The French Side of Basque Country
At the end of October, summer had returned to the Basque Country. Swimmers joined the surfers along the coast. A strong sun turned the Atlantic Ocean from green to blue. On a late Sunday morning, in the French fishing village of Ciboure, townspeople poured out of L’Église St.-Vincent, a 16th-century church with an octagonal tower. Some stopped to chat by a tall gray cross speckled with lichen. Little girls in poufy dresses ran in circles, squealing. A young man tended to his stooped grandfather, who negotiated old flagstone with a cane. Freshly coifed women with short-handled pocket books lingered in the courtyard. “Bonne journée,” called the priest to his congregation as they headed off into the narrow streets on their way home for lunch.
I was passing through Ciboure en route to St.-Jean-de-Luz with my friend Gabriella Ranelli, whom I’d persuaded to leave her adopted home in the Spanish Basque Country where she organizes customized tours to poke around in the French part with me.
When most people think of the Basque Country, they think of Spain. Bilbao began the so-called Guggenheim effect. San Sebastián has all those Michelin stars. And Pamplona, notoriously, lets bulls run through its streets once a year. But the Basque Country is made up of seven provinces, three of which are in southwestern France.
The Basques are an ancient people who have inhabited this territory for thousands of years. Today, the Spanish part is an autonomous region with a Basque government, while the French part answers to the central government in Paris. The Spanish side has had a strong independence movement, which has lately been eclipsed by Catalonia’s. At the height of its activity in the latter part of the last century, ETA, the Basque separatist group, did most of its fighting on the Spanish side, saving the French side as a hideout.