At twilight in early summer, when the warmth of the day has cooled enough for sweaters and jeans but the lingering light still renders the last beach walkers in ghostly shadow, the tiny Basque port of Lekeitio fairly glows. Red and blue boats bob expectantly, prepped and waiting for fishing excursions; seafood restaurants open side by side along the orderly docks, ready for customers; and the fishermen and women inside the 17th- and 18th-century homes facing the water begin to open windows, catching the summer night breeze and pulling in the day’s laundry, now dry.
Above this tableau, a 15th-century cathedral stands silent watch over a darkened courtyard where fancy prams are pushed silently back and forth by patient amonak, grandmothers.
So it was one evening this June, when my partner, Ian, and I, traveling with our 5-month-old daughter, Orli, arrived (too early at 9:45 p.m.!) at the portside restaurant Kaia for a dinner of freshly caught hake, grilled and crispy with just a touch of garlic and lemon, washed down with a bottle of cold Txakoli, the young white wine of the Basque region. Passersby called out to one another — “Agur!” (“Goodbye!”) or “Kaixo!” (“Hello!”) — nearly all conversing in Euskera, the Basque language, with the occasional smattering of Spanish “Buenas ...!”
Groups of twos and threes — families, teenagers, 20-somethings — began to pass our table, laughing and rushing toward the beach. We looked twice, three times, because nearly every other person was wearing a witch’s hat, tall and conical, some flimsy, some remarkably sturdy, all heading toward a bonfire that by dinner’s end had grown to a dramatic height, burning what appeared to be a devil in effigy in its midst.
We had stumbled on Lekeitio (pronounced leh-KAY-tee-oh) in the midst of the festival of San Juan Eguna (St. John the Baptist), a solstice celebration that also commemorates the witch burnings of the 17th century that took place in País Vasco — Basque Country in Spanish — up to Le Pays Basque — its French counterpart. Throughout the year, centuries-old Basque fiestas, named for patron saints, take place along the coast and into the mountains, from Spain to France, punctuated by raucous song and dance.
We were driving along the Basque Coast, choosing towns in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa (also known as Vizcay or Biscay and Guipúzcoa or Guipuscoa), two of the seven Basque provinces. Avoiding the new European Union-financed highways, we stuck to the old roads that cling to the shoreline, sharing the pavement with the ubiquitous Lycra-clad bicyclists, who seemed to mock us as they climbed seemingly endless inclines.
Our plan was to dip in to San Sebastián for a few days and then continue on to the Pays Basque — or as one family from Bilbao would say to us later in the trip, “Iparralde,” the “North Country.” We were searching for what makes these areas more Basque than Spanish or French.
When I first visited Basque Country, back in 2006, I was bowled over by the depth, nuance and tenacity of Basque culture, so different, it seemed, from the mores of Spain and France. Basque festivals and traditions feel ancient, even though their kitchens, and their style, can be light, whimsical and modern. As a people, they trace their roots from the south of France through the north of Spain, sharing a language, Euskera — though it sounds different from south to north — and a vibrant maritime history.
On this trip I hoped to compare Basque culture and identity in France, where it is far less controversial, against its photo negative in Spain, where it seems to inform everything about public life.
Some years ago, I met the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, who mused about the Basque Country.
“How many names it has!” he exclaimed. “For some it is Euskal Herria, others Euskadi, still others, País Vasco. In French, it is the Terroir Vasca.” It is, he said poetically, “a kind of small jungle with a lot of paths.”
On this trip, I learned what Mr. Atxaga meant. On the Spanish side, the Basqueness was front and center: there, children careened between Spanish and Basque effortlessly, and the signs and celebrations and simply the landscape, feel purposefully, and palpably, different from Madrid’s. On the French side we had to look harder, but the Basqueness was there — in homes, sometimes behind closed doors, but also in the similar celebrations of dance, song, athleticism and food.
The two halves are connected: more than cousins, but not quite brothers. And yet they borrow tradition as well from their host countries. To start the day in Spain and end in France, or vice versa, was to play roulette with eating times: Spanish Basques eat with Spain, lunch at 2 or 3 and dinner at 10. The French Basques eat with Paris, lunch at 12:30 and dinner at 8.
IAN and I chose Lekeitio nearly at random, plucking pueblos off the map of jagged blue highways that hug the imperious Cantabrian coast, falling in love with the village and spontaneously electing to stay the night at the seven-room Hotel Palacio Oxangoiti, a noble home built in the 17th century, with a view out our window of the imposing cathedral and its plaza. We wanted to see the minimiracle that takes place twice a day there, a land bridge that opens up at low tide between one of Lekeitio’s three pristine beaches and an island in the center of the bay. With proper timing, picnickers can walk out to sea and back without ever getting wet.
