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The basque country of Southwest France. An ancient land of seacoast, tiny villages, spectacular scenery

THE mysterious country of the Basques spills over the towering Pyrenees, which straddle the wild frontier between southwest France and northwest Spain, and eventually tumbles down the cliffs that rim the Bay of Biscay. Although two countries claim one people, it is in the three French provinces that one feels the real impact of Basque vitality.

Noble cities like the provincial capital of Bayonne, dazzling Biarritz, and even the seacoast town of St. Jean-de-Luz radiate fleeting flirtations with royalty and the dust of roaming civilizations. Also amply visible are the ravages of seasonal tourism. From the lilt of their ''bonjour'' to the splendor of their monuments, these towns look and feel French. But off the beaten track, in the villages of Itaxssou, Itsurits, Oxecelhaya, Sare, and St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, the echo of ancient times defies outside influences.

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Here, enfolded by a landscape harsh one moment and soft the next, tiny communities of whitewashed farmhouses roofed with red tile cling to the sides of mountains or snuggle in valleys wide enough for a stream and a one-lane road. Here, supposedly, lives the oldest intact culture on earth, where songs still eulogize the strongest men, the most beautiful women, and the supremacy of a race.

The Basques call themselves Eskualdunak and refer to their land as Eskual-Herria (a name some say is derived from the word ''sun''). These names are part of a language, with different dialects, that resembles no other. Almost unpronounceable combinations of sounds look like a mixed-up bag of letters, full of double and triple consonants, ''z's'' and ''x's,'' that don't seem to know where to fall into place.

All of this, ethnologists speculate, could be the result of the Basques' origins: as desdendents of wandering Berbers, Icelandic, Welsh, or Scottish tribes; the last of a Stone Age people; or even survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis.

Whatever their origin, the Basques who live here claim that the purity of their language and customs has remained intact because of the peace of their valleys, the isolation of their hills, and the fact that even the few Basques who leave always return.

Certainly this region of contradictions and flashbacks, challenges and resignation, is like nowhere else in the world. It is a place where women are courted and won, then mostly ignored for the rest of their lives by beret-hatted men who - as in centuries past - are sheepherders, fishermen, and farmers.

Every now and then the world's attention focuses on border skirmishes in the Basque tussle for independence. But since this most often occurs over the Spanish border, things go on as usual in France, with nothing really changing the enchantment of the landscape or the tempo of its inhabitants.

On one hand, it is pleasant to come here in the warm, flower-filled months of summer, when only the tallest peaks are crowned with snow. But it is an unforgettable experience to visit when most outsiders have departed, the crops are harvested, the sheep have returned from the high meadows, and the Atlantic buffets the land with foaming seas.

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In Bayonne, famous for mouthwatering hams and exquisite chocolates, one encounters a melange of Basque, Spanish, and Gascon cultures. Hotels, like the Chateau de Larraldia (22 super-deluxe rooms) or the Grand (first class), offer comfortable accommodations within exploring distance of Bayonne's treasures.

Among these are musts: the Basque Museum of folklore and Basque life; the Connat Museum, which includes one of France's most complete collections of the works of Tintoretto, El Greco, Goya, and Bonnard; and the Gothic Cathedral of Sainte-Marie.

Biarritz, made famous by the attention of Empress Eugenie, Queen Victoria, and Edward VII, is a jewel that represents the ultimate in great resorts. No visit here is complete without a stroll along the magnificent promenade that extends from the super deluxe Hotel du Palais to the Cote des Basques. If you choose the lower promenade along the Boulevard du Prince de Galles, your walk will surely be rewarded with a seemingly endless view of crashing, foaming breakers. Farther down the strand, a handful of outstanding, simple seafood restaurants stand ready to sate your appetite with some of the coziest ambiance and most memorable food in the province.

On the other hand, if a visit to the sea appeals but glitter does not, plan to spend a few days exploring the Cote d'Argent (Silver Coast) from the intimate and often photographed fishing village of St. Jean-de-Luz. The harbor almost always features a fleet of colorful Basque boats with hulls of green, bright blue, and crimson.

There are more small hotels and guest houses in St. Jean-de-Luz than you can count, and such an abundance of gingham-curtained restaurants that it would take a month to try them all. Some travel buffs claim that the Chantaco at the Chantaco Golf Club (deluxe) is the best hotel in town, but I prefer the inns around the bustle of the harbor and the sea. Here one can watch the 40-foot tides in the Bay of Biscay rise and fall dramatically. In November, visitors join Basque families on the quay to bid farewell to the fleet as it departs for the African coast to follow the annual run of the tuna. All year round local markets offer wonderful handcrafted baskets and wickerware, rope-soled espadrilles, and pottery. Although the sea is inexorably entwined with the life of the Basques, perhaps the purest essence of their culture is hidden away in the surrounding hills. This never changes - but in the quietude of fall and winter, visitors stand the best chance of becoming immersed in a way of life they will never forget. That chance is enhanced if you know at least one Basque - somewhere in the world.

