The Pyrénées-Atlantiques department is in the far southwest of France in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. It borders Spain and includes the seaside superstar Biarritz, mountains and glorious countryside. Taking its name from the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the department is roughly half Pays Basque Country and half Béarn. We talk to Charlie Ellis, an expat Brit who moved from Devon, England in 1993 to live in a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées in the heart of the Basque Country, about life for expats in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department…
What inspired you to move to Pyrénées-Atlantiques?
We were in search of an adventure and we certainly found one. We moved in the days before Google and television programmes giving you all sorts of helpful advice about moving to France, so we really didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for. Our total research amounted to reading a few articles in French Property News and chatting to friends who owned a holiday home in the Dordogne. How hard could it be? With no children in tow at the time, we decided to take a leap into the unknown.
We settled into our newly purchased Basque farmhouse surprisingly easily. The locals were delighted to welcome a young couple into their tiny village. Our neighbours were thrilled that we were going to do up a property which had become an eyesore. And everybody seemed very happy that we were English. We employed an excellent builder who lived in the village and worked alongside him. He gradually taught us everything we needed to know about living in the French Basque Country. Especially how the culture and language intermingle with France and Spain in this tiny corner of France.
How did you find your house?
We knew that we wanted to live on the west coast of France. One Easter, we took the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff and drove south. We looked all over and ended up in the Basque Country because that’s where France stops. But in fact, my wife had spent a family holiday in a gorgeous village slightly inland from the Basque coast when she was six years old. The area’s beautiful architecture and beaches had left a deep impression on her. Perhaps we were always destined to live here…
What is interesting about the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is that it is two very distinct areas – the Basque Country and the Béarn. Both have their own languages and dialects, their own traditions and culture. And the rivalry between them is intense. Especially when there’s a rugby or football match involving one team from each area!
What is your house like? Did you need to do a lot of renovation?
In fact, we have lived in three different places during our 27 years here – before children, with children and now as “empty nesters”. Our first French house was about 50 minutes away from the coast, close to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and in the middle of nowhere. It was a massive 17th-century Basque farmhouse of more than 600m² (not including the attic floor) and it came with a fantastic history. The owner explained to us that, during the 1980s, a policeman who lived in the village inherited the farmhouse and turned it into a huge restaurant on the first floor and a nightclub on the ground floor! The business lasted six months before going bust.
So when we bought it, our “kitchen” was equipped with a fabulous wooden bar area, a huge charcoal grill and a fully functioning pizza oven. Downstairs there was a lavatory block (and a vast septic tank to go with it), a DJ booth and a couple of glitterballs. Outside we had a marble-paved dance floor next to a spit roast for barbecuing two whole sheep! Within a year we turned it into three gites with a gorgeous garden.
After seven summer seasons, however, we decided we’d prefer to bring up our toddler and new baby within walking distance of the beach. So we moved to the Basque coast with the firm intention of never renovating a house again, except that with both daughters now at university, we thought we’d look beyond the Basque Country to the beautiful Béarn! Right at the beginning of our search, we fell in love with a dilapidated 18th-century watermill in a forest, which also has a glorious riverside garden. So, we’re back to doing what we originally moved to France to do which is to renovate our dream property. As I work full time for Leggett Immobillier as an estate agent, it doesn’t leave me with an awful lot of spare time so our watermill still has lots of “potential” left!
What made you fall in love with the area
Like most people, our initial idea when we started looking for a house where we could create gîtes. We wanted to be about 20 minutes away from the coast so that we and our gîte guests could enjoy going to the beach and then return to a rustic farmhouse in the peaceful countryside. Once we started looking for a property, however, we quickly realised that Basque houses tend to be huge and are not ideal for gîtes because they have two massive internal vertical walls which have to be pierced. One reason we chose the property that we did was that the internal walls had already been pierced when it had been converted into a disco!
The next problem we had was to find a farmhouse that was actually for sale. 27 years ago, it was incredibly rare to find anything because the “etxe” (house) is supposed to be kept in the family and certainly never sold to anyone who is not a relative. Again we were lucky because our Basque farmhouse was no longer owned by the original family although they did still live in the village.
As for falling in love with our farmhouse, it wasn’t really love at first sight for the building at all. More like love for what we imagined it might become in the future (and it did). Mind you, our view of the mountains was spectacular and we certainly fell in love with that.
There are so many wonderful places throughout the Béarn and the Basque Country. We love the tiny church at L’Hôpital-St-Blaise and the impressive cathedrals in Bayonne and Oloron-Ste-Marie. Oloron-Ste-Marie also has a medieval hilltop quartier where you can walk along a lovely belvedere, enjoying breath-taking views of the Pyrénées. We also love the Petit Train de La Rhune and the Petit Train d’Artuste, which take you high up into the mountains.
There are also the Grottes de Bétharram, which also has a little train. And the Gorges de Kakuetta with its lovely waterfalls and the Passerelle d’Holzarte where you don’t dare look down! There is also a nature park for Pyrenean bears – Parc’Ours at Borce. Spain is about an hour away and we love to go there to eat pintxos in San-Sebastián or visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
What are your favourite outings in Bearn
We loved family days at the Grande Plage in St-Jean-de-Luz where we picnicked with friends in the evening, keeping a watchful eye as the children played in the sea. We also like to go to the beach in Hendaye, which is a little further south and more tranquil.
Throughout the summer, the Basques and the Béarnais are renowned for their raucous outdoor Fêtes. As fully fledged Basque fêtards, our children and their friends love to go to the Fêtes de Bayonne in July. My wife and I prefer the more familial Fête de la St-Jean in St-Jean-de-Luz at the end of June with its confetti battle and toro de fuego. Closer to home, we love the beautiful moonlit Christmas fireworks in Oloron-Ste-Marie and the excellent evening buffet (and free wine) offered by Monsieur le Maire on Christmas Eve.
Our ultimate family day out, however, is to cycle or take a small boat to the harbourside village of Socoa and to eat in the absolutely fantastic Snack du Fort. The owners of this unpretentious restaurant are truly adorable and the food is both delicious and excellent value for money!
Life in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is laid back, delicious and warm…
Fancy becoming an agent with Leggett? See there website for details: www.frenchestateagents.com/pages/recruitment_new