Georges Rouzeau - 2012-03-07
An exceptionally beautiful coast featuring abrupt cliffs and sandy coves, plus a backcountry composed of exquisitely verdant hills: the Basque Country exudes a gentle authenticity that is truly unique.
Ah, Biarritz: the town that is said to have practically invented swimming in the sea, a pastime which gained popularity there as early as 1830. With the foamy reefs of the ocean to one side and the turrets, keeps, staircases and towers of this Disney-like city on the other, a stroll through Biarritz is truly enchanting. Looking for Prince or Princess Charming? Maybe he or she waits near the superb bay that seems to attract everyone like a magnet. The walk from the Rocher de la Vierge (The Virgin’s Rock) to the Pointe Saint-Martin and its lighthouse and small fishing port is fabulous. As for the town itself, you’ll find both the best and the worst. Sumptuous mansions of the eclectic style favoured in the 19C such as the Villa Belza and neo-gothic chateaus such as the Château Javalquinto: these are the best. The worst? The shore is often marred by concrete eyesores whose shutters are closed eleven out of twelve months a year.
Leave Biarritz via the D911, then take the D810.
Once you’ve arrived in this seaside resort town, set at the highest altitude of the Basque coast, look no further. Take a seat in one of the cafés of the central square of this postage-stamp sized village and contemplate the perfect Basque trilogy: a church, town hall and Basque pelota wall where fast and furious matches reportedly take place. The Rue de la Grande-Plage and the very steep Promenade de la Mer lead to a beach called La Plage du Centre. You might also climb up to the St. Madeleine chapel perched atop the cliff road: the panoramic view is superb.
Return to the D810.
What was once a fishing port where boats went out for whales, tuna and even sardines is now a posh, trendy resort town frequented by the rich and famous (Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, Frédéric Beigbeder and Jules-Édouard Moustic...) and masses of surfers. Paul-Jean Toulet, the French poet and author best known for his Contrerimes is buried here; Pierre Daninos, who wrote the Notebooks of Major Thompson, was born here. The village boasts three beaches: Parlementia, famous for its waves; Harotzen Costa, a natural reserve; and Cenitz at the foot of the moor-topped cliffs.
Continue along the D810. Park in the centre of town near the port.
A successful union of fishing village and resort town and the only sheltered harbour between Arcachon and Spain, with St. Jean-de-Luz it’s love at first sight. Oceanside there’s an immense beach lined with 19C sea-side manors, while towards the town you’ll find the port with its fishing nets laid out to dry, ship-owners’ homes dating from the 17C and the splendid brick and dressed stone Maison de l’Infante. Have a seat at one of the cafés on the Place Louis XIV opposite the handsome classic manor where the Sun King awaited his fiancée. As for shopping, try the macaroons at the Maison Adam (open since the 17th century!) and Pierre Oteiza’s cured meats.
Leave St-Jean-de-Luz by taking the D912 west.
There’s no time to stop at Ciboure, St. Jean-de-Luz’s little sister located on the other side of the port, nor is there time to make a halt at Socoa in hopes of a glimpse of the gigantic Belharra wave, Europe’s biggest breaker.
Take the Route de la Corniche: the Cliff Road (D912).
Without further ado, it’s time to discover the marvellous Corniche Basque or Basque Cliff Road. Fourteen kilometres long, the Corniche reveals the quintessence of the Basque Coast: its heath and gorse-covered moors that end abruptly in cliffs that stretch down to a rough sea which crashes against the rocks, frothing and churning; a sea as taut as a filmy, scintillating skin. This is one of the weekend’s most beautiful moments. Just before Hendaye, you might stop at the Domaine d’Abbadia, a natural, protected area on the coastline which stretches along the Pointe de St. Anne.
Turn back, take the Route de la Corniche in the opposite direction (it’s endlessly lovely) and turn right onto the D913 before Socoa. Follow the D810 and the D918 near the Chantaco golf course.
In Ascain, take the D4 towards Sare. Once at Sare, take the D305.
Ainhoa is a quintessential Basque single-street village with a pelota wall attached to a church whose small graveyard is studded with discoid stelae. The street features an impressive series of whitewashed and freshly painted houses, all of which sport half-timbered frames and overhanging roofs. Under the porches, a few mule-hitching rings have survived from the era when merchants and pilgrims en route for Santiago de Compostela regularly passed through this village just a few kilometres from the Spanish border. The church, with its gilt-panelled choir, double-arched nave and coffered ceiling, is unmistakably Basque! This tiny village unexpectedly claims several prestigious establishments such as Pierre Oteiza, producer of ham from pie-noir (‘magpie’) hogs; the Michelin-starred Ithurria hotel-restaurant and the Oppoca hotel-restaurant where we had a very pleasant stay. This is exactly the genre of family-run inn we love, especially since Paxi, the son, now devotes his unquestionable talent to running Oppoca’s gastronomic restaurant.
The official website of the Béarn-Basque region:
Where to Stay
7, rue de Gascogne
Tel: +33 (0)5 59 50 07 77
Fax: +33 (0)5 59 50 03 03
Situated right downtown in a calm and anonymous street, the 7B is a small boutique hotel offering twelve comfortable, spacious rooms starting at € 90/£ 74.
La Maison Oppoca
Tel: +33 (0)5 59 29 90 72
At the Oppoca hotel-restaurant, a century-old inn, the entire Massonde tribe welcome travellers with open arms.
6, Rue Jean-Bart
Tel: +33 (0)5 59 24 64 98
Brothers Julien and Fabien have pooled resources and opened their own establishment. It has a handsome, classic modern dining room with plenty of room between tables, attractive bars, expert service and knowledgeable wine advice.
Restaurant La Ferme Gourmande
Tel: +33 (0)5 59 37 77 32
Closed Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday.
Chef Henri Amestoy (Bib Gourmand 2011) cooks confident signature cuisine that satisfyingly digresses from tradition.