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Pre-trip Report-RS Best of Basque Country, October 2022, Saint Jean du luz

This is my pre-trip report for the Best of Basque Country- France and Spain that my wife and I and another couple took in October, 2022. It is detailed and opinionated, and not so much of a travelogue but a story of experiences and lessons learned from the trip abroad. I hope that you can cull something useful from this report. Otherwise, feel free to skip it. If you are a local or have done this trip before, feel free to add your comments on how we could have done it better.

The Rick Steves’ Best of Basque country tour starts in Bayonne, France. The nearest airport is in Biarritz, 8 kilometers from the city center. From San Francisco, the best route for us was to fly into Paris, and then take a domestic one hour flight to Biarritz.

Transfer time in Paris to Biarritz (Airport Concerns)

Our major concern for the flight over, was the short 60 minute connection time between landing in CDG Paris Terminal 2E and getting to Terminal 2G for the short domestic flight to Biarritz. We had to go through customs find our way to Terminal 2F, go through security again and then take a shuttle bus to Terminal 2G.

We tried to get Air France to book us onto an earlier flight arrival or a later departure time to Biarritz. But because the tickets were non-refundable, they refused. We were prepared to make the dash between terminals with our carry-on. Fortunately, after Air France notified us that there would be a schedule change that allowed only 45 minutes to catch our connection, we complained and they let us cancel and refunded our non-refundable tickets.

We booked an earlier fight on Delta into Paris, which allowed for a 3 hour leisurely connection time. Delta code shares with Air France and the plane was an Air France plane. It was the same flight and schedule we were trying to change to with Air France.
Our traveling companions had a different flight into Paris and barely made the 60 minute connection time and if it weren’t for a delayed flight to Biarritz, they would have missed it.

Our Rogue taxi experience in Biarritz

We always fly into our destination early to get over the jet lag and to give us extra time in our starting destination. After doing my research, I came to the conclusion that extra days were NOT needed in Bayonne, and Biarritz had no appeal to us, so we decided to spend the extra days pre-tour in Saint Jean de Luz, a small seaside town, 17 kilometers (30 minute drive) south from the Biarritz airport and 22 kilometers south (45 minute drive) of Bayonne.

I don’t shy away from using public transport when I can, but with luggage and being jet lagged, I opted to take a taxi from Biarritz airport to SJDL. The airport is very small and there’s only one main exit/entrance. We followed the signs to the taxi stand.
As we were heading out to the taxi stand, a young man asked us in English, where we were going and I told him SJDL. I knew he wasn’t an official taxi, and despite every warning from travelers on these forums, I asked him how much it would cost? I already knew that the official taxi would cost around €50-60 and I had the euros in cash ready to use. He asked for the location. I gave it to him and he pulled out his smart phone and looked it up. I could see from his screen that he had both an uber and lyft app. He told me €40. And it is at this moment I made the snap decision, (whether right or wrong- let me know in your comments) that I said, OK. His car had uber and lyft stickers on it, but we weren’t using either of those services. So it appeared he was free lancing while waiting for an uber or lyft booking.

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The 30 minute ride to our SJDL hotel was perfectly fine. The young man was amiable and we chatted first in my dismal French, then to my basic Spanish and also some English. He said he could also speak Basque. There were no issues and I paid him in cash (euros). (Another good reason to have euros before you arrive) He dropped us in front our hotel- the Grand Hotel Thalasso and Spa at 43, Boulevard Thiers.

St Jean du luz- Grand Hotel Thalasso and Spa

In my research to find a nice hotel, I used TripAdvisor for reviews and pictures, then Apple or Google Maps and determined the location of the lodgings to the city center and the distance to tourist sites we might want to visit. I then went to the hotel’s official website to check prices. My wife has the final say on the hotel. And she always picks large rooms and amenities over price. My only veto power is the location. I don’t care how great a hotel it is, if it’s in a bad location, I don’t want to stay there. I want to be able to walk to the main tourist sites or the Centre de ville. My wife and I also have a disagreement over what website to use to book. I say we should use the official hotel websites, but she likes using hotels.com because after ten bookings, we get a free hotel night.

Our other choice was the hotel de la Plage, but they required a one week stay.

Our traveling companions were of the opinion that we should just stay in the cheapest hotel in small rooms, near the train station, since they were only going to sleep there, the room didn’t matter to them. They wanted us to stay at the hotel Le Relais St. Jacques. Which from the pictures looks just fine.

But for us, our lodging choices have a lot to do with the quality of the experience of our trip. If Europeans can stay at nice upscale charming hotels, why can’t we? (And no, we do not stay in American style hotels like the marriott or Hilton unless it’s one night at the airport before our early next day departure.)

