This is Part 2 of our test drive of a Peugeot 3008, that we baptised Quentin, into France and Spain. You can see Part 1: from Paris to Bordeaux here. We now continue parallel to the French Atlantic Coast towards the south, headed towards French Basque Country with with Spain as our horizon, but first we make a detour to admire the spectacular Dune du Pilat and dine in Arcachon…
I’m met with cicadas – synonymous with summer and the south of France (and a couple of new gen Dacia Duster – already very well represented on French roads) as I get out of the car in the parking lot for the Dune du Pilat. This is the highest dune in Europe, and it is always in motion. Depending on the year, its height varies between 100 and 115 metres, that’s a lot higher than Big Red, Australia’s Simpson Desert’s highest dune I recently climbed in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Unfortunately, no climbing allowed here, and I doubt Quentin our Peugeot 3008 (a 2WD) would have been up for the task anyway. Tourist guides say the view is magnificent, and they would be right. A 2.7 km long tongue of sand lodged in-between an immense forest of scented pine trees and the open sea, the Dune is so high it towers above the forest like a sky-scrapper. A very captivating, unusual and naturally beautiful panorama indeed.
On the way back to Arcachon, I push the 3008’s sound system to maximum volume which isn’t deafeningly loud but the quality is top notch and doesn’t deteriorates as we get louder. Thumbs up here, even though you may disagree with the way I’m testing cars’ sound systems: 90s hits such as Technotronic “Get up” or 2 Unlimited “No limit” that push the bass to its breaking point… Quentin and I arrive in Arcachon just in time for a crimson red sunset on the sandy beach. Like the Ile de Ré we visited earlier, this is oyster territory so I trustfully follow the Lonely Planet recommendation to dine at the Café de la Plage and go for local oysters, which are accompanied with grilled sausage in this part of the world (an ideal combination I must say), married with a glass of Entre Deux Mers white wine. I’m not a foodie, but this must be what paradise tastes like.
On the way to my hotel in Saint-Paul-les-Dax, I get flashed at 91 km/h. Now this deserves a little “detour” in our story. Back in May 2018, the French government lowered the speed limit from 90 to 80 km/h on a large number of secondary roads over the country, with the official aim of reducing fatalities but the real, hidden one being evidently increasing revenue. Anyone remotely familiar with car accident statistics will know that the main culprits are drugs, drink-driving and mobile phones, not speeding. To add insult to injury, most roads affected by the speed limit change did not get their road signs updated. So here I am driving at the speed limit on a road that both road signs and my car’s GPS say is limited at 90 km/h but is in fact 80 km/h. I did get fined 45€. Welcome to France! The day after, I leisurely stroll into Bayonne only to find out this is the exact time of the annual Basque Fête de Bayonne, a commercialised version of the San Firmin festival in Pamplona, also with bulls, that attracts thousands of people from across France and Spain, dressed all in white with a red sash and neck-scarf. I drew exasperated looks as I did not know to dress for the part but all-in-all this is a very happy, contagious celebration that shows the lovely town in its best angle. I visited a mere weeks after France won its second Soccer World Cup and the team’s coach Didier Deschamps, widely held as responsible for the win and born locally, was celebrated with signs hanging from the windows.
Even though festive Bayonne is the capital of French Basque Country, now climbing the winding road into the countryside to hilly Espelette we are in the thick of it. Espelette is world-famous for its dark-red chillies, hanged to dry in the sun over the facades of the pretty whitewashed houses in town. The Basque, spread across south-eastern France and central-north Spain, are a fiercely proud and independent people speaking their own language (Euskara) that is unrelated to any other European language. All signs in the region are dubbed in Euskara. “Piment d’Espelette”, as it is called in French, is an integral ingredient in traditional Basque cuisine, and I make sure to verify in the above planche de cochonailles (pork board) at the Labea Brasserie right in the middle of town. The bubbly waitress ensures I know how everything I eat is called, from the Basque andouille and boudin to the guindillas, tête roulée and raw Bayonne ham. I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this test drive is turning out to be the true gastronomical trip after Bordeaux wine and Arcachon oysters, but would reach a pinnacle in San Sebastian as you will discover further down.
Before we leave Espelette busy drying all its chillies, it’s worth noting that a few days after my visit, the town would welcome the Tour de France, this cycling event being no less than the second most watched sporting event on the planet after the Soccer World Cup with an average audience of 2.6 billion. All eyes would be on Espelette therefore, and the town has cunningly adorned the surrounding roads with painted bright red chillies. A nice touch.
Next is the quiet town of Ainhoa, and an odd figure popping up on my GPS map saying diesel is 1.219€ a litre nearby (see above), a full 0.20€ per litre below the French norm. Sensing a mistake, I decide to check it out – perhaps this GPS function does have blips after all – but realise this petrol station is in fact located just across the Spanish border and that diesel prices are significantly lower in that country! Having refueled only an hour beforehand, this would end up being the only frustrating experience connected to this outstanding petrol-price-fluent GPS, albeit triggered by my very own incredulousness. I simply couldn’t fault that GPS functionality even once during the entire trip. Very impressive indeed.
