One of the best surprises when visiting San Sebastian years ago, was that this incredible, vibrant and culinarily inspiring culture didn’t stop at the French border. No, Pays Basque (or Iparralde in Basque) goes well into France, touching the lower half of Les Landes in Nouvelle Aquitaine. The Basque language, Euskera, is like the people, one of the oldest in the world with no exact origins.
Getting There :
There is a relatively big airport in Biarritz and you are only 45 minutes drive from San Sebastian airport.
Trains from Paris to Biarritz run regularly and take around 4-6 hours. There are also main stations in Bayonne and Hendaye (just before Spanish border).
To visit the countryside and town hop, you’ll want a car. There is no better way to explore than with a car (or driver).
Why go :
There are seaside villages, rustic farming stays and beautiful vistas throughout this area of France. Its compact, so no matter which town or area you choose to stay, you can always visit all the other locations in day trips! There are also equal parts glamour and guts to this part of France, which I love!
The food is some of the best in France, featuring plenty of seafood (my favorite), but on top of that, don’t miss trying some Chocolate in Bayonne, Cured ham in Gamarthe, Peppers and Sheeps Cheese in Espelette, Seafood in Gueteury, Pastry in Biarritz, Wine aged under the sea in Saint Jean de Luz, Goat Cheese, and Basque Cidre…just to name a few 🙂
So, here are some of my favorite places in Pays Basque to visit, local foods and artisans, in the French part. **During covid just make sure to book every tourist attraction well in advance or you will not have the chance to visit.** Be sure to check out my Instagram for more information on places and fun facts!
Maybe the most elegant town on the coast, historically it was a fishing and whaling village like many other towns on overlooking the Bay of Biscay. This was a favorite destination of Empress Eugene, the wife of Napoleon III during the 19th century when it was becoming fashionable to bathe in the sea. The British Royals also enjoyed wintering here, making it a playground for the rich and famous even to this day.
What to See :
A walk along the outside sea wall is my favorite thing to do, it’s truly one of the prettiest places in France. In town is great for shopping with stores for anything you could want or need.
Kids will love to see the Musee de la Mer or local aquarium, it was opened in the 1930’s and retains that art deco feeling / Kids under 4 Free and Adults 15 EURO / Esplanade du Rocher de la Vierge, 64200 Biarritz / +33 (0)5 59 22 75 40 / https://www.aquariumbiarritz.com/
A lot of people come to Biarritz for the beaches, the best Atlantic beaches are to the South of town. They are greatly impacted by the tides, so be sure to go when it’s low tide to get the best from the sand. They also have great waves for those who like to surf!
When to Come :
July and August are the most crowded and the town will be packed with the French enjoying their summer holidays. It’s equally beautiful in May/June and September/October, and you will still have sunny days and can enjoy the outdoors. The Spring and Winter can be rainy, but there will be plenty to do between the aquarium, museums and dining.
What to Eat :
There is a great covered market, or Les Halles, in Biarritz with stalls inside and lots of restaurants surrounding on the outside. Get there early or be prepared to wait during high season. Open in the morning until 2pm year-round and from 6pm-9pm in high summer / 11 Rue des Halles, 64200 Biarritz / https://halles-biarritz.fr/
When it’s snack time (gouter in French), stop by the original Miremont Patisserie founded in 1872, with its mirrored 19th century tea room and picture window view onto the sea. The pastries are classical French style, with some unique flavors like the Paris-Biarritz which included piment espelette! It’s not a cheap stop, but it’s like stepping into history and a really charming location / 16 Place Georges Clemenceau, 64200 Biarritz / + 33 (0)5 59 24 01 38 / https://miremont-biarritz.fr/fr/
There are plenty of great bodega style restaurants to grab Basque fair, but my favorite restaurant so far has been La Humade which is sadly closed. Considering what is happening with Covid, I dread to think all of the small restaurants unable to sustain themselves during the pandemic all over France.
Where to Stay :
Biarritz is pretty compact, but it’s nice to stay central and make sure your hotel or AirBnB offers a parking spot in high season especially.
Family – I always look at apartment style accommodations as we have the girls who can only handle one meal out a day. We also often travel with our dog, so pet friendly is a requirement as well. Residence Vacances Bleues has kitchenettes in each room and a balcony looking at the sea, good restaurant, *heated* pool, is walking distance to everything, and has a kids play area with stage (during non-covid times). It isn’t new but in good condition and probably will remind you of a Pierre Vacances / Starting at just under 100 EURO a night off-season / 1 Rue Dalbarade, 64200 Biarritz / +33 (0)4 91 00 96 48 / https://www.vacancesbleues.fr/fr/produits/hotel-residence-le-grand-large
Luxury – I’d love a chance to stay in Hotel de Palais (now owned by Hilton), which was a beautiful palace Eugene would frequent during her visits and is now a hotel. Currently under renovations to be ready for Spring 2021, it’s an elegant building, located just on the seaside with a stunning pool / Rooms start at 320 EURO a night / 1 Avenue de l’Imperatrice, 64200 Biarritz / +33 (0)5 59 41 12 34 / https://www.hyatt.com/fr-FR/hotel/france/hotel-du-palais-biarritz
SAINT JEAN de LUZ
Like many of the Basque coastal villages, Saint Jean de Luz made its money from the large whaling industry which was popular until the 19th century. The large bay with sandy beach is great for swimming with small children, some of the best boutique shopping I’ve found. Parking can be challenging but we found parking by the beach each time, luck I think!
