Monday, 21 September 2015

basque country - france's best kept secret

p a r t  I 

Euskal Herria, Pais Vasco, Pays Basque... This region has as many names as personalities. It's both French, Basque & Spanish. It's the south, but on the Atlantic coast & near the Pyrenees mountains meaning the weather is completely unpredictable & you're never really sure which part of the world you're in. In the lapse of one single day you can get the feeling of being in Brittany or even Ireland & right after that in Andalusia. Heatwave, days of rain, Summer in November, prepare for everything when you pack & remember why it's as green as it is & why you'll see hydrangeas everywhere you look. In other words: if you're the kind of person that likes to go to the beach every day and work on your tan, this is not the right place for you. That being said, we stayed the whole month of July this year & only had one day of rain, to the point where I was actually overheard saying, exasperated "To the beach? Again?"

But rest assured, this blogpost is not only a weather forecast (getting old...). There's a long list of reasons to go there: the food, the beaches, the waves (if you're a surfer), the mountain hikes & the stunning views they offer, the colourful villages, the proximity to Spain (I still love saying "Just going to Spain for some jamon, I'll be right back"), the authenticity, if that can still be said without sounding cliche... A million things to discover. These are some of my favourites.

b i d a r t  b e a c h

My all time favourite beach. If the pictures aren't enough, I'll tell you why. Miles of sandy beaches, not too crowded compared to other beaches in this area, good waves meaning there's always a surfers show going on when you're looking out on the sea. Every now & then you'll spot Michael Fassbinder, Vincent Cassel & especially Bixente Lizarazu surf here (well not me as I'm very nearsighted, but my husband will point out the famous dots in question to me) & then there are those beautiful white cliffs above you framing the scenery.

Just because it won't be sunny everyday doesn't mean you can't have a hot chocolate while watching the surfers (& lifeguards). There's a little cafe right at the beach.

But most of the time during summer the sea & the sky will look exactly like this:

The kids can play for hours in the rocks & the waves:

Until the sun sets... (writing this in front of a computer screen far from the beach as you might have guessed)

And it's finally time to go home.

t a l a i a  t r a i l:

This coastal trail has some truly stunning views. As the pictures tell we went on one of those days where you feel like you've been transported to Ireland, but by the time we reached our destination the sun came back out. The footpath stretches for 54 kilometres along the Basque coast, from Bidart in France to San Sebastian in Spain, but of course you don't have to do the whole thing. This time we did only a part of the Spanish distance, starting in Hondarribia & ending in Pasaia, one of the most beautiful parts of this scenic route. This is the final view on the harbour of Pasaia before descending

s a i n t  j e a n  d e  l u z

There are plenty of small, lovely fisherman villages on the French Basque coast, but also some cities. One of them is Saint Jean de Luz. Sitting on a large bay shaped like the moon, it was once one of the most important fishing ports of France. It was also here that Louis XIV's wedding to Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain took place. 

While these two next pictures might not convince you (nor the one with the two ladies all dressed up for the local market above), Saint Jean de Luz is actually for all ages. You'll find young surfers, families with kids, couples, tourists, locals...

Saint Jean de Luz also has a beautiful, white sandy beach, one of the quiet ones on the coast, protected from the waves, with plenty of activities & those lovely striped tents. It's also perfect for a long stroll when the sun sets.

Besides its still active port & large beach, Saint Jean de Luz has a lot more to offer. Stroll around to discover its little hidden streets, pale pastel coloured facades, charming timbered Basque houses with the traditional red & green shutters, lovely cafes, fish restaurants, plenty of surf shops & boutiques selling clothes, local products & food. More on the food part later on in this post.

And last but not least, let's not forget about the famous "Toro de Fuego" taking place twice a week on the central square Place Louis XIV & can best be described as two grown men dressed up as a bull lighting up with fireworks. Thousands of confetti can be bought as well & will be thrown around. Your kids' excitement over this will be inversely proportional with your joy of finding these little gubbins for weeks afterwards left all over your car & house.

l o c a l  f o o d

First of all "Gateau Basque", because you can't possibly go to the Basque Country without tasting this rich cake with a flaky crust surrounding a pastry cream or brandied cherries. You can also find other, less traditional variants - but just as good - such as a favourite of ours: all chocolate. Try the ones at Paries or Le Moulin de Bassilour.

Then there's the "charcuterie", an absolute must in the Basque Country. I'm not saying you shouldn't come if you're a vegetarian, but propably try to keep it discreet... & expect to see a lot of hams hanging from the ceilings of bars & food shops. Jamon, chorizo... and a lot of cheese. The local brebis cheese served with black cherry jam is sliightly addictive & no apero platter is complete without it. To near perfection, we usually add a few sardines, a good baguette and some green & red pimientos (cherry pepper). Oh and rose wine of course, quite a lot of it, but we're flexible & a chilled white wine will do too.

Another local speciality are Basques macarons from Maison Adam The shop is beautiful in itself & the boxes so pretty you hardly want to open them. Well that's not true because inside you will find what we call the real macarons, no offense to Laduree but these ones were invented in 1660 for Louis XIV's wedding & what's good enough for the king... Crisp & tender with a pure almond taste, go for one of the big boxes.

Gaining weight by the minute here. Good thing for you I don't have any pictures of the Spanish pintxos & all the incredible ice cream makers. Let me just end with a last speciality of this region: chipirons. These small squids, often served a la plancha with garlic, parsley & lemon will almost make you go healhty, but fear not, most of the time they're seved with French fries. Same goes for the razor shells, another Basque shellfish delicacy. 

And let's not forget the foie gras. Tchiin!

Coming up in Part II (next time I feel like inflicting you my post-holiday blues) : Biarritz, the French California, the annual "fetes de Bayonne", wild mountain horses & a look at Guethary, once a little fisherman village.

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