Things to see and do - French Atlantic Coast
French Atlantic Coast :
Where to go?
French Atlantic Coast Leisure tips
- 38.0 €
- 105.0 €
- 63.0 €
French Atlantic Coast Today
French Atlantic Coast Today
The French Atlantic Coast encompasses an area stretching from the Spanish border to Brittany and myriad cultures. Several local languages are spoken, including Saintongeais and Poitevin to the north, Gascon (a dialect of Occitan) in its core and Basque to the very south, each with a fiercely proud identity to create a dynamic and exuberant holiday destination.
The French Atlantic Coast has become world renowned for its winemaking and agricultural industries. The locals are also blessed with a number of resorts and offshore islands, which attract a large amount of tourism during the summer months. This is also true of the Vendée and the Charente areas, where tourism businesses now account for an important source of employment.
The area covered in this introduction has an estimated population of around seven million, of which almost a million live in the conurbation of Bordeaux, the most notable metropolitan area in the region. The area has enjoyed a steady rise in population attributed mainly to migration from other regions of France due to the array of different industries, such as agriculture and tourism.
As is true of elsewhere in France, every town and village has its own weekly market, where the colours and fragrance of the local farm produce overwhelm the senses. Connoisseurs can travel to experience the gastronomic delights of, amongst others, the famed wines of Bordeaux or the oysters of Marennes. These sensory delights are complemented by the annual festivals and fêtes held in most villages, usually to celebrate the locally venerated saint or national holidays, such as Bastille Day. In the cities, art lovers can enjoy the cultural sights and museums of Bordeaux and Angoulême.
France is steeped in the belief of laïcité (meaning “freedom of conscience”), entailing the separation of Church and State and ensuring the free practice of religious worship. This idea of secularism means that there is no state religion, even though Roman Catholicism remains prevalent throughout the region along with other significant faiths including Protestantism, Islam and Judaism.
A popular local nickname for the region is “l’Ovalie”, or Land of the Oval Ball. Rugby Union is the dominant spectator sport with teams such as Aviron Bayonnais and Biarritz Olympique competing at the highest level of competition. Other popular sports include Basque pilota ( pelote in French) to the south, and the Course Landaise, a bloodless form of bullfighting, especially prevalent in Gascony. World-class surfing and yachting competitions take place along the Aquitaine coast throughout the summer months.
Daily newspapers in the region include the Bordeaux-based Sud Ouest , along with local newspapers such as Le Journal du Pays Basque . France Bleu broadcasts syndicated radio and TV7 Bordeaux is a notable local television channel.
Fishing and the Fruits of the Sea
Since the western part of the region enjoys a favoured situation beside the sea, fishing is naturally one of its principal commercial assets.
Modern trawlers are ideally suited to fishing on the high seas – a branch of the industry which supplies most of Europe’s fresh fish and which concentrates its activities at the limit of the continental shelf, where the depth is often 500m/1 640ft or deeper. Sole, bream and hake landed by these trawlers play an important part in the economy of La Rochelle, Les Sables d’Olonne, the Île d’Yeu, St-Gilles and other ports in the northern coastal section.
Fishing for huge tuna fish takes place from June to October, from boats equipped with dragnets and live bait (sardines, anchovies, etc.). The great white Atlantic tuna, known locally as germon , is fished at the beginning of the season between Portugal and the Azores, and the fleets then follow its migration north from the Bay of Biscay as far as the south-west of Ireland. Tuna is the main catch brought back to St-Jean-de-Luz.
Though coastal fishing is more limited in its scope than deep-sea fishing, it nevertheless supplies a particular demand – for varieties of fish and seafood which are especially prized when they are absolutely fresh. Small trawlers, motor-boats and local fishing smacks bring in sole, whiting, mullet, mackerel, skate, etc., according to the season and the locality. To fish sardines , fishermen use “turning” nets – seines from 200m/656ft to 300m/984ft long. The catch is landed daily and sold immediately at quayside auctions. The increasing rarity of sardine banks off the Vendée coast has, however, driven the fleets further towards the coast of Morocco, where ships with deep-freeze compartments have to be used.
Recreational fishing uses lines, cords, fixed nets, seine nets from the beach, or regionally typical carrelets (suspended nets manoeuvred via pulleys from a landing stage). Carrelets remain popular, particularly in the Gironde estuary, although a certain picturesque quality may weigh more in their favour than any particular effectiveness. In the spring, when fish swarm upriver to spawn, the catches of shad and lamprey in the Gironde are at their most plentiful. The eels return at the same time; their tiny pibales (elvers) are fished from the shore, thousands at a time, with fine-meshed shrimping nets.
