Located predominantly in the green foothills of the western Pyrenees, the Basque region in southwestern France is so engrossing that it takes several days to explore (it actually encompasses three Basque provinces in France and four in Spain). The Basques have their own language and customs, part of a culture that dates back at least 2,500 years.
Biarritz, a fishing port and the major Basque city, is a top-flight beach resort that attracts the rich, famous and retired. Golf courses, casinos, nightlife and the Sofitel Thalassa Miramar seawater spa are also major attractions. Biarritz boasts a huge aquarium and museum, Le Musee de la Mer, open every day in July and August until midnight. Also try the Musee du Chocolat, which not only offers chocolate sculptures but explains in detail the adventure and history of cocoa. Biarritz is near the border between France and Spain, 118 mi/190 km southwest of Bordeaux.
In Bayonne, a lively but small port city about 6 mi/9 km east of Biarritz, you can visit the Musee Basque, which has displays of the region's typical pastimes, cultural heritage and designs. The town's Bonnat Museum houses a painting collection. In early August, the Fetes de Bayonne brings Basque musicians, dancers and other performance artists into the city. If you decide to go at this time, be sure to take a white outfit with a red scarf and red belt—the official clothes and colors of the festival.
A historic town in the Basque area near the Spanish border, St. Jean de Luz was the wedding site of King Louis XIV and Maria Theresa. They were married at the Church of St. Jean Baptiste—be sure to see it. By all means sample the city's seafood. St. Jean de Luz used to be a whaling port and yachting center, and it still retains its maritime flavor. The birthplace of composer Maurice Ravel is nearby in the town of Ciboure, on the left bank of the river near the St. Vincent church. St. Jean de Luz is 11 mi/18 km southwest of Biarritz.
Farther inland and deeper in the Pyrenees is the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. A stopping place on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, this town 33 mi/54 km southeast of Bayonne has kept its medieval fortifications. The Nive River flows through the village and is lined on both sides by balconied houses. In summer, the town center is often the scene of Basque singing and dancing; in midsummer, the pelota (a Basque sport similar to jai alai) championship is held there.
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