It all began to get interesting once the TGV got past Bordeaux and started to go very slowly down the south-west coast of France. This is the region of Aquitaine, an area I've never been to. Round here, the countryside became a bit wilder, less flat and agricultural than the main TGV drag through central France. The first glimpse of the sea was at Bayonne, which looks like a beautiful place with a splendid Gothic cathedral. Biarritz and St Jean de Luz came next.
I've since found out that from Bayonne onwards is the French part of the Basque Country - also known as Gascony. Apparently the words Basque (French) and Vasco (Spanish) come from the Latin name for the Basque people, Vascones - Gascon(y) being another variation. More findings: Aquitaine is named after the Aquitani; the language they spoke (referred to as Aquitanian) is thought to be Proto-Basque, Basque being the only remnant of this language family. One of the Aquitanian tribes was called the Ausci, which is thought to be related to the Basque word for Basque - Euskara. (The Basques call themselves Euskalduna - speakers of Euskara.)
Anyway, the final stop in France was Hendaye, a border town where bizarrely everyone has to get off the train and onto another one at the neighbouring Spanish border town of Irun because the rail gauge is different in Spain. I wasn't quite clear how I was going to get from Hendaye to Irun though I had established that there was a bridge over a river between the two towns. In the event, however, it appeared that the local (FEVE) Spanish train along the North coast to Bilbao (run by the Basque 'Euskotren' company) actually runs over the border into France and can be picked up at a mini-station next to Hendaye Station. You only need to cross to Irun if you want to take the main (RENFE) line south to Madrid.
In any case, I was met off the train at Hendaye by Pietro, who I hadn't seen for 4 weeks. After an emotional reunion, Pietro relieved me of one of the three very heavy bags which I had dragged across London and Paris, and we set off on the Euskotren to Bilbao - a 3-hour journey involving a change at San Sebastian (or Donostia as it appears, in Euskara, on the timetables.) Not knowing any Spanish other than predictable phrases like 'muchas gracias', 'buenas noches' and 'hasta la vista', I might have struggled with reading station information and buying tickets in a mixture of Spanish and Basque, so I was glad P was there.
The train from the Spanish border to Bilbao - part of the narrow gauge railway system that grinds and winds its way along the mountainous North coast of Spain - was fascinating. It's a beautiful area - reminiscent of the lower Alps - and yet it is densely populated and very industrial. The quite narrow mountain valleys are all packed by blocks of flats, some quite high-rise, with quite a few industrial warehouses and chimneys - in this sense more reminiscent of the industrial towns and valleys of Yorkshire. The main industry here was apparently iron, and Bilbao was known for its weapons manufacture (hence Shakespearean references to 'bilbo' in the context of weaponry in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet ('mutines in the bilboes')). Also fascinating were the names of the towns and villages we passed - Errekalde, Zarautz, Zumaia, Toletxegain, Elgoibar, Errotabarri, Zaldibar, Etxebarri, Atxuri, etc. ('tx' pronounced 'ch' as in 'church') - a first glimpse of the Basque language which is all around us here in Bilbao.
Eventually, we descended into Bilbao, coming into Atxuri, fortunately only two minutes' walk from the front door of our flat in the Casco Viejo (old town).
To be continued....