Lobsters, crabs and crayfish are caught – in wicker pots or hoop nets – mainly in the cold waters off the rocky coasts of the Vendée and the Île d’Yeu. Langoustines (crayfish) are fished further out by the trawlers. Fishermen from Royan and La Cotinière seek out shrimps and prawns on the banks off the Gironde estuary.
The Marennes-Oléron basin, which extends from the River Charente to the mouth of the Gironde, is among the most important oyster farming regions in France: the Charente-Maritime département alone supplies almost half the national market in these Epicurean delicacies. Brittany is the country’s other major oyster producing area.
History and Biology
The two main varieties, the flat oyster (plates) and the concave or deep shelled oyster (creuses) , live in their natural state, respectively, on sandbanks or in beds attached to undersea rocks. The flat oyster is hermaphrodite and viviparous (the young are produced live and do not have to be hatched). This variety has been found in the region since Gallo-Roman times, and has been gathered or dredged since then; it was a delicacy on the table of Louis XIV, who was a great oyster lover. In 1920, however, the species was almost entirely destroyed by a disease, and flat oysters can only be found now, in very small quantities, in the region of Marennes.
The fleshier, richer deep-shelled oyster ,with a taste that is less delicate and very different, is unisexual and oviparous (the young are hatched from eggs) as well as being less sensitive to changes in the weather. The variety was introduced into the area accidentally in 1868 when a ship sheltering from a storm stayed too long in the Gironde on its way from Portugal to England with a cargo of these oysters; the cargo was in danger of going bad and the oysters had to be thrown into the sea. The surviving oysters then imposed themselves on the majority of local farms.
When disease struck again in 1971, these portugaises were in turn supplanted by japonaises (Crassostrea Gigas) – oysters bred in the Pacific and imported from Japan or Canada (British Columbia).
Ostreiculture (oyster breeding) in France remains very much a cottage industry, frequently a family affair, and still a fairly uncertain business: apart from the risk of disease, oyster farms can be destroyed by pollution, silting up, excess salinity, storms, an unusually cold spell or degeneration of the oysters – which can also be attacked by crabs, starfish or even winkles.
The nassain (young seed oysters or spats), drifting this way and that with the currents, become attached in summer to collectors – lime-washed tiles, slates, wooden stakes or stones, according to the region; these are then transported to the first oyster park.
After a year or two the oysters are prised off the collectors – a technique known as détroquage – and placed in a second park. They remain a further year or two here, usually in special pochons (containers) placed on tables. In the Marennes-Oléron basin the oysters receive a final treatment to mature and refine them, giving them their characteristic pale greenish-blue hue, in fattening pools known as claires full of microscopic blue algae.
Oysters sold as spéciales have spent longer in the claires and are less densely distributed in them, than the ordinary fines de claires .
The mussel is a bivalve with a blue-black shell, and in the wild lives in colonies on rocks pounded by the sea. It has been farmed since the 13C and is reared commercially along the coast of the province of Aunis – separated (except in the Baie de l’Aiguillon) from the oysters, since the two shellfish are biologically incompatible. The centres of mussel production today are the coast near Brouage, the Île d’Oléron (Baie de Boyardville) and the Anse de Fouras to the south of the province; the Baie de l’Aiguillon to the north of it.
This is the French term for mussel breeding, including their fattening and beautifying for the market. The mussels attach themselves to bouchots (stakes) driven into the mud or silt in long lines or arranged in grids, where they fatten and grow. The arrangement of the bouchots varies from district to district and is subject to strict control. In the Breton Straits the bouchots à nassain, for the very young mussels, are well offshore, and those where the shellfish grow to commercial size much nearer the coast. The boucholeurs visit their mussel beds in small, flat-bottomed boats or, if the tide is low, on their accons – flat wooden crates which they slide across the mud with a hefty kick!
Mussels serve as the base for the preparation of a regional delicacy known as mouclade.
Poitou, the Charentes and the region around Bordeaux all rely heavily on agriculture, with crops on the limestone plains and vines on valley slopes. In the Landes, the forest overshadows everything.
Mixed agriculture is still the norm in these areas; tenant farming (with a generous percentage of the crop being given to the landlord), although rapidly disappearing, still exists and the average property rarely exceeds 50ha/125 acres.
