French Basque Country – Five great reasons to book a holiday
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What’s your favourite place in
France? As a specialist in writing about our nearest Continental neighbour,
it’s a question I’m asked a lot but can never answer. For a start, it wouldn’t
be fair - France has so many highlights to offer - and secondly, it depends
what I want to do. Chill out by the sea or walk in the mountains; soak up some
city culture or relax on a river cruise.
But I have to admit to having a
soft spot for the far south-west corner of the Hexagon, as the French call
their geometrically-shaped homeland. Basque
Country boasts a unique combination of coast, countryside and mountains in one
neat package, a vibrant and colourful area with a flavour all its own.
Basque Country is a land with no
official borders that spans both France and Spain, straddling the Atlantic end
of the Pyrenees, and sharing a common language and traditions. Made up of seven provinces – three in France
and four larger ones in Spain – it is quite unlike anywhere else in either
country. Intrigued? Here are five good reasons why I think you
should consider French Basque Country for your next French holiday – Culture,
Colour and Coastline, Countryside and Cuisine. Find out more at www.biarritz-pays-basque.com
The three French provinces together
make up the western half of département
64 – Pyrénées-Atlantiques – in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. The main coastal towns are the resorts of
Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz with nearby Bayonne designated official capital of
French Basque Country. People speak
French here, but you’ll also find dual-language road signs with names in
Euskara, the official Basque language that is increasingly taught here in
schools and also spoken on the other side of the Pyrenees. Expect lots of words with ‘x’, ‘z’ and other
high-scoring Scrabble letters.
Visit the Musée Basque in Bayonne
to find out about Basque architecture and lifestyle, dances, music and
art. And maybe take in a game of pelota, a fast and furious sport that is
akin to squash but played in numerous variations against a high wall called a fronton; every village has its own open
air fronton, but there are indoor versions of the game too such as cesta punta. Surf culture has been strong here since it
was introduced from America in the ‘50s, and not just amongst the young. Meanwhile, Basque Country’s other sporting
passion – as in all south-west France – is rugby. You’ll find former French internationals
running restaurants in Biarritz and even commemorated on murals.
East of the invisible Basque
Country boundary lies the Béarn, home to Pau and Lourdes. You’ll know when you’ve arrived there because
the architecture changes in an instant. Basque
Country is characterised by its whitewashed houses with half-timbering in red
‘ox blood’ or sometimes green. Move into
Béarn and you’re suddenly amongst stone houses with slate roofs.
Basque flags carry on the red and
white theme, and everyone dresses in traditional colours and costumes for the
annual summer festival in Bayonne. But
Basque Country comes in other vibrant shades too. The deep blue of the Atlantic beaches, the green
foothills of the Pyrenees, and the multi-coloured stripes of traditional Basque
table linens and espadrilles, not forgetting the spectacular golden sunsets.
The Côte Basque stretches from the
Nive estuary close to Bayonne in the north to Hendaye on the Spanish border in
the south, a mix of family-friendly beaches and rolling surf. Elegant Biarritz became popular in the 1850s
thanks to Napoleon III and his Spanish wife Eugénie, who built their summer
palace here, now the Hôtel du Grand Palais, location for the 2019 G7 Summit. Walk the undulating headland promenade;
browse the covered market; and don’t miss the excellent aquarium behind an Art
I never tire of Biarritz, the buzz
of the restaurants and cafes, the tempting boutiques, and varied coastal views,
but nor can I resist the very different feel of St-Jean-de-Luz a little further
south. ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV got married
here in 1660 – visit the galleried church where he tied the royal knot – but it
was Napoleon III who ordered the building of the breakwater which today gives
this charming town a safe, sheltered beach for tranquil beach days.
Turn your back on the coast and the
hills and valleys of Basque Country are permanently lush, thanks to the
proximity of both ocean and mountains. The hills and valleys are splashed with red- and-white communities that
include four listed amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – Sare, Ainhoa,
La Bastide-Clairance, and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the latter also famous as the
last French stopover on the Compostela pilgrims’ trail before Spain.
Don’t miss colourful Espelette,
centre of the local pimento industry, and the beautiful Villa Arnaga, near
Cambo-les-Bains. Built by playwright
Edmund Rostand on the proceeds of his play Cyrano
de Bergerac, it’s a theatrical treat with a garden to match.
Basque Country is famous for its
charcuterie, not just the famous cured Bayonne Ham but also salami and
sausages. Cheese-fan? Most popular varieties here are made from
sheep’s milk – Fromage de brebis. Ask at
any Tourist Office about visits to producers and local shops, then buy
vacuum-packed to bring home. Bayonne is
also famous for its handmade chocolate, a skill brought to the city by Jewish
settlers escaping the Spanish inquisition.
And for an irresistible sweet
treat, have a slice of Gateau Basque with your coffee – a crisp crust with a soft
interior flavoured with almond cream, cherry jam, or chocolate. Glass of wine? Try Irouleguy wines from the area around
St-Jean-Pied-de-Port – little known outside the area and absolutely
For holidays to France Silver Travel Advisor recommends Simpson
Travel - France.
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