Straddling France and Spain, the Basque Country enjoys an exceptional geographical location. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and by the Pyrenees to the South, it offers a variety of landscapes that leave travelers with a feeling of authenticity and freedom. Traveling this region on foot allows you to take your time, both on the charming coastal paths and on the mountain paths. The Basque Country is also an outstanding gastronomic region, where specialties are eaten slowly, in a friendly and warm atmosphere. For a few decades now, good addresses have multiplied and perfectly compensate for the kilometers traveled, in sometimes very changeable weather! In this article, we are going to let you discover our impressions of this beautiful Basque Country that we have traveled on foot. Of course, if time is limited, it is more convenient to reach the places mentioned by rapid transport such as car or train. Here is an overview of the most beautiful Basque places where it is good to stretch your legs.
1. Bayonne and its historic center
We begin our journey with the pretty town of Bayonne. This town on a human scale is ideal for warming up before embarking on more physical and demanding hikes. Bayonne lends itself well to walking: it is crossed by pleasant flowered and well-preserved canals. Pedestrian areas are plentiful and are lined with local shops, restaurants and breweries. The specific architecture of the city gives it an undeniable charm. Half-timbered houses are, for the most part, white or beige, and the beams come in bright red, deep green or dark brown. These colors clash but unmistakably recall the natural colors of the pine forests and the ocher earth specific to the region.
Our Bayonne escapade takes us to discover the Vauban ramparts, the Château-Vieux, the Sainte-Marie Cathedral, the Cloister and the magnificent Petit Bayonne district. In addition to the beauty of the historical monuments, which reflect the religious and military past of the city, we greatly appreciate its cultural and artistic dimension. The Basque Museum opened our eyes to the Basque identity, sometimes misunderstood, and the pastoral and peasant traditions of the inhabitants.
Let's not forget the pleasure of the taste buds: Bayonne is literally full of excellent restaurants, inns, cafes, patisseries and specialty shops. Bayonne ham, sheep's cheese or even cherry jam were able to invigorate us for the rest of the course!
2. The coastal path from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Hendaye
Leaving Bayonne, we follow the coast towards the South. We pass in front of Bidart from where it is possible to start this trail. For lack of time, we continue the road to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the real start of our hike of the day. Before setting off on the trail, we took the time to visit this charming, traditionally Basque port. Smaller than Bayonne, Saint-Jean-de-Luz looks like a colorful fishing village where the white, red and ocher of the half-timbered houses contrast beautifully with the blue of the sky and the ocean, and the green surrounding forests. Admire the recently renovated 5-star Grand Hotel, which overlooks the main beach and offers exceptional services, if only to enjoy a coffee facing the sea.
After this rather chic introduction, it's time to get started. As the traditional coastal path is closed for safety reasons, there is an equally beautiful and bucolic alternative. The path crosses the Nivelle and takes us past the house of Maurice Ravel. Then, it is towards the heights that we head. There, the landscape becomes more open and wild. We cross forests and fields, and the panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean, the Basque coast and the Pyrenees range are simply superb. The creeks follow one another and give hikers a mad desire to swim. Further on, the Château d'Abbadia reveals its imposing architecture in the middle of fields of heather and sarsaparilla. A few kilometers later, we already arrive in Hendaye which we take great pleasure in visiting. This coastal path is not very difficult in itself but it offers magnificent typical Basque landscapes and allows you to reach two cities that you must see.
3. Jaizkibel Ridges
After a restorative night in Hendaye, we continue our exploration of the Basque Country on foot. Our day today will be dedicated to the Jaizkibel Ridges. To get to the starting point in Hondarribia, you have to cross the Spanish border. The hike is 21 kilometers long with an elevation gain that is quite affordable for any good hiker. Do not go there in flip flops because the path is, in places, quite steep. Also plan ahead as the weather changes quite quickly in the Basque Country and you will surely not regret bringing your waterproof jacket!
The path leading to Les Crêtes follows that of Santiago de Compostela. The first climb warms the calves, but the spectacle at the top is really worth it. We feel like we are entering another world. The coast then becomes steep and the cliffs increasingly steep. The rocks are tinged with ocher, brown and sometimes black colors. In case of rain or gloomy weather, the landscape becomes dramatic and we understand why many poets and painters have stopped there.
The view of Hendaye is magnificent and this first "real" hike really gave us a taste of our Pyrenean escapades to come.
