THE IN-BETWEEN LAND OF HENDAYE

The landscape changes strikingly as I descend the French west coast from Bordeaux. The sudden hills remind me that I am entering the Pyrenean foothills and that I am in the Pays Basque.

When I started my Journey I was told to be sure to see the Spanish town of San Sebastian just over the border, a town which also goes by a different name for it is Donostia in its native Basque tongue and both names are shown on maps. I could not find suitable accommodation there so decided to stay in nearby Hendaye in FranceHendaye sits right on the border between the two lands in fact, and is a popular holiday destination in summer. 

Log beach

A long Hendaye beach

Hendaye is pleasant and affordable, not as fashionably well known as the nearby trendy seaside resorts of Biarritz and St Jean de Luz, but it is close to San Sebastian and connected by a short and very cheap local train shuttle so suits me fine.   I find the perfect little gîte, a compact but cute flat beneath a family home in the Hendaye hills. It has a tiny patio framed by bougainvillea and it is a super place to do some writing in the sun.

Hendaye gite

On my first exploration of Hendaye I am stunned that the people I approach for some reason or other, usually directions, do not speak any French, only Spanish – or so I assume. They are apologetic and friendly but don’t speak a word of French. Amazingly when I go for information even the man in the little ticket office for the train to San Sebastian does not speak French and points to the ticket machines. I know this is a Spanish train company but he is actually working on French soil dealing with mostly French customers. I have the feeling that the two lands have merged here and the official, legal boundary is irrelevant and blurred to the people who share it.

My first impressions are well grounded in fact. I come to learn that the Basque Country is the home of the Basque people first and foremost and does indeed know no country boundary. Today this centuries-old homeland encompasses the ‘modern’ countries of Spain and France but the people are undivided by any frontier, sharing a common language, customs, traditions and mythology. It comprises its own seven provinces irrespective of the legal borderlines imposed by the French and Spanish authorities. The origin of this extraordinary group seems rather uncertain but Basque and other tribes were described as already well-established in this region in Roman writings so it is indeed an ancient clan.

My hosts, who are in their 80’s, are very attentive and sociable and insist I call them Maggie and Marc. Maggie has intelligent, quick eyes and speaks with a strange French accent. When I look quizzical she tells me instantly and proudly that she is Basque. Marc is not Basque, he came to Hendaye as a young man to work in the Customs Department, met Maggie and they married aged 22. Over aperitifs one evening they tell me about their lives here in the Basque Country.

Maggie was raised in the Pays Basque mountains near St Pied de Port, which is probably the most popular entry or starting point for pilgrims passing through France into Spain on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. In Maggie’s youth there were very few pilgrims however, she hardly saw any. The Chemin became pretty much unknown for many years after having been so well travelled in previous centuries. There are a number of reasons, recently including the Spanish Civil War which made Spain inaccessible and the subsequent dictatorship under Franco which repressed the Spanish people and cut Spain off from the rest of Europe until the late 1970’s.

One of seven children, Maggie explained how poor her upbringing was, her family subsisting off their hillside cow and sheep farming. It was the same for most people in the region and I can hear the sadness in her voice as she tells me that many young adults felt forced to emigrate, often to America. She has brothers abroad in America whom she has seen only periodically in her life. Marc tells me that this is still the same today to some degree, and all of their four children have moved elsewhere to work. It seems a poignant economic feature of this land that families are forced to separate.

I hear Maggie’s harsh memories of childhood. She recalls walking a long way to school through deep, deep snow in winter, and indeed starting school like her neighbouring Basque-speaking friends quite lost because they were unable to speak any French at all. In those days the French Republic was impatient about this group’s identity and its separate language and made no provision for it, some say even tried to repress it. The same was true in Spain where Franco saw the Basque people as enemies who had supported his opponents in the Spanish Civil War.

I find Basque an interesting language, bearing no similarity at all to French or any other language with which I am familiar, full of hard letters like x’s, k’s and z’s as I look at the bilingual road signs. When I do a bit of research later I find I was correct, the “Euskera” language has no relationship at all with any other. It is completely unique. When I hear it spoken at length, however, I can hear some Spanish sounds, though I cannot be certain whether these have melted into the language over time due to the proximity of its users.   So the people I first approached in Hendaye may well have been speaking Euskera.  I hope so.

