The region we’ve probably dropped in on the most since residing in south west France is Pays Basque; both the French and Spanish pockets of this distinct and dynamic province sandwiched between the rugged southernmost reaches of the Bay of Biscay and the robust scaffolding of the Pyrenees stretching inland. Ever since first motoring down the long and monotonous length of the A63 autoroute from Bordeaux through the département of Landes – all pine forests and an uninspiring panorama of flatness – to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques slotted in snugly along the border with Spain, I am always utterly taken when the towering mountain vistas come into view, and the low-level landscape embodying Landes all at once morphs into lush and undulating foothills flecked with the characteristic white and ruby red chalets of the Basque Country.
It’s almost as though I harbour a connection with the place; a kinship. Quite possibly, the very quintessence of its verdant backdrop – the hills heartily rippling and rolling across the terrain –gives me a sense of home. Along with its strong sense of identity, fertile landscape, love of rugby and a fortitude for maintaining a minority language, perhaps I feel a parallel with my Welsh roots, albeit some one thousand miles south of the homeland.
Once part of the kingdom of Navarra, the Basque region affably spans the border between France and Spain, with Iparralde being the ‘northern side’ or French Basque Country, and Hegoalde the Spanish or ‘southern side’. Together, the provinces of Pays Basque and Béarn form the picturesque Pyrénées-Atlantiques département of France, as popular for the mountains as it is for its wild Atlantic coastline.
Sometimes we may head down for the day – it’s roughly a two-hour drive or train ride from Bordeaux to Pays Basque. Sometimes we’re passing through en route to Spain and like to take a detour for lunch by the seaside or in a traditional Basque village. Occasionally, we stay with friends who have a summer home just outside Biarritz or, if booking our own accommodation, our best little find in the area has to be l’Auberge Basque, a boutique inn a stone’s throw inland from the sea.
front façade of L’Auberge Basque
Leaving the A63 at Saint-Jean-de-Luz and snaking deep into the Basque hinterland from the coast past hills dotted with typical half-timbered houses and sheep-filled pastures, yet no more than five miles from the beaches, you’ll stumble upon l’Auberge Basque, a traditional farmhouse dating from the 17th century and today stylishly renovated into a chic contemporary residence set against the fabric of the Pyreneen foothills.
It’s a beautiful blue sky day in early spring when we ruck up the final furlong of a rolling hillside and ride into the driveway of this delightful hideaway for a long weekend with a sixteen-month-old Jem in tow, more than eager to get out and explore after two hours trussed up in his car seat. While Mr Gallivant goes to check us in, I take a stroll around the charming exterior of the auberge with Jem bobbing alongside, and into the lush garden beyond bestowing an eye-catching view of La Rhune mountain as a backcloth to the west-facing façade of the building.
aerial view of La Rhune © http://www.touradour.com/towns/larhune.htm
The property was a few years back bought over by celebrated Michelin-starred chef, Cédric Béchade, once a protégé of Alain Ducasse, who decided to return to his pays after many years in Paris and convert the characteristic inn into a stylish heritage hotel combining the original features and fusing them with a more modern feel in a sinuous marriage of past and present. From where we stand, or rather run and tumble ad infinitum in Jem’s case, I admire the floor-to-ceiling glass façade on the contemporary side of the auberge, which blends harmoniously with the authenticity of the classic Basque fascia at the front of the building. I’ve had my eye on this place for some time, and am thrilled to be spending the next four days here. We know it isn’t to be a relaxing break, not with a toddler to take care of, but just being in the quietude of the Basque countryside and the stylish surroundings of our boutique abode is enough to slacken the stresses of the day-to-day.
Checked in and key in hand, we climb the creaky wooden staircase to our accommodation in the original façade of the building. And I instantly fall in love with our room. It – and the entire inn – is tastefully decorated in Flamant Home Interiors, a Belgian design brand and my favourite homeware store in Bordeaux. Understated elegance and muted tones rule the roost. It’s right up my road. Slightly on the side of pocket-sized the room may be, but an extra bed has after all been set up for Jem. We’re here on a special spring-deal package so I’m not nitpicking, we wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for sniffing out the more easy-on-the-pocket, out-of-season rate. There are nine rooms and three suites in all in a range of sizes to suit assorted budgets.
Chambre 9 © http://www.chateauxhotels.co.uk/l-auberge-basque
And with the owner being a chef of such esteemed calibre, l’Auberge Basque is very much renowned for its creative gourmet cuisine, swanking a Michelin-starred restaurant. Fortuitously for us, there is a five-course menu harmonie served up as part of our package. That first evening, with Jem safely ensconced in slumber in Room N° 9, Mr Gallivant and I steal downstairs to La Grange, the bijou little hotel bar, and while away an hour in seamlessly comfortable surroundings sipping on G&Ts before dinner is served.
