Basque-ing in Glory
Boasting over 200km of luscious green coastline, peppered with ancient fishing ports chock full of beautiful French and Spanish influenced architecture, if you’re keen to escape the tourist traps, the Basque Country should definitely be on your bucket list.
My home for the weekend, the family-run La Réserve, was founded by Sylvain Floirat back in 1967. Perfectly located to offer easy access not only to sea and beaches, but also forests and mountains, it purports to be a rural traveller’s dream. And first impressions are good. Standing atop the cliffs on the outskirts of the Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the hotel feels almost suspended between sky and ocean. It sounds clichéd, but the scale of natural beauty on this stretch of coastline, not to mention the panoramic views from the hotel, are truly breath-taking.
Home from Home
I’m staying in the La Résidence , atLa Réserve, a newly refurbished collection of studios and apartments set slightly back from the main complex. Each comes with its own kitchen and a private terrace or balcony overlooking the hotel’s brand-new infinity pool (and, of course, that ocean panorama). All of the rooms are bathed in natural sunlight and comfortably decorated – deeply inviting armchairs, patterned textiles, richly-textured cushions and large throws. It is, of course, nothing like home, and yet I feel so at home here.
Curled up on my terrace, the air is warm and I can hear nothing but the salty wind rustling through the large palms and the mighty waves crashing on the cliffs below. I stick around to enjoy the last of the day’s sunshine, and as the distant lights of Biarritz begin to twinkle against the inky blue night sky, I decide to turn in. A long day of travel, a blast of sea air and the comfiest of beds set me up for a sleep deeper than I’ve enjoyed in months.
Invigorated, after breakfast the next morning I take a walk down into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where I discover that the rewards are well worth the ten-minute stroll down the coastal path from La Réserve. Sardines and sea hake are the local delicacy, baked with a splash of olive oil and razor-thin slices of garlic, and the mouthwatering aroma permeates the town. I spend the day happily wandering the quaint streets, admiring the Basque architecture and exploring the markets.
I stop at a small beachside café where I watch the surfers while enjoying a quick café crème. The Atlantic is rarely calm here, and the waters are cooler and cleaner than the neighbouring Mediterranean Sea, making it the ideal place for those looking to catch a wave. Revived, I head to Maison Adam in search of some authentic French delicacies. Nestled in the heart of the town, this family-run patisserie claims that its macarons are cooked using a secret recipe that has been passed down the generations since 1660, and have even been served to French royalty (Louis XIV). A fresh batch is made by hand every day, using the original recipe of almonds, sugar and egg whites. Their pride is justified: sweet, moist and chewy, these are the best macarons I have ever tasted.
Around the corner I stumble upon Sandales Bayona, where – in the manner of an old fashioned sweet shop – hundreds of pairs of espadrilles in every style and colour are stacked invitingly behind the counter. At less than 20 Euros a pair, I can’t resist making another few purchases before calling it a day.
Back at the hotel I take a refreshing dip in the new infinity pool, before drinking in the view (and a cold glass of bubbles) as the sun starts to set on the horizon. Dinner is at the hotel’s Ilura, where the menu focuses on Basque specialities cooked using local produce from land and sea. I’m in for an extra special treat tonight, though, with Dîner à 4 Mains, a tasting menu created by head chef Fabrice Idiart and award winning pastry chef Thierry Bamas (dubbed World Champion of frozen desserts). All seven courses of sweet and savoury are truly spectacular.
Basque Way of Life
I’ve a serious calorie surfeit to burn off the next day, and decide to try my hand at Bungy Pump – an activity put on by the hotel. Hailing from Sweden (and similar to Nordic walking), it involves walking with weighted poles to burn calories, while toning and strengthening muscles. Our instructor for the morning is the super-fit Fabien, a former striker for French Ligue 1 football team Toulouse FC. He sets up my poles to the correct height and level of resistance (options are 4, 6, 8 or 10 kilos) and we set off for the countryside. I’m sceptical to start, but after five minutes hiking I’m completely converted. This really does do what it claims and I can feel my whole body working. Traversing the rugged Basque coastline, sucking in lungfuls of pure, fresh air, this couldn’t be more different from my usual gym routine at home in a small sweaty studio, and I feel great! If I wasn’t convinced before, I am now – I’ve been totally sold on the charming Basque way of life, and I will definitely be making a return trip very soon.
Rate for a standard room for 2 people from €118 to €280 per night (excluding breakfast) La Résidence studio for 2 people from €135 to €353 per night (excluding breakfast) (+33 5 59 51 32 00; hotel-lareserve.com)