Iparralde: the 6 best towns in French Basque Country

This article is a review of our six more recommended towns to visit in the French Basque Country: Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Hendaye, Espelette and Ainhoa. Here you will find what to expect from this region of the country as well from the mentioned spots and how to reach them.

Basque Country overall is something different. The French part is not an exception. It’s beautiful, singular, affordable and culturally rich.

Old Town of Baiona
Old Town of Baiona

The French Basque Country, Iparralde (North) in Basque language, is completely in France, administratively integrated in the department of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. This territory is made out of 3 provinces: Lapurdi (in French: «Labourt» and in Gascon: «Labord»).

Biarritz Beach
Biarritz Beach

It is the largest province with 220,000 inhabitants thanks to its idyllic location on the coast where Bayonne, the most populated city, is located; Behe Nafarroa (in French: “Basse-Navarre”,and in Gascon: “Baisha Navarra”). Its capital is Donibane Garazi and it is the province in which you could find the highest amount of Basque Language speakers (in some villages more than 80% as mother tongue) and Zuberoa (in French: «Soule» and in Gascon: «Sola»). Its Capital is Maule and it is the southernmost province of these three, off the coast.

Ainhoa
Ainhoa

Among the always-thin regional differences all along the large territory of France probably is one of the strongest singular identities. There are Basque cultural associations and ikastolas (Basque Language schools) which are not getting any help from the government. Indeed, it is not easy to hear random conversations in Euskera and, moreover, all the signs are in French and the official administration is clearly centralized as full unequivocal French nation-wise. But anyhow the singularity is there, visible in every street of every village, in the calligraphy of the private signs, on the red and green colourful patterns of the traditional houses, in the gastronomy, in every skyline of an inner village and in the fishermen ports on the Atlantic Coast.

Port of Donibane Lohizune
Port of Donibane Lohizune

We have done this Iparralde route by motorbike and by car. Which way is better? It depends on the weather since in Basque Country rains a lot, that’s why it is so green. If the weather is good, especially in summer we would recommend to you do it by motorbike and enjoy the narrow roads, the extraordinary green and hilly landscapes, splattered of cute traditional patterned villages, and avoid the parking hassles of the most visited spots on the coast. Feel free, be on the road.

Ezpeleta
Ezpeleta

Here you will get more information, including gastrononomy, art and patrimony, of this this territory.

Below, here you are the 6 towns in French Basque Country that you can’t miss:

Baiona

Baiona seems to be split in two. Two sides divided by the river Nive. On one side you can see “Le Petit Bayonne”, the new part of the town, and on the other “Le Grand Bayonne» as the heart of the old town. Moreover, the visitor could even spot a third neighbourhood in Bayonne: Saint Esprit, separated from the rest by the river Adour. It’s a very nice town overall but you can’t expect there a cute tiny village, rather a dynamic small capital, very vivid, with all the services and all the hassles either.

We arrived to Baiona and we immediately got in the mood of walking around and find a nice place to have coffee. On a walk through the historic heart of Bayonne you will see the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie, the Leon Bonnat Gardens and the Les Halles Market. In addition, while walking you will enjoy among its streets the best chocolate and pastry shops in the region. It’s beautiful and full of nice shops to be distracted with. Before choosing a place for coffee someone tried to steal my belongings with a very old trick. Fortunately, she didn’t succeed!

Basque culture can be seen on every corner in Bayonne, but spoken Basque Language is not very present on the street, at least comparing with some other places in Iparralde. To understand more about the Basque culture and history is worth to visit the Basque Museum in Bayonne.

Biarritz

Biarritz is all about glamour and beaches. It’s famous for being a paradise for surfers but you can see many heritage buildings around from the important history of the town.

Biarritz has been an important seaside resort since the 19th century since it was the favourite summer spot of Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III). Moreover, Biarritz became to be popular since the doctors of that time considered its waters to be therapeutic, making it an important spa town.  Altogether, made Biarritz evolve from being an old and small fishing village to a fashionable city in the south of France. Napoleon III ordered to build there a great palace, which is today the Hotel Du Palais, and many members of the royal families, French, British and even Russian as well as began to come along leaving their sublime footprint and culture.

Marmitako in Biarritz Beach
Marmitako in Biarritz Beach

We arrived there with this glamourous image of the town but we got a nice impression in terms of what the town could offer to the visitor. We could park on the street for free quite close to the beach, we made to the beach restaurants starving and we ordered a “formule” including marmitako in a posh looking like restaurant for very reasonable price, just in front of the ocean at less than five meters from the sand. The beach is beautiful with nice views to the cliffs and the surrounding mountains and the old school luxury vocational buildings. The Hotel Du Palais, the Casino and the smell of a glamour that passed away in silence is still in the air there.

