I put out a request for suggestions for a hotel and base of operations to explore the Basque region of France – bien sur, pleine de charme – and the drums responded loud and clear: La Deviniere in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

La Deviniere also happens to be the name of the 15th-century country house in the heart of the Chinon vineyards where Francois Rabelais was born. The literary museum pays tribute to the author of “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” also a doctor, humanist, monk and Greek scholar, equally well known for his fantasy, satire, bawdy jokes and song. In other words, a Renaissance man after our own heart. As is the owner of La Deviniere. The intelligent, impish, warm, generous Bernard Carrere is a reincarnation of Rabelais, if not in fact, certainly in spirit: both men avowed masters of the art of living.

Our Host

Carrere is descended from a long line of notaries – and by “long” we mean he can trace back his lineage to the 1650s – but he is also a journalist and writer, who helped found the Slow Food movement in southwest France and publishes the Guide Hubert, “For all tastes and all budgets,” about regional restaurants and wines. He is also fond of buying and remodeling old properties and flipping them for fun and profit. But this one home he did not flip. Carrere and his wife Marie France, an antique dealer, turned their former residence into La Deviniere instead.

Located on a quiet pedestrian street filled with small shops and galleries (Rue Loquin) and built on the bones of an old and distinctly Basque structure – signature white exterior, trim painted oxblood red –  the small hotel (only 10 rooms) not surprisingly retains the warmth and charm of a well-loved private residence of the two unrepentant hoarders. La Deviniere is tricked out with the couple’s collection of books, bibelots, (knick knacks), original autographs of the Who’s Who of French literary and creative talent. Over 50 boxes of teas fill the shelves in the dining alcove. Paintings of and from ancestors, old prints and drawings (included a number dedicated to Rabelais) cover the hotel’s walls. A 19th-century Bechstein grand piano takes center stage in a living room furnished with overstuffed leather couches and chairs, where guests lounge during impromptu concerts, on colder nights warmed by a fire in the fireplace.

Each of La Deviniere’s rooms has its own unique personality: all are romantic, but one is dedicated to Rabelais, another to the memory of a Prior of a monastery and another to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It contains his bed (purchased by Carrere’s grandfather, a former lawyer, notary and doctor) and several portraits of the artist. Our retreat had a balcony overlooking a garden and the roof tops of the historic village, which we explored with our  local guide (a staffer at the tourist office) Fabienne Perrin.

(For the rest of our adventures in the region, our host served as guide, a rare treat that opened doors to people, places and things off the beaten path. More on that later.)


St-Jean-De-Luz, (in Basque, “Donihane Lohitzyn” or St-John-of-the-Marshes), by any name one of the most picturesque Basque towns on the French Coast.

Our tour began at Les Halles, the town’s vast food market, built on the site of the old railroad station, which, according to Monsieur Carrere, was designed by Monsieur Eiffel of tower fame, the place a locavore’s wet dream. The banquet featured artisan breads, cheeses, chocolate and fish from the nearby harbor. St.-Jean-De-Luz built its reputation on whaling and cod, sardine, tuna and anchovy fishing, although cod fishing declined by the 18th century. Today, fish auctions feature hake, conger eel, wolffish and anchovy (still). The chippiron (something like calamari, but not breaded) and made from the squid, served drowning in garlic and oil, is some of the best we have ever tasted in the world.

From the market, we walked to the harbor and bay, its entrance guarded by Socoa fort, the Artha breakwater and Sainte-Barbe point, the protected setting a natural jumping off point for the town’s famous corsairs. Corsairs are like pirates – but pirates with license to steal. Literally. Unlike pirates who indiscriminately attacked ships of any nation, included their own, corsairs had “letters of marque” issued by the admiralty with a royal nod, which allowed them to fit out their privateering ships to attack enemies of the state for fun and profit, clearly a win-win: corsairs weakened the enemies of the crown – they were the scourge of English merchants – while they grew rich. Very rich. Many of the best homes in town were built by corsairs. Those that remain standing are easy to spot because they all feature watchtowers.

The town square or Louis XIV square, with its outdoor cafes under shady trees, includes the two different but equally impressive homes (of ship owning families) on opposite sides of the square where Louis XIV and Infanta Maria Teresa stayed in June 1660 before their marriage at the local church, St-John-the-Baptist, which needless today, got gussied up big time for the occasion. Inside the 17th-century structure, Fabienne pointed out an interesting feature of all Basque churches: wooden balconies. The balconies lining the left and right walls of the structure were built to accommodate growing flocks, rather than go to the much greater expense of breaking down walls to expand. In a culture where an inheritance passes through the female line, it was men on top and women down below in the cushier pews.

St-Jean-de-Luz has a vibrant cultural life. Town was hosting the International Young Directors’ (Film) Festival while we were there. The place is home to the Maurice Ravel Academy (the composer, who is half Basque) was born in the sister town of Ciboure), the Basque Coast Music Festival, St John’s day feasts and a variety of popular and religious festivals throughout the year. St. Jean and other nearby towns are also great places to listen to traditional Basque music, which includes the a cappella (male) tradition of Otxote, a kind of chanting.

St. Jean also boasts a number of top notch facilities for playing the Basque game of pelota. Whaling boat races, very popular in the Spanish Basque provinces, are the latest craze.

And then there’s the food scene: farm-to-table, unpretentious and delicious. Three of our favorite spots: Boina, (which translates to “Beret Basque”),  Kako, a wonderful bistro where our gracious host (and hostess Marie France, who joined us) treated us to a delicious fish dinner, and Bellini for simple and simply wonderful Italian food.

Bellini is owned by a lovely young couple, Remi and Laurence Barthe. He is the talented chef; she, the gracious front of the house. On our last night in St-Jean-de-Luz, we chose the house specialty, a mushroom risotto made with local cepes (aka boletes or porcini, now in season), its rich but subtle flavors and textures complemented by the mellow sounds of Astrud Gilberto in the background.

A grand finale to a memorable week.

Note: From the “City of Corsairs,” we visited a number of other towns along the coast and Basque interior, including Sare, Ahetze, Hendaye, Ainhoa, Espelette, Bayonne and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.Stay tuned for more….

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