5 Days In The Basque Country
Wild ocean beaches, surfing, fascinating gastronomic flavours and much more… Our founder Mergim Ozdamar takes us on a journey to the Basque Coast of France.
With the London winter weather getting us down, an opportunity to spend a few days at the gorgeous Basque Country, or Pays Basque in French, seemed like the perfect escape. The warmth of some Mediterranean mid-winter sun and mountain air would do us good.
After a very stressful, last-minute catch of our flight from Stansted Airport in London, we soon found ourselves having lunch in the streets of Bordeaux, before catching our train to the depths of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France. At the Gare de Bordeaux-Saint-Jean, the train in the direction of Hendaye still had a good 15 minutes and we decided to make the most of it. While the French have endless alternatives of patisserie to seduce, why would one resist it? We didn’t. Et voilà, the introduction to le canelé. The canelé is a Bordeaux tradition that belongs to the culinary heritage of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Artisans of the authentic canelé since 1988, are La Maison Baillardran, family bakers since forever.
A small, soft, caramelised cake, flavoured with vanilla and rum, the signature Canelé was long associated with the nuns of the Annonciades convent in the 18th century, and its history is linked to that of Bordeaux, its port and its wine. The recipe? It is a secret, safely kept by the family owned company.
Fast-forward two hours and we were in Dax, a small town, in southwest France. The sun had already set, giving way to wilderness, stars, and calm as we drove through the forest, heading to a historic house of our local host, located in Sainte-Marie-de-Gosse. The next morning, we found ourselves slipping off the busy, fast-paced atmosphere of London to pure calm, bliss in the middle of the Basque countryside.
There was already something very special about the Basque Country. When leaving Bordeaux behind, and heading southwest on the Atlantic coast of France, you will find yourself in a completely different journey, illustrated with tall pine forests and majestic images of the Pyrénées. It is said that a traveller in the 17th century described the Basque Country as “very stubborn,” due to its mountainous topography.
Historically divided into seven provinces, this is a geography that spread over the regions of France and Spain. However, both French and Spanish sides of the Basque country are united by their shared language and culture.
There is a sense of peace and calm in this region that is both stubborn and vicious at the same time. Note that this wild spirit is not only a result of its geography, but also because it is a region of people who live within the borders of two different nations, yet in actuality do not belong to either. So, the Basques have always maintained fierce independence, speaking their own Euskalduna (Basque) language, upholding their culture and traditions.
With a few days of setting our own agenda, here’s where we visited and what we loved.
Landes: Capbreton and Hossegor
Located on the south coast of Les Landes, Hossegor is a surfers' paradise where majestic Atlantic waves crash onto fine sand beaches. Landais style is also alive and well here, as evidenced by its Sporting Casino, Jai Alai, and golf course, as well as hundreds of Basco-Landais villas. The lake which opens onto the sea is lined with pleasant bars and restaurants, oyster & fish shacks, making it a lovely place for an evening stroll.
Capbreton, which is also a fishing port, hosts an auction for fish every morning.
The ‘estacade’, a wooden pier sticking out into the ocean, features several beaches (Notre Dame, Santocha and Savane, for example).
Compared to the famous Côte d'Azur, this place, and the Basque Country in general, is actually one of the well kept secrets of France. It is quite famous among the French people during spring and summer, but it does not yet have the reputation it deserves around the world.
The fun-filled, go-ahead natural resorts of Hossegor and Capbreton offer an inclusive holiday experience.
Stop by at Monsieur Mouette, a warm eatery offering locally sourced dishes, a breezy bar & a terrace with a harbour view, for a refreshing cocktail at sunset. Then walk to the wooden harbour to watch how the sun sets on the golden sand, slowly turning it into a brownish colour.
And of course, for dinner, get delicious appetisers and local delicacies from Les Boucheries du Marensin and feast!
Les Boucheries du Marensin
San Sebastian (Donostia)
On our second day, we set out for the famous San Sebastian, also known as Donostia, one of the most popular destinations in Spain. With its beaches stretching along its lengthy coastline, delicious food, hip art scene, architecture and pintxo (tapas) bars, San Sebastian is a delightful holiday spot. Even though it is considered as the region with the most beautiful beaches within the borders of the European continent, San Sebastian is a city that stands out in terms of gastronomy and culinary arts. In fact, flavours such as San Sebastian cheesecake have spread all over the world. Not to mention it is dazzling with historical structures and churches. While its magnificent coastline offers magical sunset views, the wild waves on its beaches appeal to surfers.
- Among the beaches of San Sebastian, Zurriola Beach, which is frequented by surfers, is certainly worth seeing. There is nothing like walking by the sea while inhaling the fresh air!
- The Old Town district, which reflects the historical texture of the city is also among the most ideal sightseeing spots for an authentic experience.
