I just returned from a week in the Basque Country, on the border of Spain in southwest France. I think the most telling thing about the region is what it’s called: Pays-Basque, or Basque Country. I like to think it’s a little dig to the Netherlands (Pays-Bas), like hey–one region in France has just as much as your whole country! But Pays-Basque really does have quite a lot to offer. I stayed in a village just outside Saint-Jean de Luz with a view, or vista rather, of the Pyrenees. The countryside is dotted with farms and houses in the Basque style (white concrete with red shutters). Opposite the mountain range is the Atlantic ocean, with waves big enough to surf and sandy beaches.
View from the Pyrenees towards the bay of Saint Jean de Luz
View of the Pyrenees and Spain (during April, before the mountains turn green)
In the port town of Saint Jean de Luz, we walked by the house where Maurice Ravel was born, the church where Louis XIV was married, quaint shops (including a pay-by-weight soap shop with the largest bars of soap I’ve ever seen) and the apartment of the interior minister of France, surrounded by tons of police. The culture is a proud mix of Spain and France, and the farmers next door still speak Basque fluently. There is also a mix of full-time residents and trendy vacationers. I was told the incidence of topless sunbathers has increased drastically, much to the chagrin of some. And so while it is a dual country-side/ocean-side retreat, there is a juxtaposition between picturesque town and the fingerprints of suburbia, such as an E.LECLERC (a Wal-Mart of sorts) and strip malls; Country homes, farms and camp grounds sit side by side, and motor homes cluster in empty lots next to train tracks. A high-speed train called the LGV is going to literally cut the countryside in half and run through the backyards of some houses and the area is full of posters in protest.
Early morning in Saint Jean de Luz
In nearby Bayonne, I went to my first bullfight (corrida) and discovered that once I got over the fact that the bulls were going to die, it was a rather beautiful dance between animal and toreador. A toreador from Bayonne did his town proud with a prize of two bull ears for outstanding performance. His bull was also voted one of the best ever and got a tour of honor around the arena (after he was dead). There were some mishaps though, with the sword puncturing the lung of two bulls and they died rather terribly, throwing up blood. Overall, an interesting cultural experience with reminders of why bull fighting remains controversial.
After the bull fight, there was a festival in the old city walls of Bayonne to celebrate the week of bull fighting, with great food and live music. A teenager with a developmental disability took over the dance floor with moves far better than mine and I really appreciated how unabashed and raw the performance was, especially in contrast to the plastic-surgeried dancers on stage. Sadly, his mother came and dragged him away after a very intoxicated girl (not me) started dancing very suggestively with him.
On another day, we had lunch at a mountaintop restaurant only accessible by hiking and a 4×4 for the lazy from Spain. (Just kidding, because after more than 6 months eating fois gras, I also secretly eyed the 4×4 with envy). Gone was the Michelle that climbed the tallest peak in Papua New Guinea (16,000 feet) by flashlight, replaced by someone keenly interested in the lamb, french fries and tasty local vegetables at lunch. After the meal, I watched some mountain bikers head upwards towards the peak of La Rhune and I headed downwards without regret. It’s also cool because all this is in Spain! There’s a quaint train that takes you to the peak, which I am definitely going to check out next time.
The Hiking Adventure
On a rare rainy day, we went to Spain by car to a mountainside supermarket. This supermarket is so popular for its stock of tasty foods at low prices that a traffic jam had taken over the lane back. There are also several liquor stores and I stood in front of the sangria aisle admiring the large number of options, similar to my experience in the mayonnaise aisle of a Parisian supermarket. A bit stressful, but I respect what it means culturally and economically.
I will conclude with a recommendation for the gelato sold out of trucks on the beach at Saint Jean de Luz. I had chocolate and mandarin orange sorbet and it was just bliss. And a photo of a French apero in the countryside:
All photographs unless otherwise noted by Augustin Pasquet
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.