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We were at the chummy little station that sends the rack-and-pinion railway up the Rhune mountain. That’s in French Basque country, down in the south-west, near the Spanish border. “OK,” said my Basque friend, Daniel. “You want to take the train or walk?”
“Train, obviously,” I said.
“So we’ll walk,” he said. Ninety minutes later we had arrived 3,000 feet up. An easy enough ascent, in truth, and enlivened by wild pottok ponies – endearing items, though not noticeably grateful that they had been spared a life down the pits.
On the top we hopped back and forth across the Franco-Spanish border which bisects the summit. It’s a surprisingly satisfying activity.
Then we went for a beer. On the Spanish side, taking advantage of lower duties, a mini-market and bar sells alcohol and tobacco cheap. It’s like finding a Thresher’s on Striding Edge. Wiser hikers descend the mountain with plastic bags full of Scotch and fags, to ensure a proper life balance.
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We sipped. Behind us, the Spanish Pyrenees strode away, cloud-clad. Far to the left, Biarritz and other seaside bits met the Gulf of Gascony. Straight ahead, the greenest possible valleys ran down to white-and-red villages, civilisation and landscape forming a seamless entity.
“Glorious,” I said. Daniel sensed a lowering of my defences. “There’s a bertso saio on later. You want to come?” Bertso saio is an improvised poetry session. “Everyone goes. Ordinary people.”
Normally, I wouldn’t attend an improvised Basque poetry session if it were taking place in my bedroom. A nice view hadn’t changed this. I had had a bellyful of Basque laments from the car CD player.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m washing my hair.” As we came back down the mountain (with a bagful of whisky and cigarettes), a thought occurred, though. It is precisely because one has to excuse oneself from improvised poetry events that the Basque country is the most engrossing region of France.
The place is stirringly beautiful – rising from a battered coast, via valleys and soft-sided hills, to properly intimidating peaks. The food – fish, ham, stews, ewes’ milk cheese – is splendidly straightforward. But the clincher is that it’s all Basque.
Of course, every French region has its folk customs, most of them reheated and regrettable. Provençal villagers spend half their lives in medieval costume. The Basques are of a different stripe. They reckon that they have been around their western corner of the Pyrenees, and identifiable, since the Stone Age. Their language apparently pre-dates the Indo-European influx (and, certainly, all those Xs, Ks and Zs sound like commands on a mammoth hunt).
Things like the poetry session aren’t simple excuses for frothy frocks, silly hats and outbursts of “Oyez! Oyez!”. They articulate a culture (conceivably – who knows? – a people) so deep-rooted that it’s a wonder it moves at all. I still didn’t want to go to the poetry – as, in the past, I had resisted Basque dancing and four-hour Basque plays – but I was glad they existed. They were evidence that the Basque country remained separate and strong-minded and as exasperating as hell.
But welcoming withal. As Daniel left to witness ordinary people swapping stanzas, I rolled up and down hills and into villages warm with hay and homeliness. Basques don’t muck about with hearth and home, which is why their villages are the most distinctive in France.
Substantial houses, all bright white trimmed with red or green woodwork, leave no doubt that within live families meriting respect. They are the basis for pretty much everything Basques do or have done: farming and contraband, folk-dancing, fishing and sending sons off to the Americas.
I wandered around Sare, delighted by the whiteness (“House painters make more than barristers here,” said a chap I met). Old blokes sat on benches, women bustled off to vegetable gardens and youngsters whacked pelota balls against fronton walls. If you were planning village life from scratch, this is what you would aim for – though you would need a back-story covering a millennium or two, with family offshoots in Argentina and a brother running a restaurant in Paris.
Confident of where they have come from, and who they are, these villages don’t need visitors, and so are happy to see them. I have rarely been greeted as cordially in a bar as in Espelette, where a handsome woman told me so much about the famous local red peppers – they are strung up to dry on most village façades – that I feared I might become an expert. Peppers are to Espelette as cakes are to Eccles, I concluded, though this didn’t seem to get us much farther on.
