Yes, this long post is about one region of France… but my non French-speaking visitors, don’t despair: for once, it is in English!…
It is an article not written by me, but by a visitor to France itself, who wrote about it for the ‘Travel’ section in the New York Times.
I would normally not copy it here, but it so happens that it is about the ‘Pays Basque’ (the ‘Basque Country’), a specific and very special area of France which I fell in love with when my family spent two summer vacations there; I must have been only around ten then, but the landscapes and the culture stayed in my heart for ever after. When I saw the main two names mentioned in the beginning of the article, I knew I would have to copy it on my blog, even if only for myself, as these two places, St. Jean de Luz et Ciboure, were precisely the one where we stayed, and the smaller one in whose old church we loved to go to Mass on Sundays, for that church still had the miniature ship hanging high in the middle like in the old times, and the men on one side with the women on the other side, and their devotional songs were sung by all with so much intensity and fervor, it gave you chills in your spine…
Moreover, this Research Blog of mine started in fact with this very topic: the Basque People, and especially their language, still quite mysterious to linguists, as will be pointed out in the article down below, originally from the following address:
At the end of October, summer had returned to the Basque Country. Swimmers joined the surfers along the coast. A strong sun turned the Atlantic Ocean from green to blue. On a late Sunday morning, in the French fishing village of Ciboure, townspeople poured out of L’Église St.-Vincent, a 16th-century church with an octagonal tower. Some stopped to chat by a tall gray cross speckled with lichen. Little girls in poufy dresses ran in circles, squealing. A young man tended to his stooped grandfather, who negotiated old flagstone with a cane. Freshly coifed women with short-handled pocket books lingered in the courtyard. “Bonne journée,” called the priest to his congregation as they headed off into the narrow streets on their way home for lunch.
I was passing through Ciboure en route to St.-Jean-de-Luz with my friend Gabriella Ranelli, whom I’d persuaded to leave her adopted home in the Spanish Basque Country where she organizes customized tours to poke around in the French part with me.
When most people think of the Basque Country, they think of Spain. Bilbao began the so-called Guggenheim effect. San Sebastián has all those Michelin stars. And Pamplona, notoriously, lets bulls run through its streets once a year. But the Basque Country is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in southwestern France.
The Basques are an ancient people who have inhabited this territory for thousands of years. Today, the Spanish part is an autonomous region with a Basque government, while the French part answers to the central government in Paris. The Spanish side has had a strong independence movement, which has lately been eclipsed by Catalonia’s. At the height of its activity in the latter part of the last century, ETA, the Basque separatist group, did most of its fighting on the Spanish side, saving the French side as a hideout.
“In France, they are also proud of being Basques,” a Basque friend from Spain explained, noting, however, that “in Spain, there are many Basques who are willing to be an independent country. In France, very few people think the same.”
While the French part gets overshadowed by the bounty of Spain and the sunny Provençal olive-branch images of the South of France, it would be inaccurate to say the region is undiscovered, and it’s certainly not undeveloped. But to a world in love with France, it’s the little sister who did not get invited to the dance.
When we drove across the French border into the province of Labourd, heading north from Gipúzkoa, the landscape changed. Green hills gave way to the craggy foothills of the Pyrenees. The beach towns of the sometimes steep and rocky coast, from modest Ciboure to glamorous Biarritz, sat less than 10 miles from unspoiled mountain villages. Turreted chateaus hid among tall trees. And there were sheep everywhere, some identified by blue splotches on their rumps, soon to be shorn.
Earlier that morning in San Sebastián, we had thrown our bags into the back of Gabriella’s old Mercedes van and set out on a three-day trip into the French Basque Country. That’s Iparralde, which means “the north country” in Euskara, the ancient Basque language that many scholars say is unrelated to any other. It’s a tiny land with a population of less than 300,000 (compared with about two million in Basque Spain), and its own defining characteristics and traditions: a history that dates back to pre-Roman times, a distinct architectural style, deep-seated pride and old men in berets at their local bars. In recent years, a younger generation has emerged, opening design shops, rejiggering the food scene and sprucing up classic red-and-white farmhouses that dot the countryside.
