BASK­ING IN BIS­CAY

The third part of Thomas and Jutta Kit­tel’s jour­ney from Ger­many to Por­tu­gal sees them cross the bor­der from France into Spain

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - WORDS AND PIC­TURES Thomas Kit­tel

Thomas and Jutta Kit­tel cross from France into Spain on their Mar­low 72

All cab­ins oc­cu­pied,” it says, as we cast off from Bordeaux in grey weather but in the best of spir­its. Even the light driz­zle and re­fresh­ing wind can’t change that. Of the many world-fa­mous vine­yards of Mé­doc, lo­cated be­tween the At­lantic and Gironde, only one can be seen from the wa­ter. Our trip up the Gironde is vaguely rem­i­nis­cent of the Lower Elbe be­tween Ham­burg and Cux­haven, but with­out the ship­ping traf­fic. The once busy port of Bordeaux has been out­stripped by other har­bours with di­rect ac­cess to the sea. There are only two medium-sized freighters on the quay and we only pass a cou­ple of dredgers en route – noth­ing else.

When we reach Royan on the At­lantic, it feels like the North Sea: hazy weather, poor vis­i­bil­ity, whistling wind and driz­zle. But just be­fore we dock it clears – the sun comes out and sud­denly it’s sum­mer again. Dur­ing an evening walk along the coast, we take a mo­ment to ad­mire the light­house of Cor­douan, set on a rocky plateau in the mid­dle of the sea. Built in 1611 and still in op­er­a­tion to­day it is the old­est work­ing light­house in France.

The next morn­ing we leave Royan in sun­shine and mod­er­ate wind at the start of a long leg to Ar­ca­chon. We have heard sto­ries of big At­lantic swells along this stretch of coast but we are in luck – the waves are long, only 1.5m high and from the north west. This makes for a com­fort­able lol­lop­ing gait on our jour­ney south past never-end­ing sandy beaches. The few vil­lages we pass are hid­den be­hind the dunes so the view barely changes for more than 70 nm. To pass the time we set up our deck chairs on the fly­bridge and catch some rays in­stead.

Our rev­erie is bro­ken by the VHF chirp­ing into life with ques­tions from Ar­ca­chon’s traf­fic mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion about our draught and the num­ber of peo­ple on board. The fi­nal ques­tion about our “zun­der” flum­moxes me un­til I re­alise they are ask­ing whether we have a depth sounder on board. I’d be amazed if any boat of our size doesn’t but I can see why they might be con­cerned given the vari­able depths at the en­trance to the Ar­ca­chon Basin. Even on a good day like to­day the sight and sound of the At­lantic rollers break­ing onto the sand­banks bor­der­ing the chan­nel add a cer­tain fris­son. The fair­way it­self is quite deep but there is a bar at the en­trance that re­duces the depth to a lit­tle over three me­tres at low tide, a com­fort­able enough depth for us in calm con­di­tions but not when com­bined with a big At­lantic swell lift­ing and drop­ping us by 1.5me­tres as each wave rolls past our stern. No won­der all the charts ad­vise against head­ing for Ar­ca­chon in any kind of a blow and es­pe­cially not in the dark.

C I TY HOP­PING

Even in these rel­a­tively calm con­di­tions and with a flood tide be­neath us, the break­ing waves are enough to pick up Azura and surf us through the gap. Thank­fully I’d told ev­ery­one to sit down so there are no in­juries – but the con­tents of the saloon lock­ers get a good shake-up.

Af­ter the monotony of the French coast, Ar­ca­chon is a riot of colour. To port is Cap Fer­ret with its watch­ful light­house, to star­board the 110m high Dune du Pi­lat, Eu­rope’s high­est sand dune. Ar­ca­chon is also fa­mous for its oys­ters and al­though I’m not a fan my­self we can’t re­sist a visit to the pretty vil­lage of Le Canon where the oys­ters are landed, cleaned and ei­ther sold or served in countless small restau­rants. Through a chain of for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances, we are in­vited to spend the af­ter­noon in a pri­vate beach house over­look­ing the bay where we are treated like roy­alty. When the wa­ter taxi brings us back to Ar­ca­chon, the sun is set­ting over the dunes of Cap Fer­ret cast­ing a golden hue over the sand that matches the glow in our hearts!

