Basque Country

SareThe village of Sare

BayonneThe fête de Bayonne

To the North and South of the border between France and Spain lies the Pays Basque, the hilly sheep-covered region that is home to the Basque people. This is an indigenous race that outlasted the Romans, outlasted General Franco, a people that speak a language whose origin is unknown.

The Basques sailed to the coasts of Canada to fish for cod in the twelfth century and in the Basque port towns of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and San Sebastian it is easy to imagine the Middle Ages. Thus the Basques discovered America before their Spanish or Italian counterparts, but kept their discovery quiet to safeguard their fish. Salt cod is a staple ingredient of Basque cooking today.

The villages, substantially unchanged in centuries, all possess a church, a fronton, where the sport of pelote is played, houses with red and green shutters (the Basque colours) and each boasts a restaurant serving Basque cuisine. The drive between Oloron-Sainte-Marie and the mediaeval town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Southwest of France. The town of Espelette, famous for its red peppers, holds a “red pepper festival” every summer. In nearby Bayonne the annual fête (see left), held over the first weekend in August, attracts thousands of red-scarved festival-goers for three days of lively, bibulous activity.

Just across the border lie the Spanish-Basque towns of Pamplona, San Sebastian and Vitoria. The culture and language span the border and offer visitors a wealth of natural and man-made beauty on either side.