Road Trip through Pays Basque

4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

A Road Trip through French Basque Country

Our day was off to a terrible start. We woke up with the greatest of intentions: for a mere $50 per person for the day, we were going to rent Vespas and set off, hair blowing in the wind, while visiting the quaint little towns in Pays Basque. We had originally planned on taking the bus to Espelette, our tentative final destination for the day, but we wanted to up the ante, plus the bus there was a rather round about route.

Giddily, we headed to the Vespa rental company and let them know we were going to rent scooters to explore.

“You’re both going to rent?” the guy asked, clearly staring at me while he was asking the question.

“Yes, we’re both going to rent.” I was actually a bit perturbed that he picked me out as the culprit in this scenario.

“Well, have you ever ridden before?”

Damn. That minor detail. I couldn’t lie, so I told him that no, I hadn’t ever ridden. I mean, could it really be that difficult? I just saw a 90-year-old scooting down the street. He responded that he could most definitely not rent me a vespa. Then he turned to Scott and suggested that he rent a vespa, put me on the back and set sail. Mind you, Scott hasn’t ridden either, but I suppose him being a man makes people assume he’d have a better natural inclination for these things. We were both completely uncomfortable with this idea. It’s not that I don’t trust my husband, it’s just… well, I just saw this all going south very quickly.

Our plans were foiled. Agh. Luckily the vespa rental station was adjacent to the train station so we walked that direction to see if we could perhaps get a train – or even a bus – to where we needed to go. A train to Bordeaux didn’t leave for hours so that didn’t make sense, and we were beginning to become disillusioned. Our perfect plans were slowly disintegrating. Soon we saw a door that I thought may lead to an information desk. Instead, it was the door to a car rental agency.

A CAR RENTAL.

How did we not think of this?! We could rent a car! So, I’ll spare you the details but we had to bounce around a bit to find a car rental agency that offered an automatic that would work for us. $101 later, we were off, heading down the French roads of Pays Basque. The world was our oyster now since we weren’t tied to a bus or train schedule. Armed with a book on the French Basque Country, we bookmarked four towns that we wanted to see in the region: the quaint town of Sare and the equally storybook town of Ainhoa, the pepper-laden village of Espelette, and the pilgrim town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Sare

4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

In researching the small French towns in the Basque region, we never once came across information about Sare. If we did, we completely disregarded it. It wasn’t until we were actually in Basque Country at our hotel in St. Jean-de-Luz that we stumbled upon a Basque Country guide book that pinpointed Sare as one of the prettiest towns in the region.

Since we were driving, it made sense to stop along the way and see it for ourselves.

Located in the Labourd province about 30 minutes’ drive from St. Jean-de-Luz, Sare is a petite town with a load of beauty around every bend. Admittedly, there aren’t many bends in this teensy town. The facades reflect that gorgeous medieval French architecture that we saw in St. Jean-de-Luz and Bayonne; that storybook image that makes you feel like you’ve fallen into a Disney fairytale.

Sare, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Sare, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Sare, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Sare, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

There was a tiny market happening when we popped in; a handful of tents popped up in a main square with vendors selling espadrilles and handmade French soaps. A tiny shop, Le Piment Rouge, was our first shopping stop for the day where we picked up Basque cider for future consumption. The star of Sare for us was the church and the stunning burial grounds. It sounds morbid, but we were immediately drawn to the graveyard, a sea of beautiful crosses and brightly colored blooms springing up from each plot. It this little town, this space seemed to dominate the nearby landscape and we were captivated for a few minutes before departing.

One of our attempted stops was the Sare Caves (referred to locally as the Grottes de Sare), a somewhat regionally famous site. We attempted to visit the caves which are actually on the outskirts of Sare in a nearby town, only to find that visitors can only tour the caves with a tour group for an hour-long experience. Tour groups go regularly during the day but are done almost exclusively in French but for one tour (at 1:30PM), which is done in Spanish. Like I mentioned yesterday, English doesn’t generally seem to be a priority in the region and is mostly an afterthought. French and/or Spanish skills are very helpful though not necessary. We didn’t want to wait for the Spanish tour, so we said our goodbyes to Sare and moved on to the next town on our agenda.

