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Basque Country France Basque Country

Basque Country France

The wettest and greenest part of the Pyrenees is known as the Basque Country, (Euskadi in Basque and País Vasco in Spanish), which is situated in the far southwestern corner of France in the département of Pyrénées Atlantiques (64) in the region of Aquitaine.

The area around the Bay of Biscay, which spans the French and Spanish border, has been occupied by the Basques since the 6th century but little is known about its history before that time. Having resisted centuries of invasion from various nations, the Basques gained a certain amount of autonomy which they promptly lost again during the French Revolution.

Basque Country

The most fascinating aspect of the Basque Country history and culture is the language itself, Euskadi. Euskadi has resisted Latin and its derivatives and so it appears to be utterly unrelated to any other known language, a rare phenomenon. It is spoken by about a million people in Spain and France, who are generally bilingual. When travelling in the region you will see signs written in French and Euskadi, and sometimes just in Euskadi. Shops have notices with ' Hemen Euskadi emaiten dugu', which means 'Basque spoken here'. The first book was published in Basque in 1545, sparking off a strong tradition of Basque literature.

The two main towns in the Basque Country are Biarritz and Bayonne, both about 25km north of the mountains and the Spanish border. Biarritz is famed for being a glamorous beach resort and, though once rather elitist, it is now revitalised and more accessible. Bayonne, 6km inland, is the cultural capital of the region and really the only town with a life beyond tourism. St Jean de Luz is one of the prettiest towns, and popular with families because it is quieter than Biarritz.

The two most popular sports in the region are corrida, which is bull fighting in the Spanish style and happens around six times every summer, and pelota. Ask the tourist offices in Biarritz or Bayonne for details on how to reserve a seat for the bull fights. Pelota, or jai alai is the fastest (and most perilous!) ball game in the world and can be seen in Bayonne and St Jean de Luz. It involves hitting a hard leather ball against a wall at one end of the court with either your hands or a chistera (a sort of 'hand extension' made of basket work). The ball travels at up to 200kph and players are often knocked out!

Another peculiar thing to watch out for: if you take the train over the border into Spain you may have to change trains as the tracks are narrower in Spain!