The Basque mediaeval walled city of Hondarribia (Fontarabie in French and Fuentarribia in Spanish) which has been guarding Spain since the time of Charles V in the 16th century, is built on a little promontory facing Hendaye over the Txingudi bay. There is nothing in particular to visit but even on a rainy day, it’s interesting to wander through the narrow streets laid out on a grid plan with their wrought iron balconies. Afterwards, you can walk along the seafront into the old fisherman’s quarter on the west shore of the mouth of Bisasoa River, which has a much better selection of eating places.
The Basque Coast extends from Bayonne in France to San Sebastian or Donostia in Spain and contains some of the best surfing beaches on the Atlantic, the best known of which is Biarritz. There is a walking path from Ciboure to Hendaye with spectacular views that we were not able to take because of the rain but on the last day of our stay, the sun came out and we were absolutely enchanted by the coastal drive from Hondarribia to San Sebastian with its beautiful muted landscapes and plunging views.
San Sebastian is an attractive city in the north west of Spain on the Bay of Biscay, 20 K from the French border in the Basque Country. Known as Donostia in Basque, it has an old part that mainly dates back to the 19th century when the town was rebuilt after being destroyed in 1813 during the Napoleonic wars. Its main appeal is its incredible location which can be seen best by mounting Urgull Hill on which the ruins of Napoleon’s military fortress still stand. Its second attraction is its ambiance of small bars serving pintxos (not as good as Barcelona though) and many cultural events. I was impressed by how many people of every age joined in the paseo in the late afternoon sun.
One of the things I like best about the Basque Coast is the architecture. The typical Basque home in the Saint Jean de Luz area where we’re staying is the Labourdine – white with dark red, dark green or blue half-timbering and shutters and red roof tiles. Although each house is different, it gives an overall coherence that appeals to my sense of the aesthetic.
The dark red was initially produced by coating the timber with ox blood reputed to protect it from insects and rot. The blue apparently was paint left over from the fishing boats but I haven’t been able to find out where the green comes from.
The houses are usually quite big and built directly on the ground without cellars. The older ones have mullion windows, stone door surrounds and no shutters. The bottom floor was usually used as a stable.
There are very few houses older than the 16th century because of the many wars that raged in the area.
There are also a lot of very tall apartment houses, just one room wide, often separated from each other by stone columns to prevent fire.
Even the modern buildings are based on traditional architecture and are usually white with red, green or blue details. Railings and lampposts are often red too.
As you go further inland, stone is more present but the white and red combination is still very popular.
In Ciboure, there are two notable exceptions : San Estebenia and Villa Leihorra.
San Esebenia is the Dutch-style housebuilt by shipowner Esteban d’Etcheto where the composer Maurice Ravel was born in 1875. Cardinal Mazarin was also a guest there when Maria Teresa of Spain married Louis XIV in 1660 in the nearby church of Saint Jean de Luz. Today, it houses the tourist office.
Villa Leihorra, now a listed monument, was built by the architect Joseph Hinart in 1926 on Bordagain hill overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and is a prime example of Art Deco. It is now a luxury hotel and it’s worth taking a virtual tour.