There is a line in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ that has about it a great schoolboy appeal (well, more precisely an appeal to schoolboy ideas of geography). Treebeard declares to the hobbits Merry and Pippin that he always liked going south, he felt it was like going downhill. Heading south from a cool and damp Ireland will always seem like going downhill; it means foreign countries and warmer weather and memories of holidays. At 53 degrees north, Dublin sits on the same latitude as Hudson Bay, which is under ice for much of the year; were it not for the Gulf Stream the country could barely continue as it now exists. The desire to travel south is perhaps part of some psychological programming inherited from prehistoric generations, an intuitive desire to escape from cold and darkness. At a primitive human level, warmer climes meant longer growing seasons and a greater ability to cope with the winter; it is no accident that the ancient civilisations appeared where they did.
Paris is south of Dublin, but not as south as Biarritz, which stands just north of the Pyrenees.
The journey has a fairground quality about it: the dodgems, as one negotiates one’s way out of the suburbs; the helter skelter of circling the city in search of the autoroute to Aquitaine and the great slide down the the country on the A10 to Bordeaux. Cross the Dordogne and the Gironde, and it feels that the south-west has been reached.
Close your eyes to the inner suburbs of grey apartment blocks and graffiti scarred walls and Paris is always beautiful. Baron Hausmann’s 19th century reordering of the city was ill fortune for the tens of thousands displaced as their poor streets were swept away to make space for elegant houses and tree line boulevards, but it created a city centre like no other in the world. Yet in August, even most of the Parsians seem to have left the city in its stifling humidity; many shops and businesses bear signs announcing they are closed for two, three or even four weeks (one bar in Montmartre had a notice that it was closed from 14th July to 30th August, inclusive).
So it is time for some Treebeard moments and to head for the beaches of the Basque coast and the rugby grounds of Biarritz and Bayonne. The two are really in one big town, but between the teams there is a fierce rivalry. The difference between the supporters is like that between Leinster and Munster, which is not to pass judgment, but simply to observe that the supporters of Bayonne make much more noise than those of Biarritz. Biarritz open their league campaign on Sunday while Bayonne are at home the following week, hopefully in weather cooler than Bayonne’s first match last year which was played in bright sunshine and a temperature off 34 degrees.
Very different from Paris, a Basque summer comes before the return to the damp coldness of an Irish winter – not something Treebeard would have enjoyed.