There was a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman who decided to go for a walk. That might be the first line of a joke. It was actually the start of a delightful ramble by three fiftysomethings in one of the least known – and least French – parts of France: the Pays Basque.
Everything began three years ago, on the pavement outside a school in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. I overheard Mark and Hervé, the only other papas in a crowd of mamans and nounous (nannies), discussing a walking tour in the Lubéron hills.
They were plotting a route from restaurant to restaurant, and guest house to guest house, exploiting one of France's greatest treasures: its 163,000 miles of public footpaths. I persuaded them to let me join them for a day.
Last year, Hervé and I revived the idea and planned a walk in the hills of the Cantal. Mark was otherwise engaged, then I had to cancel when I discovered that Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal had broken my leg. (A hairline stress fracture that I blamed on five months on the presidential-campaign trail.)
This year, with Mark back in France, we tried again. The Pays Basque was my choice – the only part of France that I had never visited.
Hervé, a great planner, did most of the planning. My main contribution – my random choice of location – was, by everyone's consent, a brilliant one. The French Basque Country must be among the finest walking countries in the world. The western part of the Pyrenees descends in soft, green curves to the Golfe de Gascogne (which Anglo-Saxons stubbornly call the Bay of Biscay). Many of the hills are as bare and beautiful as those of central Wales or of my native Peak District, but twice as large. Other hills are clothed to 3,000ft with the largest beech forests in Europe. Some slopes have groves of bracken and heather, which could have been transplanted from Yorkshire or Perthshire.
The farms, villages and small towns have white walls, like small settlements in Mexico or Spain. The doors, window frames and shutters are painted in dried-blood red: a statement of Basque cultural identity and pride.
On the hillsides, and frequently choking the roads as they move from pasture to pasture, are flocks of sheep, which produce wool, but more importantly, fine ewe's-milk cheeses. The sheep explain the bare hillsides. Centuries of farmers have burned away trees and bracken and heather to make room for them.
Through this remarkable countryside – part Radnorshire, part Mexico – there flows a torrent of pilgrims. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the walled town in the centre of the Pays Basque, is the principal gathering point for the pélerins crossing from France to Spain on the route to Santiago de Compostela. In the early morning, if you stand beside the steep road running southwards from the town, you see the pilgrims ascend in a constant stream, like commuters on a Tube escalator. Some are young, most are middle-aged or elderly. There are French, Italian, Dutch; German, some British. And there are many, many Japanese. On any other trail in the Basque Country, you will be unlucky to meet another walker. On the Compostela trail, you are part of a ceaseless south-westward migration.
Mark's and Hervé's original five-day tour of the Lubéron was based on the methods advocated by a book, France on Foot, written by an American chef called Bruce LeFavour (Attis Press, $24.95; www.franceonfoot.com). The book does not lay down itineraries for French walking holidays. It urges you to create your own. Since France's network of footpaths is so immense, LeFavour argues, anyone able to unfold a map, while reading restaurant and guest-house guides, can plan their own route. Just trace the footpaths between the excellent meals and comfortable beds.
The theory is fine – in theory. In practice, Hervé and Mark discovered, you can end up lugging heavy packs for long distances through dull country to reach the next guest house. Such unprofitable progress may be fine for the young, but not for three fiftysomethings playing hooky from their families.
In any case, the Pays Basque – or the one-fifth of the Basque Country that is on the French side of the border – is remarkably empty. Daily walking stages between beds would have been too long, Hervé decided. We based our holiday on a guest house on the slope above St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
From this base, we tried a different stretch of country each day. We returned to a different eating place in St-Jean each night, ranging from a cheap Basque fast-food café to a Michelin-star restaurant.
Both walking and eating exposed (mostly friendly) cultural rifts. Hervé, 56, is a Parisian importer and exporter of specialist paper. He is as international as a Frenchman can be, but ultimately and proudly very French – that is, demanding and critical, especially of food.
On his world tour, Mark, 54, has lived with bushmen and swum with sharks. He is 6ft 6in tall, absurdly handsome, and a former ER doctor from Maryland (Indiana Jones meets Dr Kildare). He now – successfully – invests in and nurtures small companies with promising medical ideas. After six years in France (apart from the world tour), he is now the most urbanely European of Americans, and the most directly American of Europeans.
Mark believes Hervé is over-critical of food. Hervé, without quite saying so, regarded both his Anglo-Saxon companions as typically undiscriminating.
Mark to Hervé, as he grimaced at a coffee that "lacked soul": "You could at least wait until you leave the restaurant before you screw up your face like that. In America, we leave the restaurant, then we screw up our faces..."
