We often say France is the most beautiful country in the world, because of the variety of its landscapes, its fabulous food culture, and its stylish lifestyle. Frankly, the Basque country could say the same. This pocket country, a picturesque and characterful kaleidoscope of coast, mountains and cities, packs quite a punch.
The Basque country, or Euskal Herria, straddles the western tip of the Pyrenees. As I arrived from the North, the first I saw were large industrial and commercial estates, with factories pumping smoke out into the drizzle. Thankfully, the Basque words on road signs promised exotism; Ks and Xs everywhere!
Whereas Gascon and the other parlers d’oc (see here) are easy to decipher as they are romance languages, the Basque language, or Euskara, is completely different. In fact, it is a linguistic oddity, as it has no relation to any other existing language! Euskara is key to Basque identity: it is what has kept the nation united throughout the vertiginous mishmash of its history, entangled in both Spanish and French vicissitudes.
Bayonne is the historical capital of the French part of the country, and the gateway to Basque country and its culture. The city developed in the Middle Ages both as a fortress and a port. On the south bank of the river Adour, the narrow streets are full of charm. Tall whitewashed half-timbered town houses and their colourful shutters alternate with elegant 18th century stone buildings. The colours, and the slightly decrepit state of the buildings on the river frontages – the ocean is only 6km away – give an atmosphere of Havana.
The Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled on the north side of the river Adour, creating the Saint-Esprit quarter, now more famous for its street art. For Bayonne is a city pulsating with life. It has embraced its role as cultural and foodie capital of the Basque country. Its streets are full of temptations, from the famous Bayonne ham to the pinxtos, or Basque tapas.
I was there at the end of July, during the run-up to the famous fêtes de Bayonne. Normally, everyone dressed in white with a red scarf is welcome to join in the drinking, singing, pétanque competitions and pelote basque tournaments, and the course de vachettes, where young excitable cows are released into the streets… But this year, the fêtes were cancelled, and all sales of alcohol banned for days in the city; but people still turned up in white and red. I found the Basques very French in their stubborn attachment to their freedom to party…
Biarritz, hardly 7 km away from Bayonne, has a very different feel. Once a tiny harbour dedicated to whaling, Biarritz was transformed in the 19th century by the impress Eugenie, originally from there, into a glitzy and fashionable sea resort. Palaces, casinos and Art deco villas front the beach. Aristocrats and artists of the world have come ever since to Biarritz. Ever surfing new waves, Biarritz became the birthplace and capital city of surf in France. My lasting impression of Biarritz is Aston Martins and Teslas, stuck in traffic, overtaken by the young, tanned and glamourous carrying surfboards.
Further south, Saint-Jean de Luz has combined Basque charm in its old streets with a more family-friendly sea front, and a nice beach, livened up the with the bright colours of the canvas windbreaks. Further south still, the lovely harbour of Ciboure gives a glimpse of what a traditional Basque harbour was like, before the tourists arrived. If you carry on south, the road along the corniche Basque allows beautiful views on the sea and mountains.
As I went inland, the Basque landscapes and culture carried on showing off…