Thursday, May 4, 2017

A week in the Pays Basque

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque St-Jean-de-Luz
St-Jean-de-Luz

We have just spent a lovely week on holiday in the Pays Basque, a small and unique area of France where the Atlantic coast meets the Pyrenees and is, in my opinion, a very special place to visit.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque
Planning a week in the Pays Basque

Before we left home we put quite a bit of thought into planning our week away. We had maps, guidebooks, novels and travel memoirs set in the area and I was convinced we had enough to keep us busy for about six weeks, rather than six days. Holidays make me think of time spent relaxing with family, aperos on the terrace, sun loungers and reading books, and while some of this was true, the reading seemed to be replaced with cycling and cycling up mountains, which may not have been quite as relaxing but was worth the effort and always rewarded with a tasty treat.

We spent a couple of days in Cambo-les-Bains in the Pays Basque a few years ago and I was especially looking forward to reacquainting myself with the Gateau Basque; a buttery, biscuity cake, filled with a dark cherry layer (my favourite) or crème pâtissière, and it was just as delicious as I remembered it. Having re-read my blog (see here) as part of our pre-trip planning I couldn’t quite believe Adrian had persuaded me to take my bike back to the mountains and this time he had his heart set on climbing real cols (mountain passes) with me tagging along behind.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque cycling
Climbing the Col d'Ispeguy

It didn’t take him long as on the second day of our holiday I found myself slowly and steadily climbing a mountain. The road markers every kilometre told me how far I had to go, the gradient for the next kilometre and my current altitude. To begin with I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was still to come, but after a while I looked forward to seeing them, mentally ticking off another kilometre climbed.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque cycling
Queen of the mountains

After about an hour I was in Spain, cooling down with a beer and watching real cyclists sweep into the car park, just like I had done. The scenery, that I hadn’t really been able to take in on the climb was breathtaking and I don’t think I will ever forget the moment I raised my eyes from the road in front of me to see an eagle gently gliding by. I came to the conclusion mountains by bike aren’t really that scary after all.


French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque Espelette
Espelette
We rented a gîte just outside of St Palais and this proved to be the perfect base with easy access to Biarritz, the coast town of St-Jean-de-Luz and the traditional Basque villages of Espelette, Sare and Cambo-les-Bains, where the hillsides are scattered with Basque homes; their stark white walls, dark red or green shutters, steep mountain roofs and well manicured gardens setting them apart from other French styles.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque Salies-de-Bearn
Salies-de-Béarn
The Béarn towns of Sauveterre and Salies were also an easy drive away. Here there are cream rather than white houses, softer roof lines with small windows tucked into roofs with turrets – very Lot and Dordogne and very picturesque too. 

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque cycling voie verte
Escos to Salies-de-Béarn voie verte

I can recommend the voie verte cycle path from Escos to Salies-de-Béarn where we were lucky enough to cycle through the fallen blooms from the Acacia trees, whose scent hung in the warm air, and cross the fast flowing Gave d’Oloron river on an ancient iron bridge, while looking at snow covered peeks on the horizon.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque gite
The dining room in the gîte

The house was ideal for four adults, a dog, two cars and two bikes, and after less than an hour I knew I’d be happy coming back. The bikes had a spacious garage, there was off road parking and the large garden was fenced all around so we didn’t have to worry about the dog. The lounge was cosy, the dining room enormous, there were double bedrooms for all of us that were smallish but comfortable and our bedroom even had a perfect wooden writing desk that I could have spent many happy hours at. 

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque
Sunset at the gîte
The sunset at the end of the long garden cast shadows of gold as it dipped into the hills.

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
We walked the cobbles of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, following in the footsteps of walkers and pilgrims who rest here before crossing the border into Spain and continuing their journey to Santiago de Compostela. 

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque St-Jean-Pied-de-Port
A walker's backpack and boots
We climbed and descended cols, hills that thought they should be mountains, and in total cycled 200km, climbing 2485m and burning off over 8000 calories. 

French Village Diaries a week in the Pays Basque Brebis cheese
Basque traffic jam


We even got stuck in a Basque traffic jam as the sheep made their way from pasture to milking parlour. Despite all this there is still so much we didn’t get to see, so would I return? With my bike? You bet. I’m just a little bit in love with the Pays Basque.

This post has been linked to Lou Messugo’s All About France blog link up. Click here to read more.

Lou Messugo


Here are the Amazon links to some of the books I found useful when planning this trip.