Saturday, March 29, 2014

Weekend At The Sea: Capbreton

My friend Marie-Morgane had stocked her kitchen with gluten-free supplies, and so I was able to have toast with peanut butter along with my coffee as I checked my e-mail on that Saturday morning (wi-fi again! I apparently can't live without it [without much complaining, at any rate]). Her grandmother had given up her bedroom for me, a dark and quiet spot where I woke up to the sound of birds and the distant surf, dormitory life and French tax law just a bad dream I could leave behind. For a few days, at least.

We tucked Marie-Morgane's tiny terrier-like dog into the car and headed north to Capbreton, for the market and some sightseeing. There weren't as many vendors in the marketplace as there will be in summer, when the tourists move in. This whole stretch of coastline, from Biarritz to Bordeaux, turns into tourist hell - or heaven, if you're the one selling the goods - from April to October. I asked Marie about jobs in the area, and she said that if you're not in the tourist industry, there's not much of anything in the smaller towns. So we were able to walk easily between the booths and tables; Marie stopped to chat with a baker as I took pictures of an interesting cheese called "The Burned Cow" (the rind is seared before aging) and peeked in the crates at the fish stands.

Then we went to the end of the row, and bought spices from Christiane and Éric Philippot, a local couple who have been running their stand for decades, with a new website they just put on line last year. Marie bought a bag of a spice mix for making tagine, and I bought a packet of paprika-based rub for roast chicken to take back to the Bergeras kitchen and Jeanne's home-cooked (and -raised, and -killed, and -plucked) hens.

The church in the center of town, the Église Saint-Nicolas de Capbreton, was originally built in the 16th century and incorporated a lighthouse to help keep sailors off the rocky point below - or apparently what used to be the rocky point below, where the hills and sand now stretch out to the shore. The church and tower were damaged in a storm and then rebuilt in the mid-19th century, and only the statue of Christ now dates back to the 16th century. The interior decoration was redone on a maritime theme, with illustrations from appropriate bible verses, and an anchor mosaic on the floor at the entrance. Apparently the local sailors posed for many of the paintings. According to the brochure, the paintings were done by Jules-Bertrand Gélibert, but I'm not sure that it's the same person I found on a quick google search, whose output seems to be mostly paintings of dogs.

And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
- Ezekiel 47:9

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
- Matthew 4:18-19

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
- John 21:1-6

We drove down to the waterfront, where the Bouret and Boudigau rivers meet and form a narrow harbor packed with small leisure and fishing boats. The weather had been horrible for days, so we weren't sure if there would be fish in the market, but some of the hardier crews had gone out, and the Capbreton fish market was bustling. Hake, sea bream, John Dory (Saint Pierre), sea bass, eels, and shellfish of all sorts - the array of poisson was infinitely tempting after my months-long diet of pur porc. Marie-Morgane spoke of a possible moules frites dinner, and I eyed the oyster bar across the way, but decided that the peanut butter toast hadn't worn off yet.

Since it was the off season still, it was likely only locals strolling down the path towards the jetty at the end of the harbor, and the open plaza and inevitable casino before it, at the start of the promenade above the beach. This past winter there were some incredible storms on the coast, and the jetty was closed because it had been damaged. We saw blocks of concrete that had once formed a border to the promenade walkway which had been pushed off their rebar settings by the waves, and the underground parking lot beneath the plaza and casino were filled with standing water for weeks. It was still fairly early in the morning, so there weren't a lot of people at the tables in front of the restaurants lining the outer curve of the promenade, but I could see it would be a lovely place to sit in the sun and eat mussels in curry sauce.

There is a statue of the Virgin Mary on the right-hand side of the harbor outlet (or the left-hand side, if you're coming in from the sea). There's another similar statue that has been in Capbreton at the Église Saint-Nicolas since the time of the Huguenots, the only other 16th-century relic there to survive wars and tempests. But the Capbretonais decided they needed a bit more protection from the wild ocean, and in 1937 they hired the local sculptor Lucien Danglade to create another statue, which was installed at the current shoreline and continues to watch over the boats going in and out of the harbor.

The weather and the water hadn't quite warmed up to bathing-suit temperatures, so the surfers were all wearing wetsuits. I imagine that in July and August you won't be able to see the sand for the people, unless you go to the beach very early in the morning. I suppose that's not surprising, given that (roughly speaking) the French coastline - and I'm only counting the Biarritz to Brest section along the Bay of Biscay, not the chilly northern English Channel part - is about the size of Oregon's, but instead of a population of 4 million headed there on vacation in the summer, you've got the entire nation of 65 million. Minus those who choose to go to the Mediterranean shores instead (which are probably even more crowded), but plus those who come from Germany or the cold Scandinavian countries. I'd love to spend more time in the area, and with Marie-Morgane and her family, but I think I'll stick to the fall and winter for my visits.

As long as it's sunny, that is.

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