PAYS BASQUE

 

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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

This itinerary traces a path through Pays Basque (Basque Country), a region of France that has always fiercely guarded and preserved its unique character. Seven Basque provinces straddle the western border between France and Spain; three in France: Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule, and four in Spain: Biscaye, Guipuzcoa, Navarre, and Alava. Concerning the seven there is a saying, “zazpiak bat,” which means “seven equals one.” The local language, called Euskara, considered one of the oldest in Europe, and the traditions associated with the Basque style of life are found throughout the region. The area, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the start of the Pyrenees, abounds with beautiful landscapes-sandy beaches, old whaling villages, picturesque ports, beautiful valleys sliced by winding rivers, rolling green hills, and snow-capped mountains. The landscape is enhanced by distinctive architecture, which varies from province to province.

The Basque people, with their strong sense of tradition, add their own color to this fascinating region with their local festivals and in their dress-they often wear traditional costume and are never without a beret or espadrilles.

This itinerary takes you to two of the French Basque provinces, exploring the coast and hilltowns of Labourd and then weaving deeper into the countryside to the heart of Basse-Navarre. Labourd, with its beaches, port towns, and green foothills, is the province with the most diverse landscape. Basse-Navarre is rich with lush countryside, rolling green pastures, a scenic valley cut by the path of the River Nive, and small farming communities that have become famous for their ewes’ cheese.

Diverse in their landscape, the provinces are just as distinctive in architecture, influenced by both setting and tradition. Especially charming are the colorful, red-roofed, timbered houses of Labourd, which are intentionally built with their backs to the sea, with one side more richly decorated, and also strategically positioned east to face the rising sun and a new day. These houses are painted in the national red and green colors of Basque and it is fascinating to learn that ox blood was actually once used to stain the timbers red! Traditionally, Labourd homes are passed down to the oldest child and many have been in the same family for hundreds of years. To weather the more rugged climate, the homes of Basse-Navarre are built from the locally quarried stone and have distinctive circular balconies. The ground floor and entryway of Basque homes used to house the animals, with the family living above and drying hay serving to insulate the roof. You will notice in Labourd homes that one side of the roof extends further than the other-this gave the family the opportunity to expand the living quarters under the existing roof when financially able.

As well as being rich in tradition, landscape, and architecture, the region also offers a wealth of food specialties. To fully appreciate their culture, be sure to sample the rich ewes’ cheeses, delicious macaroons, a complex fish soup often referred to as ttoro, a butter tart filled with delicious black cherry filling (gâteau basque), the salty, dried ham (jamon de Bayonne), and a side dish called piperade, which is a compote of cooked tomatoes, onions, eggplant, garlic, and pimentos (the origin of its name). The vineyards of Irouleguy produce a red and a rosé and there is said to be a secret recipe with ingredients cultivated from over 20 regional plants to produce the two varieties of Izarra, a green or yellow liquor.

Recommended Pacing: Biarritz and Bayonne, on the coast, are both logical and convenient cities from which to begin and conclude a circle trip of these gorgeous and diverse districts of Pays Basque. Plan to spend at least two nights on the coast in order to explore the beaches, charming towns, and fishing villages with either Biarritz or Saint Jean de Luz as a base, a night in the hilltown village of Sare, and continue on into the heart of Basse-Navarre, overnighting in Saint Etienne de Baïgorry. Continue back to the coast and the capital city of Bayonne, including a stop in the picturesque village of La Bastide-Clairence.

Biarritz is a wonderful introduction to the style and life of Pays Basque. Once a whaling station, it is now recognized as a seaside resort of international renown. Don’t let its size intimidate you-as the residents will tell you, this is still a small town in heart and soul-locals claim not even to lock their cars! Biarritz is captivating and charming and the center of the old town is very easy to explore on foot. Its central stretch of beach is flanked by a promenade and a few casinos, the most spectacular of which, the Hôtel du Palais, is also a hotel and an historic landmark, dating back to the days of the Spanish Countess, Eugenie of Montijo who married the Emperor Napoleon III. Being fond of Biarritz, she had the Hôtel du Palais (originally referred to as Villa Eugenie) built as a holiday home, hosted European aristocracy, and introduced them to the charms and festivities of the town. The Countess is fondly referred to as the “godmother” of the town. The nightlife is perhaps a bit more tame than in her time, but people are still attracted to Biarritz for the casinos, racecourses, nightclubs, and special events including the surf festival, pelota tournament, and numerous golf tournaments. Be sure to visit the Biarritz Marine Museum located in front of the Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin Rock) for its display of marine fauna and aquariums; the Historical Museum, which features fishing and agricultural influences through costumes, paintings, artifacts, and documents; and, for gourmands, the Chocolate Museum, whose sculptures are a delicious and interesting testament to the fact that chocolate originated in the Basque Country during the reign of Louis XIV.