Cereals (wheat, maize, oats) in the small farms grow side by side with meadows of clover, alfalfa and other fodder plants .A number of slightly less common crops are also grown: in the coastal regions, for example, with their humid atmosphere warmed by the ocean, early fruit and vegetables flourish; on the islands (with the exception of the Île d’Yeu) and in the rich alluvial soil of the marshlands, it is easy to grow new potatoes, artichokes, carrots and peas. The melons known as Charentais also grow in this same area, and in recent years these have been so successful that they have spread as far as the Rhône Valley, where they have threatened to supplant the Cantaloupe melon. Market gardens abound in the lower parts of the Vienne, Thouet and Garonne valleys and those of their tributaries. The Garonne basin, in addition, specialises in tomatoes, various fruits and even tobacco. Tobacco , largely a family business, is grown in small fields in the region around Bazas and on the alluvial soil flooring the valleys of the Dordogne, the Lot and the Garonne, where the principal centres are Marmande and Tonneins.
The Pines of the Landes
The huge forest covering the Landes consists mainly of maritime pines, although parasol varieties occur here and there. The maritime pine, with its tall bole ringed by tufts of needles, is not a beautiful tree though it does have a certain elegance – and it grows quickly; it has also brought prosperity to what was once a poor and desolate region.
Since ancient times it has also been the base of the traditional activity of gemmage (resin harvesting). Formerly, the gemmeur (gum collector) periodically tapped the tree with the aid of a tool known as a hapchot. From the wound made, resin would then bleed into small earthenware cups (called cramponnés because they were clamped to the trees). Every few weeks the resin was collected, packed into barrels and sent to distilling plants. Today this practice has largely been superseded by the use of sulphuric acid, which activates the process and has the advantage of being less damaging to the tree. Today the region serves as a processing centre for turpentine, pitch, transparent wrapping material and other solids.
Even when they are very old, the pines remain useful; after they have been “bled dry” of their resin, they are felled and sent to factories which transform them into parquet flooring, crates and wood-fibre boards (especially compressed woodchip sheeting). Large factories producing paper, wood pulp and pine cellulose exist across the region, in particular at Facturen, which is responsible for half of the country’s cellulose production.
Cattle are reared throughout the region, for both their meat and milk. Fattening, particularly of the distinctive white Charolais breed, takes place in the fields of the Pays de Retz, the Gâtine de Parthenay, the bocages of the Vendée, and on the polders of marshland.
Bressuire and Parthenay, important cattle markets, handle thousands of tawny Parthenay cattle and an increasing number of Charolais. To the east, towards the Massif Central, the Charolais and the chestnut-coated Limousin breeds dominate.
French breeds (Black-and-Whites and Normans) are bred between Poitiers and La Rochelle and between the Vendée and the Charentes, providing milk to numerous cooperatives. These areas produce cheese, long-life milk and the famous beurre des Charentes, a rich, creamy butter.
Sheep, Goats and Horses
Sheep, which originally appeared indigenously on the heaths and pastureland of the region, are increasingly important in these otherwise poor farming areas, in particular the eastern reaches of the Poitou, in the Berry, and in the Gâtine de Parthenay (renowned for its tender Charmoise lamb).
Goat-rearing has considerably increased in the southern parts of the Deux-Sèvres and Vienne, based around dairy cooperatives that produce 50% of the country’s goats’ milk products. Chabichou , the celebrated goats’ cheese, is a traditional speciality of the region.
Horse rearing has been in steady decline for decades; breeding racehorses, however, remains a thriving business, especially in the Vendée. The Poitou baudet (donkey) and the Mellois mule, on the other hand, have become rare to the point where measures have been taken to preserve them from extinction.
Poultry is of great economic importance from Clisson to Mont-de-Marsan, with the emphasis on Poitou geese, Bressuire and Barbezieux hens, and white ducks from Challans. Specialised poultry production is particularly important in the north of the Deux-Sèvres and in the Vendée.
In the east and south of the Landes forests, crops (mainly maize) and poultry farming (yellow, corn-fed chickens; geese; ducks; turkeys) are the mainstays of local agriculture alongside a flourishing foie gras industry.
Wines and Spirits
The areas to the north and the south of the Gironde are known throughout the world for their fine wines, fortified wines, Cognacs and armagnacs, which have long been exported and play a major role in the local economy.
Wines of Bordeaux
The world-famous Bordeaux vineyards, 105km/65mi from north to south and 130km/81mi from west to east, cover an area of approximately 105 000ha/405sq mi. The region, widely considered the best in the world for fine wines, contains over 8 000 wine-producing châteaux (which can mean an estate or simply a property, and not necessarily something resembling a castle), which between them produce wines within 53 different controlled appellations under six main “family” headings. Added to these are the Crémant de Bordeaux, a sparkling wine, and the local digestif spirit called Fine de Bordeaux.
