Basking in the Bewitching Pays Basque

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Harassed by hunger and a menu at Txalupa Restaurant littered with mysteries like ttoro, txipirones, txangurro and txirlas I fell back on research.

A pocket Euskara phrasebook solved nothing but I did find “Excuse me, waiter”.

“Aizu tabernari,” I mumbled at a passing garcon.

“Yep?” he said, and translated the menu into passable English, a language that visitors to Saint-Jean-de-Luz apparently seldom use.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz nests in southwest France on the Nivelle River near the Spanish border where the Basque country meets the Bay of Biscay.

It’s one of a string of maritime towns peppering a rugged coastline lashed by surging breakers and decorated with grassy headlands, little sheltered coves and splendid beaches warmed by the Gulf Stream.

This is dominated by ritzy Biarritz, one of the world’s first seaside resorts and a favourite of 19th century European royals and aristocrats.

By contrast, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a piracy, fishing and whaling centre since the 11th century, is prettier, more affordable and, despite the predominance of French signage, much more Basque.

The town lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees, boasts one of the finest beaches in France and is garnished with the traditional red and white buildings found right across the Pays Basque.

Basques have inhabited the region straddling northeast Spain and southwest France since the Romans were bad and for centuries have been stubbornly protective of their culture, cuisine and unique language.

Pirates and whalers are pretty much history here now but Saint-Jean-de-Luz is still a working fishing port where the fleet delivers a daily flapping fresh catch of mainly sardines, anchovies and tuna.

Which brings us back to Txalupa’s unfathomable consonants. Hidden amid the Xs and double Ts were, among other delights, spider crabs, tuna, sea bass and baby white clams.

Ttoro turned out to be a rapturous fish soup made with scampi, hake and eel in a broth of tomatoes, white wine and Espelette chilli, a fiery red Basque chilli from Espelette which bears its own Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC).

The txipirones was equally yummy, calamari simmered in its own ink with caramelized onions, green peppers and more Espelette chillis.

From the terrace at Txalupa Restaurant I stared at a postcard scene of the town hub, place Louis XIV, a pretty square filled with people and surrounded by plane trees, red and white half-timbered buildings, bars and alfresco cafes.

There’s something special about Saint-Jean-de-Luz, maybe the palette of primary and pastel colours, the gentle play of light on ochre sands and whitewashed buildings and the verdant Pyrenees looming in the background that seems to nurture creativity here.

Composer Maurice Ravel, born in Ciboure just across the Nivelle River, completed his famous “Bolero” in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in 1928. Ernest Hemingway based his short story The Sea Change (1931) on people he’d encountered in Le Bar Basque on Boulevard Thiers.

Artists bring their easels and palettes to Place Louis XIV, there are regular musical recitals in the bandstand and every Sunday morning in summer the old square resonates with the strains of a Basque choir.

Beyond place Louis XIV, I discovered some wonderful narrow winding lanes with whitewashed houses and tiny shops selling glaces and famous Basque specialties like cherry marmalade, fromage de brebis (Pyrenean ewe’s milk cheese), gateaux Basques (flan pastry filled with creme patissiere and black cherries and the macarons that were invented here.

Basques are famous for their espadrilles and quality linen and on rue de la Republique I stumbled on Iban, a shop selling Basque crafts including antique lace, embroidered linen and cotton clothing, some 70-80 years old.

On rue Gambetta, handmade espadrilles filled the windows of stores like Sandales Bayona and Nicole Paries and at la Maison Jean-Vier I bought an exquisite pastel-striped linge Basque tablecloth for a mere $52.

Behind la Grand Plage, more than 1km long, I strolled along Promenade Jacques Thibaud passing magnificent old white and red Basque-style mansions facing the sea, many apparently derived from the proceeds of piracy, a pink thalasso spa and a pleasant botanical garden at the end.

The pink and white Belle Époque-style Grand Hotel Loreamar Thalasso Spa looming over the sandy beach is reputedly one of France’s finest thalassotherapy centres.

Another Basque word in the phrasebook that caught my eye was “txikiteo” which roughly translated as “pub crawl”.

Txikiteo, I discovered, involved a vigorous evening migration from bar to bar consuming impressive quantities of txakolin (Basque cider), the very likable Basque wine, Irouleguy, and filling the gaps with pintxos, the local version of tapas.

It’s that sort of lifestyle statement, the wondrous seafood and the quiet, unassuming elegance of the place that makes Saint-Jean-de-Luz the sort of offbeat seaside escape that should never be allowed to go out of style.

About 15km to the northeast, Biarritz was historically a modest little seaside town, home to bands of corsairs and a robust Basque community which had fished the Atlantic Ocean since it invented whaling in the 12th century.

The quiet life came under challenge in the 17th century when doctors announced that the sea off Biarritz possessed miraculous therapeutic and curative properties and sent patients there in droves.

