The French Basque Countryside
Full-day excursions covering the Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule provinces of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques are possible starting either from San Sebastián-Donostia or Hondarribia on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, or from the fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz or Bayonne on the France side. The day-long excursions will take you through dewy inland country pastures, meadows and rolling hills, home to some of the most handsome cream-colored cows in all of Europe. The incredibly picturesque countryside surrounding the Pays Basque’s 2 and 3-flower villages stands out as unique in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes) region of southern France. The Pyrénées-Atlantiques includes the area from the blue waters of the Atlantic, the Côte Basque, to Béarn’s Jurançon wine region south of Pau. Bordered on the North by Landes and on the East by Hautes-Pyrénées, and a touch of Gers, the three provinces cover an area roughly 3000 square miles but with a population of slightly less than 700,000, mostly Basque, while the Basque Country on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees (not including Navarra) has a population of a little over 2 million in an area that’s slightly smaller in size. Together they have about the same population as Brooklyn, NY, only with 90 times the area to live and play in, and all of it incredibly picturesque.
AscainYour first stop should be at well-groomed, prosperous 3-flower village of Ascain, or Azkaine in Basque, a few minutes drive inland from the coast, at the foot of La Rhune Mountain. Originally founded in the 13th-century, it was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War, but is now ranked among the most beautiful villages in France, and is another stop on the road to Composella, and home of the “chistera”, the wicker scoop used by pelota (jai alai) players. Here in the square, as in other Basque villages, you’ll find the Holy Trinity of buildings: the pelota court, which on this side of the border is normally pink or salmon colored, a 17th-century Basque church, and the town hall, Mairie, or Herriko Etxea in Basque. Ascain’s pretty church, Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, has a typical two-story wooden balcony, square bell-tower and manicured, flower bedecked cemetery. In this, as in all the villages in the Pays Basque, the cemeteries are tourist-worthy sights. Note the beautiful porcelain flowers decorating the lovingly cared for tombstones. If you notice the names on the tombstones you’ll see many begin with “Etche”, such as Etchevery, Etcheverria or Etchegory.
SareAfter a visit to Ascain, you head southeast on the D4 to another pretty 3-flower village. Sare, another “les plus beaux villages de France”, which became wealthy during the 19th-century through the smuggling trade, or as the Basques called it, their “night work”, lies ahead along a road winding through the wooded countryside. It’s separated from Spain by the Pyrénées, but the mountains have never constituted a barrier. They’ve served as a private link between the Basque families on both sides and have over the years seen a constant movement of sheep, contraband, war-time refugees, both from the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and even ETA terrorists in the seventies and eighties.
AinhoaAfter Sare, move south to this village of just one street, filled with 17th and 18th-century half-timbered homes with asymmetric roofs, many bearing the family name and the year constructed carved above the door lintels. Another 3-flower village, “les plus beaux villages de France”, some say Ainhoa is one of the prettiest villages in all of France. Founded in the 12th-century, it served as a stopping off place for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Look for the historic La Maison Gorritia, built in 1662, one of the most photographed houses in the village. The church, L'église Notre Dame de l’Assomption, is particularly beautiful with its two-tiered wooden balconies and a graveyard of discoidal tombstones. There are Basque dances in the Place du Fronton from July 24-31, a celebration honoring la gourde, the traditional bota bag (wineskin) carried by the workers in the field, will be on Sunday, July 29 this year, in the Fonton. The annual village fête runs from August 15-18, and La Fête de la Palombe, the festival of the wood pigeon, takes place this year on Sunday, October 21.
EspeletteUpon leaving Ainhoa, drive northeast to my favorite of all the Labourdian villages, the much photographed, picture perfect, red pepper village of Espelette, Ezpeleta in Basque, a colorful, captivating town of red and green shuttered white buildings. If you could visit only one village in the interior of the Pays Basque, this would be it. The town’s 17th-century church, Église Saint Etienne, has beautiful carvings inside and outside you’ll find the customary Basque graveyard filled with discoidal grave markers. The restored castle, Château des Barons d'Ezpeletta, one of oldest houses in the Pays Basque, dating from around the year 1000, now houses the town hall and tourist office.