Red wine accounts for approximately 75% of production and white wine for 25%, with an output of around 600 million bottles per year; 40% of the wine is exported to the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
According to a local saying, “all the edges are rounded off in the bottle” – and red wines do indeed have a remarkable ability to improve with age. The wines of the region include the elegant wines of the Médoc, the delicate, slightly spicy and vigorous Graves to which they have a family resemblance, and the wines of St-Émilion, with their strength of character.
The Pomerol district is renowned for its warm, deep red wines, while the lesser-known Fronsacs, coarse when first bottled but refined with age, are characterised by their full favour and body. Farther downstream, the vineyards of Bourg and Blaye are known for their grands ordinaires – admirable wines both white and red. Production is similarly diversified in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux region on the east bank of the Garonne.
The range of white wine available is equally impressive. Pride of place must go to the great wines of Sauternes and of neighbouring Barsac, which produce arguably the best sweet white wines in the world, pressed from grapes benefiting from the effects of the famous noble rot. Less well known but also of note are the whites of Ste-Croix-du-Mont and Loupiac, on the other side of the Garonne.
The dry white Graves are wines of distinction, which, for many, typify the whites of Bordeaux: fresh on the palate, slightly fruity and “vigorous”, in connoisseur-speak!
The finely fragranced Cérons wines, ranging from quite dry to syrupy, are a cross between the best wines of the Graves district and the great Sauternes.
The town of Cadillac, in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, produces mellow, velvety white wines that are agreeably light, while the huge area known as Entre-Deux-Mers (between two seas: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean), with its network of cooperatives, is a very important supplier of dry white wines and reds, which are marketed as grands ordinaires.
The term “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) , which translates as “controlled term of origin”, on a wine label, is an assurance of a wine’s origins, carrying with it an implication – though not necessarily a guarantee – of quality. AOC products are produced in a traditional manner.
The Médoc, thanks to the variety of its terroirs (soils), is classified into eight appellation contrôlée zones: Médoc and Haut-Médoc, and more specifically St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Moulis, Listrac and Margaux.
Serving Bordeaux Wines
The red wines of Bordeaux should not be drunk too young; the whites, on the other hand – especially the dry whites – are at their best relatively soon after bottling.
Wines of Gascogne
The region, situated northeast of the Landes and extending south to the Gers and the Pyrénées, produces palatable red wines such as the spicy Madiran and dry or sweet white wines such as the Pacherenc.
Wines of Agenais
Buzet is a light red wine which becomes full bodied with age. The Côtes de Duras wines, produced in the north of the Lot-et-Garonne département, include light, fruity reds and refreshing whites. North of Marmande, the Côtes du Marmandais region is known mainly for its full-bodied fruity red wines.
Wines of Béarn
The Béarn regionproduces several wines of note, including the famous Jurançon, a heady wine grown on the left bank of the Gave de Pau, and the Rosé du Béarn, once exported to northern Europe, as far as Hamburg.
Wines of the Basque Country
The best known Basque Country wines are the Irouléguy appellation red wines. The region also produces a yellow or green liqueur distilled from mountain plants, known as Izzara.
This well-known dry white wine which forms, with the Gros Plant and Côteaux d’Ancenis, part of the Vins de Nantes group, was accorded appellation d’origine contrôlée status in 1936. The vineyards producing the wines of this group extend south of the Loire.
Muscadet is made from the Melon grape, which came originally from Burgundy. The vines were imported and planted in the Nantes area after the terrible winter of 1709 because of their resistance to frost.
There are three appellations, corresponding to three different regions: the Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, which accounts for the major part of the production, the Muscadet des Côteaux de la Loire (which comes from around Ancenis) and plain Muscadet (from the neighbourhood of St-Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu). All of them yield wines that are light and dry, with an alcoholic content limited to 12%. Served cold, Muscadet is the perfect accompaniment to fish and seafood.
The Gros Plant du Pays Nantais has been classed as a VDQS ( vin délimité de qualité supérieure – a superior wine) since 1954. It is made from the Folle-Blanche grapes grown in the Charentes since the 16C. This light wine (11%) complements seafood in general and shellfish in particular.
Cognac, famous for centuries throughout the world, is a distillation of white wines produced in the region of the Cognac appellation (essentially the Charentes département) .
A good Cognac should taste like the very essence of fresh grapes, strong and heady. More than 80% of the production is exported; Britain and the US alone account for 40% of those sales.