The resilient Basques weathered that one but when Emperor Napoleon the Third arrived in the 1850s and built a sumptuous palace overlooking the sea for his Empress Eugenie, Biarritz was never the same again.

All summer the crowned heads of Europe, aristocrats and glitterati from across the civilised world descended on Villa Eugenie.

As visitor numbers swelled grand new hotels and a casino appeared and, in 1883, after Napoleon III and his Second Empire collapsed, Eugenie’s pink and white stucco palace went public as the very fashionable Hotel du Palais.

European royalty, politicians and movie stars continued the annual invasion until the Second World War brought the grand dream to an end and Biarritz, once again, was France’s neglected paradise.

But in the 1960s strange things were happening in Biarritz. Above the sound of waves crashing on the almost deserted Grand Plage, the tortured harmonies of the Beach Boys began to echo around the majestic hotels and snooty shops as nomadic young Americans armed with greenbacks, crew cuts and surfboards discovered some of the biggest surf breaks in Europe.

Biarritz was back on the map as surfing, tourism and thalassotherapy (spa treatments with sea water and algae) resurrected the “queen of resorts and resort of kings”.

Backpacking surfers, families and chic Parisian yuppies now mingle comfortably under the palm trees, the striped awnings of chic café-bars, on the beautiful beaches and in the town’s buzzing nightclubs.

Overlooking the Grand Plage, the Art Deco casino where Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway chanced their luck has been restored to its 1930s elegance. Within a block or two, were surf shops Rip Curl, the new Rip Curl Girl, Quiksilver and Billabong.

Good old French égalité is rife in Biarritz, even in the ritzy boutiques where you can pick up a cheap T-shirt or splurge on a Gucci bag and affordable B&Bs and cafes have appeared to cater to more modest budgets.

Miremont Salon de The, on place Clemenceau, wasn’t one of them. This is where the unreconstructed Prada and poodle push gather to discuss real estate values over cakes and lemon tea in very elegant and proper surroundings.

Down the road, the less well-heeled were stoking up on grills and pommes frites at le Surfing, a lively brasserie just behind the beach full of surfing memorabilia. But it’s not difficult to eat well in Biarritz; in fact, some people come just for the food.

The unique Basque cuisine makes imaginative use of the rich regional produce, the milk-fed lamb of the Pyrenees, the blond cows of the Aquitaine, the black-and-white Basque pigs that produce the sweet, delicate flavours of Bayonne ham that’s mildly smoked and cured in wine.

Brebis, ewes’ milk cheese traditionally eaten with black cherry jam from Itxassou, is another taste sensation. Piperade is an omelette with pimento and tomatoes; Poulet Basquaise, chicken tomatoes, sweet peppers, ham and mushrooms; Loukinkos, small garlic sausages; Grasse-Double, tripe cooked in tomatoes and red peppers.

There’s a good mix of brasseries, bistros and up-market restaurants in Biarritz specialising in Basque food in and just out of town where seafood is often a specialty. The busy Bar Jean, opposite the covered markets, has authentic Basque tapas.

Just outside town, Arosta is a restaurant in a XVII century typically Basque farmhouse set in the grounds of Château du Claire de Lune with great views of the Pyrenees and fine country cooking like duck shepherd’s pie, beef ribs, torut steak and sucking pig.

Also just a boule’s throw from Biarritz, Bayonne is the capital of the Pays Basque region with a quiet charm, an unhurried pace and a friendly disposition but the city’s primary attraction is its dark side.

Bayonne is where Sephardic Jews fled from the Spanish Inquisition in the early 17th century and introduced the French to the dark secrets of chocolate making, a legacy which has made Bayonne the “Chocolate Capital of France”.

Boutiques and cafes lined rue Argenterie with facades of timber-framed apartments and wooden shutters painted every colour of the spectrum.

In the old town, medieval cobbled streets and lanes cut a network around the Gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne, begun in the 12th century and completed 700 years later, with its audacious steeples soaring above a 17th century citadel.

The cathedral was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1998 as part of the French Pilgrim Routes of Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining cloister dates back to 1240. At the Musee Basque you can discover everything about the Pays Basque, the people and its history and traditions.

It’s a feast for history buffs, and for gourmands. Strolling through the old cobbled streets laced around the Gothic cathedral, I found shops displaying rows of bright red hams.

Jambon de Bayonne is regarded as one of the world’s finest air-dried, salted hams, differentiated from others by a coating of red Espelette chilli paste rubbed around the exposed bits giving it a redness and a unique tang.

On rue d’Espagne I found Blush Noisette, a busy red wine coloured boutique festooned with the works of top designers like Berenice, Manoush, Iro, Sessun and Virginie Castaway.

Through Place Pasteur, once site of the town gallows, I stopped at the 1920s Cafes Ramuntcho on rue du Pilori for coffee and a mini gateau Basque, little cakes filled with jam, blueberries, figs or cherries and cream. There were 380 different teas and 20 coffees to choose from.

