This week was a first for us, when we made a quick visit to the Basque country (Euskal Herria), way over to the west . When we got there, there were no frontier posts, but we knew immediately that we’d arrived. Suddenly, houses, instead of being colour-washed in creams and beiges and ochres, or not at all, were all tidily painted white, every single one, with ox-blood coloured shutters and paintwork. Place names were in French and Basque, and quite a lot of other signage too.
But the thing is, despite all that, we thought we’d arrived in Yorkshire, or Lancashire, or somewhere in England at any rate. Softly rambling ranges of hills, so very green, and studded with sheep. Roads which preferred to ramble gently round the contours instead of going straight in the French style. Take away the Pyrénées in the background, their jagged peaks still white with fresh snow, add in a few drystone walls, and – voilà! – the Yorkshire Dales.
After all the hard work back at the house, we needed the peace of the countryside, so we’d chosen to stay at an Accueil Paysan farm. We knew that meant that we’d be welcomed into simple comfortable accommodation at the farmer’s house, and share a family meal with them in the evening. Always good value in all sorts of ways.
The welcoming committee in this case turned out to be six cheerily noisy pigs, a gang of chickens, and a sheep dog. The humans were no less friendly, and we settled in by exploring the small farm with its 30 or so cattle, and about 300 sheep. Sheep’s cheese is the big thing round here, and throughout the autumn and spring, when there’s plenty of milk, this family makes cheese every morning (far too early for us to be there, it turned out: all over by 7 o’clock) in their fine new cheese-production shed.
Our hosts are Basque speakers. Their children only learnt French when they went to school. Now that one of these children has a son of his own, he and his wife (who’s not a Basque speaker) have chosen to have the boy educated at one of the many Basque-medium schools, so that he will be among the 30% of Basques who are comfortable using their language. It’s an impenetrable and complex one. Its roots are a bit of a mystery, and certainly it’s not Indo-European. With French, Italian and Latin at out disposal, we can make a good stab at understanding Occitan, the language of our region, but Basque remains impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t been immersed in it.
The next day, we explored St. Jean Pied de Port. From before the time of the Romans, it’s been a market town, an important jumping off point for Spain. It’s been a garrison too, and an important stop-over for pilgrims on their way to Compostella. Now it’s a tourist centre too, for walkers in the region. It’s an attractive town, surrounded by ramparts. We pottered around, enjoying views from the ramparts, pilgrim-spotting, ancient doorways, and watching the river, before setting off for a leisurely journey home.
And next time we stay, we’ll make it much longer than 36 hours.