We’d had some tantalising glimpses of the French Basque coast on our train journeys to and from England, so, after our trips to Santander and Hondarribia (see previous post), we spent a couple of days there, curious to see how Basqueness translated from Spain into France. Unfortunately the weather was pretty terrible, so we didn’t see the place at its best.
We started at the northern end of the Basque coast, in Bayonne (Baiona in Basque), a beautiful city with an imposing, if rather plain, Gothic cathedral, and lots of medieval character:
Biarritz is a busy, sprawling seaside resort, fashionable (although not the height of fashion that it was a few decades ago) and not terribly attractive, with hardly any discernible Basque character, but a few grand 19th century buildings, and one or two atmospheric corners that indicate its past as a fishing port:
Here on the coast of the Pays Basques, Basque culture and language seemed largely to be little more than a tourist curiosity in a way that we have not encountered anywhere in the Spanish Basque Country – perhaps because there is nothing like the volume of tourism in the Spanish region that we encountered here on the French coast. There’s no doubt that the experience would be more quintessentially Basque in the Pyrenees.
But there’s also no doubt that Basqueness is not as big a deal in France as it is in Spain. Whilst there is some Basque nationalism in France (and, for instance, many Spanish ETA fugitives have found refuge in France) it´s not anywhere near as widespread as it is in Spain. Unlike the Basque Country in Spain, of course, the Pays Basque has no political autonomy: indeed, it does not even constitute a region of France, being only a part of the department of Pyrenees-Atlantique. There is no government policy to have Euskara taught in schools, and so on.
In Basque, the Pays Basque is referred to as ‘Iparralde’ – the North Country – whilst the Spanish side is ‘Hegoalde’ – the South Country – and of course many in the Basque country would like the north and south to be united. This is often expressed as '4+3 + 1" (4 Basque provinces in Spain plus three Basuqe provinces in France = 1 Basque Country). Anyone desiring to see a united, independent, cross-border Basque Country is likely to have some time to wait, though.