Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 23 - Driving in the Pyrenees

Day 23 - October 23, 2013

It was a very early start to our day.  We were out of the apartment at 5:40 AM to catch the 6:03 AM bus to Boulevard.  From there we had to walk about 20 minutes to the San Sebastian Metro because there were no buses running to there at this time of morning and we were going to take the 6:45 AM to Hendaye, France .  At Hendaye we would switch to the TER Aquitaine train to get us to Saint Jean de Luz in order to get to Avis Rental Car when they opened.  After we purchased the metro tickets from the machine, another couple who happened to be from the states asked us to explain how the machine works.  They were headed to Bordeaux and going to Hendaye, France as well to catch their train.  It was nice to finally get to talk English for a while.  They happened to also be from Chicago but now live in Seattle.  Found out that two of us were born at the same hospital.  What are the chances of that?  Sometimes the people you meet in the most unlikely place is really meant to be. The trip on the metro was 40 minutes but it seemed like 10 because we were trading traveling stories and found out that we had been to many of the same places and experienced the same type of mistakes along the way. We laughed a lot and really liked them. Once we arrived at Hendaye, our train to St. Jean de Luz was leaving in 10 minutes and they would be waiting for theirs to Bordeaux in a few hours.  We told one another how nice it was to meet and then said our goodbyes.

We arrived at St. Jean de Luz at 8 AM and Avis didn't open until 8:30.  So, we went across the street to a little cafe and both had a croissant and I had a coffee.  After we ate, I saw that Avis was now open.  Under the tunnel to cross the street to Avis, we went to start our journey in the Pyrenees.  Of course things didn't go smoothly.  My credit card was getting rejected at Avis so I had to call to get it fixed.  Apparently they had a fraud hold on it because I forgot to inform them of our trip to Europe.  Squared that away, and after asking for and receiving a Renault Clio as a tribute to our neighbors back home, it was about a half  hour before we got into the car.   Now it was a matter of navigating around and understanding the vehicle, neither of which are easy when you're in another country.  Let the arguing begin!

We weren't driving for five minutes and IT started because we didn't understand the signs at the roundabout. In Europe, everything is mostly marked toward a city direction, not road numbers.  We had the GPS with us too.  But both of us were flustered because Terry is concentrating on driving the stick shift and watching where he's driving and I'm looking out for the signs while the voice on the GPS is aggravating me.  We get through the roundabout and start heading toward our first little town, Col d'Ibardin.  It's located high in the mountains where you can see a spectacular panoramic view looking down on  Saint Jean de Luz, Hendaye, Bairritz, and Bayonne, all in the distance.  Somehow, we missed a turn off  because we ended up in Irun which is on the other side of Hendaye.  You can imagine the arguing at this point. I'm still watching the signs and listening to the GPS which is directing us on the expressway.  We're both freaking out because now we have a toll and we have no clue of the amount or how it works. Terry panics and pulls over to the side of the road. I see a booth and direct Terry there because the other lanes are an I-Pass.  He starts yelling because no one is in the booth.  We pull up and it's automatic cash and the amount is listed, 1.70 Euros.  We scrounge through the coins and finally put it in the slot and on our way we go.  The map I had to follow is not very clear so I decided to let the GPS do it's job.  Our destination was entered in so she was taking us there. Turns out she first took us back to where we started, are you laughing yet? We had been in the car for an hour and not at our first destination yet but now on the right track.  As we followed the GPS route, we could see the signs to Col d'Ibardin and were climbing in the mountain.  It was really high up with a lot of hairpin turns and drop-offs and with the sun in our eyes we had a few near misses with either a car or wall but the scenery was beautiful.

Arriving at Col d'Ibardin, everything was uphill and we easily found free parking. This little village sits on a ridge and if you go to the right you look down on the cities and ocean and if you go left you see more of the Pyrenees including La Rhune. Whew, we made it!  Here are some photos with fantastic views from up there, though some are a bit hazy because of the lighting of the morning sun.

Sign and symbol of the village of Ibardin

The lush forest area for picnics and camping

Looking out on St. Jean de Luz

Viewing the coastline

The surrounding Pyrenees
View of La Rhune where the Petit Train takes you up this mountain

After taking these photos, we walked through the village with it's unique little shops. 

The only street in the village.  We parked at the top.

A large liquor store, Cave a Whisky

A souvenir shop selling guns??

The little mall of Ibardin

Horses freely gazing along the hillside

It was time to move on to our next destination, Ainhoa.  Driving along we come up to a turn in the  mountain where sheep were walking along the roadside.  Had to stop for a photo op.

We were also able to get photos of the surrounding hillsides up here.

