Water defines the Basque Country, falling from the skies with wringing regularity and delineating its boundaries with cliff-crashing waves. This invariable sirimiri drizzle can put a damper on outdoor plans, so when summer ushers in the annual months of sunshine, I waste no time heading to my favourite Basque bodies of water – the lakes, rivers and waterfalls that connect villages like dots on a puzzle, cutting through what must be the world’s most verdant, softly rolling hills.
On this day, despite the estival dates, dark grey clouds threaten to open up as we drive down a shady path, passing under a whitewashed arch crowned with Spanish tile that reads, simply, BRINDOS. Drops begin to splash against the windshield erratically, and I am reminded of the refrain regarding rain in Basque Country: there’s a reason the region is so green.
Tucked beneath draping ivy, Brindos Lac & Chateau rises up out of the reeds, presiding over what is one of the largest private lakes in France. To cross the threshold of this luxuriously renovated 1930s mansion is to be immediately transported to the diamond-dripped pages of The Great Gatsby. Opulence abounds in the gilded grand salon, whose walls creak under the weight of vintage hardbacks. The dining room, where rustic maroon checked tablecloths contrast with crystal chandeliers, frames a breathtaking view of the lily-padded lake.
Fortunately, the foreboding sense of dread F Scott Fitzgerald summons in his novel at the slightest drop of water is nowhere to be found in this art deco villa-turned-hotel. Brindos’s storybook setting is imbued with an aquatic calm, best experienced when ferried in the motorised boats to one of the 10 floating lodges. These stylish, secluded rooms beg to be luxuriated in, with warm wood walls and striped, beachy linens, but the private terraces – complete with loungers and dazzling views – steal the show.
Looking out over it now with a Berdea cocktail in hand (local Izarra liqueur, vodka, lime and cucumber juice, mint, aloe vera and ginger beer), I think to myself that the still lake, with its dead-serious mirroring of the summer storm, augurs well for a relaxed evening in a country mansion. Brindos Lac & Chateau asks nothing of you, instead silently setting out a stream of options to glide through as your day goes on.
Though I opted for a cocktail, La Chocolaterie, a sweeping room at the front of the mansion, is open every afternoon for a princely teatime. Brindos has transformed the afternoon ritual into a civilised ode to cocoa under ornate lamps with views of the ever-present calming water. Biarritz’s neighbour, Bayonne, is the chocolate capital of France, and Chocolats Cazenave provides this maison’s supply, whipping up hand-frothed chocolat chaud – best with a dollop of an ever-so-sweet Chantilly crème. 170 years of sippable tradition in a cute little ceramic cup.
While the coast is only a hop, skip and jump down the road, the hotel beats out the oft-chilly Basque waters with its own swimming, soaking, and tranquil-lake-gazing aqueous activities. A between-cocktail-hour-and-dinner steep in the crater pools of the dockside spa, with a glass of citrus-infused water in hand, was just what I needed for sluicing off that travel-dust. Creaking down the wooden hallways back to my room in the main villa, I caught sight of the swimming pool to the right, empty but for a few dragonflies buzzing around electric pink flowers, and a couple gliding on one of the paddleboards available for guests. I decided tomorrow I would hop on one myself, making a mental note to do so before settling into the padded loungers of the pontoon bar with a glass of rosé à la Daisy Buchanan.
The glamorous Gatsby crowd still gallants around Biarritz and its nearby coastline, with nothing but an updated wardrobe and a smartphone in hand to distinguish them from the last century’s roaring Twenties. The Côte Basque, the coastline that stretches from Hendaye to Bayonne, has a laid-back French Hamptons feeling; where the Paris cognoscenti land every August to lie languorously in the sunshine. The real attractions, however, are of the edible variety, so we jump in the car to jaunt down the coastline in the search of seafood.
The cool crashing waves of the Bay of Biscay are home to ideal conditions for world-famous fish, so our first stop is Les Halles de Biarritz. Never have there been so many beautiful fishmongers under one roof. The stalls of glistening fish and seafood at the daily market is like a Paris Fashion Week runway where the haute couture has been replaced by haute cuisine. As the French will attest, the best cure for over-indulging the night before (or preparation for a romantic night ahead) is an ice-cold oyster, which we down at Chez Jerome, accompanied by a chilled glass of white.
Appetite officially whetted, we set off in search of examples of the local catch in action (aka: on a plate). Pulling off the highway, the so-unassuming-it’s-almost-invisible Elements sits in a quiet strip of shops. At this edgy spot, chef Anthony Orjollet conjures hyper-local seafood and produce into small-plate dishes with big flavour profiles. Local cuttlefish is sliced and speared, brushed with rich, dark Tonkotsu sauce, and served with meaty oyster mushrooms. The wine menu lists ‘living wines’ only, and the sommelier surprised us with a très minéral unfiltered natural wine from Galicia, fermented and aged in clay amphorae. It pairs perfectly with a piece of line-caught hake, silky-smooth in emulsified olive oil pil-pil with a nutty crunch of sesame.
Down the road, at Chez Mattin, situated in the heights of the tranquil village of Ciboure, the local catch is served steaming, in a broth redolent of piment d’espelette, onion and tomatoes. Invented by Labourdine fishermen to use the remnants of the day’s catch, ttoro could best be described as a Basque bouillabaisse, complete with handsome chunks of monkfish or hake, shellfish and even a Norway lobster on a good day. It is perfection when accompanied by the rustic charm of Chez Mattin, which, while rougher and more worn around the edges, reminds me of the hominess of Brindos, the wooden ceiling beams that same dark Basque brown.
Full now, we wander down to the port, colourful boats bobbing in the moonlight, the village Saint-Jean-de-Luz still and quiet on the opposite shore. I stretched out my arms toward the dark water, happy, as full as the moon reflected on the ocean’s surface.