The distillation of wine to make spirits, practised in the region since the 16C, became generalised in the early 17C. The local vintners at first distilled just the wines that did not travel well but later realised that the process could help turnover, reduce excise duties and facilitate storage (between seven and ten barrels of wine are used to make one barrel of Cognac). The taste for the resulting eau-de-vie (spirit) spread and it began to be exported, like the wines before it, to northern Europe as an adjunct to the salt trade.
Much of the wine trade at that time was in the hands of the Dutch – who, learning that the people of Charentes burned their wine, dubbed the result brandewijn (burnt wine). From this the English coined the word brandy, which has been used in the Anglo-Saxon world ever since. In France the spirit took the name of the town where it was first commercialised, Cognac.
From Cognac the barges and tenders laden with barrels sailed down the River Charente to Tonnay-Charente and La Rochelle, where the cargo was transferred to full-rigged merchantmen bound either for northern Europe or for the colonies. In the late 17C and early 18C, brandy became increasingly popular in London society and as the Dutch lost commercial supremacy of the Cognac market, English merchants and traders began to play a stronger role in the promotion of the drink; the names of several famous Cognac brands still have an Anglo-Saxon ring about them.
Ruined by the devastating outbreak of phylloxera (American aphids) in the 19C, the Cognac vineyards were replanted by the burghers of Cognac, who had themselves escaped ruin because of the huge stocks they held in store ageing.
Almost 90 000ha/222 400 acres are planted with vines, most of which are the Ugni Blanc variety (incorrectly termed St-Émilion des Charentes in the region). The vineyards are planted in an area of temperate climate – wet in winter, sunny in summer – and chalky soil similar to that found in the Champagne region, east of Paris.
The finest Cognac, known as Grande Champagne, is produced from vines planted in the centre of this region, where the chalkiest soil is found; the other five classified crus or growths – producing more full-bodied and highly flavoured brandies – radiate outwards from this area.
Development of Cognac
Distilling is simply a means of concentrating the strength and flavour of any alcoholic drink by removing most of the water content. The technique stems from the fact that alcohol in chemical terms is more volatile than water: it boils at a lower temperature.
All the alcohol and most of the aromatic elements in a heated wine will therefore evaporate long before the water boils. If this vapour is collected and condensed, the resulting liquid will contain virtually all the alcohol, certain other volatile elements – known as the congenerics – and very little water.
The system of distilling first came west with the Arabs in the 14C (the Arabic term al embic is the root of the French al ambic – a still – and al kohol is the root of alcohol). The Cognac distillation process consists of two stages. During the first distillation, which lasts about eight hours, the wine is heated in a copper Charentais to produce a liquid containing 25–35% alcohol, known as the brouillis . This liquid is then passed back into the still for a period of about 12 hours to produce a clear liquid, which has a maximum alcohol content of 72%. During the distillation process vapours compressed in the still head pass through the swan’s neck into a condensing coil, which cools the vapours to produce the liquid.
The brandy, fiery but colourless when it leaves the still, is only faintly flavoured; all its character is derived from the maturing process, which takes place in barrels left in the darkness of the producer’s well-aired chais (stores). Here the pale oak of these barrels, brought from the hills of the Limousin, stimulates the oxidisation of the spirit, adds tannin and the characteristic amber colour of the brandy. The incredible amount of evaporation from the barrels is equivalent to the loss of 12 million bottles of spirit every year, referred to as the “angels’ share”.
Finally, the spirit is diluted with distilled water to the accepted legal strength for the market. It is cut and blended with brandies of different ages, from different crus , and sugar and caramel are added to obtain the required colour, until a consistent quality is arrived at with characteristics recognisable as typical of a particular brand.
There are several different categories of Cognac, classified according to the length of time they have spent maturing in the oak casks.
The three-star label signifies a brandy of normal quality, between five and nine years of age. The acronyms VO (Very Old) and VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) apply to Cognacs aged on average between 12 and 20 years. The terms Vieille Réserve, Grande Réserve, Royal, Vieux, XO, Napoleon, Extra, etc. are used to distinguish Cognacs that are 20 to 40 years old or even older. The words Fine Champagne on the label identify a Cognac that is a blend of the Grande and Petite Champagne growths.
Armagnac is very different from Cognac both in style and in the technique used to make it. This spirit should be velvety smooth, dry and with a pungent smell; it is considered to have less finesse than Cognac.
The region legally permitted to sell its products under the name “Armagnac” extends over an area of 35 000ha/ 35sq mi, which is roughly triangular in shape. This area is divided into three sections: Haut-Armagnac (Upper Armagnac, the hilly region of Auch) in the east; Ténarèze (around Condom) in the centre; and Bas-Armagnac (Lower Armagnac, the Eauze region) in the west. Armagnac from Ténarèze is full and rich in flavour, whereas the brandy made in Bas-Armagnac has a more fruity character. Only white wines made from 10 approved varieties of vine may be distilled to make Armagnac, and their common characteristic is a strong, fixed level of acidity. The most popular of these grapes are the Ugni Blanc and the Folle-Blanche varieties (known as Gros Plant in the Nantes area).
