Based on the warnings of other French people about the Basques, you might expect to see them still wearing animal skins and wielding clubs. “Very rough,” those in other parts of French say, with a look of distaste.
Well, so far, so good. We visited two Basque towns today, and are staying in a third tonight.
Each of them is an important way station on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, not too far from here. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there and many take up this route for their spiritual growth. We know the little we do know about it from watching The Way, a terrific Martin Sheen movie.
Our first stop was in Saint-Palais, a 13th century town where we began to see the Basque style of architecture, which is very different than our normal fare.
Then on to the town of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a very important 15th fortified town, determined to defend France against those Spaniards, who might be coming over the Pyrenees. Much of the old city, including some of its key entrances, are still intact, and – while very touristy – it is quite well-preserved, with many St. James pilgrims wearing the scallop shell as a sign they have completed their quest.
The highlight of our trip here was lunch at the Hotel les Pyrénées and the Michelin two-star restaurant of Philippe Arrambide. Amazing, beautiful, and with plenty of the oh-so-popular foam. My entrée was a beignet of truffles and foie gras with asparagus foam and other delectable things. Don’s was salmon, and his main course was fish; mine was lamb. Luscious and each course a feast for the eyes and the tongue.
Swearing we will never eat again, we drove to nearby Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, an ancient Basque village with an 11th century church. We are staying in the Hotel Arcé, which also seems to have been here for a good many years. Our bedroom overlooks the Nive River, which we look forward to hearing all night.
What a wonderful place, which was very isolated and safe from the Romans and everyone else crawling all over Europe. That explains the uniqueness of the Basque language, which is like no other and which predates the Indo-European influences that we know so well. There is a lot of the language around, but you would never guess its home by looking at it. We are tucked away in the past here.