Euskadiis the heart of Spanish Basque Country and it is in this region that the presence of Euskara, the Basque language, is most prominent. Euskadi, also known as the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, was formed in 1978 by the union of the three Basque provinces: Guipúzcoa, Biscaye and Alava. Each retains a very unique character that is apparent in their geography, architecture and traditions. The cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián are driven by innovation and are key destinations for foodies.
Guipúzcoa (or Gipuzkoa in the Basque language) is the smallest but wealthiest province of the Spanish Basque Country. It is a land of contrast, where some valleys have preserved their rural character while others are highly industrialized. It is in the agricultural valleys of the interior, lying at the foot of majestic mountain ranges and dotted with villages, that the raw and unrestrained Basque culture can be found. In summer, tourists from Spain and elsewhere invade the beaches and fishing ports of the coast of Guipúzcoa, which are quiet in all other seasons. San Sebastián, one of the most sophisticated cities in Spain, is the heart of the region. It offers unusual gastronomic delights that are renowned far and wide.
Dubbed the “Pearl of the Cantabrian Sea,” San Sebastián is a pleasant city with a vibrant cultural scene and world-class gastronomy. Known under its Basque name of Donostia, San Sebastián is located on a beautiful bay, la concha, flanked by two hills. This was the resort of choice for the aristocracy in the late 19th century, which is reflected in the “Belle Epoque” architecture lining the waterfront. One of the favourite pastimes of the people of San Sebastian is to walk along the bay taking the Paseo de la Concha. One cannot fail to admire the iconic Peine del Viento, a monumental work by the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, attached to the reef at the foot of Mount Igeldo. The old town, formerly fortified, is picturesque and always bustling. It is in this part of the city where one can find the famous “pintxos” bars, which serve small culinary delights from a traditional slice of bread topped with ingredients, to haute cuisine creations. Take the time to “ir de pintxos”, that is, to go from bar to bar to enjoy these little culinary masterpieces. In addition to the pintxos bars, San Sebastián also offers a gourmet experience with its numerous restaurants serving dishes inspired by the “new Basque cuisine” movement.
The Guipúzcoa coast’s beautiful landscape is comprised of majestic cliffs and pretty beaches, fishing ports, and villages with inviting old neighborhoods. Just on the other side of the Franco-Spanish border, the town of Hondarribia contains an old neighborhood with medieval ramparts. Close to San Sebastián and nestled between cliffs, the area of Pasaia-Donibane with its unique road made up of a succession of covered passages, has managed to preserve the character of a lovely fishing port. Victor Hugo took up residence there in the middle of the 19th century and it is still possible to visit the house where he lived. To the west, one finds a series of small ports and beautiful beaches. Zarautz boasts the largest beach in the area is very popular with tourists. A little further on, the port village of Getaria is one of the prettiest in the area. A little to the south, between the sea and the mountains, nature lovers will be happy to discover Pagoeta Park and the charming village of Aia. The coastal village of Zumaia is the starting point for many sea and land excursions where one can discover the geological phenomenon of the flysch cliffs. Tucked away in a cove in the westernmost port of Guipúzcoa, Mutriku has a lovely medieval district with beautiful sea views.
The interior of Guipuzcoa is intersected with many valleys where one can see the authentic rural Basque Country. At the heart of these valleys, the town of Tolosa is split between its industrial heritage and folk traditions. A covered market, built on stilts, is very popular on Saturday mornings. The city of Ordizia is worth a stop for its Wednesday market, the largest in Guipúzcoa. Close to Ordizia, the small town of Beasain is the gateway to the Aralar Park and its population of grazing herds. The small town of Segura, located in an exceptional natural setting, has retained its ancient Middle Ages splendor. Nearby, discover the remains of the mining site of Aizpea that once maintained the region’s prosperity. A little further south, the small town of Legazpi also highlights its metallurgical past with a theme park dedicated to the iron industry in the Basque Country. At the heart of the valley of the Urola, near the town of Azpeitia, the “road of the three temples” leads to three important religious heritage sites in the Basque Country: the imposing sanctuary of San Ignacio de Loyola, the hermitage Santa Maria de la Antigua and the sanctuary of Arantzazu, an important symbol for the Basques not far from the lovely town of Oñati.
The province of Biscay (Bizkaia in Spanish and Basque) is the economic engine of the modern Basque Country. It contains several iconic attractions of Basque culture. Vizcaya is where the kings of Spain came to reaffirm the fueros at the foot of the oak tree in Guernica, guaranteeing the autonomy of the Basque people. The city of Bilbao became a symbol of modernity and renewal with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and the rehabilitation of its former metallurgical center on the banks of the River Nervión. The province also has many natural attractions including the magnificent Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, the Urkiola and Gorbeia Natural Parks, and picturesque coastal villages.
Capital of the province of Biscay, Greater Bilbao has a population of almost one million. Nicknamed Botxo, “the hole” in the Basque language, the city is located on a hill surrounded by green mountain ranges and crossed by the River Nervión. Formerly known as a polluted and sinister industrial city, the city reinvented itself at the turn of the 21st century with daring and ambitious urban renewal projects. The poster child of this metamorphosis is unquestionably the magnificent Guggenheim Museum. The silhouette of the building with its waves of titanium fits perfectly on the banks of River Nervión, formerly occupied by metallurgical factories. Inaugurated in 1997, the Museum of Contemporary Art has become one of the most famous in the world. The city’s heart beats in the Casco Viejo, built around seven original streets. There one finds many restaurants, bistros and bars that come alive in the evening. The edges of Nervión offer long walks showcasing the architectural wealth of the city as well as the remains of a not so distant industrial past. Located a bit further down the river, the Vizcaya Ferry Bridge, classified World Heritage site by UNESCO, is a symbol of the industrial era.
