Aman of the Basque region is having an eye test, so the story goes, when the optician points to a chart displaying the letters: T X I X K E X U S K X T K

"Can you read this?" asks the eye specialist.

"Read it?" the man replies. "I know the guy."

Basque is a language unlike any other and is tongue-twistingly difficult to learn. There are just under a million speakers; fiercely independent folk who populate a "country" that straddles the border between Spain and France at the western edge of the Pyrenees.

Le Pays Basque, the French side, includes the stylish coastal resort of Biarritz, which teems with tourists throughout the year. Away from the beaches, however, the hilly hinterland conceals numerous holiday hideaways and underrated gems.

Best known as the starting point for the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a walled town of picturesque streets and bridges that span the lethargic River Nive. Confusingly, its Basque name is Donibane Garazi, which means you'll need the patience of a saint (or a bilingual sat-nav) just to find the place.

St-Jean is full of people snapping "team photos" before starting the month-long trek. It's fair to say the pilgrim demographic has changed somewhat over the centuries. Where once trod wretched souls with open sores there now go wayfarers with solar panels on their rucksacks and an array of electronic navigational gadgets.

In my hotel lobby, groups are making final preparations. The Americans are kitted out in top-of-the-range trekking gear while the Germans painstakingly plot routes and synchronise their watches. The British discuss the chances of rain.

And rain it does, lashing the steep Pyrenean highways that lead heavenwards. The downpour does little to dampen spirits, though. I receive so many beatific smiles from soggy pilgrims that I consider swapping my car for a pair of hiking boots, until I remember it belongs to Hertz.

Spiritual reserves are further tested at Roncesvalles Pass, where a sign informs windcheater-clad walkers that it's still another 790 kilometres to Santiago de Compostela. No one is led into temptation by my offer of a lift to Burguete; we might all be on the same mountain road but those trudging through the drizzle definitely have the moral high ground.

The unremarkable Spanish village is a tribute to what can be achieved with a forest of hanging floral baskets.

In a crowded cafe, the waitress explains that her parents are unable to speak Basque - a legacy of the Franco dictatorship, which outlawed the use of any language except Castilian Spanish. Euskera, as it's known locally, only reappeared on the school curriculum in 1987. To show solidarity, I order a kafesne (Basque for "milky coffee"), rather than a Castilian café con leche, to murmurs of approval.

It's an hour's drive down to Pamplona and, although the annual running of the bulls begins in a day or two, I decide to cross back to the French side of the border. A snaking highway caked in tractor mud leads through orderly towns with fields ploughed in immaculate furrows, firewood stacked in neat piles and buildings painted the traditional Basque colours of dark red and white.

Espelette is famous for the strings of dried peppers that hang from the commune's houses like Chinese characters. "Chilli tourism" is taking off and guides lead groups into the fields to learn about growing, harvesting, drying and grinding. This is inevitably followed by an opportunity to purchase pepper-based products.

Tongue ablaze, I leave the comforting foothills of the Basque region and drive into the mountains. France receives more tourists than any other nation on Earth without really making much effort. Stupendous scenery helps. The lofty Pyrenees are so inspiring that, should you feel the urge to yodel, you might find yourself accompanied by a whistling shepherd and the peal of cow bells.

Hiking trails cut through emerald meadows and streams of snowmelt crisscross the countryside. Lodging options include Swiss-style chalets with steeply sloping roofs that prevent snow accumulating. The soaring vistas nourish the soul and I'm determined to enjoy them while I can. It's downhill from here; in more ways than one.

Gradually the landscape changes. Malls replace mountains and traffic replaces tranquility.

I'm back among pilgrims - this time in Lourdes. Variously described as tacky, commercial and vulgar; it's also life-changing for many. (The other) Madonna even named her daughter after the town.

Lourdes went viral in 1858, when a peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, began receiving visions of a lady, believed by townsfolk to be the Virgin Mary. Miracles apparently accompanied the apparitions and, depending on who you listen to, they continue to this day. I'm tempted to buy a lottery ticket.

Regardless of the veracity of the stories, business is good for local merchants. Nationally, only Paris has more hotel rooms and the pilgrimage site - which is a cross between a Catholic Las Vegas and a religious theme park - draws five million visitors a year.

Here there are hundreds of identical shops filled with souvenir plates, wooden crucifixes, apparition wall clocks, Our Lady keyrings and fridge magnets. You won't find anywhere selling power tools or paint stripper but if it's an alabaster Madonna you're after, Lourdes is just the place.

Religious retail therapy isn't for everyone, though. Instead, you could head along to the MyLord Discothèque and strut your stuff. It's unlikely to be busy - few pilgrims are here to go clubbing. Plenty are unable to walk, let alone dance.

Hospitaliers (volunteers) accompany the wheelchair- and stretcher-bound to surgeries and sanctuaries. Able-bodied sightseers pose for photos outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, fill their bottles with holy water from the Grotto springs and join the nightly candlelight procession.

Curious and ever so slightly sceptical, I delicately ask at the tourist office whether anyone has ever actually taken up their bed and walked, so to speak. Unwilling to get mired in the minutiae of miracles, the staff direct me to a doctor's surgery, where a queue of pilgrims hoping for divine healing loops right around the block.

I decide it's not worth the wait. Perhaps I'll go shopping for a fridge magnet after all.


Getting there: Air France ( flies daily from Hong Kong to Paris (Charles De Gaulle Airport) and from the French capital (Orly) to Biarritz's Bayonne Anglet Airport.