We wait an ex­tra day for the con­di­tions at the en­trance to set­tle be­fore leav­ing for the port of Bay­onne. Sadly, they don’t

The San Juan de Gaztel­u­gat xe monastery sits on a lonely out­crop

have a berth free that’s large enough for us, which also elim­i­nates our planned de­tour to Biar­ritz, so we head for the bor­der town of Hen­daye. Af­ter a long day of cruis­ing, dur­ing which the Span­ish moun­tains grad­u­ally emerge from the haze, we en­ter the river Bi­da­soa sep­a­rat­ing France from Spain and tie up at the fuel pon­toon, as there is no space left in So­coburu Ma­rina. A fan­tas­tic din­ner – our last in France – pro­vides the per­fect end­ing to the French leg of our jour­ney.

The next day, our Span­ish chap­ter be­gins. Since San Se­bas­tian does not have a suit­able ma­rina and we are not big fans of an­chor­ing, we take a tram from Hen­daye, nick­named “El Topo” (The Mole) due to the num­ber of tun­nels it runs through. San Se­bastián is lo­cated on La Con­cha bay, whose name de­rives from its conch shell shape. The mouth of the bay is bounded on ei­ther side by Mount Igueldo and Mount Ur­gull, and in the en­trance it­self lies the small rocky is­land of Santa Clara. The arc of the bay, with its fa­mous beach prom­e­nade and the old town of Parte Vieja-alde Za­harra, are well-known tourist at­trac­tions.

San Se­bas­tian thrills us from the minute we ar­rive. The lively at­mos­phere, the dra­matic lo­ca­tion, the ar­chi­tec­ture, even the shops – what­ever your per­sonal pref­er­ences you can’t help but fall for its charms. We di­vide into dif­fer­ent groups and dis­cover the parts of the city that most ap­peal to us. In the evening we meet for din­ner in a tapas restau­rant be­fore catch­ing “El Topo” back to Hen­daye. On the stroll back to the boat, we rel­ish the sud­den warmth that en­velops us even at night – the pull of the Mediter­ranean is get­ting stronger!

We reach Bil­bao – or to be ac­cu­rate the sub­urb of Getxo, as you can­not dock in the city it­self – in beau­ti­ful weather. The ma­rina is one of those soul­less places with hun­dreds of berths and lots of staff but very lit­tle imag­i­na­tion or idea of ser­vice. Ev­ery­thing is a prob­lem: first they have no berth, then they of­fer one with a haz­ardous ap­proach. When I sug­gest an eas­ier op­tion they get de­fen­sive be­fore fi­nally agree­ing to my pro­posal.

Ini­tial skir­mish aside, the lo­ca­tion is pure class. The view sweeps from the ma­rina across the bay to the prom­e­nade of Getxo, where one grand build­ing rolls into an­other. In the height of the lo­cal steel in­dus­try these were the vil­las of the in­dus­trial barons – to­day they are put to other uses. At night, the water­front is il­lu­mi­nated, cre­at­ing a spec­tac­u­lar iri­des­cent back­drop.

Prior to this jour­ney the Basque Coun­try held neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions for us due to the more ex­treme el­e­ments of its sep­a­ratist move­ments. The re­al­ity is very dif­fer­ent: a well­main­tained vi­brant cap­i­tal with a fan­tas­tic mix­ture of old and new build­ings, a beau­ti­ful old town with an at­trac­tive river en­vi­ron­ment and miles and miles of ver­dant green spa­ces. Our men­tal im­age of Spain be­ing a land of parched brown grass­lands un­der­goes a ma­jor cor­rec­tion here.

We hire a car to ex­plore the for­mer monastery of San Juan de Gaztel­u­gatxe on its iso­lated rocky penin­sula and take a de­tour on the way back to visit Gernika (formerly Guer­nica), which was re­duced to rub­ble in 1937 dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War.

We stay in Bil­bao for sev­eral days be­fore en­joy­ing a fi­nal blow out din­ner with friends old and new, start­ing at 9 pm and lin­ger­ing long into the night.

