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Paris to the Spanish border - Your ideal food itinerary?

Next year, I turn 40 and my husband and I will have our 10th wedding anniversary. I want to spend 7 days eating in Paris; he wants to spend 7 days eating in San Sebastian. We have agreed to compromise and spend 4 days in each city and 3-4 days driving from Paris to San Sebastian. Sometime in the late fall. This board has plenty of wonderful suggestions on places to eat in Paris, so I won't waste your time (yet!) on Paris suggestions; I'm leaving it to my husband to research places to eat in San Sebastian.

Even though it's about 9 months away, I've began dreaming about the best route to take between the two cities. I assume renting a car is best, though we are open to a train. My ideal itinerary would be one with just several hours of driving each day, one or two fabulous meals at each place we stay or drive through, a wonderful and comfy hotel/country inn/farm/cottage (upscale or downscale does not matter) to sleep in each night, and a somewhat scenic drive between stops though I know there will be plenty of highway driving.

What would you do? Go from Paris through to Bordeaux and then to the Spanish border? Go from Paris through Burgandy and then to Lyon, and cut across France to the border? What establishments would you eat? My planning is in the very nascent stage right now. I am open to any and all suggestions, ideally with the parameters mentioned above.

Outside of Paris, I've only been to Nice and St. Tropez, and that was almost 20 years ago when I was far more interested in trashy night clubs than food. Thanks for your brainstorms!

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  1. It's a very long drive even if you break it up, and even then you may find yourself on lots of featureless motorways. I think it's far better to fly down to Biarritz (Easy-jet is cheap) and hire a car there.

    There is so much great food in the Basque Country, on both sides of the border, so that 3 or 4 days may be too short. It may sound great to meander through Burgundy, Lyon, and/or Bordeaux but you are really going to pass through these cities and literally feed yourself and sleep rather than truly explore.

    I have just spent two weeks doing much the same, 7 days in a Paris, and 7 days in the Basque Country......neither was really long enough to enjoy all the great food (and cultural) options.

    There is also the question of how you get back to Paris.....I assume you will be departing on an international flight from CDG.

    1 Reply
    1. re: PhilD

      I agree with Phil. I do love Lyon; I spent a month there doing research and enjoying food and friends, though on a graduate student budget (meaning more markets and cooking than fine dining in restaurants). But there isn't really time to see southwestern France meaningfully (and Lyon is southeastern France). I've been to Toulouse but never to Bordeaux.

      Do Burgundy, Lyon and perhaps Savoie, part of Switzerland, Piemont as another trip.

    2. A few years ago I had two meetings in Geneva two weeks apart and one in between in Barcelona and except for the Pourcels and the Adria graduates around Girona had no "destinations." We did very well indeed on both sides with the Red Guides, G/M and Le Fooding.
      Even though San Sebastien has the reputation, don't drive past Bilboa.

      3 Replies
      1. re: John Talbott

        >> Bilboa

        Because there be hobbits?

        1. re: Ptipois

          How dare you insult the British Inflatable Boat Owners Association.....! (it really does exist)

      2. Driving from Paris to the Pays Basque in 3 or 4 days is madness and will probably lead to divorce unless you both have a special fondness for "autoroute" monotony, daily packing/ unpacking, and very quick and superficial glimpses of interesting places/ cities along the way.

        So how about a compromise? Fast train (3 hours) to Bordeaux, rent a car there, a few days in Bordeaux with day trips to a wine château in the Médoc or Saint-Emilion, and then after this dose of Frenchness a slow meandering drive south... the Pays Basque begins at Bayonne (a much more seriously Basque city than the coastal towns), a 90-minute drive from Bordeaux... then Biarritz for a grande dame station balnéaire, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (my favourite town on the côte Basque), a detour to Sare (on the list of France's most beautiful villages) or some other picturesque village in the interior, and then back to the coast for San Sebastián.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Parnassien

          Agree heartily re the divorce road trip concept of the OP's plans.
          There is a very convenient and direct train from Paris to St Jean de Luz. 5.5 hourss.
          More than a dozen times I have made either St Jean de Luz/Ciboure (walkable adjacent village) or the nearby plus beau village of Sare as my base.
          The Ciboure/St Jean de Luz/Sare axis affords you an excessive richness of fine dining. Just on those 3 small villages, you will not have enough time to go to all the wonderful eateries. Chez Mattin, Kaiku, Olhabidea leap to mind. Plus Arantxaleak, Zoko Moko, chez Margot… The list goes on. And that's only the French side of the border.

