October 20, 2017

Off the Beaten Path – The French Basque Region

I have been fortunate to travel in some wonderful areas of Europe.  Some  are the tried and true tourist areas and others are lesser known and less traveled areas, at least to Americans.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit one of these “off the beaten path” destinations in France. The French Basque Region is an area not regularly frequented by Americans.  I find it interesting that Americans tend to spend their time in more well-known destinations – Paris, Rome, Florence, London or Munich – but don’t venture to some of the lesser known areas. I really have no clue why this is but wonder if US travelers view their European trip is a once in a lifetime event and must cram as much in as possible and, therefore, only hit the highlight.  Or is it because they are trendy spots and ones they must visit or they are just not “with it”?

No matter the reason, I truly enjoy getting “off the beaten path” and enjoy areas not on the usual tourist track.   It is one of these that I want tell you about.

I had the pleasure to spend a week in the French Basque region specifically the area between Bayonne and St. Jean de Luz a few years ago with the French Government Tourist Bureau. This trip was busy and I didn’t get do some extensive exploring but I definitely came away wanting to spend more time in this beautiful less traveled area.

Basque vista Southwest France

Basque Hills

The Southwest corner of France, from Bayonne to St. Jean de Luz, offers something for everyone. Whether you want beautiful beaches or rolling green hills, sleepy villages or towns of international renown; you can find it all in this striking region. The coastal villages offer dramatic sandy beaches, fishing ports, beautiful architecture and storied histories.

Bayonne France

Bayonne

Bayonne is the capital of the region and is known for its narrow streets, cathedral and chocolate. Bayonne was the first city in France to make chocolate  dating way back to the early 1600’s. Wandering the streets will offer ample opportunities to sample the wonderful chocolate of Bayonne.

Biarritz Seaview France

Biarritz

Once a whaling village, Biarritz is now a resort to the rich and famous. Biarritz was the summer home of Eugenie and Napoleon and you can still see the impact of this in the stunning Hotel du Palais. Biarritz offers shopping, scenic views, museums and more. You will enjoy wandering the charming old town. After enjoying the sights which include a lighthouse and a Chocolate museum, you may want to spend some time in the casino before turning in for the night.

St Jean du Luz French Basque region

St Jean du Luz by marsupilami92, on Flickr

St. Jean de Luz is an enchanting town offering a sandy beach, picturesque harbor, outdoor cafes, architectural gems and a quaint town square. St. Jean de Luz is another great strolling town with beautiful narrow streets.

Basque Farm in Southwest France

Basque Farm

The French Basque have a well preserved culture and once you start moving inland you sense a more Basque feel to the environs. Moving inland you will find rolling green hills, peace and quiet, tradition and villages called “most beautiful villages in France.”

Scenic Basque Country France

Scenic Basque Country

Driving inland you will meet charming villages like Ascain, Sare and Ortillopitz. The storybook quality of this area make drives through the region an amazing journey. The discoveries you will find include churches, distinctive Basque architecture, lush countryside, vineyards, farms, pilgrimage routes and spectacular vistas. If you are a walker, you will be able to find many walking routes.

This section of France left a definite impression on me and I intend on returning.

 

What “off the beaten path” destinations have impacted you?

European Villages Discovered-Kuressaare

Europe is home to many world famous cities; Paris, London, Prague and Munich to name a few.  We have all visited or dream of visiting these cities but there are many more small villages that offer travelers a closer look into the culture of the country.  There are even some that may be labeled as “secret” because they are not on the normal tourist routes.

I thought it would be fun to open the door on a few of these “secret” villages.

First up is a wonderful village on Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa.

Kuressaare on Saaremaa Island of Estonia

by ** Maurice **, on Flickr

Estonia may not be Europe’s best kept secret anymore but Kuressaare is one of Estonia’s.  This lovely village has a feeling that time has stood still and, if this is true, we have the Soviets to thank. During the 1940’s they closed the island, Saaremaa, to all foreigners and most Estonians.  So for 50 years Kuressaare was isolated allowing for its small town feel to remain intact.

Kuressaare church Saaremaa Estonia

Church by Ivo Kruusamägi via Wikimedia

This favored summer get-away was reopened in 1991 and the charms of Kuressaare can once again be enjoyed.  Long summer days and warm weather make this a favored spot.  There are many beaches to enjoy and swim in.  I didn’t know this but the Baltic has a lower salinity level due to the amount of fresh water that flows into it! So swimming in the Baltic won’t leave you with the icky crusty salt feeling.  The weather during the summer months averages in the low 70’s making it not balmy but an enjoyable temperature.

