Last October I had the pleasure to share the region of my birth, the region that I love and specialize in, with 24 keen golfers, 21 women and 3 men, all members or guests of Ladies’ Golf Club of Toronto. We headed out after the Canadian thanksgiving weekend to Southwest France right when the weather starts cooling down in Ontario but remains very pleasant over there. October weather in Southwest France tends to be cool at night but with highs in the mid 20s (Celsius) during day time, dry and sunny. Indeed for two weeks we did get daily sunshine and warm temperatures and one day of rain. The light in the fall season brings a wonderful softness to landscapes and buildings. Also, European and French tourists who love to vacation in the region dwindle as a lot of organized events such as festivals slow down by the end of September.
I welcomed my 24 guests at the Bordeaux airport to head east to the northern and rural part of the Dordogne region. We settled in 4 star Chateau de Vigiers, set on the property of a medieval/ renaissance castle, and surrounded by 3 nine hole courses, in a very peaceful setting. The next couple of days were spent golfing and resting in idyllic surroundings with a slower pace of life. Jetlag became a memory. We got into the groove of enjoying good wines and food and caught a glimpse of the attractive Bergerac wine region.
We then changed gears and headed out to majestic Bordeaux via a worthwhile stop in St Emilion for a visit of its medieval streets, its underground monuments, and an exposure to its rich history. Of course we had a tour and tasting at one of the finest wineries of the area. Then Bordeaux welcomed us in its heart, across from the “Grand Théâtre’’ in the luxurious Grand Hôtel. The city has experienced a total renaissance over the last 20 years as a result of a substantial clean up of its buildings, the redesign and expansion of its public spaces and a strong will to give the city back to its inhabitants and visitors. A new tram system, an expansive network of pedestrian streets and dedicated bike lanes, and new promenades along the Garonne river, now make it possible to enjoy on foot or on a bike the rich architecture and history of this city, classified as a UNESCO site. A quote from UNESCO captures it well: The Port of the Moon, port city of Bordeaux in south-west France, is inscribed as an inhabited historic city, an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble, created in the age of the Enlightenment, with more protected buildings than any other French city except Paris. Urban plans and architectural ensembles of the early 18th century onwards place the city as an outstanding example of innovative classical and neoclassical trends and give it an exceptional urban and architectural unity and coherence. Our group’s response was warm as many travelers expressed that they felt more comfortable and enthused vacationing in “lower key” Bordeaux than in Paris. Golfers also headed out to le Médoc region to indulge their passion at a club that Bordeaux golfers cherish. Golf was followed by a private visit of a fine Margaux AOC winery. Nice to relax, after golf, overlooking fields filled with vines from the terrace and gardens of an attractive chateau in mid-afternoon sunshine…
With Bordeaux behind us, we headed straight south with a golfing stop in the Landes region. Along the Atlantic coastline, the region defines itself with 200km of sand dunes nestled between the surf of the ocean on one side and forests of pine trees on the other side. Such setting creates a very unique terrain for golfing that our travelers loved. The day took us further south into the heart of the Basque coast, in St Jean de Luz. The 24 travelers settled into the comfort of two upscale private homes, overlooking the ocean, over a warm buffet dinner. This was to be our home for the next week. I wanted to create the experience of living and entertaining in a beautiful French home.
