Thursday, November 8, 2012

Peppers and Political Prisoners--Pays Basque

Our destination was Espelette, France’s red pepper capital.  Espelette is close to the border with Spain and smack dab in the Basque region of France.  The approach to Espelette from Bayonne is rife with road signs bearing the photos of “Basque Political Prisoners.”  It would seem that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  The names of towns we passed near or through were unpronounceable to the mere mortals in our Peugeot 208.  They are tongue twisters for us Anglophones in the best of times.  On the radio, we heard periodic news reports in Basque—or what we assumed were news reports.  It put me in mind of our drive through Arizona when we listened to Navajo radio.  The Basque music in the tourist shops, on the other hand, sounded familiar and made me smile—and want to hum along. 

Espelette is dripping with peppers hanging from frames, pitched roofs, house facades, tourist shop displays, interior walls.  The postcards offer recipes using “des piments” (the peppers).  Poulet Basquaise (Basque Chicken) features chicken, red peppers, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, white wine, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a bouquet garni.  Looks good and sounds good.  

French Basque country is also the birthplace of the espadrille and the famous French beret.  Too cold and wet for espadrilles, it’s always the season for the beret—sported by townspeople, farmers, vintners, and priests (shown here in an animated conversation in the town of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port) alike. 

Porte d'Espagne
    Window from St.-Jean's church
  1. From Espelette we drove to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, one of the major staging areas for the pilgrimage (camino) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, that pilgrimage which is featured in the movie “The Way,” and which is taken by committed and determined Catholics as well as people of other faiths whose motivation ranges from the religious to the very secular and very personal.  The town lies at the foot of the Roncesvalles Pass which takes the pilgrims through the Pyrenées into Spain.  In St.-Jean, we enjoyed lunch overlooking the river Nive and the foothills beyond, then meandered through the Porte d’Espagne into the old town, its church and the bridge that starts the path of the camino. 

Bridge starting pilgrimage to Spain
The countryside in this part of France sports high hills and deep and gentle valleys blanketed with green—the likes of which is not always found in such profusion.  Located in the foothills of the Pyrenées, the Basque region stretches to the Atlantic at St. Jean de Luz just at the border with Spain.  Across the border in Spain lies the Spanish Basque country. 

This is one of our favorite parts of France—the colors, the enthusiasm, the wine, the sea, and the geographic diversity.  Often overlooked by visitors from the U.S. in favor of Paris, Provence, the Cote d’Azur and the Alps, I invite any of you to see it for yourselves.

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