A non-surfing adventure along the coast of France’s Pays Basque – Le Sentier du Littoral
It is easy (especially if you are surfing) to come to Biarritz and not explore the region at all. Biarritz offers a wide enough variety of things to do, and if you mosey up to Anglet or into Bayonne for a different perspective you can happily while away the days in what is called the BAB (Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne) area, sans problème. I was however determined to explore the coast more on my extended stay. Perhaps I am colossally useless but I was really unsure how best to approach my Dora the Explorer ambitions. The coast is peppered with beaches but there are no roads or obvious paths (on google maps at least) that run along the shore to make a good or obvious starting point. I decided that randomly driving to a beach I could see on the map was as good an option as any.
By sheer luck, I rocked up at a beach that was the start of le Sentier du Littoral, a trail that runs from Bidart down the coast to Spain and, it turns out, along the coast on the other side too. It is a trail that shares stretches with the Camino de Santiago and if you are spending any time in this part of the world should be high on the to-do list. I had never heard of this trail before and stumbled across it through sheer dumb luck.
The trail was truly magnificent! If you do the whole trail on the French side, it covers about 25km, and runs on the Spanish side for roughly the same distance again. I decided to do the trail over three days, although you could extremely easily do it in two and probably one day if you were feeling energetic.
Starting at a small beach on the northside of Bidart, it steeply climbs a long series of steps through a mini wood to take you back to the top of the cliff which you drove down from to get to the beach. Not to be disheartened (or at least, trying not to be) I continued through the little village of Bidart, rambling along the rather tiny backstreets and stopping every five minutes to gape at the fantastic vistas. The trail – which you keep to by following the yellow markings on various trees, signposts and stones – tries its hardest to keep you on the coast (le Sentier du littoral literally means the path of the coast in English) which means that you can do quite a lot of looping and meandering as you trace the ups and downs of the coastline. About an hour into my walk I emerged on the other side of the tiny village of Bidart, having intimately explored all the streets and walking paths it had to offer. Bidart takes less than three minutes to drive through, for reference.
Once out of Bidart the trail continues to the village of Guéthary. This really is a short hop from Bidart but again the trail traces the cliffs and provides some pretty breathtaking views of the ocean. Guéthary was, for me, the little gem of the whole 25km. A small town with steep hills, a famous wave (Parlementia) and a little harbour, I could not get enough of this village. The main road drives through the tiniest portion of Guéthary, so it is easy to think it is simply a collection of houses if you do not go exploring. I think Guéthary is probably very happy with this presumption.
This is where my favourite part of the trail began. The stretch from Guéthary to St Jean de Luz was a continuous collection of photo opportunities. The trail runs through bushes that hang from the top of the cliff and play peek-a-boo with the sea. Personally, if you were only going to do a small segment of the Sentier I would do this bit.
The main problem with the Sentier du Littoral is the return journey. If you want to walk back to your car you need to make sure that you don’t walk too far or an afternoon stroll can turn into quite a mission. For the Guéthary- St Jean de Luz part of the journey I parked the car near the train station in Guéthary which meant that on arriving in St Jean de Luz I was able to catch a train back rather than walk along the extremely fast and busy road.
The final stretch of the Sentier is from St Jean de Luz to Hendaye. I was extremely excited about this part of the walk because everyone I had talked to said it was the highlight. Personally, I was a little disappointed. Admittedly I did this section on a cloudy cold day, and got caught in a rather violent hail storm that did not improve things. But mostly, after the quiet removed sections I had done previously, this section was largely along the main road. I am sure as a driving opportunity it is fantastic, but if I am using my two legs I sort of want to go where others cannot get to easily.
The landscape is however very special and completely different from what I had seen previously. It is probably the most varied segment of the trail as well, you start by walking through the harbour of St Jean de Luz before climbing a cliff where the rock falls away in rugged formation. The trail ends with a small section that wanders through sheep filled fields and a small forest before finishing in Hendaye, directly overlooking the Spanish border. I did this last part of the trail on a Sunday and found myself muddy and cold in Hendaye with no trains to take me back for another hour and a half. If you do decide to walk this part, try to keep in mind the train schedule so you don’t find yourself hungry, grumpy and freezing. We ended up taking a rather expensive taxi back to the car which really should have been avoidable.
You do not need to be exceptionally fit to do this trail, and I saw tons of families taking their children on it. It is however a trail. If it has rained you will probably get muddy, and there are lots of steep uphills you need to contend with. The footing is not always super sturdy so do not attempt it if you are recovering from a broken leg or ankle, it would not be wise. If you are feeling adventurous, you can continue onto the Spanish side of the boarder which I gather is also spectacular and well worth it. There are lovely places to eat along some of the stretches and if you have someone to pick you up at your arrival you could easily walk half or all of it in one day.
If you are looking for something a little different in the Pays Basque, this is definitely a fantastic option.