My wife, in theory, but almost never in practice, gets off work at 6pm, and has a 30 minute commute back home. As previously researched, the trip to our camping ground in the Landes region of France, was two and a half hours. So ideally we were hoping to arrive to our bungalow at 9pm. Due to work emergencies and children demanding to do pee-pee (even though they just had) before leaving, we ended up leaving at 7:30pm. When I pasted the address of our campground into Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze, they all agreed that it was about 3.5 hours away. Ugh! They must be intelligently taking traffic into account.
Luckily, I had spoken to the campground earlier in the day, and when I had predicted a 9pm arrival, they told me that that was way too late for the office to be open, and that they would put our key and stuff into a combination lock box, with the combination 010203048 (modified for publication), so I was prepared. I drove to just before the border, and my wife took over from there. We generally do better with me managing the GPS navigating. Also, I hate driving at night, in cities, in foreign countries, and in the rain slightly more than she does, and all of those were the case that night. I had brought my passport and my Spanish residency card to facilitate the border crossing, but the only evidence that we had crossed a border was a different font and language on the street signs.
As with everything in life, you don't know how well you've got it until you experience not having something. The motorway quality in the part of France we were in was atrocious! And we could barely get up to full cruising speed before we had to slow down at the next toll booth to fork over 2€ for the 200 meters we had just driven. That's a slight exaggeration, but only slight.
When we finally got near the little beach town that my phone was directing us towards, at around 10:40pm, we were exhausted. The kids had mercifully slept the whole way but they were starting to wake up. I said, "Okay, it should be about 100 meters down here at the end of the road," I stated confidently. When we got to the pin on the virtual map, all we saw was a Hotel La Plage, no camping ground. Concerned, I went back to the contact I had for the place in my phone, and it said it was on Avenue La Plage, but I also had some GPS coordinates. I plugged those into Google Maps and swore. Every single navigation app had confused the Avenue with the Hotel.
We had driven just over an hour too far north, and now had to backtrack 70 minutes.
Just before midnight, we rolled into the campground. Confident that I had everything under control, I looked around until I found the lock box, pulled up the number I had for it, and typed it in. No luck. Slowly and deliberately, I did it again. Rien. One more try, and it stopped beeping all together.
While I waited a few minutes for it to accept input again, I examined the keypad with my phone's flashlight. The zero button was worn totally away; but the zero I needed to type could only be there. It also had A and B buttons where the * and # buttons were on old touchtone phones. When it let me type again, I tried hitting those as if they had "reset" or "send" functionality. Still no luck. As a last resort, I phoned the mobile number I had for the campground. A sleepy French voice answered. I explained that we had just arrived, and my code, 010203048, was not opening the box. He said, "No, the last number is A, not eight!" Good flippin' lord! I had even read it back to the woman over the phone, but A and 8 sound too similar in English. Finally we had our key and we found our new home, Bungalow 85.
The kids were pretty excited to see the bungalow, which was just like an IKEA showroom: clean, elegant (full of IKEA furniture), but not really feasible if you actually want to live with stuff. It was even too tight to get any good interior photographs. The worst part about the place was these miserable disposable paper sheets that we were supposed to put on the beds. If we ever go back, we are bringing our own sheets. Oh, and also.... no toilet paper!!! By complete chance, we remembered that we had a roll in the trunk of our car for some reason. Salvation!
We heated up the meatballs that I had made for our dinner, and we finally all got to bed around 2am, with actual sleep coming an hour later.
The bungalow all woke up more or less together at 8:30 on Friday morning. We had some breakfast that we had brought, milk and cookies. I went to the reception desk to officially check in. They have us a courtesy present in a colorful box. When I got back to the bungalow to open it, I saw that it contained a single roll of toilet paper. Hmm...
The kids and I went to explore a little around the camping area, which was jam packed with bungalows, each with its plumbing and gas connections underneath. Some of them were clearly privately owned and spiffed up; others were just the barebones model we had. Just when we got to the far end of the campground, it started pouring rain, and the kids and I had to run back to our bungalow.
We only had two umbrellas, and one of them was broken, between the four of us, so our first order of business was to buy another two umbrellas. We decided to drive 30 minutes (with traffic) south into Bayonne to see the city and buy some parapluies. The camping area and nearby beach would be wonderful to explore were it not raining, but it was...so.
