The Pays Basque (in English the "Northern Basque Country") is the southwestern part of France, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region. The Basque people are an ancient people who live in this region of France, and in the neighboring region in Spain. They speak their own language, Basque, though most of them speak French or Spanish as well. Basque nationalism is very strong, particularly in Spain, and the Basque people have long wanted to become their own independent nation. You can read more stuff about them on Wikipedia if you are interested!
The area is famously green because it rains a ton there (though we actually didn’t have that much rain), and there are a lot of farms. Basque specialties include peppers (slightly spicy and delicious), goat cheese, a specific type of horses called Potyioks (not sure about spelling), and a very distinct and ancient architectural style (you will see later in pictures). They also eat their cheese with jelly, (cherry or pepper flavored) which no other French people do. I found it delicious though!
We stayed with Monique, a friend of the family. Pascale, my host mom, has known Monique since she was a little girl growing up in Paris, because she was a teacher of Pascale’s brother, and a friend of the family. Monique has a lovely house in Ustaritz, a village outside of Bayonne, and has three cats that she adores. She is also an excellent chef, and loves wine- she has her own wine ‘cave’ with temperature control and everything. We drank at least one type of wine every night, and some nights two- one with the appetizer and one with the main meal.
Day 1: Bayonne, La Rhune, and Spain
Our first day in Pays-Basque was action packed. In the morning I went with my host dad for a quick tour of Bayonne, a very lovely town (about 40,000 people live there) close to the Atlantic coast. Bayonne is extremely close to two other towns: Anglet and Biarritz, and together they are called “le Bab” by locals. I visited Biarritz later in the week, but Bayonne proved to be my favorite of the two. So we went for a quick spin, French style: a bit of window shopping, to the cathedral, to the market, and a stop for a cup of tea, as it was a bit chilly.
Here is a bad picture of the outside of the cathedral of Bayonne
And the inside (it is gothic style)
The town of Bayonne is famous for two things: ham, and chocolate. Bayonne ham (jambon Bayonne) is one of the two types of ham you find all over France. Below, a charcuturie (a kind of butcher shop) with Bayonne ham hanging from the ceiling.
They slice it up first though; you don’t just gnaw on it like that!
Here, one of the streets of Bayonne, with a cozy little bar to the left.
Then we went to the big indoor market where there are stands that sell everything from fish to vegetables to local specialties to…
Fromage!! This is just a small collection, too. To the left there are goat cheeses (fromage du chevre), the round light ones as well as the darker ones in front. There is also some Rocmadour to the middle far left, which is a cow cheese that is very creamy, and a favorite of my youngest host sister Alice. The orangey-yellow one in the middle is Langres, which I tried in Paris and found delicious. There are some I don’t know, but the one in the very back middle, with the grayish outside and light inside is St. Nectare, a fairly common cow cheese that I eat often and like a lot. And then of course, to the right towards the back, the small round white cheese with a sign on top is the beloved Camembert, which we always have in the fridge, and which I eat nearly every day. It is a bit like Brie, but milder, and oh so creamy (note: French brie is not at all like the Brie you find in the US, because the milk is not pasteurized, so it is much stronger!).
Here is more of the same stall, the Camembert is to the left, and towards the front there is a nice Brie. This is only half of a Brie too… they are huge! Obviously you don’t buy a whole one (unless you really like Brie), you buy sliced parts of it. Then there is some feta, some butter and lots of meat.
Bayonne has a very pretty architectural theme, and it is also right on the Nive River, as you can see here.
We returned to chez Monique for lunch, and she made us Axoa, a typical Basque meal. It consists of ground meat with peppers and other vegetables. I only learned after I ate it (and it was delicious) that the meat was actually ground veal (which I swore I would never eat)! I guess it was a “when in France” moment…
Anyway, that afternoon, as it was not raining, we went for a hike (my host dad is truly a hiking fanatic). We ended up climbing ‘La Rhune,’ a peak nearby. It was a bit tough, but the view from the top was excellent.
Alice (to the left) was a bit tired… Behind us is the Atlantic coast, including Biarritz.
The mountain is just on the border of France and Spain, so at the top, we actually crossed into Spain. There was a little French restaurant/shop on the French side and a little Spanish restaurant/shop on the Spanish side. We went into the Spanish one and my host parents practiced their Spanish, while we bought yummy treats like Toblerone and nougat. Then I noticed, hanging from the ceiling this cool and extremely out of context bag, from my future university!
Here is a picture of me at the top, and behind me is Spain!
Here I am with Alice, after she has regained some energy from a Toblerone bar! She is 12, and very funny. She loves reading, and even brings books on our hikes sometimes so she can read when we stop for lunch!
While we were eating, some roaming Potioks came up to us to chat, and we befriended them.
Then we realized that they were just hungry (I have nougat in my hand)!
Here are a couple shots of the landscape
The city below to the right is San Sebastian (Spanish, obviously), which we visited later in the week.
Then we came down from the mountain and went back to Monique’s house for dinner!
(More about the rest of the trip soon…)