By the port in Ciboure, a few doors down from the house where the composer Ravel was born in 1875, there’s To the Lighthouse, an English-language bookshop and cafe that Michele Dunstan, an Australian, opened in 2013 with her Basque husband. The small, tidy bookstore, with its secondhand English literature and unusual children’s books, is the perfect representation of old and new.
“We’d previously lived in Paris, Sydney and Tunis and thought it was about time we stayed put somewhere for our son’s high school years,” Ms. Dunstan said. “My husband grew up in this house. His mother ran the shop in the ’50s and ’60s. It was a mixed business with fishing items, cigarettes, sweets, toys, cards. Customers still come in and reminisce about the days when they’d buy sweets here after Mass.”
Some things change, some things don’t, so we knew we’d have to hurry if we wanted to get to St.-Jean-de-Luz in time for lunch. In France, lunch is at 12:30 and everything closes for the afternoon.
Never mind that Louis XIV married Marie-Therese, infanta of Spain, here in 1660, sealing the peace between France and Spain accorded by the Treaty of the Pyrenees the year before — we didn’t want to miss the shops. The tea towels and espadrilles of St.-Jean-de-Luz are the standard by which all others should be measured. There’s a wedge-heel, black ankle-strap sandal I bought here in the early 2000s at Sandales Bayona that got compliments from Milan to Manhattan, long before Chloé and Louboutin started making their $750 versions.
We parked opposite the covered market and hurried through the sloping, narrow streets lined with tile-roofed houses toward Tsanga Tsanga on boutique-strewn Rue Gambetta. There an Italian man was waiting for three delicate ceramic bowls to be wrapped.
Just off the other end of the street, we discovered the newcomer Ttilika, a slim shop that celebrates the Basque game of pelote (pelota in Spain and sort of like jai alai) on polo shirts and jerseys, and Stéphane Pirel, whose postcard shop doubles as a studio where he makes his linogravures (similar to linocuts) of squid, fishing boats and other symbols of Pays Basque.
I had heard that the chef Yves Camdeborde — the toast of Paris — had taken over Le Suisse in Place Louis XIV, the old square in St.-Jean-de-Luz. Painters set up their easels there, under the knobby arms of plane trees. In the high season, Le Suisse used to be strictly a tourist place.
But now, joining Nicolas Borombo, who revamped Kaiku up the street, another St.-Jean-de-Luz restaurant, Mr. Camdeborde and his partners are trying something different. Not radical, but a little bar, cafe and terrace, where we had a glistening arugula salad and gambas et cochons avec polenta (shrimp and pork), a light, salty surf and turf, overlooking the fishing port. In the off-season, we were surrounded by local families — some three generations strong — out for a fresh, simple meal. Next door, a distinguished-looking lady was sipping wine in the stylish red-leather-and-blond-wood Bar à Vins with her small brown dog.
About 12 miles up the coast, the slate rooftops of Biarritz’s grand villas appeared. Up until 1650, well before it became a storied summer playground for European royalty, Biarritz was a significant whaling port on the Bay of Biscay. (The Basques were among the earliest whalers.) The chic resort town developed when Empress Eugénie persuaded her husband, Napoleon III, to build a palace there in 1854. The palace was converted into what is now the Hôtel du Palais, a grand, Old World behemoth that hovers above the north end of the Grande Plage.
Today, Biarritz is considered the surfing capital of Europe. The Atlantic coastline of France, from the English Channel down to the Spanish border, has excellent surfing conditions because the ocean’s low pressure generates a huge funnel toward the coast, and the climate is not unlike that of Northern California.
Biarritz is distinguished by its architecture, from the Romanesque 12th-century church of St. Martin to the Gare du Midi, the old Art Nouveau train station that has been converted into a modern theater, and all the turreted villas that sit high above the sea. The top of the lighthouse — 248 steps up — on the Avenue de l’Impératrice provides panoramic views of the seashore and the mountains beyond.
There’s a different allure at the other end of town, near the market: residential and grittier. We set up at Hôtel de Silhouette, a converted stone house from the early 1600s that has a garden in back, and did some exploring on foot.
Cool new shops, one selling vintage Hermès and Chanel, and restaurants like Baleak, with its steel chairs, exposed stone and whale motif, had opened in the short, angled Rue du Centre. At the top of Rue des Halles, we found Les Passeurs de Vins et Les Contrebandiers, a slick wine store with a restaurant attached. Night had fallen but the day’s warmth lingered, so we sat outside and ate rustic carrots while a young couple shared charcuterie.
