french basque country road trip

Two years ago I wouldn't believe myself if I said I would intentionally plan a leg of a trip in France...and really, really enjoy it.  We struggled during our trip to Paris in the fall of 2014 for a few reasons (we don't speak much - ok any - French, we were pretty strict vegans at the time and Paris isn't really a haven for vegans, and we were coming off of an amazing 10 days in London and we were a little tired I think) and it gave me a bad taste of France in general.  However, Basque country isn't limited to just Spain, so with our car and the time we had to explore the area, it seemed to make sense to venture in for a bit and see how it went.  

Our first stop in France after leaving our Airbnb in the Pyrenees was Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  It's only 8km (5 miles) from the Spanish border, and is a very popular starting place for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago - we saw quite a few in town.  Monday is market day in town, and happily happened to be the day we were passing through as well.  We saw all sorts of goods for sale: big vats of paella, lots of cheese, pastries, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and more.  It was extensive and tempting, but we settled on pastries from a bakery in town.

The town itself is walled, situated along the River Nive, and very walkable...after all, the population is only about 1,700.  And no one really seemed to mind us eating our breakfast on the edge of the sidewalk.

Next up on our way to the sea was Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry, a little town where we parked, walked around, bought a knife at the Spar (for ease of PB & J making in the car), enjoyed feeling like the only tourists (or people around at all!), and continued on our way.  

About 30 minutes farther was the town of Itxassou.  Sounds like an interesting place, right?  Turns out it was worth skipping - we should have just passed on through and gone on to Espelette, which was pretty neat.  Danny was able to find a bathroom in a preschool - he was getting desperate! - and really, the town wasn't that bad.  Just maybe not quite as special compared to the other towns we'd been in recently.    

Espelette is a little bitty town known for its dried red peppers, but you wouldn't know it just walking around.  

We didn't linger anywhere too long because we were on our way to the main attraction: the beach in Biarritz.  The coast is only about 30 minutes from Espelette, so we made our way there in a hurry as we were anxious to get into our suits and into the sea...I can't remember the last time we'd been on a beach when it was actually warm enough to get in.  

We originally set up shop at Le Grande Plage but I found the waves to be incredibly powerful - we were standing in water just above our ankles (with waves that came up to my waist) and it knocked me over, sending me crashing into random beachgoers - repeatedly (embarrassing but true).  Danny later admitted that while researching beaches (he was in charge of choosing one to go to) he had read that this one had a reputation for having really strong waves, but he didn't think they'd be that strong!

After being hurled into a couple different people by the waves, we decided to do some last minute research to see if we could find a more suitable beach.  Danny read about a more "family-friendly" beach and so we made our way over to Plage Port Vieux and swam till we started getting chilly - it was mid-September after all and getting close to four or five in the afternoon - and then explored the coast by foot for a little while.  

What we saw of Biarritz we really liked, although, admittedly, we didn't see much and were only there for the afternoon.  It seems classy and French (obvious, right?  But very markedly French in a way that was worth noting)  and has some great stretches of beach (and we only saw a few although European beaches are a whole new ball game for us Americans that's for sure!) but does still have a bit of a touristy vibe in some parts (inevitable, I suppose).  As with our entire time in French Basque country, I was pleasantly surprised by Biarritz.  

We drove on to Bayonne for our only overnight in France of the trip, dropped off our things at our Airbnb and got to walking around the town a little.  We weren't out late at all - maybe 7 or 8pm? - but everything was closed and the streets were empty.  It was just one of the moments where we knew so clearly that we weren't in Spain as at that time of the evening the streets are packed full of people just walking, mostly, but also coming home from work, going shopping, getting dinner, etc.  If the streets in Spain are deserted at that time of night, then the apocalypse has officially begun!

So we enjoyed checking out Bayonne just the two of us, and down by the river we found a handful of restaurants open, as well as a few people out (tourists like ourselves, maybe?) so we split a pizza and then went home once it got dark.  

On our second/last day in France, we had two final stops - Guethary and Saint-Jean-de-Luz.  Before we got to Guethary, though, we drove by a pretty, sunny beach in the town of Bidart, so we pulled over and just walked along the beach - and I'm glad we did because as we kept driving towards Spain, the weather continued to be less and less pleasant and by the time we reached San Sebastián, it was pouring rain.  We'd seen this coming - the 100% chance of rain in San Sebastián - and so when we had to chance to get out we did, although this did mean that our only chance to actually get in the sea was in Biarritz.  

Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a just a few kilometers from Spain and is one of the bigger coastal towns, and by bigger I mean roughly around 15,000 people.  It's a resort and fishing town, and has a nice boardwalk along the coast.  We also enjoyed the market that was just wrapping up as we pulled into town.  Overall, I felt like Saint-Jean-de-Luz was one of the most happening towns (aside from the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián) we visited.  People were out and about, shopping, eating, walking, touring...it just felt alive.  Not many places on our trip felt that way, and it could be because we went in September, but it was just something I noticed.  

We wrapped things up with crepes, because when in France (okay, a waffle for me, I don't love crepes), and left France for Spain.  We've been here ever since!  

I know I've said it repeatedly, but our short foray into France this fall was really good.  France  deserved a second chance, and ever since I've been itching to get to know our next door neighbor a bit better.  Even in towns that are just minutes apart, but are separated by a country border, a border you need no identification to cross and hardly even know is there, the differences are quite large.  In fact, if I felt French was a more practical language, I'd pick France over Spain most any day...but that's a story for another day. ;)  So, until next time, France, you glorious land of croissants, macaroons, and pretty little villages.  I can't wait!  

See the start of our trip in Bilbao here and our time in Spanish Basque country here.