With its absolutely gorgeous setting, Biarritz also inspires you to spend some time outdoors. Include a visit to the Biarritz Lighthouse, dating back to 1831, which towers 73 meters above the sea and (after a climb of 248 steps) offers an exceptional view of the town and Basque coastline. From the lighthouse follow the headland to the Côtes des Basque Beach with its dramatic offshore rocks of the Basta, the Madonna, and the Atalaye Plateau and most definitely include a walk along the Port des Pêcheurs, the old fishing village now referred to as the Biarritz Port Vieux or Old Port. This is an enchanting path to walk at sunset: taking you from the beach around the old harbor, along its breakwater, which protects its active fishing fleet and intimate seafood restaurants, to a picturesque point and then wrapping around the other side of Biarritz below an exclusive residential district. It was from the old harbor where whaling ships used to sail out to the Bay of Biscaye.

There are several charming villages that hug the coast south from Biarritz in a span of just 108 kilometers to the Spanish border. A few roads run parallel down the coast: we left Biarritz on the D911 and then opted for the smallest road, the N10, which wasn’t the most direct but ribboned through the center of each of the villages. Bidart-with its quaint main square banded by timbered houses and its nearby church, which is characteristic of the fortress-style churches of the 16th century-is a typical Basque village in the Labourd style and was also once a bustling whaling and fishing port. For another wonderful view of the Basque coast, turn right off the square on the narrow street that leads to the cliffs, to the site of the Sainte-Madeline Chapel, dedicated to Basque mariners.

From Bidart’s lovely beach, the road winds up through the coastal hills to Guéthary, the coast’s smallest village, nestled in the hills above the beautiful expanse of blue ocean. Guéthary derives its name from the Latin word “to observe” as its setting provided a wonderful vantage point from which to spot whales. Its numerous villas, many of them lovely red-and-green timbered and shuttered houses, are a testament to its days as a very popular and wealthy seaside community. Don’t leave without visiting its picturesque port and driving by the charming cliff-top railway station. Like Bidart, Guéthary boasts some lovely neighboring beaches (quite popular with surfers) and interesting shops.

Farther south is the larger town of Saint Jean de Luz, separated by a bridge and the mouth of the River Nivelle from the equally picturesque town of Ciboure. With its lovely expanse of beach, sheltered harbor, grassy beach promenade, distinctive regional architecture, quaint town square, outdoor cafés, and local artists, it is easy to understand the enduring popularity of this enchanting town. To complement its beauty it also has a rich and colorful history-the lavish homes are evidence of the wealth acquired by whalers-turned-pirates (the French-corsaires-sounds more dignified!) who sailed under the blessing of the French King. The town reached its peak of dignity and glory in 1660 with the arranged political union of Louis XIV of France and Marie-Thérèse of Spain. Still standing on either side of the town’s main square are the two houses where they each awaited their marriage. (The Louis XIV House can be visited in summer months.) Also interesting to visit is the Church of St. John the Baptist, whose doorway was walled up immediately after the couple’s departure so that no one else could cross the royal threshold. The interior is worth a visit for its simple architecture, high altar, and classic wooden Basque balconies. Although a popular tourist town, Saint Jean de Luz still has an active fishing industry, with anchovies, tuna, and sardines playing a vital role in its commercial success.

With a beautiful setting banded by ocean and hillside, Ciboure has always been considered an extension of Saint Jean de Luz; but because it is across the river, it became a comfortable refuge for the Bohemian set and remains a community of fishermen, artists, and musicians.

From Ciboure it is just a short distance traveling along the Corniche Basque following the D912 to the lovely town of Hendaye with its gorgeous 3-kilometer stretch of sandy beach (considered the region’s safest beach for swimming). Right on the Spanish border, Hendaye has played an important historical role as a frontier town.