Our day had begun in Bakio, a luscious beach town about one hour north of Bilbao, reachable through country lanes, past gas stations that sold music entirely in Basque and where attendants spoke first in Basque before switching to Spanish. At lunch we sat facing the sea at Bar Itxas-Ondo with sweating drinks and pintxos; these tapas were hunks of tuna married to a wedge of tomato and bathed in vinegar, dressed with a Basque flag of red and green peppers and white onion.
“My daughter speaks Euskera perfectly,” said Fernando Morcillo Barrueta, an owner of the bar, his black hair dusted with white as though crusted with the sea salt in the air. “But me? No. Nor her grandparents. We grew up in the Franco years and never learned.”
He lighted cigarette after cigarette; his wife pulled beers behind him.
The history of language is a common refrain on the Spanish side. Basque identity was brutally suppressed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. The language, the flag, the songs, the celebrations were forbidden.
When the dictatorship ended and the region gained autonomous status, reviving the language became a top priority. It is now hard to get a job without knowing Euskera, especially if you seek work in local government.
But Euskera remains a political issue. Raise it at a party in San Sebastián and you’ll have seven opinions from seven people on how to educate children going forward, especially since País Vasco elected a non-nationalist government last spring for the first time in 30 years of autonomous government. (Spain has 17 autonomous regions, each with its own government.)
But if language is political, the culture of the sea is a given. Outside Bakio, we stopped to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a small island topped by an orangey-red-roofed 19th-century church and a thousand-year-old monastery, reached by a hike up a wall with 231 steps. Sailors used to go there to give thanks for surviving shipwrecks; fishermen and women still make the pilgrimage at the beginning of the season to pray for the season’s catch.
Throughout Basque Country, 15th- to 19th-century cathedrals abound; inside, more often than not, are minischooners hanging like mobiles from vaulted ceilings. They are offerings from the sailors that dominated these regions — some of whom were lost at sea forever, others merely married to the sea for most of the year. Shipwrecks were often attributed to the witches burned in effigy that starry night in Lekeitio.
The hike to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe starts at the restaurant Eneperi, a Basque farmhouse dating back to the early 19th century. Peeking inside Eneperi, I saw the two halves of Basque Country.
A rambunctious private wedding was taking place in one room; the women were dressed in wide skirts with kerchief head scarves, and the men, in vests with berets, were stamping and shouting. The music was from the trikitixa, the Basque accordion; songs were in Euskera; the children were dressed as though from the mountains 200 years ago, miniature versions of their parents.
Outside, the serving staff and the chef stood back observing. “We see this less and less,” said the chef, taking me to see a photo of women in the mid-19th century, dressed exactly as the wedding guests, before excusing himself to return to the kitchen.
Jutting out from the other side of Eneperi is a new addition, mostly walled in glass overlooking the sea, with a huge mural of trees on the one nonwindowed wall and sofas, as if from a cocktail lounge, waiting for beer-carrying tourists. Twenty-first- century families were finishing lunch — croquetas and fish, ham and salads — overlooking the sea.
In Bakio, Mr. Barrueta, the bar owner, had told us that Bermeo — a large fishing town between Bakio and Lekeitio — had been one of the most important ports of Spain before European Union integration. Now, he said, kids don’t want to be fishermen anymore. It is too long to be out at sea.
THE road between Bakio and Bermeo was closed that day, washed out during the tough winter months and still under repair, so we doubled back before hitting Lekeitio. Everywhere, sheep and goats cleaved to mountains, 15th-century churches loomed up, and cyclists in jerseys sponsored by Euskaltel, the local phone company, hustled past in muscular packs of twos and threes.
Again and again, we burst through the trees into vistas that were clichés of breathtaking beauty: hazy cliffs circled by seagulls, crashing waves filled with foam that gave way, improbably, to pristine fine-sand beaches at each town.
After Lekeitio, we continued up the coast, cruising through Ondarroa and Deba, admiring each fishing villages’ seaside boardwalks and the distinctly Basque look of the people — elderly men in black berets, young women with blunt-cut jet-black hair and dark glittering eyes. We stopped to eat and meander in Getaria and Zarautz, villages connected by a sea highway and a walkable two-mile promenade so gloriously close to the water that we had the feeling we were dragonflies skimming the surface.
But by early evening we wanted to be in France. The distance was small — within 12 miles of San Sebastián, we came to St.-Jean-de-Luz — but at first, we felt we’d lost the Basque Country altogether. Everything felt French, from the glorious pain de tradition at Maison Laurent Frappier, the artisanal bakery across the street from our hotel, to the wedding cake frippery of the Grand Hôtel Loreamar Thalasso Spa that preens (in pink and white belle époque glory) over the sweeping white sandy cove of the bathing beach, to the magnificent Église St.-Jean-Baptiste, where Louis IV married Maria-Theresa, to the ubiquitous use of the French language.
