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Basque Country's Wine and Golf

Jose Fernandes Basque in the Glory

Photo: Jose Fernandes

In the morning I drove southeast past Logroño and into Navarra, where I played at the Club de Golf Ulzama, a pretty members' course north of Pamplona that winds in a sequence of quick-breaking doglegs among hillsides and oaks. It was designed in part by the late Javier Arana, one of the most prominent Spanish architects, whose masterpiece is El Saler in Valencia. I continued on through mountain valleys and along riverbanks toward Roncesvalles and the French border. Hemingway set sections of The Sun Also Rises here and said that the fly-fishing in the Irati River near Burguete was among the best he' d ever encountered. The river was fresh after a brief rain and sparkled in the dappled light.

Since Logroño I' d been following in reverse the Camino de Santiago, the route taken from France into Galicia by two Palestinians carrying the headless and decomposing body of Saint James the Apostle, who had been executed by Herod Agrippa. Centuries after being buried in Galicia, James was said to have appeared on battlefields, helping Christians kill the invading Moors, and the Palestinians' route became a pilgrim' s path. I crossed into France at Arnéguy, passed through St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the Irouléguy vineyards, and stopped in the tiny village of Bidarray, overlooking the River Nive. I was now in the section of the French Basque country known as Labourd. It seemed a little different from the Spanish side, perhaps lighter and more accustomed to the world. I had the feeling that if I' d stayed longer in this landscape of rivers, forest, hilly pastureland and villages with green- and red-shuttered farmhouses, its feeling of peace would seep into me bit by bit until I was somehow transformed. But I had to move on to Biarritz.

A former whaling station, biarritz became glamorous after Victor Hugo wrote of its charms in the 1830s; Napoleon III built a summer palace for his wife, Empress Eugénie; and the rich and aristocratic discovered the medicinal value—as well as the pleasure—of sea bathing. Its Grande Plage, where Anton Chekhov took the sun, was once known as La Côte des Fous, for the bathing there was supposed to becalm even the mad. Picasso later made a painting of the beach called The Bathers. Throughout the Second Empire, the belle époque, the twenties and then again after the Second World War, it was a place of high chic.

It is also the most sportif of the French cities. In Biarritz the prevailing sports are pelota and rugby, and surfing was introduced in the mid-1950s by the Hollywood scriptwriter Peter Viertel, husband of Deborah Kerr, during the shooting of The Sun Also Rises. The Basques in general love games; they scythe, row, lift and push heavy stones, and saw logs for prizes and have produced some of the best climbers, runners, cyclists and footballers in Europe. It is perhaps their truculent independence, their combativeness, that makes them so good at everything.

The French Basque country has long had golf, and many of the nation' s amateur champions and leading pros have come from here. The course at Pau, built by the British military in 1856, is the oldest in continental Europe. Golf de Biarritz, whose course is known as Le Phare because of its proximity to the city' s lighthouse, is believed by some to be the second oldest. By the end of the 1930s, there were a few courses around Biarritz, then several more were built in a wave of construction that ended a decade and a half ago. This was driven by the lack of profit in agriculture and the idea that golf was the fastest-growing sport in the world.

I started with Golf d' Arcangues, a hilly and pleasant course built around the family château on land the Arcangues clan has owned for nine hundred years. The late Guy d' Arcangues—poet, novelist, friend to kings and glamorous women, and member of the French national golf team for twenty years—was the driving force behind its construction. I next went north to Seignosse, one of France' s more highly regarded courses. This is a fine and demanding layout, lovely to look at and cut in tight avenues through trees and over hills, with well-defended greens requiring precise iron play. José María Olazábal, who lives over the border near San Sebastián, practices here. I was to play Makila Golf Club at Bassussarry next, but someone spoke of the invigorating severity of Hossegor. Another said I' d be a fool not to play Golf de Moliets; still another said it would be a pity to be in the area and not play Golf de Chantaco, founded by the father-in-law of tennis champion René Lacoste and located near St.-Jean-de-Luz, the most romantic town on this part of the coast. Finally, a Swede I played with at Arcangues said I could not possibly write with authority about golf in Basque country unless I played Biarritz and Golf de Chiberta. He told me this with such conviction that I did what he said. Biarritz is compact, genteel and very subtle, and Chiberta, a wonderful and entirely genuine links.


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