- Atlantic shores, Pyrénées peaks
- Country life
- Basque flavours, surf bathers
France’s south-westernmost region is a lush, green pocket of land caught between the mountains and the windswept Atlantic coast.
Straddling the French-Spanish border and pierced by the Pyrenees, the Pays Basque is a wild and rugged coastal land, whose people share a rich and proud cultural tradition with their Iberian neighbours (largely centred on food). The wild waves of the Atlantic crash into the cliffs and coves of the Bay of Biscay, making the region a surfers’ paradise, and cute spa-dotted seaside towns such as St Jean de Luz offer beachy thrills by the bucket- (and spade-) load. In the cities (from Bayonne and Biarritz across the border to Bilbao and San Sebastián), travellers will find welcoming close-knit communities, as well as unforgettable food, much of it in the form of pintxos – tiny plates of tapas – all washed down with a tot of hearty local red.
Absolutely AquitaineIn most Basque towns you’ll find a frontón, a paved, walled area dedicated to the region’s favourite sport: pelote. Played using a woollen ball, and either hands or a scooping wicker racket, the game is distantly related to squash and real tennis and, though its tenure as an Olympic sport ended in 1900, it’s still played passionately throughout the Basque Country, in seemingly endless variants. For a chance of catching a match, either check the schedules at www.euskalpilota.com, or look for a man with a swollen hand and follow him to his next game.
- In Biarritz and other biggish towns, there are taxi stands. Out in the sticks, you’re best off booking ahead. Around Biarritz, try Atlantic (+33 (0)5 59 03 18 18). Agur (+33 (0)5 59 47 38 38) is good for Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
- Tipping culture
- Tips are not expected, especially for set lunches or pintxos, but small change is always welcomed. Service charges are rarely added to restaurant bills, and 10 per cent is considered generous – most locals stick to five.
- Siesta and fiesta
- The Basque siesta is alive and well (but a bit sleepy between 1pm and 5pm). Restaurants run pretty strict lunch and dinner services, so you’re unlikely to get served after 2pm or before 6pm. In bigger towns, most shops stay open until 8pm or 9pm. In smaller towns, especially in low season, restaurants often close on Mondays, and shops observe a day of rest on Sundays.
- Packing tips
- Stash your surfboard if you plan to ride the waves, or broken-in hiking boots if you want to yomp the Pyrénées.
- Recommended reads
- Paddy Woodworth’s The Basque Country: A Cultural History and The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky are essential tomes for amateur anthropologists. Gastronomes should pick up a copy of Kurlansky’s companion volume Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which, as well as explaining how the Basques discovered America, is also the most entertaining fish book ever.
- The Atlantic coast means abundant fresh fish and seafood. Try bacalao (salt cod), chipirons (baby squid), and kokotxas (hake throats – a delicacy).Other regional treats include slightly sparkling txakoli wine, and sagardo, aka Basque cider. Strings of dried red peppers, or piments d’Espelette, are the Basque answer to bunting, and sold as souvenirs.
- Euro (€).
- Time zone
- Dialling codes
- For France: +33; for Spain: +34.
- Do go/don't go
- The landscape doesn’t go green on its own: Atlantic fronts bring wind and drizzle throughout the year. July and August are driest, hottest and busiest, so aim for May, June or September – but still make sure you pack a waterproof.
Don't go home without...
…a txapela. The classic black wool beret may have strong French associations, but Basque peasants wore ’em first.