The drive from the plains and vineyards of La Rioja to our next destination, Auberge Ostape
in the foothills of the Pyrenees in French Basque country, was nothing short of spectacular. Through deeply forested gullies, over vast lakes and gushing streams, past valleys dotted with grazing sheep and muscular looking cows, we climbed higher and higher up the winding mountain road which traverses the border between Spain and France. Willing myself to keep my eyes straight ahead and away from the perilous drop to the side of the car, our drive was made even more precarious by the pelotons of cyclists who were perhaps under the illusion that they were in a time trial for the Tour de France (maybe I should have wound down the window and shouted “Allez Allez
” to encourage them on!). Stopping for a quick lunch at a roadside café high in the mountains, with only the locals, a rather stern Madame proprietor and a few stray cats for dining companions, I reflected that, for me, a road trip is as much about the journey as it about each destination.
And the final destination on our Spanish Basque → La Rioja → French Basque road trip was rather special. Located near the pretty Basque village of Bidarray, Auberge Ostape
is a luxury retreat situated on 45 rolling hectares of countryside with lush green meadows, dense woods and stunning views across the Valley of the Nive. Upon arriving at the gated entrance to the private estate, we were greeted with smiles and bonjours from our host Christelle who explained that we would be provided with a golf buggy to use at Ostape for the duration of our stay (cue silent whoops of childish glee from me!). Luggage on board, we proceeded foot to the floor, up the steep hill to our guest suite stifling giggles as we tried valiantly to keep pace with Christelle. Ostape has 22 guest suites divided between 5 whitewashed, red-shuttered traditional Basque houses dotted around the property (hence the need for golf buggies!). Our suite, Suite Luxe Le Noyer
, was located in the highest villa on the property and when we flung open the French doors to our terrace, we were met with achingly beautiful views of the rugged mountains and deep green valleys set against a perfect blue sky. Decorated in rustic shades of cream and white with terracotta-tiled floors, our suite was huge. Divided into two rooms, the bedroom held a king sized bed with an ornate carved wooden headboard, while the lounge room contained a comfy sofa and chairs in front of an open fireplace (which would be perfect to curl up in front of during the colder months). The enormous bathroom (bigger than our kitchen at home!) was stocked with a selection of Bvlgari products and a stack of folded, fluffy white towels.
Jumping in our golf buggy (with me at the wheel – eep!*) we set out to explore the rest of the estate. A charming 17th century Basque manor house sits in the centre of the property and houses Ostape’s reception, bar and restaurant while an adjacent building contains a shop selling locally made gifts, wine and homewares. Further down the hill is the superb (heated) swimming pool and terrace together with sauna and Moroccan-style hammam. With books in hand, swimsuits and sunglasses on, we grabbed towels and settled into comfortable poolside recliners for a lazy afternoon of napping, swimming, reading and gazing at massive vultures as they circled high in the sky above our heads.
Once you arrive at Ostape, you won’t want to leave. It was even an effort to tear ourselves away from the pool to dress for dinner. Fortunately Ostape is as much about food as it is about the beautiful surrounds – the celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse was the original proprietor. While Monsieur Ducasse is no longer involved in Ostape, the restaurant retains his commitment to serving refined Basque-influenced dishes prepared with as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Sheep’s milk yoghurt is sourced from a farm just below the Ostape estate, local cheese comes from a producer in Bidarray, vegetables and herbs are grown in the estate’s vegetable garden. Highlights of our meal? Slices of smoky black pudding served with lobster medallions and a heady lobster reduction, thick spears of white asparagus poached in stock and topped with an egg, and the Ostape dessert: a rich chocolate mousse and marmalade pudding. While a walk back up the hill to our villa would have been the wise choice to help liberate our full tummies, a late night spin around the estate in our golf buggy proved much more fun ;)
Apart from the hotel’s restaurant (which also serves a wonderful breakfast on the terrace: bowls of café au lait, freshly squeezed orange juice, homemade Basque cakes, thin slices of chorizo and jambon, croissants, baguettes with tiny rolls of butter, sheep’s milk cheeses, and rice pudding) the beautiful town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is only a 20-minute drive away where there are many restaurants and cafes.
La Ferme Ostalapia
restaurant (about 7 km from Saint-Jean-de-Luz) is also worth a visit for a lovely lunch overlooking vineyards and the Pyrenees.
Absolutely nothing except lay by the pool and absorb the absolute peace and tranquillity that is Auberge Ostape! Not true of course – the area around Ostape is packed with things to do – but it is the kind of place where once you arrive, all plans for exploring are abandoned in favour of relaxation.
If you are up for exploring, you must visit St-Jean-Pied-de-Port an ancient, cobbled village which straddles both sides of the River Nive and is often the starting point for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.
The coastal town of Biarritz is a 45 minute drive away as is Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Auberge Ostape is situated close to the Spanish border so daytrips are possible to San Sebastian, Pamplona (we attempted a visit but the town was blocked off due to protests unfortunately), and of course, the Pyrenees.
*The first few rides were accompanied by white knuckles, mild panic down the steep inclines and excessive breaking. Once I got the hang of it though I didn’t want to relinquish the wheel!
We stayed at Auberge Ostapé
courtesy of the hotel.