Basque-ing in France

We left the coast where we were parked in the massive Landes pine forest under the lighthouse on a miserably rainy day. It had rained for two days and we hardly left our campervan at all in that time and finally we decided to hit the road. We could stick coastal and go south towards the Biarritz area or west towards the Pyrenees. We picked the mountains and I picked the city of Pau for its historic buildings and art. I don’t know whether the weather changes how you see a place or not but Pau wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The roads were shit and the sat-nav went haywire sending us up tiny cliff roads which brought back flashbacks of Liams time in Nepal! Our big campervan is not made for winding hills or narrow roads, there was stuff flying out of presses, clothes dropping out of the bedrooms and we were holding on for dear lives. Honestly, we thought we would never get out of it. We were driving for five hours that day doing what we said we would never ever do on this trip….chasing wifi.

Liam, holding on, on top of a bus in Nepal a few years ago. The bit you can’t see is the sheer drop on the other side

Liam, as he worked with the Commissioners of Irish Lights and at Hook Lighthouse, was featured in an Irish four part television programme called “the Great Lighthouses of Ireland” and we were looking for a wifi spot to stream it. We found one eventually at a Mc Donalds, we opened up RTE real player (Irelands national broadcaster) on the laptop and a warning popped up on our screen….it can only be watched in Ireland. By the way, we still have to pay for our Irish television license even though we’re not in the country so that was slightly annoying. We still haven’t seen it so we’re waiting for it to go on vimeo or youtube so we can watch it. You would think (and normally we would be) we would all be killing each other at this stage but thankfully we were able to joke about it, the kids were fine and enjoying the adventure of it as we were searching for somewhere safe to park up for the night so we flicked through our aires camping book and found a farm nearby which welcomed campers. Another few miles of shit mountainous roads and we arrived, drove up the narrow pot-holed laneway to the huge house where the owner of the farm lived. We arrived to three barking sheepdogs dogs chasing the camper, one of them was covered in blood down his white fur chest and one wouldn’t even let us pass. There was one other campervan there, a french couple with two small dogs so we pulled in beside them, three angry sheepdogs circling our campervan so we wound down our window for a chat. Apparantly the owner of the farm was a very old lady and she was taking her afternoon nap so we would have to wait and talk to her before we could settle down. Our neighbours also told us that the dogs were vicious and the bloody one had attacked their little dog. We couldn’t believe it, just our luck that day, the sheepdogs settled down and lay around our campervan almost waiting for our dog to come out so we decided to leave. We couldn’t chance it, it just didn’t feel safe so we left and the dogs barked and followed the camper the whole way back down the laneway. Most dogs in this country seem to run around off their leads and the French seem to pay no attention to the “no dogs” signs on many of the beaches and actually some have gotten annoyed with us for picking up our kids as their dogs charge straight for them as they assure us their dogs are friendly while their pets are growling and barking at us. In campervan parks, there’s been a few stand offs with Buckie as dogs have come up to the camper to suss him out or to piss on the campervan which never ends well. Needless to say we’re a little nervous of dogs at the moment. Having a dog is a big responsibility and we have to choose where we stay wisely both for the safety of the kids and for Buckie.

We were desperate to find a safe site to park at this stage and we chanced another farm ten minutes down the road. We arrived to a working fruit farm, parked up the van and we were told to fix up the payment in the morning as it was late. The place was lovely, the kids ran around climbing trees for the last few hours of daylight we had but it really stank of cow shit. They must have just spread manure on the land or something. It did have amazing views of the Pyrenees though. We were the only campervan there but there was a few little caravans and cabins where some workers or WWOOF-ers stayed so there were other people wandering around. WWOOF stands for “willing workers on organic farms” and WWOOF volunteers generally go to stay and work on organic farms. They don’t receive money in exchange for work so the host provides food and accommodation in exchange for four hours work, five days a week and two days off. It’s really loose though and each farm has different rules. I did it for a while in New Zealand and it was great, I met some really cool people, learned loads and saved a lot of money. I started by working for the owners of an Irish pub in their gardens but I didn’t prove to be the most green fingered person and they offered me work at their Irish pub instead pulling pints which was more my style in exchange for my food and accommodation. It’s a great way to travel if you haven’t got money and perfect for people travelling solo as you get to make so many new friends.

We cracked a bottle of wine and settled in. The following morning, the stink was getting to us so we were keen to hit the road early and I went into the farmhouse to pay. €13 for the camper, €2 per child, €2.50 per adult, €.60 for the dog, €.45 tax & €23 total which is the most we’ve ever spent on camper parking. It was time to hit the road again.