Armagnac is distilled in a sort of double boiler, at a much lower temperature than Cognac. This results in a stronger flavour and aroma which, combined with the effect of the sappy black oak casks in which it is stored, adds character; it also matures faster than Cognac.
Like Cognac, each brand of Armagnac has its expert maître de chai, the Master Blender who creates the finished product with its particular identity.
Fortified Wines and Apéritifs
Floc is the old Gascon word for flower. Floc de Gascogne – a fortified wine between 16% and 18%, about the strength of port or sherry – is either red or white and is drunk chilled as an apéritif. It is made from selected wines grown in the region of the Armagnac appellation and is a blend of the must from these wines with Armagnac of more than 52%, aged in oak barrels.
Also drunk as an apéritif, Pousse-rapière was invented in the 16C at Château Monluc, near the town of Condom, by Marshall Blaise de Monluc, an army commander and man of letters. It is made from Armagnac mixed with fruit. Add it to dry sparkling wine for a cocktail!
Pineau des Charentes
This is a fortified apéritif wine, classified appellation d’origine contrôlée and produced in the same area as Cognac; it is made in both red and rosé forms, and it should be served chilled.
The apéritif was created by accident in the 16C, when a winegrower accidently poured grape juice into a barrel which still had some Cognac left in the bottom. He was agreeably surprised, some years later, to discover in the barrel a strong wine that was smooth, heady and deliciously fruity.
Pineau is produced from the same growths as Cognac. The grape juices utilised before the mutage (the addition of Cognac) should have an alcoholic content of 10%. After the mutage the strength of the drink should be at least 16.5%. The blend is then transferred to oak casks and kept for several months in dark stores.
When it has matured sufficiently, it is submitted to an official Commission of Tasters who will decide whether or not it merits the appellation Pineau des Charentes.
Pineau sells very well in France and is exported to Belgium, Canada, Germany, Britain, Luxembourg and the United States.
The Basque Country
The landscape of the Basque Country (Pays Basque) presents a dramatic contrast with that of Bordeaux and the moors to the north. Suddenly there are mountains all around and the cliffs and rugged rocks along the coast are a complete contrast to the long, level beaches of the Landes. The Basque hinterland consists of green valleys dotted with traditional white houses. The Basque Country is one of the most distinctive regions in France.
The geology of the Basque region seems somewhat chaotic, marked by the last collapse of the folds of the Pyrénées. The valleys are full of winding roads making communications between them difficult. One 17C chronicler described it as “very bumpy country”. This partly explains the former division of the country into small states, each with its separate identity. The seven Basque provinces nevertheless share a unique linguistic and cultural heritage, on both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrénées. Their common motto, in the Basque language, is Zazpiak-bat – Seven-in-One.
The origins of the Basque people and their common tongue has always been an enigma. All that is known for certain is that they were driven out of the Ebro Valley in Spain by the Visigoths and founded the kingdom of Vasconia in the western Pyrénées.
The Vascons of the plain then intermarried with the local peoples of Aquitaine and became Gascons. Those who remained in the mountains fiercely safeguarded their own traditions and their language, Euskara , which binds the race together.
Basque Autonomy and Nationalism
In the 9C Íñigo Arista founded the Basque dynasty and became King of Pamplona. Two centuries later, Sancha the Great ascended to the throne of Pamplona and reunited the Basques on either side of the Pyrénées. This is where the history of the Basque Country begins, intimately linked to that of both Spain and France. Before the French Revolution, the French Basque provinces held on to their political autonomy. Leaders from each village met to discuss territorial matters, after which each province would hold an assembly. Royal emissaries regularly consulted these assemblies before making political decisions.
The French Revolution in 1789 brought an end to these special rights and the three French Basque provinces joined with Béarn to form the Basses-Pyrénées département .
