- Countryside 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.
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.
Planes Seven miles outside the city centre, Bilbao’s architecturally impressive Sondika airport is the largest in the region, with direct flights to a number of European hubs, including London Stansted via EasyJet. A half-hourly bus takes travellers into the city; taxis cost around €20. There are smaller airports at San Sebastián and Vitoria, and, on the French side of the border, Biarritz airport has connections to London Gatwick and other UK cities.
Boats P&O operates a leisurely paced car ferry between Portsmouth and Bilbao and Brittany Ferries pootle between Plymouth, Portsmouth and Santander.
Trains Vitoria is on the daily Paris-Madrid sleeper line and Bilbao’s Estación de Abando is connected with larger towns throughout Spain by the Renfe network. The Basque Country is criss-crossed with smaller, more scenic railways, linking Bilbao, San Sebastián, Guernica, and Hendaye on the French side of the border with smaller towns along the coast.
Automobiles Unless you remain city-bound, hiring a car is ideal for village-hopping through the Basque countryside and motoring through the mountains. Avis (www.avis.com) have desks at Bilbao and Biarritz airports.
- Taxis 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.