While most of Spain is instantly recognizable from its rolling fields of wheat and hills of olive groves stretched out beneath wide blue skies, the farther you head north, the more you begin to realize just how diverse this southern European nation is. By the time you reach the Basque Country on the northern coast next to France, it feels almost as if you’ve left Spain and, well, according to many locals, you actually have.
Well known for its patriotism, the Basque Country feels like its own little nation, tucked away behind green mountains and rugged coastline reaching across the Pyrenees into France. Literally shrouded in mist for a good chunk of the year, the Basque Country is traditionally and geographically very different from the rest of Spain, starting with the fact that its people speak their own language, Euskara, which is linguistically unrelated to any other modern language in the world. Exploring the Basque Country provides a rich and diverse cultural experience, unlike anything in the rest of Spain.
1. San Sebastián
Undoubtedly the crown jewel of the Spanish Basque Country is San Sebastián, located on the coast only 20 kilometers from France. Popular with Europeans and Spaniards, San Sebastián is famous for many reasons, but it’s best known for its food; it was voted the greatest gastronomic destination in the world by consumer champion Which? in 2012, beating out cities like Paris and Sydney for the number one spot. San Sebastián is a foodie’s dream come to life, with more varied and affordable restaurants and bars than you can count, and continuously produces world-class chefs.
The most famous dish in San Sebastián and the Basque Country in general is called a pintxo or pincho, which is northern Spain’s take on traditional tapas. Normally the size of a canape, a pincho consists of a small, usually cold dish skewered on a slice of baguette with a toothpick. The old quarter of San Sebastián has many types of pincho bars, all serving a range of traditional to inventive pinchos. Usually the counters are covered with plates overflowing with myriad pinchos to choose from and, as locals will point out, the best bars are the ones that have the most used napkins on the ground. Going out to get pinchos with friends, hopping from bar to bar, is San Sebastián’s best activity, and a great way to get to know the region.
>>Take a tour of San Sebastián
Over the past few years, the Basque Country’s big urban jungle, Bilbao, has become a popular place to visit in Spain. Here, industry collides with history, creating a diverse modern city situated at the feet of sprawling green mountains overlooking the Bay of Biscay. A young, bustling city, Bilbao has no shortage of events or sites to visit, though a trip would be incomplete without a visit to the iconic Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry. Looming silver and large over the Nervión River, its postmodern curves and recognizable form have become a symbol of the city.
By Spanish standards, Bilbao is a very big, modern city, and well connected to Europe and the rest of Spain. There is a large international airport, and it has a both a metro and trolley system to get around downtown and out to the smaller neighboring towns and beaches. Once summer hits, it’s easy to grab the metro out to Plentzia or Sopelana beaches, famous with surfers. Tucked away below huge green cliffs, Sopelana makes a great day trip from Bilbao, perfect for kicking back and watching the big waves roll in.
>>Book a tour of Bilbao
Literally “The Guard” of the north, Laguardia is a tiny village perched high on a hill surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see. A medieval town encircled by high walls and sitting on top of dozens of tunnels, Laguardia borders the famous Rioja wine region and is overlooked by the Cantabrian Mountains, making it the perfect quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities in the Basque Country.
Traditional Spain at its finest, Laguardia looks like it hasn’t changed in centuries. Be sure to visit many of the local wineries and bodegas around town; if you ask nicely, you might even be invited to visit their medieval underground tunnels and cellars. The best time to visit is in October, when the harvest begins for the wine and the surrounding countryside burns red and gold as the leaves change.
4. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
By far the most impressive location for a church in the Basque Country is at San Juan de Gatzelugatxe, a rugged little island surrounded by rough seas on the dramatic Biscay coast. Looking like it would have been better placed somewhere off the coastline of Ireland and not Spain, unpronounceable Gatzelugatxe is a shining example of the raw natural beauty to be found in the Basque Country.
Connected to the mainland by a narrow winding pathway of over 200 stairs, the climb to the top of the craggy island is worth the exercise. Perched on this tiny islet is a 10th century hermitage dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Legend has it that the church has foundations in the Knight’s Templar, and since then it has seen numerous shipwrecks and sackings by pirates, marking Gatzelugatxe as both a valuable historic site, as well as one that is strikingly beautiful and unique from the more well-known Spanish coastlines to the south and east.
The often overlooked capital of the Basque Country is Vitoria-Gasteiz, “Gasteiz” being the name for “Vitoria” in Basque. Vitoria is a mid-sized city south of Bilbao, and is becoming well known as an environmentally friendly and progressive city. Thanks to many initiatives to create parks and green public spaces, along with efforts to reduce light pollution and water waste, Vitoria was named the European Green Capital in 2012.
Evidence of Vitoria’s modernity is everywhere in the old quarter in the form of street art. Enormous vibrant murals plaster the sides of multi-storey buildings, creating a bizarre air of expressionism in an otherwise cookie-cutter capital. Perhaps what is most fascinating about the street art scene in Vitoria is that it’s publicly celebrated and practiced by a collective organization of students and local artists. Neon walls rub shoulders with medieval stonework, creating the perfect mix of tradition and innovation, making Vitoria an unforgettable city in the Basque Country.
>>Plan a trip to Vitoria
The small town of Guernica has become one of the most historically significant places in the Basque Country owing to its unfortunate role in the Spanish Civil War. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was razed to the ground when Franco permitted Nazi’s Germany’s Luftwaffe to drop bombs over the town in an effort to defeat the Spanish Republicans. For hours German planes bombed Guernica, “practicing” blitzkrieg tactics that would later form a huge part of World War II, destroying the town and killing over a thousand innocent civilians.
The horrors of this day were immortalized by Picasso in the enormous mural Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, the same year. Wanting to show the world the tragedy and suffering of war in Spain, Picasso’s work serves as a reminder of what happened in that small Basque town in 1937. Guernica was rebuilt, and today you can visit the town that was destroyed less than a century ago. Paired with a visit to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid to see Picasso’s Guernica, art and history come together to remind the audience of Spain’s recent tragic past.
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Carlson.
– Contributed by Elizabeth Carlson