Basque Country - Abbey Travel, Ireland

Basque Country

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Welcome to Basque Country

Basque Country

France's three Basque provinces are in the southwest corner of the country near the Spanish border, and are steeped in folklore and ancient customs. Unlike their Spanish counterparts, the French Basque people do not harbour radical separatist views, but they do cling to their identity, unique languages and traditional way of life, which offers an interesting diversion for tourists who visit the area. Men can still be seen in the traditional costume of a beret and cummerbund, towns and villages all have concrete courts for the playing of the national ball-game. Most visitors head for the Atlantic coast to the popular resort towns of Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz, or to explore the Basque capital, Bayonne. Hikers and nature lovers are drawn to the grand Pyrenees mountains to fish for fat trout, wander the trails, dunk in warm mineral pools, marvel at the glaciers or climb challenging peaks. Another great attraction in the Bigorre region, close to Basque country, is the Roman Catholic shrine at Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant girl in the mid-19th century. Millions of believers have since made a pilgrimage to the Lourdes grotto in the hope of miracle cures for ailments and afflictions.

Information & Facts


The Atlantic influences the climate of the coastal areas like Biarritz, creating mild and temperate weather year round. Winters record the highest temperatures in France and summers are warm with cool sea breezes. Rain usually occurs in short downpours and is distributed throughout the year.


French is the official language.


The Euro (EUR) is the official currency in France. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and some large hotels, though you will get a better exchange rate at the ATMs. Major credit cards are widely accepted, as are travellers cheques, particularly in major tourist destinations. Foreign currency is not accepted.


Local time is GMT +1 (GMT +2 between last Sunday in March and last Sunday in October).

The popular holiday destination of Bayonne is the capital of Basque country, and a beautifully preserved cathedral city. Its narrow streets - lined with half-timbered houses - are atmospheric and perfect exploring on foot. Bayonne is divided by the Nive and Adour rivers and is set between the mountains and the sea a few miles up the coast. Together with adjoining Anglet and Biarritz it forms the continuous urban area known as BAB.

The city's most striking landmark is the magnificent gothic Cathédrale Ste-Marie, dating from the 13th century. Bayonne also has two museums well worth visiting: Le Musée Basque, which showcases the traditions, architecture, and decorative arts of the Basque region and Le Musée Bonnat, which displays thousands of drawings and paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries, including works by Rubens, Greco and Ingres.

The Bayonne Festival takes place every year for five days from the first Wednesday in August and is an explosion of activity with cow races in the Roman arena, candle-lit processions and marching bands. Bayonne is well-known for its chocolates, marzipan and prime-smoked ham, all of which is available at the wonderful Covered Market. And according to tradition, if not historically verified fact, the bayonet was invented here in the 1600s.

Not strictly Basque country, but part of the nearby Bigorre region, the town of Lourdes is situated in the Hautes-Pyrénées and has been one of the great Roman Catholic pilgrimages since the Virgin Mary allegedly revealed herself to a shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858. Over five million pilgrims visit the town each year, particularly in August, from the Catholic nobility to the poverty-stricken sick and ailing.

Pilgrims are sometimes offended by the commercialisation of the shrine (there is a very good trade in candles and Lourdes water) but miracle cures have been documented by the church so it can be assumed this exploitation does not affect the healing properties of the spring in which the afflicted bathe in a grotto. The Virgin is said to have appeared 18 times at the Grotto of Massabielle and mass takes place here every day.

Lourdes itself is ancient and includes several sights of interest for holiday visitors. The Fortified Castle was successively a military fortress, a state prison and, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the residence of the counts of Bigorre. There are wonderful panoramic views of Lourdes town and the sanctuary from high on the fortifications. Since 1921 the castle has housed the Musée Pyrénéen, which exhibits the art, traditions and history of the Pyrénées.

There are some interesting churches to see while on holiday in this religious town. The Upper Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built in 1854; the inside is as impressive as the magnificent exterior. The oval Basilica of Pius X is one of the world's largest churches, its underground chamber can hold as many as 20,000 people. Mass is held in six languages, including English, every Wednesday and Sunday at 3.30pm from April to October. The Musée Ste-Bernadette is nearby, as is the house where Bernadette was born which, along with the home of her parents, has become a shrine.


The popular holiday destination of Pau is situated 50 miles (80km) inland, high above the Gave de Pau River, and is a good base from which to explore the Pyrénées and the picturesque little villages of the Bearn region. This year-round holiday resort was frequented by the English in the early 19th century (at one time 20 percent of the population was from England) and many customs were imported from across the Channel to become entrenched, including fox hunting and afternoon tea.

Pau is home to 85,000 people and is the most cosmopolitan city in the western Pyrénées. While on holiday, panoramic views can best be enjoyed when strolling along the Boulevard des Pyrénées. Worthy Pau sightseeing excursions include the 12th century Chateau de Pau, containing some interesting contemporary artefacts including a crib fashioned from a single tortoise shell.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts is worth a peek with a collection of European paintings by the likes of El Greco, Degas, Zurbaran and Boudin. The people of the Pau and Bearn region are very proud of their language (a variation of Occitan) and heritage and have indulged in friendly rivalry with the Basques of Bayonne for centuries.

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