Arberoue valley (Erberua in Basque) offers superb theatrical backdrop landscapes and its deep valleys and steep hills give it a sense of effortless mountain altitude, only 30 minutes from the Basque coast... Mt. Eltzarruze, Mt. Garalda and Mt. Abarratia surround the villages in the valley and offer the possibility of beautiful walks with a view over the Basque mountains.
Villages in the Arberoue valley
Ayherre - Aiherra
From the town of Ayherre, a small picturesque country road will lead you to Isturitz. You can see the ruins of Belzunce Castle there, to be admired from the outside because it is private property. The castle was important in the history of the Basque Country because the peace treaty linking Labourd to France was signed there in 1450... thus putting an end to English influence locally.
Hélette - Heleta
Hélette is located next to the Baigura, at an average altitude of 300m. Its name means "place of herds". Hélette has been welcoming pilgrims to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle since the Middle Ages, who follow the ancient Roman road from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The 17th century church of Saint Jacques, located slightly outside the village, has galleries dating from 1695. To the right of the choir, you can admire a remarkable representation of Saint Jacques as a pilgrim. The porch is extended in the northern part by a double storey building, built on freestone pillars. Hélette has always been an agricultural trade center: the horse fair takes place every 24 and 25 November (Sainte Catherine) and the cattle market takes place on 19 and 20 March.
Isturitz - Izturitze
Like the other villages in Arberoue valley, Isturitz belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre before the province of Basse Navarre joined the Kingdom of France in the 17th century. The church and the castle of Rocafort are cited in the first written records mentioning the town that date from 1249. Settlement in the village is much older as the first inhabitants lived in Isturitz cave 80,000 years before our era. Excavations have revealed the jaw of a Neanderthal man and cut stone tools dating from the prehistoric Middle Palaeolithic period.
It is because in the 12th century, Navarre needed commercial access to the sea that La Bastide Clairence was founded in 1312. A port on the banks of the Joyeuse which then flows into the Adour and the Atlantic Ocean. The village is one of the bastides founded in the South-West by decision of lords or local religious authorities: their primary function was to enhance a territory by securing its population. Basques and Gascons have lived together since the founding of La Bastide Clairence, which makes it a Charnègou or Xarnegu territory, of mixed blood.
Saint-Esteben - Donoztiri
The road that leads to Saint-Esteben from Bonloc goes between Mt. Garalda and Mt. Abarratia. Abarratia is a gaztelu, a hilltop arranged to serve as a place of defence and refuge during different invasions during the pre-Roman period and probably until the Middle Ages. You can clearly see the triple walled enclosure of earth which surrounds its contours; go up to the top and you will have a magnificent view point without too much effort ... In the village, the church is a listed as a Historical Monument and has a very beautiful panelled ceiling and a richly decorated altarpiece.
Saint-Martin d'Arberoue - Donamartiri
The village of Saint-Martin d'Arberoue has a fine collection of Basque houses, some of which have been there since the 15th century. Take the opportunity to have a drink on the terrace of the village inn while waiting to visit the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves, only 5 minutes away by car. What’s more, Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie preceded you by visiting this site listed as a Historical Monument in 1867 ... The village is located at the foot of Mt. Eltzarruze, a beautiful limestone mountain suitable for hiking and whose springs provide 12 villages with drinking water.
The caves of Isturitz and Oxocelhaya
From Hasparren or Saint-Palais, you can get there via the D14 through the village of Saint-Martin d'Arberoue. This jewel of the Arberoue valley, in which Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens dwelled, is located on the hill of Gaztelu. A network of three caves were discovered at different periods: Isturitz cave on the upper part of the hill, Oxocelhaya cave and its sumptuous calcite concretions 20 meters below; and Erberua cave through which the Arberoue river flows. The Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves have been open to the public since 1950; it is one of the major sites to visit in the Basque Country.
Isturitz cave is a large gallery originally open at both ends and long known to the villagers. The first prehistoric objects were discovered at the end of the 19th century, which triggered scientific interest and then tourism. Successive excavations made during the 20th century revealed human occupation between 80,000 and 10,000 years BC, as well as animal occupation with the discovery of cave bear remains. A staircase was dug there in 1953 to enable visitors to access Oxocelhaya cave.
Oxocelhaya and Erberua caves
Oxocelhaya cave was discovered in 1929 by a miller named Etchegaray. When you descend there by the stairs carved out from the Isturitz cave 20 meters higher, open your eyes wide! You will find yourself in a sumptuous palace of stalactites and scintillating stalagmites formed drop by drop since the dawn of time ... Erberua cave remains closed to the public and reserved for fully-equipped specialists working on research.
Very special visits
Apart from the "classic" guided tours, you can enjoy another look at the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves... “Raisonnance” tours take place on Sundays at the end of the afternoon and are accompanied by musical creations and art work by Pierre Estève. There are also visits on the themes of Prehistory and Cave Art, Geological Discovery, Palaeontology, visits to the inaccessible decorated galleries of Oxocelhaya, not to mention “Cute-Cro-Magnons” particularly suitable for families. For all this, you must of course book in advance ... Link to