Food for thought: MARK RAINEY savoured both the cuisine and the cultural delights of the Basque Country
‘You’re not in Spain or in France’ a large poster declares on the wall of the Bistrot Etxeko in Biarritz.
Geographically, this charming Bay of Biscay city is in south west France just 20 miles from the Spanish border, but historically and culturally the region has been something of a place apart and Biarritz delights in being different.
Only a handful of business owners in this bustling but refined costal resort express Basque nationalist sentiments in such an overt fashion, but then there’s no need – the cuisine, drinks and symbolism of the proud Basque culture is everywhere, on either side of the border.
The crashing Atlantic waves attract surfers from as far away as Australia to Biarritz, but it is the unique and varied cuisine of the region, aside from the glorious sunshine of course, that is the real highlight of a Biarritz/San Sebastián two-centre break.
The Basque tapas-style options known as pintxos (pronounced peen-chos) are mouth-watering and quickly become a daily staple for visitors.
Some of the names used will look familiar, such as croquetas jambon or the equally delicious Basque chicken (with a sticky barbecue-style sauce), but with such emphasis put on the quality of the produce, it’s worth going outside your comfort zone to try something a little more exotic.
And working up an appetite in Biarritz is easy if you’re walking around the bustling, but hilly, streets of the delightful Les Halles market area, or being tempted by the fashion retailers along Place Georges Clemenceau on your way back from the quaint city beach at Plage du Port Vieux.
Dining at Cafe du Commerce in Rue des Halles was a particular treat with its varied Basque/French menu and superb example of the ubiquitous Basque gateau - a delicious pastry cream encased in a flaky crust.
Equally enjoyable was the more rustic, seafood specialist menu at Casa Juan Pedro.
Set right in the harbour (Allée Port des Pêcheurs), the Casa Juan Pedro is the perfect spot to watch the sun go down while enjoying the local red pepper and tomato ‘piperade’ stew and the freshest of seafood cooked on the outdoor hotplate.
For lunch, the Bistrot Etxeko in Place Sainte-Eugénie serves up a simple but delicious range of good-sized pintxos options in a relaxing, pedestrianised town square.
The laid-back surfing vibe is everywhere in Biarritz but the various beaches cater for everyone. The Plage du Port Vieux is not much more than a sandy enclave on the doorstep of the shops and cafes around the city’s main tourist centre, but is undoubtedly the best option for those seeking a spot of sea swimming.
Caution is needed for those taking to the sea near Biarritz as the towering waves can be intimidating and unpredictable.
On the southern side of the city is the surfers’ playground of La Côte des Basques, where up to 300 surfers, tutors and learners can be in the same stretch of water at any one time in the summer months.
For a taste of pre-1950s Biarritz – when the city was the place to be seen for royalty and international playboys – it’s worth a visit to the Hôtel du Palais which towers over the north end of the Grande Plage, even if just to admire its splendour from outside the imposing gates.
It was originally built as a palace for Empress Eugénie by her husband Napoleon III in 1854 and is one of many buildings of historical importance from that era along this majestic stretch of coastline.
French is the everyday language of Biarritz, as is Spanish across the border in San Sebastián, but you will recognise signs of the common bond everywhere.
Whilst I could happily eat my way around Biarritz indefinitely, for those who take their food experiences seriously San Sebastián is where everything goes up a notch. Here you find the pintxos culture everywhere in its most exciting, and at times a bit manic, form in the historic quarter of this breathtakingly beautiful city.
Throughout its maze of narrow streets and imposing Art Nouveau architecture, the intoxicating aroma of freshly cooked food is everywhere.
We did our homework ahead of this venture and were immediately on a mission to locate the first of our ‘grub crawl’ venues.
As promised by those in the know, La Cuchara de San Telmo delivered up the much-lauded kokotxas de bacalao (cod cheeks), but the relatively large pintxos portions mean you probably won’t have room to sample all of the Basque delicacies on your wish list.
We had an outside table at lunchtime when all was calm and collected but expect things get a bit more loud and frantic when the early evening rush gets underway.
A few narrow streets away, the La Viña pintxos bar is an exciting cocktail of tantalising aromas, noise and arm waving which is not for the faint-hearted...at any time of the day.
With it long counter packed with countless ready-to-eat delicacies, and hungry mouths vying of the servers’ attention, it appears intimidating at first glance, but for those willing to brave the squeeze the controlled chaos is a joy to behold.
Staff move along the counter dealing out small plates of hot food at such pace it’s hard to believe anyone is actually getting the pintxos they ordered but, somehow, even with requests being shouted in English as well as Spanish, your perfectly cooked order arrives in the blink of an eye.
An important tip is not to break the rhythm by trying to pay at each visit to the bar. Just keep note of what you eat and then pay when leaving.
La Viña’s vanilla cheesecake is a well-known house special which more than lived up to the hype, but it was the soft-centred potato tortilla that had me elbowing my way back to the bar for seconds.
When you find you just can’t eat another bite, the pedestrianised historic quarter of San Sebastián makes this a great city to explore on foot, with countless interesting features and viewing vantage points.
One of the best is right on the seafront promenade – gazing out over the golden sands of La Concha beach which is set in its own small bay framed by rugged hills. It’s easy to see why La Concha is regarded by many as the most picturesque city beach in Europe.
To access the most stunning views over the bay, take the Funicular cable railway to the top of Monte Igueldo for a very reasonable €3 per adult.
This majestic city creates an immediate impression of historical importance and the galleries of the San Telmo museum are worth at least one visit during your stay.
Although there were plenty of young children enjoying all the two cities and their beaches have to offer, Biarritz and San Sebastián are much more sophisticated than the often noisy, high-octane resorts on the Mediterranean coast.
If you’re someone who tends to play safe and only holiday where you’ve been before, perhaps the allure of the stunning Basque country will give you food for thought.
• Flights from Dublin to Biarritz are available with Ryanair three days each week. From Biarritz airport the local bus (No 14) will take to you the city centre for €1. The bus to San Sebastián costs around €5 for a single journey.