The next morning we were up and out by 8.30am. During the night a mist had settled over the land and it didn’t dissipate until well after 10. It was so dense that trucks and cars on the motorway were simply swallowed up in front of us. The morning’s drive was a little bit tense.
We were in a bit of a quandary about our next destination. We were unsure whether to go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Art Museum or the seaside resort town of San Sebastian. I had little interest in seeing San Sebastian so we decided to head towards Bilbao as it was slightly closer. The drive though took us right through the heartland of old Castile & Leon and although we didn’t plan on making any detours we ended up popping into Leon for lunch. Leon was one of the original old Spanish kingdoms and the city has some very old monuments from its glory days in the 10th century. In the 12th century Leon was merged with the Kingdom of Castile and kind of lost its identity. It became something of a backwater, which perhaps helped preserve the remains of the old Roman city. The cathedral, which is built right into the ancient Roman walls was reputed to be one of the great Romanesque cathedrals of Spain, but seemed quite small and regional in comparison to the imperial monuments of Granada and Seville. We didn’t stay long though before we pushed on. As we regularly discovered, a 'quick' detour into a city never turns out to be quick. Roadworks on the ring road into and out of the city made for an additional challenge and we lost almost three hours.
It was late afternoon when we reached the turnoff to Bilbao but we'd lost so much time in Leon we decided to press on to San Sebastian. San Sebastian is on the south western edge of the Pyrenees, in Basque country. It is less than an hour from the French border and the town feels distinctly different from the rest of Spain. This may have something to do with the Basque influence. The Basques are a unique people in Europe and their language is completely unrelated to any other human language. Some people have speculated that they are in fact the descendants of the first “modern“ Cro-Magnon people who left their enigmatic cave paintings all across the Pyrenees and southern France. The Basques have long resisted all attempts at integration and some have been fighting for an independent homeland since… well, since before the Romans. In alleyways all through San Sebastian graffiti announced to travellers that “You are NOT in Spain. You are NOT in France. You are in Basque Country.”
We almost didn’t get to stay in Basque country at all. We arrived in the middle of the San Sebastian film festival and almost all the budget accommodation was gone. After walking down every street in the old town we eventually snagged a room in the ‘new’ town, a ten minute walk from the centre of town. We quickly tidied ourselves up and headed back into the old town as we were quite keen to visit the many tapas bars we’d seen. San Sebastian is renowned for its tapas culture and it didn’t disappoint us. Seville had had a great tapas bar culture too but it was much simpler fare - olives, beans, cheese, bread and ham. In San Sebastian the spreads were way more elaborate with a large emphasis on seafood, which turned out to be something of a problem as neither of us really eat much seafood. Instead we feasted on potato and cheese crockets, salami, bread, olives and little empanada things (no idea what was in them) all washed down with lovely Spanish wine. We tried to visit as many bars as we could but after the first two we found that the tapas in all the bars was all basically the same. In fact it was prepared commercially and distributed all over town.
All bars that is except one. One tiny, hole in the wall bar still prepared its on tapas and the massive queue of locals lining up outside showed that its efforts had not gone to waste. We determined to visit the bar on our first pass but there were simply too many people. We came past half and hour later and it was still packed. An hour later the crowd had begun to dissipate so we managed to squeeze in. The tapas were all very simple, as was the service. If you wanted a drink, you asked. If you wanted to eat, you helped yourself. When you finish, you simply told the staff how much you’ve had and paid. Unlike the other bars where the tapas ranged from 1 to 16 euro a serve, all the tapas cost 2.50 euro. It was great and we ate a lot. Much to Shelly’s disgust I had a blood sausage (which was fairly disgusting!). After exhausting the tapas bars we ended up at a nightclub where we had beers and mohitos, talking enthusiastically about what a great place San Sebastian is.
We were up early the next day as there was urgent business to attend to - washing. I took the clothes to the only laundrette in town and worked on the blog while Shelly went shopping and sight-seeing. The laundrette was run by a Basque woman who had lived in Australia. Two more Australians arrived while I was there (you can always find Aussie tourists at the laundrette; it’s just a fact).
In season San Sebastian is awash with well heeled tourists who come to work on their tans and shop; the wide, moon shaped bay would be packed with sunbathers. Today however, only a few hardy old souls braved the grey skies to catch the last dying rays of autumn. Surrounding the bay was an old fashioned boardwalk and beautiful 19th century buildings and parks. Unlike many seaside towns, San Sebastian retains its charm and elegance in winter.
At lunchtime we bid adieu to lovely San Sebastian and headed north through the narrow passes into France. These passes were once witness to an event as monumental to the early middle ages as 911 is to our era. In 778 Charlemagne, the King of France and Germany, embarked on a ambitious invasion of Spain. He got as far as Zaragossa but the city would not surrender and, as his army’s food was running out he was forced to withdraw to the Basque city of Pamplona, where the Running of the Bulls is held each year. Finding that the Christian Basques were not as excited to see him as he expected, he burnt the city to the ground and took his army back to France through the passes north of San Sebastian. The Basques of course were extremely unhappy and mobilised their own army. They waited in the mountains until half his army had crossed the passes before they attacked. Charlemagne's army was cut in two and the rear guard was slaughtered to a man. It was the worst defeat of Charlemagne’s career and he never ventured into the south again.
Amongst the dead of the rear guard was Roland, the Duke of Brittany. Within a hundred years, tales and legends began to spring up around his name, as if he were a kind of medieval General Custer. These eventually crystallised into the Song of Roland, one of most important epic tales of medieval Christendom. Of course, in creating the myth a few things had be changed. The Christian Basques were transformed into Muslim Saracens; Roland’s death became a noble sacrifice to protect his liege lord and - most importantly - Charlemagne didn’t slink off to Aachen never to return, but returned to conquer Spain and threw the Muslims out of Europe forever. The Song of Roland was more than just a store recounted around a fireside; it transformed the medieval mindset. It lifted the struggle between Islam and Christendom from one of territory and power, to one of good versus evil. Roland himself came to embody the ultimate chivalric ideal of martial valour and unquestioning sacrifice and monuments to him were raised all over the Europe - there was even a 3 metre high statue of him in the town square of Bremen!
Across the border we made a quick stop at Biarritz. Biarritz exudes an air of expensive indulgence but it lacked the cool, laid back sophistication of San Sebastian. But we had places to go so we hit the road toward Lyon.