In St.-Jean-de-Luz, it is “au revoir” not “agur” as you leave restaurants and stores. The Basqueness of le Pays Basque felt more “folkloric,” as my Basque screenwriter friend from San Sebastián, Xabi Zabaleta, would put it later.
Wildly colorful espadrille stores abound, like Nicole Paries and Sandales Bayona. Basque cloth — linge — is sold everywhere, vibrant stripes on heavy sailcloth made by companies like Jean Vier, Euskal Linge and Tissage de Luz, with each company peddling expensive but lovely tablecloths and napkins, hot-mitts and table runners, aprons and breadbaskets. They are called “Basque” but are marked “made in France,” and the feel is more akin to shopping for Provençal table coverings than absorbing Basque culture.
That’s not to take away from the beauty of the village. The boardwalk on the beach extends for miles, past pristine white-and-red Basque-style mansions facing the sea, past the day trippers and vacationers and into and through a botanical garden, a hike of sorts, paved, that allowed our baby stroller to make it all the way to the top of a hill that overlooked St.-Jean-de-Luz and its neighboring village, Ciboure, in one direction, and on to Guéthary and Bidart in the other. Plants were marked with small signs indicating their origin and their fealty to this specific region.
Yet slowly, the Basqueness began to emerge, as we quieted down and listened for it. Michel Hiribarren, the gregarious proprietor of the gorgeous, sleekly modern Zazpi Hotel, spoke fluent Spanish and French — but his grandchild, he said proudly, studies Basque in school half the time. (Zazpi, he explained, means seven in Euskera, and stands for the seven Basque provinces.)
At La Cantina D’Amona, a tiny place serving abundant salads dressed with smoked salmon or tuna, chèvre or jamón, a portrait of the proprietor’s ancestors hung behind the register looking for all the world as though they might have stepped from Lekeitio: the black beret on the grandfather, the dark hair of the grandmother.
“No, no, I am more Basque than French,” said Josephine Arruti, a saleswoman with wild jet-black curls at Lorea, a small boutique on Rue Gambetta, a pedestrian mall, where I bought a filmy white scarf dotted with tiny blue flecks.
Strolling the shops, it was easy to feel you were in France — we picked up Petite Bateau onesies (on sale!) for Orli — but on the same block, at the 75-year-old Crémerie Lohitzun, the products — like fromage de brebis and cherry marmalades — were distinctly Basque. And at Maison Laurent Frappier, I realized that alongside their croissants and baguettes, the bakery sold several gateaux Basques, pastries filled with dark cherries or cream.
OUR second night in town we stumbled upon Buvette de La Halle, a tiny seafood spot that takes over part of the parking lot outside the fish market on warm days and nights (in winter, the bar is only indoors). Jean Laborde, the owner and sole waiter, worked each table, giggling with group after group in French, English and Spanish. He pointed out the blackboard menu and refused to allow us to order more than a simple tomato salad, a perfectly grilled piece of tuna married to a piperade — a kind of ratatouille of tomatoes, spice and peppers — and a thick seafood stew, a cousin of bouillabaisse, dotted with mussels. We did not need, he insisted, a plate of grilled sardines as well.
The bar was his great- grandmother’s and still opens each morning at 5 to greet the fishermen. “We are only accidentally French,” he said, with a smile, likening his host state to the Romans and Greeks — a government that would not stick around for centuries like the Basques who have proudly lived in this region longer than anyone else. A small child kept running up to Jean yelling “Gascon! Gascon!,” a reference to what the Basques called the non-Euskera speakers who came to settle in Le Pays Basque centuries ago.
To find more evidence of Basqueness, we were told, we should go smaller than St.-Jean-de-Luz. So we journeyed on.
In Bidart, just to the north, the houses were entirely in the Basque style — brightly colored window frames, whitewashed otherwise — the tiny town center was dominated by a massive jai alai court, and a billboard was filled with posters in Euskera. A demonstration was called for the next week to protest the detention of members of the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom) who had escaped to France.
It was incongruous, this mention of terror, with the blue skies and perfect beaches, but it was a reminder of the political links these regions have shared over the last 30 or so years, when separatist violence marked the Spanish side of Basque Country and suspects escaped into France to avoid detention south of the border. Indeed, in the weeks after we drove the coast, ETA reared its head again — this time outside the Basque country — farther south in Burgos, bombing a police barracks and injuring more than 60, and on the island of Majorca, bringing its separatist message of fear and loathing back.
