For proof that France’s southwestern corner is an exceptional place, one need look no further than the cartoon pictures in our children’s old atlas: a graceful Basque pelote player dressed all in white, arching his long chistera at the ball; an izard perched atop a Pyrenean peak looking down at a mountain-climber; a moustachioed musketeer in a costume from the time of Louis XIII. For the Landes, there’s an old-time shepherd on stilts next to a stocky Gascon farmer in a beret with his geese, while a Catalan in a floppy red cap, the barretina, peers out to the Mediterranean.
In short, this corner of France has character. And in a beautiful region that the disfiguring stresses of history and economics have passed over lightly, such character can be explored at leisure. Gascony and the Pyrenees are perfect for lazy touring, where nearly all the roads seem to be back roads. Besides the famous scenery and its multitude of other attractions, Gascony, the Basque lands and Roussillon are home to superb cuisine du terroir, where every village has a restaurant where madame cooks up duck and game and other hearty dishes Parisians would die for. Then there's seafood from the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, oysters from Arcachon and truly excellent wines...
The presiding angel of Gascony is Good King Henri – Henri IV – the Gascon who, three centuries ago, saved the country from its religious squabbling and taught Frenchmen, with a joke and a smile, to take it easy and enjoy life rather than slaughter each other over abstractions. The basis of Henri’s policy is expressed in a quote that everyone still remembers: he wished every Frenchman to have a chicken in the pot on Sundays. The stories say he liked to sneak down to the palace kitchens to see how his own poule au pot was cooking and didn’t mind helping chop up the vegetables. Thanks to Henri, perhaps, that part of the Gascon mystique is still very present: the sense of contentment simple pleasures can bring.
Fashions in holiday playgrounds come and go. Nobody now remembers that France’s southwestern corner was, 150 years ago, the most popular holiday destination in the land, that Queen Victoria came to Biarritz, that Romantic poets came to swoon over the Pyrenees or that the English laid out the continent’s first golf course at Pau. The relics of the joys that the Second Empire and the Belle Époque knew can still be seen on every side: gracefully ageing ‘grands hôtels’ and gardens, and the fantastical architecture of the old casinos and bath establishments, along with mountain refuges that recall the memory of the great Pyrenean explorers such as Henry Russell.
For a long time, the region was eclipsed by flashier upstarts, notably Provence and the Côte d’Azur. But the long hiatus gave the far southwest some breathing space, allowing it to perfect its charm while sparing it the overbuilding of so many other holiday centres. The time for rediscovery is at hand; few parts of France have so much to offer.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls