Basque Country's Smaller, Quieter Side ; French Region, in Shadow of Spain's, Also Shines with a Singular Identity

By Wright, Christian L | International New York Times, June 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

Basque Country's Smaller, Quieter Side ; French Region, in Shadow of Spain's, Also Shines with a Singular Identity


Wright, Christian L, International New York Times


Spain may be the more vocal segment of a region that straddles two countries, but France also has a singular Basque identity.

CORRECTION APPENDED

At the end of October, summer had returned to the Basque Country. Swimmers joined the surfers along the coast. A strong sun turned the Atlantic Ocean from green to blue. On a late Sunday morning, in the French fishing village of Ciboure, townspeople poured out of L'Eglise St.-Vincent, a 16th-century church with an octagonal tower. Some stopped to chat by a tall gray cross speckled with lichen. Little girls in poufy dresses ran in circles, squealing. A young man tended to his stooped grandfather, who negotiated old flagstone with a cane. Freshly coifed women with short-handled pocket books lingered in the courtyard. "Bonne journee," called the priest to his congregation as they headed off into the narrow streets on their way home for lunch.

I was passing through Ciboure en route to St.-Jean-de-Luz with my friend Gabriella Ranelli. I had persuaded her to leave her adopted home in the Spanish Basque Country, where she organizes customized tours, to poke around in the French part with me.

When most people think of the Basque Country, they think of Spain. Bilbao began the so-called Guggenheim effect. San Sebastian has all those Michelin stars. And Pamplona, notoriously, lets bulls run through its streets once a year. But the Basque Country is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in southwestern France.

The Basques are an ancient people who have inhabited this territory for thousands of years. Today, the Spanish part is an autonomous region with a Basque government, while the French part answers to the central government in Paris. The Spanish side has had a strong independence movement, which lately has been eclipsed by Catalonia's. At the height of its activity in the latter part of the past century, ETA, the Basque separatist group, did most of its fighting on the Spanish side, saving the French side as a hideout.

"In France, they are also proud of being Basques," a Basque friend from Spain said. "In Spain, there are many Basques who are willing to be an independent country. In France, very few people think the same."

While the French part gets overshadowed by the bounty of Spain and the sunny Provencal olive-branch images of the south of France, it would be inaccurate to say the region is undiscovered, and it's certainly not undeveloped. But to a world in love with France, it's the little sister who did not get invited to the dance.

When we drove across the French border into the Basque region of Labourd, heading north from Gipuzkoa, the landscape changed. Green hills gave way to the craggy foothills of the Pyrenees. The beach towns of the sometimes steep and rocky coast, from modest Ciboure to glamorous Biarritz, sat less than 10 miles from unspoiled mountain villages. Turreted chateaus hid among tall trees. And there were sheep everywhere, some identified by blue splotches on their rumps, soon to be shorn.

Earlier that morning in San Sebastian, we had thrown our bags into the back of Gabriella's old Mercedes van and set out on a three- day trip into the French Basque Country. That's Iparralde, which means "the north country" in Euskara, the ancient Basque language that many scholars say is unrelated to any other. It's a land with a population of less than 300,000 (compared with about two million in Basque Spain), and its own defining characteristics and traditions: a history that dates back to pre-Roman times, a distinct architectural style, deep-seated pride and old men in berets at their local bars. In recent years, a younger generation has emerged, opening design shops, rejiggering the food scene and sprucing up classic red-and-white farmhouses that dot the countryside.

By the port in Ciboure, a few doors down from the house where the composer Ravel was born in 1875, there's To the Lighthouse, an English-language bookshop and cafe that Michele Dunstan, an Australian, opened in 2013 with her husband, who is Basque. …

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