As soon as I finished my last exam (the last one that counted, anyway), my friend and I took the earliest train the next morning and headed to Pays Basque, in a haste to have some fun, forget about school, and our dreadful IR exam in two weeks.
I first learned about this particular region from, well, food. Basque cuisine is known especially for its pintxos (Basque tapas), jambon (air-dried ham), fromage de brebis (sheep cheese), gateau Basque, and cidre Basque. Since it is a region that borders France and Spain you can easily see the influence of both countries in the local cuisine. An amazing combination, though food mostly leans towards the heavier side. But all the more reason to accompany your food with drinks! :p
We used Bayonne as our base to travel to other cities nearby. Unfortunately, the day we had the chance to spend the whole day to explore the city, it was pouring. The sun came out at 8pm…and we were too tired to do anything productive. It was also 1er mai, a national holiday, so everything was pretty much closed.
Jambon de Bayonne is Pays Basque’s specialty, and of course, our ideal cure to the rainy day. I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by this much meat before.
The best ham is when its been air-dried for 24 months. The younger ones, like 18 months, still have the raw taste and flappy texture which can be too much when you’ve had a few slices. I also suggest pairing this with a rosé or sparkling red. Perfection in your mouth. Also good with local sheep cheeses!
Besides the jambon, go for the chorizo and saucisson too! In a place that specializes in manufacturing things with pork, meat can’t go wrong!
Bayonne is also the first place where chocolate was introduced in France.
Chocolate is already part of my regular diet, so I didn’t plan to make a special trip or excursion for chocolate. But if you want a taste of good chocolate, Thierry Bamas is the local Meilleur Ouvrier de France. You will not only be able to find good quality chocolate, but also some patisseries. Did I mention he is champion du monde for his ice cream?
On our second day, we went to Saint Jean de Luz.
One of the first things we visited was their small cover market, where we were surprised by the number of sheep cheeses there. I have never seen this many variety of sheep cheese!!!! Even at my favorite fromagerie Laurent Dubois. Ugh, I wish I could transport this all back.
I also discovered that you can get jambon by the cone…definitely way more appealing than ice cream.
The entire city is small. Probably take you about half a day to get through the entire city on foot. I love the Spanish-influenced architecture here.
The beach is also really nice, but it did not appeal to me to go swimming. The waves were small…and it looked really dull. But it makes for a pretty view and good spot to relax.
Pays Basque is also known for having good seafood, so the bigger cities along the coast all have a small port.
And of course for lunch, we decided to have seafood accompanied by a bottle of delicious Basque cider.
Btw, did I mention just how cheap Pays Basque is? We had a set menu for lunch, three courses for 19 euros. Our bottle of cider cost 9. We were both so surprised. And don’t let me get started on the prices of coffee! Where it’s 4-6 euros for a good cup of cappuccino in Paris, here, it is anywhere from 1.10 to 1.55. I kid you not. Oh and pastries? You’re looking at 3 – 4 euros as well. In Paris, don’t count on getting anything below 6 euros.
Also, off the typical tourist track…I have to give a shout out to Ocean Coffee Bar. It was near our bus stop back to Bayonne, so we stopped here for a water and bathroom break.
I can really come here again for vacation…in a place with cheap good coffee, cheap pastries, cheap everything basically, and all that jambon and sheep cheese? Yeah, that should do it.