RABBITS, the French love them. Rabbit terrine, lapin a la moutarde, lapin aux pruneaux. Always for the pot, never as a cuddly pet. Hence my surprise at straying across a rabbit theme park in deepest Basque country.
OK, the Basques are sort of cuckoos in the French nest, cherishing their own customs and language, but they do share a similar culinary obsession taking in fish, fur and fowl, while Biarritz, near where we were camping, is almost an anagram of rabbits.
Lapin it upThe Foret des Lapins, then, is obviously a groundbreaker. Situated in the Pyrenean foothills near Itsasu, it features a wide range of rabbits (and guinea pigs) in a woodland setting. For your 6 euros you mainly get the ‘aaah’ factor, but also insights into the place of The Bunny in world civiklisation. Even if the website (www.laforetdeslapins.com) translation leaves a little to be desired: “Then little by little man helped us to evolve, still in dress or food purposes. This is only about two centuries that man gives us a greater place in his company, pampering us and we ponpon value for us as a real top model developer for us farms races.” You get the drift.
Perhaps more than the Basque Route du Fromage, a tasting in the Irouleguy vineyards or market day in twee Ezpeleta, epicentre of basque red chilli pepper production, it would be a good kids’ day out from the le Ruisseau campsite.
We were staying there as guests of Eurocamp in one of their “two-bed comfort mobile homes with decking”. The plan was to chill out after some serious eating and drinking across the Spanish border in Bibao (we flew in there) and San Sebastian. Indeed we spent a lot of time on the engagingly rural, heavily wooded site. The pool with its huge water slide was heaven for the kids, but a couple of times we bagged a corner spot and caught some late summer sun after a sweaty table tennis thrash.
The superbly run parc is five minutes’ drive from a large supermarket and 15 minutes from the nearest beach at Bidart. Our hire car trips out took us further afield, though... to Biarritz, St Jean de Luz, Bayonne and into unspoilt reaches of the Pyrenees.
Each gave us something different, opening our eyes to this extreme southwestern corner of France, which we had previously neglected in favour of the Riviera or the Languedoc.
Biarritz, the Atlantic Monte Carlo, suffered a long period of neglect after the 1960s when the glitzy attention turned to the Cote d’Azur, but the surfing attractions of its beaches (and a kind of nostalgic chic) have wooed a new generation.
It’s a kind of grander Scarborough with fantastic rock formations, ocean-liner-style hotels and Addams Family mock-gothic piles. The Casino Municipal, restored as a conference venue, is the centrepiece of the town’s table-strewn promenade.
Behind the front, it’s shabby in an unthreatening way and we loved the windy, walkable southern beach best, the Plage de la Cote de Basque.
Further south, St-Jean-de-Luz hangs on to its status as a fishing port, but it is really just a sedater version of Biarritz with a pleasant cliff walk and pedestrianised streets featuring some gorgeous 17th century buildings. There is plenty of history here.
Barn-like Saint-Jean-de-Baptiste, the largest French Basque church, hosted the wedding (of political convenience) of Sun King Louis XIV to Maria-Teresa, the Infanta of Castile, in 1660.
I remember Saint-Jean-de-Luz best, though for an awesome John Dory on the bone served up at fish restaurant Le Tourasse, in the street of that name.
At another picturesque town called St Jean, we also ate well. Saint-Jean-Pied-les-Port sounds like it ought to be on the coast but is situated an hour’s drive inland close to the Spanish border on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Plilgrim routeThe pretty little hilltop walled town on the raging River Nive was thronged with pilgrims bearing the distinctive scallop shell as well as coachloads of more sedentary trippers. We found refuge under the walls in the Gault Millau-rated Restaurant Iratze Ostatua, sampling Basque specialities such as axoa of veal and pig’s trotters. (http://iratze.zeblog.com/).
Afterwards we drove up into the remote (no public transport) borderland of the upper Vallee des Aldudes.