It was a short walk to the Port Vieux, a tiny cove that’s lit up at night. By 10 p.m., the streets were mostly empty. “It’s so quiet,” Gabriella said. In Spain, where she’s a gastronomic expert who teaches at the Basque Culinary Institute, her day can easily end at 1 a.m.
There’s an unmistakable joie de vivre in Spain, whereas on this side of the border, there’s an elegant reserve. In the Basque Country under the French flag, the sociology is a bit different, since the population did not suffer under a dictator for almost 40 years, as the Spanish side did under Gen. Francisco Franco until his death in 1975. There is solidarity — if you’re Basque, you’re Basque through and through — but also a natural cultural divide.
The weather had turned to bluster and rain by the time we got to Bayonne. The capital of the French Basque Country, Bayonne is a fortified city where the River Nive meets the Adour. It has many bridges, and at moments along the quais, it seems like a mini Paris or a Basque-flavored Amsterdam.
Four- and five-story houses, some only two windows wide, have faded brick chimneys and shutters in light blue, red, hunter green. Their foundations slant, their sills sag and they are squashed together, dormer windows at the top and little storefronts at street level. A florist here. A beauty parlor there.
The streetlamps are decorated with hanging plants. In the Petit Bayonne section, surviving fortifications — upgraded by Vauban, the military engineer who advised Louis XIV — form a park. The two spires of the Gothic cathedral Ste. Marie are visible from many angles, including from the covered market, right up alongside the River Nive.
I left Gabriella there, promising to meet up after I had finished at the Basque and History of Bayonne Museum situated in a 17th-century merchant’s house on the other side of the Adour. Inside there is a wealth of history. In the 1600s, for example, it was in this town that the first bayonets were made; used for close combat, they were originally designed to fit into (instead of onto) the muzzle of a musket.
When I found Gabriella outside the market, she was excited. “The bishop of Bayonne!” she said, referring to the clergyman we’d seen earlier in his finery, clouded by incense, in the cathedral. “He’s having lunch.” And there he was, sitting among his people, one guy using a selfie-stick to get a photo. She, being a Catholic and a seasoned guide in the Basque Country, saw living history.
Over 350 years ago, the bishop of Bayonne presided over Louis XIV’s wedding and, whenever a whale was caught, she told me, he received the prized tongue. I saw only a gray-haired man who, an hour before, had walked right by a beggar in rags outside the cathedral doors with his tatty blankets and malnourished German shepherd.
Inside the market, there was plenty: Pheasant and duck and hare hanging upside down; an array of things from the sea. We saw a gentleman in oatmeal cashmere having oysters on the half shell with a glass of wine. In spite of the rain, there were tables outside Georges & Co., a small oyster bar opposite the market, in Rue Bernadou. Alongside a couple of girlfriends drinking Kir cocktails, we had briny fines de claire, tiny shrimp, and chilled white wine.
As we headed southeast out of town, the Pyrenees suddenly came into view, and the countryside opened up, a vista of staggering autumn colors. We took the D932, which follows the River Nive toward Cambo-les-Bains, a spa town that was once a center for the treatment of tuberculosis.
When Edmond Rostand, who wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac,” came to the area for health reasons, he was so enamored that he built Villa Arnaga and settled in. The villa is now a museum, with a formal French garden leading to a big house built between 1903 and 1906 by the Parisian architect Albert Tournaire.
From the outside, it’s a classic Basque farmhouse, stone on the bottom, whitewash and red-timbered on the top, with a gently sloping roof. Inside, it’s grand, with parquet floors, marble columns, painted frescoes in the piano room, a butler’s pantry and a library with a mezzanine where Mr. Rostand and his bohemian friends would stage plays. His wife, Rosemonde Gerard, was unhappy in the country, where there was nothing, “not even a theater.”
Inland, the French Basque Country villages seem stuck in time. Agrarian customs are alive and well, and more people speak Euskara than they do along the cosmopolitan coast. At the end of the 18th century, the Basque language had waned, stigmatized as the preserve of peasants. Today, it’s not without controversy. In November, thousands of people protested the closing of a primary school in Ciboure where the language was taught. While the number of Basque speakers is on the rise in Spain — Basque became the co-official language in the region after Franco’s death — it’s falling on the French side.
