Recently I was lucky enough to venture en famille to the glorious Basque region of France. The town in the area that you might have heard of is Biarritz, but having been there previously, and not having loved it, we decided to stay near Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Saint-Jean—or Luz, as some of the locals call it—is just 10 minutes south of the fading glory of Biarritz and infinitely more adorable and charming. It’s a village filled with white stucco buildings with red roofs and red shutters unique to the Basque region. Actually, they are a shade of burned red; you might call the color bordeaux, but we are two hours south of Bordeaux here and on the Atlantic Ocean. Saint-Jean is a wonderful walking town, as most of its key shopping streets are closed off to cars and the harbor is terribly picturesque.
The items to buy here are espadrilles, made in every size and color, many with stripes in a plethora of shades. Then of course there are the famous Basque linens, striped as well in numerous colors. It’s hard to restrain oneself from buying tablecloths, napkins, bed linens, towels, beach bags and so on. I have bought a variety in the past, so I was able to limit my purchases to a group of small bread baskets that I’m going to give as gifts, all in different shades of pink, khaki, green and white.
Of course you must sample or take home the gâteau basque, a lovely, simple little cake that is often served with crème anglaise. Divine. And then there are the peppers.
While here, we decided to actually visit the town of Espelette, because I had already fallen in love with the flavor of the peppers during a previous visit. In the village, you’ll see the Espelette peppers hanging on the outside of the facades of the building where they’re sold. And you can buy them whole and hanging in a group; as a red ground-up spice, with a flavor that’s much more interesting than what we know as red pepper; or even in a jelly. Espelette jelly served on top of a fresh goat cheese is absolute heaven.
Everything in the region, it seems, has a bit of the Espelette spice on it. It’s a large red oblong pepper that’s not too spicy, nowhere near a jalapeño, but much more interesting than a peppercorn. It has a smoky flavor and is rubbed into the jamón that is cured here and sprinkled over the various local fish that is barbecued à la plancha. The plancha is a Spanish-style barbecue that looks more like a griddle and produces brilliant results.
But enough with the food. The scenery is worth the price of admission (nothing but some gas and a few tolls on the road). First of all, there’s the raging Atlantic Ocean that is quelled by the big wide bays fronting the various seaside towns in the area, from Biarritz to Saint-Jean to Hendaye (which is the last town before you reach Spain). The drive toward the end of France along the coast is as beautiful as parts of the famous Highway 1 in northern California. Then, within view of the beaches, are the majestic Pyrenees. There’s also the area’s cultural allure and a completely foreign language that has many x’s and z’s. What you’ll find in the French Basque region is dramatic and stupendously beautiful. What’s more, in about 30 minutes you can be in Spain, eating tapas in San Sebastián!
Miniguide to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Environs
Le Parc Victoria
A Relais and Châteaux hotel in Saint-Jean.
Located in the hills, with a wonderful restaurant.
Daube, a beef stew, at Hôtel Arcé.
A Michelin-starred restaurant and modern boutique hotel.
La Ferme Ostalapia
Rustic and scrumptious Basque food, and a stupendous view as well.
Editor’s note: Canal Barge Cruises is one of our newest handpicked partners. Beth, one of the owners, can help you find the most interesting, luxurious yet affordable canal boat cruise in France. Of course she gives our members a very special deal!