Monday, January 16, 2012

And a Happy New Year

I purchased the tickets to Biarritz on a whim; the hopeless optimist in me envisioned sunshine and gentle sea breezes framed by towering Belle Epoque mansions--a vignette interspersed with deliciously romantic meals at quaint restaurants, and the sort of relaxation that can only manifest in the absence of communication devices.

I really should have known better about the weather.

We arrived in this small town of roughly 30,000 on the 29th of December--a tough date if you want to experience that blissful combination of sunshine and warmth anywhere in Northern Europe. It was cold and drizzly as we embarked from the train station, but the air had a not-unpleasant humid crispness to it that reminded me of San Francisco. It felt homey and cozy, the way France tends to during the holiday season, helped along visually by twinkling lights that garland the streets, casting their festive glow and encouraging good cheer.

Our hotel, the one-time home of a Romanian count, sat in the middle of a verdant garden blooming with hydrangea, orange trees (dripping with fruit), and tall grass, out of which a rotund ginger-colored cat named Bobby would occasionally pop up to surprise Fanny. Our funky but comfortable second-floor room offered a view overlooking the back garden, and came equipped with that most important of hotel-room features, the well-functioning radiator.

It didn't take long to get to know Biarritz; it's a walkable place with a compact downtown that becomes increasingly touristy as you inch toward the sea. Towering over the north end of the main beach is the famous casino, where a decidedly non-vegan dessert of a praline millefeuille or sorbet-and-cookie combo costs €22. Can any dessert, vegan or not, ever taste that good? Doubt it.

On Day 2 of our getaway, I proved that hasty assumption false. Dessert can, actually, taste that good.

That morning, we hopped a local bus headed for Bayonne, eight kilometers north of Biarritz. Here, we hoped to get a taste of the town specialty: chocolate. When the Jews were expelled from Portugal during the Inquisition back in the 15th century, many of them settled in this corner of l'Hexagone, bringing cacao with them. (Good move!) Today, seven artisan chocolatiers attempt to outdo each other crafting comestible treasures like chocolate truffles, chocolate bars, chocolate cookies and pastries, and foamy little cups of rich, hot chocolate, making tourists swoon.

The proprietor at our hotel recommended Chocolat Cazenave, which advertises itself as a salon du the. We found it by accident while poking around the cobbley pedestrian zone that makes up the bulk of Bayonne's charming centre ville. The menu looked promising; besides fancy teas and house-made sorbets, they offered two kinds of chocolate chaude--one made a l'eau (with water), and another au lait (with milk). The server promised that the former was entirely dairy-free, and though I wasn't delighted by the prospect of paying €6 for a tiny tasse of the stuff, I was delighted by the prospect of trying a local treat that happens to be vegan. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say it was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.

Try to imagine the very best chocolate bon bon you've ever had the pleasure of stuffing into your mouth melted down into a thick, drinkable elixir. Now double the chocolatey goodness of that taste and warm it up, add vanilla and the eensiest touch of cinnamon, then serve it in a miniature porcelain cup that leaves you thirsty for a second helping. Now multiply that overall sensation by, oh, 1000. That begins to hint at the dreaminess of this taste experience.

For Day 3, I had my sights set on Spain. San Sebastian is just 40 kilometers or so south of Biarritz. Getting there is as easy as hopping a local train to the border, then walking across the parking lot of the French gare over to the Spanish gare--which is really just a modern, metro-style suburban station--purchase tickets from the coin-operated kiosque, et voila! Easy-peasy, and no pesky agents to give us merde about the dog (though we brought her pet passport just in case).

It was just as drizzly and cold south of the border as it was to the north of it, but it didn't dampen our spirits de tout. You can see that San Sebastian is pretty even beneath gray skies, with its decorative Art Nouveau architecture, painted balconies, and palm-tree hemmed shoreline. I immediately took to the Spanish cafe scene, which combines food (tapas, or pinxtos, as they're known locally), drink (wine and cider, mostly), and socializing (whole families). These cheerful meeting places dot the narrow streets of the old city, and nearly all of them have a little window with a counter on the outside where you can order your drink and tapas and eat standing in the fresh air if you want to.
We stopped in to sample the wares at a few different bars, but for folks who don't eat ham, ham, or ham, there wasn't a whole lot to choose from. I really would have liked to sample the bruschetta-type things marked with a sign reading "picante," but they had to go ruin the potential gustatory experience by slapping a dead sea creature on top. Thank goodness for rioja. Delicious and cheap, this vino tinto was my gateway to the Spanish pinxtos experience.

We ended up eating at a cafe with several vegan options on its menu: crispy onion rings, seitan burgers, and piping-hot fries, among them. Not the most authentically Spanish dining possibilities, but the greasy meal hit the spot.

Our fourth and final day was the first day of the new year. A pleasant change of habit was ringing in 2012 without a Champagne hangover (we never even got around to popping the bottle of Spanish sparkling wine we'd purchased in San Sebastian), and nicer still to awaken that Sunday morning to bright blue skies and warm rays of sunshine. This is what we've been waiting for! It felt 60ish, Fahrenheit-wise, and it was blissful. I'm sure the Polar Bears thought so, too; these crazy nutjobs--called Les Ours Blancs in French--make it their annual habit to take a running plunge into the ocean on New Year's Day. The only part of this insane tradition that looked even remotely alluring was the Champagne drinking the bears were partaking in out at sea.

All that fresh, salt-infused air and time away from the computer allowed my brain to decompress and revitalize in a way I didn't know I even needed. Ever since, I've been mulling over another pipe dream. This one involves moving somewhere south-ish, perhaps near the Spanish border--definitely near the sea--where the wine is cheap and plentiful and the locals are friendly and open-minded. There I am, working behind the counter at a little tapas bar, where all the offerings are ham-free (and egg-, fish-, and dairy-free), greeting newcomers like long-lost friends. After a day serving up good cheer, I stroll through the laughter-filled streets to the soft-sand beach, where I swim and swim and swim, watching the sun slowly sink into the sea.