We parked in the center of Bayonne. It was raining too hard to do anything other than run under some covered shops. In one shop, we found a nice umbrella for Nora, and Ian found one that was pretty cool, but was about five times what we wanted to spend, so we only bought Nora's. Ian flipped out and cried and cried and cried. Then we went to buy some shoes for Ian, which he needs pretty urgently, but he kicked and fought us the whole time we were trying them on, and somehow he managed to hurt his foot. Combined with his frustration with the world and some level of pain in his foot that he blamed on us, he became psychosomatically incapable of putting any weight on that foot, and therefore unable to walk. Meanwhile, the rain kept coming down harder and harder. Even though we could see the gorgeous cathedral, we decided it was time to head to another sacred site, the Cathedral of Consumerism: the shopping mall.
Due to some road construction, we missed the entrance to the mall we were aiming for, and ended up at a grocery store that had a little semi-self-serve lunch buffet place next door. While my wife took a phone call from work in the car, I headed into the grocery store to buy some of the supplies we needed for our stay. Miraculously, Ian completely forgot that his foot didn't work. We were now out of the tourist area and mixed with regular locals, so the checkout woman and I shared no common language. But it turns out that hand gestures work pretty well, and using a credit card takes a lot of hassle out of knowing the words for numbers. One of our purchases was a cheap Spiderman umbrella for Ian.
I took the shopping haul to the car, and we all went into the cafeteria/buffet place. The general gist of it was that you had to get a tray, and then order something from a picture menu. The adult meals came with a trip to the salad bar as well. We were given tickets for our main course to redeem at the hot food bar, and when we got our serving of meat, we could self-serve whatever sides we wanted. The food was not horrible, but pretty unremarkable in every way. The place was shutting down at 2pm when we left. The weather was still horrible, so we got in the car and drove two hundred meters over to the actual shopping mall, called BAB2.
Unlike some of the local malls where we live, BAB2 didn't have any sort of ball pit children's play area, so we were stuck milling around in the shops. I'm accustomed to having to always be saying, "C'mon kids, we've got stuff to accomplish!" when in malls with them, but this was a totally different experience. We were prisoners with no real objective, and all the time in the world. That said, however, we did end up exchanging money for goods, most importantly winter coats for the kids, which we had neglected to pack, and came in very handy the rest of the trip, as temperatures ducked down to 10ºC.
The walk from the main shopping area at BAB2 to the bathrooms was gorgeous.
Throughout the whole trip, it was interesting watching the French service workers decide what language to speak to us in. As we wandered into a shop, usually the kids would be challenging each other to race around as fast as possible in Spanish, and their mother would tell them not to run around in Spanish, so the shopkeeper would ask if they could help us in Spanish. After a few minutes, they'd hear me say something to the kids in English, and after several times of hearing me, they'd say, "Sorry, you speak English, too?"
We decided, out of convenience, and our exhaustion from lack of sleep the previous night, that we should have dinner at one of the restaurants across the street from the bungalow campground. The 30 minute drive from Bayonne took almost an hour due to bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion. It wasn't quite dinner time when we arrived, and it blissfully wasn't raining, so we decided to walk the 600 meters to see the beach.
Pretty much the whole province of Landes is totally flat and sandy, clearly it is land that was, through some luck and engineering, claimed from the sea. It would not take much of a sea level rise to lose it all again. As such we had no view of the sea right up until we climbed the three meter elevation rise that is protecting the region, and then we were met with that stiff clean breeze of the mighty open Atlantic.
It was gorgeous. All the beaches I've ever been to pride themselves on how long they are, but this beach literally runs, unending, half the length of France.
We didn't walk down to the sand, but enjoyed the view for it was. We were starting to get hungry, so we walked back to examine our dining options. We ended up choosing La Belle Venise, an Italian place. 9 out of every 10 restaurants we saw claimed to be pizzerias. The French seem to love pizza... or at least the vacationing French, as we were in a highly touristic place. In fact, the other restaurant that wasn't Italian was usually marketed as Basque. A lot of French people come to Bayonne to "experience Basque culture" without having to change languages. I didn't see nearly as much written Basque as there is on the more separatist Spanish side of the border.