Sare, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

{Total time in Sare: 25 – 30 minutes, with a 10 minute detour to the caves}

Keep reading to find out what other towns we visit during our impromptu French Basque Country road trip!

Ainhoa

AInhoa, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

In this same book on Basque Country towns, the town of Ainhoa was highlighted and Scott voted to make it a stop along the way. Not only had I not heard of it, I couldn’t even pronounce the town’s name (EYE-no-ah). Ainhoa is in the Basque province of  Labourd and the Aquitaine region of southwestern France. It’s bigger than Sare, though still a small medieval village more than a town. Like many of the towns we stumbled across, the homes are all done in the same color and style which gives a neat, clean feel to the space.

We had arrived at Ainhoa around noon, a terrible time to arrive anywhere since the siesta-type policy is pervasive in the region. We walked by restaurant after store after boutique that was closed for a couple of hours. Had more been open, we would have gladly spent more time perusing the area. For ladies visiting, there’s one fabulous jewelry store at the end of the main street, Creations Artisan d’Art, that sells unique locally crafted jewelry. If you’re looking for a cool statement piece that’s anything but kitschy, this was one of the best places that I found in the towns we visited.

It’s worth noting that the 12PM – 2PM period will generally be pretty dead, which seemed to be a theme in many of the smaller towns (perhaps the bigger ones, too).

Ainhoa, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Ainhoa, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Ainhoa, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

Ainhoa is notably unique in one respect: the homes that line the main street have the last names of the original inhabitants painted on the facade. Our tour guide/chauffeur during our day exploring La Rioja (that’s next!) explained that the families essentially adopted the names of the home that they occupied, which was how people in the community would know where they lived and which family unit they belonged to.

{Total time in Ainhoa: About 30 minutes, though we could have been there longer if more stores were open!}

Espelette

Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

Espelette, also in the Basque province of Labourd, was originally the anchor town for our day of exploration. We had read about the ever-present Espelette peppers and the picturesque town of Pays Basque and knew we needed to explore. Espelette is notably bigger than Sare and Ainhoa, and has a much busier, and perhaps slightly more touristed, sense about it.

The homes and buildings in Espelette are covered in hanging red and burgundy-toned peppers as an homage to the area’s main export, and the majority of the buildings are painted white and red to complement this touch.

We immediately found shop after shop that we wanted to peruse. First was a tented outdoor stand where we purchased a chunk of local cheese with Espelette peppers. How could we not? We were gearing up for an afternoon picnic so we were beginning our curation now.

Espellette, Pays BasqueEspellette, Pays Basque

Next was Lorblanc, a shop that had us drooling from the moment we entered. We walked through three sections, including a refrigerated wall of cheese from local producers; a wall of pepper-infused items (from oils to mustards to chocolates and honey); a section of tinned fish and gourmet nibbles; and a wall of handcrafted sausages in different varieties. We loaded up with cheese, sausage, and waters for the road lest we get too aggressive with our purchasing too early on.

We continued walking the streets of Espelette, home to more shops like Lorblanc, though none quite as big. We taste-tested pepper-infused mustards, handcrafted nougat, chocolate with chili flakes, and a variety of liqueurs, and ended up buying a little bit of everything to take with us.

Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque Espelette, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

{Total time in Espelette: about an hour}

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

Our final stop of the day was the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a village owing its name to its location at the foot of the Pyrenees. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was the capital of the Basque province of Lower Navarre, and has a bustling air that makes it feel as alive as Saint-Jean-de-Luz in many ways. When we began researching the region months in advance we talked about our desire to visit Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port but accepted the fact that dealing with public transportation to get to its tucked away location would be too difficult to be realistic.

