on the road to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port ("Saint John at the foot of the pass").

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Did you know that the French word "basque" just so happens to be related to the Italian "basta" (which means "That's enough!" "Stop!"... or simply "Whoa boy!"--something the Spanish Basque might have been shouting a few days ago, as they marched through the streets of Bilbao, rallying for independence for the Spanish region. Today, we focus on French Basque country... read on.

1. basque (bask) adjective
  : Basque (le Pays Basque: a region in northern Spain & southwestern France)
    : (noun) language

2. basque (bask) noun, feminine
    : tail (coat), skirt*

*The French word "jupe" is the word that the French use for "skirt".

Expression and audio file:
Listen to my son, Max, pronounce today's word and one of the following expressions: "être toujours aux basques de quelqu'un" and "être pendu à ses basques" = to be hanging on someone's apron strings, i.e. to follow someone around: Download basque.wav . Download basque.mp3

Nearly two weeks ago we returned from Basque country, and the region's colors, no matter how vibrant, are just now beginning to fade. What struck me most about the Basques, the people who populate this westernmost region of France (with its toe ever dipped into Spain or vice versa...), were their time-honored traditions.

Take the French beret, for example... while the streets of Paris may not be teeming with them, you will see plenty of berets worn in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port, where they help to distinguish the lively locals from the pèlerins*... never mind that the latter are easily recognized by their heavy backpacks and their faces sprinkled with awe.

The Basque cross, or "lauburu,"* a symbol of prosperity, is to the Basque what the fleur-de-lys is to France, and though you won't find as many French streets "fleurdelisé,"* when in Basque country you will see the cross-shaped lauburu partout!*: on most of the souvenirs in gift shops, over Basque doorways, and on T-shirts, flags, and even tombstones.

As for those vibrant colors, most of the homes and many buildings still sport the characteristic red or green shutters which decorate the stark white maisons.* Judging from the many freshly-painted volets* and newly white-washed façades, it looks like this tradition won't fade anytime soon.

In just about any Basque town, you'll find a tall "fronton"* wall, in stacked stone or concrete, against which the locals still play ball, or "pilota,"* with their hands or with oblong baskets. The players hardly notice the sunburned tourists who file by, occasionally pausing to snap a photo.

My favorite long-standing Basque tradition is the love for their lyrical language, which, unlike Provençal, can still be heard on the street and in squares and shops. Finally, Basque is still part of the curriculum in certain schools across the region.

Those are but a few lasting impressions of le pays basque français.* I've left out so many more: le poulet basquaise,* the striped linens, the cheeses (especially "Osau Iraty" and "Etorki"*), and the irascible waitresses who would rather throw a traditional gâteau basque* into a diner's face than to follow the mantra "the customer is always right" (well, maybe not all Basque waitresses... but some. I'll have to tell you about HER one of these times). Oh, and those home-made Basque bombs (!), one of which we apparently just missed while sojourning in Bidarray... (see Yikes!

To leave a comment on this post, or to share your own traveler's tale to the Basque region, click here.

le pèlerin (m) = pilgrim; lauburu (Lau buru) = "four heads" (or summits); fleurdelisé (adj) = decorated with fleur-de-lis; partout = everywhere; la maison (f) = home; le volet (m) = window shutter; le fronton (m) = "front" wall; pilota = pelota ("ball" in Basque) : a court game in which one uses his hand or a basket to hit the ball against a wall or "fronton"; le pays (m) basque français = the French Basque country; le poulet (m) basquaise = famous Basque chicken dish; Etorki = kind of cheese made of sheep's milk ; le gâteau (m) basque = custard tart, typical dessert from the Labourd region

Book: The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation

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The Roads to Santiago: The Medieval Pilgrim Routes Through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, St. James the Apostle preached throughout the Iberian peninsula. His bones found their way to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and today many pilgrims make trips to the shrine. This fully illustrated book covers all the routes to this holy place from Paris and Spain. Providing readers with historical context for the routes, it showcases all the stunning monuments and magnificent landscapes along the way.

Etorki cheese: made from sheep's milk, imported from France:

Traditional Basque beret for man or woman that is fully lined and sports a leather sweatband, and at a great price - cheaper than going all the way to France to pick one up. Imported from France.

Colloquial Basque: A Complete Language Course

"Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Sabbatical or Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind" by Dan Clements and Tara Gignac

Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language

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I picked up my beret this last New Years in Basque Country.

I always thought they were purely a fashion statement. But it was raining and the beret really kept my head, face, etc really dry. It was nice to learn it actually served some kind of practical purpose.

phyllis morton

Etorki cheese must have some roots in the ancient Greeks who traveled in that part of the world.

