The Basque Country: from the surfing coast to the Pyrenees foothills
The Basque Country is unlike the rest of the French regions. The Basque people are very proud of their heritage and rich history and rightly so! With its own language, unique climate and a very distinct cultural identity, if it wasn’t already on your to-visit list, the Basque Country should be now.
A beacon of beauty, the Basque Region, or Euskadi as it is known in its local language, captivates all who visit. From the dramatic cliffs to the sandy beaches, there is nothing not to love about the landscape here. In just one hour you can go from the rugged Pyrenees Mountains to the Atlantic Coastline. The patch of ocean that laps the beaches here is prone to waves, making it a great surf spot: Biarritz Plage de la Côte des Basques, Hendaye, Anglet or Saint-Jean-de-Luz & Ciboure are among the most famous surf beaches in France.
Surfers on Biarritz beach - surfing is part of the Basque culture
Euskadi straddles the Franco-Spanish border: the widest part of the region lies on the Spanish side – including the Pais Vasco and Navarre but most of the places to visit are in France or close to the French border. Therefore, staying in the French Basque country allows you to tour the entire region from Bayonne to San Sebastian.
For instance, from St Jean-de-Luz area, you are less than 30-minute by car from the beautiful seaside town of San Sebastian. This town is famed for its promenade, which is home to numerous gourmet restaurants and high-end boutiques.
With regards to climate, the Basque Country is a mixture of sunshine and rain, which is why the vegetation here is always such a lush, vivid green. You’ll need to bring a hat, sun cream and a waterproof jacket on any excursions you do.
Getting to the Basque Country
The main stations on the French side of the Basque Country are Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz. Both of these stations are accessible via TGV from Bordeaux and taking between 2 and 2.5 hours. There is also a small airport in Biarritz, which sees a few seasonal international flights. For a more reliable connection, it is better to fly in to Bordeaux or Toulouse and then travel by car.
If you want to extend your trip and visit more of France once you’ve finished in Euskadi, you might want to consider adding Dordogne, Bordeaux or Carcassonne to your itinerary which are all accessible in less than a half-day drive from the Pays Basque.
Basque Country Landscapes
Culture and traditions
The Basque Country has a very distinct cultural identity and with this comes all manner of customs and traditions. The first notable feature of the Basque Country is its language, Euskara. Despite being wedged between France and Spain, Euskara has no bearing on either French or Spanish and is considered unique in its formation. There were once fears of the language dying out but recent conservation efforts have expanded the language through extra teaching in schools. More than in most of the French region, English is not widely spoken here – you may have to work around some French or Spanish.
Another interesting feature of Basque cultures is its plethora of colorful festivals. Generally, these festivals encompass music, dancing, singing, force basque and pelote basque games and occur for all manner of occasions – from religious festivities to urban celebrations.
Traditional Basque Beret
Those hoping to learn more about Basque culture and traditions should visit the Basque Museum in San Sebastian. The museum has thousands of artefacts that date back millennia and show how daily life has evolved over time for the Basque people.
If you consider yourself a foodie then you’re in for a real treat when you visit the Basque Country. This region has an exceptionally high concentration of Michelin starred restaurants, making it a truly gourmet destination. The local culinary scene is a combination of French and Spanish dishes, including pintxos (tapas).
Traditional Pintxos (Tapas) you enjoy with a glass of wine in bars
While the food served up in the Basque eateries is mouth-watering, there is yet more gastronomic wonder to be found in the Basque Country’s markets and food shops. Local produce includes pork from the Aldudes Valley; Ossau-Iraty sheep cheese; and Espelette peppers, which aren’t too hot but still deliver a decent spice kick.
The Basque region even has its very own wine with a small appellation called Irrouléguy. The micro-climate in the Basque Country produces grapes that form a rather characteristic wine, of which you will certainly want to try a glass or two – or three!
Typical Basque Villages
San Sebastian is incredible but if you really want to sink your teeth in to Basque culture then a day trip to one of its quaint little villages is a must. Espelette is among the most well known – mostly because of its famous peppers. The houses here are built in the traditional Basque manner and the streets are lined with boutiques and artisanal markets selling homemade chocolates among other delights.
Basque houses in Ainhoa
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is another village worth visiting if only for its beautiful beach. This glimmering, gold beach is right in the centre of the town and is perfect for lying out in the sun, listening to the waves lap the shore. Golf fans will be pleased to know that this region is one of the best in France for golf and there are various courses within close proximity of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Around 40km – 30 miles to the east of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This town is imbued with historical significance because it is a strategic point on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route. The town is relatively quiet and geared up to cater primarily to the pilgrims who pass through here.
Of course, we will take our travelers off the beaten track to quaint villages they would not find on their own: Sare, Zugarramurdi, etc... Located in breath-taking valleys, away from the main routes and with stunning architecture and magnificent decorative facades, these places will enthrall you.
Do you want to take some unique souvenirs home with you after your trip through France? The Basque Country has you covered.
As a suggestion, there is a strong weaving tradition in Euskadi and a popular gift to take home is a pair of authentic Basque sandals or “handicraft” household linen. You will even get to visit the workshop where they are made.
Traditional household linen fabric
Alternatively, there are a number of other local traditional handicraft places that open their doors to travellers and help you to better understand the way they work and their history.
Products available in these boutiques include include leather goods, ceramics, pottery, cutlery and food of course. Buying a traditional product in the Basque Region allows you to take a part of this fascinating region home with you…together with great memories from France.