Granted, Guéthary – on the Basque Atlantic coast – is not a secret for everyone, not for French people, anyway. The brighter among them have been going there for ages. Just this year, the place was named by a perfectly reputable body as the finest of all villages to live in in France. It apparently fulfilled 187 “objective criteria” better than any other French spot with fewer than two thousand inhabitants. That’s some going. Little wonder that cultured folk – say, the piano-playing Labèque sisters – favour what is the best of the Basque seaside in bite-sized form.
But I’d never heard of it before I went, and maybe you haven’t either. It’s time to put that right. I already have. I’ve been lots of times – once on crutches (I’d broken my foot), once by tuk-tuk (a local tourist outfit had fetched one over from Thailand) and often quite normally. I’m rarely happier. This is a coast toughened by headland rocks and world class rollers flipping surfers about most satisfactorily. The Med sometimes seems effete by comparison.
Toughened, too, by Basqueness. Basques have been farming, whaling and fishing round here for centuries. Substantial white houses trimmed (usually) with oxblood red woodwork speak of families who don’t muck about with hearth and home. With pelota court taking centre stage, right by the mairie, there’s no doubt to whom this powerful land has belonged for a very long time. Life carries on perfectly well if no visitors show up, which is why we show up.
Thus has seaside raffishness been grafted on to Basque roots with houses growing bigger, gardens more effusive and bars sufficient to fuel the festivities at which Basques themselves have excelled since the stone age. The beaches were waiting. So was a port so pint-sized that it would have been swamped by half a whale, never mind a whole one. You have to wonder how local whalers managed. No surprise they later switched to chasing squid.
Four beaches running beneath woods, heathland and little cliffs furnish terrific sandy stretches, rock pools and ace surfing. Spots on Cenitz and Parlementia beaches are apparently famed wherever surfers gather. They need handling with care – the beaches, I mean, not the surfers. Great waves and underwater rocks may combine to shred the unwary. If unskilled, I’d look on from the Heteroclito bar-restaurant on the climb up from Parlementia beach (heteroclito.fr)
Or forget surf and beach to walk a coastal path hemming headlands, creeks and corniches the 15 miles to Hendaye. Inland, a yeoman landscape rises to the Pyrenees.
Back in Guéthary, the village’s art museum majors on sculptor Georges-Clément de Swiecinski, of whom I would tell you more if I’d ever entered the place, which I haven’t. Culture-wise, I invariably get side-tracked to the terrace of the Bar Basque or Le Madrid to tackle Basque erudition in the form of Akerbeltz brown beer or bottle of Irouléguy red. Sitting on the sunset terrace, overseeing the ocean with platter of charcuterie to hand, I generally feel cultured to the hilt. Best put the kids on pause, mind, to appreciate the experience fully.
And so to dinner. Basque cuisine is simple and forceful, arriving directly onto the plate from the sea or mountains, with maybe the addition of tomatoes and Espelette peppers along the way. My wife, usually out-eaten by chaffinches, goes at Basque fare like a seal – barking, clapping flippers and swallowing any foodstuff thrown at her. This might be axoa veal stew, ttoro fish soup, Bayonne ham, sunny piperade vegetable stew or Ossau-Iraty cheese. I generally end up wheeling her around on a flat-bed truck. Quite evidently, she likes Guéthary as much as I do.
Where to stay
Like most of the best Basque hotels, the Briketenia is family-run – father and son Ibarboure cooking for both the one-Michelin star restaurant and the brisker bistro, mother and daughter-in-law running the bright-eyed four-star hotel, the whole 10 minutes up the hill from the coast (briketenia.com, room-only doubles from £97, breakfast £12.50pp).
What to eat
Bayonne ham or fish, lots of it, and especially squid – stuffed with black pudding or in a sauce with onions and peppers. Le Madrid does both well, for around £11, plus it’s where the cooler squid-eaters gather (lemadrid.com).
The all-dancing, all-singing, all-eating annual Guéthary festival on the last weekend of August. The omelette competition is a key attraction. Monday, August 29 sees a festival of force Basque – essentially, Highland games without the kilts – in neighbouring Bidart. At other times, you may take in a pelota match on the village fronton – or court, with a big wall at the end. Meanwhile, it’s a short drive to Sare and the rack railway 3,000ft up the Rhune mountain. On the top, the views are sumptuous. You may hop back and forth across the Franco-Spanish border which bisects the summit. Also stock up on cheap booze and cigs from the venta bar about two-feet into Spain.