Buying a ham sandwich for a picnic lunch may seem a simple transaction. Not for Hervé: "I would like butter in my sandwich, please." Young baker: "You can't have butter. This is Bayonne ham. Butter will ruin the taste." Hervé: "I want butter." Young baker: "Do you have children?" Hervé: "Yes." "Daughters?" "Yes." Baker: "That's because you eat too much butter."
Hervé got his buttered sandwiches. We meekly accepted unbuttered ones. They were sensationally good when eaten beside a waterfall later that day on our first walk – an expedition to the source of the river Bidouze.
We were lost at the time. France has 112,000 miles of footpaths. This is the official figure. There are 38,000 miles of Sentiers de Grande Randonnée (GRs), long-distance footpaths. There are 25,000 miles of regional paths – Grandes Randonnées de Pays (GRPs). There are officially 49,000 miles, but in fact probably more like 100,000 miles, of local paths or Petites Randonnées (PRs).
The tracks are marked by blazes of paint on trees or rocks, with runes to indicate turns or dead ends. The long-distance paths, or GRs, are marked in red and white; the regional paths in red and yellow; and the local paths in yellow, orange or blue.
This is the theory. In reality, there are stretches where every tree tells you where to go and then, abruptly, nothing: no runes, no rules, no signs, no clues. In other words, French footpaths are a microcosm of France: an engagingly baffling mixture of rules and no rules, signposts and no signposts.
We got lost partly because Hervé is French. He likes to study the map intensely before a walk and then go his own way. Eventually, by scrambling up a steep bank through 200-year-old beech trees, we found the true path towards the source of the Bidouze. The rocks in the western Pyrenees change as rapidly as the weather. In the Ethecortia massif, above the valley of the Bidouze, the rocks are limestone. (Memories of the English Peak District, once more. The Bidouze vanishes underground for a while, like rivers in the limestone Peak country.)
We slogged up a steep, wooded path. In the patches of blue sky overhead circled buzzards, eagles and the occasional vulture, searching for an ailing lamb or, perhaps, a slow-moving walker or pilgrim. Finally, we reached a large cave, halfway up. From the cave sprang the river, fully formed, tumbling down the mountainside in a thunderous waterfall. All rivers should have sources like this.
We sat inside the cavern with the waters of the Bidouze flowing past us. We gazed out from the semi-darkness towards the blue sky and the tops of the beech trees: a true Cro-Magnon perspective on life.
For our second walk, we went a little further east, into even steeper country, east of Larrau, just inside the French border with Spain. After a miserable, uphill slog in drizzle, we reached a terrifying rope-and-cable footbridge (the Passerelle d'Holzarté), slung between two mountain sides: 220ft wide, 500ft above the rocks and rushing water of the river Olhadubi.
Hervé observed loudly: "Let the American go first. They love to be pioneers."
I, courageously, went first, to make myself seem courageous. My eyes were half-shut and vaguely fixed on the other bank. The bridge swayed, faintly but sickeningly. Hervé was the only one of us to pause and look down. He said: "If my wife were here, I would pee from the bridge to annoy her... and to see how long it took to reach the river. I bet I would be finished before the first part hit the water..."
After another ascent and a pleasant stroll through beech forests, we emerged on the side on a steep, grassy u
o hill, with a sheer, grassy plunge to the river 1,500 feet below. Mark, the man who swam with sharks, found the narrow sheep paths in the Basque hills unnerving. So did I. "In America, we have broad trails. Nothing like this," Mark said. "I mean, it's just a kind of tightrope stuck to the hillside."
In my native Peak District hills, we have narrow paths but nothing quite like the paths in the Pyrenees. A 1,500ft ravine with grass growing on it is still a 1,500ft ravine. Mark, at least, had the courage to be the first to admit that he was scared.
On our third walk, we followed the Compostela pilgrims for a while, southward from St-Jean (after stealing height by car to reach the frontier plateau). Sheep and ponies and buzzards and vultures roamed around us. The pilgrims plodded southwards in mostly cheerful groups or mostly cheerless couples. Some wore the Compostela pilgrims' broad-brimmed hats. Others had the Saint Jacques scallop shells – the symbol of the pilgrimage – sewn to their rucksacks.
Since we were not pilgrims, we turned from the straight and narrow path to conquer a couple of peaks 300 feet above the plateau. We found scores of short, unconnected walls, made from breeze-blocks, with planks of wood bolted to the top. What were they for? To protect pilgrims from the wind? To allow them a discreet place to urinate? How thoughtful.
On our next walk, to the Pic des Escaliers, in the wild and beautiful Iraty forest further east, we discovered the correct use for the short walls. Here, they were still attached to the remains of rough, wooden hunting hides. These were palombières: gun emplacements from which the locals can blast the palombes, or woodpigeons, which pass this way in their scores of thousands in October and November.
