Wedged between the Cantabrian Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains, is the Basque Country. Although the region stretches over two countries – Spain and France – the Basque people are united by their culture as well as a common and unique language – Euskera – one of the oldest languages in Europe.
This culturally rich region is full of places to discover and things to do. Here is our top seven list of things to experience while in the Basque Country
In the last 30 years, Bilbao, Spain has successfully transformed from a polluted industrial city into a hub for architecture and design. It all started with the Guggenheim Museum when it opened its doors in 1997 which seemed to single-handedly put the city on the cultural map. But the Guggenheim was just one of a few projects that got the ball rolling. Several impressive contemporary architectural feats include the timeless metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster, the Alhondiga cultural center from Philippe Starck and the Zubizuri Bridge from Santiago Calatrava.
Apart from its modern side, Bilbao is also home to a well-preserved medieval centre known locally as “las siete calles” (the seven streets) since they are the original seven streets that formed the first settlement. Although it is made up of pedestrian-only streets, the old town is one of the city’s more bustling areas. Strolling through its narrow stone-paved streets you will also find historical buildings such as the Saint James Cathedral and the Plaza Nueva.
More than anything, Basques are fixated on their gastronomy. They talk about it all the time and it is central to their way of life. It’s always been that way and indeed many Basques belong to private culinary societies known as txokos (pronounced choke-ohs). These are places where groups of (mostly) men meet to cook, eat and drink.
Though it has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants, the region is probably best known for pintxos – bite-size appetizers that are similar to Spanish tapas. They are so prolific you can spend your time wandering around various bars and restaurants nibbling on them all day long. Seek out Gure Toki a small pintxo bar hidden in a corner of the Plaza Nueva at the heart of Bilbao’s old town. Locals love it and they are winners of several pintxo contests. Or for something gastronomic try Azurmendi. This 3-star Michelin restaurant serves avant-garde cooking and one of thee best not only in the Basque Country but probably the world.
The city of San Sebastian (or Donostia) became famous in the 19th century, when Queen Regent Maria Cristina built her summer residence there. The bourgeoisie and aristocracy soon followed, the Belle Époque era exploded and San Sebastian was transformed into a glamorous holiday destination.
The Belle Époque era brought some architectural jewels to San Sebastian such as the Town Hall, the Victoria Eugenia Theatre and the Good Shepherd Cathedral. And the beach of La Concha, admired greatly by the queen, is still considered to be Europe’s most beautiful city beach. However, San Sebastian’s pedestrian-only old town, with its pretty cobblestone streets, is perched behind Mount Urgull, remains one of the city’s main attractions.
San Fermin Festival (Running of the Bulls)
The city of San Fermin’s claim to fame is that it appears in Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises”. The writer fell in love with the city and especially its fiesta Running of the Bulls, which is celebrated every year from the 6th to the 14th of July in the city of Pamplona and probably one of the biggest in the world.
During the festival, over one million people visit Pamplona, all of them donning a white t-shirt and a red handkerchief. A group of brave (or perhaps dumb and/or drunk) men run in front of a herd of bulls through the streets of the old town for around 800m before finally arriving at the bullring. This adrenalin-packed activity has become a bit of an icon of Pamplona.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
The little island of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is one of the most beautiful corners of the Basque Country. Situated in the Bay of Biscay, it is connected to the peninsula by a man-made stone bridge. At the very top of the island stands a small hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist. You’ll need a lot of puff to get there as you follow a zig-zaging path that comprises more than 240 steps – but it’s worth it.
Apart from its astonishing beauty, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe also has an intriguing history. Throughout the centuries, it has served as a convent, worked as a defensive outpost, been sacked on multiple occasions (once by Sir Francis Drake) and was even used to jail those accused of witchcraft during the Spanish Inquisition.
With over 150 km of coast, there are plenty of sandy beaches in the Basque Country. Apart from San Sebastian and its Concha Beach, Biarritz is probably the most well known beach destination in the region. This small town in the French Basque Country has a unique atmosphere where chic mansions from bygone eras combine with a strong local surf culture.
Another not-to-miss beach town on the French side is Saint-Jean-de-Luz which has a quiet sandy bay perfect for families with children.
On the Spanish side be sure to check out the towns of Lekeitio, Getaria and Zarautz.
Unfortunately, the town of Guernica is famous due to the tragic bombing it received in 1937. The town was burned to the ground by an attack from German and Italian forces who were allied with Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939).
Today, Guernica has become a symbol of peace and stands as a reminder of the horrors of war. More information about the town’s history can be found at the Peace Museum. The local tourism office also offers tours that take visitors into the bunkers and sheds light on what it must have been like to experience what the residents endured on that Monday in 1937.