Hiking in France’s Basque Region

Basque, Basque region, France
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.

One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.

“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”

And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.

%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.

Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.

It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.

“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”

One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.

In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.

All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.

After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.

Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.

Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”

Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.

Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.

It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.

Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

Hiking the Basque coastline

Basque, Spain
While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.