The name the Basque people give to their own land, Euskal Herria, covers the three Basque provinces that today form the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco (in Basque, "Euskadi") – Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia and Araba – as well as Navarra (Nafarroa) and part of southwestern France. Much of this region is immensely beautiful, and especially so along the coast, where green and thickly forested mountains, interspersed with stark individual hills, seem in places to emerge from the sea itself. Yes, it often rains, and much of the time the countryside is shrouded in a fine mist, but so long as you don't mind the occasional shower, summer here offers a glorious escape from the unrelenting heat of the south.
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Despite the heavy industrialization that has helped to make this one of the wealthiest areas in Spain, Euskal Herria is remarkably unspoiled – neat and quiet inland, rugged and wild along the coast. San Sebastián is a major resort city, with superb if crowded beaches and magnificent food, but lesser-known, similarly attractive villages line the coast all the way to Bilbao, home to the magnificent Museo Guggenheim. Inland, Pamplona boasts its exuberant Fiestas de San Fermín, while many other destinations have charms of their own, from the drama of the Pyrenees to the laidback elegance of Vitoria-Gasteiz.
Look out especially for quiet rural accommodation options, here in abundance thanks to the Basque government's nekazalturismoa (agroturismo) programme, which offers the opportunity to stay in traditional Basque farmhouses and private homes, usually in areas of outstanding beauty, at very reasonable cost (€45–75). In Navarra, as in much of the country, these are known as casas rurales, or landa exteak. You can get details from the region's many excellent local tourist offices (which also handle bookings), or online at nekatur.net, and, for Navarra, casasruralesnavarra.com.
While a reasonable network of buses connects all the sizeable towns, the easiest way to get around the Basque Country is by car. In particular, if you want to follow the coast, the dramatic hills and cliffs mean there isn't always a shoreline road; with public transport especially you have to keep returning to the main roads way inland. Train services are relatively poor. San Sebastián lies on a major route to and from France, which also passes through Vitoria-Gasteiz, but Bilbao is off the main line on a minor spur, and direct trains between Bilbao and San Sebastián are much slower than the equivalent buses. Bilbao is, however, the eastern terminus of the entirely separate FEVE narrow-gauge railway (feve.es), which follows the Atlantic coast west to Santander, Oviedo and beyond.
When the Romans invaded, they defeated a group called the Aquitani, who inhabited large areas of southwestern Gaul and northern Iberia, and spoke an ancestral version of Basque. However, they allowed the wild tribes known as the Vascones, who lived in the mountains of Euskal Herria, to keep their language and independence in return for allowing free passage and trading rights.
Later rulers were not so accommodating. Successive Visigoth kings tried and failed to eradicate the Basques. The Moors conquered the lowlands of Araba (Alava in Castilian) and Navarra as far north as Pamplona, but never gained a grip on the mountainous north. This new enemy, however, forced the Basques, hitherto a collection of more or less allied tribes, to unite. In 818, a Basque leader, Iñigo Iñiguez, was proclaimed the first ruler of the Kingdom of Navarre. In due course, the Basques embraced Christianity, while retaining ancestral customs including the ancient laws by which they governed themselves. First written down (in Castilian) during the twelfth century, these laws and privileges, maintained as oral traditions, were known as fueros.
Once the Reconquest was complete and Spain was being welded into a single kingdom, Navarre (by now ruled by French monarchs) was a missing piece. The Reyes Católicos persuaded the Bizkaians, Gipuzkoans and Arabans to split away from Navarre and join Castile. In return the fueros would be respected, including exemption from customs duty, conscription and central taxation. Under duress, the Navarrese agreed to the same deal, and by 1512 all four territories were subject to rule from Madrid. The Basques have jealously defended their right to self-government ever since.
Basque determination for self-rule increased when the Liberals, victors in the Carlist War, abolished the fueros in 1876. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the emergence of Basque nationalism as an ideology. The conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was founded in 1895 by Sabino Arana, the son of a Carlist shipbuilder.
At the start of the Civil War, the Nationalists seized control of predominantly conservative Navarra and Araba, while Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, dominated by left-leaning industrial cities, supported the Republic. After Navarrese troops captured Irun in 1936 and cut off the northern Republican zone from France, San Sebastián rapidly surrendered. An autonomous Basque government, in practice limited to Bizkaia, lasted just nine months. Franco finally conquered the Basques in June 1937, after a vicious campaign that included the infamous German bombing of Gernika.
