Hotel de l'Ocean
Hotel Ocean Biarritz - Centre and beach
Hôtel de l´Océan à Biarritz

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The Basque Country Hinterland

Just 20 kilometres from Biarritz you’ll find the hinterland which is almost as green as Ireland, with its gentle rolling hills dotted with sheep that produce the famous cheese (ardi gasna), eaten with black cherry jam, a speciality from the village of Itxassou. Follow a ‘discovery circuit’ through the most beautiful "Labourd" villages with their red, green and white colours situated in the hinterland of the coastal Basque Country. It was the Labourd style, with its large rural houses (known as ‘etche’), that inspired the architecture of contemporary Basque villages. We begin with the charming village of Ascain which, years ago, welcomed the writer, Pierre Loti, who stayed in the Hotel de La Rhune to write his famous novel ‘Ramuntcho’.

The Rhune (900m high), the Basque Country’s symbolic mountain, is in fact very near and offers some beautiful walks on waymarked paths where you can meet herds of ‘pottoks’ (small Basque horses, pronounced ‘Potiok) roaming free. The view from the top is extraordinary, with a 360° panorama of the ocean, the Pyrenean mountain chain and the Labourd region: an ideal spot for a picnic. Anyone can reach the summit via the miniature rack railway train, which starts from the road between Ascain and Sare. Sare, which used to be a centre for smugglers, also has a typical village centre with beautiful houses in a well-preserved country setting. Its caves and festivals have also made it famous. The fact that it is listed amongst the ‘most beautiful villages in France’ says it all and the ‘Bastide d’Ainhoa’ is a halt on the Santiago de Compostela route (as is Saint Jean Pied de Port): the well-preserved houses on the main road, marked with the shell sign, are proof of this today. From Ainhoa, press on to the Spanish border and the ‘ventas de Dancharia’. The village of Espelette, known for its ‘Pottok fair’ which takes place in January, also has beautiful houses decorated with garlands of red pimiento chillis drying on their frontages. At the end of October the ‘Fete des Piments’ last two days and is an event not to be missed. Many stalls offer local produce and it is also your chance to taste a ‘Taloa’ – a decorated corncake and local speciality. In a completely different style, Cambo-Les-Bains, a thermal spa resort specializing in rheumatology and the treatment of respiratory infections, contains one of the most visited places in the Basque Country: the Villa Arnaga, a sumptuous 40-room mansion with a superb garden, built in 1903 by the writer Edmond Rostand. Stop for a refreshing, relaxing break at Saint Pée sur Nivelle, where a lake has been created for water sports and swimming. On the way back to Biarritz, take a small detour to Ahetze. This peaceful little village comes alive on every 3rd Sunday of the month to accommodate a huge ‘bric-à-brac’ fair that takes place in its streets and squares. After that, drive on to Arbonne, whose church and cemetery in the heart of the village have some beautiful 17th century discoidal stelae. Following the cycle track, you can reach Arcangues, where in what seems like the size of a pocket handerchief, you’ll find the town hall, church, cemetery (where Louis Mariano is buried), pelota wall and school. This village centre, surrounded by a golf course, is well worth a visit!

The Basque Country inland cuisine

The Basque Country has a large number of well-known inns and restaurants where local produce is shown at its best. The pig is the star of Basque cuisine. It may be found in its different forms and cooked-meat products such as Jambon de Bayonne, a protected appellation, ‘ventrèche’ (finely sliced belly pork) and Chistorra (sausage) – all spiced with Espelette chillis. ‘Piperade’ is a blend of green and red peppers with a few tomatoes that is reduced and served with scrambled eggs and fried bacon. It’s sort of ‘Basque Eggs and Bacon’. ‘Axoa’ (pronounced ‘achoa’), a veal stew with peppers and Espelette chillis is also one of the main dishes. Hunting produce appears in the autumn with wood pigeon, wild mushrooms and chestnuts. In the Basque Country you have both cheese and dessert. Apart from sheep’s cheese, there is a speciality made from curdled sheep’s milk known as ‘Mamia’ (a type of yoghurt) that is eaten with honey and typically served in small terracotta pots, that are returnable to the cheesemaker. And finally, there is the essential Basque cake made with cream, black cherry jam and even chocolate. Chocolate is another Bayonne speciality: the town was the first in the French kingdom to produce chocolate from cocoa beans in 1496. To go with all these dishes, Basque wines, especially Irouléguy, Spanish wines such as Rioja or Navarra and cider are recommended. Enjoyed for its sweetness, Manzana is a digestive wine made from apples and ideally served with ice. Izarra, a maceration of mountain plants, either green or yellow, is also highly scented.

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