Understated, enchanted Basque chill
This extraordinary region in southwest France oozes laid-back cool. Hemmed between the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees, it offers a more authentic Basque experience than its Spanish counterpart
I'm not much of a day drinker, but who am I to refuse a taste of frothy rosé on a sun-soaked terrace overlooking the Bay of Biscay, even if it is 11 a.m.? Egia Tegia, a new Pays Basque winery would make a lush out of you, too, with its fruity-fresh fizz and après-surf setting on the beach at Ciboure, 20 kilometres south of Biarritz.
A converted warehouse dotted with sandy footprints, it is classic Pays Basque: chilled, understated, enchanting. The wine is the first of its kind, developed by former Moet executive Emmanuel Poirmeur when he discovered Ciboure's protected inlet provided the perfect conditions for a light, bubbly, distinctive palate-cleanser. After some experimentation, I'm told by his suntanned assistant Francine as she tours me around the dark cellars in a hollow of a cliff face, Poirmeur settled on his unique process: press white and red Basque grapes, pour 10 per cent of the liquid into polyethylene tanks and bury them 45 feet under the bay. The gentle sloshing of the liquid during the tides, combined with the oxygen and carbon dioxide that seeps into the tanks, creates a chemical synergy too complex to detail here.
But the upshot is a fine sparkle and pleasant acidity that, when combined with the other 90 per cent, complements Basque staples. To prove it, Francine lays out plates of charcuterie, blue cheese, chocolate and strawberries.
"The name," she says, "means 'the truth is in the wine' in Basque." Neither version rolls off the tongue, yet it's extraordinary stuff. Though I could not resist Francine's taster of rosé (nor red, nor white, nor the diaphanously sliced jambon de Bayonne), I did resist the spittoon.
Pays Basque creeps up on you that way: extraordinary stuff under the guise of laid-back cool. Hemmed between the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees, less populous and less developed by industry and tourism than its Spanish counterpart, its culture is less diluted than other regions. Basque is still the official language – priests hired to work at Bayonne Cathedral, Eglise d'Ainhoa or anywhere in between must learn to speak it fluently before the first sermon. Even the tiniest hilltop villages have a gabled wall reserved for pelota, the local handball that men in whites play (and speculate on) fiercely and competitively. The French see it as quelque chose d'exotique; the English as quelque chose d'authentique.
In view of Ciboure is the small, walkable town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where the half-timbered oxblood fisherman's cottages were once painted with the actual blood of oxen. It's the sort of place where the fishmonger's stucco hut, strung with nets and buoys, stays open late a few nights a week to present diners with heaping platters of briny, clawed creatures and fine, florid wines in $10 bottles. Its population of 14,000 is roughly the same as it was as right after the French Revolution. Ditto the men, weathered and flat-capped, cigarettes dangling, like characters in Tintin.
And yet the same town hosted the plush 1660 wedding of King Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa, which you can read about at Maison Louis XIV museum in the small market square, where the groom spent his last night as a bachelor. A local baker called M. Adam provided guests with the first macarons – simple almond-powder biscuits denser than the Ladurée meringues we now know. Maison Adam still sells them at its richly stocked épicerie across Place Louis XIV.
The bakery Pariès does its own, lighter versions on Rue Gambetta, packed in boxes of Hermès orange, but you'll find them at the airport, among other shops. I instead ordered a half-dozen in Adam's parchment-lined white paper box, then turned into Gambetta anyway to try on espadrilles at Sandales Bayona, a fifth-generation family business that stacks hundreds of pairs behind the counter like old-fashioned dry goods, at less than $20 a pair. (As a comparison, last season Gucci did them for $675.)
Then I slipped them on, chic as Guccis, for drinks at Le Clipper at the Grand Hotel. Grand Tour inns on the Atlantic get short-shrift these days, with everyone jetting to boutique hotels on the Med, but this one's had a rock-solid refurbishment in marble and jewel-toned velvets. Le Clipper's new west-facing terrace hits the sea wall, to take advantage of those 2,000 hours of sunshine a year. It's slick as a deck on the Regent Seven Seas, though you can get a Patxaran cocktail flavoured with local Espelette pepper for less than $20. Inside at L'Océan, a Michelin-star joint helmed by the affable Christophe Grosjean, I'm presented with the marquee dish on the $158 dinner tasting menu: a "deconstructed" squid etched with zebra stripes, stuffed with potato risotto and referred to as chipron a la Gaultier. The designer and L'Océan fan Jean-Paul Gaultier, with an apartment blocks away, is the sociable poster child for the town.
