When you think of the Basque Country, prominent Spanish cities such as Bilbao, San Sebastián, and Pamplona most likely come to mind. But what many don’t realize is that the Basque community extends beyond Spanish borders.
Straddling the Spanish/French boundary lies an untrodden area that is proudly known as the Basque Country—made up of 7 provinces, with 3 of them nestled in the southwest of France.
While the Basque provinces may not all share the same nationality, they do share a singular identity and strong sense of pride.
The Basques are courteous and agreeable and have a trustworthy bearing. Their houses and their clothes are clean and their customs make their land a pleasant place. Despite living on the borders of both France and Spain, the Basques have their own character and outlook, different from the French and the Spanish. – Alexander von Humboldt, German Geographer
In the Basque region, you will find rich history dating back to the Classical era, a mix of architectural styles and Euskara— the shared Basque dialect and a language unlike any other in the world. You will also find the emergence of a younger generation that is spicing up the gastronomic scene, opening up trendy specialty shops and reviving the traditional white-and-red countryside buildings.
On my recent Northern Spain road trip, we visited San Sebastián and took full advantage of being minutes from the French border.
We day-tripped along the Spanish/French coast and explored 4 off-the-radar towns—Hondarribia, St.-Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne and Biarritz— all within 20 minutes of each other in Basque Country.
The first stop was just 30 minutes from San Sebastian in the picturesque village of Hondarribia. This medieval fishing village was straight from a storybook. The homes accented with wooden shutters and ceramic flowerpots were like life-sized dollhouses. When we first got there it was overcast, but the colorful buildings with coordinated doors and shutters brought life to the town.
Here we ventured the old town, which sits atop a foothill and has a beautiful view of the bay. We had a quick pastry breakfast at one of the small coffee shops there and then headed to our next stop.
Crossing the Spanish/French border, we found ourselves in St.-Jean-de-Luz—located on the French side of the Bay of Biscay. This small town sits on a bay surrounded by boats, beaches and fishing ports.
In 1660, Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Spain put St.-Jean-de-Luz on the map when they tied the knot in the village’s stunning Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. However, this town is also home to an array of designer and novelty goods.
You’ll find everything from the cutest jute-wrapped espadrilles to world-renowned Maison Adam macarons along the boutique-strewn Rue Gambetta. You’ll also find that the French take pride in their public spaces and keep their gardens nice and manicured. Here, we grabbed lunch and explored the harbor and shopping district.
Bayonne is the capital of the French Basque Country and a quick Google search will pull up postcard-worthy shots of colorful buildings lined along La Nive River. Out of the bunch, this city was the one I was most excited to see.
However, upon arriving, my first impression of Bayonne was unfortunately underwhelming. The buildings were a bit unkempt, streets were slightly scrappy, and the river appeared murky. However, as we walked around the commercial area—bristled with whimsical boutiques and cafes— we found there was a lot to admire about this place.
The old-fashioned buildings appeared to hunch over, bearing the weight of their age-old history. The wooden window shutters and beams painted in shades of blue, green and red guarded the facades, sealing centuries of old secrets.
The 13th century gothic cathedral of St. Mary de Bayonne stands as a pillar of Bayonne’s cultural legacy. The cobbled streets and specialty stores—featuring, chocolates, cheeses, décor and more—are the pulse of the city’s heart. We visited Bayonne for it’s old-city charm, backstreets and famed chocolate delicacies—and ultimately got what we came for.
The last stop was the glitzy beachside town of Biarritz. Think: Paris on the beach. This town used to be the old stomping grounds of European royalty. Napoleon III built his queen, Empress Eugénie, a palace on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean—because happy wife, happy life. In 1893 it became the luxe Hôtel du Palais.
Today, Biarritz is known for its aristocratic heritage, its casinos and its beaches, as well as being the surfing capital of Europe.
We arrived to Biarritz at around 5pm and saw surfers in wetsuits making their way towards the rather rough waves of the Grande Plage (meaning ‘main beach’)– surfboards in hand. At the end of the beach lied Le Rocher du Basta, the town’s main sea wall, which doubled as the perfect spot to gaze at the miles of ocean.
We spent the majority of our time in this stylish seaside town alongside the golden beach, relishing in the leisurely pace and gorgeous panoramic views.
While these 4 coastal towns seem to shy away from the spotlight, their distinct history, architecture and shared Basque nuances deserve to be appreciated. By the end of the day, there was no doubt that I had fallen under the Basque Country spell.