The Spanish Basque Country is an autonomous community in northern Spain. It is bordered by the Bay of Biscay to the north. France is to the east and the Ebro Valley to the south. Although there is no official capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz is the de facto capital, while Bilbao is the largest city.
The territory is defined by two parallel Basque mountain ranges interspersed with valleys and rivers. The valleys also form a watershed that influences the weather in the Basque Country. The north is very humid (and green), the center has a more continental climate, and the Ebro Valley has hot summers and cold winters.
This wide variety of climates makes the visit worthwhile because within a relatively short distance you can enjoy whatever climate you want, including winter skiing and winter sports in the Pyrenees. There is also no shortage of fabulous beaches, for example around the bay and the coast of San Sebastian.
The plane is the best way to get to the Spanish Basque Country. Bilbao, Vitoria and San Sebastián all have airports, both regional and international. You can reach the region by bus, highway or train, but, for example, from the south of Spain, the journey takes about 12 hours or more. Hire a car from the respective airport and explore this beautiful part of Spain rather than sitting for long hours on a train or bus.
I have visited the Basque Country (French and Spanish) several times and I am fascinated each time because it is so different from the rest of Spain. The history, culture, legends, clothes, art, language and food will surprise you at every turn and make you want to know and explore more and more. The Basque Country is never repetitive or boring. Let yourself be guided into the many secrets and surprises, and at the end of your trip, you can only have fallen in love with this atypical part of Spain.
Pro tip: This article highlights the Spanish Basque Country, but there is also a French part. You might consider crossing the border and visiting charming seaside resorts like Biarritz or Saint Jean de Luz.
1. The incredible art world of Bilbao
Even if you’re not particularly a fan of modern art, you will be impressed by one of the most spectacular museums in the world, the Bilbao Guggenheim. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the museum is the city’s most famous landmark, sitting on the bank of the Nervion River which flows into the Bay of Biscay. You will exclaim “Oh! as soon as you lay eyes on the massive building, glistening in the sun as it is entirely covered in silver titanium. At the entrance stands the cutest sculpture of them all, Jeff Koon’s puppy, a West Highlands Terrier, completely covered in 38,000 wildflowers and spring flowers that are replaced twice a year. The puppy has been the museum’s guard dog for 25 years. To see all levels, collections, and artwork, you should allow several hours.
Bilbao is full of art, big and small. I discovered a lady painstakingly embroidering a canvas, creating a painting in a small craft shop, and making silver pendants in the shape of the national flower, a thistle with a secret meaning. The workshop, which creates the most beautiful memories, is called BasqLore. The thistle protects against disease and evil spirit, and is also embedded in wood to be hung above the front door for the same purpose.
2. Romantic boat trips
The Nervion River runs through Bilbao and one of the nicest things to do is to take a one or three hour boat trip on one of the two Bilboats company boats. Relax and glide along the estuary and under the many elegant bridges that cross the river. If you prefer a taste of the ocean, take the 3 hour trip that leads to sea, waves, stiff breezes and all.
3. Endless Pintxos
In the rest of Spain, small snacks, slices of bread filled with things like cheese, sausages, fish, etc., may be known as tapasbut in the Basque Country, they are called pintxos and are an integral part of the national food culture. They are named pintxos, as the delicacies piled on the slices of bread are pinned with a toothpick. Believe me, once you’ve bitten into the first pinxto and savored the melting flavors, you’ll never eat a three-course meal again while you’re in the Basque Country. You will be hopelessly addicted.
To taste the best pintxos and a great selection of pintxos as extraordinary as pieces of lobster with cream, head to Plaza Nueva in the heart of the old town and enter the bar of Victor Montes. Not only are they the kings of pintxos, but they also offer a wide selection of wines, spirits, whiskey, and their latest novelty: Italian vodka served in a bottle created by Italian designer Roberto Cavalli.
4. The wonderful beaches of San Sebastian
How can you not fall in love with one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, fine white sand, elegant city views and nearly 3 km of unspoiled natural paradise? San Sebastian, or Donostia in the local language, has not just one but three of these wonders: La Concha, Zurriola Beach and Isla Santa Clara.
5. The extraordinary hiking trails of the Spanish Basque Country
Another reason to fall in love with the Basque Country is that the walking and hiking trails all have a particular pattern and theme. The best known is probably the northern part of the Camino Santiago or Way of Saint James, traveled by pilgrims and ending with a ceremony in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
But there are also hiking trails with more secular motifs, such as the Idiazabal Cheese Trail, which follows local and famous cheeses; the GR 38 Wine and Fish Route, which requires a whole week of walking but can be divided into sections; the Ignatian Way, to follow Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order; and the fascinating Painted Forest of Oma, a work of art that will amaze you. The forest is located in a UNESCO designated biological reserve with a well marked path leading through the forest. The trees are painted with eyes, stripes and lightning bolts, created by artist Agustin Ibarrola.
6. Traditional Basque clothing and costumes
In the old town of Errenteria, not far from San Sebastian, you have the opportunity to visit a museum of a particular kind: fashion as art, a collection of traditional clothing presented in a way that not only shows the clothes from the outside, but also the seams and the inner lining. Fashion seems to be in vogue in this part of Spain’s Basque Country as another fashion museum is in Getaria which pays homage to the work of Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga. He was a favorite designer of actress Audrey Hepburn and has just celebrated his 100th birthday.
7. 17th century Basque society, myths and legends
Don’t you love a country full of myths and legends? As is the case in the Basque Country and more precisely in a place called Zugarramurdi, located between the meadows of Urdex and the foot of Mount Larrun, a wild landscape that captures the attention of every visitor.
Zugarramurdi and the surrounding villages are the seats of Xareta Akelarre, or the Witches’ Sabbath, which according to legends was held in the meadows or in a deep carst tunnel through which a river flowed. The tunnel and ovens, where witches and wizards prepared their meals, heated their cauldrons and conducted their ceremonies, are adjacent to the Museum of Witchcraft.
The Museum of Witchcraft documents the 17th century witch hunt that raged in this region, initiated by the Spanish Inquisition. Many innocent men and women were burned at the stake and denounced by malicious neighbors. The most savage were the autodafes of Logroño. This cruel and unjust history is well documented in the museum, as are witchcraft paraphernalia, herbs and secret recipes. Frankly, the museum can send shivers down your spine, but you have to know all the superstitions and legends of this mysterious country to understand the historical context of the Spanish Basque Country. The tunnels and meadows are more benevolent and the village organizes a party every year with a common meal.
We have already mentioned the artist who makes the silver pendants in his lovely boutique in Bilbao. It comes full circle here as you won’t see a single house in Zugarramurdi that doesn’t have a thistle hanging over its front door for good health and to ward off evil spirits.
Pro tip: play and stay in the Spanish Basque Country
There is so much to do and see in Spain’s Basque Country that you might consider investing in a private guided tour. This has the advantage that you can move at your own pace and avoid parts of the various trails that might be too steep or too long for you. And above all, you will not miss legends that only the locals know and you will be able to taste the local cuisine apart from the pintxos.
I found it very convenient to stay at the Petit Palace Arana hotel. Art deco from the outside, modern from the inside, the hotel is located opposite the theater and as such in the center of the old town and a short walk from Plaza Nueva, just 20 minutes along the river to the Guggenheim.
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