From 12th November…

Last night was tapas at a little bar in Biarritz with Andrew and Emily, talking food and French culture, enjoying a fantastic meal and a beer. I love the way the French approach food and lifestyle in general. Tapas here is a great way to eat, so different to my experience of tapas back home, much less formal. Tapas is laid out on plates at the bar; you simply serve yourself and keep a tally of what has been eaten – an honesty system for staff to tally and charge when leaving. Honesty system rocks. My experiences with being part of starting Food Not Bombs Brisbane chapter totally reinforces this belief for me, particularly when we were in fundraising mode, catering for ethically aligned organisations based on donation principle. It empowers those consuming with the ability to be part of the way in which something is valued and in my experience results in people paying more than you might charge, based not just on the product but on the whole service and the associated ethic. And for an organisation working in this way, it displays faith in the product and service being offered.

I’ve been staying up late since Paris. N’o bedtime before 4am lately. Which means late wake ups and no mornings really. Which is fine right now….

It’s been great hanging out with Andrew and his partner Emily here. Andrew’s been here since February, moving from the UK, working for Quicksilver as a buying manager. I know Andrew through Kelly, his sister in Brisbane, so he was extremely generous in letting me stay given we hadn’t met before. Me casa es su casa is a beautiful way to live one’s life.

We went up to the basketball court that’s part of Andrew’s workplace today. Actually it’s an outdoor tennis, volleyball, football and bball court combined in one. Was so great to shoot some hoops again, it’s been almost a week – too long. I think that’s why I haven’t been sleeping properly; I really need to exhaust myself physically more often.

From 13th November…

Last night was a party at Andrew’s place with around a dozen of his and Emily’s local friends, mostly from work. Lots of conversation despite my thought that it would be predominantly in French. In fact, I actually enjoyed the way the conversation cycled between English and French, giving me a break every now and again to either be a fly on the wall and check the party out almost as a spectator or talk with Andrew in English and share observations. It was a great night and yes I got a little drunk, not stumbling, but good times. Woke up not just with a minor hangover but with my knee totally stiff after banging it at bball yesterday, when i tripped not noticing that my shoelace was undone. A day in bed mostly, watching 28 Days Later again and some basketball games. What a great movie with a believable future-based plot depicting a dystopian example of scientific experiments gone wrong with the release of a rage virus, in development for military enhancement. An evacuated London and regular zombified chase scenes, with quality acting and fantastic cinematography. One of my fave zombie flicks most definitely.

I’m staying on a couple of extra days in Biarritz, waiting for the camera I ordered to arrive here. The only problem is that my name is on the package but Andrew’s is on the mailbox. I’ve left a note, hopefully they understand and still leave it tomorrow.

From 16h November…

Yesterday I rode to San Sebastian. No camera yet, so I decided to just move on and hopefully Andrew will be able to mail the camera to me in Barcelona. Only a short distance at fifty kilometers, yet over the border from France to Spain. What a beautiful city. As soon as I rode in I knew I wouldn’t just be staying one night. First stop was a meal, after only a sparse late breakfast earlier. Tapas bars are everywhere here, and my local is fantastic quality and very cheap. Cured ten year old legs of ham hang over the bar, creating a scene which is so alien to me – people eating tapas, smoking cigarettes, drinking, underneath these pig legs which hang like a ceiling decoration.

Food, petrol, accommodation are all way cheaper across the border here, and it’s a really different feel too; less formal, certainly hinted at in Southern France but not as defined.

I had intended on riding down the Cibourne road to San Sebastian, on Andrew’s recommendation. A poor decision to work one sunny afternoon in Biarritz and then my knee being shredded had meant that I’d missed the only two days of sunshine there when I could have taken advantage of the beautiful local scenery by going for a ride. The Cibourne way road is incredible. It runs right along the ocean cliff edge, completely open, amazing views over the Bay of Biscay and the North Atlantic. Unfortunately the combination of heavy rain and strong crosswinds blowing off the ocean made it impossible to ride along. Leaning into the wind would have been good practice for what I’ve read about the ride down to Noukachott in Morocco, along the coast also and with heavy, heavy crosswinds, but the rain made this too difficult and so I opted for the highway.

Basque country really feels very unique. Small villages with their own distinct style, beautiful food, incredible country and strong culture. The region stretches over the border of France and Spain and includes Northern [France] and Southern [Spain] areas, with the South including both the autonomous community [Comunidad Autónoma Vasca] and the Navarre area. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to spend days in the villages throughout this area, but hopefully one day in the future I will.

While this city is undeniably beautiful and there are certainly things to do and great bars to inhabit, it’s such a different scene from what I imagine summer to be here. The place is quiet, in resting from its usual tourist invasion, the evidence in the mass of road works and building renovations going on, the leisurely opening of shops in the late afternoon, the regularity of closed bars and cafes on weekday nights. It’s definitely an unusual experience to travel Europe in this early winter time when the streets are relatively quiet and the usual range of tourism-driven activities aren’t available.