Fortunately, we convinced our traveling companions that we wanted to get over jetlag on the ocean promenade overlooking the sea, with the sound of the ocean surf and seagulls caressing us to sleep. (And to my wife’s delight, every morning, there were hunky lifeguards exercising on the beach in front of the hotel.)
If our companions wanted to stay at a cheaper hotel near the train station, they would have to take a taxi or walk over to our hotel each day to meet us for the day’s activities. Or they could do their own thing separate from us. Since they didn’t speak French or Spanish, and hadn’t done any planning on their own, they ended up staying at the same hotel, (but they weren’t happy about it) and they ended up using the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and sauna more than we did. They spent twice as much as we did for business class seats vs economy seats on the flight over, but groused over paying for a 5 star hotel. I’m sure you’ll post your comments on this issue.

The Grand Thalasso Hotel and Spa is a wonderful old hotel with European Charm and amenities. It was built in 1909 in the neo-romantic style. We had a seaside view room on the 4th floor and the staff was helpful and spoke English. One faux paux we had, was in the middle of the night, my wife pressed a switch next to the bed, thinking it was the light in the hallway to the bathroom. The switch lowered the metal storm awning over the balcony doors, but we didn’t know that. When we woke up, it was pitch black in our room. I called reception and they sent up a maintenance staff worker, who pressed the button by the bed to open the awning. He gave us that “you stupid Americans” look.

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The restaurant at the hotel had an overpriced breakfast buffet, so we did not eat there. We drank the coffee that was provided in the rooms with the Nespresso machines, and then around 8:30-9am, when the restaurants opened, walked along the plage promenade to find a breakfast place. In this regard, TripAdvisor reviews gave us nearby restaurants to check out instead of wandering around aimlessly while hungry.

Restaurants in SJDL

In my research, I used TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews and as well as Apple Maps to locate nearby restaurants to the hotel. We had breakfast and then later, lunch at Toki Goxoa, a Basque restaurant, at 7 Galerie la Pergola Place Maurice Ravel, which is the main promenade along the beach. Despite its location on the Boardwalk, the restaurant had good reviews and the food was wonderful, especially the Taloas, which like a French crepe. In fact, we liked it so much, we ate there several times, and the waiter and owner remembered us and welcomed us with a warm and friendly greeting each time.

We also ate breakfast at Horizon Brunch Café, further down the promenade, and ate seafood dinners at Restaurant le Prado, 3 Promenade de la Plage, and Chez Theo, 25 Rue Abbé Onaindia. These were not fancy places. Both were reasonably priced with menu du jours.

We thought that in France, dinner might be earlier than Spain, and being a tourist destination, it might have earlier hours, but the restaurants mostly opened at 8 pm, even if yelp and tripadvisor said they opened at 7. And even at that time, we found ourselves waiting for the restaurant to allow diners to enter.

At Chez Theo, off a side street of the main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Rue Gambetta. We arrived at 8pm and there was nobody at the door. The waiters were just arriving. One of the arriving waiters recognized me from our favorite lunch spot, Toxi Goxoa. He worked at both restaurants. He greeted me and asked me in French if I had a reservation. I said “no, do you have a table for four?” (in French). He smiled, asked me my name, grabbed the reservation sheet and added it to the long list. “You have one now. Un moment.” We were finally seated at 8:30 pm, even though we were the first people there. And it was worth the wait. The seafood was excellent and the menu du jour of 4 courses plus dessert and glass of wine was a good value. We recommend this place. By 9 pm, all the tables were filled.

What French/Spanish do you really need to know?

After reviewing the foreign language conversations I had during this trip, I concluded that the #1 thing I said in either language, was “Good evening, I have a reservation” and “Good day (or evening), Do you have a table for two (or four)?”

Recalling my high school French from the dusty back recesses of my brain, I would say “Bonjour, Avez-vous un table por deux?” The waiter would point to a table. I would turn to my wife and say in English “Is that table good enough?” The waiter would figure out that we were Americans and speak his/her lycée (high school) English to us. In our experience, the menus we were given were in French (or Spanish) with English subtitles in the areas catering to tourists. We did receive some French (or Spanish) only menus, and if I did not recognize the foreign words or foods, we used the Google Translate App on our smartphones. (Using the app, we pointed the camera at the menu and it magically translates the words into English and superimposes them on the screen.) It worked well, with some laughable exceptions. In Spain, the tourist drink “sangria” translated to “bloodletting”.

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Of course, knowing some of the niceties and greetings in a foreign language is recommended. At the Monoprix grocery store. I asked the clerk, “where is the bottled water?” without starting out with Bonjour. She ignored me until I realized why she was ignoring me. I started again, with “bonjour," and waited for her to respond with a cheery “bonjour” and then asked her “oú est la bouteille d’eau?” and this time she smiled and pointed to the aisle. I won’t make that mistake again.

