We just got back from a road trip through the southwest region of France. Adam has always had an interest in Basque culture, particularly how its people have managed to preserve their language and identity over the last millennia, so we figured Bayonne – the capital of French Basque Country – was a good place to start. For you map lovers (Mariah and Lexi in particular), here’s the route we took. Note that Bassac is the most northern of the plot points.
Bayonne was a really nice, mid-sized city to wander around in – with both old and new sections of town and a river dividing them.
There was a mix of French and Basque languages, although the Basque was mostly present in writing and signage. The same Basque font is used everywhere in both French and Spanish Basque country and it looks like this:
Our day in Bayonne consisted of snacking on pastries and strolling up and down the narrow, busy streets. We’re not museum folk so we tend to wander, snack, snap pictures, sit, sip and watch. On second thought, Adam actually really likes museums, but as I’m a rather impatient museum companion he’s learned it’s an activity best to be avoided – which may or may not have something to do with all the loud sighing. My ideal museum experience would involve being able to stand (or better yet sit) on a moving walkway which winds quickly through the exhibits, while munching on a bag of warm mini churros that were handed out at the door.
This quaint little town of white homes with red and green shutters is surrounded on all sides by gentle rolling hills. Espellete is probably best known for its local piment pepper, along with the Basque ham, cheese and chocolate popular in the greater region. During the warmer times of the year, it’s probably swarming with tourists but during our visit, there were only a handful of people coming in and out of the two open stores – the town’s charcuterie and a tasting room. Inside the tasting room we were met by a super friendly, young, blond Basque man who generously offered up the English he’d learned by playing rugby in South Africa. As is common in the area, he told us he was first Basque and second French. He gave us tastes of the local cuisine, and we walked away with a basket full of goodies: piment aperitif, piment spices, a jarred ham spread, sweet piment jelly and a spicy spread that, for the time being, has kindly stepped in for sriracha and is making an appearance in almost every meal.
A short drive from Espelette, we arrived at St-Jean-de-Luz, a waterfront town off of the Bay of Biscay. We put our toes in the sand and wandered through the beautiful little town, watching fishing boats head out to sea, people sip coffee at cafes and folks in the town square preparing for the evening’s Christmas fair.
About 15 miles across the border into Spain lies one of our absolute favorite places, where they happen to take their sand art and their tapas very seriously. Adam and I had been to San Sebastián together before – 12 years ago right after we graduated high school. Upon arriving at the train station we had checked into our pension and headed directly to the beautiful, half moon shaped beach they call the conch where we passed out in the summer sun. When I awoke hours later I was so sunburned that I could barely move and proceeded to spend the rest of our stay in bed cursing my dreadfully pasty Irish skin and lack of common sense. This time around our visit was decidedly more enjoyable.
Craving a cold beer, a bit of sunshine and a glimpse of some of the taller peaks of the Pyrenees, we stopped off in Pau (pronounced POH), known for its English influence, mild climate and – fun Wikipedia fact – is a sister city to Mobile, Alabama…for some reason.
Toulouse is goodness at every turn. It’s lively, aesthetically pleasing and interesting to tour around in. We strolled through many a stylish, windy street, into one of its several huge markets, around it’s gorgeous church, alongside its river and into one of it’s many hip burger joints. It’s the fourth largest city in France but it’s super friendly and laid back and we’d love to spend more time there.
Domme and the Dordogne Valley
Our last stop, Domme, is one of France’s best preserved bastides (fortified towns) from the 13th century and has a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and the Dordogne river.