Why the French Basque Country is this summer’s hidden gem

Morning in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I’m watching my friends try to balance on paddleboards, cheered on by an instructor in Vilebrequins. They’re having a great time without me. Do I mind? Not at all — I’m being pounded with jets in our hotel’s thalassotherapy pool, a virtual lake running to the beachfront. Catching the sun in a warm bath of natural springwater is salty heaven.

After drying off, we meet in the pedestrianised streets to shop, inhaling the scent from a dozen patisseries. In Sandales Bayona we try on candy-striped espadrilles from tall stacks behind the counter and pay our £12 apiece. We’ve seen Gucci’s online for £355.

I hadn’t been prepared to get much out of Le Pays Basque, on the French side of the border. Spain’s Basque region seems to get all the love — pintxos! Bilbao! Pays Basque villages are distinctively Tudor-Alpine: chalky-white, half-timbered cottages brushed with red. The colours are deliberate: chalk predated stucco, and the red paint was real blood, to keep away insects.

Behind a port strewn with fishing nets are decadent Italianate villas, including the mansion where Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in the 17th century. We see bearded fishermen with woolly jumpers and flat caps.

A walk around the bay takes lands us in Ciboure for lunch on the beach. But first, a tour of seaside winery Egia Tegia, founded by a veteran of Moët and Margaux, Emmanuel Poirmeur. His process is innovative: he pours wine into tanks, which he sinks 15 metres underwater. When it’s sloshed around enough he ferments it like champagne. “The name means ‘the truth is in the wine’ in Basque,” says our guide.

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The next day we head north to revel in the ragged coastline. Trails plough for miles over dunes and brush-covered cliffs. We make it to Bidart, where shaggy-haired surfers peeled down their wetsuits at rustic beer shacks. Then we double back to Erromardie for platters of Bayonne ham and marinated octopus at a seaview brasserie.

On the beach at Guéthary (Shutterstock / MisterStock)

Back in Saint-Jean-de-Luz we enjoy the easy glam of a seafood bistro (La Boëte) serving lobster, caviar and purple-spined urchins. The sort of place where you grab sundowners then stumble in for squid named after local lad Jean Paul Gaultier, and learn that the restaurant (L’Océan) actually has a Michelin star. 

The boutique-hotel concept is still rather foreign on the coast but it’s made inroads inland. Inching behind cyclists aiming for the Pyrenees, we eventually pull over in beautiful Sare. Its timbered cottages backed by mountains include Arraya, a fine restaurant that tosses Basque delicacies — spider crab, Kintoa pork — into the Franco-Spanish canon. The guesthouse upstairs is all dinged wood antiques and bolts of toile.

In the town square we watch bronzed, topless pelota players compete with vein-popping aggression, then hug like brothers after the last lash of the ball. We break off onto a path past tiny wood chapels, part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Though we could have hiked all the way to Navarra in Spain we head for Ainhoa, checking into Hôtel Ithurria, steps from the medieval bell tower. Our great regret is that we can’t bank more time at the palm-lined pool, oversleep in our pastel-painted room, linger longer over pigeon and Breton octopus in the dining room. Ithurria’s restaurant barely whispers about its own Michelin star. 

Surf’s up in Bidart (Shutterstock / MisterStock)

We have time for one final trip before returning to Biarritz — the mountain of La Rhûne, 905 metres high, and with a funicular that chugs to the summit past shaggy horses. Squinting at the top, you can see over the Spanish border to San Sebastián. Pretty, isn’t it, we agree. Then we turn and head back into France. 

Details: Pays Basque

Ryanair flies from Stansted to Biarritz from £70 return.


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