Exploring southwestern France by car

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 55 of the December 2015 issue.
The Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes lights the night sky with hope for procession attendees. Photos by Randy Keck<br />

(Second of two parts)

En route to the Atlantic coast on our June 2015 driving adventure in southwestern France, my wife, Gail, and I drove 400 kilometers from Collioure to Lourdes, where we found a hotel row stretched along the banks of the Gave de Pau.

After negotiating a good rate of $78 at the 4-star Hôtel Le Méditerranée (23, av du Paradis, Lourdes; www.lourdeshotelmed.com), we joined the stream of visitors, mostly foreigners and many in wheelchairs, making their way to the famed Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes about a half mile away.

A cultural experience, this procession of hundreds of pilgrims seeking blessings and miracle cures takes place nightly in a beautiful, multilevel, flood-lit setting bordering the fast-moving Gave de Pau and surrounded by mountains. 

The Lourdes Sanctuary complex is awe inspiring. Photo by Randy Keck

Lourdes, itself, is attractive, despite much of the town’s commerce being related to religious tourism, including stores packed with tacky souvenirs made in China.

On to the coast

As we departed Lourdes, our rental car’s faithful GPS, Bridget, again earned her stripes, navigating us via several shortcuts on narrow and, at times, steep country roads. The lower Pyrénées countryside was consistently green and lush, and we stopped several times just to absorb the beautiful surroundings. 

Arriving in historic St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the afternoon, just as the market day was ending, we strolled a few of the long, pedestrian-only shopping lanes of this charming and hilly, French Basque country town. Very popular with hikers, it is on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

However, after 10 days of warm to hot temperatures, we were looking forward to the cooler Atlantic coast, so we pulled out our tablet to get a fix on beach accommodations in Biarritz.

At the small Hotel Florida Biarritz (3-5 place Sainte-Eugénie, Biarritz; phone 03 [0] 5 59 24 01 76, www.hotel-florida-biarritz.com), on the seafront, we scored a suite with a small balcony and a nice ocean view. For a 2-night stay, we paid $110 per night plus $11 per day for parking. It was an ideal location, as we could walk to everything in the city center. 

During our 2-day residence, we were continuously and happily reminded that trendy and fashionable does not automatically translate to snooty with attitude, as such behavior was absent from our Biarritz experience.

Traversing the footpaths along the rocky headlands in front of our hotel, we marveled at the raw, scenic splendor of the pounding surf and sweeping beach vistas and enjoyed one of the best sunsets imaginable.

Near our hotel, we discovered Le Blé Noir (31 boulevard du Général de Gaulle, 64200 Biarritz; phone +33 5 59 24 31 77), an unpretentious little eatery that stayed open late and served an amazing array of crêpes ($8-$10) and wonderful salads ($6-$8). Over two days, we became regulars.

One morning, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel, we visited the colorful covered market, where we sipped coffee, looked over the cheeses and wines and people-watched.

The afternoon was my time for a swim in the sea. Instead of choosing the long Grande Plage, the town’s largest beach, located in front of the famous Casino Municipal and the historic Hôtel du Palais, I opted for the locals’ favorite, Plage du Port-Vieux, within a small, horseshoe-shaped cove largely protected from the open sea and providing better swimming conditions. I spent a couple of hours enjoying the clear seas and nice scenery.

San Sebastián for a day

The morning of our last full day on the coast, we checked out of our hotel and traveled by motorway 35 miles south into Spain and alluring San Sebastián. Rain was our constant companion for the first half of the day.

After parking in the large, underground garage on the bay front, we made our way to the tourist office to determine our exploring options. We chose to ride the double-decker, hop-on/hop-off bus, which offers a one-hour city circuit with 15 stops plus headphone narration in English for about 16 (near $18).

This most attractive city features well-preserved, 19th-century archi­tecture from a time when San Sebastián was Spain’s most fashionable resort. With its magnificent bay and beaches, it remains popular with visitors today.

By 3 p.m. we were extremely hungry. Everything was closed for the afternoon siesta except one strange-looking restaurant, so we ate there. This was a big mistake because at about 5 p.m., wonderful tapas bars and restaurants began opening all over Old Town, leaving us feeling deservedly stupid.

Compared with what we found during our two weeks in southwestern France, San Sebastián had wonderful shopping, with prices about 40% less for equivalent items, both in the main city and in the shops that lined the pedestrian-only lanes in Old Town.

The 18th-century Basilica of Santa María graces Old Town in San Sebastián, Spain.

The mood and general vibe of the local Spaniards, however, was decidedly dour, in contrast to the cheeriness we experienced throughout southwestern France. This was not at all an attitude directed toward visitors but was reflective of the way locals also interacted with each other.

We found San Sebastián most appealing in all other respects.

Heading to Toulouse

Returning to the Biarritz area late, we decided to keep things simple and stayed at a hotel near the airport that was on the motorway and offered free parking.

That evening we felt like pizza, and, after being led on a rare wild-goose chase by Bridget, in the nearby commune of Anglet we came upon Les Pizzas d’Elio (1 avenue de Mi­nerva, Centre Commercial Minerva, Anglet; phone +33 5 59 63 41 95), a cozy, unpretentious, mom-and-pop pizza parlor just getting ready to close.

The friendly Basque proprietor couple was only too happy to serve us, preparing a great pizza and a large salmon salad. Along with two glasses of their local red, the total cost was $17 — an astounding value.

The next morning we left for Toulouse, arriving in mid-afternoon after an easy, 3-hour motorway journey. We had prebooked apartment-style accommodations near the airport, desiring extra space in which to repack for our return flight the following morning.

The Residhome Appart Hotel Tolosa (279 avenue de Grande Bretagne, Toulouse; phone 33 [0] 534 39 80 80, www.residhome.com) offered a fully equipped, one-bedroom apartment for $75 a night. Having secured one of the three free parking spots in front of the hotel, we decided to take the local bus for the 15-minute ride into Old Town, where we hoped to dine on our final night.

The sweeping Grande Plage is the crown jewel of Biarritz. Photo by Randy Keck

We arrived at the bus stop 10 minutes before our bus, No. 45, was due. The crowd for the bus began to build, then a funny thing happened. Bus 45 never arrived. Over the next 40 minutes, the disgruntled locals one by one walked away, presumably to search for other transport. More amused than upset, we accepted that the universe was just reminding us that we were, indeed, in France and some things just won’t translate.

Less than an hour later the skies opened wide, leaving us grateful for the absent No. 45, and we enjoyed great Chinese a short walk from the hotel.

In the morning, we bid farewell to Bridget and our Renault at the airport and were up, up and away, bound for home.

Our self-drive exploration in France had proven to be something of a renewal of spirit, a reminder of the joy of, at least selectively, casting one’s fate to the wind when traveling in distant lands.    

Contact Randy c/o ITN