By the time Jutta and I pot­ter out of the har­bour the fol­low­ing day the sea has turned tur­bu­lent once more and we rock and

roll our way to San­tander. The city is well pro­tected from the sea and has a num­ber of great beaches, mak­ing it a mag­net for Span­ish tourists. How­ever, we do not ex­pe­ri­ence the “sec­ond San Se­bas­tian” promised to us. The well-kept ma­rina is lo­cated far from the city and it’s hard to get any­where with­out a car.

Af­ter the foul weather, which keeps us pinned down in San­tander longer than planned and leaves us in an equally foul mood, Gi­jón pro­vides ex­actly the lift we need. Af­ter a long and ini­tially bumpy sea voy­age we ar­rive in bright sun­shine to an equally warm wel­come from a very cheery har­bour mas­ter. The ma­rina is lo­cated in the city, which has its own vi­brant at­mos­phere en­riched by its youth­ful pop­u­la­tion. A fes­ti­val with live mu­sic and per­form­ing arts adds to the fun.

The next leg of our jour­ney takes us to­wards Gali­cia, the north­west tip of Spain. The coast­line starts to rise, be­com­ing higher and rock­ier the fur­ther west we go and the har­bours seem to match it get­ting rougher and more ba­sic.

We are there­fore de­lighted when we ar­rive at La Coruna to be greeted by a mod­ern ma­rina right in the cen­tre with a sparkling water­front and an­other en­thu­si­as­tic har­bour mas­ter. To top it all we can use the ameni­ties of the Real Club Náu­tico da Coruna. We want to stay for a few days but the weather fore­cast makes me think twice. To­mor­row is pre­dicted to have tol­er­a­ble wind strengths (Force 3-5) and wave heights, but the day af­ter brings F6-9 winds and waves of 2.5 m for a week. With a heavy heart, we de­cide to leave La Coruna the next morn­ing and cruise in one leg to Vigo. Maybe we are be­ing overly cau­tious but we want to leave the no­to­ri­ous Cape Fin­is­terre be­hind us be­fore the storm hits.

An early de­par­ture brings its own charms. The air is cool and the dew sparkles on Azura’s bright­work in the low sun. Later on we cross paths with the gi­ant cruise ship – the In­de­pen­dence of the Seas – head­ing to­wards La Coruna. The sea is calm, bro­ken only by the wel­come sight of dol­phins play­ing in our wake, and a seag­ull lands on our bowrail in search of a free lift.

VI­BRANT VI GO

When we fi­nally ar­rive in Vigo af­ter a good 12-hour cruise, we are right­fully tired. The city is lo­cated in a long bay sur­rounded by moun­tains and pro­tected by the jagged Il­las Cíes. I have been here once be­fore years ago and the view is ev­ery bit as im­pres­sive as I re­mem­ber it. Vigo has sev­eral mari­nas, but al­though the cen­tral Real Club Náu­tico de Vigo claims to have a berth for us, it is very nar­row so we press on to Punta Lagoa.

We like Vigo, not only for its beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tion but also for its lively ci­tyscape. Ev­ery­where we go peo­ple seem to be sit­ting chat­ting with drinks in their hands. As we are now a few days ahead of sched­ule, we stay here longer and rent a car. We visit San­ti­ago de Com­postela and the fa­mous Way of St. James but it feels very touristy so we drive to Cape Fin­is­terre. The vi­sion of a re­mote out­post is shat­tered by crowds of visi­tors in­tent on get­ting a selfie in front of the light­house.

Vigo is also our last Span­ish port be­fore reach­ing Por­tu­gal. How­ever, be­fore we get go­ing a cold an­nounces it­self with an ir­ri­tat­ing sore throat. Soon, wors­en­ing symp­toms give rise to the fear it may turn into flu so we put sight­see­ing plans on ice and give our­selves some TLC. Af­ter more than 2,000 miles at sea we feel we have earned it. Por­tu­gal can wait a lit­tle longer...

En­joy­ing calm seas en route to Bil­bao

Strik­ing wa­ter­side ar­chi­tec­ture in Bil­bao

The Kit­tel’s 72ft Mar­low Azura en­joys a well-earned rest in Gi­jon

The bustling city of Vigo has sev­eral sparkling mari­nas

Cross­ing paths with the In­de­pen­dence of the Seas on de­par­ture from La Coruna

The fa­mous San­ti­ago de Com­postela is pop­u­lar with tourists

Punta Lagoa ma­rina in Vigo

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