With a rental car, this was remedied and we had plenty of time to see what this famous pilgrimage town was all about.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

Firstly, let me say that if Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is not on your radar, it should be. I’m happy that we chose St. Jean-de-Luz as our home base, but we could have spent a full day in this gorgeous town and been content.

Firstly, the views from the citadel are second to none. Second, the town has a unique history that’s melded seamlessly into the modern-day; it manages to bring history to life in a way that’s difficult to describe. Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees with sweeping views and the Nive River running through, the town is a mecca for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela, making Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port their final stop in France before crossing into Spain, which is a mere five miles away. This was an important Christian pilgrimage in the middle ages and many modern-day pilgrims making the journey on foot still depart from this mountain town. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is incredibly unique, which is why I hesitate to remotely liken it to St. Jean-de-Luz, in that the streets are lined with shops, restaurants, and hostels dedicated to Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (‘the Friends of the Way of St. James’), denoted by a scallop symbol. It’s like the coolest and nicest hostel town you can imagine, but with very few bars.

We knew that it was an important stop for those undertaking this arduous journey, but we had no idea how integral an aspect this is for the city broadly. Along the main road in town which leads up to the citadel, at least half of the establishments bore the signs of Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques. I mentioned that this was a more bustling town than the rest we saw, but it’s a different sort of bustling than St. Jean-de-Luz. Here we saw many backpackers (literally carrying their backpacks, along with walking sticks) journeying along the cobblestoned streets that line the town, popping into places for gear, a ‘pilgrim lunchbox’, or an inexpensive place to stay the night. The main streets have some great shopping, from jewelry to spices, for those less interested in the religious pilgrimage draw.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

It was between 2PM and 3PM when we arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and we were ready for lunch. We made our way to the citadel, a site we knew we’d want to peruse more in depth, and found a little pocket of green with a park bench overlooking the valley below.

It was perfect.

We brought our all of our finds from the towns we had visited earlier – cheese, meat (for him), a fresh-baked baguette, and Espelette mustard – and snacked while we took in the sunshine and the postcard-perfect vista. Even looking at the photos now, I’m in awe of how beautiful this backdrop is.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

After refueling, we made our way to the citadel to walk the grounds. Many people were up for the walk around the fortress, dressed in their hiking gear and boots. I was dressed a little less properly for the cobblestone inclines but made it through at a reasonable pace perfectly fine. The citadel’s elevated location provides the best views in town so it’s worth the little hike to enjoy the vistas.

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, 4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

{Total time in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: About 2 hours}

For us, this was a perfect day trip visiting a range of small towns all with their own unique personalities. While we didn’t do this purposefully, our town visits ended up being arranged in order of smallest to largest, with Sare being our first foray into quaint towns, and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port being a grand finale of sorts.

We had our choice of towns across the region to visit, and even in hindsight I think we chose wisely with our stops. If you have time to visit only one of these, I would argue that Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port provides the most to do and the most unique quality. If you have time for two places, Espelette is worth adding on, as it provides the quaint charm of a small town (with architecture and landscape similar to what you would see in Sare or Ainhoa) but with a unique feel and palpable sense of place.

Drive Times + Distances

Note: Our rental car came with 250km included in the base price. If you’re following a similar route to us – and don’t get too lost! – this should be sufficient. 

4 Towns to Visit in Pays Basque

    • Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Sare: 14.6km, 26 minutes (it actually took us about 45 minutes since we set off without a GPS system initially — oops!)
    • Sare to Ainhoa: 8.7km, 13 minutes
    • Ainhoa to Espelette: 6.3km, 10 minutes
    • Espelette to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: 37km, 37 minutes

Have you spent time in French Basque Country? What towns did you visit? Any that you would recommend to others making the journey?

Shannon Kircher

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect, formerly The Traveling Scholar. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. She is a former resident of London and San Francisco and now calls the island of Anguilla home. In addition to The Wanderlust Effect, Shannon is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort and is on the Board of Directors of the Omololu International School in Anguilla.

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