I had a week off from school and we decided to explore outside of Bordeaux for a few days. So we went south to the ‘Pays basque français‘…or ‘French Basque Country‘ in the very southwest corner of France on the border with Spain. The land of the Basque people covers territory in both southern France and northern Spain, and a few years ago we visited the Spanish side around the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao and really enjoyed it. Now we wanted to experience the French side along with the wines from the Irouléguy wine appellation. So we packed some bags, took the tram to the train station, and away we went. We traveled by TGV south from Bordeaux to the Basque city of Bayonne and then transferred to a small local train/bus combination up to the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we booked a B&B (chambre d’hote in French) for three nights.
The train arrived into Bayonne around noon and we had three hours before the next train left for Saint Jean. So we walked from the station into the old town and found a nice little riverside café for some lunch. It was Sunday, with everything but restaurants firmly shut, and the French penchant for lingering in outdoor cafés on a sunny afternoon was on full display …ourselves included. Bayonne is locatedriver a few kilometers inland from the Atlantic Ocean and has a very old-world and Basque feel. After a fine lunch and a couple glasses of local rosé wine, we wandered around the old town, took an espresso, and made it back to the train station. A very civilized layover indeed!
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a small mountain town, which is very famous as a starting point for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a charming and relaxed little town …although the restaurant scene was pretty limited on account of it being both off-season and a Sunday night. It was Lynn’s birthday weekend and we had hopes for a nicer dinner, but it was also kind of fun having a simple meal in a bar watching the rugby world cup finals with the locals.
Our host Jean-François was absolutely delightful (along with his cat and dog). The next day we went to the farmers market for a few things and he then offered to take us hiking up off a stretch of the Camino called the ‘Napolean Route’ through the mountains between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Roncevaux Spain. And wow, it was spectacular! He drove us to the base of a small mountain on the border with Spain where we hiked without trails through pastures of grazing horses, amazing limestone rock formations, and unbelievable wind up to the ruins of a roman watch tower. It’s impossible to describe except with pictures …which are still inadequate.
On the drive we also stopped at a famous statue of the Virgin Mary along the Camino, saw some Neanderthal burial circles, and encountered a huge heard of sheep being shepherded down from the mountains for the winter. We also had fun with Jean-François switching over to Spanish every time we crossed the open border with Spain, which happened several times during the day. Un buen día!
The next day we relaxed a bit in the morning and then visited Maison Arretxea, an excellent winery in the in the Irouléguy wine appellation. It’s one of the smallest appellations in France with about 500 acres of vines total between all producers (less than some individual estates in Bordeaux). The vines in this area were pretty much wiped out by phylloxera in the early 1900’s and the wine industry didn’t really start rebuilding itself again until the 1980’s. The owners Michel and Thérèse have been growing and making wine here for about 25 years and are completely biodynamic (…more on that in the future). One unique thing about their vineyards were the wide range of soil types on each, and how the vines in different soils made for very different wines. We tasted three different white wines each from grapes grown exclusively on either a schiste-based, ophite (serpentine)-based, or shale-based soil. We then tasted a blend using grapes sourced from all three soils. Each was very different, and all were excellent. It was a great lesson on the influence of terroir (the soil aspect in this case) in a wine made using the same grapes from the same vineyard. Another interesting thing were the grapes themselves; a blend of gros- and petit-manseng. These are varieties really only grown in the southwest of France, and were not something we”ve tried before. Interesting all the way around! They also did an interesting red wine from tannat and cabernet france and a rosé from the same. These wines can be hard to find even within France, so we bought a few bottles to enjoy at home and to share with my classmates.
On Wednesday morning we bade a somewhat bittersweet farewell to Jean-François. We had developed one of those quick, but strong bonds you sometimes make when traveling. It was a trip we will always remember.