Pays Basque

The sea­side re­sorts of the Pays Basque of­fer a chic yet laid-back ap­proach to life, set be­tween the moun­tains and the sea, where the old­est cul­tural tra­di­tions con­tinue to fire the imag­i­na­tion and spirit of its peo­ple, says Alex Green as she re­vis­its her

Living France - - Contents -

Dis­cover a chic yet laid-back ap­proach to life in the sea­side re­sorts of the Basque coast in France’s south-west cor­ner

Life in France doesn’t get much bet­ter than in the Basque Coun­try, where a laid-back life­style is played out with more than a touch of class and a hint of glam­our, most no­tably among the sea­side re­sorts dot­ted along the coast. It’s where many French peo­ple choose to go on hol­i­day and it’s easy to see why.

Oc­cu­py­ing the south-west cor­ner of France within the de­part­ment of Pyrénées-At­lan­tiques, the Pays Basque has a dis­tinct iden­tity that is un­like any­where else in the coun­try. The houses, with ochre red or dark green painted shut­ters, white­washed stone walls and ter­ra­cotta tiled rooftops, sit pret­tily among the rolling hills at the foot of the Pyrénées and be­side the shore­line of the wild At­lantic coast. These are the same colours as the Basque Coun­try’s flag, and rep­re­sent a cul­ture that’s ex­tremely proud of its her­itage.


The Basque Coun­try is a clearly de­fined area with around 250,000 Basques liv­ing on the French side and 2.5 mil­lion across the bor­der in north­ern Spain.

The Basque cul­ture is one of the old­est in ex­is­tence in Europe; the Basque lan­guage, Euskara, has been spo­ken since pre­his­toric times and is still taught in some schools.

The Basque peo­ple are pas­sion­ate about their cul­ture, which is rep­re­sented in the arts, food and sport. Al­most ev­ery town has a fron­ton, an area the size of a ten­nis court with a high wall at one end where the squash-like sport of pelote is played, of­ten serv­ing as the beat­ing heart of the com­mu­nity. It’s this au­then­tic charm and

the re­gion’s savoir-vivre, which has led me to re­turn time and again, since I first set foot here in my early 20s. Added to this is the nat­u­ral pull of the ocean, with its ever-present am­bi­ence, as it laps the shore or crashes against the jagged rocks and sea walls at high tide. In­deed, the At­lantic coast is the sound­track to ev­ery­day life along the Côte Basque.

It’s lit­tle won­der, there­fore, why the south-west re­gion of France has been known as Aquitaine ever since the Ro­mans set­tled here 2,000 years ago. The re­gion now forms part of the larger Nou­velle-Aquitaine re­gion af­ter the re­gional bor­ders were changed 18 months ago. They clearly felt that ‘aqua’, the word for wa­ter, was a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this part of the world. The towns and vil­lages, which grew up around the lu­cra­tive fish­ing in­dus­try, con­tinue to thrive here and at­tract visi­tors from all over the world who come to en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar and di­verse coast­line. Some of whom make the more per­ma­nent move to set­tle in the chic coastal re­sorts of An­glet, Biar­ritz, or St-Jean-de-Luz in this el­e­gant cor­ner of the Bay of Bis­cay.

Franck Vignes, an es­tate agent with Barnes ( barnes-cote­ sums up the at­trac­tion quite sim­ply by say­ing: “What makes the Pays Basque a great place to live? It has an ideal cli­mate, a rich cul­tural life, se­cu­rity, a beau­ti­ful landscape and a life in con­tact with na­ture.”


The gate­way to the Basque Coun­try is Bay­onne, which sits on the con­flu­ence of the Nive and Adour rivers and is most fa­mous as one of the na­tion’s best pro­duc­ers of ham and choco­late. To­wards the end of July, the an­nual Fêtes de Bay­onne is the big­gest cel­e­bra­tion of Basque cul­ture on the French side – although its Span­ish equiv­a­lent in Pam­plona is bet­ter known, due to its tra­di­tion of the run­ning of the bulls through the streets. For­tu­nately there are no bulls in the Bay­onne fes­ti­val, yet it is no less rau­cous, as crowds of peo­ple line the streets dressed in the tra­di­tional Basque get-up of white with a red neck­er­chief, for a full five days of fes­tiv­i­ties. It’s a must­see event or ini­ti­a­tion even, to get a true flavour of the his­tory and her­itage of the Basque peo­ple, their cul­ture and tra­di­tions.

Tourism to­day is the main in­dus­try along the coast and An­glet pro­vides a glimpse of why the Côte Basque be­came the des­ti­na­tion of choice for the first wave of wealthy trav­ellers on the con­ti­nent at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. A stroll along its seafront prom­e­nade lead­ing to the Art Deco con­struc­tion of La Cham­bre d’Amour serves as a re­minder of the last ves­tiges of the Belle Époque and the rel­a­tive calm be­fore the storm of the two world wars. This era is cap­tured beau­ti­fully in the ear­li­est work of the pho­tog­ra­pher Jac­ques-Henri Lar­tigue, whose black and white prints of the elite at leisure

are widely cel­e­brated across the re­gion.

