Basque Country Overview
- Jagged cliffs and peaceful pastures
- Country life
- Pintxos, paseos and pelota
Hugging a rugged, windswept coastline that snakes east of Bilbao into France and the Pyrenees, the Basque country of northern Spain promises both urban excitement and open-air adventure.
Since Frank Gehry’s astonishing Guggenheim landed on the Bilbao riverbank, the city and its surroundings have been thriving. It’s not just about the art, though; the wild waves of the Atlantic crash into the cliffs and coves of the Bay of Biscay, making the region a magnet for surfers, and the hilly green rambler’s-paradise inland gives a foretaste of the Pyrenees – the dramatic range that marks the Basque border between France and Spain. In the towns (including Bilbao, San Sebastián, Bayonne and Biarritz) and fishing villages, travellers will find welcoming close-knit communities, as well as unforgettable food, much of it in the form of pintxos ¬– tiny tapas plates of tender jamon, tortilla and fresh fish, all washed down with a tot of hearty local red. Although the Basque Country’s recent history has had turbulent patches, and national pride (both political and sporting) is pronounced, it’s a colourful, characterful and rewarding region, unlike anywhere else in Spain – or Europe.
Beautifully Basque Country
In most Basque towns you’ll find a frontón – a paved, walled area dedicated to the region’s favourite sport: pelota. Played using a woollen ball and either hands or a scooping wicker racket, the game is distantly related to squash and real tennis, and although its brief tenure as an Olympic sport ended in 1900, it’s still played passionately throughout the Basque Country, in seemingly endless variants. For a chance of catching a match, either check the schedules at www.euskalpilota.com, or look for a man with a swollen hand and follow him to his next game.
- In San Sebastián, Bilbao, Biarritz and other large cities, cabs are easy to flag in the streets or pick up at taxi ranks. In smaller towns, you’re best booking ahead. Try Teletaxi Vallina (+34 94 340 4040) or Taxi Donosti (+34 94 346 4646; www.taxidonosti.com) in and around San Sebastián.
- Tipping culture
- Tips are not expected, especially for set lunches or tapas, but small change is always welcomed. Service charges are rarely added to restaurant bills, and 10 per cent is considered generous – most locals stick to five.
- Siesta and fiesta
- The Basque siesta is alive, well, and snoozy between 1pm and 4–5pm. In larger towns, most shops stay open until 8pm or 9pm. Spain is a nation of night owls, so expect to dine late, at any time from 9pm to midnight. Bars are busiest during the txikiteo between 7pm and 8pm, and then again after dinner, frequently keeping the wine flowing until the early hours. In many of the smaller towns, especially in low season, restaurants close on Mondays.
- Packing tips
- Stash your surfboard if you plan on riding the waves around the Biscay coast, or your staunchest hiking boots if you want to yomp the Pyrenees. A Basque (Euskara) phrase book will earn you brownie points for extra effort.
- Recommended reads
- Paddy Woodworth’s The Basque Country – A Cultural History and The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky are both essential tomes for amateur anthropologists, whereas gastronomes should pick up a copy of Kurlansky’s companion volume Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World which, as well as explaining how the Basques discovered America, is also the most interesting meditation on fish ever written.
- Basques are among the most passionate diners in Spain – and no wonder, when the food here is among the finest on the peninsula. The Atlantic coast means fresh fish are abundant, and salted cod (bacalao) has been a local speciality for centuries. Other regional treats include idiazábal sheep’s cheese from Navarra, black cherries from Itxassou, slightly sparkling txakoli wine, and, between January and April, sagardotegi – Basque cider. Every evening at around 7.30pm, locals begin the chatty hour-long txikiteo that sees them meander from bar to bar to sup txikitos (tots of red wine) and nibble on pintxos – the astonishingly varied selection of tapas-sized plates that serve as appetisers for dinner later on.
- Euro (€).
- Time zone
- Dialling codes
- For Spain: +34; France: +33.
- Do go/don't go
- The Basque Country owes its greenery to the fact it’s one of Spain’s damper regions – the Atlantic fronts bring wind and drizzle throughout the year. July and August are driest, hottest and busiest, so aim for May or September – but still pack an umbrella.
Don't go home without...
… a txapela. The classic black woollen beret may now represent national dress in France, but the iconic headgear was originally unique to Basque peasants.