If you visit in October, the village will be a riot of red with buildings dressed in the small red peppers known as Piment d’Espelett, hung in garlands on the house facades to dry fin the sun. Typically quiet, or as quiet as any Basque town can be, it does get busy on the weekend and during the summer months as visitors flood its streets and fill its shops. The pepper festival, Fête du Piment, is held on the last Sunday in October and attracts thousands of visitors for the traditional blessing of the peppers, along with the singing and dancing and processions.
LarressoreBefore venturing southeast into the Basse Navarre, your next stop, a quick detour off the Espelette road, should be to Larressore, sitting south of the historic Mondarrain and Atxulegui Mountains, where you can visit and shop at the famous walking stick studio, Makhila, of the Ainciart-Bergara family, who have been in business here for more than 200 years. In 2017, L’atelier Anciart Bergara, the Anciart Bergara workshop, was awarded its 3rd star by the Michelin Green Guide.
ItxassouLeaving Larressore, you can head south on the D918 with a quick detour to the right (west) to the small, sleepy, but attractive village black cherry village of Itxassou. Like most of other the villages in the area, it too was heavily damaged during the Spanish-French war in the early 1800s, but survived. Not much to see here but the pink pelota court at the square, and the village’s extremely pretty 17th-century church of Saint-Fructueux with its 3-tiered wooden balconies and lovingly tended, flower bedecked cemetery in the lower town.
BidarrayContinuing southeast on the D918 and crossing the boundary from the province of Labourd to Basse-Navarre, you follow the River Nive to small village of Bidarray, located at the foot of the peaks of “Iparla” of “Artzamendi” and “Baigura” mountains. In order to see the upper town, with its incredibly scenic views from town square, you must cross the Roman bridge, the Noblia, that the villagers call the “Bridge of Hell”, built by the Laminak or Sorginak (witches in Basque mythology) in one night, and detour up to the top of the plateau. Park at the fonton next to the church. This is well worth the detour for the vistas alone, plus a great lunch stop at the restaurant in the heart of the village, the Auberge Imparla, which reopened in August 2017.
OssèsAfter Bidarray, you continue on the D918, the road to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, following the course of the River Nive, past the Poterie Goïcoechea, famed pottery workshop in Ossès-look for the enormous clay water jugs outside. If you’re in the market for an attractive, hand painted clay wine cooler, this is the place to purchase it, or a hand painted vase. Their boutique shop is in St-Jean-de-Luz, at 1 Place Louis XIV. On the road here you’ll also pass the Arnabar shop, which sells duck confit, foie gras, and other delicious Basque delicacies. You can also visit their farm in neighboring Irissarry to see the ducks themselves on Monday and Thursday from 10:00 am to noon, July-September. But don’t make a stop here if it’s Monday, as you’ll see the Arnabar folks at the Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port outdoor market, or stop by their shop in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, 15, rue Labrouche, next to Les Halles. If you’re in need of espadrilles, stop in Ossès at the shop and museum, Don Quichosse, to watch them be made by artisan Jean Jacques Houyou. The museum is open from April to October.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-PortThen on to the pretty, but always annoyingly crowded St-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Donibane Garazi in the Basque language. Spanning both sides the River Nive, this classic and ancient village boasts pink sandstone walls, red roofs and wooden, geranium draped balconies. It is also an important way station on the Camino de Santiago, the route of Saint James, and the “gateway” to Spain. In the summer the village fills with modern day pilgrims, resting and getting their credentials and gear in order before starting off on their 800 plus mile journey, scallops shells, the symbol of St. Jacques, attached to their bags.
Monday is the fabled market day, and this is indeed the day to visit as all the major bergers, purveyors of farm products, set up their stands in the area above the main road, where “Donibane Garazi” is spelled on the hill with flowers. We find ample parking nearby on the hill. By hitting the town on market day, you need not stop at every farm along the route-the farmers handily come to you. It all ends around 1:00 pm, so you’ll need to get an early start to your day, or divide this driving tour into two, one for Labourd villages, another for the Basse-Navarre, which is my recommended manner of seeing all the delights of the Pays Basque countryside. This market is a real treat!