Michelin-starred restaurant with panoramic views © http://www.idealgourmet.fr
The restaurant, also spruced up in the soothing and simplistic tones of Flamant, has the seating area looking onto a contemporary open kitchen for guests to feast their eyes on the flurry of sous-chefs animatedly concocting an assortment of fine delicacies to flawless precision. And culinary works of art indeed they create. In fact, the restaurant at l’Auberge Basque has become quite known in the region as the gastronomic heart of haute-cuisine for an amazing amalgam of local flavours and a fusion of utterly unanticipated foods to fabricate simply the most appetizing of fine-dining meals we either of us have ever tasted. Think petit pois profiteroles, fois gras au thé Earl Grey, or even beetroot-flavoured ice cream; and of course the whole span of local Basque staples like jambon de Bayonne, pipérade, Ossau-Iraty cheese and Espelette chilli peppers. On being served each course, Béchade himself comes to our table to explain all the elements of the ingredients and precisely why they have been married together to craft the course we are about to savour. Simply exquisite!
Cédric Béchade in the open-plan kitchen © http://www.chateauxhotels.co.uk
Even the breakfasts are the most extraordinary we have ever experienced. Naturally, everything is homemade, and the three of us spend a leisurely hour or so each morning grazing through the pancakes and brioches and confitures and local cheeses and jambon be Bayonne and oeufs en cocotte and fruit crumbles and freshly pressed juices. All so delectable. I could go on. Jem doesn’t hold back one bit as he gleefully gorges on anything he can get his pudgy little hands on.
breakfast © http://l-auberge-basque-saint.booked.net/
This delightful little Basquais boutique inn is an absolutely blissful place to be. And our surroundings are beyond superlative. On the doorstep are a glut of gorgeous places to indulge in, we are after all in the Pyreneen foothills – an undulating landscape peppered with pretty picture-postcard villages of half-timbered, wide-eaved houses painted with white limestone façades, and shutters and wood panelling in the customary Basque red or sometimes forest green. To see these traditional Labourdine houses at their loveliest, visits to the villages of Ainhoa, Espelette, Sare and La Bastide-Clairence in the hinterland or Bidart, Guéthary and Ciboure on the coast are a must. Of course, the towns of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz are just as handsome for their Maisons Basques and all out local charm.
the village of Espelette
A hop and a skip from Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, the base for l’Auberge Basque, is the rack and pinion railway that rides up to the top of La Rhune, a mountain straddling France and Spain with striking views of both the Bay of Biscay coastline and the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. The sky is a cloudless, cobalt blue. It’s the perfect day to be taking le petit train up through the rugged terrain to the summit to behold all of the Basque Country from atop. It’s the ideal jaunt for a child, and Jem is just thrilled.
Atlantic Ocean and Pyrenees from the top of La Rhune
Another worthwhile stop-by is the Villa Arnaga in Cambo-les-Bains, the larger-than-life traditional Basque home of Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac. The villa is now a museum set in magnificent grounds, and here you really get to appreciate the Maison Basque at its finest.
If it’s pleasing your palate that counts, then don’t miss Espelette, prized for its piments or chilli peppers, which hang rich-red from the buildings in the drying process before being fashioned into the celebrated, flavour-packed Espelette chilli powder used to spice up cooking the world over. Or if you find yourself in the environs at Easter, check out the Bayonne Ham Fair, a foire the town has been holding for more than 500 years in celebration of its fêted air-dried, salted jambon. Bayonne, incidentally, is also the home of chocolate in France, first brought to the town by the Spanish some 400 years back bringing about a chocolate-making savoir faire that stays to this day. And of course there is the notable Ossau-Iraty cheese, a product of AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) status made from the milk of the ewes that roam the rocky, rolling hills of the region.
Bayonne © http://pays-basque.tourisme64.com
On this particular trip to Pays Basque, we touch on the inland locale of this unspoilt landscape only. There is certainly a lot more to the locality than we can squeeze in this time around. But we will be back. We always come back. For the Basque Country is a world unto itself; culturally rich, aesthetically pleasing, and proud – very proud – to the core.
Ainhoa, a plus beau village of France © http://www.euskoguide.com
the beach at Bidart © http://www.bidarttourisme.com
* L’Auberge Basque has rooms from €139 in low season (breakfast included for telephone reservations only)