Our last overnight stop in France is in the quintessentially Basque seaside town of Saint Jean de Luz, with intriguing bridges linking beach side houses to the promenade (see picture above). Fishing port-turned-tourist resort, the town retains a lively harbour where two sturdy Land Rover Defender were on display, including one very rare pickup variant. A raft of 3008 and 5008 brothers welcomed Quentin in town while I’m starting to see a few Citroen C3 Aircross popping up, justifying its Top 10 monthly ranking in France. The hotel, although claiming to have a parking, doesn’t, which is my pet hate in France and the only country where I encounter that situation.
The next day we cross over to Spain and reach San Sebastian just in time for late morning pintxo (tapas). Yes I did have a look at the supposedly famous beach front but wasn’t that impressed. So pintxo it is. Ok I’ve mentioned before that 1. I am not a foodie and 2. this trip is turning into a foodie trip. This was never as true as in San Sebastian, the city with more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any other in the world and therefore hailed as the food capital of the world. Always dubious of such claims (and being French I would be), I however had to promptly – and literally – swallow my doubts because two of the three pintxos I had the privilege to savour at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a hole-in-the-wall pintxo bar hidden in the old town, were probably some of the most succulent pieces of food I ever got to taste in my entire life. Si señor. The first was carrilera de ternera al vino tinto (calf cheeks in red wine) – if you thought that meat cooked so perfectly it actually melts right in your mouth sounds like fantasy, you would be wrong. It happened and I tasted it. The second was the innocuous-sounding Foie de Montfort salteado, compota de manzanas (sauteed foie gras with apple sauce) – the process adds a thin crispy layer to an already heavenly treat that, again, just melts in your mouth. Before today I thought tapas were just quickly-made entrees. Not anymore. These are food art. San Sebastian is the food capital of the world and I’m thinking of launching a new website called bestsellingpintxoblog. (I’m not).
Our next stop is in the city of Guernica (or Gernika, the Basque spelling), less than 100 km to the west of San Sebastian. The town, rather bland in itself, was made famous by the 1937 Pablo Picasso painting depicting its bombing that very year by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists during the country’s Civil War. It is thought that Hitler wanted to test the concept of ‘terror bombing’ on civilian targets which at the time was unknown of. One of Picasso’s most renowned works, it is done in a palette of gray, black and white, showing the chaos of massacred people and animals and is considered as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever made. Luckily there is a full-scale ceramic-tile rendering of the painting in the city centre.
Quentin, a Dacia Sandero and bus moves in Elantxobe
We have one scenic stop before Bilbao which concludes this 2nd part of this test drive: Elantxobe. Incredibly built on what can only be described as a cliff face, this village (pictured in the lead picture of this article) sports multi-coloured facades, wooden balconies and windows reminiscent of Malta and a refreshing lack of tourists. It is so difficult to not only get there but also thread through the one way (but in fact two-way) streets and the cramped harbour that only a few tourists push the adventure up to Elantxobe, especially given there is no beach. Gasp. The bus that leads to town has no space to turn around so a turnstile has been built on purpose. Ingenious and fun to watch.
If you have been following our various explorations and test drives around the world you will know that I’m not a big fan of big cities. And Bilbao will be the last one we encounter on this test drive. So I made it quick, and just paused long enough to take a few snaps of the world-famous Guggenheim museum, in essence the main “raison d’être” of Bilbao. Opened only 20 years ago in 1997 and designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim museum has elevated Bilbao to the rank of world-famous city, perhaps to a similar extent as Sydney’s Opera House, and its hits you right in the face and quite unexpectedly as you enter the town centre on a colourful bridge. Made of complicated yet fluent shapes and a golden shine, it is a monument on its own and has been (rightly?) criticised for being more famous for its form than for its function. Name one piece of art you can see inside? I couldn’t. True to form and most probably to my immense loss, I decide to skip the visit and push through to the next stop in our adventure.
We end this second Part of our exploration of France and Spain with Quentin the Peugeot 3008 with a passage on the Puente Bizkaia located in the eastern suburbs of Bilbao. Opened in 1893 and designed by Alberto Palacio, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), it was at the time the world’s first transporter bridge. I have never seen such a bridge before, let alone drove onto it. Looking very precarious indeed from the outside, it is in fact a rather tame – and short – experience once on board as the transporter is extremely stable. I wonder what happens in case of a sudden gust of wind… We haven’t spoken much about Quentin our Peugeot 3008 in this section, as the itinerary has been composed mostly of frequent changes of directions in a highway environment, which actually turn the excruciatingly precise GPS direction into a real advantage. No missed exits were reported. We will have many opportunities to test the cars in more tortuous mountain roads as we cross the Pyrenees, but this will be one of the subjects of Part 3 of this test drive, so stay tuned!