Carol Leavell

A wonderful book by Kurlansky about the Basque history and culture. I love them too, they are amazing people with a fascinating history!

R. Roll

Perpignan made me very uneasy. There was something about the place and the people that did not make want to linger. Fortunately, we stayed in a hotel on the outskirts, and the staff could not have been nicer.

We also wandered inadvertently into Spain, and I couldn't wait to get back on French soil.

Shauneen Young

I am glad you enjoyed the Pays Basque. I lived in St Jean Pied De Port for 15 months and loved it, we are now in Bearn so not that far to go if we want to visit. I hope you managed to eat at the Auberge Iparla in Bidarry, thei black pudding and mashed potatoes are divine.


I loved the Pays Basque, and felt right at home there. In fact, I even considered moving there, it's that special. You can see more of the beauty Kristin is talking about here on French Letters

Else Prior Holtaway

I am Danish. After 10 years in Britain I have by now lived in Ciboure (15km south of Birratz !5km from the Spanish boarder), right by the sea. On top I have a "Borda" (cabin) in the forest at the botom at a mountain 10km from Garazi, right at the border to Spain. I am in the heart of the Basque county, and if I have a choice, this is where I'll stay.

Comment to the article: The Basque language is not"still part of the curriculum" in the schools. It is coming back stronger and stronger! It is free to choose. On to of that "Basque schools have been created'. First language there is the Basque, French the sechond.

With respect to the bombs on this the French side, I want to make clear that it is very small groups performing these acts, opposed by the rest of the population. They have mainly been targeted at Estate agents, private holiday homes (when now body was there) etc.. The theme is "Paye Basque is not for sale".

I came here speaking app. 20 words of french. Iwas recieved with open arms. I love the Basque people. The are very proud, and rightly so. They can be very closed, and it can be hard for some to get accepted. If that is the case the only thing to do is to leave!

I will stop now before this becomes a novel! Just to end: I praise myself very lucky, that by chance, I found this beautiful place.


Enjoyed this peek into a culture we don't hear much about. (Can I hope for equal time for Bretons next year maybe?)


Love that Basque cheese. That's one of the things I miss most now home in Texas.

Fred Caswell

The home-made Basque bomb which JM & Kristi just missed recalls an incident, not in Basque country but in northern France. Carrying my small travel bag and walking to a small village with the hope of seeing at least 1 centuries-old maison ou batiment, hinting of a bit of the life of my mother's ancestors, I came upon a sign at the beginning of an open 2-lane recently paved mini highway. At 71 0r 72 years of age and just beginning to tackle French, I did not know what the sign meant; after passing it a ways my better judgment caused a reference to my French-English dictionary--"Danger Hunting Area Ahead"!

At least 300 yards of open slanting field to the left and trees lining the road to the right, I reasoned(?) "What are the odds that a shot at an animal would come anywhere near me?--pretty small."

Moments after resuming walking, a shot sounded followed by the distinct whiz of a bullet coming much too close for comfort! I stopped in my tracks, turned to face the origin of the projectile, waved my hands up and down by my sides, and held up the suitcase. Continuing the walk was without experiencing being a target but with tons more than enough anxiety.

I still wonder if the shooter had me in his sights.

Frank Chappell

Hi, Kristen. I have been away from you for a while, but I have never forgotten about you. I had attempted at one time to print out your web pages so I could study them, but then I suddenly realized there was another year of your web pages preceding the ones I had just printed. I was overwhelmed. But now I am back, and I think that picture of St.Jean Pied de Port is so beautiful that I printed it out to show to a friend who I have been trying to convince to go to France with me some day. Then I realized that I could print two of your pictures per page, after turn the sheet around. Then I wrote the sentence or phrase that goes with the picture. Now I am adding vocabulary. Hopefully I am not on the way to overwhelming myself again. But your photos are so beautiful that they are definitely motivating me to continue. I just have to go back to the pages that I have missed in the past. The French should give you the Légion d'honneur for what you are doing if they have not already. Thanks


Another GREAT entry, Kristin. I have not been farther southwest than Lourdes, but I would truly love to visit the Pays Basque some day!!!

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Hey what's up?! Listen, I tried to access to your entries through the links at the right side of the screen but I was not able, instead, I was sent to a blank page... does any one know what kind of trouble is that and how to solve it?


Hi Kristi, I have just discoered your archives and am having much fun, plus I discovered that I can save the mp3s!! So "basque" is my first save there. Thanks so much to you and your family. God bless, C-Marie

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