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Get to know lovely Pau

The Bearn region of southwest France is a great starting point for exploring the Cte Basque on the Atlantic seaboard. With no plans or bookings, Fred and Amanda Marginson throw an overnight bag into the Citron and take the two-hour drive towards the Bay of Biscay

1. Get to know lovely Pau

A great place to start the adventure is in Pau (pronounced Po), capital of the Bearn region in the Pyrnes Atlantiques and a buzzing university town. Hop on the free funicular (a cross between an elevator and a train) near the train station and chug up to the Boulevard des Pyrnes, framed by gob-smacking views of plunging terraced gardens and those mountains, just 50 kilometers away, spread like a torn piece of paper across the southern horizon.

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The Chteau de Pau, once occupied by King Henry IV, hosts a small museum renowned for it's tapestry collection. You can spend a pleasant moment sauntering through the gardens Marie Antoinette tended when she stayed here on holidays.

Pau also has a rich sporting heritage: the first golf course on the continent opened here in 1856; it's a key stage town for the Tour de France; and in October every year it's host to a top international equestrian event, Les toiles de Pau. To top it off, three ski resorts are less than an hours drive south.

Elegant shops and boutiques line the paved mall in the centre of the city and a nest of small, moderately priced restaurants are squeezed together in the old quarter. Forego the Bordeaux and sample the local Madiran reds, said by locals to extend longevity thanks to their high levels of tannin and antioxidants.

2. Basque in beautiful Bayonne

When winding your way west, you can choose to take the 130km/h toll road or opt for a more sedate pace along the myriad so-called D roads.

When you reach Bayonne, the northern gateway to the Basque Coast and once ruled by the English for 300 years, you could almost mistake the belle poque architecture for parts of Paris. But the slow reveal of the Basque influence is in the bilingual road signs, the predominant colours of red, green and white, the subtle aromas of chocolate and pimento, and the huge chains of espelette peppers swaying in shop doorways.

Its a vibrant town set at the confluence of the mighty Adour and Nive rivers, just back from the coast. If you're feeling peckish, you can escape the tourist traps by taking a stroll under the covered stone arches towards the spires of Sainte-Marie Cathedral.

Le Chistera restaurant, packed with locals, is a good call. Orders of magret de canard , chiperons and slow-cooked Basque chicken offer some of the best regional dishes in France. Patxaran, a local Basque digestif distilled from the sloe berry and drunk with ice, is a must.

If you visit Bayonne between July and September you can experience the fiery sport of bullfighting, while the Easter Jambon festival is a calendar highlight.

Rugby Union is big in France and Aviron Bayonne is one of the top teams in the French Rugby Union. Locals also pay homage to pelota or jai alai , said to be the fastest game on Earth. It is played with a long, woven cane scoop attached to the hand, and a small hard cricket-like ball that, when hurled, can reach up to 300 km/h.

3. Beach your board at Biarritz

A rectangle of oceanic coast anchored at it's northern end by a lighthouse, Biarritz was long the haunt of royalty and those seeking the curative waters. Now a surfing Mecca with a major annual surf festival held every July since 1993, the feeling of those grand days still lingers.

Biarritz is best savoured on foot, so park at the casino, at the centre of the action. Red and green Basque flags are everywhere, adding to the upbeat, contemporary beach ambience. In the glory days it was de rigueur to spend the summer here. Times have changed and the once luxurious residences that dot the headlands have since been converted into swank apartments.

Play a round of golf at the second oldest course in France (it opened in 1888) or place your bets at the almost-as-old casino, where passports are required for entry. You can almost imagine hapless playboys, who've just lost their entire inheritance at the tables, casually tossing the croupier a final franc before hurling themselves from the cliffs south of la grande plage .

Those with deep pockets should plump for the magnificent Hotel du Palais, the ultimate Napoleonic beach shack. Built in 1854 for Napoleon IIIs wife, Empress Eugnie, it sits majestically at the northern end of the beach. The lobby alone is a mini museum and you will join a guest list that includes everyone from Queen Victoria to Frank Sinatra. The hotel is simply the last word in beachfront sophistication and timeless elegance.