After the war, Franco's boot went in hard. Public use of the Basque language was forbidden and central control was asserted with the gun. But state violence succeeded only in nurturing a new resistance, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – "Basque Homeland and Freedom"), founded in 1959. Its most spectacular success was the assassination in Madrid of Franco's right-hand man and probable successor, Admiral Carrero Blanco in 1973.
Things started to change following the transition to democracy. The new constitution granted the Basques limited autonomy, with their own parliament and tax collection. Today, there's a regional police force, the red-bereted ertzaintza, and the Basque language is taught in schools and universities. The Basque flag (ikurriña) flies everywhere. Basque demands for independence have not ended, however, and the violence has continued. Since 1968, ETA is estimated to have killed around 850 people, with targets ranging from members of the Spanish police and armed forces to Basque businessmen and politicians, academics, journalists, the tourist industry and random civilians. At the time of writing, however, the latest in a long succession of ceasefires was appearing to hold, while Basque separatists were achieving electoral success as part of the Bildu coalition, raising hopes of a new era of peace.
The origins of the Basques remain mysterious. They are a distinct people, generally with a different build from the French and Spanish and a different blood group distribution from the rest of Europe. Their language, the complex Euskara, is unrelated to any other, and was already spoken in Spain when Indo-European languages such as Celtic and Latin began to arrive from the East three thousand years ago. Written records were scarce until the first books in Euskara were published in the mid-sixteenth century; language and culture were maintained instead through oral traditions, including that of the bertsolariak – popular poets specializing in improvised verse, a tradition still alive today.
Archeological and genetic evidence suggests that the Basque people may be the last surviving representatives of Europe's first modern human population, commonly known as Cro-Magnon man. Skull fragments, believed to date from around 9000 BC, have been shown to be identical to present-day Basque cranial formation. Much anthropological work, above all by the revered José Miguel de Barandiarán (who died in 1991, aged 101), lends itself to the view that the Basques have continuously inhabited the western Pyrenees for thousands of years.
Basque cuisine has become renowned in the last twenty years not just as the finest in Spain, but as ranking among the best in the world. Cutting-edge chefs such as Martín Berasetegui, Juan Mari Arzak, and Andoni Aduriz, the stars of the nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cuisine), delight in creating inventive new combinations and preparations, and restaurants throughout the region are crowded with eager diners happy to pay premium prices for superb food.
That said, Basque food doesn’t have to be expensive. For visitors, the perfect way to sample it is in the form of pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas. Bar counters throughout the region, and above all in San Sebastián, are piled high with fabulously enticing and utterly delectable goodies, freshly cooked and almost invariably excellent. Usually priced at around €2, they’re so irresistible that you may find you never quite make it to a restaurant for a sit-down meal – but you’ll still come away raving about the Basque Country as one of the greatest foodie destinations on earth.
Seafood is a major ingredient of many Basque signature dishes. Look out especially for bacalao (cod) a la vizcaina or al pil-pil, merluza (hake) a la vasca, txipirones en su tinta (squid cooked in its ink) or txangurro (spider crab).
19–20: Festividad de San Sebastián Twenty-four hours of festivities, including a tamborrada, a march with pipes and drums.
Weekend before Ash Wednesday: Carnaval Throughout the region, but especially in Bilbao, San Sebastián and Tolosa.
March 4–12 A series of pilgrimages to the castle at Javier, birthplace of San Francisco Javier.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Extensive Easter celebrations in Vitoria; also in Segura.
Easter Sunday: Aberri Eguna The Basque National Day celebrated, particularly in Bilbao.
April 28: Fiesta de San Prudencio Celebrated with tamborradas in Vitoria.
24: Fiestas de San Juan In Lekeitio, Laguardia and Tolosa.
Last week: Fiesta de San Pedro In Mundaka, with Basque dancing.
First week: Fiesta at Zumaia with dancing, Basque sports and an encierro on the beach.
7–14: Fiestas de San Fermín In Pamplona, featuring the famous Running of the Bulls.
22: Fiesta de la Magdalena In Bermeo, with torch-lit processions of fishing boats and the usual races and Basque sports.
24–28: Encierro in Tudela.
First weekend: Patron saint's celebration in Estella.
4–9: Fiesta de la Virgen Blanca In Vitoria, with bullfights, fireworks and gigantones.
14–17: Fiestas de Andra Mari In Ondarroa.
