These notes are intended to help you get the maximum enjoyment out of your holiday at Le Ruisseau des Pyrenees in the `Pays Basque'. The notes cover a little of the history of the region, short resumes on places of interest, information on the local beaches, food and wines.
Le Pays Basque Region
The Basque country straddles the Pyrenees, encompassing parts of Spain (where the Basque separitist movement is active) and France, where it is not. These notes cover only the French part. In broad terms the borders of Le Pays Basque can be drawn from Bayonne east to just north of St Palais, to north and east of Mauleon and southwards east of Tardets to the Spanish border which forms the southern boundary.
The Basque People (Euskadi in their own language)
The `Basqueness' of the Basques manifests itself in several ways; in their popular, spectacular fast game of pelota played against a high round-topped wall called a `fronton' - go to watch it in Bidart; their love of festivity and dancing; and their highly individual language which is unlike any other in the world. So individual are the Basques they even have their own blood group!
Places of interest
Ainhoa: An extremely picturesque Basque village with delightful old whitewashed timber houses of the 17th and 18th centuries and a Romanesque church with galleries. One or two excellent restaurants.
Ascain: A typical Basque village/small town with lots of character has a fine example of a `fronton', as usual built close to the church. Like many other Basque churches, including that of Bidart itself, Ascain's boasts three galleries inside (always formally reserved for male worshippers). In the cemetery behind the church are examples of the strange disc-shaped gravestones -`discoidales'. These are often embellished with the Basque swastika. The patisserie below the post office makes very good `Gateau-Basque'. Drive out of the village in the direction of Sare and as you begin the winding climb up to St. Ignace (see later note) look out for the little stone tablet on the left, a monument to a French national cycling champion who was killed at this spot during a Tour de France just after the last war.
Bayonne: The northern-most coastal town of the Pays -Basque divided by the River Adour from the flatter Landes, Bayonne is situated on the site of the old Roman settlement of Lapurdam and is now the commercial capital of the region. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet in the 12th century Bayonne became an English city and remained so for 300 years. For a short time it again fell under English rule when captured by Wellington in 1813. It was here that Wellington's generals constructed a huge floating bridge, rising and falling with the tide, across the River Adour by lashing together a huge number of captured French barges. This provided a quick way across the wide estuary and enabled Napoleon's troops to be chased northwards to Bordeaux.
Today Bayonne is a lovely old town well worth a visit. As well as its river frontage, 16th century city walls and narrow streets of shops, it has two museums that are worth visiting:
Musee Bonat (Rue Jacques Lafitte): Bonnat was not a great artist himself but was an avid collector. As a result he left a high quality art collection to his hometown. Drawings by Durer, Raphael and Leonardo and paintings by Botticelli, Ruebens, El Greco, Rembrandt and Goya are included.
Musee Basque (Rue Marengo) is one of the most fascinating and well presented regional museums in France, housed in a typical Basque house. A visit gives a wonderful insight into the history and life of the Pays-Basque. The museum houses a varied collection of Basque styles of furniture, local crafts, history and witch hunts. A section on pelota, the local game, includes a collection of beautiful old `chistera', the basket-glove with which the fastest form of this game is played.
Biarritz: Biarritz was ‘discovered' around the early 19th century. Records show that from 1838 the Spanish nobility holidayed there. Amongst them was the Comtesse de Montigo and her daughter Eugenie who, having discovered its charms, spent every summer there. When Eugenie became Empress of France her husband Napoleon III accompanied her and Biarritz was ‘made'. Following his first visit in 1854 Napoleon had a grand seaside villa constructed for his wife - the Villa Eugenie - now the L'Hotel du Palais which stands in all its
Half a century or so later Biarritz was re-discovered, this time by the British royal family, Queen Victoria and in particular Edward VII, who gave the town a new lease of life, as in his train followed many of the British aristocracy and the upper classes. Indeed, Biarritz was 'the' place to holiday up to the beginning of the second world war.
Today it offers much to the holiday maker from the Vieux Port with its yacht basin and attractive fish restaurants (a delightful place to dine ‘al fresco' at night) to its splendid surfing beach which hosts the World Surfing Championships at the beginning of September each year.