At apero time, there is no shortage of bars and vantage points to enjoy a beer or Pastis. Sit at the Caf de la Grande Plage, fewer than 10 metres from table to sand, and watch elegantly dressed locals weave their tiny dogs around visitors on the esplanade, or watch the much frenzied towel-gathering as sudden swells push right up to the sea wall.

4. Soak up Saint-Jean-du-Luz

Push a little further south and you'll find Saint-Jean-du-Luz, the low-key, charming sister city to Biarritz. A glorious curved stretch of long, sandy beach forms a wide teardrop protected by breakwater walls far out across the bay. As the only sheltered beach in the region, it provides very safe swimming. If there is a singular jewel on the Basque coast, this is it.

The little town behind the seafront wall is a hive of cobbled lanes, cream-walled houses with oxblood-red shutters, trendy boutiques, bars, restaurants and small hotels. The Grand Htel sits right along the promenade and provides expansive views of the bay and it's fantastic sunsets.

If you're on a budget, there's no shortage of good two-star hotels just a few streets back.

Awake refreshed and ready to explore the small shops and boutiques, have coffee, and stroll along the beachfront, the protected harbour and colourful fishing port. During World War II, as Germany invaded France, St-Jean-de-Luz was the scene of a dramatic escape by hemmed-in Polish troops. la Dunkirk, the local fishermen rowed them out to the safety of steamers moored in the harbour. Further back in time, Louis XIV spent 22 days here, waiting for his new bride to arrive from Spain, and you can visit the house he stayed in.

Saint-Jean-du-Luz is noted for it's cuisine and was a favourite Hemingway haunt. Choose the busy Le Bar Basque to visit one of his regular watering holes and enjoy the delicious chipirons sauts lail , whole sea bream and pav de boeuf aux cinq poivres . The waiter will be happy to relay the history of the restaurant, with it's beautiful timbered bar reliefs dating from 1927.

5. Take a seven-minute ferry ride to Spain

The magnificent coastline still beckons south to Hendaye, where it's easy to park at the beach and take the ferry across the estuary mouth to Fontarrabie. Passage on the Marie-Louise will set you back just 1.70 for the seven-minute crossing from the marina to the other side. Theres no passport control and you suddenly find yourself in Spain as the river Bidasoa demarks the border.

It is immediately apparent that you are in another country. Signs, language, culture, wars and sieges all have their watershed across this small ribbon of water. Its hola and adios instead of bonjour and au revoir .

Behind the fishing quarter, take the glass lift attached to the massive walls that once fortified the old city. At the highest point inside is the medieval castle-cum-chteau of Charles (Carlos) V, since converted into an upmarket hotel. A short boat ride later, you can be back again on French soil and ready to fast-forward 600 years on a two-hour drive home to the here and now.

Top Road Trip Tips

- France loves uniform signage: street signs, numbering and all road signs are clearly marked and unambiguous. It makes navigation effortless and with hardly the need to use GPS on this journey.

- A French dictionary in the car to interpret the road signs is a great way to improve your French. Sauf Riverains, for example, means no entry except for residents.

- Dont be fazed if you see a Frenchman checking out your number plate: he loves spotting which department you are from.

- Carry a couple of different chip credit cards for automated petrol stations in case cash passports aren't recognised.

- If you opt for the page (toll) route, avoid anxiety and have plenty of coins and cash for the automated booths.

- Enjoy a good-quality meal at one of the aires or rest stops found regularly along the motorway. Make sure your car has the high-visibility jacket and breathalyzer kits required by French law.

- Resist the urge to speed like the locals. If you get an on-the-spot fine and don't have the cash, the gendarmes may escort you to the nearest ATM.

- Retractable wing mirrors are a distinct advantage on narrow roads.

- Carry an analogue folding Michelin map with you just in case you do get lost.

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