On the road less traveled in the South of France you’ll find an unspoiled paradise called Euskal Herria, the Basque Country. Most people ignore the most southwestern corner of the hexagon, preferring instead to designate the south of France as either the Dordogne, or the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The Basque Country is far enough off the beaten path to retain its unique identity, yet established enough to accommodate travelers. The Basque Country is one of Europe’s oldest cultures. It encompasses the region located in northern Spain, and southern France, on the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay at the western end of the Pyrenees mountain range.The only pause in the region’s tranquility are the many festivals and convivial farmers’ markets.
The Basque Country is a cross-cultural region straddling both France and Spain that has a very distinctive culture including its own language, customs, festivals and music. The first known inhabitants of the Basque Country date from the Paleolithic period approximately 200,000 years ago. The Celts traversed this area leaving many dolmans scattered throughout the Pyrenees, as well as possible remnants of their language. They were followed by the Romans until the fall of their empire, then the Vascons, (Vasconia later became Gascony) the Vikings, Franks and the Moors, Muslims who invaded Spain and parts of France in A.D. 711, in the very early days of Islam. From A.D. 824, the Basque Country was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, a medieval state ruled over by a series of monarchs. In 1515, much of Navarre was annexed to the Crown of Castile and became part of what would become modern Spain. The French Basque Country originally belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine and was part of what was considered England’s first colony after she married Henry II of England. until the Hundred Years War when the region was formally returned to France.
Architecture and Gardens
Although different building styles exist with features specific to each region, most most Basque architecture shares a common core design. The extea, Basque house, is much more than a simple dwelling place. The house was, and still is, the axis from which life revolves. The typical Basque houses are white with dark red, dark green or dark blue half-timbering with matching shutters, and terra-cotta red roof tiles. The green represents Hope, the red Liberty, and the white Faith. Although each house is different, they give an overall coherence to the region. Lush gardens, some wild and others formal, like the André Le Nôtre inspired classic plan at the Villa Arnaga, blend into the verdant landscape with ease.
The Basque Country is a fertile territory with a renowned gastronomy. Its gourmet treasures include Espelette Peppers, Bayonne Ham and Chocolate, seafood from the Atlantic and river fish such as trout, wild salmon, sardines, tuna, cod, and anchovies. Basque Sheep cheeses, including the famous Ossau Iraty, are stars of the Soule valley’s summer pastures, along with Black Cherries, Cider, and Irouleguy wine, the only Basque wine benefitting from the AOC certification.
The landscape of the Basque Country is characterized by breathtaking coastal vistas, and tranquil farms. The valleys are criss-crossed by rivers and streams, dotted with cream-colored cows, equestrian farms, and tufted white sheep. Wooded copses, folded into the landscape often conceal a multitude of birds and wildlife. With few towns or villages to interrupt a leisurely ride, the countryside is delightful to drive or walk through. The fan of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route culminates in the Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before heading over the Pyrenees Mountains.
It almost seems that time has passed by the other side of France. It’s time to discover a real gem.
| Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, England and other European countries.