2018 Biarritz Tour

Episode 5 - Cider House Rules
Merci et a bientot, France...
...Ongi Ettori & Bienvenidos, Spain!

A little more rest was in order for Saturday morning as we got a mid-morning start for San Sebastián, in the Basque Country of Spain. So, equipped with passports, we headed southwest over the Spanish border to the beautiful seaside town of San Sebastián. You don’t usually need a passport to cross the border but since we aren’t EU citizens, it seemed a good idea. 

Unfortunately it was raining with strong winds (sideways rain) Saturday morning and at breakfast, we started praying for just some gaps in the rain to explore town a bit. 

This may be a good time for a tangent, (I never saw a tangent I didn’t like) to elaborate on the weather this week.

The Weather Tangent

 In the weeks and then days before we left, all of the forecasting sites agreed that it was going to be dismal. Rainy and cold (40s up to 60s max) - pretty normal for March there. Most days were listed at 40-80% chance of rain and 100 % for Saturday. Sounded like a Galway forecast. But then, the weather we had in Galway last year was pretty darned good. So maybe we bring the luck and the good weather. 

Well, it was indeed rainy Tuesday when we arrived and into Tues night for our initial curiosity stroll around the hotel neighborhood in Biarritz. But by morning, the team weather juju had already set in and Wednesday’s supposedly terrible weather was actually fantastic, both in Lourdes and at the Morlaàs rugby match. Just to remind us it was possible, it poured Wednesday night for our second evening strolling the hood. But we’d take that trade - dry sunny day for a rainy night - every day! 

On to Thursday and surfing - overcast and spitting a little while the guys were in wetsuits in the ocean, so who cares? And by the time they finished, it was sunny and dry, making our free afternoon in Biarritz a beautiful one. We even finished that day with spectacular rooftop team photos and a dry walk to dinner and back. 

Some more rain overnight into Friday but at breakfast, the skies started clearing. (By now, we were suspecting some witch-doctor activity on the part of one of the accompanying parents. - you know who you are!) Our Friday in Basque Country, followed by the training session/Haka lesson, and the Bayonne Ham Fest 2018 was sunny and awesome! We were clearly delighted, but Everyone told us Saturday was finally going to live up to the billing. Our luck had run out. A storm which had been moving in from the Atlantic was not just going to dissipate. 

Well it didn’t go away. BUT it was mixed with a healthy amount of sunshine in between episodes of rain, some of them hard but none lengthy. So the weather for San Sebastián was just fine. 

If you’re keeping weather score, that’s 3 Great and 1 Fine day so far. And we are now as certain we have a witch doctor as we are about the existence of leprechauns (and I have pictures - see 2017 posts...).

Weather Tangent ends here

Now back to our irregularly scheduled story...

Sean Hegarty was again our guide for San Sebastián and it was clear from his excitement that this is a favorite place. Our trusty driver Rene was back and deposited us in the downtown/old town area to start. We strolled to a good designated meeting spot for later, which of course was in front of McDonalds, and Sean led us into the heart of the old town. It did spontaneously downpour at this point and we hid briefly under a big town square gazebo. 

But ten minutes later we were standing in the bright sun on a pier overlooking the expansive crescent shaped beach that encircles the Bahia de La Concha, the bay that feeds in directly from the Atlantic. 

This was a great spot for group photos and to get a great view of the entire coastline. (Near the Casino Kursaal in the map above.)

From there we split up into more manageable groups to meet at 6 PM. One of the signatures of Basque culture is tapas. For those not familiar, tapas is small pieces of savory foods - think”heavy hors d’oeuvres”. There are many tapas bars in the Basque region. In San Sebastian’s old town, most are small and/or narrow, so a large group would be tough to navigate through. But they were outstanding. Typically, many varieties of cold tapas are on the bar/counter and you simply pick what you want and show the server to calculate your bill. Hot tapas you can order as well from the menu or specials board. If you always look at menus and cant decide because you’d like to try several of the dishes, tapas is for you. 

Several of the boys told me about finding excellent food in San Sebastián, although most apparently didn’t go for the tapas format. (It can be intimidating in a crowded space.) San Sebastián is also a great shopping spot and many souvenirs were obtained. There were some more occasions of temporary rain cycles but in all the weather was fine and we met at 6 to venture to our Basque Country dinner at a traditional Cider House. 

Rolling back into French Basque territory, we headed for Ascain Cidrerie Txopinondo! We had a fabulous meal of charcoal grilled steak with traditional breads and appetizers - pintxos. The group sat at one long table for 33 (incl Rene and Sean), near the giant barrels of ciders, leaded and unleaded, and water. Part of the fun is the ciders pour from a tap high on the barrel in a high speed thin arc which you have to catch in your glass. When the man yells “Txotx!”, it’s time to line up and catch without spilling.

