The hinterland of the Basque country is, in my opinion, even more pleasant than the coast. There the landscapes of rolling hills building up to peaks is just as spectacular. And the culture is less diluted than on the coast.
On the hills, pottoks (pie ponies) and cows live semi-wild. Their bells provide as soothing, almost mesmerising background noise. Above, kites and buzzards circle. When the clouds lift, you contemplate the high peaks of the Pyrenees. One of the most popular walk is up La Rhune (905m high). On the top, you are rewarded by a spectacular view over the sea, I have been told. Unfortunately the weather in the Basque country does not always allow…
The hills are dotted with big, stylish, well-kept stylish Basque houses. People clearly take pride in their appearance. Where I was, in Labourd, the white walls and red (“sang-de-boeuf”) shutters and balconies contrast beautifully with the green of the hills. The house (etxe) was the cornerstone of Basque society. It would give people their name. One couple would run it, until they decided to retire, and chose an heir and their spouse to have and run it. The houses were homes, grain stores, shelter for cattle, and manufacturing units.
In the valley bottoms, quaint villages and towns decline their own versions of Basque culture. Cambo-les-Bains has all the charm of a thermal town. In Espelette, the houses are particularly pretty, adorned with red peppers, hung out to dry. Sare is another delightful town, with stylish 17th and 18th century houses. And Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just on the border with Spain, tops them all, with its pink stone rampart, medieval streets, gardens and its citadel.
The whole country is devoted to pelote basque, a mix between squash and baseball, if I understand rightly. It is played against a wall called a fronton (in Bidarray, the church’s façade looks suspiciously like a fronton… ). In some versions of the game, the players have a the chistera, a glove made out of wood and wicker. Champions are idolised and bring pride to their village and their house. I also saw advertised events of Force basque, the Basque rural games. Athletes compete in several trials, inherited from rural tasks such as tug-of-war, wood chopping or bale lifting.
But sport is not what interest me the most, by far. I have to tell you about Basque food. A perfect Basque meal for me would start with jambon de Bayonne: cured ham, rubbed with Espelette pepper. The meat is to savour like a wine, salty with undertones of hazelnuts. Then onto the poulet basquaise, chicken stewed in a piperade of peppers, onions, tomatoes, white wine, and, of course, Espelette peppers. Then the delicious Ossau-Iraty ewe cheese, in which you can almost taste mountain flowers. But leave some room for gâteau basque – which I prefer in its dark cherry version.
Everywhere, the locals are welcoming; proud of their culture, living it every day, and eager to share it. I have noticed a few people wearing the beret basque. This item of clothing – seen as particularly French in English-speaking countries – actually originated in the Basque country (or was it the near Béarn? We call it “béret basque”…).
Too soon I had to leave the Basque country; but I leave absolutely charmed. Dare I say, France is all the richer for it.