Pays Basque

0 · Saturday 24 October 2015 · Journeys

After driving across the Midi-Pyrénées region of France and into Aquitaine, we’ve lodged ourselves in the resort village of Socoa for a week. Unfortunately the weather during our week here has largely been overcast, and we’ve both been visited by colds, so we’re taking away fewer photographic memories than might usually be the case.

I’ve seen a few resort villages now and rate Socoa highly; it fits nicely into the local landscape without overpowering it. It’s a small community (two bakeries, half a dozen restaurants, one large supermarket and several other shops) built around a boat harbour.

 

Socoa is at the southern end of a large bay with the twin towns of St-Jean-de-Luz and Ciboure at the northern end. Originally Ciboure was on the east side of the harbour and St-Jean-de-Luz on the west, but these distinctions have long since merged into one urban area that sprawls south to Socoa itself.

 

Further up the coast is the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bayonne. Sadly we didn’t get there this time, but we did make a day trip to its near neighbour, the seaside resort town of Biarritz. We decided to travel there by bus. Unfortunately when I asked for tickets at the local tobacconist I asked for a carte, not a billet, and the proprietor quite correctly directed us to the kiosk near the St-Jean-de-Luz railway station. So instead of catching the early bus from Socoa, we drove the first part of our journey and caught a later one. There was a young Algerian man sitting near us on the bus, and one of the other passengers made a derogatory comment about Islam which fired him up. He responded very articulately and with good humour, citing various atrocities committed in the name of other religions. The woman beside me foolishly reproved him with a reminder that it’s not considered polite to discuss religion or politics in public, but this only provoked him to begin on the subject of politics, domestic and international. The woman looked to me for support, but in vain: I found that I agreed with most of the political positions the young man was expressing and thought it wisest not to make any comment. At about this point we realised the bus was not going to take us to Biarritz as we’d believed, so we alighted to find one that would.

When we finally arrived, Biarritz was as ritzy as its name suggests.

 

Outside the urban areas, Pays Basque is a web of small towns and smaller villages nestled in rolling hills, with paddocks of sheep surrounded by oak woods. We thought this sounded idyllic, so we checked it out, taking a day to drive from St-Pee-sur-Nivelle through Cambo-les-Bains to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then across the Spanish border and back.

All these towns were lovely, but St-Jean-Pied-de-Port needs some additional notes. It’s on the Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela which thousands of people still travel on foot each year. The town was also a key French garrison during war with Spain, and is a today a centre of Basque arts.

 

We’ve eaten well while we’ve been staying in Socoa.

We found a local restaurant with outstanding food within walking distance of the resort, although I confess that for our visit we drove there, not being entirely sure how far it was. The decor and atmosphere were great, the service was excellent, the food amazing. The entree of grilled fresh octopus was more than enough for two of us, and Richard is still talking about the lamb he had to follow (I opted for the risotto, which was also delicious but very rich). We heartily recommend Zoko to anyone visiting this region.

While we were driving in the hinterland – shortly after leaving Cambo-les-Bains – we were sent on a detour. It was the middle of the day, and the detour took us past a small, unprepossessing cafe in the middle of nowhere with a half full carpark. We decided to add to these vehicles by taking on the formule du jour lunch. The proprietor spoke no English and had a strong regional accent which I found difficult to understand (vin became veng), but we managed. Our lunch started with vegetable soup and moved on to slices of cured local ham; this was almost a bacon and very rich, served with pats of butter which we thought it best to ignore, although I’m sure the locals would have buttered the jambon before eating it. Then came very tender stewed beef with pasta, followed by three different local cheeses, chocolate eclairs and coffee. The cheeses were a revelation, and oddly the soup and the beef both reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s cooking. It was a great experience; the food and the decor weren’t trendy, but we left well fed and happy with the world, and you can’t expect more from lunch than that.

Socoa is in Pays Basque, the French enclave of the Basque culture. It’s not as militant as it can be across the Spanish border although the language is equally impenetrable. Hoping to learn a little more about Basque culture we bought tickets to a game of pelote; in fact, the semi-finals of the local season. We were advised to arrive by 8.30pm, and decided to visit what is reputedly the region’s best hamburger restaurant on the way. That intention wasn’t successful as there was no parking to be had for miles around and we had limited time. We pushed on to the sports complex, hoping there might be some sort of food available there. We thought perhaps there might be hot chips, but there was a former rugby player running a one man restaurant in the clubrooms! We had a very good salad, confit of duck with chunks of roast potato followed by panna cotta. It was the perfect foundation for an evening’s pelote.

 

The pelote game was fast and furious. Two teams of two players competed on a court 54 metres long, each player having strapped a chistera onto his right hand – a long, narrow, curved wicker basket with which the ball is caught and thrown. The rules are in many ways similar to squash, the pace just as blistering.

I regret the dearth of photographs of the food we’ve eaten and the pelote we’ve watched while in Socoa; I seem to have been visited by a spirit of cultural appropriateness on these occasions. Perhaps the lack of photographs will be reason enough to visit the region again.