          From there it is an easy drive, or you can even take the train/bus if you are based in Ciboure, to San Sé for a day trip. In the last few visits to San Sé, since it was no longer our first time there, our enjoyment is in doing a long pintxos crawl in the old town. -- It is like composing your own menu dégustation while doing a self-guided walking tour. Then a stroll along one of my fave waterfront piers. Then train/bus home to Ciboure.
          You can rent a car in Ciboure or St Jean de Luz.
          Cross-border rental car drop-off is also prohibitive. This is also a consideration.

          One week for both bases - Paris and AND Basque country, is not going to be enjoyable for either place. There is no pleasure in frenzied sightseeing or frenzied packing/unpacking, and frenzied dining is a downright torture. If you must "do" both bases, - because you are really "doing" a place instead of traveling, - please give yourself 10 days minimum. 2 days will be spent in tedious but necessary commuting/packing/unpackig, unless you beam from place to place, and all wishful-thinking travelers think they do. Then at least 4 days in Paris, 4 days in the Basque country. It still be the kind of trip where you come away with more regretting than experiencing.
          You don't celebrate a wedding anniversary unless you cherish each other's company, I hope. Please rethink your travel plans.

          1. re: Parigi

            Parigi, I'd definitely have recommended a train (which is also the most sustainable travel choice, and one that lets you see the countryside off the motorways) if I was sure there was a convenient and direct one. 5.5 hours by train is FAR more pleasant and relaxing than a "short" flight which nowadays means long delays and security, as well as the fact that airports, unlike railway stations, are far from city centres.

            Parigi, a question on the car rental. There is an international border through the Basque Country itself. Would there still be high fees upon returning a car, say between Bayonne and Donostia? Many travellers do the Basque Country as a whole; perhaps arrangements exist?

            And on trains, you can enjoy a very romantic pleasure, a PICNIC on the train with all the wonderful foods you can pick up in a market: cheeses and charcuterie, but also prepared salads, fruit... a bottle of wine if you wish, another of good mineral water.

            1. re: lagatta

              All the reasons I love trains, especially that ride, you have said them much better than I.
              "Would there still be high fees upon returning a car, say between Bayonne and Donostia? Many travellers do the Basque Country as a whole; perhaps arrangements exist?"
              Not unless Avis and other rental agencies recognize Basque independence ! Until then, heavy cross-border drop-off fee, I'm afraid. :(

              1. re: lagatta

                Disagree about the hassle of the flight, we flew Paris to Biarritz through CDG and it was easy. First flight of the day had us breakfasting by the sea before 10:00am. CDG security is very fast, and the French budget airlines are very efficient(in distinct contrast to flying in the US).

                I do love trains and would have preferred to train it down, but when I looked at the journey/train times it meant arriving mid afternoon (and with limited day, holiday time was of the essence - it was also very price competitive).

                Given food was our motivation that would have meant I missed a decent lunch on the way down (we ate in Sare - a pleasant drive from the airport into the hills), and would have needed to leave a day early to catch my flight home - so another missed lunch plus a missed dinner - which was Chez Mattin and that would have been a tragedy.

                1. re: PhilD

                  Also most flights to Biarritz are from Orly, making it even easier.

                  1. re: souphie

                    True - we used CDG as we had to connect straight out of there and didn't want to traverse Paris.

          2. I'm with everyone. It's not only a long drive. It's a deadly boring one (at least to Bordeaux, which is why Parnassien's suggestion is a good one). Think Kansas cornfields for six hours.

            Mind you, I would be of a different opinion if you were going to Italy or Switzerland. Those are lovely road trips with so many things to see you can start planning the next few times you'll take the same route.

            Flying to the Biarritz airport is really smart too. From there you can not only visit the basque country, but you can push further in the Southwest in many directions if you like those driving times in the car (I do).

            In fact, you could also take the fast train to Marseille (3h) and drive West. That's a more lovely idea -- go to Montpellier, even Collioure, stop in the Pyrennées somewhere (Bigorre?) and last day in the basque country.

            1. I kind of disagree with the people saying that driving from Paris to San Sebastian is madness. If you have four days in each place either side and 3 or 4 days driving between it's really doable so long as you don't want to do sight seeing.