Here is a translated phrase according to http://www.omniglot.com :

  •  Iberiar Penintsulan bizirik dirauen erromatarren aurreko hizkuntza bakarra da euskara. Gutxitze prozesu gogorra jasan du, etenik gabe lurraldeak eta hiztunak galduz.
    Basque is the unique pre-Roman language that survives in the Iberian Peninsula. It has suffered a dire retreat and loss regarding its speakers and territory.

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Maggie tries to teach me some words and laughs heartily at my pronunciation of “I love you” – Maite zaitut.  The couple’s children spoke some Euskera but mostly French at home because Marc is not Basque, but they tell me that most families who are from here speak French, Basque, and Spanish and Marc believes Basque is compulsory at school.   This may well be so because France has been forced to recognise and make provision for this native tongue by the European Courts.

I am reminded of my family who live in Wales, where like other small territories there is a strong desire, quite rightly, to keep their traditions and language from dying. Just like Marc and Maggie’s children my nephew and niece learned their country’s historic tongue, Welsh, at school.

Marc and Maggie are congenial hosts, serving large glasses of port as an ‘apero’, which is quite common in France – our French friends are always mystified when we tell them that it is served after dinner in Britain and wonder how our digestion system can take it. They tell me that all of their lives they have hiked in the nearby Pyrenees, even until their early 80’s when Marc fell and broke his leg badly. He now walks with a stick and cannot manage the walks, otherwise they would still be up there they say, walking for miles. For them it is important as one ages to keep moving.    “Bouges!” says Marc, and even though they can no longer hike they go on annual holidays and stay as physically active as possible.

More lessons in aging positively for me, which is one of the things I had hoped to find on my Journey of course. It is not always what people say however – these teachers who come my way – it is also the example they give simply by observing them and seeing them fully engaged in life, whatever the tempo it now plays for them.

The port flows, as do the stories. This is a couple who love life, have always done so I suspect, and refuse to let their advancing years restrict or curb their experience of life and enthusiasm for it.

I really enjoy my stay in Hendaye. After several days in the large town of Bordeaux I adore just walking alone in the sun on the beaches or the cliffs.

Beach

Surfing is a big pastime here and over the weekend I count six surfing schools catering  for different age groups out on the long beach.

Surfers

I slow down.  I keep putting off my day trip to San Sebastian-Donostia.  Finally there is only one day left. I know the train times and am all set to go. But when my last day in Hendaye dawns I have no inclination at all to go to the nearby town. I want to walk on the Hendaye cliffs where I have spotted an interesting historic building and some large rocks on a headland. I want to sit by the sea and watch the seal-like black-skinned surfers.

But, I think, I HAVE to go. I cannot come to this area and miss San Sebastian. What would people say? What! You were near San Sebastian and did not go! You should have done!

And then I remember my very old friend, F.  All my adult life he has been saying: “Why should you do X? Who says so? There are far fewer ‘shoulds’ in the world than we realise.”   Once I remember his insistence I feel instantly liberated from guilt.  I realise that this is one of the profoundest joys of this Journey – I can do exactly as I please.

So I do not go to San Sebastian. I spend a wonderful, calm and peaceful day walking the cliffs, lying in the grass face to the sun watching the dancing clouds roll overhead, picnicking looking out to sea and the circling gulls, and sitting on the beach for well over an hour doing nothing at all but watch the lithe surfers catching the waves and tumbling heroically into the foam.

And so it turns out that the day I didn’t go to San Sebastian as I SHOULD have done was one of my happiest.    Yet another lesson learned.

– + –

Here  are some pictures of the day I DIDN’T go to San Sebastian-Donostia.

Gate

The cliff top walk

Tree view

Abbadia 1

The peaceful headland Domaine of Abbadia – Abbadiako Eremua in Euskera.

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Abbadia 2

Walking on the headland

Abbdia 3

Surfer

Back to the beach

Feet on sand

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