Cider House Rules!

Once back at the hotel, it was time to pack and get ready for the Sunday early move to Paris!

And yes, you can watch the Villanova game on your iPad from a hotel lobby in Biarritz. But it will be at 3am. Worth it!

Until Paris!


Episode 4 - Basque-ing in Ham
Friday morning (how did it get to be Friday?!?!?) the team was again joined by Shaun Hegarty as our guide, along with his mother, Catherine Solari, and our trusty bus driver Rene to guide us through the French part of Basque Country. (We’ll be on to the Spanish part Saturday.)

While Catherine spoke about the Basque culture and its origins, dating to well before Roman times, we were traveling to the town of Larressore to Atelier Ainciart Bergara, a 7th generation family business making Makhila walking sticks by traditional methods, a process which takes years. (The wood is dried for 15 years after the stick is cut and started on the process.) Interesting product and process. http://www.makhila.com/pub-anglais/makhila/index.htm
The boys even got to see the oven used to dry the sticks: 

I told them the Hansel and Gretel story but they weren’t paying attention. 

We then moved on to the town of Espelette and visited L’Atelier du Piment, where they grow the Espelette Pepper, or Piment de Espelette, a special pepper from which they produce a variety of powders, jellies, hot sauces, etc. Here we were greeted by Chuck, clearly an American from his first words, despite being in France 12 years now. The California sweatshirt also gave him away. As he describes it, he works on production and is only allowed out when English speaking folks come to visit, which isn’t very often. He was a riot and clearly delighted to be speaking “American” for an hour or so. The pepper products were delicious and our group contributed substantially to the top line of L’Atelier du Piment this week. 

To complete our Basque tour for the day, we debussed at the village of Espelette, because all rides make you exit through the gift shop... The commercial center is a purpose built market area with shops and restaurants, and an abundance of ATMs. Very quaint and picturesque, with all the candy at eye level. Everyone was free to roam and eat on their own for a few hours before heading into Bayonne for some rugby training. Did we mention this is a rugby tour? 

The training ground in Bayonne was built alongside a Roman-built wall from the 2nd century (if I heard right), with some additions to the wall from the 16th century. It was a small stadium with earthen stands over the locker rooms and facilities, originally used by hobbits and later enlarged for big people. 

The training was a very special event with exceptional international coaches on hand to lend their expertise. First Pierre Perez, France’s best U-19 coach started off the drills. And right from the start, it was clear the team was learning something new, with a new perspective. 

Additionally, we had Sean Spring on hand. Sean is a former New Zealand All-Black, World Cup competitor and a great inspirational coach. Sean was also bringing new perspectives to the team members as they embraced and began to understand his methods and ideas. Sean is featured in the final events of this rugby day. 

Some additional rugby luminaries contributed their presence and attention to the session. Lisandro Arabizo is an Argentine rugby player who played in 3 World Cups for Argentina, and played professionally in France and Italy as well. Simon Ternisien and Romain Lacoste are current professional players for Bayonne. They were at a nearby festival, which we would join shortly, and saw the Training was going in and came to see what it was about. 

After 90 minutes of valuable training and learning experiences, Sean sprung something on the team. He told the story of the Haka and how it came to be. And then he taught it to the players and coaches/parents as well. After a few walkthroughs, the group performed their first Haka. That’s a video you need to watch, and there will be links on FB and the website. 

Having really hammed it up, the team left the pitch and headed for Foire au Jambon 2018, a.k.a. Ham Fest!! Bayonne’s annual celebration of its famous Jambon de Bayonne or Bayonne Ham dates back To 1424. 

The historic center of the city is full of locals turned out to enjoy the great weather we brought with us and the staggering array of hams and other charcuterie. If the lads don’t know the words charcuterie and tapas after this week, we’ll they just weren’t paying attention to the food. 

The festival ended a long day of activities, so there was just a little free time in Biarritz before curfew and preparation for San Sebastián Saturday.

Until the next episode... and I’m sorry we’re behind. Connectivity isn’t the greatest when moving around. Will catch up soon.


Episode 3 - Surf’s UP!!!!

Thursday morning dawned with breakfast at the hotel and a special guest speaker. Richard Tardits, a Biarritz luminary and veteran of the French Junior National Rugby team, then University of Georgia football, where he set the career sack record, the NFL with the Cardinals and Patriots, and the US National Rugby team, was kind enough to join us for some words with the boys and Q&A. Richard’s unique experience having played both rugby and American football at the highest levels allowed him to provide insightful observations on the differences in training, focus and objectives in each sport and offered training advice for the players. His comments were thought-provoking and generated some good questions from the team. Many thanks to Richard for sharing his time and experience with the team, and again to Shaun Hegarty for facilitating Richard’s visit.

