The Basque Country stretches over France and Spain and is a region steeped in history, culture, gastronomy and to an extent, dispute and controversy. Many independence and Basque freedom movements have been, and still are, active in the Basque Country. It is however, a completely peaceful and safe place with an incredibly friendly and fiercely proud population. Read on for our top seven reasons to visit this beguiling region.
San Sebastian is probably the Basque Country’s most famous destination, and it is easy to see why. A beautiful city full of Belle Epoque grandeur and Gothic architecture, it has everything you would want from a city break. A traditional old town, vibrant bars, beautiful sandy beaches and a dreamy promenade. It also has the second most Michelin star restaurants per square meter in the world (after Kyoto in Japan), so it’s the ideal destination for foodies.
A Country of Contrasts
If you can’t decide between mountains and the sea, then this is the destination for you. In the Basque Country you will find dramatic rocky coasts, inviting sandy beaches and hidden coves, as well as a richly green mountainous interior. When hiking, you will often experience both contrasting landscapes in one day, as well as the pleasant contrast between vibrant cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao, and traditional fishing villages with their colorful traditional Basque buildings and houses. The Basque Country has so much to offer!
The Basque Country’s unofficial capital (the true capital is Vitora-Gasteiz, another beautiful city, well worth a visit if you can), is the economic and industrial heart of the Spanish Basque Country. Traditionally overlooked for its more aesthetically pleasing neighbor, San Sebastian, Bilbao has enjoyed a kind of renaissance since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 which is now an important landmark in the city. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, it’s arguably more famous for its elaborate building than the modern art that it hosts. More of a sculpture than a building, it is a must see when visiting the city. Bilbao also has an atmospheric Casco Viejo (Old Town) which is filled with pintxo bars, restaurants, independent shops and boutiques. The perfect place to while away the afternoon getting to grips with the region’s culinary traditions.
Traditional Fishing Villages and Towns
These dot the Basque coastline where you will find some real hidden gems. On the French side there is lovely St. Jean de Luz, an easy-going beach town filled with colorful paneled buildings and a long sandy beach – the perfect place to relax and take a refreshing swim. On the smaller side are towns like Orio and Hondarribia. Despite their relative size they are by no means uninteresting, they often embody Basque pride and you will see the colorful Basque flag flying from most windows, or see locals playing the traditional sport of pelota. They are also home to many unassuming restaurants and bars where you can eat grilled fish fresh from the morning’s catch.
Pronounced ‘pinchos’, these little slices of heaven are the Basque Country’s answer to traditional Spanish tapas; small plates and appetizers that can be eaten as snacks or as a main meal if you eat enough of them! It is common to spend a whole evening pintxo-bar hopping in the old towns of Bilbao and San Sebastian, trying one or two pintxos at each place before moving on. There are no set rules about what a pintxo should look like, which is part of their beauty as they can get very creative and elaborate. Generally speaking, they will be made up of a slice of baguette bread and stacked high with various toppings like Iberico ham, goat’s cheese, padron peppers, chorizo, fried potato croquettes, seafood, caramelized onions, sun-blush tomatoes…the options go on and on!
There is a myriad of hiking trails in both the French and Spanish sides of the Basque Country. They allow you to see a side of the region that most tourists will miss on a typical city break to the honeypot of San Sebastian. The GR121 from Zumaia to Deba takes walkers through the Basque Coast UNESCO Geopark which delights with its weird and wonderful strata and rock formations and was used as a filming location for the popular TV show Game of Thrones. Not to be missed is the Camino del Norte; a pilgrimage trail that continues all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (over 800km in length!). The Basque sections of this route can be walked as day walks, thanks to the wonderful Basque train lines helping you get to the start and from the end points of each hike. These sections give you an insight into rural Basque life as the trails meander through the pastoral rolling green interior of the region, while still being close to the sea.
The Basque people are some of the friendliest and most helpful you will ever come across while travelling. They are extremely proud of their region, traditions and culture and are keen to share all this with visitors from all over the world. The friendly faces you meet and connections you make along the way will stay with you for a long time as a fond memory.
You can experience all these wonderful things about the Basque Country and so much more on our Walking in the Basque Country: Biarritz to Bilbao self-guided walking tour. If you would like any more information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.