Not including a couple of school rugby tours to Brive, I first spent some real time in France in the summer of 1977 working as a ‘responsable’ or host – (courier as we were called in those days for some reason) for Canvas Holidays. It really was the perfect student job. Interviews were conducted at the company HQ in Hertfordshire and a few nervous weeks later you were informed by letter whether you were in or not. My French was reasonable so that helped get the job. Andrew and I set off for St Jean de Luz near Biarritz in a rather cranky Mini belonging to my new colleague. We were making good progress until just south of Paris on a Saturday afternoon when a horrible sound began to emit from the engine and we came to a juddering halt. The plan then changed and I caught a suburban train back to Paris then the overnight train to St Jean – very exciting. We were due to start work that day and the campsite owner was anxious that at least one of us showed up. He picked me up from the station whilst Andrew got the Mini fixed and arrived a few days later.
St Jean is a beautiful Basque fishing port and holiday resort just south of Biarritz and within tapas distance of the Spanish border. It is also a very wet little corner of France and all I remember from the 4 weeks there was rain rain rain. This became our fault as the British holidaymakers had driven for 2 days only to find British weather but worse. Canvas Holidays organised camping holidays for Brits who weren’t really campers but who wanted a summer holiday, in the sun, mainly with young families. The tents were fully equipped and all the family needed was bedding and beach stuff. It poured. So as Brits the best thing to do was to arrange boozy parties and hope that the sun would arrive the following day. We had one too many of these fun filled evenings when an overnight storm scattered all the used plastic cups and paper plates to every corner of the campsite as we slept a wine sedated sleep only to be woken by the angry rantings of the site owner at 7am. Another rainy day. Other excursions included Biarritz and of course over the border in to Fuentarrabia now reached by a small ferry from Hendaye but I think back then we used to drive all the way. Crikey – Spain was a different world and just a few miles away, emerging slowly from 40 years of Francos dictatorship. More of that in future Tales.
The sun did occasionally shine and the Basque country made a big impression on me. The language, the dancing, the colours and the curious ball game – pelota. It really is a very separate country from France and indeed Spain and my few weeks here prepared me for what was to come in Madrid and the ongoing struggles with ETA. Also, the fish soup made a huge impression on me! The next stop was Soulac sur mer 300kms north and a totally different place. Beach beach more beach and plenty of pine forest makes this coastline the perfect holiday destination, especially if you are into wild seas and big waves. Its a dangerous sea. The campsite was set just back from the beach south of Soulac so an easy walk over the dunes to an endless beach. The good news was that it was audits beach! This presented a sort of problem when informing arriving holidaymakers that perhaps they might not feel totally comfortable with little Jonny on the nearest beach. A few hundred metres north and it was a topless beach then into the main town beach where everyone was fully attired. Oh, dad would say, we will head into town in that case so we won’t be able to join in your beach volleyball matches. Ok perfectly understood. A few days into the holiday dad would wander down to the topless beach to check it out and by the end of the first week they were all on the nudist beach playing volleyball with the rest of us. I must say this was quite a eye opener for a 19 year old lad. Not so much the bodies on display as after a short time that all becomes normal. It was more the parties we had and the friendships that were forged after sunny naked days together. You would stay in touch with the families once they returned home and amongst the 4 of us couriers we all stayed in touch for a long time afterwards.
It didn’t seem to rain so much in Soulac but when it did we had that most wonderful area to explore inland: the vineyards of Bordeaux. Up until this time of life I was broadly aware of the difference between white, red and rose (only Mateus in those days) so on our first semi organised outing to Chateau La Tour de By followed by Chateau de Pez I was astonished to discover that not only did different chateaux produce different wine from their ‘terroir’ but that remarkably every year tasted different. I was hooked and I blame de Pez for this as that particular tasting really stood out. In my wine soaked memory some 45 years later I can still see 2 gentlemen standing by a very large table, both with big leather aprons, and on the table 5 different years for us to taste. It felt like a religious experience, almost a baptism and a memory that has stayed with me for all these years such that wherever I am in the world if I see a bottle of de Pez available I simply have to buy it. Luckily it’s not quite in the Margaux league but at around €35 a bottle for starters its not the cheapest either. Absolute nectar.
It was a happy sunny fun semi naked summer of great memories and friendships that finished with a gang of us going from campsite to campsite to do the end of season demolition and storage of equipment followed by my girlfriend and I heading south to Spain to see where our hitch hiking might take us. This was a failsafe way of travel in France but didn’t seem to work quite so well in Spain. Finally an English plumber in a white van stopped to pick us up even though he was going in the other direction but we still said yes despite having just mastered the phrase ‘Dondé esta la parada del autobus?’ but at the same time realising that wherever the bus stop was we wouldn’t be able to understand the response. So Steve took us to Santander not Barcelona and from there we got a bus to Santiago de Compostella and then on to the Galicia coast and back again on a memorable trip that led me to apply for a teaching job in Spain the following year. Travel? Wine? I was hooked.