Our final summer trip was to southwestern France, specifically the Béarn and the Pays Basque. They look very similar geographically: hilly, verdant, home to loads of sheep, surrounded by the Pyrénées mountains. The Béarn, however, does not have a foot on the Atlantic coast.
Sadly for me, culinary cultures are similar too. I found it difficult, no, impossible, to find a restaurant that didn’t have meat as the only option, for every appetizer and main course. Anyone for a gizzard salad?
What separates the two is traditional culture. The Béarn is deeply, traditionally French. The other is something else.
The Pays Basque is, well, BASQUE, with its own language, Euskara, and non-French culture. Linguistically, Euskara is totally unrelated to any other living language. Which is saying something when you consider that eastern European Hungarian is linguistically related to Nordic Finnish. In bastions of Basque culture like St. Jean Pied-de-Port or St. Jean de Luz, you see signs around town written only in Euskara.
The current theory is that the ancestors of today’s Basques settled in what is today Europe before Romance languages originated. Euskara must be related to pre-Indo-European languages that have been extinct for some time. I find this fascinating.
I wanted to find a Basque male choir to actually hear the language, or even to attend a church service in Basque (I actually did do that decades ago, in a small village off the Atlantic coast, standing in a full church a whole head taller than the tallest Basque man, who along with all of his compatriots was wearing the stereotypical black beret). But we didn’t get around to that. Next time.
Still, you get a flavor for the language just from the names of towns deep into the country, like Irissarry, Irouléguy, Itxassou, Aussuruq, or the long homestead names inscribed on the large Basque houses, none of which I remember now.
You’ve heard of Pelota? It’s a Basque original, like Squash, but played with bare hands. There are summer tournaments in the major Basque towns, played in the traditional courts called “trinquets,” one of which we visited off-game. We didn’t get around to catching a game either. Next time.
The “Camino” runs through Basque country, with the last stop before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain at St. Jean Pied-de-Port. The town is pilgrim central, dotted with low cost hostels geared to certified Camino walkers. At the outfitter stores, weather-beaten pilgrims stock up on socks, rain ponchos, mountain gear and the traditional shroud. I would have loved to linger longer in the pleasant town, to talk to some pilgrims about how the walk was going for them. Next time.
Throughout French history the Basques have suffered, and even in modern times friction between Basques and administrative France existed. After World War II the state gradually provided the Basque region greater autonomy, and so deterred would be separatists.
And I do hope there’s a next time because it’s a beautiful region. I see myself in a rented Basque pile overlooking sheep pasture, before me a planche of fresh sheep’s milk cheese, gateau Basque and cider, settling in after a meandering walk in the hills.
But in the time of COVID-19, who knows when that will be. After a summer of crowded beach parties, bar raves and large weddings, cases are on a steep rise all over France. Mandatory mask-wearing at last is settling down on most cities, including here in Nice, and Mayoral threats to close down establishments violating the social distancing rules are more frequent.
For my part, I find travel under these circumstances to be drained of much of its allure. So much of what makes travel fun involves going to places that are now risky — restaurants, market, museums. So it’s okay that we’ll be staying put for a while. Plus, we are moving. More on that next time.
p.s. Fans of international crime fiction might want to get a flavor of the Béarn by reading the Detective Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas.
p.p.s. Most of you have heard of Béarnaise, one of French cuisine’s essential sauces.
p.p.p.s. WordPress has a new editing format. I hate it.