Stepping off the afternoon train in Bayonne I was swallowed by damp. A fine wet mist hung in the air, softening edges; it smelled of salt and mystery. I dragged my bag noisily through the pretty cobbled streets, stopping to take a breath on the Pont Saint-Esprit. I leaned on the parapet and watched the Adour river churning below– a wide, deep, dark green, twisting, muscular serpent. The town of Bayonne clusters respectfully on its banks, trying not to disturb the river going about its business; confident, assured of its ability to wash everything out to sea, it ignores the intrusion, tolerantly surging around bridge piles, charging towards the Atlantic. A real river’s river. Becoming slightly too aware of my own puny insignificance, I put my head down and clattered off into the mist.
C and I were here to play in a jazz festival in a nearby town, but had decided to spend a few days nosing around. There’s a dark secrecy about this stretch of coastline, where the unfathomable North Atlantic takes a greedy bite out of France and Spain to create the Bay of Biscay, opposite geographically and temperamentally to the sunny, welcoming Mediterranean. The bay holds its cards close, and the towns perched along its edge are cloaked in foggy mystery. This is Basque Country, home to one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, a proud and protective people, speaking the world’s oldest language. The rivers run deep around here.
In misty, soggy, late-winter, the streets of Bayonne are clean and neat, narrow alleys twist and dive, polished cobblestones slick and shiny. Tidy little grocery stores lure you in with rows of fat legs of ham, jars of foie gras, tinned sea creatures… They’re proud of their chocolate around here too, and you can stop at huge windows and watch white-gloved chocolatiers fussily assembling intricate platters. You’re only 20 miles from the Pyrenees mountains and the Spanish border and you can feel it in the architecture– leaning stone and wood houses outdo each other with blinding white stucco and brightly coloured shutters.
At Restaurant Le Chistera, our waiter, Luc, took us patiently through the menu of Basque specialties. Given enough time, I can usually grasp about half the items on a French menu, but Basque is a tossed salad of consonants, x’s and y’s tumbling over each other and landing in the most unlikely combinations. Like all great traditional food cultures, the Basques are not afraid of an animal’s more gnarly parts, and in my few days in town, I managed to put away a dish of Tete-de-veau (veal head), tripes alla Basqaise, marinated duck hearts, and grilled veal kidneys. The kidneys weren’t marinated, or possibly even seasoned– just skewered and grilled to medium rare, charred on the outside and deep red inside. It was full on. They’re also mad about duck in these parts, and we did our part in lowering the anatine population. All over, the food was simple, rustic, boldly flavoured, and clearly cooked with love and pride, good food’s only two essential ingredients.
After a couple of days the smell of the ocean was driving me mad and I felt the need to eat something dragged from its depths. On a bright cold morning, C and I took a bus to to the beach town of Anglet, and Restaurant L’Etoile de Mer, where we ordered the most extravagant shellfish tower on the menu. Huddled in winter sunshine on the patio, we slurped fat briny oysters, twisted and coaxed muscular little whelks from their shells with a metal toothpick, cracked and splattered a whole crab, digging out dense roe and fat from its shell, drank cold local white, and talked jazz with the owner. Bellies bursting we sloshed over to the boardwalk and out onto a rocky, spray-whipped promontory to watch the surfers, the only ones foolhardy enough to brave the icy waters. They sat in clumps waiting for the next set, and one by one launched themselves down the face of thick messy waves, riding them towards the jagged rocks, pulling out at the last second before annihilation. Staring out into the immense bay, unending ocean until you hit America, the world behind us dissolved and we balanced on a precipice. Our feet sprouted roots and sent them tunnelling down through the rocks, holding us tight to the land as we swayed in the stiff sea breeze. This was the only place in existence, and we shared it with the locals, cheerful and relaxed as only an ancient people perched on the edge of infinity can feel. We stood there for all time, until the the prospect of a cocktail pushed all thoughts of eternity from our minds. We uprooted and found a bar where several aperitifs allowed the world to reassemble around us.
Back in Bayonne, we picked a tapas bar from the many spread out along the river’s edge and ate mounds of ham and drank red wine under ancient stone archways in the dark; murmuring wisps of conversation from the friendly, easy-living locals melded with deep gushing truths drifting over from the river. Next day, and one last lunch at Le Chistera, then we went our separate ways– C went on tour, and I smuggled six cans of foie gras back to New York in a sock.
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