What to See :
We made this a last minute trip and being this is during covid, everything we wanted to see was booked. So be sure to plan ahead, especially during school holidays for France and the summer months.
The historic home of Louis XIV (during one month of his youth) has stayed in the same family for over 350 years and retains many wonderful, 17th century historical charms / Guided tours offered 3-4 times a day but hours vary depending on month so check online, closed Tuesday / Kids are 4 EURO and Adults 6 EURO / Place Louis XIV, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / http://www.maisonlouisxiv.fr/
The train at Rhunes is a wooden train from 1924 that still makes the trek up the mountain to some incredible views. Trip is about two-three hours total, you can choose to take a one way ticket and walk down if you like. Book in advance online / Kids under 4 are free, 12.50 EURO for older kids and adults are 19.50 EURO / Col de Saint-Ignace, 64310 Sare / +33 (0)5 59 54 20 26 / email@example.com / https://www.rhune.com/fr/preparer-votre-visite/tarifs-rhune/
What to Buy :
The classic Catalan shoe, the espadrille, is handmade locally at Bayona in Saint Jean de Luz using all natural products. Their boutique shop has a design to suit anyone and are the perfect summer shoe / 60 Rue Gambetta, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / +33 (0)5 59 51 96 41 / firstname.lastname@example.org / http://www.bayona.fr/
We wanted to buy the whole shop of linocut artwork (linoleum prints) at Crusoee. The artist, Stephane Pirel, is originally from Bretagne and learned this method of art from his German uncle. The designs are all of local towns, animals and events in monotone or hand-painted for multicolor. Large prints run 75 EURO with a frame, but smaller options are available as well. I need to get the octopus. / +33 (0)5 59 85 13 77 / 25 Rue Garat, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / https://www.instagram.com/stephanepirel
The beret might be the most iconic symbol of France. The most prestigious being Laulhere, which are made in the shadow of the Pyrenees mountains in SW France. They are crafted from sheep wool, put into a wash to shrink and ‘felt’ the wool (making them waterproof), and then dyed or decorated. Ranging from 40 EURO to over 300 EURO with beadwork, there is a style for every head / Free shipping over 78 EURO / 78 Rue Leon Gambetta, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / +33 (0)5 59 96 35 96 / https://www.laulhere-france.com/fr/heritage.html
Le Petit Tribu is a jewelry atelier based in the Landes with shops in Biscarrosse (Landes), Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz. Very affordable prices, delicate designs with gemstones and semi-precious rocks. You can get one for yourself and your little girls! / 82 Rue Leon Gambetta / +33 (0)9 82 32 94 48 / https://www.facebook.com/lapetitetribu40/
What to Eat :
Take a short drive to nearby Guethary and sit outside at Heteroclito with a table overlooking the sea while dining on catch of the day. I can’t think of a better place to dine to appreciate this area / Book in advance / Open March-November, seven days a week for lunch through dinner / +33 (0)5 59 54 98 92 / email@example.com / https://www.heteroclito.fr/fr/
If you’ve been around France enough, you’ll see a lot of people claiming to have created the macaron. I have to point out, that the macaron has been found in France since the Renaissance (thanks to Catherine de Medici of Italy) and is likely of North African origin. The Maison Adam uses the recipe from Chef Adam who created these delights for the wedding of Louis XIV in 1660 / 4-5 Place Louis XIV, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / https://www.maisonadam.fr/en/
For something even more Basque, try a Mouchous! These are soft, almondy, sweet cookies in different flavors, best eaten fresh from Paries who created them in 1948. While there are shops all over France, the original location was Saint Jean de Luz. Tours of the patisserie are offered, but book in advance / 9 Rue Gambetta, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / https://www.paries.fr/
Where to Stay :
If you write me, I’ll tell you where not to stay! We stayed in the cute seaside town of Ciboure last time and, while it’s close to Saint Jean de Luz, you’ll want to drive into town if you have small children as it’s a bit of a walk. There is a small, sandy beach in Ciboure and a fort to visit. The local wine maker Egiategia ages their wine under the sea for the second fermentation. / 5 Bis Chemin de Blocs, 64500 Ciboure / +33 (0)5 59 54 92 27 / firstname.lastname@example.org / https://www.egiategia.fr/
When I go back this is where we will try next :
Hotel Madison Saint Jean de Luz is**** is a smaller, boutique hotel in the center of town. Onsite spa and wellness center, restaurant, accepts dogs, has an on-site restaurant AND parking (call in advance to reserve) / Starting at 110 EURO a night off season 25 Boulevard Thiers, 64500 Saint Jean de Luz / +33 (0)5 59 85 55 55 / email@example.com / https://www.madison-saintjeandeluz.com/
This small town has a very big history with a tiny pepper…the piment espelette. When prices for the classic black pepper were too high, this area started to grow and grind the dried red peppers into a ‘spicy’ alternative that was much more affordable. You can buy the whole pepper, hanging, or small jars of the ground version. It’s added to local cheeses, sausages, jellies and more. It’s great in chocolate!