Our waiter at the pizza place was a 14-year-old boy, the son of the owners, with an Italian mother and a Moroccan father, who learned Spanish and English in school. So he speaks fluent French, Spanish, English, Italian, and a little Arabic. We were blown away. He was also a pretty friendly and confident kid. He's going places. Our pizza was delicious, the cheap Bordeaux was not, and we headed back to the bungalow for the night.
Just as predicted, it didn't rain at all that night. But in the morning, just as I was being sent across the street to buy some croissants...
The lady at the bakery was patient with me, but I managed the whole interaction in French. Deux croissants, deux eclairs. And I had un café au lait while I waited the cinq minutes for the croissants to finish baking. I have no understanding of the numbers, and she didn't have a cash register that told me the price, so I gave her a ten euro note and took the change. The croissants were okay, but the rest was pretty mediocre.
With a full day of rain ahead of us, we decided that we were going to have to find some other kind of shopping mall or something. But that's when I had the idea to search for some sort of indoor "kid's park". Luckily, there was a great one nearby, Planètenkids, in a little beach town called Tarnos, between where we were staying in Labenne and Bayonne.
We spent several hours there. The kids really had a lot of fun around lunch time when the morning crowd cleared out and left it fairly empty. They had wifi, and my wife and I actually got some work done. To not complicate matters, we chose to eat an overpriced mediocre "panini" at the snack bar. When the afternoon crowd came, including four or five separate birthday parties worth of enfants, our kids were no longer having any fun, so we left.
We let each kid spend a euro to play this game. Sometimes the little guys wouldn't stay down. My inner Brit had a chuckle about going to France to play whack-a-frog. 😆
We drove into Bayonne to give one more shot at exploring the city. And we got lucky!
This was our view as we were entering the city. The storm cloud was leaving.
We made it to the cathedral!
After traveling in Europe as much as I have, each new cathedral is less and less interesting. They are all incredibly impressive, and all sort of the same.
Nora was particularly mesmerized by this corner.
Tired kids rest for a moment.
We walked around for about an hour, exploring the cobblestone streets.
Bayonne is a pretty lovely city. I like river cities, which, let's be honest, are almost all of them.
Again, for convenience, we decided to have dinner near the bungalows, choosing to eat at the actual campground pub. The menu was almost all pizzas, so we had pizza a second night in a row. Both the pizza and the wine regressed to the mean, the pizza was worse, and the wine better.
The view of my bungalow-mates from outside the bungalow.
It rained all night. Our plan for our final day was to stop by Biarritz, which was on the way home. We had been there with my parents eleven years ago (holy cow we look young!). Our plan was to evaluate the weather outside and the internal family weather inside and decide whether or not to even stop. If you look at the map, there is no clear line where Bayonne stops and Biarritz starts, as their urban sprawls have met. When we arrived, the kids were feeling okay and it wasn't raining, so we went for a stroll.
The kids had been denied a merry-go-round ride in Bayonne the day before, so we decided to grant their wish in Biarritz. It was very windy and cold. The water was full of surfers.
The one thing on my list that I was sad we hadn't gotten to do was to actually eat French food, particularly crepes. So just as we were deciding to head back to our car to leave, I spotted a creperie and suggested we stop. As soon as we sat down at our table, Ian declared, "I want pizza!!" We managed to convince him that crepes are a type of pizza.
My cute little crepe eater.
Ian's going through a funny photo-posing phase.
My crepe had spinach, goat cheese, and cream. It was lovely.
Then it was time to hop in the car and cross the border. It was so nice to cross the border to get to the better roads and the street signs in the font we are accustomed to. We got home with time to shower and go out for a little walk in our own little village. It was about 8º warmer than in Biarritz.
Despite getting extremely unlucky with the weather, we accomplished the two main goals that I had for the trip: to all get along and none of us get too stressed out (important when traveling with kids, especially in adverse conditions), and to whet our appetite for future such travels. One of the features of the camping ground where we were was a huge water park with water slides. We definitely all left with a desire to return under better meteorological circumstances.
Au revoir France. Merci et à bientôt. 🇫🇷❤️