On the border of France and Spain, along the shores of the azure Cantabrian Sea, lies the Basque region. It doesn’t truly belong to either country; its 3 million inhabitants share a culture all their own — wholly different and authentically special.
Its people are members of one of the oldest European civilizations. Basque culture has not been dismantled and absorbed into “Spanish” and “French” by the boundary superimposed upon it in relatively recent times. Its language, traditions, and exquisite food still reflect its distinct roots.
Yet Spanish and French history and culture have a place here as well. In this region, one can enjoy the best of Spain and France, as well as the unique Basque culture.
San Sebastián: Lively Old Town pintxos
I made my Basque home-base in San Sebastián, an incredibly sophisticated medieval town with thoroughly modern amenities. This town carries a Spanish name, located on the Spanish side of the border, but is also called Donostia in the Basque language.
San Sebastián’s finest hotel, the Maria Cristina, was my luxurious abode. The first guest in this Belle Époque beauty when it opened in 1912 was the queen of Spain, Maria Cristina. It has since hosted famous guests such as Bette Davis, whose portrait hangs downstairs in a lavish dry bar equipped with plush velvet furniture and sparkling bevelled mirrors that make the space seem infinite.
I started there for a quintessentially European gin and tonic (in a glass about the size of my head), made expertly with pink peppercorn, star anise, cucumber, and a hint of citrus.
But the real magic of San Sebastián took hold when I ventured out from my luxury surroundings and into the Old Town (Parte Viejo) for some pintxos, the Basque version of tapas.
In Old Town, the narrow streets teem with pubs — the highest concentration in the world. The wrought-iron balconies of apartments stacked above seemed always full of little old ladies, smiling with an air of knowing amusement as they supervised the comings and goings of people in the streets below.
Bouncing around and enjoying pintxos is the main activity of locals and visitors alike in the evenings. I had a guide with me the first night to make sure I tried some of the best small plates in town, but I found out on subsequent adventures that all you really need is a smile and a finger to point at anything that looks delicious. You can’t really go wrong.
I learned that you don’t stay in one pintxo bar all night. The whole idea is to sample a dish or two, have a drink — either txakoli, a local effervescent white wine, or one of the small four-ounce beers floating through the crowds on servers’ trays — and then move on to the next pintxo.
It’s essentially a ten-course dinner in ten different restaurants.
The locals were originally slow to get mobile phones because they didn’t need them — they would run into their friends and acquaintances out on the town as they bounced around having pintxos. The pintxos specialties include cured ham, anchovies, young eels, octopus, and fried eggs, mostly served on slices of bread.
I set out to find the best jamon Iberico (cured ham) and was happily unable to pick a favourite. The ham is typically served modestly on bread with aged manchego cheese or simply on a plate by itself — perfectly salty, earthy, and satisfying.
San Sebastián has an incredible collection of Michelin-starred restaurants. I witnessed marvels of molecular gastronomy and theatrics at one of those restaurants, Arzak, that tickled all my senses. Some dishes crackled, others smoked, and all were intricately assembled in a symphony of 18 courses.
The next morning, as the sun rose, I strode out to an intricate white-iron-filigree railing along the promenade of the Playa de la Concha. I understood why it’s considered one of the best beaches in Europe, with its crescent shape creating voluminous waves that seemed to touch the city.
As early as I was, the surfers were already in the water, while along the streets walked businessmen in suits heading to work. From San Sebastián, I was able to explore the entire Basque region with day trips on both sides of the border.
Biarritz: Where surf and spa intermingle
The city of Biarritz has a lofty air. Its stately Hôtel du Palais, which has become a de facto symbol of the city, is the former summer palace of Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III. It was constructed in the 1850s and converted into a hotel and casino when the dynasty fell. By the 1920s, Biarritz was known as the resort town for royalty.
While the opulent legacy remains in Biarritz, surf culture has also taken hold. The beaches stretch for some 6km with tides and other conditions great for surfing.
Posh boutiques commingle with surf shops. Fancy French restaurants share prime streets with laid-back pizza joints. I tucked into a fancy bistro where a waiter in white gloves poured a perfectly decanted Bordeaux, as I watched barefoot kids in long surf shorts chase each other past the Chanel boutique across the street.
The water along these beaches is not only great for surfing, it also contains iodine-rich seaweed, great for use in spa treatments. Biarritz is a therapeutic spa destination, and it specializes in thalassotherapy, the medical use of seawater as a form of therapy.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz: Seaside air and espresso
A 20-minute drive from the glamour and pomp of Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a breath of fresh seaside air.
This easy-going town is ideal for a stroll along the beach or through shops selling fragrant, soft cheeses and for visiting cafes brewing the richest coffees. My guide from San Sebastián said she crosses over to this area on the French side of the border every week for fine French cheeses — although she maintains that the Spanish side has better ham. I say she has the best of both worlds.
We started with an al fresco espresso at a little cafe in the town square run by a father and daughter duo whose family has been perfecting its coffees for generations.
I had to try a few macarons from the historic bakery Maison Adam. In 1660, this bakery made macarons for the wedding of King Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain, one of the most politically important marriages in history. And almond paste cookies, popular in Paris today, are said to have been invented by this bakery some 300 years ago.
In its early history, Saint-Jean-de-Luz was a fishing village. But in the 17th century, it became the main port of the French corsairs. It thus flourished through what was essentially piracy condoned by the French monarchy.
Today, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is overshadowed by its trendy neighbor, Biarritz. Although this serves to give Saint-Jean-de-Luz the understated feeling of a seaside resort town, as I strolled along the raised promenade among the bright-beamed buildings, my thoughts harkened back to a time when it was one of the most important shipping ports in France.
Getaria: Small village, tiny bubbles
After my first pintxo night in San Sebastián, I became curious about the wine.
Spain is known for its vibrant red rioja, but this was my first experience with txakoli, rioja’s slightly bubbly and dry white cousin. Served in the pintxo bars with a flamboyant high pour to increase the bubbles, it paired well with everything from the salted anchovies and young eels to the ham and heartier beef dishes.
I hired a car to meander up the coast to Getaria, a fishing village of few buildings and many boats, surrounded by steep, terraced vineyards. It is the home of Txomin Etxaníz, one of the oldest and largest txakoli vineyards, at 35 hectares.
Txakoli is meant to be enjoyed young, within a year of bottling. On the day I visited, they were bottling their latest vintage. We took a bottle right off the line to enjoy with anchovies, olive oil and bread.
The staff joked that, until a recent uptick in exports, they knew practically everyone who had enjoyed a glass of their wine. It is really a local treasure.
This fresh wine, with citrus and mineral notes, is now one I keep an eye out for on restaurant menus and in stores worldwide. It’s perfect to take on a sailing trip or complement a picnic with it’s bright, young flavours.
Looking at a map of this area, you’ll only see France and Spain. But on the ground, the Basque culture rings out. I’m already planning my next pintxo pilgrimage.
Text by Laine McDonnell