The town itself is really cute, filled with the traditional wooden beam and stucco houses painted in red and green. Espelette and its surroundings can be visited in a day easily, making it a great day trip from any of the nearby coastal villages.
Small, wild horses from this area are called Pottoka may be seen as you’re driving around, but please know they are not known to be friendly! Also, give yourself extra time incase you are behind a sheep herd and to stop and take photos of the incredible landscapes.
What to See :
Farms! You will have to stop at one of the piment espellete or cheese farms to see how they make the products and of course to taste them!
The Atelier du Piment Espelette is a farm and shop with all manner of items including the one essential ingredient, piment espelette. You can take a tour (no reservation required), which is most interesting during the summer when you can get outside and see the item in person and watch it go from ‘seed to spice’ (last visit at 5pm) / Open daily but closed for lunch / Chemin de l’Eglise, 64250 Espelette / https://www.atelier-du-piment-espelette.fr/
Ferme Kukulu has a relatively easy self guided tour, though it is also a rather large farm for the area (feels more industrial), with sheep cheese and a production of piment espelette. Guided tours are offered as well but you should call in advance to book them / 900 Kukuluiako Bidea, 64250 Espelette / https://fromagekukulu.com/
What to Buy:
A Makhila is a traditional Basque walking stick, with a very sharp point in one end. You can read more about it here. At this shop, you can buy a handmade one from a seventh generation artisan / Ainciart Bergara, Fronton, 64480 Larressore / Open every day but Sunday, closed at lunch / +33 (0)5 59 93 03 05 / firstname.lastname@example.org / https://makhila.com/
Where to Stay :
Camping at Ferme Sobieta is a sheep farm making great AOC Ossau-Iraty cheese. They have places for traditional tent camping as well as a gite for six starting at 320 EURO a week (animals not accepted) / 64470 Alcay Alcabhety Sunharet / +33 (0)5 59 28 52 26 / email@example.com / https://www.campingalaferme-sobieta.fr/
I know you might only be thinking of feria Fete de Bayonne…when everyone is dressed in white and red and partying in the streets for days…but, I think the best reason to come is to check out all the incredible chocolate shops! Chocolate is thought to have passed from Spain into France through the marriage of Anne of Austria to Louis XIII in Bayonne in 1615 when it was given as a wedding gift, but it could have also arrived via the exodus of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition into the region around the same time. Regardless, some of the oldest (and best) chocolate shops in France can be found here.
Basque Bullfighting or as ‘recortadores‘ still happen, but you’ll be happy to know the Basque version is an acrobatic one and not to the death (like the traditional Spanish version). If you see ‘corrida‘ it will be to the death. Be sure to check before booking and read more about it here https://aquitainetravelguide.com/2020/02/22/bull-flighting-in-southwest-france-corrida/
What to Eat :
Academie du Chocolate de Bayonne was created in 1993 to promote the history of the are as well as the local artisans. You can visit their website to find a list of highly rated chocolatiers and to get information on events and ateliers / 37 Rue Port Neuf, / https://chocolatdebayonne.fr/
To try the classic, drinkable version make a stop at the charming Cazenave with it’s tea room and light pastries to accompany your drink / Open Tuesday-Saturday from 915am-7pm with closure at lunch from 12pm-2pm / +33 (0)5 59 59 03 16 / https://www.chocolats-bayonne-cazenave.fr/
Monsieur Txocola is only one of many chocolatiers in Bayonne, but one of the best for their bean to bar, in house, ethical bean production and transformation. It’s also just delicious and an excellent place to learn more about the process from the artisans themselves. Try the chocolate with spices, Tablette d’Antan. They also have a small boutique in Les Halles at Biarritz / Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, closed Sunday and Monday / 11 Rue Jacques Laffitte,64100 Bayonne / https://www.monsieurtxokola.fr/
Where to Stay :
I haven’t stayed in Bayonne personally, but the Ibis Styles Bayonne and the Hotel Mercure Bayonne Center are in good locations and start under 100 EURO a night so that would probably be my choice in a pinch.
For more information on Pays Basque :
Recent history :
The Basque people in Spain suffered greatly during Franco rule which started in the 1930’s, as many autonomous cultures did, while he repressed any language and culture but Spanish, and removed the fiscal independence of this autonomous region. This tension fueled the separatist movement and subsequent creation and rise of the ETA, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom), in the late 1950’s and lead to great unrest in the region and beyond. Even once Basque Country was given fiscal autonomy from Spain in 1979, the violence continued. The ETA finally handed over their weapons in 2017. My mother was traveling through this area in the early 1970’s, although she said she was completely unaware of the tension between Spain and the Basque region until she got to San Sebastian and saw lots of people with machine guns on the streets. The French side, not being under authoritarian rule, suffered much less. Luckily, all of this is in the past.
Cod : A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky (he writes great books, check out Salt as well) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/64895.Cod
The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3347.The_Basque_History_of_the_World