The Pays Basque
Cycling in the Pays Basque
On the south-western tip of France, edging the mighty Pyrenees Mountains, Pays Basque is a region whose identity is as unique and captivating as its scenery. Set between the rugged Atlantic Coast and the soaring peaks that divide southern France from northern Spain, Pays Basque is an ideal destination to discover on two wheels. A selection of challenging cycle trails that uncover a rich diversity of wonders, both natural and cultural.
For glitz and glamour, and a taste of the refined, Biarritz offers it all. Set on the coastline at the northern point of Pays Basque, this is an energetic and lively city that has played host to the great and good for decades. Exploring Biarritz by bike reveals the rocky coastline, which can be discovered at a leisurely pace, and a look at the art deco and Belle Epoque architecture that epitomises the past glories of the region. Biarritz is also a haven for watersports enthusiasts, with surfers arriving in their droves to tackle some of the best waves in Europe.
Gateway to the Pyrenees
A cycling holiday to the Pays Basque would be incomplete without a journey through the majestic Pyrenees National Park. Straddling the border between France and Spain, the spectacular scenery leaves all travellers in awe, with the soaring mountain peaks, clear lakes, and plentiful wildlife ensuring any visit proves unforgettable. Created in 1967, the park provides the very best nature has to offer, with a selection of mountain bike trails and more sedate cycle routes enabling easy discovery of this compelling, tranquil region.
Regardless of ability, the range of cycling routes throughout the Pays Basque region offers something to suit everyone: culture, scenery and an experience of France like no other.
History of the Pays Basque
Basque culture is one defined by pride; having inhabited the region of southern France and northern Spain for millennia, there is a passion among the people of the area that is distinctive in the traditions, customs, and even language that continue to be practiced. The sense of identity here is strong, and retained with an enthusiasm rarely seen in other regions.
While little is known regarding the beginnings of the Basque people, the earliest recordings of the inhabitants of the region are found during the Roman incursions of ancient Gaul. For the next four centuries, the area would form part of the Aquitania province, with the Basque people falling under the sovereignty of Rome. When the time came for an uprising against Roman feudalism, and the might of the Empire began to wane, Pays Basque would be subsumed by the independent Duchy of Vasconia.
Stretching from the coast to the banks of the Garonne River, the Duchy of Vasconia would itself come undone during the eighth and ninth centuries, replaced instead by the County of Vasconia (later Gascony), formed from the areas surrounding the Adour River. It was, of course, around this time that the Basques would experience one of the great victories of their history. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass is recounted in The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving work of French literature, and describes the victories of the Basque armies over the Frankish troops of Charlemagne.
At the dawn of the 11th century, control of the province of Labourd, including what would become Pays Basque, passed to Sancho III of Navarre, who proceeded to make it a Viscounty. Such status was short-lived, however, with disputes over the territory leading to Richard the Lionheart dividing the land between the Angevin of France and the Navarrese.
In the centuries that followed, incursions and disputes over the region would continue, until the Hundred Years’ War saw the territories of the French Basque Country – the Lower Navarre, Labourd, and Soule provinces – united under the French crown.
Independence and autonomy
For the next few centuries, Pays Basque would be afforded a level of autonomy under the French rule that provided a sense of independence to the people. An anomaly of the French Revolution, however, would see this level of freedom diminish substantially, centralising government responsibilities and leading to a mass deportation of civilians and fear of persecution. The region was thus reshaped in the Basses-Pyrénées department that, in 1969, would be renamed the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.
Recent history has seen the Basque people of both Spain and France seek independence from their sovereign states and a growth in separatist activity. For the present, however, the cultures and traditions of the Pays Basque remain a part of French history.
Taking inspiration from both sides of the French-Spanish border, the cuisine of the Pays Basque is distinctive, delicious, and packed with the traditions of its people. Whether it’s tucking into mouth-watering meals of tender, flavoursome meat, or enjoying a sweet treat from the noted chocolatiers from Bayonne, every meal provides a taste of the distinctive culture.
The passion of the Basque people is evident in every part of life in the region. As such, the cuisine prepared across this area of south-west France takes much from history, such as the cooking of meat and fish over hot coals. Thanks to its coastal location, Pays Basque offers fine fresh seafood such as salt cod and hake, while further inland, the famed Jambon de Bayonne (Bayonne ham) is air dried and salted to deliver a delicate flavour. This particular delicacy enjoys an award-winning pedigree, and can be identified by the distinctive Lauburu Mark, or Basque Cross, that is branded onto each ham.
New Basque Cuisine
During the 1970s, the adoption of nouvelle cuisine acted as a catalyst for a revolution on Basque gastronomy. A number of noted chefs transformed the traditional dishes and flavours of Basque cookery with lighter versions of the rustic foods traditionally enjoyed. Of course, while the traditional form of production may have evolved, the manner of dining retains links to the past in the form of Gastronomic Societies. These societies see participants cook for family and friends, preserving the cultural traditions of Basque dining.
L’Atelier de Chocolat
The city of Bayonne offers much for the visitor to experience, but nothing quite so rewarding as l’Atelier de Chocolat. The riverside city is renowned for its high-quality chocolate, with l’Atelier de Chocolat among the most acclaimed. Offering tours, demonstrations and, of course, tastings, l’Atelier de Chocolat provides the ideal tourist sport for those with a sweet tooth and a taste for rich, delicious treats. The city even hosts an annual festival in celebration of the confection, with local chocolatiers taking to the streets to offer samples to visitors.
Locally produced cider is the perfect accompaniment to any meal, with the crisp, fruity options available among the most traditional beverages available in the Basque region. There are even cider houses that enable visitors to enjoy plates of traditional tapas before being called to the cider barrel with the cry of “Txotx,” and the chance to taste the latest sample of cider.
The identity of the people of the Basque Country is such that it is instantly recognisable and rooted in tradition. Whether it’s in southern France or the northern Spanish territory, this fiercely patriotic people is among the most welcoming and proud in Europe.
Often regarded as one of the oldest languages in Europe, Basque’s local dialect – Euskara – is today spoken by approximately 30% of the region’s population. Over the centuries, restrictions placed on the speaking of the language by the ruling classes has failed to diminish its use, and the teaching and speaking is as commonplace throughout the region as either French or Spanish.
he Basque people have long been Roman Catholic in faith and hold a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, with the advent of Christianity thought to begin in the fourth/fifth centuries. The Basque Country was also the birthplace of two of the Catholic church’s leading theologians, St. Frances Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola – founder of the Jesuit Order.
Tradition is not just the preserve of language and religion, and the tradition of storytelling and mythology are integral to the fabric of Basque culture. Best-known of all the historical myths is the story of the race of giants known as jentilak. According to Basque folklore, this pre-Christian civilisation lived alongside the Basque people and was responsible for the formation of megalithic monuments. Legend says that all but one giant – Olentzero – disappeared from the land following the birth of Christ, with Olentzero only appearing at Christmas in straw doll reproductions.
A number of holidays and celebrations are hosted throughout the year to celebrate the traditions and heritage of the Basque people. Folk musicians and dancers are often present during village festivals, while the most famous of all traditions – the running of the bulls – takes place each year in the Basque town of Pamplona in Spain.