Monday, August 20, 2007

The Basque Country: Land of Fantastic Food, Beautiful Vistas and Unpronounceable Words

I left my family’s mas early in the morning (well, early for me, around 10am), as I had a good 4 hour drive ahead of me. The Basque Country was some 300 kilometers from their farm, and the entire trip would be on back roads. Indeed, most of it would take place on the smaller Départementales and Nationales roads, as the closest autoroute was near Bordeaux. Then again, I much prefer driving on the smaller roads. There’s less traffic, less police, and one gets to see the beautiful countryside (for make no mistake, as I’ve said before, driving in France is one of life’s little pleasures). Oh, and of course, if you’re like me, you can abuse the crap out of your little car’s engine and look at the speed limit signs as cute, quaint suggestions. Let’s just say that the 4-hour drive I was looking forward to ended up being a bit over 3 hours…

As I drove south, the weather warmed up, the sun became more apparent, and the scenery went from a semi-dry, temperate landscape to a lush green carpet of trees and oceanic grasses. Soon I began to see the misty, brooding tips of the Western Pyrénées, the mountain range that separates France from Spain. I also began seeing more and more signs spelled out in French and Basque, a strange language with very few modern equivalents. In fact, few folks seem to know its roots, though it does seem to have some linguistic comparisons to some Eastern European tongues. More information can be found here. To someone raised with the Romance Languages of French, Spanish or Italian, or even the Anglo-Saxon English and German, Basque is a strange mash of tongue-twisting sounds.

I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque, the center of the region and the stopping point for many pilgrims following the road of Saint Jean de Compostelle (the Way of St. James). This is the last stop before they start an arduous trek south through the Ronceveaux Pass into Spain and then to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where St. James’ remains are supposedly buried. To my surprise, there are still many people who follow this route, traditionally on foot (though my hosts made some sneering remarks about the bus-loads of German pilgrims appearing regularly).

The main street of Saint Jean Pied de Port
The old town, on the side of a hill, is basically one long cobble-stoned street with buildings to either side, encircled by a medieval wall and straddling the river Nive. Looming over the town sits an ancient citadel (what a surprise, an ancient fortress in France!) that had been designed by the famed French architech Vauban in the 17th century. Inside the walls, numerous buildings have small scallop shells affixed over their doorways to advertise their welcome to tired pilgrims. These are refuges, where travelers can find a warm meal, a cool shower and a snug bed for the night for a few Euros.

The scallop sign on the wall of a building

I walked around for a bit, getting my bearings, marveling at the strange architecture. It looked like a Spanish version of Switzerland but where everyone and everything was French but also spoke Basque. To say the least, it’s a rather interesting blend. Soon I found the one wine bar in the city within walking/stumbling distance of my hotel. What a surprise, me finding a wine bar…! The Cave des Etats de Navarre advertised its presence with high bar stools set around barrels and a huge mobile sign in a small courtyard.

Thirsty and tired, I wandered in, only to be greeted by two lovely bartenders and a gruff-looking gentleman, who turned out to be the owner of the place, Patrice. I told them I didn’t know anything about the wines of the area and had a very curious, enquiring palate. Immediately, Patrice lined up about 15 glasses on the counter and grabbed a basket of sliced baguettes. “You’ll need that,” he advised. He then proceeded to pop and pour bottles, tasting me on all the wines on his list. Once he had figured out what kind of wines I preferred, he wrote down a list of wineries he thought I should visit during my stay, instructing me to inform them that “Patrice from Saint Jean Pied de Port” had sent me (or not to tell them he’d sent me, in several cases…).

Patrice, owner/bartender at La Cave des Etats de Navarre

With my list in hand, I had dinner at my hotel, the Maison Bernat, where my friendly hosts generously offered me a glass of the local eau de vie de poire (pear). Made by the Brana winery, a local producer, it was reputed to be the best in France, if not Europe. While I’m not a big fan of eau de vie in general, this one was fantastic, well-balanced, with the essence of pears but without the searing alcohol I usually associate with the stuff. Rather, I should say, the alcohol was definitely there, but it wasn’t as offensive as it usually is and was rather well-hidden. That said, I did need to take a LONG walk around town after that glass, drunkenly texting my friends in the US and in Europe…

To say the least, I slept well that night...

Next, a day on the twisty roads of the Pyrenees, including an inadvertent pop into Spain and many, many interesting wines and great foods.


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