The word “Iparralde” means “north side” in Basque. This is the name commonly used by the Basques to identify the French Basque Country. Integrated within the department of Pyrenees-Atlantique, the French Basque Country is comprised of three provinces, each with their own identity: Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule. The coast, a popular tourist destination, is hone to some of the most exclusive resorts in France. If one chooses to venture into the valleys and mountains of the interior, more authentic villages can be found where the Basque traditions are alive and well.

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THE LABOURD

The Labourd, or Lapurdi in Euskara, is the most famous of the original French Basque Country provinces. With a coastline dotted with chic resorts and beautiful ports, this area has made the Basque Country famous. Long beaches lined with steep cliffs stretch from Biarritz to the Spanish border and are a popular destination for surfers. The beautiful city of Bayonne, the gateway to northern Basque country, is beautifully situated where two rivers meet. Take the time to get away from the hustle and bustle of the coast to explore the back country of Labourdin. There one finds small, authentic villages and rolling hills dotted with traditional farms. Not to mention the famous Basque houses with postcard-worthy scenes that are a photographer’s dream.
The City of Bayonne, built at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers, is famous for its beautiful ancient houses and its long boardwalks. The city, whose landscape is dominated by the Sainte-Marie cathedral, thrives on a way of life and traditions developed during its time as a seaport. A stroll through the old town showcases a variety of terraces, cafes and restaurants, as well as local specialties such as Bayonne ham, for which the city is famous.

On the other side of the Nive, Petit Bayonne, consists of small streets lined with arcaded buildings and has a lively night life. Here one finds two very interesting museums: the Basque Museum and the Bonnat Museum. Basque-inspired sporting and cultural events are held throughout the year in Bayonne. They culminate in August with the Bayonne festival, one of the biggest in France, where people come from afar to enjoy five days and five nights of celebrations.

The famous French Basque coast is located between Biarritz and Hendaye. During the summer, the area is invaded by thousands of tourists. Outside the mad summer rush, the coastal towns and villages of Labourd find some peace. Long considered the “the Queen of beaches and beach of Kings”, the city of Biarritz is a mythical destination. With its wild and pompous architecture and its exceptional beaches, Biarritz has become a top destinations for surfers. The highly urbanized Basque countryside still hides some enclaves of tranquility, showcasing the small fishing ports of yesteryear. Bidart and Guéthary are two such towns that are worth exploring. Further south, the charming town of St-Jean-de-Luz has retained an operational fishing port despite challenges faced by the industry. The gorgeous Basque Coastal Road links St- Jean -de- Luz and Hendaye. The pleasant town of Hendaye sits on the right bank of the Bidasoa, which marks the border with Spain. Its long sandy beach extends all the way to the “Two twins”, the mythical rocks that have withstood the ocean’s crashing surf for centuries.
Dominated by the Rhune mountains, the valleys of the Nivelle and Nive are nestled between green hills that are dotted with farms, cows and sheep. This picture-perfect rural region gets its charm first and foremost from its typical small villages. Houses are often brightly coloured and usually organized around a church and a pediment. The most famous of these villages is undoubtedly Espelette which gives its name to a spice known throughout the region and beyond. Several villages are worth a visit, if only to soak up their daily life by attending a game of pelota, finding a market or attending a festival. Other noticeable towns include La Bastide-Clairence and Sare, whose beauty and typical architecture have garnered them the label “most beautiful villages of France”.

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BASSE-NAVARRE

Basse Navarre, or Nafarroa Beherea in Basque, is the French Basque Country province where several routes of the Camino de Saint-Jacques de Compostela converge. With its lush green landscapes, countryside and mountains, the entire territory of Lower Navarre is a paradise for hikers. Its architecture conveys the influences of the Navarran region on the other side of the Pyrenees, with which it was linked for centuries. Use of the Basque language is widespread and traditions are still very much alive. It is in Lower Navarre that one can find the only vineyard in the Northern Basque Country, the Irouleguy vineyard, one of the smallest of France.
Capital of Lower Navarre, the medieval town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has always been a commercial center and an important stopover for pilgrims from around the world on their way to Saint-Jacques de Compostela. Located along the Nive, in a fertile basin at the foot of the mountains, the old town has retained its charm despite an influx of tourists, with its steep streets, wooden balconies and its citadel with magnificent views of the surrounding valleys. To the south, narrow green valleys lead to the Spanish border, and penetrate deep into the land of Basque shepherds. The road to the East towards Soule crosses through the heights of the Iraty forest, a wild area with many options for hiking and spectacular views.
Saint-Étienne-de-Baigorry is an endearing commune which has maintained its authenticity through its Navarran architecture. It is a gateway to the Aldudes valley and a gastronomic destination with stunning mountain scenery. There one can discover the work and products of small-scale producers, such as sheep cheese or meat from Basque pork livestock. The valley of Irouléguy, located between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, has the only vineyard in Northern Basque Country. Located on only 220 ha, the Irouléguy vineyard produces wines ideal for accompaniment with lamb, meat and Basque sheep cheeses.
Former capital of the kingdom of Basse Navarre, the city of Saint-Palais is a pleasant and lively town, especially on market days held every Friday. The small town is a crossroads in the middle of an agricultural area dotted with quaint and peaceful villages frequented by tourists. One of the prettiest is likely the village of Garris with its beautiful corbelled houses. There are many opportunities for hiking and discovering the charms of the old country at one’s own pace. One can also obtain a guide from local authorities detailing 33 routes in Lower Navarre.

THE SOULE

With its steep mountains valleys, dense forests and traditions, Soule is probably the most authentic Basque province, having not yet succumbed to the influence of the tourism industry. It is certainly the least populated and most rugged, and remains more obscure than its sister on the coast. Very proud of its special character, Soule has also always claimed a certain independence, even compared to other Basque regions, and has traditions, songs, dances and pastoral festivals of its own. It is a little known area and off the beaten path, which is popular for its hiking, distinctive architecture, heritage, Romanesque art and typical churches, isolated in the heart of the mountain.
Mauléon Mauleon is located in the heart of the valley of the Saison river. United with the neighbouring village of Licharre since 1841, the town is the main administrative center of the Soule. It is renowned worldwide for its espadrilles produced using traditional methods. As one continues 13 km west of Mauleon, one finds the church of the Hospital Saint-Blaise , dating back to the 12th century. Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its original Moorish architecture, it is all that remains of the old hospital for pilgrims en route to Santiago-de-Compostela.
The area surrounding Mauléon-Licharre is dotted with farming villages nestled amongst green meadows fed by the Saison river. These villages are all very authentic and have a distinctive architecture that is closer to that of the neighboring region of Béarn. Some of these hamlets, such as the village of Gotein, contain characteristic churches with Trinitarian clock towers (three gables surmounted by a cross). In the cemeteries located at the foot of the churches, one can notice many funeral monuments, several of which contain the Lauburu, or Basque cross.
Upper Soule is the most mountainous part of northern Basque Country. With isolated valleys, spectacular gorges and sharpened peaks, the area is ideal for hiking and discovering breathtaking landscapes. The small hamlet of Larrau, with typical Souletin architecture, is a good base for exploring the region. One can enjoy a pleasant walk, or explore the Kakuetta gorges nearby. Tucked away at the bottom of a valley, the village of Saint-Engrâce is one of the most picturesque in Soule with its priceless 12th century Romanesque church.
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