The name of France’s most south westerly department – Pyrenees-Atlantiques - says much about its geography but gives no hint of the colourfully different culture, cuisine, and even sport, which go to make Pyrenees-Atlantiques such a fascinating place for a holiday.
Originally part of the independent Basque kingdom of Navarre which was split and ruled by both France and Spain in the sixteenth century, the French Basque provinces were later merged with divisions of existing French provinces including parts of Gascony.
The Basque influence and identity remains strong, and their language (Euskara) - far older than, and unrelated to, any other European language - is still widely spoken. Signs are often written in French and Basque.
Look for Basque architecture with its distinctive red and green painted woodwork in towns like Bayonne which also has excellent Basque and art museums. Picturesque Saint-Jean-de-Luz - France’s premier tuna fishing port - mixes medieval buildings with Basque and Moorish influences.
Restaurants in this popular resort, with its fine sandy bay, serve wonderful seafood. Visit on Sunday in summer and you could hear a Basque choir. The Basques’ love of singing is matched only by their enthusiasm for rugby and a version of highland games known as ‘La Force Basque’. Competitions take place all summer and if you’re in St Palais in August 2011, be sure to go along.
Another ‘must see’ is the national sport of pelota, a sometimes dangerous version of squash using hands or wicker slings instead of racquets. Find great opportunities for surfing and sunbathing on the Cote Basque. Biarritz, once nicknamed ‘the Monte-Carlo of the Atlantic’, is now the spot for stylish surfers.
Spain is just 30km away from Biarritz. Take the coast road along dramatically high cliffs close to the border, detouring to the summit of La Rhune (900m) for fantastic coastal views. Enjoy magnificent views of the Pyrenees from genteel Pau, popular with nineteenth century English holidaymakers and a winter sports centre.
Less developed than the Alps, the beautiful green foothills and mountains of the western Pyrenees offer many opportunities for outdoor pursuits. See protected wildlife in the Pyrenees National Park. Visitors to Pyrenees-Atlantiques hiking the famous GR10 trail from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean can admire breathtaking mountain scenery similar to the unspoilt vistas discovered by pilgrims who climbed the col du Somport en route to Santiago de Compostela.