Shaun then led us to the next event of the Tour, the much-anticipated surfing lessons! Biarritz is the surfing capital of France, and our hotel is located just across the road from one of the 5 premier surfing spots in Biarritz. Oh, did I mention it is also over 250 feet ABOVE the beach? So first we traveled on foot down the stairs and switchbacks that get you down to the beach level and the surf shops. It’s quite a view from both the top and the bottom. 

Once at our designated shop, the boys had first to be suited up - wetsuits, that is. This water is COLD. It is not summer and not swimming weather here for sane people. But these are rugby players, so all bets are off. Once everyone was zipped into their suits - an accomplishment in itself - they headed to the beach, another smaller descent the last 20 feet or so down to the beach with their surfboards.

Our 2 surf instructors divided the team into 2 groups for specific instruction and got started. After some intro on catching a wave, the team was in the water trying out their paddling techniques and catching some waves. After a bit of experimentation, they were called back to the beach for additional instruction on standing up on the board. That was fun to watch.

Now fully trained beginners, the surf-fest was on! A good number of the Team members were able to get up (standing) on the surfboards at least for a time. They were really good. And everyone had a great time. The cold water and fighting the waves to find the perfect ride makes for an exhausting workout, and would later create some afternoon napping.

After final rounds of pictures on the beach, it was back up the climb to the hotel. The team had a free afternoon to explore Biarritz. It’s a spectacularly beautiful town. The town juts out into the ocean a bit, creating coastlines in different directions (which is one of the reasons it’s such a good surfing venue - depending on wind and tides, different beaches get the best surf at various times. It also creates a great walking perimeter with water on more than one side of the downtown area. 

After their explorations of town for lunch and shopping, we met on the roof of our hotel (250 feet plus 6 stories high - let’s call it 350 feet above the ocean) for a team picture. On display were some new fashion purchases and a lot of sun-touched faces - we have had some strong sun despite rainy forecasts, so pray that our luck holds out.

Finally, we were off on foot to a French dinner in town as a group. Feasting on charcuterie and baguettes, beef, risotto and chocolate mousse, it was an excellent meal shared among friends. 

Friday morning will see the team exploring the Basque region in several local villages, a practice session with some guest coaches and a festival in Bayonne. 

Bonne Nuit.
3/28/2018 Episode Deux.Cinq - Isn’t this a Rugby Tour?
Why, yes it is. So off to Morlaàs we went for a 3PM match. We arrived to find a proper Rugby stadium and surrounding practice pitches. A very nice facility. We were shown to the visitor’s locker room (they HAVE a visitors locker room - I did mention it was a proper stadium, right?), and the boys got ready and warmed up on an adjacent field. 

Meanwhile, the stands began to fill... with small children!!! (5-11 but mostly on the young end) And then the children began practicing their chants and the wave. Pretty cool... until the visiting Shanahan squad emerged from the practice field to a low booing. Bad guys are here, they were saying! Now this might have been offensive if it was a crowd of adults or even teens, but this was amusing and our guys took it that way. Better than nobody watching, right?

The game was physical and exciting. Some excellent rugby was on display and both teams learned about their differing styles of play. Everyone got some playing time, and put in a great effort. Sportsmanship was shown by both sides and the Morlaàs Club lined up in 2 rows for our team to pass through on the way off the pitch in a side of respect and thanks for coming here to play. 

After the game, as is tradition, the host team held a post game reception for all where coach Forde and the Morlaàs RFC President exchanged gifts and words of appreciation, as well as gifts and exchanges between the players themselves. While few of the Morlaàs players and staff spoke any English, and little French spoken by the Shanahan contingent, there were enough rough translators in addition to their native English speaking Morlaàs coach, Andre Hough, who hails from South Africa now lives in Morlaàs, that everyone communicated just fine, and a great time was had by all. The Morlaàs club’s hospitality was exceptional and we dined on traditional French fare in a community setting. (And the baguettes were just ridiculously good). Thanks again to Coach Andre and the entire Morlaàs community. We look forward to seeing them in the US!

In the next episode, expect tales from the surf and some wetsuit pictures you can’t unsee...

Au revoir for now. 

3/28/2018 Part 1
Episode Deux - A Religious Experience

In our last episode, we were on the bus to Lourdes Wednesday morning, and left you with the cliffhanger - what will they do next?

 ........Well, we kept going. 

Unexpectedly, at least for the author, Lourdes is much more of a small city than expected. It is not just a grotto in the woods, although once on the grounds it is relatively peaceful and isolated from the town.

We debussed at the main gates of the Cathedral and Grotto property, and had some time to shop at the many religious paraphernalia shops outside the gates and then explore the grounds. (There cannot be many concentrations of statues of Mary in the world greater than found in the shops of Lourdes. And certainly no greater collection of St. Bernadette figures. Author note - I went to grade school at St. Bernadette de Lourdes, so I’ve seen a few of these figures before.)