Saint-Etienne-de-BäigorryFrom here you head due west for about 11 km to the even prettier and much more serene agricultural village of Bäigorry, which means “beautiful view” in Euskara, the Basque tongue. The town sits in the heart of the very scenic Aldudes Valley on the edge of the river, and is home to many of the Basque sheepherders who immigrated to California, Montana and Nevada from the late 1800s until the 1970s. In the village square visit the lovely Basque church with its beautiful gold Baroque altarpiece and two-tiered wooden balcony with one very famous German Remy Mahler organ used in July-August for the Festival Musical de Basse-Navarre concerts by some of Europe’s most renowned organists. On weekends services are sung in Basque. There are Force Basque (rural Basque “iron man” sports) competitions in July.
Cambo-les-BainsNot far from Bayonne, quietly nestled in the heart of the French Basque country, in the Nive Valley, you’ll find the spa-town of Cambo-les-Bains, or Kanbo in Basque, a village of half-timbered houses with red or green shutters, once a noted center for the treatment of tuberculosis. One of the more interesting buildings in Le Quartier des Thermes is the art-deco style Thermes de Cambo. The luxurious 15-hectare garden is filled with palms and flowers and is free to explore. There is also a Roman bridge in lower Cambo, Bas Combo. And if you love chocolate, be sure to visit Chocolaterie Puyodebat, the artisan chocolatier at Avenue de Navarre, if you missed the shop in Bayonne. The store is open Monday-Saturday. In October, the village celebrates the traditional Gâteau Basque, the Basque cake which originated in the Labourd province in the 17th-century, with a festival the first week of October.
But here is where also you’ll discover the historic Villa Arnaga, the Musée Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, a lovely masterpiece, a Neo-Basque villa decorated in Belle Epoque style with exquisite formal Versailles-style gardens, covering more than 15 hectares, complete with strutting peacocks.
From Cambo, you can head to Hasparren, home of Bob’s Beer, on the D10, then south on the D251 to small hamlet of Isturitz for a visit to the prehistoric, 80,000 year old caves, Grottes d’Isturitz-Oxocelhaya, one of the more important Paleolithic sites in France, and part to the Pyreneo-Cantabric chain. Discover in 1913, the caves in the Vallée de l’Arbéroue, the Arberoue Valley ,are open daily from mid-March to mid-November. Visits are 11€ for adults, 4,50€ for children from 7 to 14. Every Wednesday in July and August there is a special photographic tour for 14€, reservations required at least 24 hours in advance.
La Bastide-ClairenceAfter your visit to the caves, return to Hasparren to take the D10 or D510 north to another three-flower village, La Bastide-Clairence, one of the prettiest and least discovered of all in the French Basque country. This fortified hamlet, created in 1312 by Louis I King of Navarre, lies just far enough east of Biarritz and Bayonne to be missed by those touring on the Sare-Espelette-Ainhoa circuit. A tiny, one street village, a Plus Beaux Villages de France, “Most Beautiful Villages of France”, does have one of the most lovingly cared for cemeteries next to its village church, Notre Dame du Chemin, that you’ll see.
Beyond the church’s cemetery, you’ll find another, ancient, gated cemetery, the “cimetière juif”, a Jewish cemetery dating back to the 1610 with 62 tombstones now maintained by the Israelite Consistory of Bayonne. The Jewish settlement in La Bastide-Clairence, seventy to eighty families, was an adjunct to the Jewish colony that settled in the St. Esprit quarter of Bayonne, after the Jews fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. These “Portuguese merchants” benefited from royal protection orders passed in 1550 and became a powerful economic group in the city. The first Jewish families buried here were “marranos”, those who officially converted to Catholicism but in secret continued to observe their Jewish faith. During the 1700s practicing Jews could be buried here due to the protection of the Dukes of Gramont. In 1941 the Nazis destroyed most of the cemetery.