Sunday, July 9, 2023

Discover France’s Magnificent Basque Region: 7 Great Ways To Explore La Côte Basque

By Jacquelin Carnegie
Vascos (Basques) by M. Flores Kaperotxipi
When one thinks of the “Basque Region,” Spain usually comes to mind. But, Basque Country (Pays Basque) has seven provinces: four in Spain and three in southwestern France.
French Basque provinces: Labourd, along the coast and vicinity; Basse-Navarre and Soule, in the Pyrénées mountains. A good starting point is to explore Labourd’s gorgeous coastal area, la Côte Basque, especially the towns of Biarritz, Bayonne, and Saint Jean de Luz. Each town has interesting cultural aspects and unique things to discover. The Basques are an ancient people who have inhabited this region for thousands of years. Pays Basque has a culture and traditions all its own that make the region a fascinating place to vacation.

BIARRITZ - Glamor & Surfing

Biarritz (photo: Hôtel du Palais)
This chic, resort beach town developed in 1854 when Empress Eugénie persuaded her husband, Napoleon III, to build a palace by the Grande Plage beach. Today, it’s the majestic Hôtel du Palais. And, glamorous Biarritz is now a surfing capital. In fact, the French Federation of Surfing named it the “City of Surfing.” The Plage de la Côte des Basques beach is the most popular with surfers of all levels and there are several surf schools. Biarritz also hosts the surf competitions: Biarritz Maïder Arosteguy (April) & French Surf Championship (Oct).
In addition to the surf, admire: the many villas; the lighthouse; the 1933 deco Biarritz Aquarium; the Chapelle Impériale, Eugénie & Napoleon’s private chapel built in 1864 with Spanish-design influences & the French royal bee motif; the 1929 art deco Casino; and the neo-byzantine Église Russe de Biarritz built in 1892. Or just do some shopping and dining in all the fashionable spots. 

BAYONNE - Food & Festivals
Bayonne (photo: J. Carnegie)

Bayonne is such an enchanting spot; situated at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers, so….lots of bridges! It’s the capital of the French Basque Country and, over centuries, it’s been a strategic place in French history. It’s also known for its’ fabulous festivals, tasty ham, and legendary chocolate!
Bayonne has three, historic districts: Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne on the south bank of the Adour, divided by the Nive river. Saint-Ésprit, the original Jewish quarter, on the Adour’s north bank near the Citadel. Wander through the streets of these beautiful neighborhoods, explore all the local shops and restaurants. Along the way, admire the magnificent architecture and the remnants of Roman walls and Medieval fortifications. Highlights include:
Grand Bayonne: The ancient center, but also a very lively section of town. The Sainte-Marie Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Camino de Santiago route; Château-Vieux (Old Castle), built in the 12th century, now part of the military; Jardin Botanique, a Japanese-style botanic garden; Les Halles, a popular, covered market by the Nive River.
Petit Bayonne: Marvel at the neighborhood architecture of typical Basque buildings. Musée Basque, a museum about the fascinating Basque culture and history, housed in a 16th-century palace; Château-Neuf (New Castle), built in the 15th century by Charles IV, now part of the university.
Nive river (photo: M. Prat/Visit Bayonne)

Saint-Ésprit: This area was primarily settled by Jews escaping the Inquisition and there’s still a Synagogue. Another contribution was their knowledge of chocolate-making. Visit L'Atelier du Chocolat (Chocolate Workshop) to learn all about it. La Citadelle, this citadel was designed by the famous Marquis de Vauban, French military engineer under Louis XIV.
Because Bayonne has such a long, diverse history—and was named “Ville d'Art & d'Histoire” (City of Art & History)--a great way to get the most out of your visit is on an informative, walking tour.

