With our three-day bus passes ready to show on demand, we traveled with shoppers and workers to and through the downtown area to the train station for today's excursion. We're more confident about using city buses; with minor differences the routines are all the same, the drivers helpful and patient, and the costs low, especially with various special passes and ticket strips. (An interesting question is whether we could see the U.S. as easily using public transportation; we have never tried it, being married to our cars for decades.)
The train stations are pretty much the same, too. Today we needed to make reservations because we were taking the TGV. We would have just about two hours in Biarritz at midday, enough time for a short walk to see this fabled old resort of the rich and famous. We took a number and waited with the rest of the patient crowd. As always, once you have reached the window, the agent's time is Lighthouse at Biarritz yours, no matter how slow or complicated your business is. We've watched some transactions take perhaps a half hour; thus the wisdom of Take A Number. On the other hand, and especially since the agent sits at a computer terminal, we wonder how many of these transactions could be accomplished by the customer sitting at a computer terminal without the aid of an agent.
After we had our reservations and train track number we noticed a big electronic sign with a red-lettered message: TRAFIC REGIONAL: FORTES PERTURBATIONS LE JEUDI 16 NOVEMBRE SUITE A MOVEMENTS SOCIAUX.
Well. Strong perturbations (heavens, earthquakes?!?) and social movements, just the day after we'd seen the soup kitchen, and various Closed Because of Vandalism signs in various railroad stations, and of course we know about Manifestations. Of course there weren't any train personnel visible except for the pleasant young woman at reception in the train reservations office, and she was quietly dealing with a bunch of well-behaved people. Were they causing or reacting to Perturbations? Seemed too nice.
As we continued to ponder, we noticed a number of posted time table changes. At the bottom of the second sheet were the words, "movements sociaux." So we deduced that the illuminated sign merely meant that there were a lot of schedule changes and some cancellations that day. At least no earthquakes. We never did learn what the "movements sociaux." are or were. Maybe there's a French expert among our readers who can educate us.
The actual train ride was unexciting, even after we changed from aisle to window seats in our half-empty car. The conductor came down the aisle, happily punching tickets; he was a conductor on the TGV! We showed him our Eurail pass, and he seemed disappointed that there was nothing to punch. But on the TGV, it's reservations obligatoire, so his face lit up and he asked for and punched our reservations card. Never mind that the reservation was printed so as only to be good for that trip, and never mind that we weren't sitting in our assigned seats. Long live the conductor's punch!
We saw some farmland, some pine forest, some fairly rusty-looking irrigation wheels like those in California's Central Valley. They looked especially weird sitting in the flooded fields. We saw no signs of great prosperity or wealth. Could we really be nearing a fabulous resort area? We were reminded of our drive last spring down Florida's west coast from St. Biarritz seaside apartments Petersburg to Naples: mile after mile after mile of luxury condominiums and fancy shopping malls and resort hotels and gated communities. Nope, nothing like that here!
Bayonne and Dax were the only two intermediary towns of any size. From the train they both looked heavily industrial (agri-business mostly) with some waterfront activity as well. We reminded ourselves that property around the train tracks is typically more suited to industry than to residential and resort development.
Arriving in Biarritz we first thought we'd wasted our time. The tourist office at the station was closed. We found the bus stop, where a map showed us that we were several kilometers from Centre Ville. A likely-looking bus had just pulled up. We got aboard, bought our tickets, and sat down.
The bus driver closed the doors, turned off the motor, opened his briefcase, and pulled out a book, which he proceeded to read. About fifteen minutes later he packed up his book and we started off. We now had about one and a half hours, not even enough time for lunch.
The bus trundled along another Avenue President Kennedy, through some pleasant, well kept residential areas of white stucco houses with red tile roofs and flowery gardens. We saw a sign for the tourist office and jumped off. Luckily it was open, and the nice agent gave us a city map.
By this time we had noticed why Biarritz is tres chic. The foothills of the Pyrenees come right down to the ocean, so the town of Biarritz is built on lovely hills. The houses are white stucco with red tile roofs and pretty shutters. There are a couple of lovely sandy beaches, and luxury apartments and hotels crowd the coastline, along with several casinos. The streets are clean and wide and the flower gardens manicured, even in the off-season. Soon our camera was snapping away.
There were quite a few Basque names in evidence, on stores and trucks. The French Basques have evidently resigned themselves to being French, unlike their Spanish relatives.
We walked toward the sea, enjoying ourselves more with every step. Some surfers in wet suits were playing in the gentle waves, getting no rides that we could see. There were plenty of shops such as LaCoste and Hermes but also some intriguing local boutiques. Next to the beach was a very wide and smooth stone walkway where we had crepes at a little cafe; the waiter was happy to show off his English.
We stepped into a small casino; it was filled with slot machines and reasonably busy on a weekday afternoon. We found ourselves untempted, because we have no idea whether the odds at these European casinos are anywhere as good as in Las Vegas; we suppose not. We noted the sign that forbids minors, people in torn jeans, cameras, animals and baby strollers.
At the bus stop we were joined by a woman about our age. Bob stood up to offer her his seat, which she took gratefully, and then the mostly one-way conversation began. She had been born in Spain, had only lived in Biarritz for fifty-four years and has a daughter in Miami. She could talk French to an Italian neighbor who would speak Italian back and they would understand each other, she said. Elsa had to gently disengage her fingers from Elsa's arm when we stood up to get off the bus!
Biarritz looks like a nice place to spend a holiday; for us it was Old Biarritz facade preserved particularly attractive in the off season. It wasn't crowded, but evidently the stores, hotels, and casinos were all open for business. We're glad we saw it.
The return train was more crowded (it was non-stop from Bayonne to Bordeaux, then on to Paris). We watched one woman dislodge a gentleman from her reserved seat; it was quickly and quietly done. The conductor never appeared to ask for our ticket or reservations.
We've reached the age where a few well-brought-up youngsters offer us their seats. But clearly there is a generation or two ahead of us still happily using public transportation. The buses do, indeed, carry just about everybody and everything: babies in strollers with multiple grocery sacks tied on everywhere; kittens in carrying cases; surfboards. We shared the bus with an interesting couple on the way back to the hotel.
A pair of ancient women slowly ascended the steps and tottered toward us down the aisle. Just before reaching us one found two seats, but the taller one called out La! La! (There! There!) and pulled her back to the seats closer to the driver. They then proceeded to make themselves comfortable for their trip. Both were dressed up, the dominant one with a net turban apparently covering pin curls and wearing a thin but striking line of scarlet lipstick. She pulled from her enormous sack a package of cookies which they shared, and a small bottle of what we assume was water. Then she produced a plastic cup, rinsed it out from the bottle, and with a lofty gesture tossed the rinse water into the bus aisle, whereupon they both drank.
C'est la vie!