Musee de La Mer: Stroll southwards from the main beach along the cliff around the Casino Bellevue and through the old fishing port and discover Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin's Rock), an idea of Napoleon's where little boats could pick up and drop holiday makers when the beach was inaccessible. Facing the rock is the sea museum, a building packed with the living and the dead of the sea.
Bidart: Built on the highest cliffs of the Cote Basque, it is a charming village with its frontons, small in the square and ‘grande' below the typical Basque church. During the summer season holidaymakers can enjoy games of pelote in Bidart.
Cambo-les-Bains: Go there via the `Route Imperiale des Gimes', from Bayonne the D22, a beautiful scenic drive. Pull off for a few moments at the viewpoint on the right just before dropping down into the hamlet of Montachoury - a glorious view.
Cambo is a mixture of typical small Basque town and small spa, set on the River Nive. Edmond Rostrand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, lived here; his home, the Villa Arnaga, now houses the Rostrand Museum which has beautifully set out French gardens and is well worth a visit.
To the east of Cambo are the splendid underground caves, Grottes d'Oxocelhaya, open from mid-March to mid-November.
Ciboure: Now almost part of St Jean de Luz. its picturesque streets contain a number of ancient Basque houses. One, built in the Dutch style, is the birthplace of the composer Ravel.
Espelette: (meaning `planted with box trees') is noted for its winter horse fair at which ‘pottocks' the small Basque ponies, are sold. A pleasant village with traditional Basque houses and church. The graveyard contains 200/300 years old tombs with circular headstones, an old Basque custom. The restaurant at the Hotel Euzkadi provides good traditional Basque food. You will often see here the thousands of red peppers hanging up to dry. ’Les Pottocks', the tiny ponies, examples of which can be seen (and fed!) in the field behind the lake on Le Ruisseau, are the semi-wild Pyrenees mountain ponies and are said to date from prehistoric times.
Gorges de Kakouetta: Don't miss a trip to these famous gorges in the Forest d'Iraty, which is itself worth exploring. The fast flowing river has sliced an incredibly narrow wedge in the soft limestone mountain, at some points only three metres wide but over 200 metres deep! The riverside path along which you can walk (non-slip shoes are advisable although there are handrails at the numerous little bridges) skirts walls covered with rare mosses, ferns and lilies. At the end a waterfall shoots straight out of the rockface. Open May to end October.
Grottes (Caves) d'Isturitz and Oxocelhaya: Situated between Hasparren and St Palais - turn north off the D14 just after the village of St Esteben. The caves are on two levels. The Isturitz caves, via which one enters the mountains, show traces of human habitation by people of the Paleolithic age; one then descends into the caves of Oxocelhaya to admire and wonder at the high vaulted chambers decorated with amazing formations of stalactites, stalagmites and petrified waterfalls of all shapes and sizes.
Guethary: The old fishing village and southern neighbour of Bidart. It is reminiscent of a Cornish fishing village and is one of the most photogenic spots along this beautiful coast. There are delightful harbourside restaurants in which to take lunch.
Harambels: A tiny hamlet of only four houses approximately 8kms (5 miles) south of St Palais on the D 933 from St Jean Pied-de-Port, Harambels is literally a piece of living history. The inhabitants of the four houses are direct descendants of the `donats' who used to offer hospitality to the pilgrims in the middle ages. These people are still responsible for the upkeep of the Chapel of St Nicholas in the village which, though undistinguished on the outside, has an interior worth visiting. Open 2-5pm Mon - Sat. (Apply to the house with the green shutters). N.B. Contributions to the upkeep are welcomed.
Hendaye: This is the frontier and seaside town on the Spanish border and is in three parts - Hendaye-Gare, Hendaye-Ville and Hendaye- Plage. The old town, Hendaye-Ville, has a number of pleasant little restaurants. Hendaye-Plage boasts a beautiful wide beach and is a favourite spot of the Spanish. The streets behind it are beautifully adorned by a wide display of decorative and flowering shrubs, including palms, magnolias, tamarinds, mimosas and eucalyptus. At the far southern end of the plage, situated on the estuary of the French/Spanish border River Bidassoa, is the yacht basin and bird sanctuary. At the entrance to the sanctuary is a useful information board showing illustrations of the various water birds to be seen.
