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, centred 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.
Geographically the coastal region of the Basque country is stunning with 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 Rioja wine is produced here as well as in the region of that name.
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. Not surprisingly most tourism is during the summer months.
Basque Country Independence
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.
Basque Language … Linguistically 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. Whilst chatting with some locals in a bar recently before an Athletic Bilbao football match I asked why more people didn’t speak Basque. The reason I was told is because it’s too hard!
Basque Economy … Economically this is one of the wealthier 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, tourism 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.
Basque Country Tourism
There are three airports in the Basque Country – Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria, all of which have internal flight arrivals from Madrid and Barcelona. Whilst schedules do change I believe the only international flights at the time of writing are to Bilbao. The rail network in the region is well developed, with RENFE linking the major cities with the rest of central Spain and France. The major road links consist of the A1, linking with central Spain; the AP8, linking with France and the AP68, linking with the Mediterranean. Bilbao is the major seaport of the region, with regular ferry crossings each week from Portsmouth with Britanny Ferries and it is also now a regular calling place for cruise ships.
The three provincial capitals, Bilbao, San Sebastián and Vitoria, are the major tourist destinations and they are all eminently worthy cities in their own right:
Bilbao … The transformation of the old industrial city of Bilbao has largely been thanks to the inspired decision to locate the Guggenheim Museum there. Its success has turned Bilbao into a popular short break destination. The museum itself, irrespective of its contents, is a very special building, although often very busy. For lovers of more classical Spanish and world art, the Museo de Bellas Artes, a two minute walk away, has a highly impressive permanent collection. Like so many cities, the old town of Bilbao, with its atmospheric bars and buildings, is a fabulous place to wander around. Football fans should visit Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium and arrange a stadium tour.
Vitoria … Much the same can be said about the casco viejo centre of Vitoria but, as this is an important university centre, the nightlife tends to attract a younger crowd than the more touristy Bilbao. Many motorists who have visited the region will have been confused by roadsigns giving directions for Vitoria-Gasteiz. Vitoria is the Spanish name for the city whilst Gasteiz is the Basque name.
San Sebastian … San Sebastián, with its mightily impressive crescent beach, La Concha, is steeped in Basque tradition and fiercely independent, whilst also inviting visitors, who often compare it with its French counterpart, Biarritz.
Although these three cities attract the greatest numbers of visitors, there are smaller places in the Basque Country which offer very differing experiences. Many people are attracted to the small country town of Guernica, which was known as the birthplace of Basque Parliamentarianism until, one Monday in April 1937, it became infamous for being the town Hitler’s bombers blitzed at Franco’s request. There is a museum in the centre of town which gives a horrifying portrayal of the events that inspired Picasso’s nightmarish and probably most famous painting. Very different are the surfing hotspots of Zarautz and Mundaka, the delightful fishing port at Lekeitio and the beautiful little wine-growing town of Laguardia.
What to do in the Basque Country
It is tempting to say that the most popular tourist activity in the Basque Country should be eating. Many places in Spain like to claim that they have the best food in the country but any impartial judgement would surely award the honour to this region. There were, at my last count, 26 Michelin Stars awarded to restaurants here so this is the home of many of Spain’s most famous international restaurants and chefs. These top eating places are only the summit of a very impressive array of restaurants appealing to all tastes and price ranges. The Basque Country is also home of the famous Gastronomic Societies, and if you can obtain an invitation to eat at one of these, it would be truly memorable.
Basque Food … Basque specialties to keep an eye open for include the salt cod stew, bacalao al pil pil; baby squid cooked in its own ink, chipirones en su tinta; enormous beef steaks and chops; and the Basque version of tapas, pinchos or pintxos. The best Basque wine is Txakoli, a fairly robust white wine, best drunk when it is still quite young. There are some fine ciders available, and it is worth keeping an eye open for Cider Houses, where you can often get great value meals accompanied by different ciders.
Tourist Attractions … The cultural triangle between Bilbao, Vitoria and San Sebastián, all within easy reach of each other, offers a plethora of impressive museums, galleries and architectural glories.
Basque Sport … For sporting enthusiasts, surfing and cycling are very popular here, along with the rather more esoteric and localised activities such as Pelota Vasca, a kind of mixture of fives, squash and handball. Football fans will be well aware of the famous Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad clubs. Getting tickets for games is usually quite straightforward except for the local derbies between them.
