France’s Basque country

Alison Weeks discovers the stunning peaks and beautiful beaches, not to mention the exquisite cuisine, that make Pyrénées-Atlantiques truly unique

Pyrénées-Atlantiques is so named as it is nestled between the rugged Atlantic coastline and the soaring Pyrenees mountains. This Aquitaine department boasts some of the most unspoilt landscapes in France, as well as some of the most diverse, with first-rate ski resorts located just a short drive from sandy surfing beaches. And the local culture of Pyrénées-Atlantiques is equally varied – here the warmth and hospitality of the French Basque Country can be found alongside the elegance and grandeur of 19th-century spa towns.

The Basque people have called this south-west corner of France home for millennia and the influence of their rich culture is apparent everywhere you look. The southern part of the department contains what is known in French as the Pays Basque. Although the French Basque lost their autonomy after the Revolution, the Basque language and culture still thrive in the area’s traditional towns and villages. Though French is the official language, a quarter of the population still speak Basque, a mysterious language without any links to any Indo-European dialect.

Driving through the countryside of the Pays Basque, sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re in France. With the distinctive bright white houses trimmed in cheerful red or green woodwork and the trademark communal pelota frontons, the single-walled courts used for the traditional Basque ball game, the scenery is decidedly different. Tucked away in the rolling green hills between the coast and the mountains, you’ll find charming Basque villages like Espelette, famous for its eponymous red peppers, and Aïnho, one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages and a picturesque stop along the Route de St-Jacques. Sheep farming has long been a part of Basque culture and so it’s no surprise to find the hillsides dotted with white, fleecy livestock.

Further inland, the capital of the department and the historic province of Béarn, Pau is set in the foothills of the Pyrénées, where it commands breathtaking views of the mountains. This beautiful spa town has been popular with English tourists since Wellington first set up a garrison here during the Napoleonic Wars. Throughout the 19th century, English tourists continued to frequent the area, as it became renowned for its healing waters and health-promoting climate. Today the English legacy can still be seen in the number of English-style villas, parks and churches, as well as the oldest golf course in continental Europe.

Pau provides the perfect base for exploring the nearby mountains, with the Pyrenees National Park just a short drive away. Established in 1967, this vast park encompasses beautiful valleys and snow-covered summits, providing a protected area for the local flora and fauna. But it’s also home to tiny mountain villages, where locals still practise a pastoral way of life that has all but vanished in other parts of the world.

Often overlooked in favour of Alpine destinations, the Pyrenees is also home to some excellent skiing, offering a more laid-back atmosphere than you’ll find at more popular French resorts. But the best thing about skiing here is the proximity to so many wonderful spa facilities. In Pyrénées-Atlantiques you can spend your days skiing and your evenings recovering with seaside hydrotherapy.

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With its popular beaches and glamorous old casino, the seaside resort of Biarritz is one of the area’s major tourist destinations and one of the best places to go for an authentic French spa experience. Once a simple whaling port, the modern town sprang up around the Hôtel du Palais, a summer residence built by Napoleon III for Empress Eugénie in the mid-19th century. Designed in the shape of the letter E, for Eugénie, the villa was transformed into a hotel in 1893. Already a distinguished spa town, Biarritz became an increasingly fashionable tourist destination with the construction of the casino in 1901. Because of its wide tourist attraction, Biarritz looks more cosmopolitan than most places in the Basque Country, with architectural influences ranging from Russian to art deco.

Biarritz is still celebrated for its spas and thalassotherapy, but these days its biggest claim to fame is its surfing beaches, which attract both amateurs and professionals alike. Fuelled by the powerful winds of the Bay of Biscay, the Biarritz coast boasts some of the best waves in Europe. The annual Roxy Pro Championship sees the world’s best female surfers descend for an internationally acclaimed contest.

For those who prefer less taxing seaside pursuits, there are also plenty of places to sunbathe or simply go for a paddle. South of Biarritz, near the Spanish border, the protected beaches of St-Jean-de-Luz offer calmer waters for swimming and pristine beaches for sunbathing. Situated on a sheltered bay, this picturesque fishing community is set around the charming Place Louis XIV, where most days you’ll find local musicians playing traditional music, while onlookers enjoy a drink en terrace nearby. This pretty pedestrian square was named for the French king who wed the Spanish princess, Maria Teresa, here in 1660. The marriage took place in L’église St-Jean-Baptiste, an exceptionally beautiful church. The largest Basque church in France, its interior is one of the highlights of the town.

Inside the church a large sailing boat hangs from the ceiling as a tribute to the local fishermen and St-Jean’s maritime heritage. The town first gained its wealth thanks to its thriving whaling and fishing industry, as well as the exploits of the Basque Corsairs, who captured foreign vessels for the crown. Although the days of whaling and piracy are long gone, locals feel a strong connection to the sea. There is an active fishing port here, albeit a smaller operation than it used to be, and there’s always an abundance of fresh fish.

Looking across the bay at the village of Ciboure, you can just make out the Hollandaise-style house where Maurice Ravel was born in 1875. It was on a later visit to his native Ciboure that the composer wrote Le Boléro, one of his last and most enduring works. Further down the coast, Hendaye sits on the Spanish border, separated by the Bay of Chingoudy. This popular seaside destination boasts the longest beach on the Basque coast, with 3.5km of fine sand.

Although only a few miles inland from Biarritz, the charming cathedral city of Bayonne is worlds apart. Set on the convergence of the River Nive and the River Adour, the meandering old town is dominated by the Cathédrale Ste-Marie. The River Nive separates the city into Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne, which are linked by five bridges and backed by the original city walls. Located in the Pays Basque, Bayonne boasts traditional Basque half-timbered houses, as well as the Musée Basque, a museum devoted to the history of Basque culture and traditions.

The city is probably best known for jambon de Bayonne, the locally cured ham seasoned with ground red pepper from nearby Espelette, but Bayonne is also renowned for its many fine chocolate shops. The tradition of chocolate-making in Bayonne dates back to the 16th century when Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to France during the Spanish Inquisition. Among them were a community of chocolate-makers, who settled in Bayonne, bringing with them their expertise.

Today only a handful of chocolate makers remain, but the tradition is celebrated with an annual festival: les Journées du Chocolat de Bayonne. The two-day event sees the city centre overtaken with chocolate-lovers as the big names in Bayonne chocolate (Cazenave, Daranatz and Pariès) set up displays and hand out free samples under the arches of the rue Port Neuf. During the festival you’ll discover delicacies unique to Bayonne, like Pariès’ kanouga, an acclaimed chocolate caramel, and the chocolat mousseux from Cazenave, a scrumptious, foamy hot chocolate.

Wherever you go in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Basque influence is most apparent in the local cuisine, with the ubiquitous Espelette peppers adding warmth to many a dish, such as piperade, a spicy tomato sauced usually served with meat (see Mary Cadogan’s recipe on page 62), and the ever-popular chorizo Basque. There’s also a Spanish inspiration; on most menus you’ll find plenty of things cooked à la plancha. Another popular dish is gâteau Basque, an almond-based cake made with black cherries from Itxassou.

Locals also celebrate their heritage with the Basque flag, the ikurrina, featuring a white cross over red and green; and with production of traditional products, such as the makila, a unique walking stick with a concealed spike, and linge Basque, traditional fabric featuring colourful stripes. For tourists, this ready display of local flavour and heritage makes for a wonderful travel experience. On any given weekend, you’re sure to see some Basque folk tunes performed live in the town square or witness a typical dance. But above all, the Basque people endear themselves to visitors with their warm smiles and welcoming words. LF