Of Peppers, Pelota and Pottoks

Murray Stewart, whose new guide to The Basque Country and Navarre*, published by Bradt, will be available in book shops from April 12, describes a corner of France that remains defiantly distinctive:

Soule, Labourd and Basse-Navarre. Names that have long faded from the map of France, names that barely register in the consciousness of French tourists to the country’s south-west corner, never mind those of visitors from abroad. Together, these three former provinces make up the French Basque Country – another name largely absent from the cartographer’s armoury. For a long time now they have been but a constituent part of Départment 64, the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, which itself is just a portion of Aquitaine region.

The post-French Revolution era was a period of centralism, with an agenda of dismantling regional power bases and suppressing languages and cultures which might threaten the unity of France. Soule, Labourd and Basse-Navarre might have had their provincial borders erased, but it takes more than a mere revolution to thwart the Basque culture and identity. True, only a small proportion of the French Basque Country’s inhabitants actually speak euskara, probably Europe’s oldest language and one which seems unrelated to any other tongue. True, the Basque culture in Spain is more direct, more in-your-face and definitely more political than its French counterpart. But drop into a summer festival in Saint-Palais and you’re likely to encounter some force Basque activities: log chopping or stone lifting, macho competitions that help to define the Basque identity. Every village has its fronton or trinquet (respectively, outdoor and indoor pelota courts) on which variants of the world’s fastest ball-game are regularly played.

3308_Pelotari © Ph.Laplace_1370x928

Pelotari © Ph.Laplace

But it’s not a mere ‘question of sport’. The handsome Basque houses, with white walls and blood red shutters, mark the hillsides and line the village streets of settlements such as Sare and Ainhoa, deservedly numbered amongst the select ‘plus beaux villages de France,’ proudly reminding you that you are in the Basque Country. Out on the coast, all belle époque and beautiful, Biarritz is perhaps no longer the go to destination for celebrities it once was (name check Napoleon III, Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper) yet it still demonstrates elegance in a dignified manner while tolerating the upstart surfers who bring a youthful ambience to this still swish resort. Introduced to the area by an American film crew in the 1950s, surfing is right at home here on the Basque Atlantic coast, a perfect way of life in keeping with a slightly rebellious Basque spirit for which the natives are unapologetic.

5569_Bidart le village et la Rhune 003 © OT Bidart_4402x2508 copyBidart le village et la Rhune 003 © OT Bidart

Lesser-feted Bayonne is inland, but is shaped by two rivers. While the Adour carries the bulk of the waters down to the sea, the Nive gathers up the locals and visitors to lunch them – and lunch them well – in its many riverside restaurants. Bayonne has three top-drawer claims-to-fame. Chocolate and ham are the two to be enjoyed, while the third is the weapon which took its name from the town – the bayonet. Add a celebrated cathedral and a raucous summer festival based on that of Pamplona’s San Fermín bull runnings, and the tourism picture is complete.

La Rhune petit train 01 ©PTR

Standing like a sentinel over the point where the Atlantic coastline turns the corner from a north-south to an east-west axis, La Rhune is a mountain of mere modest proportions next to its Pyrenean neighbours to the east. Yet it is a Basque icon, and due to the vintage rack and pinion railway that trundles to its 900 metre high summit, it is popular with all ages and abilities. And at the top, marvellous views over the Basque Country, both Spanish and French. And a surprise, too: ventas owe at least some of their existence to the days of cross-border smuggling between France and Spain, and at the top of La Rhune – and elsewhere along the border – you will still find a cluster of these bizarrely located outlets. Everything’s on sale there, from an out-of-state Andalusian flamenco dress to pottoks , the stumpy little ponies which graze the Basque hills and valleys. The smuggling that was once rife here is long-gone, a ‘victim’ of EU free trade, yet a happy band of French weekenders trundle across the border to fill their boots (car boots, that is) with the cheaper wines and foodstuffs available in Spain. A pony won’t fit in the boot.

You’ve probably never wondered what things would look like if red peppers took control of the planet, but if you want the answer to such a rarely posed question, tiny Espelette has the answer. Originally introduced to the area by a returning emigrant, the Espelette pepper adorns nearly every building in the village, has its own festival in August and wheedles its way into the regional beer, chocolate and sausage. During the festival, it even gets its own solemn benediction in the town’s church.

With a more traditionally recognisable connection to religion, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port sits at the foot of the western Pyrenees. For centuries, the town has acted as a gateway for the thousands of pilgrims who choose to start their 800 kilometre journey here, trudging westwards to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Tomorrow, they’ll leave their hostels and cross the mountains, but for now they fuel up on cheap ‘pilgrim menus’ in between excited, pre-departure chatter.

2948_Ainhoa maison basque détail 02©VincentBauza_MonNuage_2560x1706 copy

Ainhoa maison basque détail 02©VincentBauza_MonNuag

Most inhabitants here are proudly French and Basque at the same time, more comfortable with their dual-identity than their counterparts south of the border. But the peppers and the pottoks, together with the surfing and stone lifting, will ensure that, even if the names of Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule fade into history, the Basque identity will not. Not even if there’s another French Revolution.

*The guide, which is in its first edition, covers the French and Spanish Basque Country – and Navarre in Spain.

Murray Stewart

Author: Murray Stewart