Last October, the International Mus Tournament took place in Biarritz, France. When I read the program earlier in the spring, memories of my childhood came to me and I decided to take part in the trip. As a child, every Saturday my father would take us on a car drive to the French Basque Country. Many of the trips ended in Biarritz to buy groceries not available at that time in Spain, and of course, the purchase of newspapers that my father used to hide under our seats before we crossed the Spanish border. Sometimes he would reward my siblings and myself with ice cream that we enjoyed eating while strolling along the “Grande Plage”. Other times he would say ”you kids travel like the suitcases. You go into the car at the beginning of the drive and get out at the end, but you do not see anything.” That is why I decided to go on the trip; all the places on the program sounded very familiar and I knew I had been there a long time ago. Did I remember them? Or have I been traveling like a suitcase?
I arrived in Biarritz on a Saturday afternoon eager to meet my Canadian friends. They were there in the lobby of the Hotel Louisiane, with about 90 or more Mus players and companions from around the world. We were nine from Canada: Txomin Azpiri and Pedro Onaindia (the two players) and their wives, Pia and Maribel, Dominic Mihura (the delegate) and his wife Rolande, Tomas and Jeanne Ugarteburu and myself.
That evening the French Federation of Mus welcomed us with a cocktail party at the Casino on the beach. The time passed by quickly exchanging greetings with acquaintances coming from as far away as Australia, Argentina and Chile. We met many familiar faces and we also made new friends. It was the start of a wonderful week hosted by the French Federation of Mus.
The sun woke me up on Sunday morning. We were to have lunch at the Hotel du Palais, once an imperial residence. The original “Villa Eugenie” was built on the present site of the Hotel du Palais in a record 10 months in 1854. Napoleon III and Maria Eugenia had fallen in love with Biarritz and for the next 16 years rarely missed their holiday at the villa. After the war of 1870, the couple never returned and the Villa was bought in 1880 by “La Banque Parisienne” and transformed into the “Hotel du Palais” in 1893. In 1903, the hotel was gutted by fire, but quickly rebuilt, respecting the original style and adding an extra wing. After serving as a hospital during the First World War, the Palais once again was host to celebrities and royalty. Today the Hotel du Palais is one of the most famous hotels in Europe.
By 8:30 am Monday morning we were in the buses enroute to Saint Jean Pied de Port, capital of the Basse-Navarre, one of the most beautiful towns in the Basque Country. Founded by the last great Basque King (Sancho the Strong) in the 13th century, the town served as military, commercial and religious cross-roads, as it was built between Pamplona, Bayonne and the north. The name “Pied de Port”, means “foot of the pass”, a reference to the famous pass of Roncesvaux where Charlemagne met with disaster against the vengeance of the Basques. A citadel dominates the town where there are superb views of the town and the area. The main street which descends steeply to the river is perhaps the most picturesque in the northern Basque Country with typical Navarre houses built in rose-tinted granite. Their histories inscribed above the doorways, with the oldest dating back to 1510.
Tuesday was the only day the Mus players took a break, for they did not play Mus in the afternoon, as it had been the rule every day after lunch. It was a day of devotion, for the believers, and a beautiful tourist day for all. We went to Lourdes and more memories of my childhood were vivid in my head. Every year, since I can remember, my family went to Lourdes, but I like the place in my memory better, since it was not so commercialized at the time. After a Basque Mass sang by the “Denak Elgarrekin” choir and visit to the Grotto, we went to a typical restaurant in the mountains where, as usual, a delicious lunch was waiting for us.