Wine Tours … In the Alava town of Elciego there is the distinctive Marqués de Riscal Winery, designed by Frank Gerhy who also created the Guggenheim, and the wine route through the Basque country includes some other very innovative cellars, such as the one at Laguardia designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Festivals in the Basque Country
There are some unusual and entertaining festivals in the Basque Country held throughout the year. At the beginning of December, for example, in Vitoria you can attend, along with about 200,000 others, the Ardoaraba Wine Festival. Also held in Vitoria is the Festival of La Bulsa, a smock worn on festive occasions by young men. Sometimes known as Garlic Day, this is not for those who don’t appreciate the smell or the taste of garlic everywhere.
San Sebastián has a spectacular Tamborrada, or Drum Procession, in January each year, in which just under a hundred different groups of drummers march around the streets and then continue ‘performing’ until the early hours in the bars of the town. Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande) is the regions biggest annual festival when many events are organised to celebrate the rich Basque culture. One of the most popular events during this period are the Fishing Boat Regattas which take place off Playa de La Concha in San Sebastian. Other more San Sebastian during the summer months make it a great place to visit.
19 thoughts on “Basque Country Travel Guide”
Thanks Gerry for a great article. I must say my husband and I preferred the food in Bilbao over San Sebastian. The old town had fabulous restaurants and was really a great walk. We liked the little town of Hondarribia with its great street fair on Saturdays with excellent tapas.
Thanks Sonrisa – that whole coast has so much to offer if you enjoy your food.
All the Best
Hi, just read your article on the Basque Country – lived there in 1974 for a year, some of the time in Vitoria and the rest in Onate, working there and in Mondragon. Your article is excellent, both from a historical perspective and also on how the area has and is developing. Brought back some very pleasant memories especially of the Gastronomic Societies!
A really good article Gerry. We were in San Sebastian a couple of years ago, but only for two days. We long to explore the rest of the region next time we’re in the UK – the ferry from Portsmouth sounds interesting.
Steve & Lynn Hill
Hi Steve & Lynn
The ferry from Portsmouth is a really nice trip. I was on it last summer leaving Portsmouth late afternoon and arriving in Santander about 24 hours later. Well worth booking in advance for summer departures.
Hi. I think maybe there is a slight correction required in the following text. Did you mean to say internal flights or INTERNATIONAL flights ?
Thanks John – You’re absolutely right, I meant “international”. I’ve edited it.
Thanks for this article – I’m off to Northern Spain for the first time, in a camper-van, and am finding your website very useful in helping me plan my trip.
Thanks Louise – you’ll love touring in the camper van. have a brilliant time.
Thanks Ann for your great comments and useful website suggestions.
It’s a great area to explore. A small fishing town that I love is Getaria not far south of San Sebastian. It has a great little old town with excellent tapas and fish (including the famous Elkano restaurant). You can take a walk up the famous ‘raton’ which is a hilly peninsula that looks like a mouse in profile. Surrounded by Txakali vineyards it’s well worth a visit.
In Bilbao there is a fantastic bar outside of the Old Town ; CAFE IRUNA, 1903 Bilbao, España. It is a beautiful tiled restaurant with a big scene for the after work crowd. Go for the tiles. tapas, cidre and a friendly crowd. Well worth tracking down.
Also go see the railroad station for it stained glass (but the neighborhood around the back is not for tourists to wander) There are more museums close to the Gehry that have more interesting stuff. In fact the Gehry works better as a sculpture than a museum.
Thanks for the tip Eugene … great photos by the way.
Having lived for a year in Bilbao in the 1980s, I can vouch for the locals’ obsession with food and drink. Get invited to a ‘txoko’ (or gastronomic society) if you can. And don’t miss a football match at San Mames, with obligatory bar crawl before and after on Calle Licenciado Pozas, followed by the casco viejo.
If you’re looking for a mighty Basque festival, I can recommend La Tamborrada. As you say, it’s basically a 24-hour drum parade, with added fancy dress. Not ideal if you’re sensitive to noise, but great fun. I also enjoyed the fiesta of El Katxi in Oyon, Alava, where people gather to watch an old man in a jester’s outfit – carrying a dead fox on a stick – roll on the floor under a flag. It’s not the most spectacular occasion, but it’s a source of real pride for the inhabitants, who are celebrating their town’s independence.
Hi Simon … isn’t it just amazing the crazy fiestas you run into as you wander around Spain. Thanks for these references.
I love the food especially the jamon. Also the tapas/pinchos are wonderful. The weather is bad and unpredictable. The mood in General is laid back and the people do not smile alot. I recommend one or two days up north in spain.
Personally I would recommend one or two months
This is the best part of Europe for Food wine and friendly people.Try and get to the puppet museum in Tolosa you won’t be disappointed. We will be back in Basque Country from Ireland next July again…..can’t wait…..