Kuressaare Castle Saaremaa Estonia

Kuressaare Castle & Park by Erik Christensen

What else can you find in Kuressaare?

  • The best preserved medieval castle in the Baltic’s sits at the waterfront and will make all castle lovers happy!  Wander the halls and make your way to the fortifications for amazing views!  While visiting the castle
    Suur Toll Sculpture Kuressaare Estonia

    Suur Toll Sculpture by Beentree via wikimedia

    make sure to visit the regional museum with its own creepy legends.

  • For peaceful way to spend an afternoon, rent a row boat and float in the lake surrounding the castle.
  • Golfers can enjoy a round on the 18 hole golf course.
  • Walking around town you will find some interesting and unique sculptures including the Suur Toll which depicts one of Saaremaa’s heroes.
  • Spend time wandering the historic buildings and churches nestled in the Keskvaljak square area.  Many date back to the 1670’s.
  • The city is flat and, therefore, very friendly to bikers.  Grab a picnic and take off to explore on your own.
  • Kuressaare also has a spa offering a bit of pampering.  How about a bath full of coastal mud?
  • Enjoy the many restaurants, shops, museums and galleries waiting to be sampled.

What do you think?  Could you see yourself wandering Kuressaare?

London’s River – The Thames

Continuing our exploration of Europe’s rivers, let’s take a closer look at the Thames.

Like the Danube and the Rhine rivers, the Thames has seen a lot of history.  When you stop to think of all the explorers that must have traveled up the river it is staggering.  How many times have Kings and Queens traveled the river either escaping London or returning to it?

Hampton on the River Thames England

Hampton on the River Thames by motmit

The Thames begins its 210 miles journey deep in the Cotswold’s.  It is here the wee stream starts its passage through some of the most beautiful countryside in England then cutting through the center of London before finally reaching the North Sea.

Tower of London with Thames England

The Thames through London

Along the trip, there are 45 locks all of which are in the non-tidal portion.  It is in this section of the Thames that you will find 25 species of fish alone.

London is in the tidal portion of the river with tides rising and falling up to 23 feet!

There are 20 tributaries feeding the Thames, 80 islands along its path and a huge variety of wildlife due to the existence of both seawater and freshwater.  In the river you will find salmon, brown trout, chub, perch and flounder. Along the shores you will also find a wide selection of birds making the Thames a great place for bird watchers.

Fishing on Penton Isle River Thames England

Fishing on Penton Isle by motmit

The Thames has supported humans for thousands of years providing water, transportation, commerce, food and fun.  It has also shared in the history of England and has been featured by writers, filmmakers, artist and musicians.

Today, there are many ways to enjoy the river, so let’s explore a few ways you can spend time on this amazing river.

  • Sightseeing tours are a great way to spend time on the river as well as see some of the amazing sights of the city along the rivers banks.  This is no exception for the Thames where you can enjoy sightseeing cruises on the Thames in both London and Oxford.In Oxford you could opt for a lunchtime picnic cruise or sunset river cruise where you can enjoy splendid tourist sights including Christchurch College and Meadows, the University boathouses and regatta course, the Head of the River and Folly Bridge.  If literature is more your fancy then you might want to consider the Alice in Wonderland tour which follows the same route Lewis Carroll took when creating the beloved tale almost 150 years ago.
    Newbridge, Oxfordshire over River Thames England

    Newbridge, Oxfordshire by Bencherlite

    Along the banks of the Thames in London are many of the legendary landmarks including Big Ben, Tower of London and St. Paul’s cathedral.  If your speed is a little quicker than the normal sightseeing river cruise, maybe you should consider the Thames RIB Experience.  Enjoy the Thames in a speedboat!  You will be provided all the gear necessary to keep you dry and the PA system is so good there is no reason to slow down to give the commentary!  Cover more in 1 hour on this adrenaline filled ride.

  • The Thames is a great place for boating of any kind.  Whether you want to canoe, row or sail you can do it here!  There is a boat for any budget and any length of time.  Imagine cruising or gliding past some of the most beautiful villages England has to offer.  There are excellent connections along the way to hotels, pubs, restaurants and even campgrounds.