My vision, for the following day, was to welcome my guests into the heart of a Basque fishing village and touch on some of life’s pleasures in the region. We split in 3 small groups. Each group got to hang out and shop at the market with chef Paul, for the evening cooking party. Then, a guided walking tour of historical and quaint St Jean de Luz followed . The town is the place where Louis XIV married his Spanish princess. Last but not least, they got to play Basque pelota (THE game in the Basque country) and tried some local cider. We then all congregated at a bar facing the market for tapas. St Jean de Luz is set within a 25km long coastal path that goes through towns and villages, beaches and protected areas. Some guests shared their free time between checking out the trendy boutiques of St Jean de Luz while others took advantage of the attractive coastal path. The path led them back home to the 2 mansions where we were staying for the week. Later in the afternoon the gang got together to prepare, under the guidance of chef Paul, a 3 course dinner to be enjoyed in the comfort of one of our two mansions. So nice cooking with the sight and sounds of the Atlantic surf nearby…
Golf was back on the agenda the following day with La Nivelle Golf Club welcoming us in St Jean de Luz, although this is THE day when it rained in the morning. The golfer ranks were slim as many guests were happy to take a rest in our lovely homes or head out for a walk into town or along the coastal path. Those who golfed loved the variety in the terrain, the mature trees, and the views. Everyone got together in the afternoon to explore the inland area of the Basque country, around Sare, a village classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Our first stop took us in the workshop and home of a renown local artist named Michel Hacala. His art work is featured throughout the Expérience Authentique web site. Michel and his family graciously hosted us in their home for afternoon tea and the pleasure of being in a very unique home. Michel renovated their old farm and did so with his artistic sensibility, talent, and lots of hardwork over a 10 year period. The lush setting around Sare is wonderful with the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains surrounding you and the attractive presence of red timbered white farms, sheep and horses ever present in the hilly fields. Sare has interesting prehistoric grottos that we got to visit before welcoming us in its heart. It is a very attractive example of a traditional Basque village with its “fronton” ( ie outdoor courtyard to play pelota), its old church with balconies where men used to stand, its old houses in traditional basque architecture, and its little shops. I could not resist to share some cherry-jam filled “gâteau basque” with my guests, the way gâteau basque (ie Basque cake) used to be before the cream filled version became mainstream.
Golfing in Biarritz le Phare, the second oldest course in Continental Europe, started our next day. This golf course annually hosts a couple of high profile competitions for high caliber international players. Biarritz is Biarritz and the after golf life consists of taking walks along its superb coastline, shopping in its fancy boutiques, sipping a drink at an attractive café facing the ocean or by its lively market area. Biarritz is considered the surfing capital of Europe as surfing started here on this continent in the 50’s with an American film crew tempting locals to ride the waves on a board. The Atlantic surf in Biarritz and all along a 100 km stretch of coastline north and south of the town make the town a favourite destination of surfers. Biarritz offers multiple facets to choose from since the time it caught the eye of Napoleon III ‘s wife. The monarchies, intelligentsia and high profile bourgeoisies from all over Europe came to vacation in Biarritz in the late 1800’s and that went on until the 1st half of the 20th century. Such a clientele brought a lot of wealth to the town as evidenced today by its rich and diverse architecture. Today Biarritz is the least Basque resort town of the region because of its glamourous past and international profile but this is where you will find a rich cultural and sport agenda year round. As a result, people vacation there anytime. For our group of golfers, the local “petit train” took us down from the golf course to the center of town, with options to shop, hang out or join a guided walking tour. Our evening was spent in the private home of chef Alain, a few steps from the Biarritz market, and who set up a lively cooking party for all of us. Fun, fun, fun…
Off to the Spanish side of the Basque country the following day. We started with a visit of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao ( a 90 minute drive from our home base) that has brought amazing changes to the city. In urban planning, it is talked about as the Bilbao Guggenheim effect that many cities would like to replicate when in search of a renaissance. We did not have time to explore the lively streets of Bilbao this time as I had to make some choices with so little time to share the Spanish Basque coast. We adopted late Spanish meal hours and headed back along the coast for a lunch break in Guetaria as I wanted my guests to know a representative fishing village, with a rich history going back to Roman and medieval times, in a quaint setting. Some of us got acquainted with the txaculi AOC, a white wine produced in the wineries set on hills overlooking the ocean. Off we went to San Sebastian heading back in the direction of France. With little time at our disposal in a city that has so much to offer, I opted for a culinary walking tour of the city in small groups. Food is big in this city with its gastronomical societies, its tapas bar hopping culture (pintxos is the Basque word for tapas), and its concentration of world renown chefs. Recently San Sebastian has opened the first university program in the world dedicated to the art of cooking. Life in the streets of San Sebastian is rich and fun for all ages and I hoped to demonstrate that to my guests. We wrapped up the evening in true local tradition at a pintxo bar with BBQed solemillo, grilled sweet local green peppers paired with Rioja wine. Of course our walk included some exploration and sights of the beautiful bay and beaches of San Sebastian, the old quarter with its rich buildings and its plaza de la constitucion where bullfights used to take place. I love the many facets of San Sebastian, hard to make choices. The French side of the Basque coast is calmer, less populated, less urban, often prettier to the eye and as a result for most people a more relaxing home base for vacations. However, frequent visitors to the French side of the Basque country can immerse themselves easily, hopping in and out of the urban fun of San Sebastian, within a 25min drive from the border. Our group loved its time in San Sebastian!
