Situated along the northern coast of Spain in the western Pyrenees and touching the French border is the beautifully green Basque Country. The Basque Country, also known as País Vasco in Spanish and Euskadi in Basque, is an autonomous community. The name can also refer to the greater region, which includes the autonomous community of Navarre and the French Basque Country. The Basque Country is known for its exquisite gastronomy, unique language and stunning green landscapes that may have visitors thinking they have left Spain and stepped into the lush Irish countryside. The Basque Country is often overshadowed by some of the more popular tourist destinations in Spain such as Madrid and Barcelona, but do not be mistaken there is an infinite number of things to see and do in the region!
The Basque culture is unique because of the history, language and cuisine. The two official languages of the region are Spanish and Basque or Euskara. The origins of the ancient Basque language are unclear, but it is the only Pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. Over history the Basque language has been made into a political issue by Spanish officials prohibiting the use of the language, however this has not stopped the teaching, speaking or writing of the language. Today nearly all Basque people speak both Basque and Spanish because of their strong sense of pride for both their local and national identities. The Basques absolutely love when tourists take their best shot at the language, so if you learn a few words then you are sure to impress the locals!
Basque cuisine is another crucial component of the culture, and is known around the world as a culinary capital with nearly 40 Michelin starred restaurants. The region is famous for their pintxos, which are small dishes that are similar to tapas. One can spend the whole day in the Basque Country hopping from bar to bar and eating delicious pintxos! The Basque Country is known to have some of the best and freshest seafood in the world. The most popular seafood in the Basque Country is their salt cod, which is used in various dishes such as Tortilla de Bacalao, a salt cod omelet, and Porrusalda, a potato leek salt cod soup. Of course with all the pintxos and salt cod there needs to be a beverage to accompany this fine cuisine, one popular drink is Sidra, or cider, which is low in alcohol and often served directly from the barrel. Another common drink is Txakoli, a slightly sparkling, dry white wine. The cuisine alone is enough to draw food lovers across the world to the Basque Country!
A fun fact: the largest population of Basque people in the United States is in Boise, Idaho! There are approximately 15,000 Basque Americans living in Boise. The Basque diaspora is sometimes referred to as the eighth province, because of the historical seven Basque provinces. Boise embraces the community of Basques and is home to the Basque Museum and Basque Cultural Center, and every five years the city hosts a large Basque festival known as Jaialdi. The Basque culture in Boise is what inspired a group of ten cyclists from the city to travel with Bike Spain Tours from San Sebastian to Bilbao!
Bilbao is an industrial port city that offers the best of both worlds, stunning modern architecture and beautiful nature areas that surround the city. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and is most famous for being home to the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim Museum was opened in 1997 and designed by American architect Frank O. Gehry. The building itself is often as highly regarded as the modern and contemporary art that it is home to. Apart from its modern side, Bilbao is also home to a well-preserved medieval centre known locally as “las siete calles” (the seven streets) since they are the original seven streets that formed the first settlement. Although it is made up of pedestrian-only streets, the old town is one of the city’s more bustling areas. Strolling through its narrow stone-paved streets you will also find historical buildings such as the Saint James Cathedral and the Plaza Nueva. Bilbao is surrounded by green mountains and has a train that goes from the heart of the city to the coastal neighborhood of Las Arenas, perfect for tourists that may want to explore the recreational areas just outside of the city!
San Sebastian is the other famous city of the Basque Country. Although it is smaller than Bilbao, San Sebastian is historically the more popular tourist destination. The city is in the north of the Basque Country, on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay, and the picturesque shoreline makes it a popular beach resort. San Sebastian’s old town is the perfect place to find traditional pintxos! The upcoming year will be an exciting time to visit San Sebastian as it is being named one of the 2016 European Capital of Culture cities. The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one calendar year during which it organizes a series of cultural events with a strong European dimension.
Everything in between
The area between San Sebastian and Bilbao is full of many picturesque coastal towns that are definitely worth a visit. Mundaka is a town known for its internationally renowned surfing scene. The Mundaka River leads to the historically significant town of Guernica, which inspired Picasso’s most famous painting. Bermeo is a town with a long maritime tradition and serves as the most important fishing port of the Basque Country. The Oma Forest, also known as the painted forest, is another hidden gem of the Basque Country. The forest is a work of art created by Agustin Ibarrola, a Basque sculptor and painter. San Sebastian, Bilbao and all the small towns in between make for a beautiful bike tour! At Bike Spain Tours we offer a wonderful trip around the Basque Country, find out more on our website.