Most of us who know of the Basque region recognise it for being part of Spain, but that would be missing the finest part of the Basque country, that of the Northern Basque or French Basque Region. It lies inland from the town of Biarritz and has a population of no less than 260,000. Rugby is a virtual religion, sheep and beef farming is prevalent, and the native Basque language is spoken by 25% of them. Similarly, the Béarn region has its own identity and language, so visiting one must lead to visiting the other, as they are with easy driving distance from Biarritz Airport or that of Pau, the Capital of the Béarn.

The Basque Region and the Bearn

The Basque Region and the Bearn

I landed in Biarritz, a town famed for its spas, and later for its association with Royalty. Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III built a palace on the seafront, now known as the Hotel du Palais, one of the most famous in France. Queen Victoria visited here regularly, as did Edward VII and others. In the early 20th century a casino was built, but the main draw for many is the Grande Plage, the beach, with its excellent surfing culture. Instead of heading straight into town, I travelled east to the small town of Monein, in the heart of the Béarn, but just 1 hour away.

In Monein, I met the local tourist office representative Delphine Vallard, who took me to the delightful home of Mme Fontagnères, who has a Maison d’Hôte, (B&B) just outside Monein. Here she keeps just one room for letting, but which consists of a very large, beautifully furnished bedroom, an anti-room with double-door leading out to a pool area and a view looking out to the northern Pyrenees just 40 km away. This view was just breathtaking, especially as we had exceptionally good weather which produced a sunrise the next morning which made the sky blood-red. Having lived for part of her life in Portsmouth, Mme Fontagnères’ English was better my French (which often happens), and she was both a charming and helpful host.

After having spent some time capturing the magnificent sunrise with my camera, Delphine arrived and we went on to the winemaking property of Fabrice and Sebastien Bordenave, who have now taken over the Montesquieu vineyard from their parents. I had arrived on the very day of grape-picking which gave me the unique opportunity of filming the whole process. There was a strong feeling of community here. The harvest help had been all been drawn from Monein, and had been doing the same for many years collectively. They all knew the ropes, picking the grapes by hand in exactly the right way. The property amounted to 9ha’s in total, and grew mostly the grape varieties of Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu, which make up the wines of what is called the Jurancon. Jurancon wine can be a dry white, but is known mostly for its sweet characteristics due its late harvest, sometimes well into November.

To see the whole Jurancon wines collection it’s very much worth visiting the Maison des Vins Jurancon at Lacommande a kilometres from Monein. At the same time and right across the road is a medieval hospital, the Commandery that was used by pilgrims on their long journey to Santiago de Compostela. It’s now used as an art gallery and managed by the people who run the Maison des Vins. Alongside is the Church of St Blaise with its distinctive tombstones.

Having been provided with a hire car, the next day was totally mine to explore the route back towards Biarritz. The cross country route I took was so picturesque, but the problem I was faced with on so many occasions was that with the road being so narrow and windy, with steep drops on either side, there were few places for me to stop to take photos.

My first stop was at the small town of Navarrenx, a medieval fortress with walls all around and once a refuge for the Hugenots, a group of Calvinistic Protestants who later expelled from France. The fortress was built in the 13th century and was the scene of many battles due to the towns’ position as a border town. You can also visit the bridge over the River Gave d’Oloron, from where you could take some really great photos – if you manage to park somewhere safe.

On to Sauveterre-en- Béarn, another small medieval town where Gave d’Oloron runs through, and built originally as a refuge during the dark ages, but more recently another stopover for pilgrims en-route to Santiago. The bridge, now only half there, was a key crossing point at the time of the pilgrimages.

The next town I stopped at was Saint Palais, also known as Donapeleu and the main town of the lower Navarre section of the Basque region. For many years Saint Palais had a Royal mint from the time of Charles II of Navarre, and again, was a major town for the pilgrims, with a hospital built to take care of them. At Saint Palais I stopped before the bridge over the River Bidouze where the river bank provided me with some stunning images.

I drove west again via the villages of Saint-Esteben and Monloc, where I really started to get the feeling that I was truly in Basque country. The houses are all painted the same colour: largely white, with red windows and beams (the colour of bull’s blood). Many houses, and the older they looked, were very large indeed. This was mostly because livestock used to inhabit the lower parts of house while the families lived above. Many Basque family names are named so after houses, that offers a permanent reference point for followers of Ancestry. Many Basques moved to South America and other parts of the world to work on farms, taking with them Basque traditions and most notably sports, mainly Pelota, or Pelotte, in French. There now exists a wider Basque community and heritage that extends beyond its own borders, similar to that of the Irish.

As I get closer to Biarritz the traffic definitely gets busier, and by the time arrived at Cambo-les-Bains it was hard find a parking space. Cambo is, as the name implies a spa town and a good alternative to Biarritz if you want the best of both worlds. It’s just half an hour from the beach and yet is free of the hustle-bustle of Biarritz. Cambo is immersed in Basque culture and the Basque hinterland is on its doorstep.

Finally I reached my destination of Biarritz, which seemed worlds away from the rural splendour of where I had come. There were people all over the beach, people walking with surfboards as if they were on the way to work, and traffic everywhere. Parking is a nightmare, but managed to park in the Casino car park at 12 Euro per day.

As a major international tourist destination Biarritz has managed to retain its strong Basque identity, you can see it just by walking around the town. The market hall is where it hits home the most. There are Basque flags flying everywhere with many references to Biarritz Olympique, its feared rugby team. Some of France’s greatest players played here, including Serge Blanco, who has his own spa-hotel just outside town and Patrice Ondarts, who has his own hotel and restaurant, the Caritz. These days it’s all about Imanol Harinordoquy, France’s star player and of true Basque farming stock. At the time of writing, France are in the semi-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and Biarritz is well into it!

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Gary Phillips