The Basque Country, or País Vasco, comprises of three provinces in the north eastern corner of Spain, bordering France and Navarra in the east, Cantabria and Castilla y León in the west and La Rioja in the south. The northern coastline of the Basque Country lies in the Bay of Biscay on the Cantabrian Sea.
The three provinces are Guipúzcoa, Alava and Vizcaya, centered around the cities of Vitoria, Bilbao and San Sebastián. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the capital of the community is Vitoria, although it is only just over half the size of the somewhat better known Bilbao.
Geography of the Basque Country
The Basque country coastline has many spectacular, sheer cliffs, pretty fishing harbours and some of the very best beaches in the whole of Spain. The area in this Atlantic coastal region is fairly mountainous as the Pyrenees almost reach the sea. Despite this, however, the mountains here are of generally low altitude – the highest peak in the Basque Country being at Aizkorri at just 1544 metres.
In the south of the region is the Ebro valley, sometimes referred to as the Rioja Alavesa as Riioja wine is produced here as well as in the region of that name.
Map of the Basque Country
History of the Basque Country
Basque people, and the rest of the Spanish as well, for that matter, will tell you that Basque people are not really Spanish; and they certainly often appear to be very different. They tend to be much larger people, much fairer skinned, many of them even have blue eyes and they tend to have high foreheads. They certainly don’t look typically Mediterranean. The Basques think of themselves as the true, original Europeans, Cro-Magnons, but we do know that they have been occupying this particular corner of Europe since times far in advance of the Romans.
During recorded history, the Basques have earned a reputation as fierce fighters – even Cervantes in Don Quijote acknowledges the fact – and the armies of the Romans, Vikings, Visigoths and Muslims never succeeded in wholly subjugating the area.
Basque sailors earned themselves a great reputation, as they travelled vast distances searching for whales and fish, and then formed a significant proportion of Columbus’ crews on his travels. They have also been devotedly Catholic, with the Jesuit order established in the sixteenth century by the Basque, Ignatius Loyola.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Basques were some of Franco’s most committed opponents, especially the famous Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, famous for her inspiring communist speeches. Franco punished the region for its opposition – notably during the war at Guernika, of course, when the town was bombed by his German allies, but after the war as well. Euskera, the Basque language, was abolished in public spaces, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa were declared ‘traitor provinces’ and there was negligible economic development of the area.
During the 1950s the desire for a Basque ‘homeland’ began to grow in the wake of the unsympathetic nature of the Madrid government, which culminated in 1961 with the formation of the terrorist organization ETA – standing for Basque Homeland and Freedom. Even the development of Autonomous Communities in 1978 has not appeased all of the Nationalists – the referendum to endorse the legislation was passed here but the abstention rate was by far the greatest in the country. There remains a significant section of the community that remains committed to the idea of independence from Spain.
It is estimated that about 30% of the Basque population speak Euskera, the Basque language, and more than 90% of all schoolchildren are taught it in school. Unlike Catalan, Euskera has little in common with either Spanish or French, mainly because it is not one of the Romance languages. It predates all of the Indo-European languages, although until relatively recently it was predominantly a spoken language only. It is reckoned that the first Euskeran language texts were not written until less than 500 years ago.
As you travel around the Basque country, all signs and place names will be in both languages but the people you encounter will also speak Spanish – and many of them English and French.
This is one of the wealthiest areas of Spain, managing to survive the decline in the shipbuilding and steel industries in the 1980s. There is still considerable engineering carried out here – in aviation, rolling stock and the building of wind turbines. Increasingly, however, new technologies and the financial and service sectors have come to the fore; including the BBVA bank, now one of Spain’s largest.
Although fishing and agriculture still have their part to play, they are no longer of the importance they formerly were.
There are three distinct climatic zones in the Basque Country. The northern stretch of land overlooking the Bay of Biscay has a distinct Oceanic climate, resulting in moderate temperatures throughout the year and quite a lot of rain – about 1200 mm annually. The Ebro valley, on the other hand, has a Continental Mediterranean climate with very hot and dry summers and cold, dry winters. The majority of the rainfall here, which can be as low as 300mm a year, falls in the spring and autumn. The more mountainous area between two is influenced by both sets of climatic conditions, experiencing dry, warm summers but snowy, cold winters.
See also: Basque Country Tourism