The beauties of the Pays Basque
Ancient traditions and fascinating nature collide in the Pays Basque. Just like the nearby País Vasco beyond the border, this charming and fascinating corner of France combines Spanish and French influences, but has a unique and intriguing culture, definitely all of its own. Nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the rugged hills of the Pyrenees, this small region charms with its lush hills and valleys dotted with white and red villages, but also with its wide golden beaches, elegant seaside towns and the thriving food scene. From chocolate to macarons, passing through some of the best surfing spots in Europe, here are 8 reasons to visit the French Basque Country:
With its unique culture, beautiful surroundings and important waves throughout the year, the French Basque Country is nothing less than a surfer’s paradise. After all, it is here that the surf was first introduced in Europe (1957), by the Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel, who fell in love with the waves of Biarritz. Nowadays, the delightful Côte Basque is full of surf schools, shops and events, attracting surfers from across Europe and beyond, all on its wild Atlantic coasts. Besides the beach of La Côte des Basques in Biarritz, which is probably the most popular surfing spot in the area, you will also find excellent waves in Hendaye, Guéthary, Anglet and Lafitenia in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, one of the few stops along the it costs.
Once a favorite summer residence for artists, writers and aristocrats, Biarritz is now a lively meeting place for bohemian surfers, with an intriguing mix of Belle Époque attractions, trendy boutiques and surf shops. La Grande Plage, the beautiful sandy beach of the city, attracts surfers from all over the world, while beautiful villas, impressive art deco facades and elegant promenade walks recall the city’s aristocratic past. The hybrid nature of Biarritz is also reflected in its food scene, where the creative Basque tapas (pinxtos) and the fresh seafood of the Bay of Biscay share the stage with exceptional chocolate confections, refined French desserts and Michelin starred creations.
Located in the Western Pyrenees, near the villages of Sare and Ainhoa, La Rhune is a small mountain (905 mt) with a great view. Awarded with 3 stars in the Michelin Green Guide, the breathtaking panoramic view from the summit embraces all 7 Basque provinces, from the French Atlantic coast to the imposing peaks of the Pyrenees to the northern coast of Spain. To see the Basque Country in all its natural beauty, use the Petit Train de La Rhune, which climbs up the mountain through a picturesque countryside full of vultures and wild Basque ponies (pottok).
If you thought Brussels is the European capital of chocolate, you are wrong. Bayonne, the most important city and port of the French Basque Country, is the place where chocolate was brought to France (1600) by Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Today, the picturesque port city at the foot of the Pyrenees is crammed with renowned chocolate houses, serving everything from sophisticated pralines and truffles to divine ganaches, to kanouga caramel and to the rich, frothy chocolat chaud. To learn more about the city’s chocolate history, take a stroll along the pedestrian Rue Neuf, also known as the “Chocolate Street”, where the oldest chocolatiers of Bayonne are located; don’t forget to do a visit to the small museum of L’Atelier du Chocolat; or participate in Les Journées du Chocolat (Chocolate Days) in the last weekend of October. Also, make sure you do not miss the city specialty, flavored with local spicy chilli powder, the Espelette piment.
Perhaps the most charming Basque village on the French side, Espelette is a labyrinth of postcard streets lined with boutiques and traditional white and red houses. What distinguishes it, however, is the famous spicy pepper (Piment d’Espelette), a certified product since 1999 and a basic ingredient of traditional Basque cuisine. The best time to visit Espelette is towards the end of the summer, when garlands of red peppers hang on the facades of the villages and from the balconies, to dry in the sun; or during the Espelette Pepper Festival (the last weekend of October), when the city comes alive with dancing, drinking and many spicy dishes with the famous local chili.
Stretching between Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye, the Corniche Basque is a beautiful protected natural area 10 km long where the verdant cliffs plunge into the Atlantic, giving rise to a decidedly spectacular scenery. Following the coastal path you will reach green, open meadows, dotted with wild orchids and grazing sheep, enchanting views of the sea, and the enchanting Château Observatory of Abbadia, located at the entrance to Hendaye, overlooking the rocky coastline.
Dating back to the royal wedding of 1660 by Louis XIV and Maria Teresa of Spain, the delights of Maison Adam are called “véritables macarons”. The historical pastry shop still exists today in the Rue de la République in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and they still use today the same secret family recipe. However, the beautiful French seaside resort of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, with its picturesque harbor, the old fairytale district and the glorious sandy beach, is definitely worth a visit, even if you do not like macarons.
Fêtes de Bayonne
About a million partygoers, all dressed in white and with red scarves, visit every year the Basque French capital of Bayonne to take part in the five-day festival known as Fêtes de Bayonne. Dating back to 1932, this is the biggest and wildest festival in France. The event is inspired by San Fermin of Pamplona and, although most of the festivities revolve around the bullfight, there are also parades, music concerts, traditional songs and dances, and delicious food and drink.