The Spanish Basque Country is an autonomous community in the North of Spain. It is bordered by the Bay of Biscay to the north. France is to the east and the Ebro Valley is to the south. Although there is no official capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz is the de facto capital, whereas Bilbao is the largest city.
The territory is defined by two parallel Basque mountain ranges with valleys and rivers in between. The valleys also form a watershed that influences the weather in the Basque Country. The north is very wet (and green), the middle has a more continental climate, and the Ebro Valley features warm summers and cold winters.
This great variety in climate makes for an interesting visit because, within a comparatively short distance, you can enjoy whichever climate you fancy, including skiing and winter sports in the winter in the Pyrenees. There is no shortage of fabulous beaches either, for instance, around the bay and coast of San Sebastian.
The best way to travel to the Spanish Basque Country is by airplane. Bilbao, Vitoria, and San Sebastian all have airports, regional and international. You can reach the region by bus, highway, or train, but, for instance, from the south of Spain, the journey takes approximately 12 hours or even more. Rent a car at the respective airport and explore this lovely part of Spain rather than sit for long hours on a train or bus.
I have visited the Basque Country (both French and Spanish) many times and am fascinated every time I go because it is so very different from the rest of Spain. History, culture, legends, clothing, 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’t help but have fallen in love with this atypical part of Spain.
Pro Tip: This article highlights the Spanish Basque Country, but there is a French part, too. You might consider hopping across the border and visiting delightful seaside resorts like Biarritz or Saint Jean de Luz.
1. The Amazing Art World Of Bilbao
Even if you are not a particular fan of modern art, you will be awed by one of the world’s most spectacular museums, the Bilbao Guggenheim. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the museum is the most famous landmark in the city, sitting on the bank of the River Nervion that empties into the Bay of Biscay. You will exclaim “Oh!” as soon as you set eyes on the massive building, glittering in the sun because it is entirely covered with silver-colored titanium. At the entrance stands the cutest sculpture of all, Jeff Koon’s Puppy, a West Highlands Terrier, entirely covered by 38,000 wild and spring flowers replaced twice a year. The puppy has been the museum’s guard dog for 25 years. To see all the levels, collections, and art works, you must plan for several hours.
Bilbao is full of art, big and small. I discovered a lady painstakingly embroidering a canvas, creating a painting at a small craft shop, and making silver pendants in the shape of the national flower, a thistle with a secret meaning. The atelier, which creates the most beautiful souvenirs, is called BasqLore. The thistle protects against illness and the evil spirit, and is also caved in wood to hang over the front door with the same purpose.
2. Romantic Boat Trips
The River Nervion flows through Bilbao and one of the nicest things to do is to go on a 1-hour or 3-hour boat trip on one of the two boats, run by the company Bilboats. Relax and glide along the estuary and below the many elegant bridges that cross the river. If you prefer a taste of the ocean, take the 3-hour trip that leads into the sea, waves, stiff breeze, and all.
3. Endless Pintxos
In the rest of Spain, the little snacks, slices of bread heaped with things like cheese, sausages, tune fish, etc., may be known as tapas, but in the Basque Country, they are called pintxos and are an essential part of national food culture. They are called pintxos, because whatever delicacies are heaped on the slices of bread are pinned on with a toothpick. Believe me, as soon as you have bitten into the first pinxto and savored the melting flavors, you will never eat a three-course meal again as long as you are in the Basque Country. You will hopelessly be hooked.
To sample the best pintxos and a great selection of such extraordinary ones like chunks of creamed lobster, make your way 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 have a huge selection of wines, spirits, whiskey, and their latest novelty: Italian vodka served in a bottle created by Italian designer Roberto Cavalli.
4. San Sebastian’s Marvelous Beaches
How can you not fall in love with one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, fine, white sand, elegant city views, and nearly 2 miles of an unspoiled nature paradise? San Sebastian, or Donostia in the local language, has not only one but three of these marvels: La Concha, Zurriola Beach, and Isla Santa Clara.
5. The Extraordinary Hiking Trails Of Spanish Basque Country
Another reason to fall in love with the Basque Country is that the walking and hiking trails all have a special motif and theme. The best known is probably the northern part of the Camino Santiago or Way of St. James, walked by pilgrims and ended with a ceremony in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
But there are hiking paths with more secular motifs, too, like the Idiazabal Cheese Trail, which follows local and famous cheeses; the GR 38 Wine and Fish route, that takes an entire week to walk but can be divided into parts; 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 leave you full of wonder. The forest is located in a UNESCO-designated Bio Reserve with a well-marked path leading through the forest. The trees are painted with eyes, stripes, and lightning bolts, created by atrist Agustin Ibarrola.
6. Traditional Basque Clothing And Costumes
In the old town of Errenteria, not far from San Sebastian, you have the chance to visit a museum of a special kind: fashion as art, a collection of traditional clothing displayed in a way that not only shows the clothes from the outside, but also the seams and the inside lining. Fashion seems to be in the air in this part of the Spanish Basque Country because another fashion museum is located in Getaria that honors the work of Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga. He was a favorite designer of actress Audrey Hepburn and just celebrated his 100th anniversary.
7. 17th-Century Basque Society, Myths, And Legends
Don’t you just love a country that is full of myths and legends? As is the case in the Basque Country and specifically in a place called Zugarramurdi, located between the meadows of Urdex and the foot of Mt. Larrun, a wild landscape that holds the attention of every visitor.
Zugarramurdi and the surrounding villages are the seats of Xareta Akelarre, or the Witches’ Sabbat, that according to legends were held in the meadows or in a deep carst tunnel through which a river flows. The tunnel and ovens, where the witches and sorcerers prepared their meals, heated their cauldrons, and conducted their ceremonies, are adjacent to the witchcraft museum.
The witchcraft museum documents the 17th-century witch hunt that raged in this area, instigated by the Spanish Inquisition. Many innocent men and women were burned at the stake and denounced by ill wishing 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 a shiver down your spine, but one needs to know all the superstitions and legends of this mysterious country in order to understand the historical background of the Spanish Basque Country. The tunnels and meadows are more benevolent and the village is holds a festival every year with a communal meal.
We have already mentioned the artist who makes the silver pendants in her lovely shop in Bilbao. Here, it comes full circle because you won’t see a sinlge house in Zugarramurdi that does not have a thistle hanging over its front door for good health and to ward off evil spirits.
Pro Tip: Play And Stay In Spanish Basque Country
There are so many different things to do and see in the Spanish Basque Counry that you might consider to invest in a private, guided tour. This has the advantage that you can move at our own pace and avoid parts of the various trails that might be too steep or too long for you. And, above all, you won’t miss out on legends that only the locals know, and you’ll get to taste the local food apart from pintxos.
I found it very convenient to stay in the Hotel Petit Palace Arana. 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 within easy walking distance of Plaza Nueva, only 20 minutes along the river to the Guggenheim.
For more on the Spanish Basque Country, check out these articles: