Travel: A land without borders

In the Pyrenean foothills lies a corner of France which is forever Basque.

How can you not fall for a place where every word seems to be made up of Xs, Ks and Zs? Signposts and posters - placenames are often in both French and Euskera - bear tongue-twisting constructions which mean that although fluent in French, this small corner of France remains delightfully foreign to me.

Unlike their Spanish counterparts, the French Basques, although proudly Basque, seem largely content to be French. The landscape is gentler physically as well as politically: less populated and less industrialised. Although the hills towards Pamplona in the rainshadow of the Pyrenees can be harsh and dry, in the Labourd, the most westerly section, it's wet, lush rolling hills, little streams, maize fields and sheep pastures with dramatic mountain peaks looming up behind.

What struck us most during our stay last week were the massive Labourdian farmhouses with their characteristic pantiled roofs, whitewashed walls, and dark red or green shutters and half-timbering. Many look as if they could easily sleep a family of 30: unsurprising, as the exte, or house, habitually held both the extended family (parents, the heir and his relations plus any unmarried siblings), and the animals; even today, barn and dwelling form one unit. These houses were so closely entwined with family identity, that their names often became a form of surname.

After discovering the village of Sare by accident a couple of years ago, we decided this summer to rent our own exte, or half of one, on a hill. It came complete with massive fireplace, and six fat sheep and a greedy goat - the latter tethered to the pear tree to prevent it eating everything in sight.

Sare is a particularly well-preserved Basque village, with its central cluster of 17th and 18th century houses set around a handsome church; a handful of small satellite hamlets and wayfarers' chapels also litter the valley. At 15km inland it is near enough for outings to the beach and sampling the Atlantic surf, yet far enough from beach culture to feel ensconced in village life.

Our favourite village is elegant Ascain, but it is just one of several in the area worth exploring. Another is Ainhoa, a former bastide town on the route to Compostela that even today is little more than a row of noble old houses along a single main street. Both Espelette, with its fiery red pimentos hanging from the rafters that ensure the food in this area is the spiciest in French cuisine, and busy St-Pee-Sur-Nivelle, have typical red and white houses and a wonderful church. Men traditionally sit upstairs during services, and the women in the nave.

Alongside religion, sport figures prominently in the area. This is the heart of French rugbydom and also of Force Basque, the local equivalent of the Highland Games. But the quintessential Basque sport is pelote. The game, a sort of cross between fives, squash and real tennis, takes various forms (the pelote itself being the ball). The curved pelote fronton is a focal point of every village - at Sare taking pride of place alongside the church and arcaded town hall.

The traditional version, trinquet, is played with bats in an indoor court, and the spectacular Grand Chistera - a high-speed, three-a-side game - is played with a curved catching basket of wood, leather and wicker, derived last century from an implement used to pick apples. It's a game of virtuoso skill and tactics. Although many of the summer matches are put on for tourists, there is no doubting the seriousness of the players.

At the same time, this is no ersatz folklore parody. One senses a real pride in local traditions, combined with some of that undefinable French chic. This is best epitomised in St-Jean-de-Luz (Donibane Lohitzon in Basque), home of the French tuna and sardine fleet, and today an elegant family resort. Less flashy than Biarritz up the coast with its surfers and casinos, it was at St-Jean-de-Luz that Louis XIV married Maria-Theresa of Austria in 1660. The 17th-century Maison de l'Infanta, where she stayed before the marriage, and the Eglise St Jean with huge carved Baroque altarpiece, both still stand in the old town around the port.

Borders don't mean much here. The seven provinces of the Pays Basque were divided over the centuries between France and Spain, yet no one seems to have paid much attention to the divide. Although the French and Spanish halves are intriguingly different, with the Basque language as common denominator, border hopping is a favourite pastime of French teenagers. They cross the frontier for the tapas bars and nightclubs of the Spanish resort of San Sebastian.

In Sare, once you start exploring the forest lanes and backroads it's almost impossible not to crisscross back and forth over the border between here and the nearest Navarese town of Bera. Consequently the area was once a smugglers' paradise, and is still traversed by the old trails used to carry contraband over the frontier.

A favourite walk is along the old contrabandiers' route that climbs over the mountain from Sare to Zugurramurdi in Spain. A sort of legacy continues in the ventas, cut-price trading houses that dot the border although now supposedly rendered obsolete by the European single market. Curiosity demanded a visit to the Venta Bergara, an isolated house that quadruples as local bar, basic grocer, essential outfitters (sheepskin slippers in August) and purveyor of woefully tacky souvenirs.

At some point every visitor is likely to climb La Rhune, the mountain that symbolises the western Pyrenees, either by foot - the Pays Basque is excellent walking country - or like us, with a two-month-old baby, the easy way, on the train.

We queued for over an hour to board, but the wait was amply repaid. The panorama comprises layer upon layer of mountains, and the sweep of coast beyond. Equally rewarding is the train itself, its original rack and pinion mechanism an engineering feat as it climbs at dramatic angles on its route past wild Pottok ponies, sheep and buzzards.

Most of the hills in the region are beautifully unspoiled but it's somehow only appropriate that the summit here is a nugget of tourist kitsch, marked by a monument to the Empress Eugenie (a summer resident of Biarritz), who climbed to the top in 1859, and three cafe-cum-souvenir shops that straddle the border. It was a last piece of border-hopping made easy, but this area is addictive; we'll be back for more hills and tongue-twisting.

Fact File

A CAR is essential for visiting the Pays Basque. Natasha Edwards paid pounds 120 for the P&O ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in Normandy. The shortest crossing to western France, on the Superstar Express, takes 2hrs 45mins; other boats between 5-8hours.

P&O also runs boats to Bilbao in northern Spain (about 130km from Sare). Another option would be to fly to Bordeaux (approx 215km from Sare) and hire a car on arrival.

Natasha Edwards rented her apartment (2,000F for one week, prices vary) from a list available at the Syndicat d'Initiative at Sare (00 33 5 59 54 20 14). Rentals run Saturday to Saturday.

Rural houses/flats in and around Sare can also be rented through Gites de France (00 33 5 59 80 19 13).

Hotels in the village centre include the simple Hotel Lastiry (00 33 5 59 54 20 07), double room 195F-270F, and the more elegant Hotel Arraya (00 33 5 59 54 20 46), double room 395F-595F. Both hotels have restaurants.

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