Several years back, a mayor in the province of Soule welcomed a group of travelers with the following announcements: the Basque Country is the most beautiful place in the world; the Basque people are very likely direct descendants of Adam and Eve via the lost city of Atlantis; his own ancestors fought in the Crusades; and Christopher Columbus was almost certainly a Basque. There, in brief, was a composite picture of the pride, dignity, and humor of the Basques.
And if Columbus was not a Basque (a claim very much in doubt), at least historians know that whalers from the regional village of St-Jean-de-Luz sailed as far as America in their three-mast ships, and that Juan Sebastián Elkano, from the Spanish Basque village of Getaria, commanded the completion of Magellan's voyage around the world after Magellan's 1521 death in the Philippines. The distinctive culture—from berets and pelota matches to Basque cooking—of this little "country" has cast its spell over the corners of the Earth.
The most popular gateway to the entire region is Biarritz, the "king" of France's Atlantic coast resorts, whose refinements once attracted the crowned heads of Europe. It was Empress Eugénie who gave Biarritz its coming-out party, transforming it, in the era of Napoléon III, from a simple bourgeois town into an international glitterati favorite. Today, after a round of sightseeing, you can still enjoy the Second Empire trimmings from a perch at the roulette table in the town's casino. Then work on your suntan at Biarritz's famous beach or, a few miles away, really bask under the Basque sun at the picturesque port of St-Jean-de-Luz. As for the entire Pays Basque (Basque Country), it's happily compact: the ocher sands along the Bay of Biscay are less than an hour from the emerald hills of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Basque Pyrénées.
Heading eastward toward the towering peaks of the central Pyrenean cordillera lies the Béarn region, with its splendid capital city of Pau, while northward lies a must-detour for lovers of the good life: Eugénie-les-Bains, where you can savor every morsel of a Michel Guérard feast at one (or all!) of his magnificently stylish restaurants and hotels. East through the Aubisque Pass, at the Béarn's eastern limit, is the heart of the Hautes-Pyrénées, where the mountains of Vignemale and Balaïtous compete with the Cirque de Gavarnie, the world's most spectacular natural amphitheater, centered around a 1,400-foot waterfall. Whether you finish up with a vertiginous Pyrenean hike or choose to pay your respects to the religious shrine at Lourdes, this region will lift your spirits.