Mme Louisette, the chatelaine of our guest house, was a mine of information on palombes. "In the season for hunting palombes," she said, "you cannot get a workman in the Pays Basque for two months – not a plumber, not a carpenter, not a builder. In truth, you can't get one at any other time either."
The Basques are a charming and passionate people, with a language that looks like a series of typing errors. However, they are not always an energetic people, according to Mme Louisette, a Basque who emigrated to France and then came home. "Many of my rivals, at other guest houses, turn people away, not because they have no room, but because they don't feel like working hard that day," she said. "I say to them, 'There's no danger of you suffering a heart attack, is there?'"
Moral: if a Basque Country guest-house owner says that there is no room, always insist. There may be room after all.
In the evenings, we tried, one by one, category by category, the eateries of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Basque cuisine is celebrated, a mixture of both French and Spanish influences and ingredients from the sea and the mountains. We were disappointed. In truth, Mark and I were politely content; Hervé was bitterly disappointed.
Hervé on the restaurant called Arrambide, honoured with one Michelin star: "It is exactly what you would expect and exactly what it should not be. Instead of serving something local and special, it serves a perfectly predictable kind of one-star, chichi cuisine that you might find in Paris... It has no ambience, no soul..."
Hervé, when on holiday, likes to do what Hervé does when he is not on holiday. He wheels and deals. He charms. He talks his way into treats and profits. Hervé despaired of our cringing, Anglo-Saxon compulsion to tip on top of the tip that is already included in all restaurant and hotel bills in France. Far from leaving another small tip, Hervé believes that the restaurant should tip him.
From the moment he sat down, his objective was precise: to get his digestif for free. His methods were transparent: praise, detailed questions about local cuisine, customs and economic conditions. Then, innocently, he would ask: "And what kind of digestif would a Basque drink after a meal such as this?"
Three times out of four, it worked. After the proud owner/waiter explained the range of Basque digestifs (mostly sweet and fruity and from across the Spanish border), Hervé was asked, "Would you like a little taste?" With great surprise and reluctance, Hervé would accept.
Mark adores Hervé and is made uncomfortable by Hervé at the same time. Like me, he finds Hervé's performances masterly, irresistible and slightly embarrassing. Unlike me, Mark has a tendency to tell Hervé what he thinks.
Finally, on the last night, we struck culinary gold. Iratze is a small, family-run, relatively cheap restaurant on the main street of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I had shoulder of lamb and haricots. Hervé ordered minced veal. He soon realised his slight mistake and switched our meals. I switched them back again. The food was sensational. It was cooked by a Basque who had lived in Paris most of his life, and served by his Parisian wife and daughter. Hervé sprayed them with extravagant praise (but no more than they deserved). He got his free digestif.
"This is what I adore. The ambience, the welcome, the quality of the food, simply done but exceptional – this is what France should be like. When I find a quality of service which fails lamentably to reach these standards, I am embarrassed for my country. But this... this is the real France."
Not for first time, Hervé was right.
Mark returned to Brittany by train. Hervé and I drove back to Paris. We stopped at a motorway service station, where a power cut had, somehow, knocked out the coffee machines but miraculously spared the tills. Hervé ribbed the cashier. He could not have an espresso but he could pay for it. How convenient for them; how inconvenient for him. A few minutes later, the cashier left her till and brought him a coffee. Electricity was restored. No payment was required.
Hervé was triumphant, almost. "Don't tell Mark I got a free coffee," he said. "He would be outraged."
The main gateway for this part of France is Biarritz, via easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 000; www.ryanair.com). You can walk from the airport in 30 minutes to Biarritz railway station, from which there are regular trains to St-Jean-de-Luz. From the bus station adjacent to this railway station, buses run to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
By rail, take the Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet or Ashford, and change in Paris or Lille for St-Jean-de-Luz.
By ferry, you can travel from Portsmouth on P&O to Bilbao, from where it is a quick drive. If using public transport from Bilbao, take the train to San Sebastian, another train to Hendaye in France, train to St-Jean-de-Luz, bus to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Villa Goxoki, Route Napoléon, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (00 33 5 59 49 17 73; www.chambresdhotes-goxoki.fr). Doubles start at €€55 (£46), including breakfast.
Eating and drinking there
Iratze, 11 rue de la Citadelle, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (00 33 5 59 49 17 09).
Bearn-Pays Basque tourist office: 00 33 5 59 46 52 52; www.bearn-basquecountry.com
French Government tourist office: 09068 244123; www.franceguide.com