Bridge over the River Nive, Basque interior.

THE BASQUE COAST

The Côte Basque is a colourful mix of history, people and cultures where old-fashioned elegance tangles with surfer culture, all with such joie de vivre, as JOY DODDS discovered.

On France’s Basque Coast, north of Spain, the Pyrénées plunge into the Bay of Biscay, such ruggedness giving the area its exotic character – a mix of resort and sanctuary, sophistication and charm.

Whales were the first sea bathers at Biarritz, not the elegant femmes of the 19th century and today’s surfers. While Biarritz’s star has waned a little in comparison with resorts on France’s Côte d’Azur, it is the perfect base to explore the Basque Coast. Linger along its seaside promenade on the Grande Plage, past the site of the former imperial palace that is now a hotel, past the Art Deco casino. Further on is Place Ste-Eugenie and the fisherman’s port where the famed Rocher de la Vierge (Rock of the Virgin) bears a Madonna to protect the local seafarers, near the sturdy iron bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Paris fame). The omnipresent Pointe-St-Martin lighthouse watches over the town with its smart Belle Epoque villas beside jagged cliffs and out to sea.

Near Biarritz is St Jean de Luz, fishing port and former haunt of pirates, and now a quaint unspoiled resort, with a small historic centre and interesting C17th shipowners’ homes overlooking Louis XIV Square. The Basque-style Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church with its Baroque high altar and wooden galleries and the House of the Infanta are its most famous sites. Quite apart from its history, the town oozes charm, best experienced as you sit by the River Nivelle enjoying local specialties such as Ttoro (fish soup).

The port of Bayonne, to the north, is the traditional Basque and Gascon capital, famous for its summer festivals, hams and hot chocolate. (The cocoa bean, introduced by Columbus from South America, was brought to the area by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition). The river town with its bridges and quays features fortifications and castles like Citadel Vauban, a Gothic cathedral and red half-timbered houses. The Basque Museum retraces their pre-Celtic history, culture and language (Euskara), while the Musée Bonnat is one of France’s best art museums with works by Michelangelo, Rubens, Van Dyke, El Greco and others. Bayonne is the oldest bullfighting town in France and the bayonet was invented by its C16th blacksmiths.

The last French town before the Spanish border is Hendaye, perfect for sailing and other water pursuits and minutes’ away from Spain’s San Sebastian.

The Basque rural areas are sprinkled with red and white houses nestled in green hills. An hour’s drive inland, Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port and Ainhoa at the foot of the Pyrenees, with their citadels and walls, still welcome hikers on the Santiago de Compostela route since the Middle Ages. Nearby is spa town Cambo-Les-Bains, Espelette (famous for its chillis) and Sare, where you can take the rack and pignon railway to the peak of La Rhune, a mountain that offers spectacular views of both sides of the Pyrénées – but beware the wild cows!



Biarritz’ pleasures have been enjoyed by the rich and famous since 1854 when Empress Eugenie convinced Napoleon III of Second Empire fame, to join her at this unknown site with its mild climate. They had a grand villa built on the prime location along the beach, transforming the simple fishing village with its whaling industry into a fashionable hot-spot. Such was its popularity with the in-crowd that a small Russian Orthodox Church was built for gambling Russian aristocrats.

Today the stunning 5-star Hotel du Palais stands in the shadow of the old Villa Eugenie, with famous guests including Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, Coco Chanel, Frank Sinatra and Princess Diana, to name a few.

Today, the area attracts the world’s finest surfers who swarm to Biarritz and Hossegor to enjoy the many beaches, especially during Biarritz’s Surf Festival in July. Pelota, the red-and-white Pays-Basque rugby and golf are other drawcards, as are thalassotherapy (seawater cures) and swimming.

And what of the Basque tradition and culture? Passions and religious fervour run deep, whether expressed in music with flutes and tambourines, a capella singing or Mutxiko dance, a festive gathering or a Pelota tournament. Euskara, one of the world’s oldest languages, is taught in bilingual schools (Ikastolas). To witness ancient trials of strength such as tug-of-war and woodcutting, all tradition-based, is fascinating. Cider is to the Basque Country what champagne is to Champagne, and barrels are tapped and txotx rituals enjoyed, tasting the new season’s vintage.

Whether it be for its rich traditions, its coastal beauty, its imperial history or its luxurious chic, the Basque Coast is a

veritable must-see.

GASTRONOMY:

At les halles (the produce markets), aisles of freshly-caught seafood as well as cheese and hams create a mouth-watering spectacle. The local specialties include local Bayonne ham, grilled sardines, chiperones (tiny squid) and scrambled eggs covered with brilliant red pimento (piperade), all happily washed down with local Basque Irouléguy wine grown on the sunny terraces facing south, or Juracon white wine and red Madiran.

Also be tempted by Basque tapas (called pintxas), Basque chicken, cod-stuffed-peppers with spicy espelette pepper sauce, and Brebis cheese with red cherry jam. The jam comes from Itxassou, home of the black cherry, and is best enjoyed with local Basque ewe’s cheese, Ossau Iraty.


GETTING THERE:

La Negresse SNCF station: Connection from Bordeaux (2.5 hrs) or Paris (TGV - 5 hrs).

Details : International Rail Australasia – 1300 EURAIL (387 245)

Biarritz-Parme Airport – 15 kms away;

Motorway from Bordeaux.

STAYING THERE:

HÔTEL DU PALAIS, BIARRITZ

This imperial resort and spa which overlooks the beachfront revives the splendour of the Napoléon III-era, elegant and observing 100 years plus of the grand traditions and radiance of Biarritz. It was previously known as Villa Eugenie.

Its 152 rooms, including 30 suites, are lavishly decorated, with such features as Carrara marble in the sumptuous bathrooms and fine artwork. Most of the rooms have spectacular sea views.

A sojourn at the hotel includes the utmost in pampering – from dining in one of three restaurants, including Rotande; enjoying a cocktail in the bars, or healthier pursuits such as swimming in the heated seawater pool and indoor swimming pool. Thalassomy (a seawater treatment) can be enjoyed in the spa. The hotel has everything – not to mention a superb location.

www.hotel-du-palais.com Tel: (+33) (0) 559416400.



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