Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Cote d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part one of my recollections and photos of the trip, covering the ferry ride from Portsmouth to Northern Spain, through the Bay of Biscay, and whale watching. Sorry for the delay of five years. If it’s good enough for Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor to wait decades, it’s ok with me to leave a five year gap.
The adventure started on a late Friday afternoon in July. From Edinburgh, where I was living at the time, I had caught a train south firstly to London, and then on to Oxted – a small commuter town in east Surrey I had called home for the first eighteen years of my life. Returning to Oxted always brings mixed emotions. Oxted is a nice enough place, it was a good place to grow up as a kid, and defines a large part of my life, but it’s a place that seemingly – on the surface at least – does not seem to change even if it is years since you have last been. I had outgrown the town and felt like I was glad I had moved away a few years earlier to Bristol, a city that had rubbed off on me in a big way, and then onto Edinburgh whilst I attempted to find a post university job only a week or so before taking the train south, with what was supposed to be a temporary stay with my parents, who had moved to Edinburgh a few years previously. This trip was the culmination of my student life, and I was fully aware when returning a couple of weeks later I would have to start job hunting in a city I didn’t yet know.
Waiting in Oxted, I met up with my friends, companions, drivers and travel buddies for the trip; four of my oldest and closest friends from my school days six years previously, all of who still lived in and around the area whilst saving money to make a move north to the suburbs of London and city life. Sing and Ed would drive a car each, and the rest of us would serve as passengers, navigators, DJ’s and the support and motivation for the 2,000 miles of road ahead.
We left Oxted and headed southwest on the M25 and A3, through rolling countryside towards the city of Portsmouth, and the awaiting P&O ferry to Bilbao.
I’m not the biggest fan of ferry travel – I think possibly it might be down to being apprehensive about the Roll-on, Roll-off (RoRo) type of ferry and the disasters of both the MS Herald of Free Enterprise (1987, 193 dead) and more vividly the MS Estonia disaster (1994, 852 dead) both occurring within my early lifetime, compounding feelings of helplessness and anxiety of what could happen if the doors on a ferry you happened to be on were left open again?
I’ve caught the Dover to Calais ferry a number of times to get to France and beyond for family holidays, and I suspect my fears that had manifested through those childhood trips were still there at the age of 23, whilst boarding the hulking, floating lump of partially rusting metal that would be our home for the next two nights. I kept quiet, not wishing to allay my fears with the others. Of course everything was going to be alright. Why wouldn’t it be?
As of 2014, P&O do not run ferries of the Portsmouth to Bilbao route (the route was closed in 2010, leaving Brittany Ferries to run the route), but I feel pleased that we managed to be on board the Pride of Bilbao relatively shortly before it closed. In 2009, it quite clearly had seen better days, and wasn’t full to capacity, even on a Friday in July, what should be nearly the peak holiday season.
Dusk turned into night as we left the harbour of Portsmouth, sharing a beer or three on deck as the ship passed underneath the Spinnaker Tower, and onward past the Bilbao’s military predecessors, the HMS Victory and HMS Warrior (I bet they don’t have people forgetting to close doors) and off, southwards and towards the the Normandy coastline and, eventually, the Bay of Biscay.
After months of deliberation and planning, we had chosen that taking the ferry, rather than the long drive down through France, would be the better option for a number of reasons. Firstly, it offered our two drivers the chance to reduce their mileage. I was sure that it would be a long and tiring two weeks for them, and I was glad they had agreed to give up a share of responsibility by taking the ferry. They had, after all, single handedly decided to take on all the driving between them, despite our (admitted slightly muted) protests, and after working out that insurance for male drivers in their early twenties, in a car that was not theirs, driving overseas, was probably economically prohibitive, particularly those who had little or no money left in the world, other than travel money (me) and were also technically now unemployed for the first time ever (also me).
Secondly, I had pushed the option that we could take the ferry in order to increase our chances of spotting some of the variety of cetacea that call, or have called, the Bay of Biscay home – namely the once common North Atlantic Right Whales (as opposed to wrong whales?), beaked whales and dolphins, (which are the wrong whale, obviously) and other sea life.
The following morning, a Saturday, once we were out over the depths of the continental shelf (the depth averages over 1,700 metres, and is 4,735 metres at it’s deepest point, which is just about as deep as Mont Blanc is high), we were told over the ships tannoy that it was a good time to head up to the deck and start viewing.
Unfortunately, having not chosen to study marine biology at any point (unlike my girlfriend), my interest in natural history and animals almost exclusively developed from David Attenborough programmes on the BBC. I didn’t even know when or where to try and start looking. The Bay of Biscay is big. Seriously big, An impossibly large stretch of blue, which merges into a different shade of blue on the horizon. And we were looking for animals that were, basically, blue in colour. As is standard procedure in such a time, we decided to crack open a beer, perch ourselves onto a part of the blustery deck and gaze into the depths below.
In the two hours or so we so spent up on the windy deck, we saw a few sightings from afar – partially breaching whales (I have no idea which sort), coming up to surface for air before heading back down to the depths of the ocean below. A breaching, cresting whale, the spectacular type seen in wildlife documentaries, must be an amazing sight to behold, and we sadly certainly didn’t see any that day. I have no idea if they Biscay whales can or do breach, but even just the sight and sound of a whale, in its natural habitat, blowing off air made the decision to go by the ferry – despite my unfounded fears – well worth it for that reason alone.
Despite the enjoyment of seeing a only few whales first hand, I was, however, keen to get to Bilbao.
The ferry was modelled somewhere between a pimped up version of a standard Dover-Calais ferry and of a run down cruise ship, complete with obligatory duty-free, mediocre service station style self service restaurants, selling bland overpriced food from hot plates, the type from the Channel ferry, to an on board cinema and swimming pool from, say, a cruise ship, dutifully crammed into the bowels of the ship, the hum of the engines a constant reminder this was a moving vessel and not a leisure centre. I hesitated to use either, and confined myself to our shared berth, three people per dorm, with two single beds either side of the cabin door, with a pull out mattress for the third person. I was happy to draw the short straw and sleep on the floor. It was only a couple of nights, after all.
I would compare the ferry to what I imagine purgatory is like. To me, it was. I didn’t like it in the sense that, for me, after seeing the whales and reading a book every so often, I found there was very little to do, and I got bored quickly with no option to get off the ferry, or be able to go anywhere else until the second morning of the journey, the Sunday morning, still a day away. I was glad I was sharing this time with four good friends, passing the time with the odd card game and, as our conversations usually are, sarcasm and gentle mockery that good friends are allowed to make to one another without meaning.
Saturday eventually turned into Sunday, and early after dawn we finally spotted our destination, Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country, on the horizon. We docked into the port, Ed drove his Alfa Romeo down the exit ramp and onto Spanish soil, passing some of our fellow passengers who, shortly after us, would be re-boarding the ferry for it’s return leg to Portsmouth, not even venturing the short distance inland to see the city centre, which seemed a shame to me. Not envious of those willingly wishing to spend another two nights onboard, I hope they were able to, at least, catch a breaching whale on the return leg.
See here for current information about spotting whales in Biscay or this fantastic blog gives a more in depth sighting of the whales than we got and a wealth of information.