- The ever-so-lively Constitucion Square is always pleasing. It is one of the most suitable places for shopping as well as to visit historical churches, stop by the fish market and have the opportunity to closely observe the locals of the city.
What to Eat in San Sebastian?
San Sebastian, one of the leading gastronomic cities of not only Spain but also Europe, is a food and beverage paradise. Michelin-starred restaurants give the city its real reputation. Arzak, Kokotxa, Akelarre, which are shown among the top restaurants in the world, are just a few of the Michelin-starred restaurants. But of course, the food and beverage alternatives are not limited to luxury restaurants. In San Sebastian, there are many excellent spots where you can taste the most special flavours of Spanish and Basque cuisine.
We highly recommend Casa Vergara where you can have pintxo-style tapas on skewers, plus classic Basque sandwiches & wines at a stylish, modern gastrobar. Not to mention the acclaimed San Sebastian cheesecake at La Viña.
Tip: In San Sebastian's food culture, a separate parentheses should be opened to Pintxos bars. Tapas culture in other cities of Spain comes across as pintxos here.
Even if you are transiting to a different country, it is quite easy to reach San Sebastian from the French Basque Country on a daily basis. Once you go, you will not want to leave easily.
Espelette and Ainhoa
Today, we set off from Sainte-Marie-de-Gosse to the depths of the Basque Country, to Espelette and Ainhoa. After a short break in Saint-lon-les-Mines, as we drove, we found ourselves in small streets with mountainous, lush landscapes.
Espelette and Ainhoa are the most prominent, traditional and characteristic villages of the Basque Country in France. Here you will see many traditional houses with Basque architecture, meaning red timber frames and roofs against whitewashed walls, featuring piments d'Espelette (Espelette peppers), drying on them.
This region is famous for its chilli peppers, and has even spread its reputation all over the world as such. It was confirmed as a protected designation of origin (PDO) product on 22 August 2002, with the purpose to designate products that have been produced, processed and developed in this specific geographical area, using the recognised know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region. PDO espelette peppers are cultivated in the following communes: Ainhoa, Cambo-les-Bains, Espelette, Halsou, Itxassou, Jatxou, Larressore, Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, Souraïde, and Ustaritz. They are harvested in late summer and, in September, characteristic festoons of pepper are hung on balconies and house walls throughout the communes to dry out.
It is possible to find all kinds of products made with Espelette peppers here. Don't leave without buying some Basque specialities such as delicious sheep's milk cheese, le gâteau Basque (traditional dessert from the Northern Basque region of France, typically filled with black cherry jam or pastry cream), or piperade (typical Basque dish prepared with onion, green peppers, and tomatoes sautéd and flavoured with red Espelette pepper) from the friendly owners of the colourful shops.
From a local fishing port, to a famous weekend escapee on the Basque coast, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is many things. And we couldn’t get enough of it. With a 20-minute drive north of the French/Spanish border, this sympathetic town embodies the best of the Basque country with its architecture, sandy bay, excellent restaurants, buzzing market, and authentic shops.
A wealth of discoveries await by strolling through the town.Église St-Jean-Baptiste in Saint-Jean-de-Luz is not an ordinary church here. It was where French king Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain got married in 1660. Their wedding ended centuries of conflict between the two countries.
The king’s mother and Maria Theresa of Spain succumbed to the finesse of Maison Adam’s macarons (a patisserie founded in the same year of the wedding), to celebrate the royal couple's nuptials. Louis XIV and his family found the Maison Adam macaron “irresistible.” Deliciously tender and exquisite, their macarons are the only authentic macarons of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, known as "Pare Gabea" or incomparable. Between heritage and innovation, Maison Adam is an integral part of the patrimony of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the Basque Country and has been thrilling gourmet taste buds for more than three centuries with their Espelette pepper chocolates and gâteaux basques. Prepared freshly every day by hand, these delicate treats contain an essential ingredient: the essence of a family secret.
Maison Adam 1660 macarons
As you wander through the streets lined with houses with red and green shutters, one will certainly notice nice spots for lunch. We recommend you stop by Restaurant Bidaian, if you would like an intimate experience.
Bayonne is a lively, dynamic city paved with history and art. Tourists often overlook it in favour of its more famous neighbour, Biarritz but it has a lot to offer. In addition to its festive atmosphere and summer events, the capital of France's Basque Country also offers a particularly impressive architectural heritage. Typical of the local architecture are the tall, tidy houses with colourful shutters that cluster close together. Enjoy strolling along the quays or old streets, admiring the picturesque half-timbered houses along the way.
Bayonne's Old Town lies on the south bank of the River Adour, enclosed by grassy ramparts. The town and ramparts straddle a smaller river, the Nive, which meets the Adour here. West of the Nive is called Grand Bayonne and east of it is Petit Bayonne; the quays of the Nive are very picturesque.
