small world.
We drove to our rendezvous and sat in the sun on the terrace of a small bar and watched the walkers arrive, sometimes in groups and sometimes in ones and twos and across the age range. The camaraderie was very evident as too was the relief at another leg of the journey completed and a chance to loosen the laces of the walking boots.
Richard arrived travelling with a family of Americans. As we drove him to his luxury hotel in Pamplona I promised his walking buddies I would ensure he slept on the floor and only had a cold shower to make up for declining his bunk bed in a shared dorm and whatever variety of pork was on the menu.
It is alway a travel dilemma for us: read the travel guide and risk the guide finding only churches and monuments significant and curiously missing the spirit of the place, or risk the guide stealing the thunder by over-familiarity. Or you can find out for yourself and risk missing an essential aspect or worse end up somewhere like Castelo Branco. We weren't fussed about Pamplona and the travel guide had said outside of the bull run there wasn't much reason to go there. So our only expectation was that we would have a catch up with Richard and hear his walking tales.
Pamplona was simply the busiest and buzziest of anywhere we've been. It is not the fairest of cities but neither is it the worse. The Plaza del Castillo is a fine and large town centre square that was so rammed, it made Leicester Square on a Saturday night look like Worthing on a wet Wednesday. We think all the jollity was the result of a pinchos or tapas festival. We had a good meal, although curiously we went Italian, and Richard under the strains of road walking did need to be talked down from visiting a Burger King. Later we had yummy ice cream and meandered, by necessity, very slowly through the unbelievably crowded streets.
Pamplona was a sometime haunt of Hemingway and Café Uruña in the main square has a life size bronze statue of the man in a side bar off the main room; the cafe, a staggeringly beautiful 1920s confection, a kind of gilded shrine to the old misogynist and boor. Hemingway visited the city nine times and found here the inspiration for his first and arguably finest book 'The Sun Also Rises' (published in 1926) a roaring twenties portrait of a group of Bohemians caught in the frenzy of the bull run festival.
We shared breakfast with Richard at a totally chaotic Uruña and left him with six weeks more walking and made our way somewhat reluctantly back to France, although cheered by a revisit to Bordeaux. We haven't been for years, the last time the city was a building site as they installed a new tram system and reclaimed the river front from its industrial and port past.
Those international tourist pals of ours Clare and Stuart have again flown out to join us, this time in Bordeaux and we have rented two apartments in a house in the Saint Michel quartier. In fact Stuart couldn't come but we downloaded him as an app and so we had our tour leader and map reader extrodinaire in digital form. At times it was almost as though he was actually with us.
The apartments are a delight, modern spacious and bang in the middle of this slowly gentrifying area which for now has tiny Arab run grocers next door to trendy bars and brocantes selling the kind of brown furniture you can't give away in London.
Every day seems to have a different market, on the Sunday as we arrived we caught the tail end of a flea market with the occasional old, unloved and unsold sofa or pile of clothes discarded waiting for the bin men. We like the area so much that it is the obvious place to be in the evenings and we sample a different restaurant every night and when it's warm enough sit out and people watch.
Bordeaux, long known as 'la belle endormie' (sleeping beauty), was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and thanks to a massive decade-long revitalisation project that restored hundreds of magnificent 18th-century buildings at the city’s center, is now a very beautiful city, and with that city list in mind, could be the most beautiful we have seen. It is a limestone built place, occasionally evident as the stone will blacken over time. But much of the city is well cared for and has almost no new building in its large historic heart. The kilometre long Garonne river facade is a wonderful showcase of the architectural design skills of the 18th century. Elsewhere the apparently uniform buildings reward close attention as the symmetry is to a degree an illusion as each part of the terrace will have different details in the decorative elements. Sometimes a building sits next to a lower one but at the top in expectation of a same height neighbour the bonding stones jut out unattached in a vertical castellation.
We visit the extraordinary Cité de Vin museum, a high tech hymn to the pleasures and the complexity of squeezing fruit. It is slightly a triumph of presentation over content but is so impressively designed outside and in it was irresistible. Later our ticket bought us a wine tasting which although serving predominantly French wine had offerings from Georgia, Mexico, Serbia and Moldavia. We strolled down Rue Sainte Catherine, claimed to be the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe but it is necessary to keep our eyes above the international and over familiar shops fronts to enjoy the exquisite architecture. We also visited the extraordinary Tribunal de Grande designed by Richard Rogers in 1998. Each courtroom is set within a very high wooden pod and the pods line up in a row all housed in a glass building on raised stilts. Very odd and very beautiful.
Bordeaux is a city with a growth agenda. Happily this is happening on the other side of the Garonne River but is relatively low rise with some very interesting new build architecture with bold colour palettes and striking materials.
We drive Clare and Stuart back to Merignac, Bordeaux's airport and head north for a two hour drive back to our farmhouse, where the grass on its usual steroids will be as high as an elephant's eye. It's been an exhausting trip which with hindsight had too many cities and not enough downtime and sometimes not enough time in the larger cities. It's also been very thrilling, rewarding and exciting.
We have had less cause to complain about the coffee than we expected, we sought and found exemplar coffee artisans (thanks to Jean's determination) in back alleys and have eaten, by and large, excellent meals. We have stayed in really good places (thanks again to Jean) whether apartments or hotels and always in good locations, sometimes in the thick of it, sometimes on the edge looking in. It's still difficult to find a bathroom where the lighting makes it possible to shave without blood loss, or a hairdryer that emits heat warmer than a spaniel's breath. It remains a mystery why so few hotel guests are respectful of other guests.
But those few carps in no way define our trip. As Proust never wrote, though is often misquoted as writing, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It's a neat aphorism and might have some merit but we have tried to do both.
A city or town in Spain, France or Portugal that has an historic heart of stone is a stirring place of wonder, likely to be well preserved and best of all unmolested by dreadful mid to late 20th century additions. It does though need to be acknowledged that without exception the expanded outskirts are uniformly grim. Great disasters or great visions, and sometimes both, have given most of the places we visited a scale, symmetry and grandness that has never been equalled at home even including cities like Bath or Edinburgh. For 150 years in the 18th and 19th centuries the new wealth of Europe, created by relentless and selfish colonial expansion was in part poured back into the creation of well planned and designed streets and buildings. A design code that is still successful, relevant and appealing today.
It is with mixed feeling that we have sold our house in France but it also has to be admitted that we both prefer Spain to France. For us the food, the coffee, the national temperament, the driving style, the landscape, the cities (except lovely Bordeaux) all are better done in Spain. Perhaps because unlike the French they seem more open to international influence and incorporate this without losing their own identity.
We still have the rest of Southern Europe to explore and then north and east so we'll be busy planning for these trips as we fondly remember the one we have just completed. Do feel free to fly out and join us, or bump into us accidentally.
And now we wend our way back home after an enjoyable week with family ....dog and all!