French Basque Country bleeds 150 kilometres inland and south to La Rhune, a mountain on the French-Spanish border with a population of squat, wild horses called pottoks. You can board a cog-wheel train for the 35-minute ascent. Or hike the grassy medieval pilgrimage route outside the languid village of Sare. Or book a marathon dinner at Ithurria, a timber-beamed Michelin-star family bistro with pastel-painted guest rooms in winsome Ainhoa.
The serpentine roads between them swing around small chili pepper holdings and three-million-year-old caves in the limestone massif and slate bergeries gently leaning into the earth. The absence of any major industry means an absence of industrial blight; the ugliest building you'll pass is an Intermarché superstore.
But you will need a car for that, and deeper pockets than me.
Clinging to the Côte Basque, you can walk 30 kilometres of coastal path from Biarritz to Hendaye, avoiding big spends and the regrettable designation of a driver. From the train station in the surf town Guéthary, where commuters watch the tracks while noshing on Basque tapas, or pintxos, on the patio at Le Poinçon, I follow the arc of the sun as the path inclines gently past food vans in marooned open-topped buses and vast nets collecting algae for face cream.
Overlooking the ramshackle cabanas at Acotz, I watch the sea bash the earthy sand punishingly while surfers stuff themselves into neoprene.
While they get smashed about, I slowly get smashed on the route approaching Saint-Jean-de-Luz. La Guinguette, named for the Belle Epoque taverns painted by the Impressionists, does platters of coquillages, spicy, stubby sausages to stab with toothpicks and, more importantly, bottles of txakolina, the local dry wine with a 25-per-cent alcohol content. A sling-lounger by a low table at the sea wall is good for the soul, bad for the hair if you get anything close to average winds.
It's 40 minutes back to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and, by late afternoon, I've rounded Pointe Sainte-Barbe to the hotel strip. In my final surrender to Basque culture, I am soon slipping into a steamy saltwater cove with views out to sea, flapping clumsily against a too-strong current, and cackling uncontrollably. I'm faintly allergic to cold Atlantic water and terrified of jellyfish, but this is ocean "lite," a thalassotherapy circuit pool siphoned from the sea and pimped up for elderly and arthritic tourists, who began coming here to avail themselves of the healing saltwater in the 1950s.
I fancy myself neither, but this is the most-fun-least-cool activity I've done in years, facing off the artificial current, tumbling in the wrong direction like an unfit salmon. When the aquabics class around the sinuous bend empties out, I drift in to avail myself of the massage jets, placed at thigh, butt, back and shoulder height. Like they say about dancing, you should do it like nobody's watching.
The world capital of thalassotherapy is France's Atlantic coast, from here to Brittany. You're not even allowed to call yourself "thalasso" if you're more than a few metres from shore, so the spas that cluster near the Spanish border are so close to the bay the windows get spray.
No one has determined the therapeutic benefits of thalasso, though at 45, I'm the young whippersnapper here and who can deny the energizing effects of being the youngest in the room? But nor has anybody calculated the benefits of a cold glass of rosé or a sea-wall hike and a macaron. They will cure many things, and your wanderlust to boot.
If you go
Where to stay
Maison Tamarin: This eight-bedroom farmhouse bed and breakfast in Acotz on the coastal road between Guéthary and Saint-Jean-de-Luz faces an outdoor pool, two hectares of gardens and one of the quietest beaches on the Côte Basque. Perfectly placed for families, surfers and daytrippers. Doubles from $195. maisontamarin.com
Hotel Hélianthal: On the strip in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, this B&B has the most popular thalasso circuit and a prime location near the shops and bars of the town. Doubles from $229. helianthal.fr
Where to eat
La Boëte (Saint-Jean-de-Luz): Local brothers serve fresh-from-the-sea shellfish platters, grilled vegetables drizzled with oil and thick fish soups – to be washed down with local white wine or cold Basque beer. laboete-restaurant-poissonnerie-64.com
Kaiku (Saint-Jean-de-Luz): Designer Jean-Paul Gaultier is a neighbour and frequenter of this 16th-century stone cellar run by Nicolas Borombo. He deals with local farms and designs exquisite dishes not only with the local fish but veal, pigeon and a 36-hour lamb confit. kaiku.fr
The writer was a guest of the Tourist Office of the Pays de Saint-Jean-de-Luz – Terre and Côte Basques. It did not review or approve this article.