15: Semana Grande An explosion of celebration: notably in Bilbao, with Basque games and races; Gernika with an encierro; and San Sebastián, where the highlight is an International Fireworks Competition.
First week: Euskal Jaiak Basque games in San Sebastián.
4: Fiesta de San Antolín In Lekeitio, where the local youth attempt to knock the head off a goose.
9: Día del Pescador In Bermeo.
12: Encierro in Sangüesa.
14: Patron saint's day in Olite, with yet more bulls.
Last two weeks: International Film Festival In San Sebastián.
The frontier town of Hondarribia, immediately across the mouth of the Bidasoa river from Hendaye in France, makes an appealing stopover just under 40km east of San Sebastián. Down at water level, where the broad boulevards just back from the pretty harbour are lined with pavement cafés, it feels like a resort, but its fortified Casco Antiguo, a delightful little enclave just higher up, offers a real sense of history. Filled with sturdily attractive medieval mansions, it centres on the Plaza de Armas, where the pick of the crop, the Castille de Carlos V, dates all the way back to the tenth century, and now houses an irresistible parador. The town beach, Playa Hondartza, lies a short walk north of the newer part of town.
Inland from San Sebastián: Gipuzkoa
Gipuzkoa, the smallest province in Spain, is in many ways the heartland of Basque language and culture. Medieval towns such as Tolosa, with its traditional carnaval, and Oñati, famous for its ancient university, are set in spectacular mountain scenery. In the nearby Sierra de Urkilla, the Santuario de Arantzazu is a prime pilgrimage destination for Basques.
The Costa Vasca
West from San Sebastián, both road and rail run inland, following the Río Oria, then towards the coast at the sprawling overdeveloped town of Zarautz, some 20km from San Sebastián. From here on, the Costa Vasca is glorious – a rocky and wild coastline, with long stretches of road hugging the edge of the cliffs – all the way to Bilbao. The hillsides, particularly around Getaria, are famous for the production of txakoli, a fizzy wine popular in the summer. The farther you go, the less developed the resorts become.
Flowing north from Gernika, the Río Oka broadens into an estuary that’s fringed by hilly pinewoods and dotted with islets. A succession of sandy coves offer great swimming, but the best spots are at Sukarrieta and especially Mundaka. This lovely little village remains amazingly unspoiled, despite having achieved legendary status for its magnificent surfing, which includes what’s claimed to be the longest left break in the world. Although Mundaka has frequently hosted world championship events, conditions tend to vary considerably from year to year. In good years, during the peak winter season, it’s often possible to watch the surfers battle its trademark “Wave” from the plaza next to the church.
Forty kilometres south of Vitoria-Gasteiz, across a range of high, little-populated hills, the wine-growing district of Rioja Alavesa feels a rather incongruous appendage to the Basque Country. The north side of the Ebro valley does, however, belong to Araba, the same province as Vitoria-Gasteiz. As a result, so too do several of the richest and most famous Rioja wineries, even though the province of La Rioja, as well as the largest town hereabouts, Logroño, lies immediately across the river.
Assuming you have your own transport, exploring the picturesque villages and bodegas of Rioja Alavesa makes a wonderful way to spend a day. The pick of the towns is lovely old Laguardia, while competition between the wineries is so fierce that several have invested quite astonishing amounts of money to attract attention, most notably Bodegas Ysios with its Santiago Calatrava-designed headquarters, and Marqués de Riscal, where Frank Gehry has created an amazing showpiece hotel
If you drive down from Vitoria-Gasteiz, be sure to stop after 35km at the Balcon de la Rioja, a staggering hillside viewpoint that offers a first magnificent panorama over the plains below.
Framed by the hills that rise to the north, the mesmerizing Bodegas Ysios undulates through the vineyards 2km north of Laguardia, off the Vitoria-Gasteiz road. Its resemblance to an ancient temple is entirely deliberate; the name Ysios honours twin Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, and no expense was spared when architect Santiago Calatrava, also responsible for Bilbao airport, was commissioned to construct a new winery in 2001. The aluminium roof surmounts a wooden structure that on a more mundane level looks like a row of wine barrels.
The Navarran Pyrenees
East of Pamplona, the Navarran Pyrenees bite a hundred-kilometre-wide chunk out of France. While the frontier itself is lined with jagged 2000m peaks, most of this area consists of lush green uplands rather than impenetrable mountain fastnesses. For travellers, it’s most readily explored as a driving day-trip from Pamplona, though several of the pretty and fundamentally similar villages along the way can also make appealing overnight stops. Each tends to have at least one little hotel, to cope with the steady trickle of pilgrims en route to Santiago.