For Wednesday it was in the agenda a trip by boat from Hendaye to Fuenterrabia. That morning the skies and the sea decided to show us, in case we had forgotten, all the fury of the Gulf of Biscay weather. Due to the weather the boat trip was cancelled and we went to Fuenterrabia by bus along the Corniche, watching the waves clash with the rocks and feeling happy to be dry. After crossing the frontier with Spain we arrived in Fuenterrabia. This charming little port corresponds with the ancient Roman port of Oiaso. It is an historical town and much of its walls remain as well as the Chateau of Charles the 5th, this building retains its medieval charm. The exterior walls are pockmarked with cannonball holes from the border wars in the 16th century. It is well worth while to stroll along the “Calle Mayor” or the port area to admire the picturesque houses. After a tour through the town, we went back to France, to Urrugne to pay homage to Pierre Landart, who died on March 14th, 2002 and to place some F.F.MUS plaques on his grave. While the players were competing, the rest of us went to St. Jean de Luz to visit the wax Musee Grevin.
At the museum, the wax figures brought history back to life showing important moments in time, such as the wedding of Lous XIV and the treaty of the Pyrenees or Mazarin’s famous musketeers.
The next day we traveled through the most beautiful Basque country with superb farmhouses, on the way to Cambo. In the morning, the schedule was a trip to the top of la Rhune mountain on a little rack railway that climbs 905 meters up to the peak of the Basque Country. I was looking forward to the experience. I remember the feeling of peace and quiet of the rural landscape and the spectacular view of the Pyrenees mountains at the top, but luck was not at my side. The mountain was covered with a thick autumn fog and the organizers decided to change the program and go to Ortil Lopiz, the Basque Home of Sare.
Ancestral farmhouses are veritable pillars of traditional Basque culture. Ortil Lopitz is a superb dwelling with six hundred square meters divided into three levels. The door opens to reveal the cider making area; the Basque drink before the Romans introduced wine. The stairs lead us to the house, where the hearth and the large kitchen represented the focus of daily life in the 17th and 18th century. The sideboa, zizilua, stone sink, baking trough, and spinning wheel scattered throughout the room. The bedrooms were sparsely furnished with solid furniture that was functional and durable at the time. In the main bedroom was the “Kutxa” a high chest closed with a lid used as a closet for household and fine linen. The guide told us traditions unveiling the history of the Basque like the importance of having a beehive to collect wax to make candles, or how after a person died the mattress was burned along with the bed that explains why old beds are rarely found.
That afternoon we spent in Cambo les Bains, a beautiful peaceful village well known for thermal and climatic therapy. There we visited the Arnaga museum, which was built in the early 20th century for Edmond Rostand, famous poet and playwright of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Chanteclerc”.
Our trip, which included tourism, history and a lot of “gastronomy”, ended on Saturday in Bayonne, where I bought the best Gateau Basque I have ever tasted!
It was the day the Muslaris were waiting for, the finale of Mundako Mus Xapelketa. The Mus tournamnet was played each day in a different city or town starting at the Casino of Biarritz, moving to the village of Gamia then to the Trinquet d’Urrugne and on to Ibarron in St-Pee sur Nivelle and finally to Saint Palais. The Grand Finale was held at the Trinquet Moderne in Bayonne.
During the overall tournament the French team, France 1, finished with the most points with the team from Euskadi 2 a close second. Prior Mus tournaments would have awarded the Championship to the French, however it was the rule in France that the 1st and 2nd place players would engage in a final game to determine the Champion. Euskadi 2 defeated
The stage was set for the championship game which was played before television cameras and a live audience of approximately 1500 spectators at the Trinquet Moderne. It was a tensely filled finale with the team from Euskadi overcoming the French team and winning the overall tournament. During the tournament,our representatives Txomin Azpiri and Pedro Onaindia finished in the middle of the pack. It must be said that there were no losers in France only winners since everyone had a great time and made many long standing relationships.
On Sunday morning on my way to Donosti,I had to drive by the place where the “carabineros” or the Spanish police, used to be at the border. I still remember the uneasy feeling when we had to stop and they checked our passports and the car, now things of the past. On the days that followed, I thought of the good times that I spent traveling with my parents through the French side of the Basque Country with the Muslaris. I do not think I traveled like a suitcase, I recognized many places on this trip, I just traveled like a child. And being back in those familiar places was like being back home.