SAINT JEAN DE LUZ - Royal History & Seaside Charm
This is another lovely place with an important connection to French history.
Here, in 1660, King Louis XIV married Marie-Theresa, Infanta of Spain, sealing the peace between France and Spain. The wedding took place in the Saint Jean-Baptiste church. (Today, you can still visit, worship & attend concerts here.)
Place Louis XIV, the town’s central square, is the ideal place to relax over coffee, drinks, or a meal at one of the bar-restaurants’ terraces under the shade of Plane trees. The Maison Louis XIV (where the king stayed before the wedding) is here; a few rooms are open to the public.
Place Louis XIV (photo: Maison Louis XIV)
Then, wander down: Rue de la République, lined with seafood restaurants, that leads directly to the Grande Plage, a beautiful crescent-shaped beach, and the charming, seaside promenade. And, Rue Gambetta, a pedestrian shopping street for Basque linens & crafts, leather goods, and patisseries. It leads to the port with colorful, fishing boats, the famous lighthouse, and the stunning, Venetian-style Maison Joanoenia (House of the Infanta; where she stayed before the wedding to the king).
In the 17th century, St. Jean de Luz was one of the most important fishing ports in France. The stunning houses along the port, and in the historic, town center, were built by the wealthy, 17th century ship-owners whose fortunes came from cod fishing, whale hunting, and royal-sanctioned piracy. Today, tuna, sardine, anchovy, and hake are the preferred catch; available every morning at the marketplace fish stands. 
St. Jean de Luz

Les Halles is St Jean de Luz’s famous market; open daily, all year round, with stands selling fish, meat, vegetables & fruits, baked goods, etc. On Tuesday & Fridays, there’s a very-popular, outdoor market where local farmers sell their produce. To explore more, take a “Coeur de Ville" walking tour. Or, hop on the Little Train.

Basque Region in Nouvelle-Aquitaine: With the spectacular Pyrénées mountain range in the background, there are several other towns worth visiting along the coast of the Bay of Biscay from modest Ciboure to lovely Bidart and Hendaye, right on the border with Spain. 
Biarritz, Bay of Biscay (photo: J. Carnegie)

Getting There: Take a TGV fast train from Paris to Biarritz &/or St. Jean de Luz (about 4hrs) or fly into Biarritz Pays Basque Airport or San Sebastian Airport in Spain (about ½ hour away). 

BASQUE TRADITIONS - Pays Basque has a history that dates back to pre-Roman times, a distinct architectural style, unique fashions, foods, and sports, plus lots of folks in berets!
Basque Fashion: Béret Basque - It’s thought that the "Basque beret” originated with shepherds living on both sides of the Pyrénées mountains in southern France and northern Spain. This beret was also worn by local Basque fishermen, then by farmers and other laborers. It has since become an iconic French symbol. (Laulhère is the most prestigious beret maker in France.) 
Linge Basque (Basque Fabric) – The cloth always has seven stripes of various widths, one stripe for each of the seven Basque provinces, the four in Spain and the three in France. The fabric is used for everything from tablecloths to tea towels, throw-pillow covers, and espadrille shoes. (
Basque fabric (photo: GoBasque)

Espadrilles (Mauleon)
Espadrilles – These traditional Basque shoes are made from canvas or cotton fabric with jute rope soles that are rubberized to last. One can buy hand-sewn or machine-finished shoes. (
Basque Foods - Taste-test what makes the Basque gastronomy so famous:
Seafood Specialties: Ttoro (fish soup), tuna fish luzienne-style, koskera hake & grilled sardines. Jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne Ham): A specially-cured ham with an Indication Géographique Protégée, to prove what you’re eating is authentic. Sweets: Gâteau Basque (Basque Cake) & Macarons, originated here in 1160. Chocolate: First served in France at the 17th-century wedding of Louis XIII in Bayonne; introduced by Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain & Portugal.
Basque Sport - The Basque game of Pelote evolved from the jeu de paume (the ancestor of modern-day tennis); it’s like jai alai or squash. The Championnats du Monde de Pelote Basque (International Basque Pelota Championship) – Takes place every 4 years (next 2026). 
Fetes de Bayonne (photo: Visit Bayonne)
Basque Festival - Fêtes de Bayonne (July) - Parades, Basque sport competitions, traditional Basque dance & music, nightly concerts & fireworks! Garb to be worn by festival-goers: all white with a red scarf & a red belt. Start planning your trip to France's Pays Basque!

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