Part of the story of building out Edwin into a pizza making machine has to do with bikes. Well, most things in my life can be traced to bikes. But especially in this case. You see, kitchens in trucks are expensive to build. Not to mention wood-fired ovens. The process also grinds away at certain emotional reserves. Both of these facts led me to gladly accept an invitation to temporarily return to duty on some of the most beautiful roads in Europe starting last August. And what a call of duty is was! Working with Marty and Jill Jemison is always full of fun challenges, excitement, and truly spectacular moments in the saddle and at the dinning table. I blocked out 6 weeks on my calendar, stitched up Edwin’s gaping holes in his aluminum side, and hopped the Atlantic.
I had the pleasure of joining up with four different groups traveling in three different regions: Basque Country, Provence, and Normandy. I’ll walk you through bits and pieces of my Basque trip, feeding on some great images that Marty has posted, as he always does with each trip. For a complete collection of images, in addition to more information about upcoming tours visit www.martyjemison.com.
The things most people think of when you mention “Basque” have to do with the separatist politics of the region in relationship to its ‘parent’ nation, Spain. While a fairly small portion of the population is interested in officially breaking away from Spain, it is true that the Basques are proud of their very independent history and distinctive culture. Furthermore, many Basque traditions (culinary, linguistic, architectural) extend beyond political borders.
For example, our journey began in France, in the seaside resort town of Biarritz. Biarritz felt very much like a French sister city to San Sebatian, where our two-wheeled pilgramage would end seven days later. While both cities are historical resort towns, Biarritz boasts a history of high-profile vacationers, namely European Royalty. In 1854, wifey of Napolean the III built a palace on the beach there. We saw no European royalty, but a steady pack of surfers could be spotted in the water when we left for rides in the morning, and they were usually there when we came back. Strange, in some way, to see young Frenchies carrying surf boards, dressed in ROXY and RIP CURL gear, shouting to one another about surf conditions in French. Santa Barbara meets French west coast, I guess.
As you ride inland from the beaches, you’ll find a landscape that is lush to the point of flourescence. It reminds me of the hills in Vermont. Except with corn added into the equation- there is a lot of corn being grown there. Marty often introduced the day’s rides by talking about the surreal quality of the fauna and wildlife in the area, and it was true- you get the sense as you crest steep summits that the birds, cows, flowers- even the shrubs- emit a robust, healthy glow.
Our next stop was St. Jean Pied du Port, or ‘foot of the pass’, traditionally a point along the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I played the role of picnic-er and luggage transport for the day, so I scooted ahead of the group in the van to set up a lunch spread in a quaint village perched on a steep hilltop. These towns are so sleepy around lunchtime- not much was open. That didn’t stop us from pushing our noses against the glass of a local bike shop display window after we ate to admire the shop owner’s collection of antique racing bikes. The stuff he had was really amazing- old models that had early versions of derailleurs or braking systems, wooden handlebars, hand-hammered fenders, all sorts of juicy curiosities.
St. Jean Pied du Port had some nasty climbs in store for us, some of the steepest I would see all season. But they took us up into such surreal cloud-lined pockets of the mountains, so it was worth the little bit of suffering. Some of our guests were skeptical
that they could make it over the pass, but I think everyone surprised themselves, as they always do. It turns out, world-class roads and scenery (with a small dose of peer pressure) can do a whole lot to your engine. Beyond the flourescence of the coastal hills,
these summits were mostly tree-less and very rocky. The fog was so thick that our visibility often fell below 30 or 40 feet up the road. We were almost as likely to encounter a slowly puttering car coming through the moist air as it was we were a herd of enormous mountain cows or goats. These cows were seriously large. Just before descending back into civilization, we explored an open grassy area adjacent to an old goat herder’s mountain hut. As you can see from Marty’s pictures, the site contains an arrangement of stones, presumably left-over artifacts from ancient Basque ritual and mythology. And I would believe it if you said some of our dear guests understood that mythology better that night after our group dinner that included some marvelous wines and an electric green Chartreuse!
The last leg of our journey connected St Jean to San Sebastian, leading us down out of the foggy mountains to one of the most gorgeous beach cities in Spain. The early part of the ride was what Marty and Jill might conservatively refer to as “lumpy.” After another amazing village picnic under the roof of an outdoor handball court, we descended from one of the larger summits. After you’ve crested that one climb, the whole rest of the ride is a seemingly endless serpentine dance with the Basque topography- down, down, down we coasted. Just to keep us from getting too spoiled, there was a bit of vertical left to conquer coming into San Sebastian. In fact, we got to enjoy one small chunk of the race course for the 1997 World Championship Road Race where Marty raced.
The final flourish of a fantastic week of adventure came on our dinner plates, as we enjoyed the Basque’s version of tapas, better known as “Pintxos.” Both of our nights out in San Sebastian were filled with amazing cuisine and local wines. There is a remarkable white wine produced in that coastal area that has a slight effervescence to it, and is very dry with a strong mineral presence. The pintxos will enchant you in a number of ways. First, the experience of ordering and eating these little creations could not be any more Spanish. The more yelling and close-quartered nudging, the better. Everyone crowds around the bar, trying to catch the server’s eye or ear as best they can. You can smell the woman’s perfume next to you as much as you can the sea urchin paste on the pan tostado sitting on the counter. Second source of enchantment: The Look. It’s often hard to imagine destroying the pintxos because they’re such amazing micro-sculptures. It’s obvious the chefs have put as much thought into the flavor as they have the presentation. Lastly, your mouth’s opinion of these culinary masterpieces will seal the deal: you’ll be back for more. I know I will be…