There are plenty of charming villages in the French Basque country, but if I had to choose only one it would probably be Espellete. Espellete is a small village in the Labourd province, about 20 km from the famous resort town of Biarritz. If the name Espelette rings a bell it’s because of the Espelette red peppers (piments d’Espelette) that are cultivated here. At times it feels like the whole village was built as a temple to these little red peppers. Starting late summer, thousands of peppers are hanged to dry under the red shutters of traditional Basque houses. Most of the shops in the city sell red peppers or products that contain it in some way or another. At the end of October the village celebrates La Fête Du Piment (the pepper festival), with concerts, a big market and a parade to celebrate the end of the drying season. The scenery of houses covered with red peppers is what makes this place so unique and distinguishes it from other traditional Basque villages. In addition to the beauty of the village, visiting Espelette is also a culinary journey into the Basque country and its unique recipes. Hopefully after reading this article you will want to put Espelette on your “places I must visit” list. So let’s get to it!
Mind you, I’m not the only one who loves Espelette. The picturesque village is extremely popular and can get overcrowded on some summer days. On the positive side, due to the regular flow of tourists, all the shops are open seven days a week on the touristic season. My advice, however, would be to try to get there in September – October or at least try to arrive early if you’re visiting Espelette during the summer. It’s a small village without many attractions but you can easily spend there at least half a day, just wandering the charming streets and visiting the boutiques scattered around the village.
What to see when you visit Espelette
Discover the unique Basque architecture
Every region in France has a unique architectural style, but in my opinion, nothing feels as different as the Basque region. In most traditional Basque villages, the white houses are all decorated in red and green shatters, giving it a very cute and fairytale-like look. In Espelette, you’ll find that most shatters are red, which perfectly compliments the main hero of the village, the Espelette pepper.
You can start your day at the tourist office located at the beautiful Chateau des Barons d’Espelette. They can equip you with a little map with the main points of attraction to see and visit. However, don’t expect to get a long list of monuments to visit here, the charm of this village is in its decorated houses and the red beautiful peppers that appear everywhere from the food to the souvenirs to the decor of the city. Just get lost in the streets of the city, taste charcuterie and sip a glass of Basque Sangria. There’s no better way to absorb the beauty of the village.
Church of Saint-Etienne
If you already had the chance to visit other towns in the Basque country you probably noticed that the traditional Basque churches differ in their interior style from most French churches. Instead of several aisles, you have one single-aisle and several wooden galleries covering the walls in front of the Bema. Back in the days, it used to separate men, who prayed on the balconies from the women on the ground floor of the church. The Saint Etienne church that is located just a few minutes walk from the city center is one of the more beautiful Basque churches in my humble opinion. The church was built in the 17th century and is decorated with a Baroque altarpiece from the 18th-century made from gilded wood. This church is not to be missed when visiting Espelette.
Visit other magical villages around Espellete
While Espelette is one of the most famous Basque villages in the French Basque country, there are several other beautiful villages nearby. These include Ainhoa, Ascain, la Bastide Clairence and Sare which is a very small village with plenty of activities around it. All of them are incredibly beautiful and special but visiting all is a bit redundant as they look quite the same. So if you have time to visit more villages, just choose one or two that are on your way. If the weather is good you can also continue to the coastline and visit one of the more attractive sea resorts in the area, the beautiful little town named Saint Jean de Luz.
What to taste in Espelette – discover the ‘Piment’ (red pepper)
The Espellete peppers appear in practically every food in the French Basque country, whether it’ll be charcuterie, cheese, jam, alcohol and even chocolate. This is by far the most dominant spice in the Basque cuisine. In a workshop I participated while visiting Espelette, we were told that the Espelette pepper replaces black pepper in the Basque country so everything is spiced with it. Even the local Ketchup for kids is made from peppers instead of tomatoes. That can explain the abundance of shops in the city center, selling a huge variety of Espelette products. Let me suggest a few that I found interesting to visit.
Atelier du Piment d’Espelette
The Atelier du Piment d’Espelette is a big shop that offers free visits and tastings allowing you to discover the Espelette pepper in all its stages, from cultivation to cooking suggestions. The Atelier is located about one kilometer from the city center, and it’s the best place to go to if you really want to learn about the heritage of the Espelette pepper. The visit starts with a tour of the plantations of Espelette and continues with a tasting workshop where you are taught about the different Espelette products and the Basque way to eat them. The place is open daily from 9:00 to 19:00. Check out their website for more details.
