A rail tour discovering unique Basque culture
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Superb sandy beaches, a mild climate and a delightful ocean promenade have drawn visitors to Biarritz for years. Here we see the region's lovely coastal resorts, the mighty Pyrenees and the unique Basque heritage.
We meet at our dedicated Departure Office in London St Pancras, before joining the Eurostar to Paris. Travelling in Standard Premier Class, we enjoy a light meal and drinks served at our seats during the journey.
On arrival in the French capital we transfer across the city to connect with our onward high-speed TGV rail service to Biarritz. This stylish town overlooking the rocky Atlantic Coast rose to prominence in the mid- 19th century, when Napoleon entertained both the French aristocracy and the crowned heads of Europe along its golden beach front. Today Biarritz retains much of its effortless glamour, flanked by alluring Belle Epoque townhouses and Art Deco buildings in its historic core. We spend the next six nights in the town at the Radisson Blu Hotel, which enjoys a superb location overlooking the ocean.
This morning we begin our stay in Biarritz with a guided sightseeing tour. With its rich and varied history, the town boasts many arresting landmarks; these include the striking Russian Orthodox church, where Russian nobility were frequent visitors until the Soviet Revolution of 1917.
We also see the famous casino, and of course the Grande Plage or 'Great Beach', where people have come to admire the sparkling sea views for well over a century. Your afternoon is then free for you to explore at your leisure. Perhaps follow in the footsteps of former regulars such as Queen Victoria, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway, and unwind on Biarritz's famous promenade. Otherwise, you could relax on the four miles of beaches fringing the town, or find a charming seafront café and watch the world go by.
Today we travel by coach across the Spanish border to San Sebastián. With its unique blend of Spanish, French and Basque-influenced architecture, this wonderful city is widely regarded as one of Spain's most elegant resorts set within the fashionable and famous La Concha Bay, which has deep, calm waters and a stunning beach area. Whilst here we enjoy a tapas lunch together, in the delightful Old Quarter. Tapas is an important part of San Sebastián's celebrated cuisine, and we sample some of the many 'pintxos' - or dishes - on offer. Afterwards you are free to explore at leisure - you may like to visit the grand Miramar Palace, a former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy. You may wish to stroll up Monte Igudelo, the nearby summit overlooks the tranquil waters of the bay and provides fantastic views of sprawling San Sebastián and the nearby area, continue around the bay and visit the beguiling 'Combs of the Wind', an iron sculpture designed by artist Eduardo Chillida, embedded in the rocks.
Alternatively, the San Telmo Museum provides an interesting insight into local life and the history of the San Sebastián area, including local artworks and the architectural history of the city over the years. You may also wish to visit one of the local wineries. Otherwise, you could relax on the pretty promenade, or on one of the unspoilt beaches curving around the graceful bay. Behind the city are lush rolling hills that have drawn celebrities and sun lovers to the mild winters and hot summers for generations. The picturesque island of Santa Clara is situated just off shore, in the centre of La Concha Bay. The island is home to one of the area's prettiest beaches, although due to the tides it can only be used for part of the day. Santa Clara can be accessed by boat - although many of the locals will simply swim across from the beach.
On today's excursion we travel by coach to Col de Saint-Ignace, where we connect with the superb Petit Train de la Rhune. This classic rack-and-pinion railway takes us through the dramatic Atlantic Pyrenees in lovingly restored wooden carriages - overcoming a height difference of 2,415ft during the journey. The route takes us through steep-sided rocky valleys, with a fabulous panorama over the rolling meadows and impressive foothills of the nearby Basque region.
Before long we arrive at the summit of La Rhune, which not only marks the border between France and Spain, but at 3,000ft also offers a magnificent panorama over the Bay of Biscay. After time to admire the views, we descend the mountain, then continue by coach to the lively fishing port of St Jean-de-Luz. Here you have a little time to explore; perhaps take a stroll along the promenade, and watch the charming fishing boats bring their catch back to the sheltered harbour. Otherwise, the medieval centre is a delight to wander around. We enjoy a three-course lunch with wine in a restaurant in St Jean de-Luz before returning to Biarritz.
Today is free for you to spend at your leisure. The resort, with its sweeping promenade and vast beaches, offers a range of activities for you to enjoy. You might like to try your luck in the casino, or visit the town's lighthouse. If you're feeling energetic, you could perhaps take a stroll past the atmospheric Old Port to the Rocher de la Vierge, a statue on a rocky headland said to protect the safe return of local fishermen, now connected to the town by a footbridge. Other popular options include the Aquarium, which is home to an incredible menagerie of underwater creatures, as well as an informative exhibition on Biarritz's whaling past. Perhaps you may like to visit the Asiatica Museum, which houses a significant collection of Asian art primarily from India, Nepal, Tibet and China.
The town of Biarritz also contains a delightful chocolate museum, whereby you can learn the history and manufacture of this sweet confectionery. Much of the architecture is influenced by Empress Eugenie, the Chapelle Imperiale, with its intricate roof design and elegant wall tilings, was built in her name. The former Empress was also responsible for the commission of the beach-front palace, now redesigned as the Hotel du Palais.
This morning we visit nearby Bayonne, one of the region's lesser-known gems. Nestled around the River Adour, the town is crowned by its beautiful Gothic cathedral, which towers over the quaint tangle of narrow streets that surround it. Located close to the Spanish border, Bayonne is a city with many different cultural influences affecting it and is split effectively into two parts by the Rivers Adour and Nive then linked back together by a series of five bridges. There is Grand Bayonne, which holds the bulk of the city's commercial and civic concerns, and Petit Bayonne, where the Basque culture is most evident, and where the bars and restaurants have flamboyant Spanish ambience and flavour.
Bayonne is truly a city of art and culture, where art lovers can see great masterpieces by painters such as Goya, Degas and Botticelli in the Musée Bonnat, and those whose interests lie in history will not be disappointed by the collections of Basque history on show in the Musée Basque. We discover more of Bayonne on a guided walking tour of the centre, in which we also see the historic fortifications and the tall timber-framed dwellings, adorned with red-painted shutters. Following the tour you are free to continue exploring at your own pace. You may wish to visit the informative Basque Museum, detailing the history of this ancient autonomous area, stroll through the beautiful Jardin Botanique, vivid and verdant gardens exhibiting styles and plant species from all across the globe or maybe just enjoy lunch in one of Bayonne's superb riverside restaurants. Back in Biarritz this evening, we enjoy a farewell dinner together.
We travel to Paris by high-speed rail today and join the Eurostar service back to London St Pancras International.
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A rail tour discovering unique Basque culture