February 29th 2016

The origins of the Basque people remain shrouded in mystery. This fascinating, isolated and historically hard-to-conquer region of south-western France and north-western Spain spills from high mountains to a largely untamed Atlantic coast lined with stunning beaches. The Pays Basque – French in terms of national borders, but not necessarily national identity – boasts a superb natural environment, unspoiled and jealously guarded by their proud inhabitants. The Basques’ common language, Euskera is probably one of the oldest in the world, of prehistoric origin and unrelated to any other. The language, with its bewildering prevalence of x and z, (but no c, q, v, w or y!) is widely spoken, and Basques refer to their country as Euskal-herri (or, across the border in Spain, Euskadi). Apart from the language and the traditional broad beret, sported with aplomb by men of all ages, the most obvious manifestations of Basque national identity are the trinquets or frontons, the courts in which the terrifying national game of pelota is played. Pairs of players wallop a hard leather-covered ball, either with their bare hands or a long basket-work extension of the hand called a chistera against a high wall blocking one end of the court. Unlike the rest of south-western France, where a visitor may join in a tranquil afternoon of petanque, or outdoor bowls, pelota is best left to the experts as the ball travels at speeds of up to 130mph! basque atlantic To be a Wayfarer here is to follow meandering coast paths, where the sophistication of classy Biarritz, once the playground of Europe’s rich and famous, gives way to beaches of rolling surf. St Jean de Luz is a lovely sardine, tuna and anchovy fishing port – with another great beach – and a history that reveals its former importance as a port on the cusp of the two great powers of France and Spain. It was here in 1660 that a 22-year-old King Louis XIV married the daughter of Phillip IV of Spain, Maria Teresa, in the Eglise St Jean-Baptiste. After the royal wedding, the main church door was walled up forever. Look out for the traditional Basque blood-red in the painted half-timbered houses in the Basque villages like Ainhoa. Some say that this is one of the prettiest villages in all of France, a one street village of 17th and 18th century half-timbered homes with asymmetric roofs. Take a boat-ride from the port of Hendaye across the river Bidassoa and we’re in Spain. Hondarribia is a colorful fishing village that is both rich in architecture as well as in gastronomy. Stay inside the thick stone walls of a parador transformed from a beautiful castle built by the king of Navarre, Sancho Abarca, in the 10th century. The building still retains the appearance and atmosphere of a medieval fortress. piments p basque Basque cuisine has increasingly made its mark on the international gastronomy scene and the local specialty – the sweet-hot espelette pepper – symbolizes the strong, fresh flavors that characterize a typical meal here. The only way to experience the Basque country is to be there. Read more here about our Pays Basque Walk.

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