Cross to the Petit Bayonne side to visit Musée Basque, a state-of-the-art museum focusing on the Basque culture, decorative arts, architecture & language. A few blocks away, you can visit the Musée Bonnat-Helleuworks art museum where you can see works of Léon Bonnat, Paul Helleu, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya and Edgar Degas.
Then take a break for a delicious lunch, with views of the river and beautiful architecture at La Grange.
Bayonne is an unmissable spot in the Basque Country. From the Basque Museum, the chocolate makers, the cathedral and cloister to the Bayonne Ham atelier, there is something for everyone in Bayonne, as the social calendar is filled with festivities all year round. What you should definitely know is the fêtes de Bayonne / feria. Traditionally, a feria or fair is an annual local celebration in Spain and southern France that features bullfights, bull racing in the streets, bodegas (outdoor bars or cellars with festive music) and bands. Fetes de Bayonne are a series of festivals held in the town of Bayonne, France, in the Northern Basque Country. The festival lasts 5 days and always starts the Wednesday before the first Sunday of August. It is the largest festival in France. In the eighties, participants dressed in white with a red scarf and a red belt after the colours of the city of Pamplona. The city of Bayonne's colours are blue and white, so a few purists wear those colours. For more on what to see and do in Bayonne, check out Visit Bayonne’s official website.
Tip: A food market is held every day from 7am until 1pm at Les Halles, a covered market place. An open air market is held in the place des Gascons each Wednesday and Saturday morning. On Fridays, markets are held in place de la République, place du Polo and Place du Marquisat.
The best for the last. Crème de la crème is how to describe Biarritz in the Basque region. In fact, not only in the Basque country but also in all mainland France, and around the world. It is one of the most-visited French cities worldwide. Forget all the places you've been to in the Basque Country, Biarritz is a completely different experience and simply another kind of pleasure. This is St Tropez of the Basque Country, California of Europe, and the big sister of Bayonne. It has long proved a popular holiday destination. So much so that they are now trying to curb holiday lets to make way for locals, as the number of holiday lets across the French Basque country has more than doubled to 16,500 between 2016 and 2020, as The Guardian reports.
The keyword here is elegance. Although some call this place luxury, this is a relative term. Napoleon III’s wife, Eugénie de Montijo, may have fashioned Biarritz as a spectacular health and holiday resort in the mid-19th century. But there are endless possibilities to offer simple life pleasures to mankind anytime and anywhere. This place appeals to everyone just like Bayonne. While wealthier visitors flock to Hôtel du Palais (originally built for the Empress Eugénie circa 1855), stunning mountain hikes, surfing or golfing are some other brilliant options here, not to mention spending a blissful day at the beach or enjoying local tastes.
Hôtel du Palais
Biarritz is one of the most popular European surfing spots thanks to the American film director Peter Viertel who worked on the film ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in Biarritz, with his British actress wife Deborah Kerr in 1957. When one of Viertel’s Californian friends came for a visit and used a surfboard this was recognised as the first time surfing was practised in Europe.
Other most famous assets also include the sea, hence its fame for thalassotherapy centres with healing seawater. Make sure to take a stroll at the Grande Plage and casino seafront, and admire endless views of 50 shades of blue, while breathing in the fresh air. Then get lost in colourful streets full of cute shops offering a range of local designs.
Biarritz is a lively town with a developed nightlife. But for an authentic experience, do not skip Les Halles market. Many of the pintxos (tapas) bars around Les Halles market stay open well past midnight, including the famous Le Bar Jean, which has been serving tapas, paella, and beef since the 1930s. Etxola Bibi also offers delicious Basque food.
Insider’s Tips to Pays Basque
- Pelota or, pelote in French, is the most popular sport in the Basque country and takes centre stage in the Basque culture. Basque pelota is the name for a variety of court sports played with a ball using one's hand, a racket, a wooden bat or a basket, against a wall; similar to a combination of squash and handball. Most villages have a pelota court or fronton, where locals can practise and play, it is often attached to the village church. The largest fronton is located in the city of Bilbao, called the Bizkaia Frontoia, and holds around 3,000 spectators.
- The Basque Country is famous for its healing spa centres guaranteed to leave you feeling rejuvenated. While you’re there, make sure to treat yourself with a day at the spa. Recommended: Spa Aleana in Biarritz.
What to Eat in the Basque Country?
Basque cuisine is simple yet wild, fully adopting the notion of farm-to-table. Make sure you don’t miss out on the local basque delicacies. When in San Sebastian, do not miss the world-famous San Sebastian cheesecake. All across the region, try the Espelette peppers, gâteau Basque, jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne ham), and piperade.
How to travel to the Basque Country?
- Fly to Bordeaux, Bayonne or Biarritz in France, or San Sebastian in Spain. Then rent a car to admire each and every corner of the coast.
- Take a train to a central location and then organise connecting links throughout the French rail system.