Parked up at a farm at the base of the Pyrenees

Our view of the Pyrenees was pretty spectacular

The weather changed and the sun shone through as we entered french Basque country. We found a gorgeous little medieval town just north of the Pyrenees called Sauveterre-de-Béarn. I didn’t know the Basque region extended into France. In these areas, they still practise Basque traditions and some even speak the language. On one of the evenings, right behind where we were parked by a tarmacadam games court, we watched a traditional Basque game called “pelote basque” where there was two teams of two each with a wooden bat just like a miniature Irish hurley and the aim of the game was like squash or tennis where the players belted a little hard rubber ball against a wall and the first team to 35 points wins. We got chatting to the winners of the game and showed them our hurl that we use for hitting a ball for Buckie our dog. It turned out, one of the winners was very familiar with hurling and had spent three of his teenage summers in Ireland in Leixlip learning English and he was delighted to chat with us and even gave us one of his pelote bats.

The boys in their traditional sports outfits ready for their Pilote basque semi-final
Liam & one of the winners in front of the games court after the match
He gave us his wooden pilote bat which is similar to an Irish hurl

The history and beauty of Sauveterre-de-Béarn blew us away. It was the prettiest little medieval village perched above the Gave d’Oloron river and facing the Pyrennes in south-western France. We parked beside a UK registered campervan in front of the large outdoor games court, there was a playground across the road and we were just a one minute walk to the medieval center. Our neighbours were the lovely Bill & Sue from Shropshire who were so interesting, very well travelled and we learned loads from them. We strolled every day through the pretty town and learned something new every time.

Gave d’Oloron river running by Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Sauveterre means “safe place” in French and the place was built as a defensive town which prospered in medieval times because of the bridge which was on one of the main routes to Spain. The bridge is known as “Legend bridge” and it was from this bridge that in 1170 Queen Sancie, widow of Gaston V of Béarn, was submitted to the judgement of God and thrown into the river, hands and feet tied, after being accused of sleeping with the devil and giving birth to a malformed baby boy. That winter morning, 3,000 people came to witness Sancie’s execution. Either she would drown as punishment from God or she would survive which would prove her innocence. She survived and was declared innocent after losing her husband during her pregnancy who died in a hunting accident and her baby boy who died only a few days old.

Birds eye view of ‘legend bridge’. You can see where the wooden drawbridge once would have been to the left of the center pillar which has long deteriorated

Legend bridge

We took a stroll through this 11th Century Door of the Datter in the medieval town of Sauveterre-de-Béarn which is a little hard to find secret in the town. It used to have a drawbridge door which opened over a motte. It’s all surrounded by new buildings now but once upon a time this passageway was strongly defended as once through the door you were entering or leaving this town. You can still see the hinges and markings where the door once was 1,000 years ago.

We wandered along the river where we found a cute little cabin coffee shop with quirky games on the lawn in front of the 12th Century Monreal tower which is named after the family who saved it from demolition in the 19th Century and from there climbed the 600 steps up back into the main square of the town which overlooked the river and the Pyrenees. I wish we had stayed there a bit longer as it was probably the nicest town we’ve seen. I say that on every blog post but this one really was the best.

Trying tight rope walking at the cutest play area in Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Next it was off to a gorgeous little basque town called Espelette. You would think we were already across the border but we were still in the Basque province of Labourd situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees to the south-east of Biarritz. The village is known for its dried red chilli peppers called Piment d’Espelette. We strolled down its busy tourist filled streets looking at the pretty basque houses with drying chilli peppers hanging from the facades and balconies….thousands of them. We wandered into an artisan chocolate shop and were offered loads of free chocolate, they even had vegan chocolate and chilli chocolate. After tasting every type of chocolate they had it was time to bring our extremely hyper kids home, they didn’t go asleep for ages that night. We only stayed for one night in Espelette as the campervan aire parking area was in a carpark where all the tourist buses parked right beside the main road and it was noisy and very busy with tourists as bus after bus rolled in and out all day long.

Inside the castle at Espelette

This castle in Espelette is the town hall, tourist office & museum

The Basque emblem made into a beautiful quilt on display in the castle town hall

The town of Espelette

Typical Basque style house in Espelette with drying chilli’s hanging off its facade

A bag full of chocolate from the chocolatier in Espelette

After Espellette, we hit the coast again. We passed through the beautiful coastal french towns and cities of St.Jean de Luz and Ciboure but they were too busy for us and had no where for campervans to park. We thought we would end up in Spain that day but as soon as we hit the basque town of Hendaye, we saw a campervan sign and headed straight for it. Hendaye is another surfers paradise with a huge beach and a bustling town which is the very last stop in France before the border to Spain. We thought we would only stay one night but here we are three days in enjoying the sun and the beach while we research our next move, practice our Spanish and I have a few crochet orders to finish and get in the post. The kids are picking up Spanish a lot quicker than French, maybe because of our previous holidays in the Canaries or maybe it’s just an easier language and they really enjoy speaking it. I, however am totally lost, I’ve been practising my French so much it’s hard to switch. I’m sure we’ll pick up Spanish quick as soon as we get there so for now, as we’re riding out a random thunderstorm, au revoir, I mean ciao, I mean slán, good luck.

Hendaye plage

Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

3 thoughts on “Basque-ing in France

  1. It’s such fun reading a bit more of your backstory each day! The range of emotions you highlight with such highs and such lows within mere hours of each other are so familiar to us too. Makes us chuckle actually… 😄

    Tim & Jan x

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