Mauleon-Licharre: If you want real espadrilles visit this interesting little town which was formerly the world capital of this comfortable footwear. There's a ruined medieval castle with typical Basque three pronged towered church and the Chateau d'Andurain, one of the few remaining buildings in France whose roof is covered in wooden tiles (chestnut resists woodworm). See also the `mascorons', gargoyle like masks on the walls through whose mouths could be poked a defender's musket. Guided tours available (closed Thurs. and Sunday morning). Market on Tuesday.
St Ignace: The point where the little mountain train leaves on its spectacular 2500 ft climb to the top of La Rhune. The views from the top are superb, added to which there are places to eat and drink as well as ‘duty-free' shops.
St Jean de Luz: (Basque name Donibane Lohitzun) For centuries an important fishing port, particularly for tuna in the summer months. Sardine and anchovy are also caught here. In the 10th century St Jean was a whaling centre, its fleets travelling as far as Greenland and Labrador. But it was privateering that brought most wealth and progress to St Jean - both economic and military - and was always a matter of pride for France, bringing grudging admiration even from the powerful British navy.
The fine houses of St Jean mostly derive from the proceeds of privateering. The privateer captains all lived in an area known as `Le Quartier de la Brasse', the tongue of land to the west of the church and which protects the entrance to the port. Unfortunately, a third of the area was annihilated by a tidal storm in 1749, 200 houses being swept away. Note the high seawall now backing the beach.
Visit the harbour, see the `House of the Infanta' between the harbour and the beach, so called because it was where the Spanish Infanta Marie-Therese stayed prior to her marriage to Louis XIV in 1660. Stroll down the pedestrian precinct of the Rue Mazarin and as well as browsing in the delightful shops note No. 2, Maison Ganga-Baita, Wellington's headquarters after he had driven Napoleon out of Spain in 1813. See also the Church of St John the Baptist, the largest and most famous of all Basque churches, its somewhat sombre exterior belying its sumptuous interior which really must be seen.
St Jean Pied-de-Port: Once an important staging post on the road through the Pyrenees to Spain and former capital of Basse-Navarre. Although a town of less than 200 inhabitants, it boasts numerous cafes and restaurants and so makes an ideal venue for a trip. Wander around the tiny old town - the `ville-haute' with its 14th century Gothic church, two gates (Porte Navarre and Porte St Jacques), the picturesque 16th and 17th century sandstone houses and 15th century battlements. Admire the view from the narrow old bridge of the much photographed backs of the old houses overhanging the River Nive. On the Rue de L'Eglise stands the very interesting Musee de la Pelote Basque. St Jean Pied-de-Port boasts one of France's premier restaurants at the Hotel des Pyrenees (closed Monday evenings).
St Pee-sur-Nivelle: Here 600 people accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake in July 1609. The ruins of the castle, known as the `Witches Castle', were the site of the trials and may still be seen. The restaurant `La Fronton' has an excellent reputation. The townspeople of St Pee are particularly proud of their Basque culture. Just off the D918 to the east of the town is the Lac de St Pee, a delightful picnic spot.
Sare: With its large fronton, shady tree lined streets and square, Sare is a typical pretty Basque village offering several photogenic corners. The village is the centre of a rich `brebis' cheese producing area and has also earned the title `enfer des palombes' (the wood pigeon's hell) as it is in the Sare forest that many of these birds are shot for the table. Look out posts and shooting butts line the tracks along the ridges in the forest area towards Col de Lizzariata and the Grottes de Sare (themselves worth a visit) south of Sare on the Spanish border.
