Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

HENDAYE – last stop on the Côte Basque

February 6, 2012

The French Atlantic coast trends to melancholy midwinter, but Hendaye on the Spanish border is an exception. You know you’ve landed in a surfing mecca if it’s January, barely above freezing and pelting rain, yet dozens of neoprene-hooded heads are bobbing in the breakers.  Seafront parking is jammed until sunset, when the diehards reluctantly emerge from the waves, and peel off wetsuits right on the street in their haste to get into something warm and dry.

Hendaye has a health-conscious, sporty vibe – with a steady passage of cyclists, runners and hikers rounding the harbor, beachfront and vertiginous corniche road tracing the coast up to St Lean de Luz.  People are out and about at all hours, even if it’s just walking a dog along the waterfront.

Hikers know it as the Atlantic departure point for the ambitious G-10 trail, which crosses the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean along the Franco-Spanish border.  Thalasso-spa Serge Blanco, which was closed for renovation, is also a popular draw.

Hendaye lies on the north bank of the Bidossoa River, where it meets the sea at the Bay of Chingoudy.  The Spanish town of Fontarabie is across the bay to the South, and the massive Deux Jumeaux (Two Twins) rocks rise up from the sea below the cliffline to the north.

The well-protected harbor permits pleasure boats to dock year round. There’s also an active fishing community of open sea vessels and anglers off the jetty.  Didn’t see any sailboats in action but a club of rowers showed up at dusk to practice off the fishing dock, while kayakers meandered around the bay.

A mere trace remains of historic L’Isle de Faisons, rendezvous point for royal and diplomatic exchanges over the centuries between Spain and France because of it’s strategic, face-saving location off the mainland.  In 1526, Francois I was traded for two of his sons after being captured at the siege of Parvis, Anne of Austria, bride of Louis XIII, entered her new country here in 1615, and in 1660, the marriage contract of Louis XIV with the Infanta of Spain was signed in a pavilion designed for the occasion by Velasquez, as a term of the treaty which concluded 30 years of warfare between the rival nations.

The town is divided between Hendaye-ville (train station, town hall, businesses and principal shopping district) and leisure-centric Hendaye-plage (beach, port de peche, port de plaisance, thalasso, hotels and casino).

We stayed at Villa Goxoa, a pleasant family run micro hotel on a magnolia-lined residential street, equidistant between the beach and harbor.  Owners Nathalie and Marc Applagnat inherited the house and gutted the interior three years ago to create a minimalist contemporary nine-room hotel.  Rooms are small and lack a bit of character, but impeccable, with comfortable beds, good sheets and pillows.  Several have a small balcony or terrace. Bathrooms proportionately bigger and well appointed, though only one double is equipped with a bath.  Satisfying breakfast of OJ, yogurt, fresh fruit salad, croissants, baguette, whole grain bread and a pot of strong coffee.  Off-season, a double runs €85-95 euros, plus €10 for breakfast.

A curious cultural treasure is Chateau Abbadia, a neo-gothic pile built between 1864 and 1879 by celebrated architect Viollet le Duc, who prefigured Hollywood and Disney with florid, fantastic reinterpretations of historic and exotic vernaculars.  Commissioned by Antoine d’Abbadie, a scientist, humanist and explorer, the property was donated on his death to the French of Academy of Science.  The observatory remained in service until the 1970s and was managed by a series of clergymen, as Abbadia, a devout Catholic, insisted the scientist running his lab have no family distractions!  Recently underwent a ten-year restoration.

St Jean de Luz is a short drive north, midway towards Biarritz.  The principal church, where the nuptials of Louis XIV were celebrated, has a splendid Baroque reredos behind the high alter with 19 niches featuring statues of saints.  The walls of the nave have three stories of gallery seating – a feature particular to Basque churches.  The service on Saturday evening was celebrated in a combination of Basque and French.  With few tourists around, we heard Basque spoken frequently, especially in portside cafes.  There is marked regional pride, with official signage bilingual and traditional Basque calligraphy used in shops, restaurants and on billboards.

A short drive out of Hendaye, but worth the detour is restaurant Ostalamer overlooking the popular Laffitenia surfer beach.  On a dark midwinter night we were happy to have GPS to guide us and wondered if we’d be dining alone, but Saturday night was busy.  It’s a contemporary glass and metal structure with a pared down interior and dining room walls hung with colorful marine inspired paintings.  The terraces with sea views are where the action is in season.  Owner Christian Duplaissy’s boats catch much of the fish and the selection is excellent.

Seafood soup, grilled cod, oysters and scallops were scrupulously fresh, unpretentiously prepared and simply delicious.  Regional wines also surprisingly good.  We enjoyed a crisp Hèita 2009 by Sophie & Thibaud de Salettes.  Duplaissy has a vineyard adjoining Ostalapia, his restaurant/auberge inland at Ahetze, which has gained quite a foodie following.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!