Though there’s no border marking the entry to the Basque region of France, there’s no doubting when you’ve crossed it.
The most obvious change is the architecture. Every house, and I do not exaggerate, is painted white with Basque red paintwork. You can buy the paint at any Home Depot-type store. The paint pot will be labeled “Basque Red.” And that is likely the only red paint in the store. In Basque country, there’s just one red.
There is also Basque Green, but nearly everyone here sticks with the red.
This collective paintwork has the effect of making everything appear pristine and cared for. Even the neighboring people of the Béarn marvel at the incredible upkeep of Basque homes.
The Basque people also have their own language, music, dance, sport, cuisine—reputed to be one of the best in France—myths, flag, and even alphabet typeface.
The Basque Region (Pays Basque in French and Euskal Herri, meaning “Land of the Basque language,” in the Basque language of Euskara) is made up of seven provinces that sit astride the French-Spanish Atlantic border.
Four of the provinces are in Spain (Álava, Viscaya, Guipúzcoa, and Navarra), and three are in France (Labourd, Basse Navarre, and Soule). This geographic arrangement gave rise to an old form of Basque nationalist graffiti (“4 + 3 = 1”) and the motto for Pays Basque (“Zazpiak Bat”), meaning “The seven make one.”
The French Basque provinces, sometimes referred to as the Northern Basque Country, form the western part of the Pyrenees-Atlantic department. The Atlantic Ocean forms the western boundary, the Spanish border the southern, and the River Adour the northern border.
Within the Pyrenees-Atlantic department the Basque region is divided into the Basque Coast (regional capital Biarritz), and the Basque Country (regional capital St. Jean Pied de Port). And, in good ol’ French style, there’s yet one more layer of administration for this area; the Basque region forms the southernmost tip of the region of Aquitaine.
The geography of the French Basque region is intense. It reminds me of a young child’s drawing of the countryside where every type of geographic feature is squeezed onto one sheet of paper. Small steep valleys, rolling hills, towering mountains, meandering rivers, a wild coastline, forests, and woodland, all crammed into about 2,900 square kms. And all gloriously green and lush.
The Basque Coast lies on the Bay of Biscay and runs for 30 kms from Biarritz to Hendaye at the Spanish border. This coastline has 5 kms of exceptionally beautiful beaches, with many winning European awards for high standards of cleanliness and maintenance.
The main beach at Biarritz, Grande Plage, is where you go to people-watch, ogle at the surfers, have a coffee sitting on a café terrace, or wander along the promenade. Grande Plage can get crowded in summer, but there are other beaches to escape to, such as Ilbarritz.
At Anglet, the wide open sandy beach is the place for beach sports and playing in the surf. For more quiet, cove-like beaches, try Bidart or Guéthary. If you prefer to swim in protected water, away from the waves, head for St. Jean de Luz. The cobblestone lanes of this town are the best place for boutique shopping.
The water in many parts of the bay is shallow, giving rise to spectacular surf. This coastline, in particular Biarritz, was the birthplace of French surfing, back in the late 1950s, after the American filmmaker Peter Viertel amazed and intrigued the locals by surfing a Californian longboard. Biarritz continues to hold a top spot in surfing circles, hosting international competitions and the annual weeklong Biarritz Surf Festival.
My favorite small village on the coast is Guéthary. The half-square-mile of homes are so perfectly kept that whenever I’ve visited, I’ve felt as if I were walking through an exhibition village. The first written record of the village dates back to 1193; however, remains of a Roman salt factory have been discovered at the railway station.
The village was also an important whaling port, and you see reminders of this all around.
The beach at Guéthary is probably the wildest along this coastline, and the surf break is good, so it’s always busy with surfer dudes.
Eating and drinking is a big part of Basque culture and lifestyle. You can tell there’s a Basque lunch going on if there’s lots of noise, singing, and great smells coming from the direction of the kitchen.
The preferred raw ingredients come from the sea and the rolling hills, and the Basque cooking traditions are, like everything Basque, distinct from the rest of France. One of the most obvious differences is the plentiful use of bell peppers, sweet Espelette chilies, and Bayonne ham.
About 15,000 non-French residents live in northern Basque Country, most on the coast. You could connect with the English-speaking expat group in Biarritz or the active Anglophone group called Anglophones Pau-Pyrénées.
If you’re a golfer, sailor, or scuba diver, opportunities to meet like-minded people abound in this area. Along the Basque coast are 10 golf clubs, 8 yacht clubs, and 14 dive clubs. You may not find English-speakers in these groups, but a common interest can overcome a language barrier. A new life in the Basque region would not be a bargain choice but a rich, varied, and healthy one. Health care in France is among the best in the world, and the French are among the healthiest people anywhere.