Saint Jean du Luz

The Rick Steves brochures for the Basque Country tour suggest spending your free afternoon visiting Saint Jean Du Luz. And I recommend that. Bayonne is OK, but it doesn’t have the charm and seaside like SJDL does. You can take the train from Bayonne to SJDL. It’s a 30 minute train ride.
SJDL is a small town and it easily walkable from the train station to the centre de ville, and to the seashore. The main pedestrian thoroughfare is the Rue Gambetta, with lots of shops and restaurants, leading to the main square, the Place Louis XIV. Be sure to stop and get macaroons at Maison Adam.

While walking the town, we stopped in for a few minutes to see the Eglise Saint jean Baptiste church. It has a beautiful interior. It was the site of a wedding between the king of France and the King of Spain’s daughter. Not a must do, and as I heard it described by an English tourist coming out “It’s an ABC (Another Bloody Church). But I thought it was worth a look.

Each day, after breakfast, we walked SJDL’s main attraction, the seaside promenade along the beautiful sandy crescent- shaped beach. What a great way to get over jet-lag and a relaxing way to start a vacation. Towards the north end of the beach is the Point de Saint Barbe, where an old lighthouse stands on the hill. Up on that wind swept promontory, there is a great view of the entire beach front of SJDL.

The walk south along the elevated seaside promenade ends at the harbor and the port and the Rue de Republique, where there are lots of restaurants serving fresh seafood. Unfortunately, we were there on a day that most of the restaurants were closed. I was told that during the summer season, the beaches are packed full of sun bathers. The promenade is crammed with walkers and it’s a very busy beach town. We were there in early October, and it was not crowded at all. Just the way we like it.

A very touristy thing my wife loves to do, in the small towns, (and I am embarrassed to mention) is to ride Le petit train. The motorized tram winds its way slowly through the streets of SJDL giving historical and scenic information through headphones in many different languages. This one was not a must do, like the one in Nice, France, but a pleasant way to rest your weary legs while sightseeing.

A memorable haircut

On our last day in SJDL, the wife of the other couple we were traveling with, told her husband to get a haircut before the Rick Steves tour started. We used google maps to find several haircut salon possibilities in town and the second place was open and available. The French word for “haircut” isn’t in my limited vocabulary, so thank goodness for the google translate app. I was able to tell the hairdresser what my friend wanted. I sat there as the hair dresser began cutting. When I told him that we were from the Etats Unis (US) and from California. He went on a long monologue in French about what thought about our former president. His French was fast and animated and I could only make out single words like “imbecile” and “idiot” and “criminel”. My friend and I still laugh when we think of the experience.

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Travel to Bayonne- hired a service

On the last day, I hired a pre-arranged van service to take the four of us and our luggage to the starting hotel for the Rick Steves tour in Bayonne. We paid €100 in cash. Not sure of the going rate, but that’s what was quoted to us via emails. but it was worth it to us. I knew that a taxi was €50-60 euros to the airport and we were going further than that, so to me, it was a reasonable price.

We left SJDL rested and ready to start our two week adventure of the Basque Country with Rick Steves. As the van departed from SJDL, it began raining. And that rain would be a hallmark of our tour of the Basque country. But that trip report is for another time.

If you are taking this tour, I highly recommend what we did. Come in a few days early and stay in Saint jean de Luz.

Stayed tuned for Part II- Trip Report of the Basque Country tour.

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Thank you, derek. We're taking this tour in September, and are pondering what to do pre-tour.

I’m looking forward to your tour report, as well.

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Thank you Derek. Your trip report was a fun read! We’ll be there for a couple of days in May. We were going to take the train to Bayonne and Biarritz for a day but SJdL sounds like a delightful town maybe we’ll just stay put in SJdL.

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St-Jean de Luz is a favorite of ours too. The whole Basque region, both in Spain and France, are wonderful places to visit and spend some time.

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Enjoying your report and travel talk Derek. Totally get your snap decision to take the unofficial transport to Saint Jean de Luz, you sized up the driver and instincts were correct. Plus you were waiting in a smaller airport.
Reminded me of driver who approached us at JFK years ago after a red eye, offering Town Car ride to Manhattan. My husband immediately says yes as I’m nervously following behind, along the way the driver solicits two more riders, one a solo female traveler. As we approach his car in a lot we see it is not a Town Car. However we were entertained all the way by his tale of the late night card game that had just ended and NYC highlights we passed along the way. I’m sure it was common practice back then to earn extra money stopping by the airport for ride service. Looking forward to more of your Basque Tour descriptions!