Ever since the Middle Ages, the obvious route between Navarra and France has been to follow the Roncesvalles pass. As immortalized in the Song of Roland, Charlemagne was retreating this way in 778, after laying Pamplona to waste, when Basque warriors ambushed his forces and killed the noblest of his French knights, Roland himself.
The Camino de Santiago in Navarra
The Camino de Santiago crosses into Navarra from France via the foothills of the Pyrenees, descending steeply to the historic monastery at Orreaga-Roncesvalles. As the mountains peter out, the path passes alongside trout-filled rivers lined with beech trees and through traditional whitewashed Basque villages graced with Romanesque churches.
Navarra has invested considerably in this section of the route, and its twenty or so albergues – all with comfortable, if basic, facilities – are among the best along the camino. The path mainly follows dirt farm-tracks, although some stretches have been paved, which makes the walking less messy but leaves pilgrims prone to blisters.
Traces of Charlemagne’s tenth-century foray into Spain are everywhere in Navarra, from the pass before Roncesvalles by which he entered the country to a stone monument some 20km farther on that depicts the massive Stride of Roland, his favourite knight. The region also contains some of Hemingway’s much-loved haunts; the camino passes through his trout-fishing base at Auritz-Burguete, just 3km from Roncesvalles, and lively Pamplona, another 40km into the walk.
There are a couple of stiff climbs, notably the 300m up to the Alto de Perdón, just outside Pamplona. Here, legend tells of an exhausted medieval pilgrim who stood firm against the Devil’s offer of water in exchange for a renunciation of his Christian faith. The pilgrim was rewarded with the appearance of Santiago himself, who led him to a secret fountain.
Navarra boasts some of the finest Romanesque architecture in Spain, including the octagonal church at Eunate, 20km from Pamplona, thought to be the work of the Knights Templar, and the graceful bridge that gave its name to Puente La Reina, 4km farther on. The architectural highlight is undoubtedly the small town of Estella, where it’s worth spending an afternoon exploring the Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra and the many lovely churches. The route from Estella is lined with vineyards, and Bodegas de Irache’s free Fuente del Vino (wine fountain), just outside town, is said to fortify pilgrims for the journey on through the Rioja region to Santiago de Compostela.For more information, see Practicalities of the Camino de Santiago.
South of Pamplona, the country changes rapidly; the mountains are left behind and the monotonous plains of central Spain begin to open out. The people are different, too – more akin to their southern neighbours than to the Basques of the north. Regular buses and trains run south to Tudela, the second city of Navarra, passing through Tafalla and Olite, once known as the “Flowers of Navarra”, while attractive smaller towns and villages dot the area.
Parque Natural Bardenas Reales
The further south you travel in Navarra, the drier the landscape becomes, until it’s hard to believe you’re still in the Basque Country. Indeed, the extraordinary Parque Natural Bardenas Reales (Bardenas Reales Natural Park), 70km south of Pamplona, looks more like the deserts of the Wild West than anything you’d expect to find in Spain.
To reach these desolate, eerily beautiful badlands, detour east of the main north–south roads to reach the village of Arguedas, 20km north of Tudela, then follow the signs east. Entrance is free, but it’s worth stopping to pick up maps and advice at the information centre, 6km along. With an hour to spare, drivers can complete a short dirt-road loop to admire some of the most spectacular formations, including stark mesas, jagged striated hills, and bizarre isolated hoodoos. Any longer, and you can venture further off the beaten track into the back country, or explore the various clearly marked hiking trails.
Olite, 42km south of Pamplona, is as gorgeous a small town as you could ever hope to stumble across, all the more unexpected a pleasure in that its larger neighbour Tafalla is quite unremarkable, and the town itself is surrounded by ugly modern developments. Its dominant feature is a former royal palace, the Palacio Real de Olite, but it also holds a couple of fine old churches, Romanesque San Pedro and Gothic Santa María.
Olite’s exuberant Fiesta del Patronales takes place from September 13 to 19, and there’s a medieval festival the second weekend in August, leading up to the saint’s day of Olite’s patron, the “Virgin of the Cholera” on August 26, which commemorates the town’s salvation from the cholera epidemic of 1885.