We woke up to a quintessentially French Basque Country breakfast in our charming inn at Luz Saint Sauveur.
French Basque Country Breakfast
Over French bread, American coffee, and croissant, we chatted with the inn manager (and town mayor). He explained the history of the town, the chaos that ensues during Le Tour de France, and the fact that the town is currently suffering in the off-season due to the European recession (the inn, for example, has been losing money over the past few years, especially since the Spanish from Basque Country aren’t visiting as much as before).
Gavarnie Falls in French Basque Country
He also convinced us that before going in to Lourdes, we should drive in to the mountains to see the tallest waterfall in French Basque Country, Gavarnie Falls. The falls are situated in the Cirque de Gavarnie, near the village Gavarnie in the Hautes-Pyrénées. We’re pretty sure the mayor oversold it because it seemed to be barely a trickle from the distance which we stood, and it also didn’t seem particularly high. We assumed that to really see it, and as Aitor also confirmed, we had to hike in to the base to be impressed. Obviously we did not.
But, the drive itself was worth it. Picturesque mountain valleys emerged that will make wonderful computer wallpaper going forward (seriously, I didn’t enhance this picture at all!). You can kind of see Gavarnie Falls in the middle of the picture.
The Strange Appeal of Lourdes
Afterwards we drove out of the mountains and in to the French town of Lourdes to view the church that was built to honor St. Bernadette, a young peasant girl in the late 19th century who saw a vision of the Virgin in the woods when she was gathering firewood. Later she convinced her priest to build a chapel in that place, based on a series of miracles related to a flow of healing water that had appeared where the Virgin spoke to her. To this day Lourdes is known to be a place of healing, and that flow of water is considered holy and able to cure the sick and heal the crippled.
Lucky for me since my ankle is still on the mend from surgery, and my sprained thumb similarly needs a miracle to repair itself. I pushed my way into the mass of people who had come across Europe to be similarly healed, and splashed some running water onto my hands and rubbed it on to my ankle. It reminded me of the religious pilgrimages I saw (and partook in) in India. The opposite of relaxing and spiritual, really. Mobs of people pushing each other to get into the Holy area, tons of tourist trap religious junk being sold on the roadside at a huge profit, and other chaos similarly associated with large crowds. I’ll take the spirituality of nature over the “spirituality” of visiting Holy sites and touching relics any day.
How did we know that people came from all over Europe to Our Lady of Lourdes? Because of the military men and women dressed in their countries’ formal military dress that clearly identified – we saw service men and women from Croatia, Austria, Italy, Lithuania, Germany, and the list goes on. Why were dressed in uniform? That remains a mystery to us. Why were they all here at Lourdes on this particular Sunday (May 18), we also have no idea!
The other thing that became apparent is that Europeans love to march for no reason, and parade whenever possible (eerily reminiscent of Hitler Youth).
This truly was a bizarre sight that was inexplicable and beyond words to all of us – probably because none of us are Catholic. It was something we never would have considered doing if it wasn’t for Aitor encouraging us to go and look (thanks Aitor!). That said, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be amusing/perplexing but rather miraculous….
French Basque Country Lunch
Afterwards we went for lunch after two hours of driving to another French Basque Country town – Saint Jean Pied de Port – and ate at Cafe Ttipia. We had more pork, Sangria, and a fabulous dessert known to the Basque Country – Gateau Basque (like a flan pastry).
After lunch we walked through the town and window-shopped while taking in the views of the river.
St. James Road through the Basque Country
Then we pushed on over the Spanish border, through more mountain country and on the Road of St. James, a popular pilgrimage route through the Basque Country (France and Spain). Gorgeous countryside.
We also stopped briefly at a pilgrim hostel/village to check out what that was all about. We all agreed that the living and eating conditions were far too good for an authentic spiritual and ascetic pilgrimage experience.
On the final stretch to where we would be spending the night (Hondarribia), we did a whirlwind tour of Pamplona by car and saw the street where the running of the bulls takes place on, as well as the status commemorating the annual event. Aitor even told us that he participated in it when he was a teenager – it seems to be a rite of passage. However, bull fighting has been banned in Catalonia since 2010 and isn’t as popular in other parts of the country anymore either.
Finally, we reached Hondarribia before sunset, around 730PM, just in time for a spectacular view of the castle we’d be staying in (Paradores’ Emperador) and the harbor looking on to the French side of Basque Country.
Before dinner and after check-in we sat on the terrace, drank Armagnac, and watched the sunset on the harbor, imagining the Bay of Biscay in the distance over the dramatic landscape of Basque Country.
After drinks we had pintxos on the square of our hotel, and then deposited Marv in the hotel.
Aitor, Leslie, and I set out for a second round (a late dinner since we ate a huge lunch) and toured the waterfront area before stopping randomly to listen to a town choir performing on the street. It was lovely. Aitor pointed out that the songs were traditional Basque Country songs (and we even heard one of them in the car the next day).
After the performance we found a nearby pintxos place (Bar Gran Sol) and we enjoyed some local red wine and snacks. This was a nice and needed break for the 3 of us from the tourist day to day grind. We completed a walk around the dock area and fell in to bed around 1130PM (of course I haven’t been getting to bed until after 1AM since late night is the only time for me to be able to write).