On rue Bernadou I confronted a wicked array of multi-coloured macarons, poached apple tarts and chocolate eclairs at Patisserie Lionel Raux. Inside were tables and seating and other savoury stuff like salmon tarts served on wooden platters.

But rue Port-Neuf was the epicentre of Bayonne’s chocolate tourism, a cluster of chocolate boutiques Paries, Daranatz, Cazenave and L’Atelier du Chocolat with tantalising displays and beautiful 19th century decor.

Each was different, all were superb and some still served chocolat a l’ancienne the 17th century Sephardic way – hot, bitter, spiced and frothy.

Around 5pm, the aromas of roasting cacao began filling the streets and chocolate tragics trudged around rue Port-Neuf to their favourite chocolatier for an afternoon fix.

Cazenave, with Limoges porcelain speckled with tiny pink roses set on cute lace tablecloths, was founded in 1854. Its specialty, chocolat mousseux, was divine hot chocolate with cinnamon, vanilla and a wonderful dome of chocolate foam.

In l’Atelier du Chocolat there were arrangements of chocolate bouquets and a dazzling array of dark morsels by master chocolatier Serge Andrieu that included such exotic titles as Feuillant d’Or, Framboise and Afriq.

Daranatz (1890) had a lovely old-fashioned tearoom, white chocolates, dark chocolates and chocolate bonbons with more than 50 different flavours.

A special at Paries was kanouga, a hazelnut, coffee and vanilla chocolate caramel, the same recipe created there in 1905 for visiting Russian royalty while, at Chocolaterie-Musee Puyodebat, around the corner, I sampled chocolates spiced with same Espelette pepper rubbed on Bayonne hams.

There are times when Bayonne’s unhurried pace is suspended and party time rules. Every Easter the city celebrates a Basque festival dating back to 1462 “la Foire au Jambon” the annual Ham Fair that includes a ham market and a regional competition to find the best producer of traditional Bayonne Ham.

Basques are a spiritedly self-sufficient people stubbornly wedded to their culture.

Away from the city and the glitzy, celebrity-studded coast, the Basque heartland is a postcard Pyrenean landscape of sinuous hills and valleys where rivers run fast and passions run deep.

Driving through the rural interior I found beech forests and small farms speckled with shaggy white sheep separating a scattering of little villages, each with its traditional trilogy – a town hall, church and pelote court.

Pelote is similar to squash except the ball is flung at the wall and accelerated with the aid of a curved basket. It’s a sport Basques take even more seriously than their beloved rugby.

The villages with their red-shuttered, whitewashed houses seemed similar but there were subtle differences.

Itxassou has cherry orchards and a lovely rustic church while Hasparren snoozes at the foot of the Pyrenees only stirring during the annual Pamplona-style running of the cows.

In Louhossoa, a grim stone church towers over a graveyard of crosses and disc-shaped Basque headstones and pretty red and white buildings on the tree-lined streets beyond.

Through these villages, all roads lead to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the most beautiful of the Basque towns, founded in the 13th century by the last Basque king, Sancho the Strong.

Since the Middle Ages, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been the main staging post for pilgrims trekking to the Tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela across the Spanish border. They still do.

In the late afternoon the sun played on the massive citadel that dominates the town and the River Nive. Stirring Basque music played quietly from speakers in the “Centre Ville” and senior citizens sipped beer in outdoor cafes playing mus, a traditional Basque card game.

From the citadel, rue de la Citadelle descended steeply to the river, a cobbled street lined with ancient rose-tinted granite houses dating back to 1510. At the bottom, at the end of a stone bridge, was the neo-Gothic and sensibly named Church of Our Lady at the End of the Bridge, still used by passing pilgrims.

At Bar Brasserie du Trinquet a sturdy waitress brought me a bottle of Irouleguy, a Basque red wine for the spiced chicken Basquaise, casseroled with capsicum, garlic, tomatoes and Espelette chillis. That and the Iraty fromage de brebis (sheep’s cheese) with a dollop of blackberry jam were simply superb.

It was Saturday afternoon and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was drenched in a deluge. I followed the locals retreating to the Ttipia Bar to sing and dance to accordions and drums and to quaff Akerbelz beer, pittara, a sharp-tasting cider and a potent herb liqueur called izzara.

It all seemed a bit like home. Patrons placed bets with the PMU (French TAB) but most of the beret-topped men were there to watch the Saturday rugby on wide-screen TV and on another, the pelote match of the day which, I discovered, was a critical confrontation between the muscled men of Larramendi and Eguzkiza.

Blokes in the bar muttered encouragement or disapproval as pelote players punished the court walls while girls with fashionable curly hair and flashing dark eyes screeched adoringly at their heroes.

Pelote players have been paid professionals since the 16th century and this was serious business charged with emotion and high drama.

Then, suddenly, it was over. Grinning Eguzkiza players told the story and the passionate young fans returned to what the Basques do best – the music and dance that shook Ttipia Bar to its old oak rafters late into Saturday night.


Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2015.

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