THE BLOG
03/24/2014 07:53 am ET | Updated May 24, 2014

Is This The Most Beautiful Place To Retire In Europe?

No border marks the entry to the Basque region of France, but you'll know when you've crossed it. The most obvious change is the architecture. Every house -- and I don't exaggerate -- is painted white and Basque red. You can buy the paint at any Home Depot-type store, and the can will be labeled "Basque Red." In this part of the world, there's just one red. This paintwork tradition has the effect of making everything appear very tidy and well cared for.

France's Basque Region (Pays Basque in French) is made up of seven provinces that sit astride the French-Spanish Atlantic border. Four of the provinces are in Spain (Alava, Viscaya, Guipuzcoa, and Navarra), the other three in France (Labourd, Bas Navarre, and Soule). The three French Basque provinces form the western part of the Pyrenees-Atlantique department, with the Atlantic Ocean as the western boundary. The people who live here, the Basque people, also have their own language, music, dance, sport, cuisine (one of the best in France), myths, flag, and even alphabet typeface, making it one of the liveliest, most colorful, historic, and interesting places to call home in France or, indeed, all Europe.

The geography is intense, like a young child's drawing of the countryside where every type of geographic feature is squeezed onto one sheet of paper. Small steep valleys, rolling hills, towering mountains, meandering rivers, a wild coastline, forests, and woodland are all crammed into about 31,000 gloriously green and lush square feet.

The coast here is exceptional, with miles of stunningly beautiful beaches, many winning European awards for high standards of cleanliness. The eight towns that dot this coast are all jewels of Basque architecture, with winding narrow lanes, lined with tall trees, perfectly cut hedges, and beautiful homes--all painted Basque red, of course.

From Bidart to St. Jean, the coastal strip is narrow and bordered by the freeway and the train line running from Bayonne to the Spanish border. Neither destroys the immediate environment; once you're at the beach you don't notice them. However, the presence of both mean that massive development would be almost impossible along the sea here. This is a charming, almost pristine coast and likely to remain that way.

My favorite small village along this coast is Guéthary. The half-square-mile of homes are so perfectly kept that you can feel as though you're in an exhibition village. The first written record of Guéthary is from 1193, though Roman remains of a salt factory have been discovered at the railway station. The beach at Guéthary is probably the wildest along this coastline with a good surf break. This entire stretch of coast is a surfer's mecca.

Eating and drinking is a big part of Basque culture and lifestyle. You can tell there's a Basque lunch going on if there's lots of noise, singing, and great smells coming from the direction of the kitchen. The preferred raw ingredients are from the sea and the rolling hills, and the Basque cooking traditions are, like everything Basque, distinct from the rest of France. One of the most obvious differences is the plentiful use of bell peppers, sweet Espelette chilies, and Bayonne ham.

About 15,000 non-French residents live in northern Basque Country, most on the coast. You could connect with the English-speaking expat group in Biarritz or the active Anglophone group called Anglophones Pau-Pyrénées. If you're a golfer, sailor, or scuba diver, opportunities to meet like-minded people abound in this area. Along the Basque coast are 10 golf clubs, 8 yacht clubs, and 14 dive clubs. You may not find English-speakers in these groups, but a common interest can overcome a language barrier.

Retirement in France's Basque region would not be a bargain choice but a rich, varied, and healthy one. (Health care in France is among the best in the world, and the French are among the healthiest people anywhere.) For a comfortable life here, taking advantage of all the region has to offer, figure a budget of $2,800 to $3,000 per month.

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