I’ve been (re)living past trips to the Basque Country, specifically those towns in France. Last week was Biarritz and a few weeks ago I shone a light (again) on Bayonne.
So where next? Can I suggest Espelette (Ezpeleta in Basque) a delightful village situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees to the east of Saint Jean de Luz, and south-east of Biarritz below the Mondarrain mountain.
The village is famous for its chilli peppers and those grown in this region even have an appellation controlée to vouch for their authenticity. After the harvest at the end of summer the picture-perfect traditional Basque white-washed houses with either red or green shutters feature drying piments and the effect is wonderfully colourful.
It’s a real pleasure to stroll down Espelette’s streets to take in the unique scenery and visit its many stores and boutiques selling not only the famous peppers but also many more local products such as chocolate and cheese. Espelette can sometimes get a little crowded, especially during the summer high-season and on bank holidays, but the views are still awesome. There is a reason why so many visit this place – it’s just so charming.
The origins of the Espelette Pepper date back to 1650 when a Basque sailor who had been traveling with Christopher Columbus brought some chili peppers back to the Basque Country. These peppers were first used medicinally and then later for conserving meat and ham. Over time, they have become a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. Although it is called “Espelette Pepper,” it is actually grown in 10 villages of the region, among them Ainhoa and Espelette. The European Union has even granted a protected designation to the Espelette region which means only peppers from this particular area can have the name Piment d’Espelette.
The peppers are so important that there is even an annual Espelette pepper festival that is celebrated during the last weekend of October which includes Basque dance exhibitions, traditional music concerts, parades and Basque sporting competitions.
At one end of the main street is 16th century castle that is now the village mairie (town hall) which also houses the tourist office and exhibition spaces for:-
The local church of Saint-Etienne has a typical Basque interior with three levels of wooden galleries going round the walls and a very decorative 18th century altarpiece. It’s off the tourist path. Indeed, this part of the town is often over-looked by visitors but it’s very peaceful with a gentle stream flowing nearby. You can also see the grave of the first Miss France who’s buried here.
There are several other villages nearby which also have similar Basque architecture to Espelette and are equally charming to visit, including Sare and Ainhoa which are both listed among the most beautiful villages in France.
The surrounding countryside of low mountains is perfect for exploring, preferably by bike. Or, you could take a small train that climbs the mountain at La Rhune for a different view across the countryside.
Alternatively, just 8 kilometres (5 miles) from the Spanish border, you’ll find Saint Jean Pied de Port one of the traditional starting points of the Way of St James (the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela). It’s a delightful walled town and Unesco World Heritage Site with numerous gates.
Frankly, I could go on for ever as there are so many pretty picturesque towns, many of which we’ve visited on our bikes. But don’t just take my word for it, come and see for yourself!