Basque in history

Basque in history

French connection

Basque in history

Kalpana Sunder explores the delectable history of the French fishing port, St Jean de Luz, and finds out what makes this place an ideal spot for a seaside vacation.

There is a quiet corner in France at the foothills of the Pyrenees, where the light is translucent, the long beaches have silvery surf and life is in the slow lane. A place where French and Spanish influences are in a perfect harmonious marriage.

Picturesque St Jean de Luz is situated in the feisty Basque country with its own ancient language called Euskera (not connected to any other language in the world) and distinctive culture and cuisine. The town lies in a sheltered bay between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees.

From the 16th century, the town became rich from whaling and pirates called corsairs, who worked with the blessings of the government, and built fine houses with their ill-gotten wealth. This fishing port is in the mouth of the Nivelle river, which empties into the bay of St Jean de Luz.

The Basque name for the town is Donibane Lohitzune (‘Doni Bane’ meaning Saint John, and ‘Lohizune’ meaning marshes). This refers to long ago, when the river flowed wild and the estuary was a vast marsh which often flooded.

Our Hotel La Reserve has a dramatic cliff-top location on the edge of town, above the stormy Atlantic, with views of the azure crescent bay and the crashing waves from my French windows. The hotel interiors have tiled floors, antique wooden furniture, local Basque furnishings and an infinity pool that looks like it can fall down the cliff at anytime.

The Church of St John the Baptist is the showpiece of the town. I am entranced by its superb, intricately carved, Baroque altar featuring 20 French saints, and three-tiered dark oak wood galleries. The wooden galleries were meant for the men; the women stood on the ground floor, signifying their role in Basque society as being connected to the dead spirits buried below.

From the ceiling hangs a paddle wheel ship, which was a gift from Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife. This was the venue of the famous wedding of Louis XIV with Maria Theresa in 1660 — a political wedding which cemented the relations of two countries. Legend has it that the door through which the royal couple entered was blocked forever, symbolising an end to the hostility between Spain and France!

We walk along the long promenade with its sturdy sea embankment, built to protect the locals from the rage of the ocean, lined with 19th century seaside mansions. The Basque country is dotted with churches built by sailors as thanksgiving for returning home safely. The town is small and we walk everywhere.

Artists work on easels and markets overflow with fresh produce. The town is also famous for its Thalassotherapy — treatment with salt water, seaweed and algae, which cures all ills from migraines to rheumatism to sprained ankles. The focal point of the town is the Place Louis XIV, the house where the famous monarch spent the last few days of his bachelorhood.

Close by is Rue Gambetta, the pedestrianised shopping street connecting the fishing port to the beach. It is lined with boutiques and distinctive whitewashed timber-framed houses, with their doors and shutters painted in red. Around every corner, there are men in black berets, and the national colours of the Basque flag — red, green and white.

The town seems to have a huge sweet tooth. I am assailed by the aromas of sweet macaroons, caramels and pastries. There is the famous shop of Pierre Oteiza filled with cured meats, homemade foie gras and rustic sheep’s milk cheeses paired with black cherry jam. I bite into the famous local macaroons, invented for the royal marriage at La Maison Adam, dating back to 1660, made with a secret recipe that has remained unchanged down the ages. Our sweet trail leads us next to Maison Paries.

While their mouchous (softer than macaroons, made with more almond paste and less sugar) are fantastic and come in amazing boxes (‘mouchou’ means ‘kiss’ in Basque), it’s their kanougas (chewy caramels first created in 1905) that I fall in love with. Every shop sells the crumbly, butter pastry cake called gateau basque filled with almond cream or, sometimes, black cherries. I succumb helplessly to the distinctive Linge Basque, with vibrant candy-coloured stripes on heavy sailcloth, sold in shops with brands like Tissage de Luz and Artiga ,offering a range of tablecloth, bags, napkins and bread baskets.

Sea it as it is

The raison d’être of the town is the sea — even the festivals celebrate this connection. We hear about the Fete du Thon, which celebrates the bounty of tuna catches, with music, dancing, sizzling tuna steaks and a festive atmosphere.

We walk to the port with its fishing nets laid out to dry and ship-owners’ homes dating from the 17th century. The Nivelle river separates the two parts of town — St Jean de Luz proper and its newer ‘suburb’, Ciboure (former home of the composer Ravel).We take a boat cruise down the Nivelle river, passing into the bay, watching the dramatic Flysch-geological formations of limestone, sandstone and shale with more than 50 million years of history. In the distance is the 3,000-foot summit of La Rhune, the emblematic Basque mountain that marks the Spanish frontier.

That evening, we head to the local fronton or court to watch a pelota game. This Basque game is one of the fastest ball games in the world, played with a long hook-shaped wicker basket, back and forth against the walls like squash. This men-only game has a great fan following locally, and I see families cheer and enjoy their evening at the pelota match.

Local Basque cuisine is distinctive, often flavoured by piquant Espelette chillies. We have dinner at the Olatua Restaurant with a traditional Basque menu and historical photographs lining the walls. The charismatic Basque owner, Ramuntxo Berria, talks to us about the centuries-old Basque language, which his children learn at school even today. He speaks with passion about Basque cuisine which is loaded with veal, lamb and fish, special white beans and cod fish with potatoes.

Our meal at his restaurant is fresh and tasty with a fennel soup with chunks of local cottage cheese and light Jurancon wine full of exotic citrus flavours. The meal ends with Patxaran, an alcoholic beverage from Navarra, which has anise, liqueur, fruits and prunes and is matured for five months. At the end of the meal, I mull over the toast in these parts — “Salud, Amor y Pesetas..... y el tiempo para gustarlos,” which translates as “health, love and money..and the time to enjoy them!”

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