The Biscay coast is dotted with small fishing ports, villages and quiet beaches. Discover the lovely fishing ports of Ondarroa, Leikeitio and Elantxobe, nestled between the coast’s cliffs. Each has its own particular character and colourful festivals are celebrated throughout the year. More inviting and little known beaches provide equal opportunities for enjoying the sea in an enchanting setting. Laida beach, with its fine golden sand, is located on a spectacular site at the mouth of the estuary of the ria de Gernika. Just opposite is the small village of Mundaka, one of the most charming of all the Basque coast. Much of the area along the ria de Gernika estuary forms the Urdaibai Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized Biosphere Reserve. One of the attractions of the area is the enchanted forest of Oma , comprised of pine and eucalyptus trees processed by hand into colour palettes by Agustín Ibarrola, a Basque artist. A few miles away, the town of Gernika-Lumo contains several symbols of Basque autonomy including the famous oak tree of Gernika. A pleasant drive along the cliffs connects Bermeo, an important fishing port, to the seaside resort of Bakio, a must for avid surfers. Not far away, the spectacular Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugache is set atop a rocky bluff, braving the waves of the Atlantic.
A few dozen kilometers southeast of Bilbao are the Urkiola and Gorbeia natural parks. Mount Gorbea at a height of 1480m, marks the watershed line between the Atlantic and Mediterranean basins. With their wild landscapes composed of forests and high peaks, these two protected areas offer countless opportunities for outdoor activities. Surrounding villages are equally worth visiting to discover the rural Basque Country and to taste local specialties. The city of Durango is the largest in the area and has a rich architectural heritage. To the west of Bilboa, the Encartaciones has preserved its traditional character and its own identity. This small enclave between Castile and Cantabria is removed from the usual tourist routes. The capital of the region, Balmaseda has a nice historic centre. A walk in the area will allow you to further discover the deep Biscay. One should also venture into the Karrantza Valley which is dotted with authentic hamlets and traditional farms. The surrounding villages also showcase beautiful specimens of rural Biscay architecture.
Alava has always been a throughway land, subject to external influences and invasions which gives it a character distinct from the other Basque provinces. One finds a stronger Latin influence and a more reserved presence of the Basque language. Its territory consists of vast plains with a strong agricultural focus. Alava is surrounded by small chains of rugged mountains, and wilderness thriving with small rural towns. Many are fortified villages containing magnificent medieval homes that once belonged to powerful noble families who held control of the region. The southern province is famous for its wine production and has some of the finest vineyards in Spain.
Vitoria-Gasteiz suffers somewhat from the popularity of Bilbao and San Sebastián. But this administrative capital of the Basque Country has several of its own attractions. The settlement is known for its excellent quality of life, abundant green spaces, efficient transport system and its vibrant cultural scene. The original heart of the city is comprised of a few streets in an almond shape. The Plaza de la Virgen Blanca located in the old medieval quarter, is the epicenter of the city. The elegant square is surrounded by a series of houses with facades decorated with white bow-windows. A stone’s throw away, the modern city has wide and pleasant pedestrian streets. The plain of Alava extends to the east of Vitoria- Gasteiz and has been a natural way of passage between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe for centuries. It is an agricultural area where wheat fields, reminiscent of the great prairies, extend as far as the eye can see. Beautiful fortified villages are nestled in their midst, with the lush green sierras as a backdrop. The town of Salvatierra-Agurain a former stronghold, has preserved some of its old fortifications. Four kilometers south of the city stands the stone tomb of Sorginetxe, the “witch’s house”, one of the most spectacular prehistoric sites in Alava.
The montaña alavesa, located southwest of the province of Alava, is interspersed with valleys that once served as the gateway to neighbouring Navarre. This is a lesser know part of the Basque Country and a destination for outdoor activities, as well as the discovery of a rich historical heritage. Small fortified villages and many hermitages remind us of the area’s formerly strategic value in medieval times. The villages of Contrasta and San Vicente de Arana , 15 kilometers southwest of Salvatierra – Agurain, contain fine examples of fortified churches. A little further, the Izki Balley Park is a vast, ruggedly wild area in gentle terrain surrounded by mountains whose highest peak is Mount Kapildui at 1177 m. Hamlets are scattered throughout the valley, such as the villages of Korres or San Román de Campezo that retain some of their medieval fortifications and magnificent monasteries. The village ofAntoñana is worth a detour for its Medieval wall, into which housing has now been integrated. This village is also known for its characteristic Alava honey, which is protected by a controlled appellation.
The Rioja Avalesa district takes its name from the most famous Spanish wine appellation, “Rioja”, which it shares with the neighboring province of the same name. Opposite the Ebro basin, this region differs from the rest of the Basque Country. It enjoys an ideal grape-growing microclimate, and dozens of its vineyards develop robust wines with international reputations. The villages of Laguardia, Elciego and Labastida are those associated with wine culture. Nestled amongst the vineyards, they each possess their own medieval small-town charm. The village of Laguardia holds particular interest. Perched on a bluff, the old town center is made up of attractive narrow streets. Each house has its own private wine cellar dug into the basement of the village. Traffic is also prohibited to avoid the collapse of these structures. In recent years, the vineyards have abandonned their traditional architectural style and adopted a modern and avant-garde look. The two best examples of this trend are most likely the Bodega Marqués de Riscal in El Ciego and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia, whose architecture illustrates this ambition to unite winemaking traditions with the modern world.