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Exploring France’s Basque Country

Dining alfresco in Espelette.

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

In Carmel, California, where my parents live—5,800 miles from the Pays Basque in France—there’s a boutique specializing in traditional handwoven Basque table linens. Called Jan de Luz, it’s owned by a glamorous French couple (well, in this snoozy vacation/retirement community, famous as a home of the Newly-Wed and the Nearly-Dead, let’s just say they stand out). From the first time I unfolded one, I loved these linens: their texture roughly refined, their look at once austere (with an unvarying putty-colored background) and dramatic (shot through with canary yellow, navy, silver, or fuchsia stripes—always seven stripes, representing the seven Basque provinces). They spurred my ongoing interest in all things to do with the region, itself full of intriguing contrasts—both of geography and of attitude.

The Pays Basque is part of the south of France as the country is mapped, but not at all of the South of France, that acutely fetishized place of palm-lined boardwalks and Peter Mayle–copyrighted landscapes dotted with $2 million farmhouses. The Basque Country is less uniformly picturesque, for one thing, and doesn’t lend itself to easy characterization. Its often flat, placid coast lies flush against a mountainous interior, like fraternal twins who don’t much resemble each other though they share the same DNA. Its culture, especially its gastronomic one, bleeds inextricably into that of northeastern Spain, with its higher-profile names and destinations. (Arzak! Mugaritz! Bilbao!) Yet the people of the Pays Basque seem resolutely French, as happy to fly the tricolor as they are the Ikurriña, the Basque flag, and as committed to the daily consumption of boules and bâtards as are their countrymen in Paris or Dijon.

Although the region itself, particularly that cloistered interior, has remained curiously off the radar, in the past couple of years some unusual and newsy arrivals have been drawing the spotlight to this untrodden corner of a well-trodden country. A handful of notable French chefs—attracted to the region’s still largely agrarian lifestyle, gastronomic richness, and untapped potential—have forsaken marquee jobs in major cities to open exceptional restaurants and inns in the area. They’re putting the Pays Basque’s culinary and cultural traditions into a fresh new context.

Since the region is ideal for exploring by car—the landscape can change spectacularly in a matter of a few miles—my friend Sarah and I meet in Bordeaux and pick up a Fiat Punto. Over the next couple of days, we’ll hopscotch along the backroads, from inn to restaurant, through mild beach towns and tiny hilltop villages, sampling standout Pays Basque cuisine and falling increasingly under the spell of the countryside.

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