Donibane Lohizune

SaintJean-de-Luz in French is unique to thanks to its colourful streets, along its great beach, the port and the cliffs. It is a popular destination for local tourist attracted by its charm and its prices (lower comparing with many French cities). The beach there is excellent but what is outstanding for real is the fishermen port where the visitor could feel the authentic fishermen vibe while admiring the boats and shorefront houses. It is possible to catch a boat and to sail in order to admire the cliffs, and Hondarribia and Hendaia in the coast of Iparralde that separate France from Spain.

The historic centre of the town and its streets create a unique atmosphere with plenty of traditional houses, shops of traditional products and some cute corners and squares with cafés that combine the best of the French culture with the regional identity. We sat in a terrace near the port. There was a very French-styled carrousel, the waiter spoke Spanish to their collegues and the very Basque patterns were everywhere around.

 

Hendaia

We arrived there from Irún in the Spanish side of Basque Country. The path to get there is interesting, First you need to cross the border and since we were in this Covid-19 nightmare there were controls of the French Police on the bridge that separates Iparralde from Spain.

I would recommend stopping in the extreme south of the town for a coffee. If possible, just in front of the Station and visit it. That is a historic building, interesting for train lovers but also for history fans since there took place a meeting with Franco and Hitler to decide the participation of Spain in the IIWW that never happened.

Views from Hendaye
Views from Hendaye

The way up from the south part of the town to the northern beach is beautiful. That is a long path along the bay that splits Spain and France. From there, the visitor can spot Hondarribia on the Spanish coast and arrive to a nice beach in a nice vocational neighbourhood with plenty of villas and summerhouses. The beach is charm and has plenty of bars and restaurants and the small port is beautiful.

Ezpeleta

We arrived there in the afternoon after a very nice ride from the coast along the hills on a summer sunny day. Immediately, we got the feeling of being in a touristy place. Traditional well-maintained huge houses with bar terraces, traditional products shops and wide parking lots in the surroundings. We checked-in at the accommodation and we went out for a walk.

We found a few tourists since this year of 2020 had frighten them almost all off. The houses´ facades showed red peppers, a local pride, on their walls and we found a couple of nice options to taste local beer in good locations to admire the beautiful patterns of the streets.

We had bought pate, some cheese and French wine in a supermarket so we decided to collect the stuff for a picnic dinner. Close to the village, there is a church, iconic and big with amazing mountains in the background. We found a picnic table with its benches. The sunset arrived in silence and let the stars show up. We enjoyed the magic moment in a perfect place to offer moments like that.

Ainhoa

The town is almost only one single street but full of the best examples from Basque architecture. Flanked by large hamlets with gabled roofs supported by wooden frameworks painted in red or green and sometimes blue. Historically, Ainhoa is on one of the secondary ways of the Camino de Santiago. There, the monks of the nearby Urdax Monastery provided the construction of a vicarage in order to welcome the Jacobean pilgrims giving birth Ainhoa.

Since Ainhoa is very tiny, the tourists are very concentrated on the main street where you can find some restaurants and traditional goods shops, sometimes both at once. We found a place in a terrace and later-on we took a stroll till the end of the street, admiring the surrounding mountains and to the church and the fronton (A sport ground with a wall to play “Pelota”, a traditional Basque Sport).

Ainhoa is on the list of Les plus beaux villages de France (The most beautiful villages in France). This is because Ainhoa is itself an open-air museum with invaluable surroundings in between valleys and mountains dotted with goats and sheep.

How to get there?

The proximity of the cities of the Basque coast of France makes them reachable by road in between them and from Spain. From Paris and other parts of France the distances, the price of fuel and the tolls make  more advisable to catch the train.

By road

From Donostia-San Sebastián, in Spain, the distance is only 54 kilometers. You have to take the A-8 toll motorway and continue on the A-63, already in France. You can also avoid tolls is you have time.

There are almost 770 kilometers to Paris on the A-10.

By train.

SNCF, the French public railway company, offers very attractive rates if purchased in advance. It takes almost 5 hours to get there from Paris but this journey will be shortened when the works to improve the high-speed line to Bordeaux will finish.

From Spain is possible to arrive from Donostia-San Sebastian with Euskotren in 40 minutes per 2.75 euros.

By plane.

In the French side, there is Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne Airport, a small airport with flights to Paris, Nice and some British and Northern European cities. Ryanair uses to provide fair tariffs on the flights to this destination. The airport is next to the A-10 motorway. Several bus lines take us to the centre of Anglet, Bayonne and Biarritz, and to the beaches of the Basque coast. The ticket costs 1 euro.

It is possible to fly to Donostia-Sant Sebastián. The small airport is located very near of Hondarribia, just in front of the shore of Hendaia.

Leave a Reply