    Raven's Ait on the River Thames England

    Raven's Ait on the River Thames by motmit

  • Literary history abounds along the shore of the Thames.  From Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Kenneth Grahame, TS Eliot to HG Wells.  They have all received inspiration from the river.  Reading, Mapledurham, Henley, Sonning, Marlow, Windsor and Maidenhead are all villages along the Thames where these writers have either lived; went to school or were just plain inspired by a visit to this amazing and beautiful river.  Why not spend some time following in their footsteps?  Who knows what inspiration you may find!
  • The Thames Path is a 184 mile walking path that follows the Thames from its beginning in the Cotswold’s to its end at the ocean.  Along the trail you will pass quaint villages, peaceful meadow and historic towns before finding the North Sea.  The path is meant to be explored as you wish whether it is for a few hours to a day, multi-day trips or along the entire length.  This mostly flat trail is accessible for all walkers of all ages and abilities.  Of course, along your journey you will run into much wildlife including rabbits, weasel, mute swans, ducks and coots.  If you love to walk and enjoy the outdoors, this is the way for you to spend time along the river!

 

What is your favorite way to spend time along the Thames?

5 Cities to Take a Walk In

A fairly recent new love of mine is walking tours.  My love for walking tours began when my daughter went off to college and I needed to get out of my empty nest!  Since I live in the San Francisco bay area, my husband and I headed off and enjoyed a fantastic walking tour of Nob Hill.  Since then I have enjoyed many walking tours and look forward to new walking adventures in any city I visit. 

To me, a walking tour allows you to really get to know a neighborhood at a much slower pace.  Since you are walking the amount of area covered is more limited and allows for a more in depth look into the subject of the walk.  I have found the guides to be very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject.  You can find walking tours in larger cities covering a vast range of topics.

So to inspire you to walk a bit, I picked 5 European cities to begin a list of walking tour companies.  Guides from all companies listed are from all walks of life (no pun intended) including historians, literary experts, art historians, performers and authors.  Most of the tours listed do not require reservations, however, some do have minimums so look for this when deciding on the tour you will enjoy.

House of Parliament London

House of Parliament London by cookipediachef, on Flickr

London:

London Walks is a company offering many walking tours covering the neighborhoods of London.  Their tours include:  The Secrets of Westminster Abbey (From Opus Dei & Death’s Palace to The Da Vinci Code), The Beatles ‘In My Life’ Walk, The Hidden Pubs of Old London Town, Ghosts Gaslight & Guinness, and The Blitz – London at War. There is no need to book ahead and most walking tours are priced at 8£ (about $15).  The biggest problem with this company is which tour to choose??

Eiffel Tower Paris France

Eiffel Tower

Paris :

Paris Walks offers many walking tours covering many of the wonderful neighborhoods Paris is so famous for.  You could enjoy The Medieval Latin Quarter, The French Revolution,  a Fashion Walk, the Village of Montmartre, Hemingway’s Paris or even a Chocolate walking tour!  Again, the cost for these walking tours is quite reasonable at 12 € (about $16).  Sign me up for the Chocolate tour!  Is there a better way to enjoy chocolate and work off the calories at the same time?

Prague Czech Republic

Prague by photojenni, on Flickr

Prague:

Learn about all that makes Prague famous by taking one of these walking tours from Prague Walks: Prague Castle Walk, Jewish Prague, Ghost Walk, Pubs of the Old Town and the Best of Prague, which also includes lunch and a river cruise.  Prices range from 300 czk to 890 czk (from $17 to $50 for the Best of Prague).  A few of these tours have minimums so be sure to check their website for more details.  For you early risers, they offer a Good Morning Walk where you will be able to enjoy Prague before the crowds are even up!

Brandenburg Gate Berlin Germany

Brandenburg Gate Berlin by Bernt Rostad, on Flickr

Berlin:

Original Berlin Walks offers tours that help you discover Berlin and its storied history.  You may decide to choose one of these tours:  Discover Berlin Tour, Infamous Third Reich Sites, Jewish Life in Berlin and Nest of Spies Tours.  These tours are 12 € ($16).  While looking at their website, I noticed their guides list their favorite restaurants which I think is a real bonus. . . local recommendations can’t be beat!

Marienplatz Munich Germany

Marienplatz Munich by JoeDuck, on Flickr

Munich:

Munich Walk Tours offers a unique way to learn about Munich and its history and culture.  Walking tours include: Bavarian Food Tasting & Viktualienmarkt, Haunted Munich Ghost Tour, Beer and Brewery Tour (you are in Munich!), Hitler’s Munich (aka Third Reich Tour) and The City Walk & English Garden tour.  These tours range in price from 12 €22 € ($16-$30).  Munich Walk Tours also offer a couple bike riding tours, which is my next “adventure” to tackle.

 

So there you have it, 5 cities 5 different walking tour companies.  Try one, you won’t be disappointed.  This list is not complete and inclusion here does not mean an endorsement is being made.  I do, however, suggest you venture out and walk a bit. . .

Which walking tour would you most like to enjoy??