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Exploring France’s Basque Country

Dining alfresco in Espelette.

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

Aïnhoa to Hasparren via St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port: 52 miles

We leave St.-Pée, following the pitted and silent Route D3, which meanders past fields and merges back onto Route D4. From there a detour onto the D20 leads into the village of Aïnhoa, essentially a single street lined with modest stone houses, magenta and orange geraniums spilling out of their window boxes. The scene is too irresistible not to enter, so we take a seat on a café terrace in the shadow of a 14th-century church tower. Stands of pines line the crests of the surrounding hills like the bristly manes on ponies; on the slopes, poplars grow between patches of tilled soil and emerald fields, where sheep graze; the gulches are lush with groves of elm and beech. In the morning heat, there’s a hint of the salty Atlantic; we’re still only about 10 miles from the ocean.

On our way to highway D918, we pass through Espelette, home to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée–designated piment d’Espelette. But the entire town is shut down for siesta—including, to our disappointment, the tiny Chocolatier Antton, where the ganache is spiked with the russet-colored powder. Following the Nive River as it cuts dramatically into the interior, we speed southeast. Soon, monolithic shards of granite begin shearing up from the hills, jutting skyward above deep valleys where the river and its tributaries run narrow and ice-cold. We’re just five miles from the Spanish border, in pilgrimage country.

St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, for centuries the strategic capital of the Basse-Navarre, is traditionally the last French rest stop on one of the Santiago de Compostela routes, sitting as it does just north of the famously grueling Roncevaux Pass. The town is home to Restaurant Les Pyrénées, a Basque-cuisine stalwart; but on Béchade’s recommendation, we’re lunching instead at Etche-Ona (Good House, in Euskara, the Basque language), owned by Jean-Claude Ibargaray. The food is clean but sophisticated: a zingy gazpacho laced with dollops of basil sorbet; foie gras topped with carrot-size white asparagus and roasted a deep, caramelized brown; a tart of Ossau-Iraty cheese accompanied by tomato salad and huge grilled prawns. The restaurant sits in the central Place Floquet, between the fronton—a large pink wall where locals play Basque pelota, a lightning-fast (and treacherous) version of handball—and the Rue de la Citadelle, which is lined with rosy sandstone houses, some more than 500 years old.

Our destination for the evening is Hegia, a guesthouse just outside the town of Hasparren. In 2004, Arnaud Daguin—the chef at Biarritz’s famed (and now closed) Les Platanes, and progeny of a venerated Gascon food family—pulled up stakes and, with his wife, Véronique, moved into the mountains to open a five-room bed-and-breakfast. In 2006, Hegia opened for business; in 2007, it earned a Michelin star.

But like L’Auberge Basque, it isn’t the easiest place to find; so with Daguin dispensing real-time directions in slow, clear English over the phone, we spiral up and out of Hasparren, along the crest of a ragged peak, and onto a dirt trail, which terminates at a white farmhouse. Daguin, in cargo pants, a faded black T-shirt, and Tevas—looking like the actor Jean Reno cast as a river-rafting guide—lopes out to greet us.

If Hegia’s 18th-century timbered exterior is a monument to the traditional Pays Basque, the interior is a testament to its bold new wave. A double-height reception hall is riven by an asymmetrical oak staircase that leads up to the five guest rooms, each unique and firmly contemporary. At the foot of our low-slung Patricia Urquiola–designed bed is a poured-concrete bathtub; above us are the rafters that have supported the house for almost 300 years. Downstairs, Daguin is at work in his kitchen. Flanking the center island like the transepts of a cathedral are two long, high tables, from which diners watch the action. Véronique, ebullient and fluent in English, selects the wines (crisp white Rioja; a rich Madiran) while her husband plays DJ (Jill Scott; Philip Glass; Basque superstar Kepa Junkera). As we talk, Daguin serves up course after course. The meat is from a neighbor’s farm; the seafood and produce come from the nearby Bayonne market; the cheese is made just down the road. Daguin cooks everything at low temperatures for a long time, he explains, and uses only the barest of embellishments to express the ingredients’ full flavor—a scattering of sugar or salt, a dash of olive oil. Why, he asks, rely on artifice?Tender duck breast arrives over finely julienned carrots, pan-cooked to a sweetened softness; delicate fillets of steamed hake are served atop a sort of candied vegetable hash made of diced slow-roasted beets and turnips.

The next morning we’re up early; the Daguins are nowhere to be seen, but the farmhouse’s enormous double doors stand open to the back lawn. All around, oak and chestnut trees shimmer in sluices of light. Far to the southeast, we can see the snow-crowned Pyrenees. There’s no human noise; just the breeze bearing the tong-tong of cowbells from a field a half-mile away.

After breakfast, Sarah and I say our goodbyes. The road back to Hasparren takes us all the way into Bayonne, which the Daguins have praised enthusiastically. And the city is indeed lovely; the warm, palm-lined sandstone squares and pungent sea air place us firmly back in a familiar south of France. But as we sit with our Kirs in the hazy afternoon sun next to the Ste.-Marie Cathedral, we’re both lost in thought—trying hard to hang on to the purity of the hills.

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