A lit­tle fur­ther along is the ex­clu­sive coastal re­sort of Biar­ritz, where the great and the good con­tinue to flock to its glam­orous sandy beaches and fash­ion­able bou­tique shops. The main beach, La Grande Plage, has reached an al­most iconic sta­tus, over­looked by the im­pres­sive Hô­tel du Palais, a for­mer villa built by Napoléon III for his stunning Span­ish Em­press Eugénie. Sur­pris­ingly, al­most ev­ery­where in this sea­side town is within walk­ing dis­tance, in­clud­ing La Plage de la Côte des Basques, con­sid­ered to be the real home of surf­ing in Europe.


It is here that the high­est waves ever surfed on the con­ti­nent have been recorded, so it nat­u­rally at­tracts the world’s best surf­ing tal­ent. I was once for­tu­nate enough to have a ring­side seat watch­ing these wave rid­ers at work, while liv­ing in the apart­ment block over­look­ing the beach on Boule­vard du Prince de Galles. I’ve never quite mas­tered the art of surf­ing my­self, but it is here that I first got the in­spi­ra­tion to at least give it a go. It’s hard not to when you see peo­ple of all ages skip­ping into the sea – the pic­ture of health and vi­tal­ity – seem­ingly be­ing able to walk on wa­ter with grace­ful ease.

As I was leav­ing to re­turn to the UK in 2003, a new life in France was just be­gin­ning for Wilma John­son, who had re­cently moved to Biar­ritz with her young fam­ily. At the age of 44, af­ter years watch­ing her hus­band go surf­ing, she fi­nally caught the surf bug her­self – a story she re­counts in her book, Surf Mama, which de­scribes her life in the Basque Coun­try as she heads “out of the kitchen and into the surf”. Wilma now rents a house in Guéthary in the de­part­ment of Pyrénées-At­lan­tiques which, she ex­plains, wasn’t easy to find.

“Rent­ing round here is a bit of a night­mare. Rents go sky-high in July and Au­gust and be­cause there are so few prop­er­ties you have to move fast. You can find pri­vate and agency rentals on lebon­

“An al­ter­na­tive, if you just want to look around, is to rent a mo­bile home – there are some fab­u­lous camp­sites with ocean views and com­fort­able homes you can rent by week or month. My favourite is camping­in­ter­,” Wilma ex­plains.

Guéthary has been dubbed ‘the hippest vil­lage in France’, and it cer­tainly seems to at­tract the in-crowd. It is the per­fect

place to in­dulge in peo­ple watch­ing and the place to do it is Le Bar Basque, which serves great tapas too. “This is the lo­cals’ bar,” says Wilma, “the Madrid op­po­site is more Parisian, and then there’s Prov­i­dence bar, which hosts surf/skate art shows and serves ex­clu­sive Hawai­ian beer.”

Surf cul­ture is ev­i­dent all along the Côte Basque. Global surf brand Quick­sil­ver has its Euro­pean head­quar­ters here, em­ploy­ing an in­ter­na­tional work­force that live on-site in mod­ern ar­chi­tect-de­signed apart­ments. It’s a great place for teens and young grad­u­ates who want to spend time do­ing what they love while ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an­other cul­ture. The cos­mopoli­tan cool of the lo­cal bars, restau­rants and nightspots makes for a vi­brant at­mos­phere.


To fully em­brace life in France, you have to ex­pe­ri­ence a lo­cal mar­ket, and St-Jean-de-Luz has one of the best in all the Basque Coun­try. The colours and smells of the lo­cal spe­cial­ity pro­duce is proudly on dis­play ev­ery Tues­day, Fri­day and Satur­day, and in­cludes ar­ti­san Bre­bis cheese, black cherry jam and ev­ery us­age of the Espelette pep­per un­der the sun. The beauty and va­ri­ety of fish in the pois­sonerie is a par­tic­u­lar high­light for seafood lovers.

This has to be the most el­e­gant of all the towns along the Côte Basque. If you’re not en­joy­ing the health ben­e­fits of its famed tha­las­sother­apy spas, you can soak up the scenery in­stead as you walk along its nar­row cob­bled streets, past shop win­dows sell­ing linge basque and es­padrilles that can be made to or­der. Don a pair of these chic san­dals and sun­glasses to blend in with the so­phis­ti­cated crowd and take a seat at one of the restau­rants in Place Louis XIV. Sit back, re­lax and watch the artists at work as they paint a pic­ture of life in the Pays Basque be­side the pretty lit­tle music pavil­lion in the cen­tre of the square. La vie est belle!

Half-tim­bered houses in Bay­onne

Biar­ritz har­bour

Above: Bre­bis cheese Left: Red Espelette pep­pers dry­ing on the wall

Top: View of Guéthary from Bi­dart Above: A fine catch on dis­play in a poi­son­nerie in St-Jean-de-Luz Right: Mar­ket day in St-Jean-de-Luz

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