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
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.
RICH CULTURAL 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-cotebasque.com) 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 leboncoin.fr.
“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 campinginterplages.com,” 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
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