Still, I found a couple of cosy bars to hang out in, mostly reading, sipping the occasional beer or whiskey, and taking advantage of the indoor smoking embracement with an occasional indulgence. It’s been a quiet time here, only one real discussion with a guy Ronaldo I ran into on the street, from Nigeria, who was here to work and earn some money in hospitality for a little while.

From 18th November…

Today I left San Sebastian to ride to Bilbao first and then on to Zaragoza. The day started out rainy, but only lightly, nothing too difficult to manage. Nevertheless I kitted up in my wet weather gear and think I have finally got the hang of not getting saturated, which isn’t as easy as it might sound.

The tolls here are really unexpected and quite substantial Yesterday I had to duck back up to Biarritz area, to Mouguerre specifically, to pick up my camera as they’d been unable to deliver it to Andrew. Again it was raining, so what was to be a leisurely ride turned into a quick scoot home to avoid heavy showers and impending nightfall. But the 100km ride in all cost me about 15 Euro in tolls. I understand tolls and appreciate the user pays system in terms of roads, rather than all taxpayers paying equally regardless of use, but tolls somehow don’t seem fair either. What about the urban-only commuters who don’t pay tolls? Wouldn’t a levy on fuel be more efficient, as the primary point of resource use, and wouldn’t this save the massive infrastructure that goes into toll collection and management? And wouldn’t it end the nightmare of toll stations for bike riders? It’s not easy collecting and retrieving tickets and finding money, gloved up, particularly in the rain! Poor me….. 😉

Just out of San Sebastian, at a toll gate, soldiers with assault rifles milled around, looking angry and dangerous. It was a strange and unexpected situation. Going through my usual toll ritual of stopping short, removing a glove and getting money and ticket ready, I was immediately under suspicion, so when I pulled up to the gates the soldiers stopped me, asking what I was doing. Satisfied that my intentions were harmless they let me pass, but not before some menacing looks were freely given.

The Basque people’s demands for sovereignty and separate nation status are complex and go back to the sixth century. The ETA [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom] is the active front of these demands and have been involved in numerous bombings and armed conflict with government, having experienced denial of their culture and its expression over the years. It’s way too complex to summarise here, however the situation seems to be amplifying again, despite a recent offer in September this year by the ETA to implement a ceasefire, claiming the need to pursue democratic process to achieve their goals. The organisation demands separatist recognition of Basque Country as well as release of all political prisoners [over 700] who have served over 75% of their sentence who are being held in France and Spain. Numerous attempts at peace processes have been attempted between ETA and the government, with all being scuttled at the last moment thanks to conflicting ideas of what the outcomes would be and the inability of radicals and conservatives to effectively negotiate. What is interesting, to me, is the way in which an organisation like ETA, which is popularly supported on the ground in the region, is associated by successive governments with all elements of the Basque culture. What I mean, is that while it is understandable that conservative governments might not be interested in negotiating with radicals, given the clash of ideologies and the specific activist approach adopted by ETA, including bombings, does this then justify the denial of language, cultural expression and any representation in the political system? It’s an outsiders perspective, for sure, but a valid question I think….

The visit to Bilbao was primarily to check out the Guggenheim Museum there. It’s an incredible institution, the building’s exterior design, by Frank Gehry, describing with passion its mission to exhibit contemporary artists works in a thought provoking setting. Although it was only a quick look through the gallery, to ensure I arrived in Zaragoza before nightfall, there was some inspiring work in that I enjoyed by Tracey Moffat as well as the Haunted – Contemporary photography, video and performance exhibition of which I really appreciated photos of the American wastelands, moments in time from outer suburban stories captured through photographs. Unfortunately I only had an hour to work my way through this massive building and its many exhibitions and permanent displays. Nowhere near enough time, but a taste for sure.

The ride to Zaragoza was brilliant. Through the awe inspiring Pyrenees and eventually on to the Monegros Desert, the sun hanging in the sky like an old friend, I rode amongst very little traffic, stopping occasionally for an undeniable photo. I love being in the desert, the open horizons, the expansiveness of the scene, the creative opportunities. For me the desert is a place to reflect deeply and appreciate the things in life so easy to take for granted. The bike hummed along, seeming to love the open road and some rare dry conditions.

Arriving in Zaragoza just on dusk, the city made me actually gasp. The Basilica del Pillar is truly an incredible building, towers rising from the ornately designed colourful roof, spectacularly lit, with the Ebro River running below, cris-crossed with ingeniously designed bridges. Together with other significant buildings in the city they form part of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon, a UNESCO declared world heritage site. A busy little city seemingly in the midst of open plains and desert, a cultural heartland built on 2000 years of development and change….

Tomorrow, on to Barcelona.

Be well