We had returned to America by then, but I thought immediately of my friends in San Sebastián — the anger and shame Xabi tells me he feels whenever there is an attack, and the mournful fear, expressed over and over to us by our friends each time we visit, that the Basques will never be able to put the violence behind them. Everyone I know in the region has been touched in some way by terror.
But, as I’ve always found in Basque Country, that terror is almost unfathomable as you travel the region. And so it was for us — despite the renewed efforts of Basque extremists for independence, we almost did not feel their presence, other than in the papers we read and in the conversations we had with friends.
It is even less a presence in France than in Spain. Farther inland from Bidart — though just barely — we visited Sare (Sara in Basque) and Ascain, tiny Pyrenean border villages with festivals of Basque dance and music planned all summer long. There, the church services and signs are in Euskera just as they would be on the Spanish side. Graffiti on the walls called for INDEPENDENTZIA, a call for an independent Basque state.
In Sare, we met Inma and Bruno, a couple from Bilbao on vacation to the “north of Euskadi” with their 8-year-old daughter. They were speaking Euskera at the table next to us as we ate a too-expensive meal at the Hotel Lastiry in the center of town. Inma is a professor of Euskera, Bruno works for the Basque government. “Que guapa!” they said of our Orli, speaking to us in Spanish.
They invited us to join them; they were on their way to the grottos of Sare, caves where the witches and sorcerers are believed to have hid during the 17th-century witch trials in nearby Zugarramurdi. The witches had followed us from south to north.
We regretfully declined, but promised to stay in touch, maybe even meet up on Calle 31 de Agosto in San Sebastián, for pintxos, a gastronomic treat that all Basques, whatever their first language, would admit worthwhile.
HOW TO GET THERE
Iberia flies from Kennedy Airport in New York to Madrid and on to San Sebastián; a recent Web search turned up fares starting around $560 in October. Air France flies from J.F.K. through Paris to Bilbao. Round-trip flights in October were as low as $545.
WHERE TO STAY
In Lekeitio, Spain, the seven-room Hotel Palacio Oxangoiti, (Gamarra Kalea, 2; 34-94-465-0555; www.oxangoiti.net) is run by the affable María Isabel Oxangoiti and is perched perfectly above the cathedral’s plaza. Doubles start at 80 euros, $120 at $1.50 to the euro.
In St.-Jean-de-Luz, France, the high-design Zazpi Hotel (21, boulevard Thiers; 33-5-59-26-07-77; www.zazpihotel.com ), also with seven rooms, has a hidden rooftop pool. Doubles from 160 euros.
WHERE TO EAT
In Bakio, Spain, we stopped at Bar Itxas-Ondo (Zarrakoa, 9; 34-94-619-4004) overlooking the water, where thick chunks of marinated tuna and other tapas averaged out at a euro or two apiece.
Eneperi, on the way to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (San Pelaio, 89, Bakio; 34-94-619-4065; www.eneperi.com), is both a formal restaurant and a bar.
In Lekeitio, we had an excellent grilled hake “Bilbao style” at Kaia (Txatxo Kaia, 5; 34-94-624-3753; www.lekeitiokaia.com) one of a half-dozen port-side restaurants; dinner for two came to 80 euros.
But if fish à la plancha is what you’re looking for, it’s worth a detour to Iribar in Getaria (Kale Nagusia; 34-94- 314-0406) where you can find the freshest catch on the coast; 75 euros for two.
In St.-Jean-de-Luz, our favorite spot was Buvette de la Halle (18 bis, boulevard Victor Hugo; 33-5-59-26-73-59), where Jean Laborde runs the bar-restaurant opened by his great-grandmother. Dinner for two comes in at a reasonable 45 euros.
Also in St.-Jean-de-Luz, the salade niçoise was light and perfect at La Cantina D’Amona (19, rue Loquin; 33-6-30-08-50-52), where lunch for two came to 25 euros with wine. We purchased picnic-ready cheeses and meats from the 75-year-old Crémerie Lohitzun (3, rue Loquin; 33-5-59-26-35-83; www.cremerie-lohitzun.com).
WHERE TO SHOP
French Basque Country is known for Basque Linge — everything from tablecloths and oven mitts to chairs and bags. In St.-Jean-de-Luz, try Jean-Vier (48, rue Gambetta; 33-5-59-26-03-53; www.jean-vier.com), Euskal Linge (28-30, rue Gambetta; 33-5-59-85-39-17; www.euskal-linge.com) or Tissage de Luz (83, rue Gambetta; 33-5-59-26-96-96; www.tissage-de-luz.com).
Espadrilles are wildly popular there and both Nicole Paries (52, rue Gambetta; 33-5-59-26-15-94; www.espadrille-paries.com) and Sandales Bayona (60, rue Gambetta; 33-5-59-51-96-41) hawk the famous rope-soled slippers.