Scattered liberally over slopes and dells, nearby Itxassou was as pastoral as a place can be, running to the rhythms of the seasons, sheep and church bells. And Basque nationalism. Itxassou was, I had been told, something of a hot-bed. I didn’t notice, of course. I don’t expect hot politics amid tractors and dozing cats, and it’s not the sort of thing they point out to tourists. They prefer to send us up mountains or down white-water rivers.
But the landscape is undoubtedly rendered more fascinating by the edgy sub-plot of Basque aspirations. These are less likely to kill you in France than on the Spanish side. But, even in France, the continuum of Basqueness, which starts with dancing and improvised poetry, can get challenging at the other end.
And who can resist a challenge? Thus, much later and freshly inspired by verse, Daniel was ushering me out of a bar in Bayonne. I had fallen in with some fellows and was favouring them with my views on violent nationalism in general and ETA murderers in particular. Their politeness was wearing noticeably thin. Daniel stepped in, said something to them in Basque (“He’s only out for the afternoon; I’m taking him back now”) and steered me to the door. “Wrong subject with the wrong people,” he said. “Talk rugby next time.” I was delighted.
I had never had that kind of reaction on the Côte-d’Azur. Over the next day or two, Daniel was taken with further Basque pursuits. I bobbed down to Biarritz, for the waves and veneer of old-money glamour. Further south, the coast grows powerful with cliffs, headlands and rollers chucking surfers about. Towns and villages such as Guéthary and St Jean-de-Luz have whaling backgrounds.
These days, they cede just enough to traditional notions of the seaside that you might buy an ice-cream, but not so much that you are overwhelmed by blow-up dolphins. The loveliest stretch is the corniche from Ciboure (where Ravel wrote his Boléro in what’s now the tourist office) to Hendaye. I walked for ages, wondering as so often before at the tenacity it takes to get steamed up about separatism amid such natural splendour. Then I forgot that, and just wondered.
Later I turned inland and inadvertently got siphoned up various mountain passes on roads barely wide enough for a shepherd with a sheep. Basque country is treacherous for those with no head for heights. One minute you’re in a gentle valley that could be Welsh; next, your car is rock climbing. Circling vultures didn’t help.
So I was thrilled to get down to St Jean-Pied-de-Port. I would have been thrilled to get down to anywhere, but St Jean was particularly good. Small, walled and self-contained, it’s the mini-capital of interior Basque-dom. On market days, red-faced folk in berets swarm in from remote spots to sell cheese and charcuterie. By night, there’s an agreeable quantity of bars to tour. Daniel and I ended up around midnight before one which, he said, was the local HQ for Basques basquisants – particularly enthusiastic supporters of all things Basque. “Say nothing,” he said, as we entered.
I didn’t get the chance. As if on cue, three old chaps seated to the left, farmers no doubt, started singing. They weren’t performing – good job: there was hardly anyone else in – just doing what they did at this time of night. And they did it awesomely well, starting low, building up in waves before dropping down again. Three blokes the wrong side of 70. Perfect pitch. Total commitment. Time stood still.
At the end, I applauded more loudly than was appropriate in an almost empty room. “You’re clapping a Basque folk song?” said Daniel. “It’s the wine,” I said.
The handiest airport is Biarritz, served from London and regional airports by Ryanair Media and Easyjet Media
On the coast, try La Devinière in St Jean de Luz (5 Rue Loquin, 0033 559 260551; Media doubles from about £90), a sweet-smelling haven of old-world refinement. Inland, Le Chêne in Itxassou (Près de l’Eglise, 0033 559 297501, doubles from about £50) is basic but has bucolic Basque character and a good regional restaurant. Remoter still, Chez Chilo, at Barcus (Le Bourg, 0033 559 289079; Media doubles from £64), feeds you delightfully in posh farmstead fashion. The rooms aren’t bad, either.
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