The grounds are simply spectacular. The Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is impressive from every angle as you will see in the pictures we captured. 
From the main plaza in the front it has magnificent breadth with beautiful arched walkways curving around from both sides to another plaza and the lower church, the Basilique Notre-Dame du Rosaire (Rosary Basilica), and then more stairs to the Crypt and Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, where we would meet later for the 11:15 Mass. 

But first, there was time to pass by the grotto where an outdoor Mass was under way, and many of the boys lit devotional candles and said a prayer in a park-like area set up for that purpose across the river Gave de Pau, which flows through the site by the Grotto, with a pedestrian bridge connecting the sides. From the far side of the river, the Basilica takes on a new perspective and is almost fortress-like, towering high above the grotto formed into the rock below. 

The boys were definitely in the spirit of the place and occasion and it was heartwarming to see how they approached the experience. We met for mass in the Basilica, which is of course a beautiful and historic chamber. The Mass was naturally said in French and we were once again fortunate that Coach Forde both understands some French and is attentive, because during his homily the celebrant apparently asked where our group was from, and Coach Forde responded. 

After Mass, we headed to visit the grotto itself. With no Mass in session, you can approach the spring and actually touch the rocks and the water dripping down the rocks. Those who purchased water containers from the many shops were able to fill them with holy water from the spring - no you don’t dip them in; they actually installed faucets in the wall to dispense the water. 

It was a meaningful visit filled with prayers of healing for family and friends, and especially poignant during this Holy Week.

With the healing done, it was off to play rugby! That’ll have to be episode 2.5 because I’m late for lunch... rugby journal later today.
Shanahan Rugby
3/27/2018 · 
Shanahan Rugby France Tour 2018

So it begins...

Departing Shanahan afternoon Monday, the team was in for some mileage and hours. After an exciting bus navigation through NYC afternoon traffic, including an impressive side street “thread the needle turn”, we departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport (“JFK”) for Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (“CDG” - already 2 renowned world leaders encountered - be sure to include that in the “educational value” section on the excused absence form), a mere 7 hours overnight to arrive at 8 am Tuesday. But we were just getting started. We were greeted by Neil Curtis, a childhood friend of Coach Forde’s from Ireland. As a longtime resident of Paris, Neil was instrumental in making connections for our travel and touring, including French rugby clubs and notables. Thanks again, Neil!

Neil led us through the maze to the train hub at CDG, where after a few hour layover, we boarded the train for Bordeaux. A big high-speed double-deck train, it smoothly whisked us through the countryside, allowing for some much-needed napping for many, and after 3 hours we were in Bordeaux for another layover and lunch exploration. The team’s leading foodies recognized they were in the heart of a culinary mecca - a hub of the great Bordeaux wine region, home of world-famous oysters from the Bay of Arcachon; milk-fed Pauillac lamb grazed on the Médoc marshes; and cèpes de Bordeaux, perhaps the best mushrooms in all of France. So they quickly identified a McDonalds and had lunch. C’est delicieux!

We boarded a second train from Bordeaux to Biarritz and a little more than 2 hrs later pulled into the Biarritz train station just after 7pm. There we were greeted by Shaun Hegarty, a former professional rugby player from Biarritz and our guide for several adventures later this week. After a short bus ride through town, giving us a brief glimpse of the beautiful seaside town, we arrived (finally!!!) at the Radisson Blu Hotel, just over 25 hours after leaving Bishop Shanahan.

Checked in and quickly refreshed (but clearly running out of gas), the team was dispatched for a quick scouting mission into the town (always traveling in groups under strict tour directive...). After grabbing a bite and checking out the nearby quaint and tapas-heavy neighborhood, everyone was checked back in by the 10 pm curfew, with a few take-out pizzas in hand, and quickly crashed. The end of a grueling but exciting journey.

Wednesday morning dawned with an early buffet breakfast at the hotel, complete with cheeses and charcuterie and we are off to Lourdes for a tour and Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. 

This evening, the team will have a match and dinner with Morlaas RFC. https://m.facebook.com/USMorlaas/

Introduction of 2018 Tour

The tour for 2019 will be to the coastal city of Biarritz France.  The team will leave by bus from school Monday 26 March to JFK Airport for the flight into Paris France.  Once in Paris the team will board the train for Biarritz directly at the airport and arrive Biarritz late afternoon 27 March.  The team will play two matches with local French teams; travel to Lourdes for a religious pilgrimage; travel to the coastal Spanish city of San Bastion and once back in Paris Easter Sunday see a few sites in Paris before returning home Monday 2 April.  Parents will be able to pick up your sons back at Shanahan ~6:00PM Monday evening.