Monday, 17 September 2012

Nun yesterday

Isn’t it strange the way two neighbouring nations barely communicate? For a few days we had been staying right on the French side of the Spanish border, and yet there were few Spanish cars in the town, no signs or even the remotest Spanish influences, apart from the odd Basquesque restaurant.
And yet, within a 7 minute drive, my pigeon French was no longer of use to us, as we crossed into Spain’s High Basque region. I am not quite sure what I expected at the frontier, a few armed and bored guards at least?  But there was nothing, not even a checkpoint. However, the difference was amazing, as though the other didn’t exist at all. No middle ground or no-man’s-land, just black and white – well black and red to be precise, as is the colours on the Basque flag.
No French wine, no french cheese, definitely no French rules. Amazing. We could be on the moon - only with worse drivers.
After a trip through the beautiful San Sebastian – called Donistia in Basque, as all the road signs are now in Basque first, then Spanish – with absolutely no hope of finding accommodation for us and two dogs, we found ourselves up on the clifftop, in a run-down hotel like something out of the Shining. I half expected Jack Nicholson’s grinning head to appear through our splintered bedroom door at any moment. The food was awful, the room grossly overpriced, the staff rude and the pool freezing. Apart from that…er, it had little going for it at all, except that it took dogs.
This Spain place….I’m not too sure I like it.
From there we took a coastal road that would have made some of Wales’ tiny tracks look like motorways until we passed through more Basque seaside resorts with about as much character as Coventry, eventually settling on one for lunch and a dip in the waves on a beach surrounded by 50 foot high terrorists slogans painted on to the rock-faces.
A little disappointed, from there we headed south, with a bit more enthusiasm, for I knew what lay ahead.
The hilltop town of Haro is a place I know so well, having visited it 4 or 5 times with friends over the years.
Its wine I know well, too – La Rioja. And what a treat it is.
Checking into a superb ancient hotel which was once an Augustine monastery, with arched façades and a wonderful courtyard, now converted to a huge relaxing and well-furnished area. It seems that in its 1400 year history, this place has had a few purposes, serving as a convent, military hospital and even a prison before now becoming the premier inn in the region.
And there’s more. Our luck was in, as there was a wedding on that night, so the room price was halved. 80 euros - a real steal? OK, it would be a little noisy, maybe, but we could deal with that.
After a great night out with friends around the Horseshoe chorus, a curved narrow cobbled street with more bars than a French prison, we joined in the tail end of the wedding party, albeit uninvited and slightly underdressed, and rubbed shoulders with some of Spain’s wealthy society for a short while. They do have some strange customs though, such as tossing the groom 6 feet in the air in the middle of the dance floor and catching him again for at least 10 minutes while the music pounded on. Poor chap. If he wasn’t sick after all that cake and wine, I think this endurance may have tipped the balance. Thankfully he held it all in.
To our delight, the next morning, we noted that breakfast was also included in the price, which is quite rare these days, so we tucked in to a feast amongst these splendid surroundings.
It was then that I realised the real difference between the Spanish and the French, when the couple on the next table ordered two large glasses of red wine, with their bacon and egg. At 9.30!
Tut-tut! Whatever would the Nuns have said?
We are back in France again now. And quite glad.

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