From Hendaye, cut east over to the N10, travel north back to the outskirts of Saint Jean de Luz, and then leave the coast and head inland on the D918. The scenery changes almost immediately as you leave the ocean behind and the road follows a picturesque sweep of the River Nivelle with a gorgeous backdrop of verdant mountain. The D918 travels across the river and passes right through the center of Ascain, a charming town nestled amongst fields of sheep and cattle. After Ascain take the D4, a road that winds a scenic route up from the town, and on its outskirts at the Col de St. Ignace, a number of parked cars will draw your attention to a little rack railway that climbs 905 meters up to the highest peak in Pays Basque, La Rhune Train, on the Spanish border. From La Rhune you enjoy spectacular vistas looking over the Pyrenees and to the distant coastline. The train trip takes approximately 30 minutes and at the top there are a few souvenir shops and places to eat. You can return to the bottom on foot, if you prefer. (Mid-Mar to Nov 02, first departure 9:30 am, tel: 05.59.54.20.26, fax: 05.59.47.50.76, www.rhune.com.)

Soon after you leave La Rhune a tree-lined drive winds down to the valley and the quiet, endearing village of Sare. I will always have fond memories of Sare that date to my early research years (now a quarter of a century ago!); memories of a typical timbered Labourd village whose central square at the time of my first visit was a stage for a colorful local festival with traditionally costumed dancers and musicians.

Historically, Sare, so close to the Spanish border, has played a dominant role in smuggling goods across the frontier-termed “night work” by the locals!

Although not on sightseeing maps, close to Sare there is a completely non-commercial, storybook-perfect hamlet of timbered homes that is worth a quick drive-by. To step back into this world of yesterday and visit a single-street village that was once a 16th-century farm, leave the center of Sare in the direction of Cambo les Bains and just on Sare’s outskirts, at the roundabout, make a detour left, up the tree-lined road.

Return to the roundabout, take the D4 in the direction of Saint Pée, cross over a small bridge and travel through farmland, first on the D4 then the D305, a narrow road and lush, scenic route. The road jogs onto the D20 and brings you to Aïnhoa. Located halfway between Sare and Cambo les Bains, Aïnhoa is one of France’s most beautiful villages, traditional and typically Basque. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Aïnhoa, just 2 kilometers from the Spanish border, served as a convenient stopover for pilgrims making their journey to Santiago de Compostella. Although almost totally destroyed by the Spanish in 1629, it was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries and its one main street lined by timbered and shuttered homes represents the essence of Pays Basque. All the typical, essential, and fundamental elements in a traditional Basque village are present in Aïnhoa: the town hall, the church, and the fronton (the rounded wall used for playing the classic Basque game of pelota).

From Aïnhoa return to the main road, following the D20 in the direction of Espelette and then the D918 in the direction of Bayonne, to the larger town of Cambo les Bains.

Proudly distinguished as a ville fleurie (“flowering village” is an award recognizing towns with dramatic flower displays), Cambo les Bains, with its pretty setting and mild climate, became a popular tourist spot because of the two thermal springs found in the village. The oldest homes are located in Bas Cambo down from the town on the other side of the river. You can also visit Arnaga, Edmond Rostand’s magnificent château-home and gardens. Now a national monument, it is also a museum dedicated to this much-celebrated author of Cyrano de Bergerac. (Open Apr to Nov, tel: 05.59.29.70.25.)

Following the path of the River Nive from Cambo les Bains, it is a pretty drive on the D918 through lush countryside to the heart of Basse-Navarre and two wonderful towns, Saint Etienne de Baïgorry and Saint Jean Pied du Port. You will want to overnight in the area in order to explore the region and towns. I would select Saint Etienne de Baïgorry if you want a quieter setting, and Saint Jean Pied du Port if you want stay in one of France’s most beautiful walled villages. The D918 goes directly to Saint Jean Pied de Port, but to reach Saint Etienne de Baïgorry, you leave the D918 on the D948 at Saint Martin d’Arrossa. From Saint Etienne de Baïgorry you can then drive 11 kilometers on the D15 to Saint Jean Pied de Port.

With the mountains as a dramatic backdrop, Saint Etienne de Baïgorry enjoys a beautiful, serene setting in the valley of the Aldudes, nestled among the vineyards of the Irouléguy. Now a sportsman’s paradise (hiking, rafting, rock climbing), this rugged terrain was, for those who tended the land, hard to work and many of the summer festivals and the famous “Force Basque Games” are based on the old farming chores and challenges of mountain life.