4. The Rhune
La Rhune is a mythical mountain range that should not be missed under any circumstances if you are in the Basque Country. Its little red train, which saves many kilometers of climbing, is known throughout France. But we chose to reach the summit on foot. From the Col de Saint-Ignace, there are a large number of trails, more or less demanding, which allow seasoned hikers and families alike to enjoy the absolutely superb landscapes of the massif. The mountains are rather gentle with their mossy pastures, although there are more rocky and winding places.
La Rhune allows you to dive into the very heart of the pastoral life of the region. There are many herds of sheep, goats and ewes, guarded by shepherds who seem to come from another time. It is not uncommon either to come across herds of pottocks, these robust and calm ponies which give the landscapes an assuredly wild dimension.
The summit culminates at 905 meters and the views of the ocean and the Pyrenees are, once again, remarkable.
To recover from your emotions, let yourself be seduced by a gastronomic stopover (or for one night) at the contemporary Auberge Basque of Marion and Cédric Béchade. The chic atmosphere is conducive to a real return to basics and the divine meals perfectly showcase local products and the Basque soul.
Ranked among the most beautiful villages in France, Aïnhoa is as pretty as its name is harmonious. The village seems straight out of a postcard with its bell tower dominating white half-timbered houses. The ocher roofs and red shutters give the whole a uniformity that the town hall defends body and soul. And she is right to do so.
While the village itself is worth a visit, it is equally stunning from the many viewpoints over the surrounding hills. The best known hike is the one that goes up to the Chapelle Notre-Dame-d’Aubépine. The route is rather easy and the climb takes about 2h30. It crosses forests and meadows to the top where you will come face to face with the charming chapel, as well as three crosses and several discoidal stelae. The view from the chapel is divine: in good weather, you can see the ocean and the bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Going back down to the village, stop at the charming Ithurria house which offers gourmet dishes as beautiful as they are good. You can taste the best Basque hams, as well as more than delicious homemade pickled peppers. The House also offers a direct sale of local products, in particular black cherry jam which goes wonderfully with Ossau-Iraty.
6. From Saint-Jean-Pieds-de-Port to Roncesvalles
A little further east, we arrive in the pretty village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This medieval city was founded in the 12th century and has managed to preserve important medieval remains. It is still possible to observe half-timbered floors on some houses or gable walls on others. Numerous lintels with inscriptions dating back several centuries adorn certain walls. Finally, the Porte Saint-Jacques has the great honor of being part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. All this helps to create a rather special and solemn atmosphere. But paradoxically, the village is very lively and many events such as gastronomic fairs and markets are regularly organized.
The hike that we suggest starts from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-port to reach the famous city of Roncesvalles in Spain. The route runs along the Route Napoléon and takes hikers in the footsteps of Roland. It crosses dark and silent forests, as well as small creeks that can be crossed on foot. Roland's fountain reminds us of the prowess of the hero of the Battle of Roncesvalles. The 25 kilometer path climbs crescendo for a good twenty kilometers before descending towards Roncesvalles. Note that this is not a loop. It is therefore necessary to provide enough to return to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or stay there. Bed and breakfasts and charming hotels abound, as do restaurants and cafes.
We end our stay in the Basque Country to the east of the region, in the small village of Sainte-Engrâce. This village alone has nothing extraordinary apart from its church and its stone bridge. But the surroundings conceal sumptuous hiking trails, deep caves and canyons suitable for canyoning outings. There are several circuits depending on its level and these are perfectly laid out, secure and marked. The paths are embellished with footbridges, paths overlooking the river and stairs carved into the rock. Suffice to say that once again, it is advisable to be well equipped in terms of shoes!
The Kakouetta Gorges will delight budding adventurers and adults alike. Nicknamed the "Little Amazon", this site is surrounded by abundant and lush vegetation. In good weather, the turquoise color of the water calls for swimming. But be careful not to dive into the water. The Gorges are preserved and must remain so.
The Basque Country is a destination of choice for lovers of walking and hiking. The coastal path allows you to warm up before setting off to attack the more mountainous paths of the Pyrenees. Along the paths we traveled, we were able to discover more about the Basque identity, both authentic and proud. We haven't talked much about the locals in this article, but everyone we met was happy to share tips and anecdotes about their region. To relax after all these adventures, we had the pleasure of eating and sleeping in hotels, guest houses and very well kept and warm lodges. Basque gastronomy is rich in flavors, it smells of the land and the terroir, and it is needless to say that we came back with arms full of local specialties. A bit as if we wanted to continue our stay in this atypical and multi-faceted region.