La Rhune: Take a trip on the mountain railway to the top of La Rhune. The name derives from the Basque word `Larrun' meaning `good pasture' and it is the mountain emblem of `Le Pays Basque Francais'. The tiny open carriage train climbs 900 metres (2500feet) in less than four winding kilometres (2.5 miles) and during the half hour journey wonderful views of the Nivelle valley are to be seen on one side and the Bay of Biscay beyond St Jean de Luz and Biarritz on the other. At the top there are magnificent views of the rugged mountains and valleys of northern Spain. Cafes, restaurants and `duty-free' shops are sited on the top as well as the La Rhune TV transmitting station.
The train leaves at 20 minute intervals from the little station at Col de St Ignace, situated roughly halfway between the typically Basque villages of Sare and Ascain on the D4.
As well as Bidart's several beaches try out those of Guethary, Hendaye and St Jean de Luz. At St Jean de Luz the beach is within an enclosed harbour and therefore calmer and safer for children. Here children's beach clubs are available.
Milady beach, situated a mile to the north of Bidart towards Biarritz, is very pleasant and less crowded than Biarritz itself, with free parking and a couple of beach restaurants and bars. Further on, between Biarritz and Bayonne, are the beaches of Anglet. Close to the one named `Chambre D'Amour' is the cave named after the two lovers drowned nearby. ( Anglet is also renowned for its two hypermarkets, Geant and Carrefour, each of which has numerous shops and boutiques surrounding the main shopping area).
Further north are the long, wide beaches of the Landes, one of the best of which is Ondres Plage where there is lots of free parking and refreshments.
All three of the best gastronomic guides in France, Gault-Millau, le Bottin Gourmand and Michelin, are in agreement on one point - the Pays Basque is one of the best regions in France for good food!
Traditional Basque cuisine is well seasoned with the red peppers of Espelette a particular feature. Because the area is coastal fresh fish is also a speciality on many menus, especially in port areas like St Jean de Luz. Thon (tuna) is delicious barbecued as well as being excellent when eating out; chipirons, a variety of small squid eaten stuffed (farcies) or casserolled; sardines; oysters and mussels, both stuffed and mariniere.
Other Basque dishes worth trying are Piperade, a type of 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; and, of course, the famous Jambon de Bayonne. The most famous dessert in the region is Gateau Basque, the quality of which can be variable but at its best it is superb.
Another dish readily available but more Gascony (a neighbouring province) than Basque is Magret du Canard (duck steaks). For all cheese lovers do sample the local `brebis', a delicious ewes' milk cheese.
Duty Free Areas
There are two main duty free areas within easy reach of Le Ruisseau, both on the French/Spanish border, The larger of the two is at Col d'Ibardin on the D404 due south of St Jean de Luz. Here an extensive range of goods is available, in particular wines, spirits, leather goods and pottery/ceramics. This area is very popular so best avoid visiting at weekends. If you go, try leaving Ibardin in the opposite direction i.e. southwards into Spain. You will have a delightful scenic run down to the little Spanish town of Vera de Bidassoa. Return either via Hendaye or Sare. Don't forget to take your passport(s) just in case you have to show them at the border. The other duty free area is La Rhune, see earlier section.
Wines of South West France
Buzet Red &Dry White. Good Bordeaux style wines from south of Bordeaux. Good value.
Cahors Red, full bodied, good value, above average wines from the Lot. Older the better.
Cotes de Gascoyne Red & Dry White vin de pays, inexpensive. Whites delicious, flowery.
Cotes de Saint Mont Red, Dry White, Rose. Local wine of Toulouse, reds particularly good value. .
Gaillac Reds age well, especially Chateau Larroze. Slightly fizzy white, Perle, good value.
Irouleguy Red, Dry White, Rose. Above average local Basque wines made around St Jean Pied de Port area. Red is probably the best of the local reds.
Jurancon Dry and sweet wine. High flavour and long-lived speciality of the Pau region. Look out for `Grain Sauvage'.
Madiran Red. Dark, vigorous, fragrant when aged (at least five years). Good value.
The best known wines from northern Spain are the Riojas of which the reds are the best.
Rioja Alavesas are fine, mostly light in body and colour.
Rioja Altas are the best reds. Marques de Caceras (red) is particularly good.
Rioja Bajas are coarser reds, high in alcohol.