Pyrénées-Atlantiques & Les Landes
In bygone days the province was called Le Béarn, and even today the locals are fiercely proud of being Béarnais. The Béarnais capital, Pau, is an atmospheric city with breathtaking views of mountain peaks.
Moving west, Orthez is on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, and Navarrenx and Sauveterre are good starting points for exhilarating kayaking trips on the Gave d’Oloron. The spa town of Salies-de-Béarn, its picturesque houses meandering along the riverside, is popular with those seeking the therapeutic properties of its salt waters.
On the coast, the Atlantic rollers are perfect for surf sports. Biarritz, long associated with the 'rich and famous', has a fine sand family beach backed by the splendour of the Casino. Further south, St Jean-de-Luz is a buzzing little town within a horseshoe bay with its beach adjacent to the lively fishing harbour.
Les Landes highlights
The stretch of coastline to the north of Biarritz around the towns of Capbreton and Hossegor will appeal to surfers, with Seignosse-le-Penon offering a smaller less busy beach. A number of lakes set back slightly from the shore offer calmer swimming beaches for families.
Inland, Dax is famous for its thermal waters and spa treatments. The town is the gateway to the Chalosse area, where lovely countryside and good food and wine are assured.
Stretching to the north is Europe’s largest cultivated forest, replacing the moorland and marshes that predominated until the mid 19th century, when Napoleon III drained the land and starting planting swathes of pine trees.
As sheep are the main livestock in this region, lamb dishes and ewe’s cheese feature heavily on menus, as does Jambon de Bayonne, a raw ham similar to prosciutto which is made, dried and salted in Béarn.
The town of Espelette in the mountains famously produces pimentos, which are small, long, slightly hot red peppers. These are used in recipes such as Poulet Basquaise, chicken cooked in white wine, and in ‘piperade’ sauce.
In terms of fish, freshwater species such as salmon and trout are often served inland whilst hake, sea bream and sardines are more common on the coast.
If you have a sweet tooth, try macarons from St Jean de Luz, or Gateau Basque, a delicious cake/tart made with a crumbly butter pastry and usually a black cherry or custard filling.
French Basque territory stretches southwards and inland from Biarritz. The language (Euskara) is quite unlike other European tongues and the cuisine, folklore, music and games (including variations of pelote) are all distinct. Although deeply attached to their traditions, the people are less fiercely separatist than their Spanish counterparts.
‘Course Landaise’ is a traditional sport of the Landes region, a less bloody version of bullfighting where participants show their agility and courage by dodging and leaping over the animal instead of trying to kill it.