Address: Elizaldeko Bidea, 64250 Espelette
Taste spicy chocolate
Antton Chocolatier is a traditional basque chocolate shop that specializes in chocolate spiced with piment d’Espelette. Many of their products incorporate the famous red pepper or black cherries (another Basque staple). Most of the chocolate they offer is excellent and pleasantly mild but some are surprisingly spicy, especially the white one. But you still want to continue eating them as they are so good. While they have several shops in the Basque country, the one in Espelette is where they actually produce the chocolate. It’s also a great opportunity to discover how the chocolate is made as the shop offers free tours every day, between April and the end of October. The tour starts every half an hour and includes a visit to the workshop and a chocolate tasting in the end. The visit is not recommended on Sundays as the chocolatiers are not there so you won’t really see them working. You can join the visit without prior reservation from 10:30 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 18:00.
Address: Place du Marché, Espelette
If you like Charcuterie (cured meats) don’t miss Maison Gastellou, a family business specialized in Basque charcuterie since 1966. They produce everything on their farm next to the beautiful village of Saint Jean Pied de Port and have four shops, one of which is located in the center of Espelette. Their shop offers a fun tasting experience, with all the employees dressed as basque shepherds with the traditional black beret. Everything we tasted there was delicious and we got some interesting explanations during the tastings. This is one of the best places to buy charcuterie to take home with you.
Address: 376 Karrika Nagusia, 64250 Espelette
Don’t miss the spices shops
The shops in Espelette offer a great variety of spices you won’t find outside of the Basque country, making it a good place to fill your spices supply. They have very interesting mixes like salt with Espelpette and Espelette mustard, so even if you don’t buy a full branch of Espelette peppers (like my husband did) you can still enrich your cooking with different spices from the region. One of my favorite shops for spices and other Basque products is called Ezpeletako Izarra.
Address: 375 Karrika Nagusia, 64250 Espelette
If you’re coming with kids there’s a very cute place where they can learn about Basque cheese. Ossau Iraty is the most famous cheese coming from the Basque country. It’s a sheep cheese produced in between the Basque country and the Béarn province. Centre d’interprétation de l’AOP Ossau Iraty is a nice little shop in the center of Espelette dedicated to educating people about how this traditional cheese is made. You will learn about the specific sheep races they are allowed to use, and about the whole process of making and maturing the cheese. It is very interactive and something kids will enjoy doing while the parents are busy tasting the cheese. The opening hours may change depending on the season so check it out here before you go.
Address: 390 Karrika Nagusia, 64250 Espelette
Where to eat in Espelette?
Although it’s a small village, there are quite a few restaurants in the city center, most offering traditional Basque food. The most famous restaurant in Espelette is located at the beautiful Euzkadi hotel. The elegant restaurant is designed in a Basque traditional style with red peppers decorating the walls. It’s a popular restaurant so be sure to book ahead, especially during the summer. The address is 285 Karrika Nagusia, 64250 Espelette. Aintzina is another great restaurant in the village center offering all the traditional Basque dishes at decent prices. Don’t miss the Axoa de Veau, the traditional veal dish with Espelette peppers, of course :). Aintzina is located at 440 Karrika Nagusia, 64250 Espelette.
Where to stay in Espelette?
Most chances are that you will spend just a few hours in this village but if you decide to spend the night, you have several options to stay in the city center. The Euzkadi hotel is a rather simple but beautiful hotel with a pool. Another cute and cozy guesthouse is le Moulin de Pascale located very close to the church.
Espelette is only a pinpoint for all the things the French Basque country has to offer. In a pretty 2-3 hours drive from Bordeaux (avoid toll roads to enjoy the scenery), you get to see plenty of beautiful villages, taste amazing food and surf the Atlantic ocean. But for me, Espelette is definitely one of the highlights of the Frech Basque and is a must-visit for those who are intrigued by the Basque architecture and food. If you’re also visiting Biarritz, don’t miss my article about things to do and eat in Biarritz. If you’re also visiting Bordeaux on your way back home, be sure to check out my One Day in Bordeaux guide.
That’s it for now,
Have a great trip to the Basque country!