The capital of Basse-Navarre and a border crossing into Spain, the fortified town of Saint Jean Pied de Port enjoys a strategic location at the base of the mountains and straddling the Nive River. The name Pied de Port translates to “foot of the pass” and refers to the famous Roncevaux Pass where Charlemagne was defeated by the Basques. This pass was also used by the Romans and by the pilgrims en route to the tomb of St. James at Santiago de Compostella-the scallop shell used as an emblem by the pilgrims of St. James appears as a carved decoration on many of the town’s homes.

You can drive to the summit (1032 meters) of Roncevaux Pass and of interest, just after the summit, is a 13th-century Gothic church, cloister, and small chapel housing the tomb of the Basque King Sancho VII, the Strong of Navarre.

Saint Jean Pied de Port is pretty and distinctive, with many of its houses constructed in rose-colored granite. A picturesque medieval bridge spanning the Nive connects the two sections of town and cobbled, narrow streets wind up to the crowning citadel. It is a fun town with lots of outdoor cafés and shops selling regional goods, and is the principal market town for the region (market day Mon).

From Saint Jean Pied de Port you can drive directly back to the coast following the D918 or, if time allows for a scenic detour, leave the D918 at Eyharce and take the D8, crossing the river at Ossès, a cute town whose church has a distinctively striped steeple, on to Irissary. Here you pick up the D22 at Celay traveling north to the neighboring villages of Helette and Herauritz. This is definitely farm country and the drive is picturesque as it cuts a path right through the rich pastures and dairy farms, a route often appropriately signed Route du Fromage (Cheese Road). If you want to stop and sample the regional ewes’ cheese, the tasting room of Fromage de Brebis, just past Herauritz, is well signed along this charming country road.

From Herauritz, take the D119 and travel back to Louhossoa and the junction of D918. The D918 will take you back to the outskirts of Cambo les Bains. Here you can continue on the D918, which becomes the D932 past Cambo les Bains, to Bayonne.

But for another rewarding detour, travel the D10 through Cambo les Bains to Hasparren and then the lovely Basque village of La Bastide Clairence. This is a sweet village made up entirely of timbered homes and, with the honor of being designated one of France’s most beautiful villages, it serves as a wonderful last countryside stop before you continue back to the coast and the larger port city of Bayonne.

The regional capital, Bayonne, has played an important role in history as a strategic commercial port city located at the junction of two rivers, the Nive and the Adour, on the constantly challenged border between France and Spain. It is a relatively easy city to navigate in and out of and is most definitely well worth the effort.  Travel to the heart of this captivating port city, which was once a Roman garrison and was ruled at different times by both the French and English crowns. Shaded by old, leaning timbered buildings, cobbled streets wind up from the river that cuts a path through its center. Bayonne flourished during the 300-year English reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet. Their son Richard the Lionheart found his bride here-a Basque princess from Navarre. The town was penetrated by canals until the 17th century and you can still see the unusual arcades that once housed merchants serving the seamen.

To walk the streets of this river town, still protected behind its old stone walls, is to discover a lovely city of pedestrian passages, quaysides, and wonderful stone and half-timbered houses. Visit St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the medieval cellars-in fact, medieval shops-that are found under the upper and older part of the town surrounding the cathedral. Bayonne is home to the Bonnat Museum, which houses a fine collection of art, considered one of the most prestigious collections outside Paris, including works by Goya, Raphael, Delacroix, Michelangelo, and Constable. For an in-depth study and presentation of the history of Bayonne as well as Basque culture, you might also want to visit the Basque Museum.

Before leaving Basque allow yourself to be tempted into one of the many tea rooms that specialize in a regional decadence. Basque is intensely proud of its claim of introducing hot chocolate to the world.

In South America, Christopher Columbus came upon this strange concoction that was used by the Indians not for barter but as the necessary ingredient for a rich, strong drink. The explorers returned home with the distinctive bean and shared the secret technique for turning cacao into chocolate. The Jews became experts in its production and brought it to the southwest of France when fleeing the Inquisitions. It is said that Bayonne became the first town to taste this delicious new beverage. The church at first disapproved of it, claiming it to be an aphrodisiac! However, the threatened wrath of the church was quickly ignored for something so delicious and chocolate became one of Bayonne’s most famous exports. Don’t leave Basque without sampling some of this “devil’s brew”!

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