Fresh with the learnings from my first 10 days in Avallon, I set-off on Phase 2 of my nomadic odyssey. This time, rather than drive to France via the Euro Tunnel, I discovered it was possible to drive onto and catch a 24-hour cruise-ship from Portsmouth to Bilbao in a pet-friendly cabin. This felt like too fabulous an adventure to refuse, so off we set, Lumi and Lancelot, to Portsmouth.
It is a never-ending source of delight to me that there continues to be new things to discover in the world. Who knew that you could drive onto a cruiseship with a dog in tow, and end up a day later in Spain. Well, it turns out a ton of middle-aged couples from random parts of the UK are totally in the know, as it was full of these doddering couples, who sat opposite each other in silence over dinner.
I was delighted to find I had a small but totally fine cabin with a porthole gazing out to the grey sea and sky, and that Lumi could hang out with me happily in it rather than enduring the hell of the kennels at the stern of the ship. Unfortunately, this thoughtfulness did not extend to the design of the pet area. One narrow stretch of ship was fenced and made available to “walk” your dog, but it was not very long, and – here is the horrific bit – there was no drainage to the area. Our pets were meant to pee and poo on this tiny stretch of area, and we were meant to hose it down with industrial gardening hoses, BUT THERE WAS NOWHERE FOR THIS WATER TO DRAIN. So basically we were merely diluting the dog urine, and waiting for it to evaporate (which considering how grey and misty it was, didn’t really happen. What did happen was this narrow stretch of area was sticky with damp dog urine and patches of murkey water, and the whole area stank of an alleyway behind a dodgy club. It was not pleasant.
Every time Lumi sat on the ground, I winced, as now previously clean bottom was now, no doubt, seething with disgusting germs and pee stench. Her paws were damp with the grossness of it. Every time we’d return to our cabin after our as-short-as-possible sessions on “pet-friendly” deck, I’d obsessively wash her paws and bottom. Even still, I felt I couldn’t escape the smell of stale dog pee, and imagined it everywhere around me for the 24 hours I was stuck on the cruise. I think I’d have probably really enjoyed the cruise if I was dogless, but with a dog, relegated to spend tens of minutes at a time in dog pee-infested hell, I yearned for us to reach Spain.
Eventually we did. And while land was as grey and rainy as the sea was, it was also festooned with the grand green hills of Basque country. And as we drove off the cruise-ship into rainy Spain, I felt my long-held cringe unfurl, and I breathed a sigh of glee as I realised: I’m in Bilbao!
Not for long though, as my plans for this trip were to avoid fascinating and enticing (and hence distracting) cities, to head straight for the quaint and quiet of rural retreats. One thing I immediately noticed though: gosh it makes a difference when you can speak the local language. In Avallon, I was constrained by the virtual chains of my French-less speech. In Bilbao, I could actually converse, and order food, and ask where the toilet was, all without needing to appear embarrassed or rely overly on my ability to play Charades. It made for a pleasant welcome.
An even more pleasant welcome awaited me at my chosen accommodation. Trying to find pet-friendly hotels or AirBnBs made for a creative challenge, as it meant I had to be open-minded about my itinerary and chosen destinations. I knew I wanted to stay in the hills inland from Bilbao, and I discovered the Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania-Goiatz, about 75min drive from Bilbao Port. What a discovery! It oozes calm and elegance. And is surrounded by rolling green hills, scattered white houses, and richly lush forests. Inside it is stately, well-run, with an extraordinarily tasty restaurant. I am writing this right now, as I sit outside on the deck overlooking this benevolent pastoral scene, with nothing but the sound of birdsong, cow moos, and distant dog barking.
In a few days, I’ll head to Pau, and then to Bordeaux, but for now, I’m enjoying the peace and beauty of this heavenly corner of the world (well, except for when Lumi is hysterically barking at the grass mowing robot they use in the gardens of this hotel).
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