The mountain air was fresh and the temptation was to cross over to Pamplona but reluctantly we turned back coastwards, via the vertiginous zig-zagging pass over the 2,000ft Col d’Ispeguy. Not for the faint-hearted.
We saved Bayonne till last and then went twice. Our favourite town of the French Basque country, all golden stone in the sunlight, is divided into Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne by the Nive river as it flows down into the Adour.
On the Grand quai we ate mussels at a little cafe in the riverside gem of a market hall and sampled the chocolate for which Bayonne is famous in the cocoa-rich arcaded rue de la Monnaie, then crossed the river to drink beer on the Petit side, once a stronghold of the Basque separatists ETA but today a rather sleepy warren.
Combining a visit here with the beaches of Biarritz and the family diversions on offer at le Ruisseau parc is a perfect holiday recipe. Thanks, to the Atlantic breezes it’s substantially cooler than the sweltering Med. Chill!
More family things to do in the Biarritz area:
Cite de l’Ocean et du Surf opened in summer 2011 and is a museum dedicated to surf, the ocean and their roles upon our leisure, science, and ecology. built round an open air plaza surrounded by rock waves. South of the town, Avenue de la Plage, La Milady 64200 Biarre www.citedelocean.com.
Plus in the centre of Biarritz there is one of France’s largest aquariums, the Musee de la Mer Aquarium, Esplanade du Rocher de la Vierge, 64200 Biarritz, www.museedelamer.com.
Outside Sare, one of France’s prettiest villages, you’ll find Les Grottes de Sare, megalithic caves that can be viewed via a guided son et lumiere tour. www.grottesdesare.fr
The UK’s leading European camping holiday operator – is the perfect self-catering holiday option for families and couples.
Eurocamp offers the widest selection of family camping holidays on holiday parcs and villages throughout Europe and the USA; with a range of activities and age-specific kids’ clubs. Plus, there’s a fantastic choice of accommodation, including stylish mobile homes, lodges, modern chalets, bungalows, and fully equipped ‘Classic’ and ‘Safari’ tents.
A seven night break from Saturday 2 June 2012 at Eurocamp’s Le Ruisseau parc in Biarritz, staying in a 2 Bedroom Horizon mobile home (sleeps 7, maximum 4 adults), costs from just £393 per party, accommodation only, including an early booking discount if booked by 22 February, 2012.
For further information on Eurocamp, please call 0844 406 0552 or visit www.eurocamp.co.uk.
easyJet runs a three times weekly direct service from Manchester to Bilbao plus, for London holidfaymakers a service from Stansted. Flights start from £29.99 (one-way, including taxes). It opens up the Basque country’s largest city as well as other prime destinations in northern Spain such as San Sebastian and Pamplona.
There is a summer Ryanair flight to tiny Biarritz Aiport but only from Stansted.
Book cheap car hire with www.rhinocarhire.com with prices from approx. £12 per day or from £87 for seven days' car hire in Bilbao.
Rhinocarhire.com is an award-winning online car hire company, perfect for those seeking cheap car hire for a summer or ski holiday, city break or business trip. Launched in June 2008, Rhinocarhire.com has quickly established itself as one of the leading car hire websites operating in over 20,000 locations worldwide and comparing rates with over 550 leading suppliers to offer the lowest prices, albeit for just one day or for an extended visit.
Voted 'Best Car Hire Website 2010' at the Travolution Awards, it is backed up by a dedicated customer support network in the UK. Its success is attributable to Rhinocarhire.com’s constant development of the services it offers to its customers.
Manchester Airport parking:
Leaving our car at Manchester Airport, we took advantage of their affordable and convenient Short and Long Stay, Valet and Meet & Greet parking. This is available for all three terminals. You can pre book up to 11.15pm the night before you depart or turn up and pay on arrival. All car parks have been awarded Park Mark security status giving reassurance that your car is safe while you are away. Free AA ‘Get You Moving’ service to give you peace of mind should your car fail to start on your return. Free of charge, 365 days a year.
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi Storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long Stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day.
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