              As you seem to want to find country Inn/farm house type places, there wouldn't be all the stress associated with driving into big cities, parking, checking in and out etc.

              There is a thread on here about rural chambres d'hotes which would be worth looking at - I saved it, but it seems to have disappeared from my reading list, so I can't give you a link I'm afraid.

              In your position, I would aim for the A75 (god's own motorway) as it goes through the best of the scenery in the southern half of the country, then head West towards Toulouse and Biarritz and plan your trip around the places you fancy staying at. It might be that it's worth doing a longish drive at the start, so that you can bypass the more boring bits and do some non-motorway driving on other days.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Theresa

                "I kind of disagree with the people saying that driving from Paris to San Sebastian is madness."
                Agree with Theresa, disagree with all the rest of you who (1) don't have cars or (2) spouses of 52 years who put up with your crazy driving pell-mell from one meal to the next.

                1. re: John Talbott

                  Ok, I don't want to be inexact - those who know me know that when I have a car here (garaged,of course, who wants broken windows?) I drive out of and into Paris for "weekends" but when I've shipped it back to the USA, we take the TGV to a convenient point, rent a car and then go touring, because I cannot stand the 2 hour drive from St Cloud to my flat.

              2. I mostly agree with the others about your ambition. BUT if you do plan to do this, then my suggestion is to aim for a couple of days around one place with the first and last days being harder driving (or training).

                Accordingly, I'd set my (or your) sights on Michel Bras in Laguiole as the 'target' with Serge Vieira in Chaudes-Aigues as the second restaurant (it's about 40 minutes drive between them; 30 minutes if you're French).

                My reasoning is that around this part of France there is fantastic scenery (and many fine walks if you desire) and that it's fairly difficult anyway to get to these restaurants, so you're unlikely to make these a destination otherwise (they're also two of my favourites in all of France!).

                And, coincidentally (or not) almost exactly half way between your two primary destinations. Both have accommodation attached.

                1. You mention that your birthday is about 9 months away. Would you be traveling in August? That might suggest other ideas for an itinerary. If you gave up San Sebastian, you could take in the Atlantic coast...Noirmoutier or La Rochelle plus Bordeaux, just as example.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ScottnZelda

                    I think they are set on the Basque Country, as well they should be. There are few places where a rather gastronomic "food culture" have such a broad base among the people, with many gastronomic societies as a key expression of Basque pride and culture.

                    1. re: lagatta

                      So true - its a remarkable are for food. Such a concentration of culinary brilliance in one area.

                  2. Oops. I see you mention late Fall.

                    1. A hearty thanks to all the posters for their thoughts and recommendations. Google maps (so unreliable, I know) told me it would be about an 8 hour drive between Paris and San Sebastián. I figured it would just be about 2.5 hours driving every morning between destinations over the course of 3-4 days, which didn't sound terrible since my husband and I do really well in the car together. But, upon more reflection, I agree that the unpacking/settling in/packing/leaving routine everyday would get tedious quickly, especially when bookended by settling into two major cities. I'll have to do more research in terms of flying-then-car vs. train-then-car. The ideas all sound so wonderful; I'll be back with more specific questions once I get a firmer idea of our schedule/means of transportation.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: pastrychefy

                        Since you're already in Paris, I'd recommend train. You can either go by day (about 5.5 hours to Hendaye) or night (overnight to Hendaye). I've only looked at this as pure train, so Hendaye is the change and then onto the little Basque train. There used to be a magnificent sleeper but it finishes December this year, now it's a normal Intercite des Nuits.

                        i am sure you can pick up a train in Hendaye into Spain if you wanted to pick up a car.

                        Edit: the reason the sleeper is going is that there is a TGV Paris-Barca starting, 6.5 hours to Barcelona

                      2. I understand everyone dislike of driving, but its a lot easier to drive in the French countryside using the Autoroutes than in the US. You could stop in Chinon (outside of Tours), La Rochelle, Bordeaux and on to San Sebastian. Do a CH search on each location for place to try.

                        You would not have to drive more than two and a half hours a day and the trip would give you a look at places you may want to return to on another trip. All stops have wonderful places for both lunch and dinner. As for packing and unpacking, take a second "carry on" type bag to use during the drive. I wouldn't miss this opportunity to check out these locations. And get a book on disk about living in France to keep you entertained along the trip.