At the end of the 19C, the Spanish Basques were quick to join the great nationalist movement which was spreading throughout Europe. In 1895, Sabino Arana Goiri (1865–1903) founded the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (Basque Nationalist Party) in Bilbao. His aim was to reunite the seven Basque provinces in France and Spain and form one confederate state, which he first called Euskeria, changing it in 1896 to Euskadi ,the name still used today by the Basque Separatist Movement. In 1894, Arana designed the Ikurrina – a red flag with two green-and-white crosses. Autonomy was granted to the three Spanish Basque provinces on 11 October 1936, in exchange for Republican support against Franco’s followers during the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, however, the new Basque government was suppressed in Guernica, and Franco’s regime set out to repress and persecute Basque culture. This was the beginning of the ETA ( Euskadi Ta Askatasuna , meaning Basque Homeland and Liberty), the underground armed separatist movement. After Franco’s death, the Spanish Basque Country gained greater autonomy and in 1978 became Euskadi.
The traditional houses in Labourd, perhaps the most attractive in the Basque Country, have inspired the design of many suburban villas and holiday homes. The exposed wooden framework, usually painted a reddish-brown, contrasts with the original walls of cob (compressed loam, clay or chalk reinforced with straw) coated with whitewashed rough cast. Houses are east-facing and are sheltered from rain, brought by the westerly winds from the Atlantic, by a huge overhanging tiled roof.
The houses in Basse (Lower) Navarre have a stone framework and semicircular balconies. The darker, slate roofs found in La Soule are an indication of the region’s proximity to the Béarn region. Basque houses all share the characteristic white finish, and many proudly carry over their front doors the date of their construction or their owner’s name. Nowhere else in France is the family so closely connected with the home.
Before the French Revolution, furniture, the right to use common land, church rights (the place occupied in church determined one’s social status) and burial rights were attached to the house, which was a veritable economic and social entity passed down from generation to generation. The master of the household, the etcheko jaun , had ultimate authority and his main concern was to safeguard the family inheritance. The house was left to the son or daughter designated by the father as the eldest child.
A Basque trilogy: Town Hall/Church/Pilota Court
The town hall, the church and the pilota ( pelote in French) court are the three focal points of Basque community life. They are all centred around the main square of the village. The Basque church plays a fundamental role, and the village is symbolically constructed around it. Many worshippers attend daily church services, usually celebrated in the Basque language.
The traditional game of pelote basque , played against a high, orange-coloured wall or fronton, is very popular among the men and boys all over the region. One version, known as le grand chistera (the name of the long wicker scoop strapped to one arm), is the most frequently played in official competitions and tourist exhibitions. The ball is flung against the fronton wall and caught up immediately or after a single rebound, and flung back. In professional games, it is not uncommon for the hard ball, covered with goatskin, to travel at speeds of 240kph/150mph!
A more recent variation, la cesta punta, has gained fans. This is the jai alai ( jai alai comes from the Basque for merry festival) played in Latin America, against three walls (front, left and back). Points are marked by hitting the ball between vertical lines marked on the left wall. Spectators sit on the open side, with the front wall to their right, the left wall in front of them, and the back wall on their left.
There are also older, subtler variations, which some traditionalists prefer, including yokogarbi (with a small glove) and barehanded pilota ( pelote in French). Different games are played by teams of three or two, or one-on-one. In the pasaka game, players face each other across a net, as in tennis, and wear gloves. And in all the small villages in the Basque Country, wherever you see a fronton, there will always be boys with their palas (wooden rackets) practising the sport.
La Force Basque
If you attend a local fair, you may witness competitions between the men of neighbouring villages. There are eight established tests of strength, performed by teams of 12; each team member has his own special prowess. The feats they perform include spinning a 350kg/770lb wagon around with one hand, chopping or sawing tree trunks at top speed, running a race with a sack weighing 80kg/176lb slung across the shoulders – all concluding with a great game of tug-of-war between the teams.
The Basque people have a rich tradition of dancing, singing and communal activities. The young men – most of the traditional dances do not include female partners – travel from village to village for local festivities.
The dances are numerous and complex. They are generally accompanied by a tchirulä (three-holed ocarina or flute) and a ttun-ttun (small drum) or a stringed tambourine, though an accordion, cornet or clarinet is sometimes used. The famous Basque leaps (danced by men only) have many different steps. The striking contrast between the stillness of the torso accompanied by an expressionless face, and the incredibly agile leg movements, is common to all of them.
The Fandango , a dance described as “both chaste and passionate”, refers to man’s eternal pursuit of his female ideal. The movements of the woman’s arms and the upper part of her body harmonise with alternating rhythms representing invitation and flight.
For the celebrated “Wineglass Dance”, the fleet-footed men from La Soule wear dazzling costumes. The zamalzain (a dancer who appears, in a wicker frame, as both a horse and its rider) and the other dancers perform complicated steps around a glass of wine placed on the ground. Each of the dancers stand on the glass for a fraction of a second, without breaking it or spilling a drop of its contents.
