Pays Basque

On the western side of the département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
lies the Pays Basque (Basque Country), between the Adour river
and the Pyrenees. From Hendaye northwards to Anglet, it is
bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, with a coastline of clean, sandy beaches
to which tourists flock year after year. Inland, picturesque villages dot
the wide expanses of lush, unspoilt greenery, grazed by flocks of sheep.

Since the early 20th century,
when the coastal resorts of
the Pays Basque began to
develop, most visitors have
come to the region for its
fine beaches. The attractive
hinterland, however, has
a rich historical heritage.
There is evidence of settlement
in this part of France going back to
Neolithic times (5000–2000 BC). Later
it was invaded by the Celts, then the
Romans, who in turn were driven out
by Germanic tribes from the east. In
778, the Franks, led by the Emperor
Charlemagne, were repulsed, as was
an invasion by Louis IX of France
(1226–1270) in 824. After this the Pays
Basque became part of the newly
created kingdom of Pamplona.
In 1530, Charles V (1364–1380)
made Basse-Navarre part of France,
with Labourd and Soule, the other
northern provinces of the region,
being added in 1589. Spain retained
Biscay, Guipuzcoa, Alava and Navarre. In 1659, the Peace
of the Pyrenees brought
about a reconciliation
between France and Spain,
which was consolidated by
the marriage of the young Louis XIV
of France to the Spanish infanta at
Saint-Jean-de-Luz in 1660.
At the end of the 18th century, the
Pays Basque entered a period of
economic decline, which ended only
with the birth of tourism. Today the
region is not only a paradise for watersports
enthusiasts, but has also seen
a renewal of interest in the ancient
pilgrimage routes to Compostela that
criss-cross it. These were designated
as World Heritage Sites in 1993.
Down the centuries, despite the many
changes of government, the Pays Basque
has held on firmly to its national
identity. Today, this is expressed as
much as in the use of Euskara, the
Basque language, as in the region’s
architecture, its religious and secular
festivals, and its food specialities.

 

Exploring the Pays Basque

The part of the Pays Basque that lies in French territory comprises thethree historical provinces of Basse-Navarre, Labourd and Soule. Basse-Navarre has several towns, most notably Saint-Palais and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, that were once major stopping places on the ancientpilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. With the Gulf ofGascony to the west, Labourd consists of rolling hillsand mountains, such as the Rhune, the Axuria andthe Artzamendi, with many scenic villages,such as Ainhoa and Ascain. Soule, thewilder of the three areas, encroaches onthe Pyrenean foothills that form partof Béarn. It has some trulystunning scenery, including theForêt des Arbailles and Forêtd’Iraty, and three dramaticlimestone canyons: theGorges de Kakouetta,Gorges d’Holzartéand Gorgesd’Olhadubi.

GETTING AROUND

Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne is the regional airport. There
is also a TGV (high-speed train) service between Paris
and Bayonne. Bayonne is accessible via two motorways,
the A64-E80 from Toulouse and Pau, and by the A63-
E5-E70 from the Landes and Bordeaux. From Bayonne,
the D932 leads to Cambo-les-Bains. In the west, the
D918 links Espelette, Ainhoa, Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle and
Ascain, in Labourd, then continues southward to Saint-
Jean-Pied-de-Port. The D918 leads into the mountains
of Soule, where the villages
of Larrau and Sainte-
Engrâce, and
the Gorges
d’Holzarté
and de
Kakouetta
are found.