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Driving from Southern France to Spain

Javier Salas

Photo: Javier Salas

IT WAS DUSK WHEN WE TURNED OFF THE AUTO-ROUTE heading south into the Pyrenees; we passed through Lourdes—where Christopher swore he saw jogging nuns—and continued along the road as it snaked into a deep river gorge. Soon we reached Cauterets, a spa town deep in the mountains, where a French friend of mine had been sent as a child to cure his respiratory illness. In late May, between ski and summer seasons, its streets were almost empty. Christopher looked around and pronounced the town "a bit twee." We checked into a small, pleasant hotel, then wandered on foot in search of dinner. In a cozy restaurant we ordered a galette, the local culinary specialty: a crêpe with its round edges folded neatly into a square, the center piled with salad and cheeses.

The next morning we drove back to Lourdes, parked the car, and followed the teeming multitude walking to the shrine. The way was lined with souvenir shops selling Virgin Mary—shaped plastic water bottles, glow-in-the-dark ballpoints, and other tacky memorabilia. By the time we reached the shrine, built over the legendary grotto where Saint Bernadette had her miraculous visions, we were so exhausted by the kitsch that we turned and left—with a quick stop at the town market hall to stock up on sheep's cheese and country bread.

From Lourdes, it was a quick drive to the Spanish border, deserted but for a currency exchange booth. Once we crossed, the shift in landscape was swift. Industry and huge apartment blocks jammed the narrow valleys and pushed right up against the freeway. This rainy, green, mountainous region is home to the Basques, who call the area Euskadi. A distinct ethnic group, the Basques are neither French nor Spanish, and their ancient language is not related to any other European tongue. Today, it is again taught in schools, and the road signs are in two languages: the resort town of San Sebastián is also Donostia; Bilbao is Bilbo.

Basque food is Spain's finest, and once we arrived in Bilbao, a few hours beyond the border, we went in search of lunch. There couldn't have been a greater contrast than that between dour Lourdes and Bilbao's bustling old center. Its narrow pedestrian streets were crowded to bursting with locals and visitors who, like us, were wandering from tapas bar to tapas bar. I devoured tiny plates of shrimp, squid, octopus, sardines, olives, and grilled peppers. Poor Christopher was limited in his lunch choices, but he perked up in a pastry shop, where we discovered chocolate "sardines" packed in a tin.

Sated, we drove on to the Guggenheim museum. Signs led us straight to it without a single wrong turn. We rounded a corner and there it was, Frank Gehry's incredible, majestic titanium jumble set down at the edge of a freight yard, with Jeff Koons's gigantic, flowering puppy sitting out front. Most astonishing, we drove right into a free parking space just steps from the entrance. Our Green Hornet was dusty and bug-specked, but the trunk was filled with food and wine, a record of a journey that I looked forward to reliving, meal by meal and bottle by bottle, once we returned to France.

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