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
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