We didn't know anyone when we arrived in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port for the first time. But there were two things in our favor: We planned to stay in the wonderful chateau of a friend for a few days, and it was off-season. We were steeled for legendary Basque reserve. We were totally unprepared for what actually happened.

A dark, cold rain that obliterated the mountaintops not only greeted us in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, it made navigating into the foothills impossible. We drove in circles, searching for a road that would lead us to the chateau. After our fifth turn around the town, we paused for another look at the map. Within seconds there was a tap on the window. ''Lost?'' the woman queried in French. Without any fanfare, she climbed into the back seat and directed us to our destination!

The next day, a salesgirl in the market where we bought picnic supplies called a friend who spoke English to tell him there were Americans in town. From Josef (who rushed to the store to meet us) we learned that one of the oldest Basque bellmakers lived in the neighboring village of St. Jean-le-Vieux.

Jean Baptiste Bera, a subdued, rather shy man, explained that his family had been making bells for 180 years. ''Look at these,'' he gestured, taking down a piece of leather hung with dozens of bells. ''They vary in size and pitch from the smallest tinkle for the lambs to the biggest clang for the cows.'' Each was embellished with the traditional Basque heart.

''Now with so many trucks transporting our sheep, they do not wear bells. It is only the sheep that live in the mountains and graze in the high meadows for six months who need my bells,'' he said.

''Is it possible to go there?'' we asked. ''You must know someone, a guide. Find Lerissa. He'll show you.''

Jean-Paul Lerissa found us, peering into the windows of an ancient chapel in Ahaxe, another village in the valley. Since he had worked as a sheepherder, then as a landscape gardener in America for 28 years, his English was almost flawless. ''Would you like to see the chapelle?'' he shouted.

Before we could answer, a bent old woman in tall, black rubber boots shuffled through the adjoining graveyard into the clearing where we stood. She carried an oversize key. Through our self-appointed interpreter, she informed us that the 400-year-old building was called the ''Chapel of St. Andre'' and that she, Marie-Louise Cadiou, had been its bell-ringer for 35 years. ''When it is bad weather,'' she says, ''I ring the bells to scare away the sleet and snow.''

After we had inspected the worn, primitive statues and paintings, she pointed out that men always sit in the balconies of the aisleless Basque churches, while the women and children occupy the pews on the main floor. ''This is because it bothers the men to sit with the women,'' she explains, ''so they are happier upstairs.''

By midafternoon of the next day we were deep in the mountains with Jean-Paul and his wife, Anne-Marie. Our car climbed higher into the hills of heath, wild mint, fern, and bracken, past fat green fields, trim little apple and cherry orchards, and thick groves of pine and oak. Then rather abruptly the landscape became barren and rocky, the sun faded from the sky. Mist swirled from the deep, now-invisible valleys. ''I'm sorry to tell you that we now must walk,'' Jean-Pierre announced as he silenced the motor and held open the door. He strode away.

We followed behind, almost blinded by the ferocity of the storm. Cold, light rain turned to hail. The tilted meadows were crisscrossed by necklaces of undulating gray stone walls. In the distance a sheepherder's cottage hunched between converging slopes. We headed for it.

Once under the eaves of its deeply sloping roof - enough to protect the entire flock - Jean-Pierre reaches under a cobwebby beam for the key and unlocks the rough plank door.

We are in one room. A flat stone in the center bears the ashes of a recent fire; a wooden bed with thick, yellow straw stands in a corner. There is nothing more than a blue kerosene lamp that hangs from the ceiling, one worn book, and three or four pots on the only shelf.

''The Basques are sheepherders,'' says Jean-Pierre. ''This is how a man lives for over six months of the year. His only companions are his dog, his trusty walking stick, and his flock.'' Then he added: ''This is where I was forced to come to tend our sheep when I was 12 years old. I was too small to do that. I think there are too many noises in the night. Now, it (is) my brother's turn.''

Jean-Paul Lerissa and his far-flung family passed us on from one to another. We watched the ancient ritual of the palombiere, in which enormous nets are strung in the passes of the Pyrenees to trap the pigeons that fly south for the winter. We hiked the high peaks and overnighted in utterly charming hotels like Arraya in Sare and the Argi-Eder in Ainhoa. We picnicked on crusty dark bread and Basque brebis cheese; dined on local gastronomic favorites like chipirones (stuffed Cuttlefish), fresh salmon, trout, and luscious piperade omelettes filled with ham, potatoes, peppers, and cheese.

We learned that Basque reserve is merely a myth of self-preservation. If you go, they will welcome you with smiles, open doors, and invitations. They will look deeply into your eyes and ask the most personal questions: ''Are you happy? Do you have children? Why are your eyes so blue?''

But most of all they will entreat you never to forget that a friend of one Basque is a friend of them all. Forever.

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