Basque Country, Spain

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.

When to 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.

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Getting there

  • 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.

Basque Country

Basque Country

With inventive pintxos to nibble on and a constellation of Michelin stars, the Basque Country is home to Spain’s most enthusiastic eaters. It championed slow food before it became a gastronaut rallying cry, and each region has a distinct delicacy and vintage.

Known for Idiazábal sheep's cheese from Navarra, black cherries from Itxassou, Lekeitio paprikas and spicy guindillas from Ibarra. Sparkling txakoli wine or still cider are the refreshments of choice.

Fish and crustacea frequent Basque menus, as do veal cheeks, jamón and marmitako tuna stew. Modern pintxos can be simple brochetas or avant-garde El Bulli-influenced offerings: anchovy toasts with blueberry jam or salad served in a hamster ball – yes, really.

Don't miss

• Still rather than sparkling, but definitely not flat, Basque cider involves a great deal of showboating. Head to 16th-century sidrería Gartziategi – in Astigarraga, outside San Sebastián – where merry Basques pour from oversized barrels heartily yelling 'Txotx!' – you'll soon follow suit.
• Fragrant, sparkling, refined: Gaintza vineyard's txakoli wine is one of the best. Just a half-hour drive from San Sebastián, this dynastic vineyard also offers local light bites and a guide who's more than willing to waffle about viticulture.
• San Sebastián may have Michelin stars to spare, but Biarritz's seafood restaurants serve up splendid fish dishes. Fresh catches of all ilk are served at Chez Albert, Port des Pêcheurs, and Ilura, Pointe Sainte-Barbe; and Les Halles market has plenty for pescetarians to pick at.

Stay at Astoria7, at the heart of gourmet hub San Sebastián. There are no less than three Michelin-starred eateries within walking distance: Arzak on Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, Akelarre on Paseo Padre Orcolaga and Martin Berasategui at 4 Loidi Kalea. Bars such as Txepetxa and mod Zeruko make it an excellent place to plan a txikiteo (a pub crawl with pintxos).