Spain and France: two countries with equally fascinating culture, history and traditions, though a countryman from either would dispute this statement unequivocally. There is an area of the two countries however, where the Spanish and French have put their differences aside and come together to form a region with its own identity, language and culture. The Basque region, or Euskal Herria, though not unknown to the British traveller, is somewhere less frequently visited, but still offers a host of holiday pleasures. Quaint mountain villages, vibrant cities, and vast pine forests spill out onto beautiful beaches where the temperatures leave you craving an evening of cocktails and fresh seafood.
The Basque region covers the Western Pyrenees arcing around the bottom corner of the Bay of Biscay in the South West corner of France and the North East corner of Spain. The region is made up of seven different provinces, three each in Spain and France with one shared. In Spain, the Pyrenees quite literally fall into the sea to form a natural barrier (that captures moisture in the air) and the green and luscious mountainscape contrasts starkly to the deep blues of the Atlantic. In contrast, the French Basque provinces spill out of the mountains to the North onto the flat expanse of Les Landes, the largest maritime pine forest in Europe, originally cultivated in the Napoleonic era to transform vast swampland into habitable terrain. Where the forest meets the Atlantic to the West, a huge, golden sandy beach greets the eye. A mecca for waveriders across Europe, the surfing industry centres around the small town of Hossegor where bronzed surfers cross paths with smartly attired city slickers.
It is here that a journey in the Basque region should begin. This small bustling town, about a kilometre inland from the beach, is hidden away in the dense forest roughly 30km north of Biarritz. The centre is small but smart with a mix of surf shops, up-market boutiques and an array of different cafés, restaurant and bars. A favourite with tourists and locals is the Café de Paris, where sipping a cappuccino whilst hiding behind sunglasses and people watching is the done thing. A short walk from the shops is the tidal Lac d’Hossegor, where you can swim, sail or simply walk around and admire the large houses that peer through the trees. The beach, however, is the place to be. Around the Plage Centrale you can cool off in the waves or in one of the many restaurants and bars that by night become a bustling hive of activity as people drink and dance the night away. At the beginning of October each year, the world’s top 40 surfers rock into town to compete in one of the legs of the World Tour. With the weather still warm Hossegor becomes a hive of activity with the best surfers battling it out by day and a host of different entertainment at night.
If you are someone who enjoys the beach, but also likes a bit more culture and glitz then a quick hop down the coast from Hossegor to Biarritz is definitely worth the effort. Biarritz is easily accessible by air from the UK and it is a quick 15 minute transfer to the city centre. The city itself grew from a small fishing and whaling village in the 12th century, but it was not until the 19th century after Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, built a palace on the Grande Plage beach in 1854 that Biarritz became a prime holiday destination. Today, the palace is the luxurious Hotel du Palais, but back in the 19th and early 20th century it regularly hosted European royals including Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Alfonso XIII of Spain. The city’s stunning Napoleonic architecture perches on and around the cliffs and beaches, whilst a modern contemporary feel has naturally submerged within the narrow streets and lanes where all the top names in fashion have stores.
To really see and feel like you have visited the French Basque region, whether you are in Hossegor or Biarritz, a day trip into the Pyrenees is a must. Renting a car is the best way to do it and the rewards are breathtaking as the roads snake up the valleys into the grass covered mountains. The sense of Basque identity becomes much stronger as you see the green, red and white flag of the region painted on walls and hanging from shutters. The road signs and place names are in both French and Basque, the villages are small, the people more reserved and the sense that the area sees itself as different from the rest of the country is very apparent. During the summer months in the picturesque village of St Etienne du Baigorry, visitors can watch the Basque equivalent of the highland games as young men test their strength and speed against weight and wood. If you look to the sky eagles and vultures can often be seen circling on the thermals, and in the crystal clear rivers, trout that would make any keen angler salivate at the thought of casting a few flies swim peacefully.
Moving to the west into Spain, the roads hug the coast as you drive from fishing village to fishing village past small coves, sandy beaches, high cliffs and spectacular views. After travelling through stunning landscapes it will almost come as a shock when you circle around the mountains to be greeted by San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is called in the Basque language. During the summer months, it is busy with visitors from across the world flocking to explore the old buildings, enjoy the city’s three beaches and taste the infamous pintos, or tapas as it is more commonly known. During mid-August, every year, the city hosts its annual Semana Grande, a week long festival that sees live music and DJs play in the streets well into the night. A highlight for any visitor during the festival must be the fireworks competition that takes place every evening around the city’s main bay. Be prepared to be blown away by the colours and noise that fill the night sky.
Further along the coast, you come to Guernica at the head of the estuary of the Ria de Mundaka. It was here, on 26th April 1937 during the Spanish civil war, that a squadron of the Nazi Luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombed the town to ruins. It caused Pablo Picasso to paint his famous anti-war painting to which the town lends it’s name. Today, Guernica has been rebuilt, and has a Peace Museum highlighting the town’s importance in the Basque region’s history.
The city of Bilbao sits roughly 20 miles further west of Guernica and it is here that any trip to the Basque country could potentially end. Its most famous attraction today is the Peggy Guggenheim Art Museum on the banks of the River Bilbao. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and built by Ferrovial, it is in itself enough of a reason to visit Bilbao. In comparison to San Sebastian and Biarritz, the city has a much grittier feel, though this should not put you off. A multitude of museums and galleries are open for business and as a university city there is a buzz and pace to the streets. It too has a week long festival in August, where the city essentially loosens its belt and has a good party. The feel is friendly and fun but there are political messages in much of the street art that is hung above the bars and stages. The Basque region has long disputed its independence and in its extreme form the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), which means ‘Basque homeland and freedom,’ has carried out attacks on the national governments. This should not deter a visit to the region, though, as this is carried out by a tiny minority, and most residents would rather ask you to dance!
In short, the Basque provinces of France and Spain can offer a culmination of high end glitz, cutting-edge culture, all night parties and beautiful scenery and beaches. There is a diversity here that will stay with you as you travel home, raising different feelings than your usual Franco-Spanish destination. The people are unique, friendly and kind, but best of all, wherever you go, you will certainly feel like you have been kissed by the summer sun. This writer could not recommend it enough.
5 Top Tips
1. Depending on budget, choosing wisely between the French and Spanish Basque regions could make a significant difference to your bank balance. With the less than stable Eurozone, you will find your Euros go much further in Spain than France.
2. Week long festivals happen throughout the Basque region’s villages, towns and cities all summer. Starting in Souston (10km north of Hossegor), the party quite literally does not stop as it moves around the coast, eventually finishing in Bilbao at the end of August. If you want to party, the Basque will show you how; every night you can easily find yourself going to bed with the sun already in the sky.
3. During the summer months it does get busy around the coast. The French and Spanish like to holiday, so if you want an easier time, visit early or late in the season when you can get the place to yourself. However, if you are restricted by the school holidays, you only have to head up into the mountains where the crowds thin out significantly.
4. Due to the proximity of the mountains to the sea, the hot summer days can lead to some spectacular electrical storms on the higher ground at night. This should not put you off, though as temperatures in the day can often exceed 35 degrees. You may actually welcome the rain that brings life back to the environment and the people.
5. When the World Surfing Tour arrives into Hossegor at the beginning of October the place becomes a melting pot of some of the best watermen in the world. Even if you have never had an interest in surfing, the chance to watch the world’s best in some of Europe’s best waves is an opportunity not to be missed. You never know, you might even find yourself looking for a surfboard before you know it.