My Ideal Rural Walk in Basque France

Trip Start May 12, 2010
Trip End May 28, 2010

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Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Friday, May 21, 2010

I've been anticipating this day for a long time. When Pat and I came through the region last summer setting up this program, we were in search of a walking experience that felt "Basque". We'd crossed the border into France to the small coastal city town of Saint Jean-de-Luz, in the heart of the French Basque country. Saint Jean-de-Luz certainly felt French, but I was hoping for something more rural, and more conspicuously Basque. A chat with a young lady at the tourist information office redirected our quest inland. She suggested we consider Ascain or Sare, nearby hilltop villages surrounded by farmland.
As soon as we pointed our rental car away from the coast last August, we immediately felt that we were entering fertile ground for a "charm walk", a route animated by the delightful sights, sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes of a new culture.

In this case, we are talking about a quintessentially old culture. Some experts consider the Basque to be one of the world's oldest people groups, with one of the world's oldest languages - not at all related to the Indo-European languages the family of languages comprised of most ethnic groups in Europe and south and central Asia. A book I scanned just prior to the trip linked the Basque with Plato's lost city of Atlantis - fanciful perhaps, but adding emphasis to the reality that the Basque were in this region of Spain and France as early as any other group and probably earlier. Their language and culture was not imported as is the case with other influences in Iberia and France. The Celts, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans were all outside influences that came and left their mark, but the Basques were here in the beginning, as far back as anyone seems to be able to calculate historically or archeologically.

I was relieved today to see the sun once again - since our first shower on Day 1 of the Adventure, we've had nothing but sun - so our group can enjoy the warmth of this Sare setting in its best light.

Our coach circled around the village on the only road barely wide enough for a full sized coach. We stopped in the tiny center on the hilltop marked by the obligatory, picturesque Romanesque church and, after we hopped off, Mariano, our driver, coaxed the bus through a couple of tight turns and down the hill. The pre-walk comfort stop was a predictable challenge, but one we'd anticipated, and soon we were on our way, winding through the narrow lanes of the village past the pelote (uniquely Basque series of ball games played on a handball-like court) court, and into the surrounding farmland.

The terrain was hilly, with lots of ups and downs. The surroundings were pastoral - dairy cows grazing, unpaved dirt lanes meandering through stands of venerable oak trees. narrow ribbons of stream defining the lines at the bottom of each segment of the course. Closer to the village, we also encountered "neighborhoods", but even here the typical Basque style of building was unmistakable. Lots of stone material is used, especially to decorate the corners of houses. The base color is normally white; shutters and doorways are normally painted a deep red, sometimes green. Often a massive stone lintel forms the top of the front door.

We walked a loop around the village to the north, and came back into the square at the mid-point, about 5 kilometers into the route. Here we took a break in this delightful little community hub. Several sidewalk cafes were open on the square or the lanes leading away from it, a tiny little grocer around the corner served our needs, a lady manned a stand selling local pastries - offering exactly what she'd been selling last August when we were here, a scrumptious kind of tart filled with cherries, and the church stood to one side like a colossal anchor on this scene of traditional warmth and tranquility.

The second part of the trail followed the Blue Horse Route, marked appropriately by a blue horse stenciled into rocks and posts along the trail. Several of our group had walked their fill for the day and, charmed by the ambiance of Sare, stayed behind to patronize the bakeries and sidewalk cafes. The Blue Horse trail, meanwhile, climbed into the next gully, taking us right through the farmyard of a rather dilapidated homestead that appeared more enamored with the 18th century than the 21st.  

Another feature of Basque countryside is stone fencing unlike any I've seen. Great slabs of slate or sandstone are upended, then butted together side by side to form a barrier about five feet high and several inches thick - the thickness of the slab. Wildflowers continued to grace this trail, as they have every walk since we left Barcelona. Rural walking past newborn calves, fields of potatoes, and grazing goats was interrupted by more stands of mature oak, leaving a general impression of growth and green and vitality. We finished this one-way segment at an intersection on a country road where Mariano and our coach awaited us, and returned to Sare to reconnect with our trailmates and join them for lunch in one of the cafes. 

As a walk planner, this trail satisfied my expectations of the ideal rural experience: rural aspects of the trail were delightful - opportunities to walk amongst local neighborhoods and farms, fields, and fauna; the start and finish was warm, full of culture and character, and seemingly discovered by only a handful of other visitors; we had opportunity in mid-walk for a refreshing break in the center, or the chance to opt out of the second, more challenging part of the trail; and the weather was optimal!

Dan Friesen
Walking Adventures International 
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