Basque songs are haunting melodies with lyrics inspired by everyday life (in much the same way as the American Blues). French Basques sometimes sing Gernikako Arbola (The Tree of Guernica), the sacred song of the Spanish Basques which has practically become their national anthem. In it, the Oak of Guernica – the Basque village devastated by Fascist air raids during the Spanish Civil War and immortalised by Picasso – symbolises fueros, or local freedom.
Food and Drink
Visitors to the Atlantic Coast region of France have a rich variety of choice local products to enjoy.
All along the coast itself good, fresh seafood is available whereas inland, in Poitou and the Charentes, the “simple, honest and direct, even rustic” cuisine, according to the great chef Curnonsky (1872–1956), is based on fine, fresh ingredients and careful preparation. In the Bordeaux region the accent is naturally on wines and wine sauces.
For lovers of seafood the obvious starter must be oysters from Arcachon or Marennes, or perhaps mussels from Aiguillon; pibales (elvers) from the Gironde, either grilled or à la ravigote (with a highly seasoned white sauce) are a delicious alternative.
Those who prefer charcuterie might like to try the famous Bayonne ham or the ham from Poitou, or such Basque specialities as loukinkos (miniature garlic sausages) and tripotcha , a mutton boudin or blood sausage not unlike a small black pudding. Gourmets will also delight in the rich foie gras (prepared goose and duck livers) of Gers and the Landes.
A glass of chilled Pineau des Charentes may be taken as an apéritif or savoured with foie gras, whereas a chilled white wine such as a Graves or an Entre-Deux-Mers served at 8–10°C/46.4–50ºF is a delightful accompaniment to oysters, fish, crustaceans and other shellfish.
This area favoured with an abundance of water – both fresh and salt – offers the choice of sole or turbot from the pertuis (straits), fresh sardines from Royan or Les Sables d’Olonne, stuffed carp in the Poitou fashion or chipirones – tiny cuttlefish, stuffed or cooked in a casserole.
Near Bordeaux a wide range of fish is caught in the Gironde estuary, including shad, smelt, salmon, sturgeon, eels and lamprey.
Meat, Poultry and Vegetables
The quality of meat in the region, whether it be a chevreau (young goat), Charmoise mutton or lamb from Pauillac, is invariably excellent. Many dishes around Bordeaux are served with a wine sauce; tender steaks accompanied by this sauce will be described on the menu as à la Bordelaise.
The superb quality of vegetables grown in Charentes help form the base for the delicious pot-au-feu (beef stew) known locally as le farci ;the local broad beans, haricots, peas and Chinese cabbage can equally well be cooked à la crème (with cream) or with beurre de Surgères (a butter sauce).
Poultry specialities include poule-au-pot (chicken stew), Poitou goose with chestnuts, Challans duck and green peas, Barbezieux capon or chicken, and wood-pigeon salmi (casserole or ragout). Duck, if it is not conserved in its own fat (the delicious confit de canard ), may be roasted or served as a magret (slices of breast).
Red wines from Médoc or Graves, served cool (cellar temperature) are an ideal complement to poultry, white meat and light dishes, while those from St-Émilion, Pomerol or Fronsac, served at room temperature, are wonderful accompaniments to game, red meat, mushrooms and cheese.
In the Poitou, Vendée and Charentes regions it is normal to start off the dessert course with cheeses, for the local varieties are essentially unsalted cottage cheeses made from curdled milk or cream which can be taken with sugar if desired. These include Caillebote d’Aunis ,a crustless sheep’s cheese (sometimes made with goats’ or cows’ milk), and Jonchée niortaise , a goats’ cheese served on a rush platter. Equally delicious is the Poitou Chabichou , another strongly-flavoured goats’ cheese. The sheep’s cheeses of the Basque Country and Béarn remain characteristic local products. A traditional way to finish a meal in the Basque Country is with a slice of cheese topped with cherry preserves from Itxassou.
Fruit and Dessert
Delicious Charentais melon is served in the summer months as a dessert, as are peaches and plums from the valley of the Garonne, or succulent prunes steeped in Armagnac. Baked desserts include Poitou cheesecake (tourteau fromager) , macaroons from St-Émilion, Charentais gâteau, and clafoutis (dark cherries baked in a sweet batter). Sweetmeats include Poitiers nougâtines, chocolate marguerites and duchesses from Angoulême, and angelica based sweets from Niort.
The exquisite dessert wines of Sauternes, Barsac, Ste-Croix-du-Mont and Loupiac, served very cold (5°C/41°F), are the perfect accompaniment to sweet dishes; a fine Cognac makes an excellent digestif.