Summer holidays in France’s Basque country – and beyond

Pays basque, FranceAlthough I (admittedly) suffer from acute Wanderlust and love travelling anywhere, my main travel weakness is my status as a complete Italophile.

However, as a close second, I’m also a hopeless Francophile.

Pays basque, FranceThese two countries actually have a lot in common, with their strong regional characters that make exploring the various regions a real treat, a plethora of historical monuments, stunning churches and museums, and always wonderful food and wine.

Just writing about it makes me want to turn around and redo summer…

Pays basque, FranceI’ve been lucky enough to have travelled around many regions of France, but I had never been to the southwest region of Pays Basque (Basque Country).

This past summer, I organized a holiday with my family to explore this interesting region, and, since the drive from Rome is so long, used the excuse to stop off and visit other towns and regions I’d visited in the past or was discovering for the first time.

I’ll write more about some of these places in future posts, but here is an overview of the fabulous places I visited during these holidays.

Montpellier, FranceMontpellier – This southern town was a city I’d always passed by but never visited. The long drive from Rome necessitated a stop along the way, so it became an ideal place to stop driving and start wandering.

Although this bustling university town is a lot quieter in the summer months, we all enjoyed this jewel of a medieval town and wandered it on the evening we arrived and once again when we rose early the next morning.

I’ll definitely have to come back to explore more, but I loved the feel of this small city so close to the Mediterranean coast.

Pau, FrancePau – This late 19th/early 20th century Alpine watering hole in the Pyrenees was another town I’ve always been curious about, and this became a second stop-off on the way to Pays Basque.

As I imagined, the town’s architecture was charming, the mountain air brisk and clean, and it had pleasant views over the surrounding mountains.

Pau, FranceAlthough the town itself is easily explored on a short visit, it merits a longer stay to explore the surrounding areas of this region of Bearn.

A twisted ankle recently healed meant I wasn’t in fighting condition for long hikes, so it was best left for a future visit, but there’s clearly a lot to see in this area.

We did enjoy our visit to Pau’s castle, where Henri IV, grandfather of King Louis XIV, was born and spent his first months (bizarrely) slumbering in a royal tortoise shell, which is on display.

Pays basque, FrancePays Basque- This was where we spent the bulk of the holiday, and, despite rather unpredictable weather at times, it didn’t disappoint.

This is an extremely interesting region with a strong, distinct regional character, found in everything from its use of the Basque language (an ancient non-Indo-European language that pre-dates the arrival of other non-Indo-European languages native to the European continent, e.g. Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish), to Basque clothes, festivities, symbols, food and sports (particularly the fast-moving pelote).

I’ve already written about our base during this stay, in the coastal town of Guéthary and the great coastal walk we took all the way to Spain on the sentier littoral.

Bilbao, SpainThere was so much to discover, including coastal towns of Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint Jean-de-Luz, Ciboure, and Hendaye, and interesting towns in the Basque Country interior, where we explored Sare, Ainhoa, Espelette, Bidarray, and the famous stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the picturesque Saint Jean au pied de Port.

We also crossed over to Spain to visit the charming Basque towns of San Sebastien and Bilbao, with its impressive Guggenheim Museum.

This is a region that deserves lengthy exploration – we only scratched the surface in our three weeks here.

Dunes du Pyla, FranceEurope’s highest sand dune in Gironde – On this trip, we didn’t have time to get to Bordeaux, where I have not yet been. But we did visit the outskirts, specifically, the Dunes du Pyla – Europe’s highest sand dune towering at 317 meters over the Atlantic Ocean on one side and lush pine forests on the other.

This was a beautiful place, and we had lots of fun (and great exercise) visiting this wonder of nature.

Arcachon, FranceOn the same visit, we stopped off at the elegant town of Arcachon. Arcachon developed as a fashionable residence for the wealthy seeking a mild climate.

Common 19th century medical thought believe the resin from the surrounding pine forests were good for one’s health.

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but the result was a frenzy of building of adorable art deco villas in this seaside town, and it’s well worth a wander around to admire them all.

Would have loved to have stayed on to see if this resin-filled air is really as healthy as they claim. : )

Luberon, FranceLuberon Valley, Provence – Since it’s also a long drive back to Rome, it was a perfect excuse for yet another stop-over on the way.

This is a region we already know, but one I haven’t been back to in years. Provence’s interior – specifically, the Luberon Valley.

On our last vacation here, we made the stunning medieval hill town of Gordes our base. On this visit, we chose the less well-known Reillanne, mainly for its location half-way between the hill towns we love surrounding Gordes and the spectacular Gorges du Verdon , which would be at home among the national parks in the US.

Provence, FranceWe were anxious to get back to many of these places, and to visit new locations, on this short stop we made on the way back, just on the edge of the little town of Reillane.

The eastern edge of the Luberon is much wilder and less inhabited. There are great walking trails and adorable towns where the summer crowds are a bit sparser than the western towns of the valley.

Reillanne, Viens, Banon, Oppedette, Fourqualquier and Manosque are all towns we explores, as well as returning to the eastern Luberon to revisit Gordes and Goult.

Oppedette Gorge, Provence

Thinking about this WAY too much now that I’m back in the office…

Back in the western Luberon, the Oppedette Gorge was a new discovery for us, and we had lots of fun walking on these paths and enjoying the spectacular views.

A return to Verdon was a must, and we also managed to visit a picture-perfect town we (somehow) failed to visit on our first stay here – Sainte Marie de Moustiers. This town is famous for its clifftop church, to which pilgrims would ascend. It’s still worth the trip up, and the adorable town is a great place to explore.

We cooled down with a swim in the bright blue waters of the Lac de Sainte-Croix on the sweltering day we were there. It was hard to tear ourselves away.

All in all, a spectacular vacation in a beautiful country. Whether returning to old favorites or exploring new regions, I’ll never grow bored of traveling in France.

Provence, France

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