Back on the golf course the following day, about 10 minutes inland from the coast, on the ground of Chateau d’Arcangues. This is a hilly and challenging course where one enjoys a full view of the Pyrénées mountains. Very well received by our golfers. The after golf was in nearby Bayonne, a mid-sized town with a rich Roman and medieval history and where locals meet, dine, shop, and hang out. In late July, Bayonne hosts the biggest street party in France but its festive atmosphere is not reduced to just a few days in the year. There is life in Bayonne year round as everyone got to witness! Some of us were taken through the secret streets and corners of Bayonne by our local guide Catherine, who was keen to share its rich history. Our group was full of energy and was ready to gather afterwards for dinner at our 2nd mansion for a feast of a traditional BBQed lamb in a pit, called xikiro, prepared by the competent hands of Pettan, and served with nicely flavoured white beans and pintxos to start. Another evening of informality and great flavours with lots of laughs in the comfort of a private home by the ocean.
Last day in the Basque country. Golf on the menu for the last time, at the St Jean de luz-based Chantaco golf course, that was enjoyed by travellers. Then we headed east inland to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the last stop on the St James of Compostella pilgrimage path before the crossing of the Pyrénées mountains. Life is slower and so beautiful inland as one progresses through the foothills of the Pyrénées, its lush hilly landscapes, sheep and cows in the fields, the respect for the traditional architecture in its farms and villages. The fall light inland is beautifully soft and relaxing and makes the rich foliage colours shine, not unlike some parts of Canada. Thierry, story teller of the Basque country, gave us a glimpse of Basque life and culture inland and shared stories from a place that has welcomed generations of pilgrims for centuries. The group retreated for the evening in the beautiful settings of a traditional farm that serves fine Basque cuisine in a warm Basque country decor. Before dinner, we enjoyed a drink on the terrace of the home, horses in front of us in the fields, an idyllic countryside all around. I had a little surprise in store for my guests as we were saying farewell to the Basque country. They could not leave without experiencing the sounds of Basque singing, an essential form of expression in the region when people are together. The Kalakan trio of male singers and percussionists performed for us and did its magic on all of us. The music, the exquisite food, the warm atmosphere of a Basque home and the relationships developed within the group all came together to create a very special evening.
Time to leave the Basque country and get closer to our departure point in Pau (about a 1h15min long drive). This day took us through the Béarn region with the profile of the highest peaks of the Pyrénées mountains appearing in the distance. We stopped in medieval Oloron with its 3 distinct neighbourhoods and proceeded through the Jurançon wine area before the final destination in Pau. That city actually hosts the first golf course ever built on continental Europe so it is a worthwhile stop for golfers. It is also the birthplace of Henri IV, with a nice chateau worth a visit. The group enjoyed the comfort of Hotel du Parc Beaumont and its farewell dinner; it was time to say bye to each others after 2 weeks of rich human interactions within the group and with locals.
I believe that our 24 golfers were charmed by the contrasts of a beautiful region with so little driving involved, the variety of experiences (accommodations, hands-on activities, places and cultures we explored), the quality and diversity of the golf courses that took many by surprise, the richness and freshness of the food, the many interactions with the locals they found so down to earth and welcoming, and finally the Basque culture. My true gift from the group was to see them touched by a place and culture so dear to my heart.
Check out the video of testimonials shot on our last day in the Basque country with impressions of my guests I had the privilege and honour to host for 2 beautiful weeks.