Espelette is a charming village where Basque houses are festooned with the red peppers for which it is known. Traditionally, the pimente d’Espelette dangle on strings to dry before being ground into the spice that’s used widely in Basque recipes. Here, they practically form curtains, and frame windows and doorways.
We were in town in pepper season (we’d seen pickers bent over in fields) when brilliant red chiles are strung up next to the darker, crinkly ones that are further along in the process. Add these to the bold stripes of the cotton toile at Artiga, a lovely fabric shop in the little pedestrian zone, and Espelette is a blindingly colorful town.
As the crow flies, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port is not far from Espelette, only about 23 miles on the map. But as we headed south through green hills dotted with farmsteads and their blond d’Aquitaine cows, into the province of Basse Navarre, the going was slow. The road bends and turns and we found ourselves behind more than one lurching utility vehicle. This is no country for those in a hurry. Besides, after the rain, you might be rewarded by the sight of a vertical rainbow, crazily sticking up out of nowhere.
We wanted to get to our hotel in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port before nightfall, but couldn’t resist a little detour: the bar in Bidarray that the chef Alain Ducasse had transformed into a modern place celebrating local food and drink in 2004.
We knew he’d been chased away by Basque nationalists who’d accused him of “folkloring” (meaning a sort of Disneyfication), but hoped his idea had held on. We wended our way along squiggly roads, crossing a 14th-century stone bridge, and drove steeply up into the one-horse town perched on a ridge with vistas over the valley below.
Bidarray (population about 650) has a squat stone church with a polished gold clock under its two bells, wooden gates, and a well-tended graveyard, except for some potted mums that had been knocked over in the wind. It happened to be Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, and the graveyard was filled with flowers left by townspeople paying respect to their ancestors.
We left the van by the fronton, the backboard against which pelote is played (every village has one) and scurried to a terrace with plastic cafe tables, the only plausible “bar” in town. Poking our heads into a doorway, we found a group of old-timers sitting around a kitchen table, in the flicker of a 15-inch black and white TV. “Fermé,” said a lady in a housecoat. “Fermé,” sang the chorus, as we turned back toward the car.
It was pitch dark when we pulled up to the Hôtel des Pyrénées, a classic auberge in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port. We had the glass-enclosed dining room of the Michelin-starred Arrambide restaurant to ourselves. “I hope the chef is in the kitchen,” said Gabriella, darkly. In Basque family tradition, Firmin Arrambide has passed the toque to his son Philippe after decades of cooking duty.
The short tasting menu — from scallops with pork fat caviar to a rich duck breast alongside sweet potato purée and a tiny pain perdu — reflected the younger man’s dexterity in combining tradition with modern technique. I chose a hearty red from Brana, a winery in St.-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, about 20 minutes due west of here in the French Basque Country’s tiny appellation of Irouléguy.
St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port was founded in the 13th century by the last great Basque king, Sancho the Strong, as a commercial, military and religious crossroads. Literally “the foot of the pass,” this enchanted village is the last stop in France on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela.
Sleepy at nighttime, on Monday — market day — it was bustling. Up a hill in Place des Ramparts, in the renovated covered market building, old women in calf-length skirts shopped for the region’s famous ewe’s milk cheese, organic vegetables displayed in woven baskets and wooden crates, confits, honey, tinned pâté de foie gras, and saucissons. The cobblestone Rue d’Espagne led steeply down to Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont — Our Lady at the End of the Bridge — a 14th-century red schist church on the banks of the Nive.
The narrow streets of the densely packed village are lined with stone houses whose carved lintels above wooden doors give their dates — say, 1649. Some are used for shops now, selling black wool berets for 45 euros (about $48) or heavy woolen cardigans. Some are hostels for pilgrims.
While Gabriella went back to the hotel to pack up, I climbed up to the citadel high above town. Ivy crawls up its gray walls now and the grounds are wild with hydrangeas. From this vantage, I could see the tiled roofs of the village spread out below and the heavily wooded peaks all around. Spain was only five miles from here, but it was a world away.