Beautiful isn't it?  So lush and green.  We drove through the village of Sare where the La Rhune Petit Train begins, and it was quite crowded.  We went to Col d'Ibardin instead to get the same views without the expense of the train and uncertain running times it had.  Continuing on , we are now heading toward our last destination of Espelette instead of Ainhoa because the GPS has a mind of it's own.  I explained to Terry that there's no difference in going to Espelette first and then to Ainhoa.  They're pretty close together.  The problem is that Miss GPS is not telling us to turn at points where she should.  Don't know why that's happening. So now I'm back to reading the signs and the map.

We get to Espelette which is such a cute little village.  It is known for it's pepper, Piment d'Espelette, that makes wonderful seasonings and sauces.  Most of the village is in colors of white and red.

Store in Espelette where we bought our spice and veal sauce

One of the homes in Espelette with peppers to last a lifetime

 Now it was time for us to get something to eat.  We found a little restaurant that had reasonable pricing and a good variety.  I had Cassoulet of Veal and Terry ordered the Confit de Cunard (duck).  Mine was really tasty and Terry's duck leg was so tender it fell off the bone.  Both dishes were served with french fries that taste better than ours in the states.  At least we think so.  I ordered a glass of red wine and Terry tried a Basque Kir.  It's a drink made with Basque cider (with alcohol content) and Creme de Cassis (a black currant liqueur).  It was fantastic.

Labea Restaurant

Shops in Espelette

It was now a little after 2:00 PM and we still had one more destination to get to, Ainhoa.  We were feeling more comfortable with the directions and the GPS now so we knew we had enough time to get the car back by 5:30 when Avis closed.  All these villages are within 5 - 10 minutes of each other  (Of course, the first one wasn't because of all the mess ups with the direction signs and the GPS).  Terry was driving more normal now too.  He was even passing other cars that were going to slow.

Ainhoa was the easiest to find and the smallest of the villages. They had a free parking lot behind a church and we knew we would only be here for no more than about twenty minutes.  Almost everything was closed by the time we arrived.  We parked the car and were able to get some more beautiful pictures of the surrounding countryside.

Walking out of the parking lot we head toward the church located on the main street of Ainhoa.

Our Lady of the Assumption, built in the 13th century

From the church we walked along the main street.  Ainhoa has received an award from the organization called the Most Beautiful Villages in France in order to promote tourism in small villages like it.

The Town Hall

The main street

View of the hillside looking down a side street

We walked to the end of the street which only took about 5 minutes and then turned around to head back to the car.  All of a sudden on our left, we noticed a shop sign with a gingerbread man on it.  Curiosity got the better of us and we walked up to it.  Turns out, Ainhoa is noted for it's famous gingerbread and spice cake.  And guess what?  The store was open!  They had a few different varieties but we stuck to the classic one.  It was bit expensive, 6.60 Euros for a pound, but we splurged anyway to get a taste of the novelty of the village to bring back. 

Back to the parking lot we went to start our way back to Avis in Saint Jean de Luz.  Keyed in the destination in the GPS and off we went.  It was my turn to take a try at taking pictures from the car.  Got a couple of good ones, especially the corn, but I was fumbling with the others because we were moving so fast.  Terry was the brave one driving now, a far cry from how he started off.

More beautiful countryside
Corn that looks like ours

We arrived back at Avis at the St. Jean de Luz train station at 4:30 PM to return the car.  Luckily enough we were able to park it right in front because trying to find their other lot would have been a nightmare.  Now we would be back to the apartment by 6:00 PM.  All we needed to do was catch the train from St. Jean de Luz to Hendaye, and then the metro from Hendaye to San Sebastian.  Total time was about 50 minutes.

SCNF Train Station in Saint Jean de Luz

Everything was going smoothly until Julie tried to buy our train tickets. There was a line to the window to purchase so we went to the machine. Changed language to English and pushed all the right buttons and then it wouldn't take cash so we fumbled around to get a credit card out for all of $6.60. We get the card out and the machine times out so we start over again. This time we are ready with the credit card only to be denied, WTF? Another try and now we are frustrated again. Why won't the card work? I call Chase and they tell us that the problem is within France, they show no attempt to make a purchase. Now Terry is talking loud and fast and swearing at France in general. He tells me to go outside and he enters the now longer line. He is able to get tickets but not without letting the sales woman know how he feels. No harm done, she can't understand him. Off we go, finally!

Arriving in San Sebastian, we were able to get the bus closer to the metro to get to the apartment because at this time of day more buses were running.  Once back, we sat on the deck and started laughing about the whole driving experience we had. Had a piece of the gingerbread spice cake and it was worth every penny.  We wished we had bought the bigger one.  It was a great day with breathtaking scenery, good food, and unique souvenirs to bring back with us.

Was also back in time before my mom went into surgery back home.  I was able to keep in contact with my daughter on how everything was going.  All went very well and I was relieved.  We would talk in the morning and be able to video chat with my mom as well.  A very happy ending to a wonderful day!!

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